Dobbs, Arthur (1689–1765), politician and colonial governor, was born 2 April 1689 in Girvan, Ayrshire, Scotland, second son of Richard Dobbs of Castle Dobbs, Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim, and Mary Dobbs (née Stewart) of Ballintoy, Co. Antrim. His father was an army captain serving in the Co. Antrim Williamite association in 1689 and sent his pregnant wife to Scotland for safety. Arthur's education may either have taken place at home with tutors (perhaps including Jonathan Swift (qv) in 1695–6) or in England, and in 1711 he purchased a cornetcy in Echlin's Dragoons and went to Scotland to serve. He succeeded his father in the Castle Dobbs estate in March 1711 and retired from the army a year later on half pay. On 12 May 1719 he married Anne Osburn Norbury, who brought an estate in Co. Kildare with her; they had six children.
Dobbs had small estates which he strove to improve, but he also had political ambitions. In 1720 he was elected mayor of Carrickfergus and appointed sheriff of Co. Antrim, all under the patronage of Lord Conway. In 1727 he was elected MP for Carrickfergus, after a contest that cost him at least £1,000, and the following year again elected mayor and appointed deputy governor of the town. Dobbs needed greater patronage to advance, and sought this through his ideas for the improvement of Ireland in a British and imperial context. In 1729 he published the first part of An essay on the trade and improvement of Ireland, a two-part statistical work on trade. This book is, in many ways, the key to understanding Dobbs's career. It was written between 1728 and 1731 at a time when the Irish economy was in a deep crisis and there was much agonising from such writers as Jonathan Swift, Thomas Prior (qv), and others. Dobbs was much less of a propagandist than most of the pamphleteers, concentrating less on Ireland's ills than on remedies for them.
This work and, more importantly, his loyalty to the government brought him to the attention of Archbishop Hugh Boulter (qv), who in March 1730 introduced Dobbs to the prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole. Dobbs went to London armed with a memorandum arguing for aggressive imperial administration and expansion to curb French plans in North America and, though this was hardly to Walpole's tastes, he did give Dobbs an introduction to London merchant circles and secured for him the agency to the Conway estates in Antrim. This patronage also helped, in 1733, to gain him the post of surveyor general of Ireland, worth £300 a year. Walpole's interest may also have spurred on Dobbs to pursue the twin objects of improvement of Ireland through union, and British advances in North America. He was a founder member of the Dublin Society in 1731, published the second part of the Essay on trade in 1732 and, one year later, circulated a manuscript arguing for union. The second object quickly involved him in plans to launch an expedition to find a north-west passage and controversy with the Hudson's Bay Company. In 1741 the first expedition took place, which ended in acrimony and failure (at least to find the passage, if not to map Hudson's Bay). Dobbs spent much of the 1740s pamphleteering against both the captain of the first expedition and the Hudson's Bay Company, inveighing against both monopolies and complacency about the French and the providential path of imperial expansion. A second expedition (1746–7) was undertaken by his raising almost £10,000 in subscriptions, but again there was no triumph.
Though the north-west passage remained elusive, Dobbs did not lose interest in the empire. He turned his attention southwards to North Carolina as his London friends involved him in the purchase of 400,000 acres in that colony in 1745. After the lands were properly surveyed he organised two emigrant ships (April 1751, May 1753) to take at least 500 Irish protestant emigrants to North Carolina. The Ohio valley was another area of land speculation for Dobbs, as he and his London contacts bought 200,000 acres there and formed the Ohio Company in 1750 to survey and colonise the area. The death of his wife, Anne, in April 1747 certainly made him lose some interest in imperial endeavours but it also loosened his ties to Ireland. So, it was little surprise that Dobbs should lobby to replace the deceased Gabriel Johnston as governor of North Carolina from 1752. After six months in London the Pelham government granted Dobbs the post in January 1753, again surely helped by his circulating of manuscripts about union of Ireland with Britain and his published works on North America and the need for expansion to combat French ambitions.
At 65 Dobbs left Ireland for North America in June 1754 with some family members and muskets and cannon for the defence of North Carolina. His rule of the colony combined the aims of regulating the rapid expansion of North Carolina and bringing it into the British mainstream with anglican churches and schools. The main problem was the French and Indian threat in 1754, which was soon to overrun the Ohio valley and lead to the Seven Years’ War, starting (in Europe) in 1756. Dobbs moved from New Bern to Russellborough (near Brunswick) and built a second Castle Dobbs there, in 1758. His governorship was successful, in that North Carolina easily defended itself during the war with the French, but by 1760 he had run into problems with the colonists. Part of the reason for this was Dobbs's desire to run an administration above the factional divides between the northern and southern elites in the colony. The other major difficulty was that Dobbs, being a proprietor himself, was hardly free from prejudice as he favoured his old London colleagues over other landowners in the north of the colony. Then, in 1760, when the northerners petitioned for his removal, he openly embraced the southern planters, packing the colonial council with supporters and marrying the 15-year-old southern heiress Justina Davis, from Brunswick. His colonial career ended in November 1762 with a stroke, though it was only in the following spring he applied for leave to retire. Dobbs's health did improve, as he was nursed by his new wife, but another stroke on 28 March 1765 proved fatal. He was buried in St Philip's church, Brunswick, though no anglican minister could be found to perform the service.
Dobbs's surviving manuscripts include letters, essays, and memorandums (PRONI, D/162); an essay on union, c.1733 (NLI); and a manuscript on the north-west passage, c.1741 (Glasgow University Library).