Thomas Muir

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Thomas Muir, 1765–1799

Early Life

Thomas Muir was born on his grand-father's farm, Hastie's farm in Milton of Campsie, later his family moved to a large house in Huntershill, near Bishopbriggs, a district just to the north of Glasgow. The house still stands surrounded by its gardens and trees. Thomas was born into a wealthy home. He studied law at Glasgow University but left on a point of honour in 1780 and completed his studies at Edinburgh University eventually having a law practice in Glasgow. He was however drawn to the reform movements that had developed all over Scotland. The reform movements had gathered momentum as the French revolution in 1789 inspired support for parliamentary reform all over Britain. Thomas Muir had connections with numerous reform societies throughout Scotland; in 1792 with William Skirving he helped to set up Scottish Reform Clubs, the membership open to every class. He wrote many pamphlets and spoke at a considerable number of meetings. He was an open and ardent supporter of radical political reform at a time when the authorities were becoming ever more nervous due to the events in France.

Arrest and Banishment

One year later, after presenting a nationalistic address to the Scottish Reform Movement General Convention, on behalf of United Irishmen. Thomas Muir was arrested and charged with sedition. His trial date, which took place in Edinburgh, was brought forward by several months while he was visiting France. Unable to get travelling arrangements in time, his non attendance made him an outlaw. He was found guilty of, '...having created disaffection by means of seditious speeches'. He returned to Scotland in August 1793 and was sentenced to be banished to Botany Bay for 14 years. However, George Washington heard of his sentence and sent the USS Otter to rescue him and take him to the new Republic of America. His escape was made good in 1796, however the USS Otter, on its way home was wrecked off Panama. Thomas Muir was then arrested by the Spanish and taken to Havana where he was deemed to be a spy and shipped back to Spain. On the way back to Spain they encountered three British ships and a battle ensued in which Thomas Muir lost an eye. The Spanish released him in 1797 whereupon he made his way to France. He was made a French citizen and died at Chantilly in 1799.

The French Connection

Here is the account from the primary newspaper of the French Revolution the Gazette Nationale ou le Moniteur Universel, No 72, 2 December 1797 of his escape and his arrival in France in 1797.

The celebrated Scot Thomas Muir, escaped from a thousand dangers is on the point of arriving in Paris. His transportation belongs to the history of revolutions; his courage in the face of adversity must serve as an example to the converts of philosophy and the happy issue of all his misfortunes must encourage all the martyrs of liberty. The Scots have never forgotten their ancient independence, the massacre of their ancestors, the tragic death of their last Queen, the expulsion of the Stuarts from the throne of Great Britain: these memories, the consciousness of their want, the shocking contrast of English luxury, perhaps finally the example of our revolution, were the causes of the revolutionary movements which appeared in Scotland in 1792, in which Thomas Muir played one of the premier roles. The secret committees which had been formed throughout the whole of Scotland unmasked themselves all at once. They sent delegates to Edinburgh who met together in a national convention with the avowed goal of obtaining parliamentary reform. Thomas Muir, enlightened thinker and impassioned orator was a member of this convention and left his mark on it. The British government deeply alarmed by the sudden meeting of this assembly, at once dispersed it. Many members were arrested and brought to trial in 1794, some of them, amongst others one named Jackson, were condemned to death; Thomas Muir and three others were deported to Botany Bay.

The uprising in Scotland gave great hopes to our revolutionary government; the hopes evaporated; but the republicans of France, who saw in the Edinburgh convention only the friends of liberty, interested themselves deeply in their fate. When the old committee of public safety learnt of the deportation of Muir and many of his companions, it sent out several frigates to rescue them, but they did not succeed and these unfortunates were left on the desolate shore of New Holland [Australia] Botany Bay: the vast tomb where the British government indiscriminately heaps together the most vile scoundrels and brave thinkers against whom it has taken umbrage. It was there that Thomas Muir, treated as a criminal for having wanted the liberty of his native land, was to end hisdays, but one often says and I repeat with a sort of devout credulity: a benevolent spirit watches over the friends of man and the destiny of free peoples. Such a guardian angel took an interest in our unfortunate philanthropist, an American boat landed in this place of despair. Thomas Muir was received on board and conducted to the North West coast of America, but there he met new dangers, an English warship left Botany Bay several days before the American, and anchored in the same waters. Muir was in danger of being discovered and recaptured. To escape his persecutors once more, he resolved to traverse the continent of America: a terrifying enterprise, for which he needed the courage of a hero and the resignation of a sage. Happily the Captain of a Spanish schooner which he found in the harbour of Nootka gave him passage to Saint Blas, at the mouth of the gulf of California. As soon as he arrived Muir wrote to the viceroy of Mexico asking for hospitality in the name of the Republic of France, friends of the King of Spain. His request was favourably accepted and he was permitted to cross Mexican territory. He arrived next at Havana. The governor of this colony, without giving reasons, treated the stranger as a prisoner of war. Captive for four months, Muir suffered the most horrible treatment. Such are the most part of the petty despots who govern the colonies of great powers, they demonstrate their authority on defenceless individuals and think that the arbitrary power they exercise makes them equal to their masters. Finally, Thomas Muir was put on board a frigate to be taken to Spain, but this wasn't the end of his misfortunes. When the frigate was about to enter Cadiz it was attacked by part of Jervis's squadron who were blockading the port. The English had been informed that Thomas Muir was on board this ship and they wanted to put an end to the escape of this famous republican. This made them very eager for combat. The Spaniards defended themselves bravely. Muir saw the captivity awaiting him and preferred death. He armed himself, he fought, he hurled himself into the midst of danger. He had the courage of despair. He was wounded in the face and fell bathed in his own blood. The frigate was forced to surrender to the English. Muir became the principal object of their search. The English were told that he had been killed in combat and thrown in the sea. He lay for six days in their custody without being recognised - due to the disfigurement of his wound. Finally persuaded that he was no more, the English returned him to shore with the other prisoners. Transported to the hospital at Cadiz, Muir was recognised by a Frenchman. The consul of the republic hurried at once to see him and to offer him his condolences, help and testimony of his high regard. Muir addressed to the Directory the tale of his adventures and solemnly declared that he adopted the Republic of France as his native land. He received a very favourable response from the government, which was all that he could desire. Since then he has considered himself our fellow-citizen, free in the universe. He waits only for his recovery to come to France. Translated by L. Yeoman from Gazette Nationale ou le Moniteur Universel, No 72, 2 December 1797

Orator: The Trial Speech

The three hour speech that Thomas Muir made at his trial in Edinburgh was considered such a wonderful piece of English that it was published as an English text to be used in English exams in schools of some States in America until 1860. The following is a short extract from that speech.

"This is now perhaps the last time that I shall address my country. I have explored the tenor of my past life. Nothing shall tear me from the record of my departed days. The enemies of reform have scrutinised, in a manner hitherto unexampled in Scotland, every action I may have performed, every word I may have uttered. Of crimes, most foul and horrible, have I been accused: of attempting to rear the standards of civil war; to plunge this land in blood, and to cover it with desolation. At every step, as the evidence of the crown advanced, my innocence has brightened. So far from inflaming the minds of men to sedition and outrage, all the witnesses have concurred, that my only anxiety was, to impress upon them the necessity of peace, of good order, and of good morals. What then has been my crime? Not the lending to a relation a copy of Mr. Paine´s works; not the giving away to another a few numbers of an innocent and constitutional publication; but for having dared to be, according to the measure of my feeble abilities, a strenuous and active advocate for an equal representation of the people, in the house of the people; for having dared to attempt to accomplish a measure, by legal means, which was to diminish the weight of their taxes, and to put an end to the effusion of their blood. From my infancy to this moment, I have devoted myself to the cause of the people. It is a good cause. It will ultimately prevail. It will finally triumph. Say then openly, in your verdict, if you do condemn me, which I presume you will not, that it is for my attachment to this cause alone, and not for those vain and wretched pretexts stated in the indictment, intended only to colour and disguise the real motives of my accusation. The time will come, when men must stand or fall by their actions; when all human pageantry shall cease; when the hearts of all shall be laid open to view. If you regard your most important interests; if you wish that your consciences should whisper to you words of consolation, rather than speak to you in the terrible language of remorse, weigh well the verdict you are about to pronounce. As for me, I am careless and indifferent to my fate. I can look danger, and I can look death in the face; for I am shielded by the consciousness of my own rectitude. I may be condemned to languish in the recesses of a dungeon. I may be doomed to ascend the scaffold. Nothing can deprive me of the recollection of the past; nothing can destroy my inward peace of mind, arising from the remembrance of having discharged my duty."

In 1844 a monument was erected to him in Edinburgh.

The Burns Connection

It is generally believed that it was the 1792 trails of the "Scottish Martyrs" Muir, Skirving, Palmer, Margarot, Gerrald that influenced Burns to pen "Scots Wha Hae" in 1793.

Posted by John Couzin

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