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

Saturday, March 11, 2017

A Fatal Adventure - Part I

I’ve always been fascinated with the exploits of merchant adventuring trading schemes throughout history such as the East India Company or Hudson’s Bay Company, and perhaps there is a genetic component to my interest as my own ancestors were instrumental in opening up vast tracts of the Siberian Far East during the 19th Century, where they established their own commercial empire that included stores, shipping and mining, only to lose everything after the Russian Revolution.

But it is the private individuals with grandiose plans that I find the most intriguing. The most successful and famous include Sir Stamford Raffles of Singapore and Sir James Brooke of Sarawak, and that other individual who put his name to the country in which I was born, Cecil Rhodes. They had many qualities in common: charisma, drive, energy, self-belief and, not least, varying degrees of ruthlessness and rat-cunning. 

Two of my historical novelshave featured a couple of lesser-known men (female merchant adventurers being rather thin on the ground) who created their own unique empires. The subject of one of them was the Scotsman, Benjamin Boyd, who sailed into Sydney in his luxury yacht Wanderer in July 1842 full of grand ambitions. Due to poor timing, errors in judgement and just bad luck, he failed spectacularly and less than a decade later ended up as the main ingredient in a Solomon Islands hot-pot.

Benjamin Boyd  1801-1851 (family collection)

When Boyd’s private Royal Bank went bust, one of its main creditors was a friend of his, the Honourable James Erskine Murray. Both had been members of the prestigious Royal Yacht Squadron, based at Cowes on the Isle of Wight, and the two men most likely met up again in Melbourne where Murray had established himself as a barrister. Murray was troubled financially and the loan from Boyd, reputed to be £10,000 (relative value today upwards of £500,000), probably had no other security than the trust in a fellow Scot and gentleman. It appears that rather than using the funds to settle his own debts both in Australia and back home in Scotland, Murray may have used them to plan his own wild scheme in merchant adventuring.

James Murray was born in 1810, the third son of 63 year old Alexander Murray, the 7th Lord Elibank, MP for Peebleshire. Lord Elibank had lived well beyond his means and when he died ten years later left a messy estate, but that didn’t seem to stop his son acquiring an enlightened classical education that provided him with an excellent grounding in history, French and art. As he was never likely to inherit the title and he had to make a professional life that provided a good income, he chose the law and was called to the Scots Bar in 1831.

Alexander Murray, 7th Lord Elibank, father of James (National Gallery of Scotland)

An advantageous marriage within the landed gentry would also be advantageous and a year later Murray married Isabella Erskine, the only child of James Erskine of Aberdona, whose father had been Lord Alva. The family had long connections with the Scots judiciary. Under terms of the marriage settlement James and Isabella adopted the family name of Erskine Murray.

Isabella's grandfather, Lord Alva (National Gallery of Scotland)

By 1838, they had four children and were living for some reason in France from where James undertook a walk that would bring him a degree of fame as an author after he wrote a book about the experience. A Summer in the Pyrenees was followed by a number of articles in magazines of which Charles Dickens was the editor.

But Murray seems to have had a restless streak, ambivalent about where he wanted to go in life. He had a wide range of interests that included supporting charities, giving speeches on free trade, was a member of the Reform Club and also keen on sports that encouraged health and fitness. He even considered standing for parliament as member for Leith, but money problems were an issue as Isabella’s dowry didn’t stretch far.

Why Murray decided on Australia is not clear, but given that he was friends with men like Benjamin Boyd, who was planning his own enterprise after witnessing his cousin Archibald Boyd do well in New South Wales, it may have been at Boyd’s suggestion that he looked at opportunities to be had there. Also, given the ultimate direction Murray was to take, it may be no coincidence that another fellow member of the Royal Yacht Squadron had been James Brooke, that future White Rajah of Sarawak, who had sailed his yacht Royalist to Borneo in 1839.

With Isabella and all four children, plus a younger brother Robert Dundas Murray, the Hon. James Erskine-Murray arrived in the ship Tasmania at Port Phillip in September 1841 and was soon immersed in the life of the tiny settlement that would one day be the city of Melbourne.

Landing at Melbourne, 1840, Wilbraham Liardet

Initially, the couple rented a house described by Isabella as having the exorbitant rent “of 16 guineas a month” and “only wooden and of so frail a texture that the light is quite visible through many parts of the wall and a word spoken in one end may be easily heard in the other.” 

The flimsiness of the houses can be seen in this image of the banks of the Yarra, also by W. Liardet,

Soon, however, they built their own house that could accommodate all members of the family, plus servants and the furniture they had brought with them. They called it Elibank  and it had grounds stretching down to the banks of the Yarra River.

 In later years Elibank was renamed Yarra Bank House. (Image State Library of Victoria)
An accomplished public speaker, James was in demand. He was the first President of both the Melbourne Debating Society and the local Society of St. Andrews and, as would be essential in Melbourne high society then as now, a keen supporter of horse-racing at the newly-established track at Flemington.

In a community that was still struggling to shake off the rough and raw nature of its convict heritage, Murray participated in several trial “firsts”. He acted in the first breach of promise case, the first criminal libel case, the first for forgery, plus assorted “… assaults on police officers, stabbings, wounding with intent to kill, larceny, false pretences, robbery and murder.”

Opening of the first courthouse in 1841 (Liardet)

One of his notable cases involved the defence of three of the Plenty River bushrangers. He lost the case and it resulted in Melbourne’s second public execution - and the first of white men - before a crowd of more than 7,000 in 1842.

The first execution was of two Aborigines (Liardet)
Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner (their story here)

As often happens in small tight societies, personalities were bound to clash. After increasingly public spats in the newspapers and a major fracas involving his friend, Oliver Gourlay, a local merchant who had a fight with police over their brutality towards a prisoner, Murray eventually fell foul of the irascible Judge John Walpole Willis who had been appointed by Governor George Gipps as the resident judge for Port Phillip. Perhaps Willis had discovered certain certification irregularities in Murray’s advocacy qualifications back in Britain but it was when he appeared to be getting involved in trade and land speculation, after being strictly warned against such behaviour, that Willis had him struck off. (Willis himself got into trouble with Gipps soon afterwards and was sent back to England in disgrace.)

It is possible that it was the advance from Boyd’s Royal Bank that helped Murray purchase and fit out in style the brigantine Warlock and in which, together with Gourlay, Murray decamped in January 1843, not openly from Port Phillip, but from the less-obvious Westernport Bay where the departure was more likely to go unnoticed - or for a while at least. This vessel itself had a murky past, having been seized by the British as having been engaged in the illegal slave trade. How it ended up in Australian waters is unknown, but refitting a former slaver into a suitable vessel for gentlemen would have taken considerable cash.

Several of the colonial newspapers published what they admitted were “incoherent” reports on this decampment calling it “A Curious Affair” and “The papers are filled with mysterious paragraphs, relative to the sudden disappearance of Mr. Murray from the province”.

A typical brigantine of the 1840s

Here is how The Melbourne Times of 21 January 1843 reported it.

THE ‘WARLOCK’ - This vessel, having left Melbourne a fortnight since, made for Western Port, when she remained up to Friday the 13th instant. On that morning the Honorable James Erskine Murray was seen on the beach sitting before a fire which it appears he made a signal for the vessel to send a boat on shore for him, which was immediately done, and the Honorable gentleman soon lodged on board. He was well armed, having had with him a double barrel gun, a brace of double barrelled pistols, and also a brace of single barrelled ditto. We understand that the late tempestuous state of the weather at sea, has created a feeling of the most painful and distressing alarm among his friends in Melbourne, lest he should meet with any mishap while on the bosom of the ‘vasty deep’.

This was apparently witnessed by a Mr Cobb and/or others who said there was another heavily armed man with him [either Gourlay or someone called Abraham - probably the James Abrahams referred to in Part II] and the pair “looked remarkably fierce”. There were also allegations that they had left Melbourne on “borrowed horses” which they abandoned in the bush. All of this did little for Murray’s reputation even if it wasn’t wholly true.

Another newspaper, The Gazette of 17 January 1843 offered this more pragmatic standard shipping notice:

WARLOCK - The Hon. James Erskine Murray embarked on board the Warlock, in Western Port, last Friday. The vessel cleared out for Guam, and said to be bound to China for tea.

One has to wonder how much the Hon. James Erskine Murray had shared with Isabella about his real ambitions, that he couldn’t care less about tea and was interested in a remote part of the world that held many dangers but also opportunities to earn vast quantities of cash and perhaps even build an empire of his own.

Left behind, and possibly ill-provided for given the state of Murray’s finances, plus being pregnant with her fifth child, did Isabella know what he was up to or even have the slightest inkling that she would never see her husband James again?

(Note: unfortunately no images of either James or Isabella are to be found in the public domain.)

Main published sources:

* Currently both out of print, although new e-editions are being contemplated.