ROBERT HUNTER was very much in the Clan tradition of being an officer and a gentleman, serving overseas for much of his life. Born in 1664, he was the son of James Hunter and grandson of Robert Hunter, 20th Laird of Hunterston.
His first military appointment on record was as aide-major in Lord Cardross,s regiment of dragoons in Flanders on 19 April 1689. A year later Robert became captain in Colonel John Hill's regiment of foot and on 28 February 1694 he transferred to the Royal Scots Dragoons with the same rank. Just over a year later on 28 May, he was appointed major of brigade in Flanders and promoted brevet Lieutenant colonel on 1 January 1703.
During the early years of the 18th century, there was a refugee problem in England that is mirrored in many ways by the current difficulties with asylum seekers. The refugees at the time were from the Palatinate of the Rhine and were a source of trouble and concern to the English Government. To relieve the situation, Robert proposed in a letter dated 17 December 1709 to take 3,000 of them for settlement along the banks of the River Hudson in the New York colony. His plan was approved, Robert was appointed Governor of New York, and sailed to America with the refugees early in 1710.
He reported in November of that year that they had established themselves along the Hudson close to great pine forests. Their purpose was to burn pine to produce tar, and Robert stated that for a subsidy of Â£15,000 per year, the settlements could produce enough tar for the English Navy forever. Orphans were adopted by families who guaranteed to maintain and educate them and each worker had a personal account to ensure that subsistence money received would be repaid in the form of their labour in the pinewoods.
Robert was enthusiastic about the project and predicted that the colonists would increase in numbers because they were very healthy. In 1712 he reported that they were all now living in good houses near the forests and had felled over 100,000 pine trees for tar burning. It was proposed that some of the colonists should be employed in the Navy Yard in New York, with the daily pay rate at 6d for adults and 4p for children.
However, there was a downside to this progress. Robert complained that he had spent virtually all of his personal money and his credit had been stretched to the limit. The Indians in the Hudson Valley were becoming restless and threatening, and his officers were nearing starvation because their pay was so much in arrears. He had constant disputes with the New York Assembly, which repeatedly refused to approve the necessary financial appropriations for the Hudson colonists unless what they claimed was their inherent right to determine the disposal of the money was granted.
Robert seems to have retained his enthusiasm and optimism despite these problems, and always enjoyed eventually surmounting obstacles that had initially seemed impossible. A prescient observation of his was that the attitude of the Assembly and the disagreements
about who was ultimately in charge and making the final decisions would one day lead to the secession of the American colonies. Despite his wrangling with the New York legislators, Robert personally was well liked, and American writers of the day described him as a man of good temper and discernment and one of the best and most able Governors of New York. He had to compromise eventually in 1715 and concede that the Assembly could decide the application of the revenues that they voted.
Robert returned home in 1719 with the rank of brigadier general, rising to major general 10 years later when he was appointed Governor of Jamaica and captain of the independent companies garrisoning the island. He died there on 31 March 1734, one month short of his 65th birthday. Robert had married Elizabeth Orby, daughter of Sir Thomas Orby of Crowland Abbey, Lincolnshire, and widow of Brigadier General the Lord Hay of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, some time after 1706. She apparently predeceased him. His will, probated in November 1734, left considerable property at Chertsey, including the patronage of the church living, to his son, Thomas Orby Hunter, MP for Winchelsea, from whom descended the family of Orby-Hunter. Robert left Â£5,000 to his daughters, Henrietta and Charlotte.
And, being the tenacious Scottish soldier and gentleman that he was, ever mindful of the bawbees, Robert pointed out in his will that he was owed Â£21,000 by the Crown, being the sum he personally contributed to the upkeep of the colonists of the Palatinate of New York. This debt had been acknowledged by a Mr Hartley of the Treasury but was never repaid.