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 novels* have 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.
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:
The Seahorse and the Wanderer by Marion Diamond
Erskine Murray's Fatal Adventure in Borneo by B.R. Pearn
* Currently both out of print, although new e-editions are being contemplated.