“The oldest firm in Honolulu, that of James Robinson & Co … was commenced in 1822, and the shipyard located on the point (Pākākā) in 1827, where by patient industry, close application to the business, and prudent management of their affairs”.
“The commencement of this firm was through a common friendship and common misfortune—the result of one of those accidents which give a turn to human life, and wholly divert it from its former course. In 1821, Mr. Robinson and Mr. Lawrence, both young men, left England to seek their fortunes in the distant and then imperfectly known Pacific Ocean.”
“They sailed in the Hermes, reaching Honolulu in the spring of 1822. The Japan whaling-ground having been just brought into notice, the Hermes, together with the British ship Pearl, started the same day from this port to cruise there.”
“Twenty days out, on the same night, both vessels ran upon an unknown reef and were totally lost. More than sixty persons were thus thrown upon a desolate, barren lagoon island, in an unfrequented part of the ocean, with no prospect of succor except through their own management and skill.”
“Mr. Robinson commenced to build a schooner from the wreck of the ships, in which, with eleven others, he subsequently reached these islands in October, 1822. Before the completion of the schooner, an English whaler made the reef, and took away all the men except Mr. Robinson’s party of six, and six sailors, who would neither go away nor work for their own deliverance.”
“Four months were spent upon the reef – now known as the Pearl and Hermes Reef – and the schooner, short of water and provisions, started for Honolulu.”
“A long passage of ten weeks, with no other nautical instrument than an old quadrant and a pinchbeck watch to determine their position, brought them in sight of Hawaii with scarcely any provisions left, and only three gallons of fresh water on board.”
“Mr. Robinson and Mr. Lawrence, thus thrown upon this Island as waifs from the sea – their original plans entirely broken up, had really, by their indomitable energy and thrift, made the wreck on the Pearl and Hermes Reef the foundation of their subsequent business and financial success.”
“Their schooner was sold here for two thousand dollars, and Mr. Robinson found immediate engagement to put up others, imported about that time from the East.”
“They found that a shipyard was already a necessity of the port, and they entered upon the business. In 1827 they obtained from Kalaimoku, Pākākā – the Point – then nothing more than a coral reef, on which they established their shipyard and built the first wharves able to take alongside coasters and ships.” (Hawaiian Gazette, September 16, 1868)
“(A)t that time (they were) the only ship builders and repairers on the islands and in fact in the Pacific.” (Gilman; Cultural Surveys)
In 1840, the Polynesian commended the partners and their shipyard: “Honest, industrious, economical, temperate, and intelligent, they are living illustrations of what these virtues can secure to men. …”
“Their yard is situated in the most convenient part of the harbor has a stone butment and where two vessels of six hundred tons burthen can be berthed, hove out, and undergo repairs at one and the same time. There is fourteen feet of water along side of the butment.”
“The proprietors generally keep on hand all kinds of material for repairing vessels. Also those things requisite for heaving out, such as blocks, falls, etc. On the establishment are fourteen excellent workmen, among whom are Ship Carpenters, Caulkers and Gravers, Ship Joiners, Block-makers, Spar-makers, Boatbuilders, etc.”
In mid-September 1830, Joseph Elliott moved to The Point to open a hotel with Robinson. Lawrence and Holt, Robinson’s partners, appear to have specialized in the hotel and liquor business, which also featured a boarding house. The Shipyard Hotel had the advantage of being a “first chance – last chance” operation.
Years rolled on, and the firm of James Robinson & Co. (including Robert Lawrence and Mr. Holt) was a significant success and carried on a business that employed a large number of ship-carpenters and caulkers. More whaling ships were repaired at their establishment than at any other in the Pacific.
“In April 1847, James Robinson & Co. opened a butcher shop on the new wharf opposite the custom house. In September, W. H. Tibbey, butcher, began to operate in a shop on the government wharf.”
“In February 1848, the Sandwich Islands News complained of a ‘filth hole’ near the meat market on the wharf. Pedestrians waded knee-deep through the mire while their noses absorbed the terrible smell.” (Greer)
“(I)n December 1850 new sanitary regulations upped the pressure. Notices in Hawaiian and English went to all butchers and were posted in town; they strictly prohibited cow slaughtering at any place within the city limits, on any highway leading thereto, and on the banks of or over any stream used for drinking.” (Greer)
“Through the long period of forty-six years this firm has identified itself with the business interests of the Islands, and its name and financial resources have become familiarized to all our residents.”
“The partnership that existed was not one founded on legal forms or written conditions. It was commenced and has been carried on these long years through the simple force of individual character and confidence in personal integrity.”
“That either member of the firm insisted upon a business transaction or as investment contrary to the opinion of the others, was an unknown fact.”
“The firm has always been a unit in its plans and transactions, keeping their affairs to themselves and continuing steadily prosperous.” (Hawaiian Gazette, September 16, 1868)
This partnership lasted until 1868, when Mr. Lawrence died. For many years their building was one of the sights of the town, being decorated with the figurehead from an old vessel.
Robinson became so wealthy; reportedly, he lent substantial funds to the Hawaiian government during the 1850s and maintained a close relationship with the kingdom’s leaders until his death in 1876.
Hawaiians called him Kimo (James) Pākākā as Honolulu Harbor grew up around his shipyard. In 1843, James Robinson married Rebecca Prever; they had eight children: Mark, Mary, Victoria, Bathsheba, Matilda, Annie, Lucy and John.
Mr. Robinson died at his residence in Nuʻuanu valley August 8, 1876. However, his legacy lived on through his children.
His descendants became a well-known island family and his fortune founded the Robinson Estate. His son, Mark, was a member of Queen Liliʻuokalani’s cabinet (Minister of Foreign Affairs) during the chaotic last months of the monarchy as factional battles separated the royal government. He was a founder of First National Bank of Hawai’i and First American Savings.
His daughter Lucy married a McWayne (apparently, Robinson’s ship facility eventually became McWayne Marine Supply at Kewalo Basin – some old-timers may remember that later name.)
Daughter Victoria married a Ward. Their residence was known as Old Plantation, and included the current site of the Neil F. Blaisdell Center. Her estate, Victoria Ward Ltd, had other significant holdings in Kakaʻako.
Daughter Mary married a Foster. Her husband Thomas Foster was an initial organizer of the Inter-Island Steam Navigation Company. That company founded a subsidiary, Inter-Island Airways, that later changed its name to Hawaiian Airlines.
Foster had also purchased the estate of the renowned botanist William Hillebrand, which was bequeathed to the city as Foster Botanical Garden at the death of his wife Mary.