Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Edward Oswin Robinson (1847–1917)

by C. C. Macknight

This article was published:

Edward Oswin Robinson (1847-1917), customs officer, trader, buffalo shooter, pastoralist and miner, was born on 23 May 1847 at Oxford, England, second son of Charles Wyndham Robinson, tailor, and his wife Anne, née Harris. No details are known of his education, but it was considerable. A family legend links his departure from England to losing a bride to his elder brother.

'Chock full of romance and hungry for adventure', Robinson and a friend 'drifted south' to Australia and by 1873 he was pearling, unsuccessfully. He then joined a Melbourne syndicate and sailed to Macassar to recruit divers. Returning to King Sound, Western Australia, he enjoyed success in this new ground until the Melbourne secretary of the syndicate absconded and Robinson was wounded in an Aboriginal attack. He went to Palmerston (Darwin) for medical attention.

By April 1874 he was 'knocking about' the Northern Territory coast and goldfields. In March 1878 he established a trepanging station on Croker Island, but next year his mate was murdered and Robinson gave up the project. He then managed the Coburg Cattle Co.'s station at Port Essington. While there he had dealings with the Macassan trepangers and in 1881 was appointed a customs officer to begin collecting duties and licence fees from them.

It took several years and some adventurous trips with Alfred Searcy and Paul Foelsche to establish the new system. In 1884 Robinson left Port Essington and set up his own camp in Bowen Strait. Four years later J. L. Parsons, then government resident, visited and commended it as a place for the Macassans to call. He praised Robinson as 'the very man for the work, having a thorough knowledge of the coast and having great influence over native races'. Mutual respect developed between Robinson and the Macassans. In 1895 he treated two shipwrecked captains as old friends and his name was recalled in later reminiscences in Macassar. He resigned his position and sold his camp and schooner in 1899.

During his years as a customs officer, Robinson had had various other interests. He did a little trading, but his main source of income, which came to be considerable, was buffalo hides. In the early 1880s he began buffalo shooting on the Cobourg Peninsula and in 1884 he 'opened up the Alligator River country'. By 1897 he claimed to have exported 20,000 hides from the mainland and another 6600 from Melville Island. Though no mean shot himself and certainly no stranger to the work involved, Robinson's most important role in this industry was as organizer. Known as the 'rajah of Melville Island', he first visited it in 1877, but his major interest began in 1892 when he took out a lease. After a good start, Robinson's men, including Joe Cooper, were driven off the island by Aboriginal attacks. Despite this, he continued the lease and was actively involved when Cooper returned to settle in 1905. The lease was sold to Vestey Bros some years later. He also maintained his early interest in mining. In 1899 he planned, with others, 'a mammoth dredging scheme' for the Wandie goldfield, east of Pine Creek. He owned the battery on this field in 1899 and 1900. At this period he visited Ballarat, Victoria, and two dredges were built, but no substantial results were achieved.

A stocky man with 'trim beard and silver hair, brown face netted into a lace of lines', Robinson was not just a good bushman: he was equally at home playing billiards in a club. As well as several visits to southern Australia, he visited Japan in 1889 and met his family in England in 1897. About 1907 he left the Northern Territory, settling first in Sydney and then in Melbourne. There he joined the Yorick Club and 'never tired of telling of his adventures'. Never married, for the last seven years of his life he lived in the Union Club Hotel, Collins Street, where he died of cyanide poisoning on 15 November 1917. The coroner could find no evidence of the source of the poison. Robinson was buried in Brighton cemetery with Anglican rites. His estate was valued for probate at £12,461.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Searcy, In Northern Seas (Adel, 1905)
  • A. Searcy, In Australian Tropics (Lond, 1907)
  • C. C. Macknight, The Farthest Coast (Melb, 1969)
  • C. C. Macknight, The Voyage to Marege' (Melb, 1976)
  • Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), 1889 (28), 1900 (45), 1901 (45)
  • Aboriginal History, 5, 1981, p 135
  • Register (Adelaide), 27 May, 1 June 1897, 16 Nov 1917
  • Argus (Melbourne), 16 Nov 1917
  • Sun (Sydney), 23 Dec 1910
  • CRS A1640/ 1884/ 1151 (National Archives of Australia)
  • 790/ 1876/ 74, 790/ 1880/ 1, 70, 371, 790/ 1881/ 721, 790/ 1882/ 346, 790/ 1883/ 319, 323, 667, 790/ 1884/ 177, 455, 917, 1160, 790/ 1886/ 356, 790/ 1895/ 175, 790/ 1899/ 497, 1374/ A5264, 1374/ A5267, 1374/ A5175, 1374/ A6173, PRG 247 series 1, Little to Lewis, 1 Mar 1878, PRG 247, Foelsche to Brook, 2 Mar 1880 (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

C. C. Macknight, 'Robinson, Edward Oswin (1847–1917)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 17 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


23 May, 1847
Oxford, Oxfordshire, England


15 November, 1917 (aged 70)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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