DESBRISAY, THOMAS, colonial administrator, office holder, and politician; b. 1732 or 1733, likely in Dublin (Republic of Ireland), son of Theophilus DesBrisay (baptized Samuel-Théophile de La Cour de Brisay) and Magdalen de Vergese d’Aubussargues; m. c. 1753 Ellen Landers (Landen), and they had 16 children; d. 25 Sept. 1819, aged 86, on Prince Edward Island.
Of Huguenot ancestry, Thomas Desbrisay was a member of “one of the oldest branches of a highly respectable family.” Appointed an ensign in the 35th Foot (Donegall’s) at the age of 10, he attained the rank of captain in the Royal Irish Artillery on 8 Feb. 1760. This career was terminated when, on 31 July 1769, he was commissioned lieutenant governor, secretary, and registrar of St John’s (Prince Edward) Island. Ten years were to elapse before he took up the appointment. Having acquired land on the Island, he busied himself for a few years with attempts to recruit settlers in Ireland. In 1773, however, the British government, unwilling to encourage emigration, expressly forbad him to continue his efforts.
On 8 July 1771, apparently believing that Desbrisay was soon to arrive, Governor Walter Patterson* had appointed him a justice of the peace for Queens County. Three years later Patterson was to describe the absentee lieutenant governor as “very unfit to hold any Offices under His Majesty.” He charged that Desbrisay had attempted to interfere in the proper allocation of colonial funds; moreover, he had mortgaged his properties and, without discharging the mortgages, sold parcels of land to prospective settlers who were subsequently ruined by the expense of a voyage from the British Isles and the loss of their purchase money, the deeds they had received from Desbrisay being of no effect. Desbrisay was nevertheless retained as lieutenant governor, and in the summer of 1779 was ordered by the secretary of state for the American Colonies to take up his appointment.
Because Patterson was absent from the colony when Desbrisay arrived on 10 October, the latter, as senior officer, assumed command. During a nine month period he granted some 400 crown lots in Charlottetown Royalty, apportioning 58 town lots and 58 pasture lots to himself and members of his family. The British government considered his behaviour sufficient grounds for dismissal but acquiesced in Patterson’s proposal that instead Desbrisay and the others who had acquired lots should be made to surrender the bulk of them to the crown in open court. Desbrisay’s role in this affair no doubt explains why the remarkable number of requests for preferment that he addressed to London went unanswered. His hatred for Patterson, who had exposed him, must have intensified in 1781 when the governor claimed for himself a large portion of the land sold that November because of the proprietors’ failure to pay quitrents.
With the reorganization of the colonial administration in 1784 the office of governor of St John’s Island was eliminated. Patterson, as a consequence, became lieutenant governor, and Desbrisay lost both his post and his seat on the Council. He was, however, appointed clerk of the Council on 22 Jan. 1785. Unwilling to “sit, as clerk, at the foot of a Board where I was appointed by His Majesty President,” he was permitted to exercise his duties by deputy, and Charles Stewart was chosen for the position. The presence of a non-member clerk at the Council meetings, a custom which was continued after Desbrisay’s death, represented a departure from British tradition, and the upper house of Prince Edward Island became unique in this respect. In 1789 Desbrisay was reappointed to the Council by Lieutenant Governor Edmund Fanning.
Injured pride also figured in Desbrisay’s resentment at Phillips Callbeck*’s being recommended in 1781 to command a company for the defence of the colony in preference to him, at former chief justice Peter Stewart’s claim to precedence over him at Council meetings in 1801, and at William Townshend’s being appointed temporary commander-in-chief of the colony in 1813 to the exclusion of his own claim as senior councillor. As late as 1818, when Desbrisay was described as being “infirm and aged even to superannuation,” Lieutenant Governor Charles Douglass Smith* remarked that “it would hurt the old man’s feelings much ever to be removed from the council.”
Because of failing eyesight, Desbrisay had his grandson, Theophilus, assist him in the performance of the duties of secretary and registrar for some 15 years before his death. He came to believe that Theophilus was entitled to these offices and sought to negotiate a succession, over the strong objections of Lieutenant Governor Smith, who felt that, with so many offices being filled by patronage, his own recommendations stood for nothing. Desbrisay’s attempt failed when the Colonial Office, citing the “inconvenience of making a particular office hereditary in any family,” declared itself ready to consider Theophilus for some other position.
On 29 Sept. 1819 Smith recorded that Desbrisay’s son, Theophilus DesBrisay*, Protestant rector of Charlotte parish, “was yesterday under the necessity of officiating at the funeral of his own father.” Both Theophilus and a sister had married into the family of Peter Stewart; another of Thomas’s sons and a grandson had married daughters of the Reverend Mather Byles. The family was influential in colonial and provincial affairs for many years. Thomas’s great-grandson, also named Theophilus, was mayor of Charlottetown from 1867 to 1872 and again from 1875 to 1877.
Huguenot Soc. of London, Henry Wagner coll. of Huguenot pedigrees (ms). P.E.I. Heritage Foundation (Charlottetown), Compiled family files, Desbrisay, nos.8, 18 (photocopies). PRO, CO 226/1: 33, 127–28; 226/2: 41–45; 226/5: 65–66; 226/6: 30–31; 226/7: 44–46, 54, 136–39; 226/8: 35–37; 226/9: 98–100; 226/17: 103–4; 226/18: 239–40; 226/22: 203; 226/29: 149–50; 226/31: 62–64; 226/34: 100–1; 226/35: 21–22, 250–52, 255–56, 394–97. R. J. Dickson, Ulster emigration to colonial America, 1718–1775 (London, 1966). Historic highlights of Prince Edward Island (Charlottetown, 1955). Frank MacKinnon, “Some peculiarities of cabinet government in Prince Edward Island,” Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science (Toronto), 15 (1949): 310–21.