Robertson, John Parish (1792-1843)

John Parish Robertson was one of the first British traders to operate in post-revolutionary Paraguay. Along with his brother, William Parish Robertson, he published extensively on South American politics and travel, and acquired a level of European literary celebrity as a result of his denunciations of the Paraguayan dictator, Dr José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia.

Born in Scotland, and educated in Dalkeith, Robertson first crossed the Atlantic with his merchant father at the age of 14. He was present at the British occupation of Montevideo in 1807, worked thereafter in Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires, and arrived in Paraguay in 1812. Joined by his brother, William Parish Robertson, he pursued a series of commercial avenues, and acted at points as an agent of the dictator Francia. The latter ultimately turned against the Robertsons, disappointed that the brothers were unwilling to travel to London to represent his interests, and expelled them from his country in 1815. Relocating south of Paraguay, the Robertsons developed a profitable new trade at Corrientes and Goya, facilitated by connections and credit in Buenos Aires. John Parish Robertson subsequently developed a wider web of commercial interests between Chile, Peru, Liverpool, London, and Glasgow, and he travelled to Britain in 1823 as a wealthy man, and an accredited political agent for the Buenos Aires and Peruvian governments. More money was made arranging loans for these Spanish American administrations; but as for so many contemporaries, investments in mining companies proved to be Robertson’s downfall, and he was ruined in the panic and crash of 1825-6. Failing in the attempt to build another Latin American fortune, he was admitted to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, in 1829, before retiring briefly to the Isle of Wight. After 1834 he was based in London, where he turned to literature as a means of making a living.

Apart from an unsuccessful novel, Solomon Seesaw (1839), Robertson wrote mainly on his experiences in Latin America, and he published widely in the periodical press. What celebrity he enjoyed, however, was owed mainly to a series of volumes issued under the names of both Robertson brothers, but written primarily by John Parish Robertson: Letters on Paraguay: comprising an account of a four years’ residence in that republic, under the government of the dictator Francia (1838); Francia’s reign of terror, being the continuation of letters on Paraguay (1839); and the less acclaimed Letters on South America; comprising travels on the banks of the Paraná and Rio de la Plata (1843). Before the Robertsons wrote, virtually all that was known in contemporary Europe about post-revolutionary Paraguay came from a considerably earlier, and relatively measured, account by two Swiss doctors: Messrs. Rengger and Longchamps, The reign of Doctor Joseph Gaspard Roderick de Francia, in Paraguay; being an account of six years’ residence in that republic, from July, 1819–to May, 1825 (1827). The Robertsons, perhaps still smarting from their ignominious exile, and readily adopting various sensationalist tropes, offered an excoriating account of Francia’s regime: they claimed that Paraguay’s dictator had committed crimes ‘of a character so appalling as to make human nature shudder and recoil’, and that his government had ‘beaten down the people of Paraguay, till they have licked the dust under the soles of his feet’. Their discussions of Francia and Paraguay attracted extensive critical engagement in Britain, and throughout parts of the Continental European press, though in Britain at least many of their claims and constructions were taken with a heavy pinch of salt.

John Parish Robertson played a major role in fostering Anglo-Latin American trading and banking networks in the opening decades of the nineteenth century, and a central one in projecting Paraguayan politics into the European imagination. His volumes formed an essential source for the historian Thomas Carlyle’s celebrated Latin American essay of 1843, ‘Dr Francia’, though Carlyle admittedly described Robertson and his brother in correspondence as ‘asses of the first water’ (Thomas Carlyle to John Forster, 12 May 1843). This was not fair, but it perhaps helps to explain why historians have yet to do justice to Robertson’s wider reflections on the condition of Latin American politics in the post-revolutionary era, scattered across his books and periodical articles of the 1830s and early 1840s. He was, in fact, one of the period’s most committed thinkers on the reasons behind the seeming feebleness of Spanish American republicanism, and a serious critic of British policy.

Having relocated to Calais in search of a climate more congenial to his health, Robertson died on the 1st November 1843. He left behind a recently-acquired wife, Campbell Amelia Hilton Ellen Stewart Souter, the daughter of an army officer.

More in preparation

Sources: C. Jones, ‘Robertson, John Parish’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edition (2004); ‘Biographic Sketches: John Parish Robertson’, Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, 1 n.s. (6 Jan. 1844), 10-13; L. Benton and L. Ford, Rage for Order: the British Empire and the Origins of International Law, 1800-1850 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016); A. Middleton, ‘Britain and the Paraguayan Dictatorship, c. 1820-1840’, Historical Journal, advance access (2021); I. Campbell et al., eds., The Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle (42 vols., Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1970– ); V. B. Reber, British Mercantile Houses in Buenos Aires, 1810-1880 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979).

Author: Alex Middleton

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Thematic categories:

Exile and Migration; Peace and Diplomacy; Politics; Religion and Philosophy; Trade and Investment; Translation; Travel and Tourism.