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Australia's first Robbins' - both Famous and Infamous

This article describes the earliest known Robbins' to arrive in Australia. These people are not known as ancestors, but their existence is of interest.

The Infamous ones

Soon after England claimed Australia, it sought to grow its settlements with convicts. A John Robbins, aka Major John, age 27, has the dubious honour of being a convict on board the CHARLOTTE, one of 11 vessels that left Portsmouth in 1787 bound for that part of New Holland known as New South Wales. This First Fleet arrived with 717 convicts of whom 180 were women, guarded by 191 marines under 19 officers. John had been put on trial in Exeter for stealing a silver watch and received a term of 7 years. Times were obviously tough in the new land, for he received 50 lashes in May 1790 for stealing lentils, and his rations cut from 3 to 2 pounds of flour for a week. Unfortunately, on 29 January 1791 whilst fishing with some of the seaman from SIRIUS "when endeavouring to get from one rock to another (Robins) fell into the Sea and went down like a Stone... he was a very good Quite man is he one the Plymouth old Town" wrote Ralph Clark, and reported in THE FOUNDERS OF AUSTRALIA by Mollie Gillen.

Another John ROBBINS, alias Short, was sentenced in Somerset for a life term, and sent to NSW on board the second convict fleet of six ships. Although only 48 people died in the first group of ships, this time transporting the convicts was in the hands of private contractors and 278 died during the voyage. The SYDNEY COVE CHRONICLE wrote about the second fleet's arrival in 1790 in very unpleasant words: ".. DIABOLICAL CONDITION OF THE CONVICTS THEREON 278 died on the fearsome journey to Sydney Cove. The landing of those who remained alive despite their misuse upon the recent voyage, could not fail to horrify those who watched. As they came on shore, these wretched people were hardly able to move hand or foot. Such as could not carry themselves upon their legs, crawled upon all fours. Those, who, through their afflictions, were not able to move, were thrown over the side of the ships; as sacks of flour would be thrown, into the small boats. Some expired in the boats; others as they reached the shore. Some fainted and were carried by those who fared better. More had not the opportunity even to leave their ocean prisons for as they came upon the decks, the fresh air only hastened their demise. A sight most outrageous to our eyes were the marks of leg irons upon the convicts, some so deep that one could nigh on see the bones. We learn that several children have been borne to women upon the Lady Juliana, the cause for which were the crews aboard African slave ships which met up with the transport at Santa Cruz.--- "

A small number of other Robbins', totaling seven, are known to have been transported to Australia over the subsequent 60 years.

The Famous one

Acting Lieutenant Charles Robbins RN, born in Barnstaple Devon England, is known of for two major events.

Firstly, acting under private instructions from Governor Philip King of the British colony of New South Wales, acting Lt Robbins was hastily sent south from the Colony of Port Jackson (Sydney) to locate the French Admiral Baudin in late November 1802. Baudin was conducting scientific expeditions in the region with two ships, and although on good terms with Governor King, the Governor had heard of comment from Baudin's men that they planned to establish a settlement in the D'Entrecasteaux Channel. Lt. Robbins caught up with the two French boats, the NATURALISTE and LE GEOGRAPHE, at King Island, where he ceremoniously claimed the Island, the Strait and Van Diemen's Land for the Crown - hoisting the British Flag in a large gum tree and firing three volleys in salute low over the nearby French tents. Luckily the French, who numbered nearly one hundred, treated the incident with ridicule and not with force, as Lt. Robbins and crew from the schooner CUMBERLAND numbered only 17 and also needed to borrow from the French the gunpowder for the salute. Baudin latter commented in a private letter to Governor King about "That childish ceremony was ridiculous, and has become more so from the manner in which the flag was placed, the head being downwards and the attitude not very majestic. I thought at first it might have been a flag which had served to strain water and then hung out to dry".

Charles Robbins held the rank of Midshipman aboard the HMS BUFFALO on his maiden voyage out to New South Wales at the start of 1802, and was appointed Acting Lieutenant of the CUMBERLAND for the French mission. The CUMBERLAND was the first schooner built in the Colony and the first armed vessel belonging to the colony, being of 28 tons with length 12 meters and launched in Sydney in 1801.

The second event occurred later during the same voyage, when Lt. Robbins assisted Surveyor-General Charles Grimes in exploring Port Philip harbour.(Click here for transcript of a part of the Journal kept by James Flemming that covers the voyage of the CUMBERLAND from Sydney to King Island and Port Philip in 1802-3, as published by Shillinglaw in Historical Records of Port Phillip. Melbourne, 1879.) In February 1803, the party rowed up the Yarra Yarra to the present site of Melbourne, where three landings were made. In a report made the following year, Robbins wrote "I was at the examination in 1803 in conjunction with Mr. Grimes, I have not seen any part of the Western Port, in my opinion so eligible for Settlement as the Fresh Water River at the Head of that Port". The British Government, who were aware of the bay from its discovery by Ltnt. John Murray on the LADY NELSON in Jan/Feb 1802 and latter with Flinders circumnavigating the bay from 26 April to 3 May 1802, had meanwhile issued instructions, eight days after the discovery of the Yarra, to Lieutenant-Governor Collins to proceed to Port Phillip, or any part of the southern coast of New South Wales or the islands adjacent, and establish a settlement. Collins sailed from England with two hundred and ninety-nine male convicts, sixteen married women, a few settlers, and fifty men and petty officers belonging to the Royal Marines. They landed near the harbour mouth (Sorrento) in October 1803, but Collins thought the bay unsuitable when viewed in a commercial light for the purposes of a colonial establishment. He ventured to predict that the harbour would never be "resorted to by speculative men". After only 3 months he received instructions from Lord Hobart to break up the settlement and proceed to the river Derwent, in Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania). Rather an ignoble start for Melbourne!

A third, but generally unknown of, event was the last record of Robbins' existence. A privateering expedition by a Colonial NSW trader to the Spanish held Peru pirated two Spanish vessels and surreptitiously brought them back, hiding them at Deal Island off the coast of Victoria during 1804 and the start of 1805. Under orders, Robbins found and brought the vessels back to Sydney. In July 1805, King promoted Robbins to Master of the ship INTEGRITY and sent him off to the Spanish President in Peru under a flag of truce to make arrangements for the return of the two vessels. Unfortunately, the INTEGRITY was never seen again, and it is unclear whether the ship sank or was captured - for war was declared between England and Spain later that year.

Charles Robbins is commemorated by Robbins Island and Robbins Passage, off the north-west coast of Tasmania, and by a monument on King Island.

The information on Charles Robbins was sourced primarily from the 1987 biography "Acting Lieutenant Charles Robbins R.N. 1782-1805" by Elynor Olijnyk (nee Robbins). The biography was an entrant in the "200 unsung heroes and heroines" activity as part of Australia's Bicentenary in 1988.

Last update: 10th January 2003