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Armit, William Edington (de Marguerittes) (1848–1901)

by H. J. Gibbney

revised by Anastasia Dukova

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

William Edington (de Marguerittes) Armit (1848-1901), policeman, journalist, explorer and public servant, was born on 10 May 1848 at Liège, Belgium, son of John Lees Armit, army agent, and his second wife Elizabeth, née Yeldham. His father was of Scottish ancestry and his mother was English. William later adopted a third forename, de Marguerittes (John Armit’s first wife had been a member of the French noble family of that name). He arrived in Australia in November 1866 as an ordinary seaman aboard the immigrant ship La Hogue. By 1871 he was employed as a stockman at Dotswood station, west of Townsville, Queensland. In a Church of England ceremony at Bohle, near Townsville, on 22 September that year, he married Mary Ann Barton, a housekeeper; they would have nine children. On 5 June 1872 he was appointed sub-inspector in the Queensland Native Police and later served in the police districts of Murray River, Waterview, Cashmere, Georgetown, Dunrobin, Brisbane, Bynoe, and Carl Creek. He led a punitive raid against the Aboriginal residents of Goold Island, off Cardwell, in November 1873. At Creen Creek in the Gulf country, in 1876 he commanded one of two detachments that skirmished with Aboriginal warriors. On 15 July 1880 he was dismissed following allegations of drunkenness but he asked for reconsideration of his case and was reappointed in January 1881. On 14 April 1882 he was again dismissed, this time after being accused of embezzling government property. The next year Armit wrote three articles about his service for the Australasian under the pseudonym, 'A Queensland Native Police Officer'.

In 1883 when the Melbourne Argus decided to send an expedition to south-eastern New Guinea, Armit was appointed special correspondent in command. After fitting out his party on Thursday Island, he left Port Moresby on 14 July accompanied by an eccentric American scientist, Professor William Denton, and his two sons; J. Loftus Irving who was described by the Dentons as 'an English dude'; Robert Hunter, an English bushman; and George Belford, of European and Samoan ancestry. After a ten-day march into the mountains the party separated. Denton's sons began scientific collecting at the village of Narianooma, while the rest of the party moved on. On 17 August at the village of Paumau, beyond Sogeri, Armit gained detailed information about the track to the north coast but since supplies were short and fever was imminent he decided to turn back. The return journey was disastrous. Armit and Belford were prostrated by fever and on 26 August Denton senior died. The expedition reached Port Moresby on 3 September. Armit again settled in north Queensland and attempted to make a living as a journalist and naturalist round Port Douglas and Cooktown.

In 1893 Armit returned to British New Guinea (Papua) as private secretary to the administrator, Dr William MacGregor. After temporary charge of the Mekeo and Rigo districts in 1894, he was appointed on 20 November 1895 sub-collector of customs at Samarai; there he remained for two years. Late in 1897 he resigned but rejoined the public service as assistant resident magistrate in the northern division in 1899. Later that year he was promoted resident magistrate, in which role he engaged in what he called warfare against local people who resisted government control and the incursion of white gold miners in their territories. He died on 3 January 1901 and was buried in the miners' cemetery at the Ioma government station. 

In 1875 an entirely fictitious account, Wanderings in the Interior of New Guinea, was published in London under the name of Captain J. A. Lawson. Many, including Armit's son Lionel and Hugh Romilly, have alleged that Armit was the real author. Edward Augustus Petherick and others have ascribed the book to one of William Armit’s brothers, Lieutenant Robert Henry Armit, RN, a naval surveyor who was employed in New Guinea waters in the late 1860s and who promoted a scheme for the colonization of New Guinea in 1875-76. This question remains unsolved.

W. E. Armit was slightly built and reputedly had remarkable powers of endurance. He was a fluent and lively writer; his deep interest in natural history led him to publish many scientific papers and justified his election as fellow of the Linnean and Royal Geographical societies. The grass Eriachne armitti and the bird Poephila armitiana were named after him.

♦♦  This article was substantially revised on 5 May 2017

Select Bibliography

  • British New Guinea, Annual Report, 1894-1901
  • G. Souter, New Guinea: The Last Unknown (Syd, 1963)
  • Government Gazette (British New Guinea), 1894-1901
  • Australasian, 7 July–29 Dec 1883
  • Pacific Islands Monthly, May, June, Oct 1961
  • Rev. W. G. Lawes journal, 1883 (State Library of New South Wales)

Citation details

H. J. Gibbney, 'Armit, William Edington (de Marguerittes) (1848–1901)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/armit-william-edington-de-marguerittes-2897/text4157, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 25 November 2017.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2017

William Edington Armit, 1883

William Edington Armit, 1883

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Armit, William Edington (de Margrat)
Birth

10 May 1848
Liège, Belgium

Death

3 January 1901
Papua New Guinea

Cause of Death

unknown

Cultural Heritage
Occupation