ARICHAT: The journals of a prominent former businessman are now available to the public.
Isle Madame Historical Society (IMHS) chair Anne Leavitt spent the first wave of COVID-19 reviewing, rewriting and condensing the Early Journals of Charles Robin into a 200-plus page book.
The journals were written between 1767 and 1774 by Charles Robin, who founded and owned fish plants and other operations around Atlantic Canada.
Calling it a “three month Covid project,” Leavitt said it took time to make the writings more reader-friendly.
“It took a long time, his handwriting is not great,” she remarked. “He uses a lot of abbreviations and 18th century spelling conventions. He also writes in incomplete sentences, separated by all kinds of commas he used in crazy ways. It’s not just a transcription; there was a fair amount of editing to make it actually readable.”
Leavitt said she was working from a digitized copy provided by the Centre d’études acadiennes at the Université de Moncton, which was a copy of the original manuscript from the Société de Jersey in the Channel Islands, allowing her to magnify the writing.
“I would do a couple of pages every day, this is the way it worked, then massage as I went, then go back and proof read through things that didn’t make any sense,” the author said.
After she moved to Isle Madame six years ago, Leavitt said she became fascinated by Robin’s chronicles of early life in the area.
“I’ve been looking for the journals for a long time. I’ve seen them quoted, I’ve seen excerpts but I could not find a copy on Canadian soil,” she said. “I moved into an old family home and in the course of that time, got very interested, not only in the history of my ancestors but the history of this place.”
In the course of pursuing her historical interests, Leavitt found contradictory information about the mid-1700s on Isle Madame, specifically the role of the Robin brothers in developing the early fishery. Although the higher profile of the Robin brothers, Leavitt came to understand that Charles spent only two winters in the area, and in fact, it was his brother John Aubin who established the fishing industry on Isle Madame.
“I knew that the Charles Robin early diaries, speaking first-hand about events, would certainly help me resolve a lot of the questions I had in my own mind,” she remarked.
Leavitt said the company that was established, most well-known as Charles Robin & Company, went under different names and changed over time, so tracking which operations were active in Cape Breton, and when, was a challenge.
“A lot of work has been done on the company’s activities in Quebec not nearly as much has been done on their activities here in Cape Breton,” she noted.
Another assumption that her research challenged was the assumption that the Robins family was prominent when John arrived in 1764, then Charles in 1766 from the Channel Islands. In the formative years, the company was known as Phillip Robin & Company, and had a number of investors. In his journal, Charles refers to himself and his brothers as “agents,” not owners.
“When they got here they were in their 20s and they did not come from a big wealthy family. They had been orphans, their parents had been shopkeepers. John was the only with any seafaring experience,” she noted. “They weren’t the sole owners of the company. They were joined by their brother Phillip, who was older, who never came to North America.”
One of the winters Charles spent on Jerseyman’s Island, just off Arichat, overseeing his brother’s fish plant was also included in the book.
“He spends the winter here looking after his brother’s establishment, and it’s a pretty rough winter. Although when the ice is nice and solid and the weather is half-decent, he’s a regular social butterfly,” she said. “Yes, he had a rough winter, but nobody died.”
Based on the journals, Leavitt said a clear picture emerges of a hard-working, no-nonsense entrepreneur.
“He’s not given to exaggeration, he’s an enterprising businessman who had a lot of balls in the air,” she described. “He’s got supplies coming in from across the Atlantic. He’s keeping an eye on the price of fish. He’s keep an eye on supplying people with materials. He’s counting, he’s weighing fish. He’s a detail-oriented guy, who’s not bureaucratic. Nothing stops him from plunging into the next adventure that has to be undertaken. He’s very direct, he’s very candid. He doesn’t waste words.”
Even after his home is destroyed by fire, Charles is more worried about losing documents, showing a portrait of a man of his time, unwilling to wallow in self-pity.
“He gives himself a half an hour to collective himself, and without complaining in the diary, he jumps onboard a boat and sails to Bonaventure Island because he had business to transact,” she detailed. “It sort of speaks to his character. He suffers a number of reverses but he doesn’t dwell on them, he just deals with them.”
Although an Anglican from Jersey, Leavitt said Charles attended Catholic services, as well as a Mi’kmaq feast. He also visited a number of Catholic priests.
After indulging her interest in local history, Leavitt added she won’t do another transcription project like this, but would like to do some writing of her own.
“As I was reading it, I thought, ‘this is such good stuff, other people should be reading it too,’ but I just knew that people would not unless they get it typed up and cleaned up,” she added. “I enjoy reading it, much more now.”
Copies of The Early Journals of Charles Robin are available for sale at Telile. Purchases can also be arranged by calling the IMHS at 902-226-2880 or by emailing: email@example.com. The cost is $25 per book with proceeds going to the IMHS.