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

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