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From Jersey to the Gaspé: Charles Robin, 1743-1824, a Forgotten Father of Canada (Part 1)

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Charles Robin. (Photo - Courtesy of the author)Why would anyone want to leave the lush, prosperous, semi-tropical island of Jersey and sail for weeks half-way around the world to reach the cold, empty and desolate Gaspé Coast on the eastern seaboard of Canada?

Charles Robin very much wanted to, and the story of the Jersey connection on the Gaspé is very largely the story of the Robin Company he founded, and its successors. The majority of the present inhabitants of the region owe their existence to the men – and a few women – who made their way to a new life on “La Côte” to work in the fisheries established by these companies.

Dry cod was the first food staple to be exported from Canada. Since very early times Europeans have left their homes and families each summer to cross the North Atlantic to the rich fishing grounds off Canada’s east coast in pursuit of a food source which was valuable only if it was caught in great bulk, and only obtained by great effort and drudgery. However, the fish would have been useless to them had these same Europeans not evolved methods of preserving it so that it could be transported.

Two of the most ancient techniques for preserving fish are drying and salting (or pickling in brine). During the 16th century the Basques of the Bay of Biscay entered the Newfoundland fisheries and developed what is known as the “dry cure”. This was a method that involved a combination of salting and drying, and was adopted by several countries, including Britain. The dry cure process was an important advance because it preserved the cod effectively to survive longer voyages to more southerly and hotter regions, such as South America and the southern countries of Europe with their large Roman Catholic populations where fish was in great demand for consumption on fast days. Cod that is properly cured can last as long as a year and a half.

Some of the best cod-fishing grounds in the Atlantic were found along the Gaspé Coast where the banks extended from the shores of the Baie des Chaleurs around and into the St Lawrence River. These banks were convenient for the dry-cod industry because the fishermen did not have to go more then two or three miles from shore to catch substantial quantities of fish. In addition, the many fine gravel beaches along the shore were excellent locations for the drying process. The cool, dry, windy summers helped, too.
But why should Channel Islanders, and Jerseymen in particular, be interested in the Gaspé fisheries? The answer lies in the history of this group of almost sub-tropical islands lying some 12 miles from the coast of France.

The Channel Islands – Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Sark, Herm and Jethou - are the only remaining parts of Normandy owing allegiance to Her Majesty, and are termed “a peculiar of the Crown”. They belonged to the Duke of Normandy when he conquered England in 1066 and became King William I. In 1204, his descendant King John lost Normandy to the French and the Islanders were given the choice (they held a referendum) of remaining loyal to the English crown or returning to France. By this time they had established solid economic and political links with Britain so they chose to remain British.

As a matter of interest, the Islands’ loyalty is directed to the monarch and not to Westminster. The Queen becomes the Duke of Normandy when she steps onto Channel Island soil, The Islands send no representatives to the British government, having their own democratic governments instead – second oldest in the world after Iceland, incidentally. Jersey comprises one Bailiwick and another takes in Guernsey and all the smaller islands.

The largest of the Channel Islands is Jersey, which at 9 x 5 miles, or 45 square miles in area, is small by world standards. However, it is the closest to France and so had always been a highly important outpost for England, particularly during the centuries when those two countries were so often at war with each other. The Island parliament is called the States, composed of twelve Senators, twelve Constables and twenty-eight deputies – all elected by popular franchise. The number twelve is significant here because there are twelve parishes on the island, and each one elects representatives. St Helier is the largest town, and this is where the States sits. The population of the island is about 85,000, well over 1,000 people per square mile. The population is concentrated in the towns, leaving plenty of room for agriculture.

The Protestant Reformation affected the Channel Islands just as it did all of Britain, and about the middle of the 16th century Protestantism became the predominant religion. And so the Islands and the French-speaking Islanders welcomed the Protestants escaping persecution in France after the Massacre of St Bartholomew in 1572. They were known as Huguenots. Among them were many craftsmen, such as silversmiths, who became assimilated into island life. Antique Jersey silver is very beautiful, very expensive, and almost impossible to find today.

Commerce has always been important to Jerseymen. Because of the fertile soil and warm climate, until recently agriculture was the most important money maker. Nowadays tourism and finance – Jersey is a free port and tax haven – have taken the lead, but garden produce, flowers and cattle remain exceedingly important to the economy of the island. No live cattle have been imported since 1789, and as a result the world-renowned Jersey cow has been bred and perfected. She is unsurpassed for the butterfat content of her milk. There is virtually no unemployment on the island and taxes are very low, but because it is such a small island several restrictions have been imposed to limit immigration. For example, to be allowed to buy land or a house any outsider has to have a yearly income of at least a million pounds sterling. In spite of this there is currently a list of over a hundred people who qualify and are waiting their turn.

Jersey folk of a hundred years ago were tri-lingual: that is to say they spoke English, French and jèrriais. The use of English crept in during the 18th century because of the close ties that existed with England, and it is now the common language. Until about the 1920’s most of the men who came to the Gaspé coast spoke three languages. During my first visit to Jersey in 1959 I was taken by my aunt, my father’s sister, to visit her and my father’s step-mother who was then in her eighties. She spoke some French, understood no English, and very definitely preferred to carry on a conversation in the old language. The great majority of place names are still in French. The States members open each day’s deliberations with a prayer in French, although this practice is under discussion at the moment, and they are called upon to vote ”pour” or “contre” a motion, though the debate leading up to the vote has been entirely in English.

Jèrriais is a very ancient language, probably far closer to the language spoken by William the Conqueror and his men than is modern French. It had a bit of a renaissance during the German Occupation of 1940-45 when it became the perfect medium of communication between Islanders, not understood by their German occupiers. An association known as L’Assembliée d’jèrri sponsors classes for school children in what appears to be a successful effort to make sure the old language does not disappear completely.

Jerseymen have always been a sea-faring lot, and not averse to a little privateering when the occasion presented itself. Situated as they were near the coast of France, they were very well placed to prey on the ships of Britain’s enemies.

Now to the Gaspé connection. In 1758, James Wolfe, fresh from his participation in the siege of Louisbourg, was given the mission of destroying the French fishing establishments on the Baie des Chaleurs, and destroy them he did. He sailed into the Bay, set fire to the buildings and drove off the inhabitants. We are told that most of them escaped into the forest and managed to survive somehow, possibly by linking up with the Acadians. The site of a French fishing village at the Bourg de Pabos has been excavated and is open to the public in the summer.

We all know what happened the following year, 1759. Lower Canada came under British rule, and the stage was set for the involvement of a Jerseyman in the Gaspé fisheries.

To come back to the opening question: why Channel Islanders?

They were a sea-faring people, they had the British business sense and connections, the money was attractive and they had the necessary languages. Also, quite a few of the young men very much wanted to leave for greener pastures. More about that later.

For Part 2, click here: