A Community of Suffering: The Robie Women in Loyalist Halifax

G. Patrick O’Brien

Having spent an agreeable New Year’s Eve with her friends, nineteen-year-old Mary Robie paused to write in her diary before turning in for the night. “Which brings 1783 to a period,” she began, “I have made out to continue my journal for one year and now might make many observations upon the occurrences of the year.” As a New England refugee living in Halifax, Mary’s life had changed considerably in the more the eight years since a patriotic mob chased her family from their home in Marblehead, Massachusetts. The events of 1783, however, had been especially dramatic. Following the conclusion of peace negotiations in Paris, tens of thousands of loyal subjects landed in Halifax, having fled the last British strongholds of the independent United States. In front of Mary’s home on Granville Street, refugees and soldiers alike congregated around a number of small stoves, which the colonial government had removed from the transport ships, to feed and warm themselves [1]. While the ubiquity of suffering certainly affected the young girl, she also took comfort in her own family’s good fortune. Summarizing her conflicting emotions she recorded, “In this world I think we have a fore taste of the joys of heaven and almost the same of the miseries of hell” [2]

For those interested in the loyalist diaspora throughout Atlantic Canada, the narrative of the struggling refugee is old hat. For decades, historians have studied the challenges refugee communities faced and situated their troubles within the larger British Empire and the history of early Canada. A number of examinations highlight the failures of the colonial government to effectively manage and provide for crowded loyalist settlements. Others have looked internally to explain how infighting among settlers created division and instability. Refugees of African decent faced even more dire circumstances. Lacking legal protections, free black communities became the target of refugee violence. More recently, historians have emphasized the prevalence of African slavery and the plight of enslaved people in post-revolutionary Atlantic Canada [3].

Collectively, these studies examine the struggles of refugee communities in broad strokes to connect loyalist discontent with the social and economic challenges that beleaguered the region during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. What the scholarship overlooks, however, is the role of grief and suffering in the everyday lives of refugees and among loyalist women in particular. While husbands and fathers wrote extensively about their frustrations with imperial government and the feelings of betrayal after 1783, women encountered suffering on a more personal and communal level. As refugees, women played active and vital roles in community formation. In Halifax, ironically, loyalist women— including Mary Robie, her younger sister Mehitable, and her mother Mary Sr.— utilized a shared experience of suffering to unite a diverse array of refugees and form a recognizable community.

In a city overwhelmed with refugees and lacking many of the traditional pillars of support on which suffering people relied, women in post-revolutionary Halifax served in a variety of public and private roles. Perhaps no role, however, was more important than the practices of visiting fellow refugees. In her diary, Mary Robie recorded the many trips she, her sister, and her mother made throughout the city. While many of these visits were made to the homes of newly minted friends, Mary also recorded their trips to see recently arrived “strangers.” Of one such visit in October of 1783, Mary noted, “Mama visited them from a motive of compassion as they knew nobody here.” Although the Robie women were adhering to eighteenth-century English conceptions of the “empathetic woman,” among the refugees of Halifax, these visits served as visible displays of empathy, worked to create new connections, and built community in a transient and diverse city [4].

While private visits created new networks and brought families closer together, the Robie women also functioned in more public roles where they visibly expressed their grief alongside others in the community. The influx of tens of thousands of refugees brought devastating diseases to Halifax including smallpox, which spread quickly in the overcrowded city [5]. Many of the refugees who succumbed to outbreaks of disease died with few, if any, relatives or friends to mourn at their funerals. Both Mary and her sister attended a number of burials to provide support for grieving families. Mary described the funeral of Miss. Wood, a recent arrival “who after a short illness was cropped, as it were, in the flower of her age.” She explained that she and her sister “felt obliged to be of all the service in our power” despite having never met the girl nor “even kn[owing] there was such a person here.” For Mary the idea of being buried “in a strange place unknown [and] unlamented” was deeply disturbing. As the young girl was lowered into the grave she recalled, “There was something so shocking in the appearance that I shall never erase the idea of it from my mind.” In their role as mourners, the Robie sisters were public pillars of support in a foreign environment.

Although the Robies could be counted among the more affluent refugees in Halifax, their socioeconomic status did not make them immune to the widespread suffering in the city. While the young Mary Robie detested the “stiffness and ceremony” of public gatherings, she could not help but delight in attending a ball in December 1783. While she briefly enjoyed “the appearance of happiness on every face,” she later reflected more critically in her diary, “I never dare to draw back the curtain to look what is behind all this apparent happiness les’t I should find some times only gilded misery.” Unlike many other refugees, Mary was never in danger of perishing in the streets; however, the plight of so many of her compatriots certainly affected her disposition. Her thoughts reveal that while she enjoyed a relatively comfortable lifestyle, she recognized a more ubiquitous suffering that permeated into all aspects of refugee life. Of the general merriment of the ball she remarked, “Happiness and folly are not incompatible.”

Ultimately the prevalence of suffering in Halifax played a role in driving the Robie family back to New England. Although the Robie women had helped build community in Halifax, by 1790, Mary and the majority of her family repatriated back to Massachusetts, leaving only Mehitable and their brother Simon Bradstreet behind. In Massachusetts Mary found happiness in being reunited with family and in her marriage to the enterprising young merchant Joseph Sewall. Conversely, Mehitable wrote that their repatriation doomed her “to be miserable asunder.” Undoubtedly, the exodus of many refugees only exacerbated the suffering of refugees who remained.

G. Patrick O’Brien is a doctoral candidate at the University of South Carolina where he is currently working on a dissertation that examines immigration between New England and Atlantic Canada during the late eighteenth century. He can be found on Twitter at @historia_passim.

[1] James S. Macdonald, “Richard S. Bulkeley, 1717-1800,” in Collections of the Nova Scotia Historical Society for the Years 1899 and 1900, Vol. XII (Halifax, 1901): 78.

[2] For Mary Robie’s diary and familial correspondence, see the Robie-Sewall Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, MA.

[3] On the struggles of refugees, see Neil MacKinnon, This Unfriendly Soil: The Loyalist Experience in Nova Scotia 1783-1791 (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1986); Anne Gorman Condon, The Envy of the American States: The Loyalist Dream for New Brunswick (Fredericton, N.B.: New Ireland Press, 1984). On slavery in the Maritimes, see Amani Whitfield, North to Bondage: Loyalist Slavery in the Maritimes (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2016).

[4] On the eighteenth-century notion of the empathic woman, see Lois W. Banner, Bonds of Womanhood: Woman’s Sphere in New England, 1780-183 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 163.

[5] On disease and smallpox in Nova Scotia, see Allen Everett Marble, Surgeons, Smallpox, and the Poor: A History of Medicine and Social Conditions in Nova Scotia, 1749-1799 (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1993).

Featured image: “The Town and Harbour of Halifax in Nova Scotia As it appears from George’s Island looking up to the King’s Yard and Bason,” by Richard Short, published 1764, Photo Collection Nova Scotia Archives, Places: Halifax: General View.

Latest Comments

  1. cannyoung says:

    Excellent story. Beautifully written and provides insights from a different perspective. Thanks you for posting.

  2. Maggie Reilly says:

    I like how this article goes into more depth about the emotions the refugees must be feeling. Having to migrate to an area where you are an outsider is probably one of the hardest things to overcome. It’s especially sad that she ended up having to leave and go back to Massachusetts. However, it was for the better of she was able to find happiness and be with family. But makes me wonder if this how the refugees from countries in the Middle East must feel. If it is, where will they go to find happiness like Mary Robbie.

  3. Seamus F. says:

    I really enjoyed how this article pretty much sheds light into a situation that is happening today by using events from hundreds of years ago. Back then the Loyalists were no longer safe in the US after Britain lost the Revolutionary War and they had to flee their homes. They had to find safe places to live. The article points out that the community the Robies went to was ethnically diverse as it was open to any and all groups who wanted to settle there. It also shows that the communities they built were empathetic and accepting because the people who formed them had gone through really hard times. This is part of the foundation of their country. This story of the Robies is just like what is happening with the refugees in today’s world. In the United States our government instituted a travel ban for countries where refugees are fleeing violence and we are trying our best to not allow refugees into the country. When the travel ban went into place Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, announced “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength.” (BBC News, Jan 29 2017, US refugee ban: “Canada Justin Trudeau takes a stand”). Canada is a very ethnically diverse place and just like the society the Robies lived in. The Canadians today are much like the loyalists of then, very welcoming, empathetic, ethnically diverse, and willing to accept anyone.

Continue the conversation ...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s