Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Semple, Robert

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SEMPLE, ROBERT (1766–1816), traveller, and governor under the Hudson's Bay Company, son of British parents, who were made prisoners during the American war of independence, was born at Boston, Massachusetts, in 1766. Brought up to mercantile pursuits, he was associated with London firms, and travelled constantly in the course of business, recording his impressions and adventures in short plain narratives which were favourably received. He was in Cape Colony in 1802, and made a stay of some duration, journeying inland a short distance. In 1803 he was back in London, and on 26 June 1805 left for a journey through Spain and Italy to Naples, and thence to Smyrna and Constantinople. In 1808 and 1809 he made a second journey in Portugal and Spain, eventually going to Gibraltar and Tangier. In 1810 he travelled in the West Indies and Brazil, and was in Caracas, Venezuela, at the beginning of the rebellion against Spain. In 1813 he made an adventurous journey in the rear of the allied armies from Hamburg by Berlin to Gothenburg; he was on this occasion taken for an American spy by Lord Cathcart and placed under arrest.

In 1815 Semple was chosen by the influence of Lord Selkirk to be chief agent or governor of the Hudson's Bay Company's factories and territories. Leaving England in June, he arrived at Red River in September, and energetically moved from place to place inspecting the settlements. In the spring of 1816 he was back at Red River. There had long been a feud between the Hudson's Bay Company and the North-West Company. On 19 June 1816 a caravan belonging to the latter company was passing near the fort at Red River with the intention of occupying ground to which their right was disputed. Semple rode out with an escort to meet them. A fracas ensued in which shots were exchanged, and Semple was mortally wounded, dying soon after he was carried into the fort. A literature of recrimination between the two companies was the chief result of the affair.

Semple was admitted even by his opponents to have been just and honourable in his short administration. He had a taste for literature and science. His chief writings are: 1. ‘Walks and Sketches at the Cape of Good Hope, &c.’ London, 1803. 2. ‘Observations on a Journey through Spain and Italy to Naples, &c. in 1805,’ London, 1807, 2 vols. 8vo. 3. ‘A Second Journey in Spain in the Spring of 1809, &c.’ London, 1810 (2nd edition, 1812). 4. ‘Sketch of the Present State of Caracas,’ London, 1812. 5. ‘Observations made on a Tour from Hamburg through Berlin to Gothenburg,’ London, 1814. 6. ‘Charles Ellis, or the Friends,’ a novel, London, 1814.

[Works in Brit. Mus. Libr.; A review in a Collection of Modern … Voyages and Travels, London, 1808; Edinburgh Review, 1814, vol. xxii.; Gent. Mag. 1816, pt. ii. p. 454; Halkett's Statement respecting the Earl of Selkirk's Settlement … and the Massacre of Governor Semple, London, 1817; Lord Selkirk's Narrative of Occurrences respecting Lord Selkirk's Settlement, &c. 1817; note on p. viii of Amos's Report of Trials, &c. against Lord Selkirk, London, 1820.]

C. A. H.