Robert Hesketh spent his childhood in Portugal and we can assume that he was probably born there. His father John Hesketh was a wine merchant in the firm of Offley Campion Hesketh & Co. Their main business was exporting Port wine from Portugal back to John's native town of Liverpool. Robert would have had quite a stimulating upbringing living in Porto, speaking Portuguese and learning all about commerce. Life in this warm climate however came to a sudden end when the French army under Napoleon invaded the country in 1808 and John moved the whole family back to Liverpool. Robert would have been about 20 and it was presumably around this time that the his portrait was painted of him as a young man.
Robert needed a job and the opportunity of moving to Brazil presented itself, possibly the plan being to become a merchant buying cotton for export back to Liverpool. Robert would have been ideally suited as he would have been developing a good understanding of the necessary skills to be a merchant but in addition he was also a fluent speaker of Portuguese which was the main language in Brazil.
Robert initially worked in S Luis de Maranhão and in 1812 he was made a Consul. His Diplomatic Commission is dated 14 February 1812 in the reign of King George III and is signed at Carlton House by Wellesley. It appoints him to be the British Consul in the Port of Maranhas and the adjoining provinces of Para and São Luis, Portugueze Dominions in South America.
Initially being a Consul was in addition to his day to day job as a merchant in the firm of Hesketh & Wilson but over time his work as a merchant gradually reduced as the job of Consul took up more of his time. The British Government had started discouraging Consuls from trading as merchants, as on occasions this brought them into situations of conflict of interest.
In 1832 Robert was appointed as His Britannic Majesty's Consul in Rio de Janeiro, a position which he was to hold until he retired in 1852.
In 1837 Robert met his wife Georgiana Raynsford. She had been born in Rio in 1819 and was the daughter of Charles Raynsford, who came from a prominent Rio mercantile family. They were married at the British Chapel in Rio by the Anglican Chaplin the Rev Arthur Maister. There was 28 years of age between them, Georgiana being only19, while Robert was 47. The marriage would appear to have been a happy one and over the next 20 years resulted in the births of 13 children.
Robert's time in Rio coincided almost exactly with the enormous struggle between the will of the Brazilian people to retain its slave trade, and the will of the British people to have it abolished. Robert, as British Consul in the bustling port, had to deal with the daily suffering of the slaves, as well as the aggression of the slave-traders.
In the midst of all his other duties - helping penniless British subjects, repatriating British victims of shipwreck, encouraging trade, advising and regulating British mariners, running the British hospital, chapel, and burial ground, and keeping the large British community in order - Robert had to ensure the safety of the hundreds of young African slaves brought into the port. These were the unfortunate occupants of slave-trading vessels boarded and captured by the British Navy Squadron cruising off the Brazilian coast. These slaves, the British Government had decreed, were to be kept in port whilst the slave-ship captains were taken to court and their vessels confiscated. Only then could the slaves be repatriated to the nearest British colony, which was most likely to be Freetown, back across the Atlantic.
But the law took its time, and the slaves sat in the Bay at Rio de Janeiro on their stinking slave-ships, incubating numerous diseases. Smallpox, guinea worm, ophthalmia, and above all, dysentery, were all common, and stretched the slender resources of the few British naval surgeons available.
Just as dangerous, however, were the gangs employed by the slave-dealers, whose job was to steal the freed slaves, and enslave them yet again. The British Navy posted sentries, but the slave-thieves were devious and bold, and ready to pounce if the slaves were transferred to other ships, or taken ashore.
Robert Hesketh's frequent letters to the Foreign Office about these seemingly intractable problems still exist in the National Archives, along with his plea to be allowed to feed the Africans the food they were used to, rather than the old beef and biscuit the British Navy provided.
Nor was Robert himself safe. When the prosecutor of the Court trying the slave-ship captains was threatened with assassination, Robert took over his duties and out-faced the threats of the slave-owners and their gangs.
The 1840s saw an increase in the number of African slaves landed in Brazil, but the slave-dealers had saturated the market, the price of slaves fell, and the Brazilians themselves began to accept that the trade in slaves was unacceptable. In 1850, the 'Quieroz' Law was passed, banning further importation of slaves, and the trade quickly died out, though it took nearly forty years before slavery itself was abolished in Brazil.
Robert retired back to England in 1852, and must have felt relieved that his efforts had not been in vain. He retired not to Liverpool, where his family was based, but to Southampton. He lived first at Pear Tree House near the Jesus Chapel, and then moved into the city to Carlton Crescent. He died in 1868 after forty years' service to the Crown as a Consul in Brazil.
His will confirms the names of his wife and two sons. His estate was valued at £4,000 and consisted of shares in a number of companies with South American sounding names. His address is confirmed as Peartree House near Southampton and later of 22 Carlton Cresent in Southampton. He died at 30 Weymouth Street, Portland Place, Saint Marylebone, Middlesex. Pear Tree House still stands and is on Pear Tree Lane in Southampton. It is now a care home for people with disabilities.
Robert's brothers, John and William, also British Consuls in Brazil, both died there, leaving Robert not only looking after his own thirteen children, but looking after the interests of his younger brother John's eight orphaned children.
During his time in Southampton Robert kept up his links with the Jesus Chapel, and was buried there next to his sister Mary Ann, who had died in 1856.