Staples I, Robert Ponsonby (c.1777–1852)

Robert Ponsonby Staples I (c.1777–1852) [not to be confused with the artist Sir Robert Staples, 12th Baronet], consul and merchant, was one of the sons of the Rt Hon. John Staples (1736–1820), lawyer and MP for County Antrim and rector of Lissan (County Londonderry, Northern Ireland), and his second wife, the Hon. Henrietta Molesworth (1745–1813), whom he married in October 1774. The Rt Hon. John Staples had previously married Ann Conolly (1749–1771) in June 1764.

Robert Ponsonby Staples I was the first British consul to be appointed by the Foreign Office to one of the new South American republics after the collapse of the Spanish American Empire. Staples was also one of the first consuls to be appointed to the New World at a time when the distribution of British consuls was concentrated in southern Europe. Staples’s appointment was published in The London Gazette of 19 March 1811, stating that ‘His Royal Highness the Prince Regent has … been graciously pleased, in the Name and on the Behalf of His Majesty, to appoint Robert Staples, Esq., to be His Majesty’s Consul at Buenos Ayres and its Dependencies’. In spite of his official appointment by the British, Staples’s credentials were never recognized by the government in Buenos Aires.

Until 1823, Britain had a neutral policy towards the new independent Latin American republics. Spain was still claiming, and in some areas still exercising, sovereignty over these territories. Meanwhile, the leaders of the independentist movements in South American wanted official recognition, in particular, from the major European powers, including Britain. Thus, while Bernardino Rivadavia (1780–1845), Governor of Buenos Aires in 1811, ordered the appointment of Staples to be announced publicly in the Gaceta de Buenos Aires (26 June 1811), it could not really be officially recognized because Rivadavia received no answer from the British Secretary for Foreign Affairs to several letters sent by the Buenos Aires government at that effect.

When Staples was about twenty years old, he decided to seek his fortune in the recently opened South American republics. Since he was not heir to his father’s fortune, there were few reasons for him to remain in Northern Ireland. The exact date when Staples first arrived to Buenos Aires is unclear, although it is believed that it was around 1810, after the British invasions of Buenos Aires (1806 and 1807). There is evidence of him residing in Rio de Janeiro in 1809 and becoming involved in commercial activities representing the Belfast house of Montgomery, Staples & Co. The Montgomerys are believed to have been the Staples’s bankers. This would explain the first known commercial partnership of Staples in South America. However, this association lasted only a short time. Soon after establishing himself in Buenos Aires in mid-1810, Staples became associated with another British merchant in the region, John McNeile, with whom he established a jerked beef company, Staples, McNeile & Co., which used an Irish technique to dry the meat.

In April 1812, after his disappointment over the failure of Buenos Aires to recognize his Foreign Office credentials, Staples left the River Plate for England. He arrived in June 1812. Staples stayed in London until 1813, endeavouring to persuade the Foreign Office to recognize the independence of Buenos Aires. When Staples realized that recognition was not possible, he tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Foreign Office to appoint him as Confidential Agent to the River Plate. The only concessions Staples received from the Foreign Office were the granting of £1,200 as compensation for the failure of his appointment as consul and a contract to procure bullion for the Treasury.

In November 1813, Staples was back in Buenos Aires where he resumed his commercial activities, profiting from the considerable ambiguity surrounding his previous appointment as consul. In 1815, Staples married Eliza Leonora Russell in Buenos Aires. Soon after, at a public meeting held on the 15 July 1816, the British merchants in Buenos Aires asked Staples to represent them in an official capacity, which he agreed to do. In return, they promised to remunerate Staples for his troubles by a ‘Consulate of one half per cent of the total invoice amount of all goods imported in British vessels/, and /One real per ton for consulate on the register tonnage of all British vessels arriving at Buenos Ayres’. Staples communicated this resolution by the British merchants to the Foreign Office but he never received an answer.

The lack of a clear response from the Foreign Office increased the ambiguity of Staples’s consular status. Indeed, within the business correspondence of Hugh Dallas & Co., a Scottish house established in Buenos Aires, there are several documents signed by Robert Ponsonby Staples as ‘Consul of His Britannic Majesty in Buenos Aires and its dependencies’, all bearing an official stamp. Likewise, within the papers of Hodgson & Robinson, another British merchant house in Buenos Aires, it is clear that at least this house was in the habit of paying ‘Consulate of one half per cent of the total invoice amount of all goods imported in British vessels’. Staples remained in this limbo until 1819 when, after trying to pressure the Foreign Office once again to make all the necessary efforts to obtain his official recognition as consul at Buenos Aires, he was explicitly ordered by the Foreign Office to cease acting as consul and to leave Buenos Aires.

At the end of 1819 or the beginning of 1820, Staples was back in London where he remained until at least 1822. In September 1822, a delegation sent by the Peruvians, headed by the Envoys and Ministers Plenipotentiary Don Juan Garcia del Rio (1794–1856) and General James Paroissien (1784–1827), arrived in London with the mission of obtaining a £1.2M loan from British investors. Soon after their arrival, Garcia and Paroissien signed an agreement with Thomas Kinder on 11 October to represent them as contractor of the loan. After accepting, Kinder associated himself with Staples and the following day, the loan was put on the market among a great deal of confusion, bearing a 6 per cent interest rate. For a few weeks, the business run smoothly, to such an extent that Kinder and Staples decided to send an agent, Mr. Robert Proctor, to Lima. He departed in early December 1822. Proctor’s main mission was to establish the firm of Robert Ponsonby Staples & Co., which would be in charge of moving funds between Lima and London. The partnership of Kinder and Staples paid the first of six instalment of the loan but, just before the second instalment was due, rumours reached London that the Colombian loan, which had preceded the Peruvian one, might not be valid and that the political situation in Peru was very instable.

Accordingly, Kinder and Staples decided to delay the payment of the second and third instalments until better news was received. Unfortunately for Staples, news arrived in London reporting that San Martin, who had empowered Garcia and Paroissien to raise the loan, had ceased to be the protector of Peru. The loan was frozen, as well as the funds that had been already floated. To make matters worse, Garcia and Paroissien were superseded by John Parish Robertson (1792–1843) who was entrusted by the Peruvians to take control of all financial concerns between Peru and Britain. Thus, the recently created partnership of Kinder and Staples saw the loan contract snatched by Robertson. During the confusion caused by the intervention of Robertson, Staples is believed to have travelled to Lima in 1823 in an attempt to obtain compensation, although it is not clear how long he stayed there. The Lima adventure ended for Staples in March 1824 when his agent decided to return to England.

Staples’s long-desired recognition by the Foreign Office of the new Latin American republics came about on the 10 October 1823 when the Foreign Office appointed several consuls to Latin America. Staples was not appointed to Buenos Aires as he had hoped but was made consul to Acapulco, Mexico. At this time, the Foreign Office changed its recruitment policy by appointing professional consuls instead of consul-merchants, or, as believed by D. C. M. Platt, if the consuls were already merchants in the region, they were politized at the time of their appointments by the Foreigin Office. Indeed, Woodbine Parish (1796–1882), who was appointed to Buenos Aires instead of Staples, acted also as commissioner and subsequently as chargé d’affaires to the new republic.

Against the new instructions by the Foreign Office for consuls not to enter into commercial transactions, Staples entered into financial activities by offering to lend money to the Mexican government, once again, in association with Thomas Kinder. As a consequence, in 1824, Staples was removed from his position, sadly ending his diplomatic career. Nonetheless, in spite of losing his consular credentials, Staples remained in Mexico, becoming involved in a mining company, the Real del Monte Co., with his friend and partner Thomas Kinder, along with a new partner, Philip Chabot. The Real del Monte Co. was located some 30 miles from Mexico City and was launched on the market with shares each worth £100. Within a few months, their value had increased to £240 each. However, bad luck followed Staples and in 1831 the house of Robert Staples & Co. was declared insolvent.

By early 1834, Staples was back in London. He declared publicly his insolvency in The London Gazette of 14 February and 18 July 1834. From that point on, Staples disappeared from the public and commercial arenas. There is evidence that he wrote his final will in London in 1835, which left all his property to his wife, Eliza. Staples died in 1852 in Middlesex, probably with little wealth to be inherited.

Sources: Manuel Llorca-Jaña, ‘Staples, Robert Ponsonby (1784/5–1852)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edn, Oxford University Press, Oct 2009; E. J. Fitte, ‘Crónica de un cónsul oficioso británico’, Boletín de la Academia Nacional de la Historia, 34 (1963) 719-769.

Author:  Manuel Llorca-Jaña

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