Wednesday, June 28, 2017

"For pity's sake, don't shoot 'em"

With my current research into a group of forgotten participants in the Boer War who lie in a small cemetery in Zimbabwe, this ABC News item is timely as it tells of a great find of items at a rubbish tip in New South Wales which are connected to Harry Harbord Morant, known as the "Breaker" who is a legendary and controversial figure in the history of Australia and perhaps better known for the manner of his death than his life with a -
" ...reputation as horse-breaker, drover, steeplechaser, polo player, drinker and womanizer, from 1891 he contributed bush ballads to the Sydney Bulletin as 'the Breaker'. When the South African War broke out in 1899 he enlisted in Adelaide in the 2nd Contingent, South Australian Mounted Rifles ..."  [Australian Dictionary of Biography.]
Click here for a video link (may not be available in all countries) in which an expert verifies the items as connected to Morant, included his bandolier which perfectly matches that shown in this photograph.

The "Breaker", copyright Australian War Memorial

Morant was famously (and very briefly) married to another controversial Australian legend, the anthropologist, Daisy Bates (to feature in another post shortly on my companion blog about women, The History Bucket).

He was also the subject of a major Australian film Breaker Morant.

The Poetry of Breaker Morant

The last poem -


by Harry ("Breaker") Morant

In prison cell I sadly sit,
A d[amne]d crest-fallen chappie!
And own to you I feel a bit -
A little bit unhappy!

It really ain't the place nor time
To reel off rhyming diction -
Whilst waiting cru-ci-fiction!
But yet we'll write a final rhyme.

No matter what "end" they decide -
Quick-lime or "b'iling ile", sir?
We'll do our best when crucified
To finish off in style, sir!

But we bequeath a parting tip
For sound advice of such men,
Who come across in transport ship
To polish off the Dutchmen!

If you encounter any Boers
You really must not loot 'em!
And if you wish to leave these shores,
For pity's sake, DON'T SHOOT EM!

And if you'd earn a D.S.O.,
Why every British sinner
Should know the proper way to go

Let's toss a bumper down our throat -
Before we pass to Heaven,
And toast: "The trim-set petticoat
We leave behind in Devon."

At its end the manuscript is described as The Last Rhyme and Testament of Tony Lumpkin.

First published in The Bulletin, 19 April 1902.

The closing credits of the movie are particularly moving, with Edward Woodward singing Soldiers of the Queen.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Chronicles of Hamilton

There is a fascinating connection between a famous lion doorknob in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and one of those men who died during the Anglo-Boer War and now lies far from his native land in a quiet corner of Paradise.

 (My initial blog post about this Boer War cemetery in Zimbabwe can be read here.)

The grave of Captain H.C.W. Hamilton of the 3rd (Queensland) Mounted Infantry Contingent * is the subject of quite a bit of confusion according to the ZimFieldGuide due to various authorities being involved in the reporting of the deaths and markers being made with errors. One cannot even be sure H.C.W. is where the cross says he is.

Also, on the cross the date of his death is out by a year and in fact he died on 12 July 1900. This also means that H.C.W. died for “Queen and Empire” not “King and Empire”, as King Edward VII did not ascend the throne until 22 January 1901 when Queen Victoria died.

It does not help either that H.C.W. accompanied the force but was never an official member of the 3rd Queensland Contingent and therefore does not appear in many of the usual Australian Boer War records. Naturally, this begs the question, why?

From ZimFieldGuide. (Note date error!)

The first record connecting H.C.W. Hamilton to Australia is a passenger list for the Duke of Buckingham, a ship carrying assisted immigrants that sailed from London on 4 November 1885 and arrived in Brisbane on 4 January 1886. He travelled Second Class, no occupation mentioned, aged 30. Thus one might assume a birth year of about 1856.

Queensland, Australia, Passenger Lists

With no matching birth records for him in England, the next clue was found in a Brisbane Telegraph newspaper report of his death dated 16 July 1900 which mentions the North Irish militia and from which it also appears he had been much younger than stated on the passenger list.

Thus a birth in Ireland looked likely, also that he had some status; enough to warrant several paragraphs in a colonial newspaper. **

There are a number of references in the Queensland Government Gazettes 1890-1896 to H.C.W.’s various promotions through the ranks in the Queensland Defence Force (Permanent Force) including his appointment as a Justice of the Peace. But H.C.W. resigned his commission in 1896 and it is not known what he did between then and accompanying the 3rd Contingent to the Boer War.

It turns out that Hugh Cecil Waldegrave Hamilton ^ was born on 17 November 1864 in Rathmines, Dublin, which would have made him just 22 when he arrived in Australia.

He had an aristocratic pedigree with links via his mother (Mary Warren) to the Baronetage of Borlase Warren that included a number of prominent individuals who had served in the Royal Navy, as Members of Parliament and Sheriffs of Nottingham. +

H.C.W.’s father was The Reverend Thomas Robert Hamilton, with many churchmen in his lineage and a descendant of an aristocratic Scottish family sent to Ulster in the early 17th Century by King James I. The Reverend, said to be an excitable individual with fierce opinions, including a hatred of Catholics, had been a chaplain in the Royal Navy during the Crimean War and later a curate at Holy Trinity Church in Rome and ultimately the Rector of St. Mark's, Dundela, Belfast.

Thomas and Mary had four children, two girls and two boys, but it was the younger sister of H.C.W., Florence (Flora) Augusta Hamilton (1862-1908) who left her mark in surprising ways. #

Flora went to Queen's University in Belfast (then Royal University of Ireland) from which she graduated with 1st Class Honours and a degree in Mathematics. It was very unusual for a woman to go to university and study such subjects at that time. She later went on to to marry Albert James Lewis and one of her sons was Clive Staples Lewis, best known to the world as the famous author of the Chronicles of Narnia , C.S. Lewis C.S. was only about 2 years old when his uncle H.C.W. died.

Some insight into H.C.W. and his family can be gleaned from this extract from C.S. Lewis: An Examined Life edited by Bruce L. Edwards: %

...According to Sayer [another biographer] Thomas and Mary were failures as parents - neither knowing how to make their children happy nor how to raise them without giving any of them preferential treatment. This they often did to Cecil [H.C.W.] and Lilian. Also, Gussie [the other son] was so disliked by his father that he refused to help him pay for his education as he helped the other children. And even though he eventually made good for himself, Gussie, in response, became completely self-centered and unkind to others, even to his mother and to his close friends. Hooper [another biographer] also notes that Cecil, after finishing his education and failing to obtain a commission in the Royal Army, emigrated to Australia - where he worked and served in their army, eventually dying in South Africa in 1900. Even Flora, with her great education at Queen’s University, Belfast, completed in 1886, as far as is known, failed to do anything with it, merely functioning as another servant for her mother. It would still be another eight years before she married Lewis’s father, Albert. Green and Hooper, among many other biographers, have noted how Thomas Hamilton misused Albert’s romantic interest in Flora for his own benefit, expecting Albert to travel with or make preparations for him, serving his hoped to be future father in law much as Jacob served Laban for Rachel.
 To add to this, there is this extract from a letter mentioned in the ZimFieldGuide and written by one of the commanding officers at Marandellas to his fiancee in Australia, dated 10 July 1900, and a picture begins to emerge of Cecil:
“ ... Captain Hamilton under my care who has gone to the dogs with drinking and morphine. No orderly would stay with him and I was afraid he would commit suicide. I had a bad time. I managed to get him into the hospital, so that was a relief.” 
and two days later: 
Captain Hamilton, I regret to say, died yesterday and was buried close to the camp.”
Did Cecil disappoint his parents or even disgrace them in some way and was thus packed off at the age of 22 to the colonies, a typical “remittance man”? Or did he leave of his volition simply to get away from family dysfunction or impossible expectations and find his own way in life? A not uncommon scenario in high achiever families, both then and now.

Although with his former career in the Queensland military, it is surprising he wasn't an automatic choice to be taken into the 3rd Queensland Contingent to Africa. Did he have addiction problems that would have been known to the recruiting authorities and this would explain his decision to travel with them as unattached? The references to alcohol, drugs and potential suicide carry all the signs of a man who may have not been suffering just from illness but who could have also been deeply troubled for other reasons.

For someone from a privileged background, the Irish Probate records of 1901 show that Cecil had a modest estate of £145. 12s. 10d, or around £14,000 in modern values.

No images of Cecil can be found, but perhaps he had some similarities to his sister, Flora.

Florence Augusta Lewis, nee Hamilton

And so to the doorknob mentioned at the start.

Perhaps that door of the rectory was intentionally banged shut by H.C.W. in 1885, who was never to return. Was he considered a black sheep? Did C.S. Lewis ever know the real reasons his uncle went off to Australia and how he died of dysentery in Africa? (If any student of the life and works of C.S. Lewis has any information to add in this connection, I would love to hear from you.)

A little ironic that H.C.W. was laid to rest in soil over which real lions would once have roamed.

The inspiration for Aslan, the Lion of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe
Doorknob of Rectory of St. Mark’s Church, Dundela, Belfast, family home of Captain H.C.W. Hamilton 

YouTube Video showing the home of H.C.W. in Ireland.

This contingent consisted of 320 mounted infantry and was commanded by Major W. H. Tunbridge. It sailed from Brisbane on 1 March 1900 on the Duke of Portland arriving at the Cape on 3 April and was then sent to Beira, Mozambique, where it arrived in the middle of April. The contingent became part of the Rhodesian Field Force and travelled the first 500 kilometres overland, first via railway to Marandellas and then using other modes of transport, in coaches and wagons and on foot, another 500 km to Bulawayo in the west of the country. Exposure to deadly diseases such as malaria and dysentery while in Portuguese East Africa was to play havoc with the health of the troops.

** Queensland Officer.
Captain H.C.W. Hamilton.
Death in South Africa.

His Excellency the Governor this morning received a cablegram from the High Commissioner for South Africa (Sir Alfred Milner), announcing the death from dysentery of Captain H: C. W. Hamilton, of the Queensland Permanent Artillery.
Captain Hamilton joined A Battery of the Queensland Regiment of Royal Australian Artillery as a probationary lieutenant on May 14; 1890. He was promoted to be lieutenant on July 23, 1890. On February 25, 1895, he was promoted to the rank of captain. He resigned his appointment, and was placed on the unattached list, on November 18, 1896. Captain Hamilton went to South Africa with the third contingent, but not as a member. He was granted a free pass to South Africa, whither he went with a view of seeing active service. Captain Hamilton, at the time of his death was 35 years of age. He formerly belonged to the North Irish militia. The Defence Force authorities have received an official message from the officer commanding the lines at Marandellas, dated July 13, as follows: "Captain H. C. W. Hamilton, Queensland Mounted Infantry, died yesterday of dysentery at Marandellas." This seems to indicate that Captain Hamilton accompanied the Queensland third contingent as far as Marandellas, although he was not enrolled in Queensland as a member of the contingent.

^ With many thanks to a fellow member of Ancestry, V. Fawcett, for tracking down this information for me.

+ The family name lives on in a quite a different way with The Sir John Borlase Warren being a popular gastro pub in Nottingham, UK!

# Click here for more details on Flora Hamilton Lewis, mother of C.S. Lewis.

% Reference to H.C.W. Hamilton in The London Gazette reads - War Office, 7th February, 1882. MILITIA. ARTILLERY. Antrim, Hugh Cecil Waldegrave Hamilton, Gent., to be Lieutenant. Dated 8th February, 1882. 

Also many thanks to ZimFieldGuide for all the information about Paradise Cemetery and other Boer War records they have shared online.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Remembering the road to Paradise

On 31 May 2017, a new war memorial will be dedicated in Canberra. It has been a long time in the planning and those Australians who took part in the Anglo Boer War in Southern Africa between 1899-1902 will finally be recognised and will take their place along with all those others who are commemorated in AnzacParade.
Memorial being completed in Anzac Parade, Canberra.
The Boer War may now be far beyond living memory, but its echoes resonated in my own African childhood as my father had many elderly friends and acquaintances who had served in that War and always had many tales to tell.

It’s a morning in July 1973. One of those sunny, yet cool and crisp days that anyone who has experienced the Southern African high veld in winter will know. The air is bone dry and has been this way for a few months already and it’s unlikely there’ll be any more real rain until November. The nights can be very cold and one can still see the haze and smell the smoke from charcoal fires. 
My mother is too ill to join us, but my father and I go for a stroll. He says he wants to show me something that he only discovered recently; down beyond where the modern urbanised First Street peters out onto an old pioneer route, the Lendy Road. An African idles his way past us on a bicycle, a woman with a baby on her back carries a large tin can on her head, water or perhaps cooking oil.
(It was the one thing that struck me when I first went to live in Australia, the desperate loneliness of its bush compared to that of Africa. You can travel endless miles in Australia without ever seeing another living soul. But you are never alone on African roads. No matter how far from civilization or the nearest town or village you might think you are, someone will always come along, greet you with a smile, and pass on.) 
Dad diverts off the Lendy Road and we walk along another track until we come to a rusty barbed wire fence. It surrounds a small cemetery partly overgrown with acacias and msasa trees. A number of the graves are bordered with roughly hewn stones and have military crosses at the head.
It’s called Paradise says Dad. I’ve been told  some of them are Australians who signed up for the Boer War. Think most of them contracted fever out in Portuguese East and died here in the hospital at Marandellas. Maybe they never even saw action.
Apart from the gentle rattle of leaves in the msasa trees and the slight movement of the brown dry grass between the graves, it is peaceful enough although it doesn’t feel like any kind of Paradise to me. I'm sad that these men died and were buried such a long way from home. I wonder who they were. Some of the military inscriptions are easier to read than others which are rusted or faded.
There’s also another marker that seems out of place. A woman who died in 1935. Why is she on her own here with these soldiers? Dad says he might ask around in town, see if he can find out who she was.  
We wander back home. Dad stops briefly to sketch one of the cycling Africans on the Lendy Road that will later go into one of his paintings.

With so many other things on my mind, I forget all about the Paradise Cemetery for the next forty-odd years until somehow I stumble across it again on the Internet. The photographs show it looks exactly the same as that day I was there with my Dad.


But the world has changed so much and modern technology and the widespread availability of genealogical resources now gives us the opportunity to discover things we could never have imagined before.

As can be seen from reading the ZimFieldGuide page, there is quite a bit of confusion over exactly who is buried in Paradise with names, units and even whether the correct marker is assigned to each grave, but my next few posts will investigate some of the people - Australians and others - who lie there beneath the msasas.

Perhaps I will discover very little, a photograph if I'm lucky, but anything that I find that gives an echo of life back to these lost men of the Boer War (and that sole woman) will be rewarding enough.

Another view from ZimFieldGuide

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Do unto others. The strange tale behind an Orkney memorial

Few politicians in our modern world hail from humble or working class backgrounds. These days, the majority seem to be career silver-tails with fancy degrees in politics, economics or the law or have otherwise been aided by inherited or acquired wealth and a network of privileged connections.

So the legacy of one old-style Senator from South Australia who is all but forgotten in Australia and his Scottish homeland lingers on in a rather curious inscription on a memorial stone in the far-off Orkney Islands that reflects a kindness and generosity of spirit that is also too often lacking in our modern-day leadership.

2ND MAY 1916



Gregor McGregor was born in Kilmuir, Scotland, in 1848, the son of a gardener. His childhood was spent in Argyllshire and County Tyrone, Ireland. Whatever schooling he received seems to have been sporadic and he was largely self-educated. When he turned 18 in 1866 he returned to Britain and trudged his way up and down the country doing a series of hard laboring jobs before finding work in the Clyde shipyards where he first encountered organized workers' groups. Between 1869-76 he was active in the trade union movement and was successful in getting a reduction in hours for blue-collar workers.

Senator Gregor McGregor. Copyright National Library of Australia

In 1877, McGregor sailed to South Australia as an assisted migrant. While working as an agricultural laborer and clearing scrub at Baroota, he was hit in the eye with a wood splinter. In great pain, he managed to walk all the way to Port Pirie (about 30 miles) but was unable to find any medical attention when he got there. Sand blight added to his agony nearly blinding him in the second eye as well but he managed to get on board a vessel bound for Adelaide. There were eleven white men and one Chinese man on board. McGregor said “… the Chinese was the only man who took the slightest notice of me and gave me every care and attention. 

This man carefully tended to McGregor and helped to wash out his eyes. Once the boat arrived at Adelaide, he accompanied McGregor to a hospital where he finally obtained help. The Chinese man refused any recompense and just said: No, some day you may do for a countryman of mine what I have done for you.”

McGregor, however, lost the sight of the injured eye and the other was so badly affected that he remained virtually blind for the rest of his life, but from that day forward McGregor would not hear a word said against Chinese people and often related the story of this unknown man’s great kindness when those of his own race had treated him with scorn.

McGregor had first married in 1880 but his wife died soon afterwards. His second marriage in 1882 was to a widow, Sarah Anne (Ritchie) Brock and he became step-father to her son Charles.

His jobs included being a stonemason and a navvy on the railways. All the while he continued to be active in trade unions becoming a commanding public speaker. McGregor was elected to the South Australian legislature and soon became one of South Australia’s most effective politicians, later the first Labor Party Senator in the new Commonwealth of Australia Parliament in 1901.

Bluff and hearty, McGregor had no time for snobbery or prejudice, religiosity, and wasteful extravagance. He supported a minimum wage for workers, female suffrage, age pensions, land tax, and the white Australia policy - a policy that is now looked on askance but in fact McGregor did not see it in racist terms but actually believed it was the only way of protecting the exploitation and near-slavery conditions that existed for imported workers like the Kanakas and also many Chinese.

When McGregor died just after the outbreak of WW1 in August 1914, it was ironic that this man who ridiculed pomposity was given a grand state funeral and was mourned by everyone who had known him. He was a man “who came from the masses and labored for the masses” and in spite of being nearly blind was one of the best-informed Senators with a career that displayed:

“… a record of great and useful achievements attained by determination and courage in the face of difficulties that would have broken a less valiant heart and crushed a less resolute spirit.”

“Men of the late Mr McGregor’s robust and patriotic type do honor to the State and Commonwealth, and the loss of their public services is more than a party misfortune; it makes the nation poorer”.

One can’t imagine such words being written about a politician today!

And so back to the mysterious Stone of Honour memorial in the Lyness Cemetery,Orkney Islands.

As McGregor died around 18 months before the Chinese man Zu Sing Kang (2 May 1916) the inscription is puzzling as it could not be him who organised the stone, although it transpires that it may have been the action of one of his brothers as an indirect tribute to the unknown Chinese man who helped the Senator many years before. Perhaps it was also erected as an acknowledgement of all those unknown Chinese men everywhere who served, suffered and died in the cause of white men. As Zu Sing Kang was a very old man when he died, could someone have actually tracked him down and identified him as the same man who helped McGregor and, if so, how?

However, according to this report in the Daily Herald of 14 June 1917, this could not have been the case.

… the natural conclusion that one might come to was that he [McGregor] left money for such a memorial to be erected. But this is not correct, for he never even discovered the Chinaman’s name so far as can be discovered. The incident happened between 40 and 50 years ago, so if the Chinaman only died last year, he was a very old man, for he was well on in life when he performed his long-remembered and kindly act. 
Mr. McGregor’s relatives know nothing of the erection of the obelisk and when the matter was brought under their notice yesterday afternoon they could offer no explanation. A peculiarity of the whole thing is that the memorial is erected in England [sic. Scotland actually!] it is understood that Mr. McGregor had a brother in Scotland and it is surmised that he might have shown that appreciation of the kindness done to the man whom Australia honored so highly. 
In any case, it is good to know that kindness is so appreciated, and makes one feel the good is not always interred with their bones.”

Here is the summary of the entry for Zu Sing Kang in the Deaths at Sea records

Age: Unknown

Occupation: Firemen’s Cook

Birthplace: Ningpo

Last Place of Abode:  Shanghai

Name, official Number of Port of Registry of Ship:


Date, Place and Cause of Death:

2 May 1916
At Sea
Senile Decay

Another entry shows that he died “At Sea. Sound of Islay

There appears to have been two vessels during this era called Tascalusa, with No 136062 being a tanker as opposed to freighter. Here are some details of it, apparently sunk in 1940.

The original memorial was recently restored.

Restored memorial. Copyright Robert M. Ross, gardener for Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Biographical details of McGregor taken from

Sunday, March 19, 2017

A Fatal Adventure - Part II

Continued from Part I

After our intrepid lawyer and would-be merchant adventurer, the now dis-Honourable James Erskine Murray slipped his moorings to his life in Melbourne and scarpered in the Warlock, leaving behind a wife and children, an irate Judge Willis and several writs for unpaid debts, he headed for Hong Kong.

At some stage he fell out with his merchant adventuring companion, Oliver Gourlay, about whom the “incoherency” continued in the colonial newspapers. One reported that Gourlay was killed in a duel off Singapore with Warlock’s commander, one Lieutenant Sullivan, but Victorian Public Records Office probate records for Gourlay’s estate show he died on board the Bencoolen, on 19 November 1843 on a voyage bound from Hong Kong to Sydney (just a few days days after Murray had left in another direction). No-one was arrested in connection with his death and there is no mention in the probate that it might have been a violent end.

On arriving in Hong Kong, Murray had sold Warlock and entered into a new partnership with a well-known local merchant, Charles W. Bowra ** and bought two other vessels, a 90 ton schooner, Young Queen (Yonge Queene in some reports) and a 200 ton brig Anna, the Captains being A. Hart and H. Lewis respectively. Both vessels were heavily armed with both large and small pivot guns and stern chasers. The crew’s personal armaments included cutlasses, pistols and pikes - of which there were so many it was said that there was hardly enough room for the trade goods, stores and water.

When word got around Hong Kong that Murray was mounting a similar expedition to that of James Brooke, with possibly rich pickings for those who participated, it seemed he had no trouble finding 40 men eager to crew the ships plus officers who were kitted out in uniforms remarkably similar to those of the Royal Navy. (One of these officers was Robert L. McNally who was to have his own gruesome adventure a few years later and who features in three earlier blog posts beginning with Mutiny and Horrible Massacre at Sea.)

They sailed out of Hong Kong or Macao around 7-9 November 1843, arriving about two weeks later off the coast of Borneo, calling in at a number of Dutch settlements there. Although the Dutch were well established in much of the East Indies, their hold in Borneo was slender, having just a few ports in the south. Even so, they were fiercely protective of what they had and it isn’t surprising that they were suspicious of Murray’s arrival.

From Views in the Eastern Archipelago


How much local information Murray had when he began his adventure has been debated, but most must have been unreliable because he soon had problems - the seas around Borneo prickling with Bugis pirates although the superior firepower on board his two vessels soon put paid to some of their prahus (boats) when attacks were attempted.


Early in February 1844 the expedition arrived at the mouth of a river then called the Coti or Koti (really the Mahakam) the most important river in south-east Borneo that flowed through a region ruled by the Sultan of Kutei who had his capital at Tenggarong about 90 miles from the river’s delta mouth.

As they travelled above the delta past the town of Samarinda and fired a salute, the ships’ crews were alarmed when the responding salute came from powerful guns. They had good reason to be uneasy. What Murray and his companions did not know was that this town - in fact much of the region - was not controlled by Dayaks or Malays, but was under the ruthless control of the Bugis, once the greatest seamen and traders of the East Indies who had been ousted from their origins in the Celebes by the Dutch East India Company and forced into becoming mercenaries and pirates. There is an apocryphal suggestion that the word “bogeyman” had its origins with these fiercesome people but with their superior seafaring skills and wild ruthless nature, they could rightly be compared to Europe’s Vikings.

If Murray had known the true state of affairs, commonsense should have alerted him to beat a hasty retreat, but he persisted in travelling another 40 miles upstream from Samarinda to the Sultan’s capital, leaving in his wake a dangerously hostile group.

On arrival at Tenggarong, Murray’s envoys were received in the Sultan’s place, at that time a building of thatch and bamboo. Although the Sultan initially gave the impression of being agreeable to giving them permission to trade in the area, he told them it would take time as he had to consult his datus, or chiefs, as was the practice. Amicable events followed, including a feast and a shooting match in which Murray was disconcerted to discover the local marksmen to be extremely accurate.

The Palace at Tenggarong, c. 1930

For a few days everything was peaceful. Then Chinese traders came alongside selling fresh produce and brought alarming news that Europeans were being held captive somewhere nearby, that the Sultan’s prahus had recently pirated an English ship. A surreptitious investigation proved there was truth to this story, but Murray’s crews were refused access to the area where the prisoners were supposedly being held. What Murray didn’t know was that at least 27 other European ships had been pirated in recent years with their captains murdered or kept captive. While this was going on, it was noticed that large numbers of boats full of armed men were passing downstream where they would be capable of cutting off the visitors.

A gun from the archipelago region.

With all these alarm bells ringing, it is astonishing that even after an emergency meeting with Captains Hart and Lewis that Murray still persisted with trying to gain the co-operation of the Sultan with a view to open up English enterprise and manufacture even though all the evidence pointed to the Sultan scheming behind his back with the Bugis, who greatly hated Europeans. Murray even proposed that either he himself, or one of his companions, be allowed to reside at Tenggarong under the Sultan’s protection. The Sultan’s initial benign approach changed, he was dismissive of Murray’s trade goods, including salt and tobacco, told them they must be disposed of at Samarinda - the real heart of Bugis territory.

In hindsight, one wonders at Murray’s continued efforts at sticking around, especially when everyone witnessed houses being pulled down along the shoreline and being replaced with lines of guns just a few hundred yards from the ships. Finally, perhaps under urging of his companions, did he look at the only choices he had, either retreat downstream or to head further upstream or inland and seek help from the Dayaks, but provisions were too low.

Then, in one of the most arrogant and futile moves, Murray took a highhanded approach, demanded hostages from the Sultan in order to ensure a safe withdrawal downstream, plus ordering the Sultan, “as a matter of duty”, to release the European prisoners he had. To add further insults to the list, Murray wanted recompense for the losses incurred through the treatment the expedition had received, presumably meaning those he had incurred by the unprofitable trip to Tenggarong. It is no wonder he had outstayed his welcome.

On 16 February Murray sent off a letter to the Sultan, demanding either a senior minister or member of the Sultan’s family as a hostage within two hours. Of course there was no reply, the response being even more activity on the river. When Murray ordered a shot over the palace all hell broke loose, gunfire from the batteries on shore and numerous war prahus waiting in the shallows.

Amid a barrage of gunfire, Anna and Young Queen managed to slip their anchors and with the aid of a light breeze began to float downstream, pursued by over 50 war prahus that kept up a consistent fire of round shot, grape and musketry. As they sailed, more hidden batteries on the banks opened fire with other boats emerging from streams and other points along the river.

It was slow progress and at one point Anna ran aground, only to be got off with great difficulty by a boat from Young Queen. All this time the running fight continued. When the light and wind died in the pitch-black velvet night of the tropics, the firing from the pursuers ceased and the two vessels were lashed together with a ship’s boat that towed them from the front. All lights were extinguished and it was hoped they might slip past the fortresses of Samarinda unnoticed.

Reports of this night journey downstream differ in certain aspects but it must have been terrifying. The Bugis started huge fires on the riverbank to illuminate the river, firing off shots. When it became unwieldy to have the ships tied together, Murray considered putting all the men on Anna and abandoning Young Queen, with a time-fuse lit in the abandoned ship’s magazine set to blow after Anna had drawn clear. This didn’t happen, but eight volunteers - including our Robert McNally - remained on board the schooner as she limped on behind the brig. With the unremitting battle the men were exhausted, but it seemed the pirates were also too tired to continue so there was a lull in the proceedings.

But by dawn, things had worsened. There were prahus ahead of and between the two vessels. Then both were forced to anchor because there wasn’t enough depth of water to cross the bar at the head of the delta and had to wait for the tide. For a time the attackers ceased and headed off in the direction of a new victim, a Belgian ship Charles which had grounded on a sandbank (the officers and crew of that vessel managed to escape in their small boats and reach the safety of Makassar). But soon prahus were back and the onslaught on Murray’s group became even more violent.

According to the statement of the surgeon, Dr. W. Sael, the vessels were now fired at on all sides. Murray took a hand with the schooner’s guns and while doing so, a shot struck him full in the chest. “My God!” were the only words he was able to say before dropping to the deck dead.

The convolutions of the Makaham Delta.

In spite of the loss of their leader, the men continued to fight for another seven hours until the tide rose and the ships were able to cross the bar and finally the delta. Although still being pursued, once they reached the open sea the vessels were able to pick up speed, with the last shots fired in the evening.

This battle had lasted around 36 hours. As with everything to do with this fatal adventure, none of the various reports are totally reliable. The casualties in the standard reference works and British newspaper reports state there were three dead and five wounded, but a letter written by that other adventurer from Melbourne, James Abrahams, to his father and which appeared in The Port Phillip Patriot  had names that do not appear elsewhere.

Here is a compilation of names from all sources - highlighted in case anyone reading this has family connections to any of the men.

Dead : James Erskine Murray, able seaman James Dance/Dantry and boatswain John Thomson.

Severely wounded were volunteer Robert L. McNally [mis-reported as McNyles] who received a bullet in the thigh, lost a finger and part of one hand; a ship’s boy Constance Fournette and volunteer Benjamin Hart, brother of Captain Hart.

Less serious were the correspondent James Abrahams himself, William Sael/Saul the surgeon, volunteer Augustus Marsetti/Marzetti, another seaman, E. Congrave, John Miller, gunners mate and William Thomson, gunner.

The Honourable James Erskine Murray’s body was wrapped in the shredded company’s flag and committed to the deep in the Makassar Strait the next morning, 18 February 1844.

The two ships arrived in the Celebes where the wounded were landed. But the expedition’s misfortunes were not quite over. On her voyage back to Hong Kong, mutiny broke out on Young Queen, either because of the failure of the promised riches or maybe the men anticipated they would not get paid. Captain Hart was forced to shoot the ringleader. Presumably there was some later action regarding this, but that is beyond the scope of this story.

Murray’s contemporaries with knowledge of Borneo had little sympathy for his ill-advised adventure, for his “imprudent and unguarded conduct” in a known dangerous area. But it was his ignorance of local conditions, plus arrogance, that doomed the expedition. He should never have gone far up river, leaving a hostile settlement between his ships and safety and he should have made better use of local knowledge. Murray thoroughly misjudged the situation. It is no wonder he came to strife.

Opinion over Murray’s real aim is divided. Some say he was only ever interested in setting up a trading base, others that he was intent in creating either a colony or even a personal fiefdom for himself. Either way, his fatal adventure carries echoes of how personal ambition and a toss of the dice can change history.

The Dutch were so alarmed by Murray’s attempt that they tightened their control over Borneo, coming into conflict with the British in the process and followed by years of diplomatic wrangling over rights to the region. This is the closing paragraph from the B.R. Pearn article on the adventure:
Thus Murray’s disastrous adventure had important consequences. It led directly to the imposition of Dutch control over the east coast of Borneo, and it initiated a dispute between the British and Netherlands Governments which continued almost to the end of the century. Abortive though the expedition was, it is nevertheless an episode of some note in the history of the eastern archipelago.”

The exact date of this image is uncertain.
It either shows the Sultan in question, A.M. Salehuddin, or possibly his successor, A.M. Salaiman, who was forced into co-operation with the Dutch.

Meanwhile, what happened to poor Isabella who had been left behind in Melbourne? 

Clearly in straitened financial circumstances, she had to move from Elibank House to poorer accommodation where her fifth child was born, a daughter who sadly died in December 1843. It seems Isabella did not learn of her husband’s death until much very much later in August 1844 and after she had returned to Britain with her children and two servants in the schooner, Hawk.

The book Barristers Solicitors Pettifoggers by Simon Smith contains the only study of Hon. James Erskine Murray to give us some snippets of information on Isabella, some letters, a few extracts from her diary and reminiscences of a granddaughter.

Isabella spent some time in Jersey with her family and many years trying to generate income from her original family estates at Aberdona. She never remarried and endured other tragedies, outliving three of her children - son James Hypolite Erskine Murray who died only aged 18 in 1853, daughter Jane Isabella died age 26 and her other daughter Edith Katherine who married Dr Joshua Bell (the Edinburgh doctor on whom Arthur Conan Doyle based his Sherlock Holmes) and who died in 1874 aged 34. Isabella herself passed away in Edinburgh a few months later in March 1875. Her surviving son, Alexander lived until 1907, with his grandson becoming the 13th Lord Elibank.

Aberdona House
Royal Historical Society Victoria

** The image on the linked webpage to Bowra and purporting to be Murray can’t possibly be correct. The uniform dates to a much later era, possibly early 1900s. The earliest known daguerreotype images of South East Asia were taken in the 1840s by Frenchman Alphone-Eugene-Jules Itier during his travels in that region. These are said to have included Borneo and possibly copies may exist in some museum, but none are to be found online.


Click here for a Youtube video showing the River Mahakam from Tenggarong today, a far cry from what Erskine Murray faced over 170 years ago.

Main published sources:

Also British Newspapers and Australian Newspapers available online via TROVE, Findmypast, or National Library of Australia