Australian Dictionary of Biography

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James Birnie (1762–1844)

by Margaret Steven

This article was published:

James Birnie (1762?-1844), merchant and ship-owner, was a sea captain by profession. He was the brother, partner and New South Wales agent of Alexander Birnie of 12 Great St Helen's, the only London merchant and general agent regularly trading to New South Wales in the 1810s.

Birnie sailed from England in the brig Commerce, was sealing in the Penantipodes to the south of New Zealand in 1807 and went on to China in her in 1808. His wife Martha Matilda (1778-1851) accompanied him when, as captain of the Mary Ann, he arrived in New South Wales in 1809, and travelled with him in the brig Concord to Rio and the Cape of Good Hope in 1810. Birnie engaged in local sealing and whaling while acting as colonial agent for shipments from Alexander Birnie & Co. As most of their ships were whalers, carrying merchandise from England to Sydney before proceeding to the adjacent fishing grounds, the volume of their Sydney trading appears to have been comparatively small. As early as 1814, however, the Birnies appear to have speculated in the buying and freighting of colonial wool, in 1815 offering 1s. 3d. sterling or 2s. currency a pound for the best wool. In 1814 James Birnie was registered as the owner of the colonial-built brig Queen Charlotte (119 tons).

With his local land and financial interests, and his connexion with the whaling and Pacific trades, the colony's principal commercial concerns during the 1810s, Birnie was drawn into colonial society. He was active on behalf of the Missionary Society, moved in the company of Samuel Marsden, William Broughton, and the Hassalls, and later lent money to the trustees of the Scots Church in Sydney. He was elected in January 1814 to the first general committee of the New South Wales Philanthropic Society 'for the Protection & Civilization of such of the Natives of the South Sea Islands who may arrive at Port Jackson', though unlike most of his colleagues and many others he gave it no donation. He was an original shareholder in the Bank of New South Wales and a member of the committee appointed to report on the Lady Nelson in September 1817. He left to visit England in January 1822, returning in October 1823.

With a recommendation from the earl of Abingdon, Birnie had received a primary grant of 700 acres (283 ha) from Governor Lachlan Macquarie in 1814, with a promise of an additional 500 acres (202 ha); then being 'in affluent circumstances', he took possession of land on the margin of Botany Bay, and immediately began to cultivate it and to put up buildings and fences. In consequence of this expenditure Macquarie authorized the selection of a secondary grant of 500 acres (202 ha). In 1825, when required by his wife to execute a deed of separation, he had to be certified fit to manage his concerns, but before selecting the second grant he was pronounced insane, and his estate was placed under the administration of Thomas Icely and Richard Jones. Shortly before, Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane had granted Mrs Birnie 500 acres (202 ha) in Argyle county, but her claim to this land, which she contended was not meant to supersede Birnie's own grant despite his 'sinking mind and extra-ordinary conduct', was not confirmed until 1838, and her memorial to the Colonial Office in 1844 for confirmation of the original secondary grant to her then bed-ridden husband was rejected. Birnie died on 14 July 1844 without issue. His estate of less than £3000 was granted to his wife, who died in Sydney on 13 November 1851, aged 76.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 7-10
  • manuscript catalogue under J. Birnie (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Margaret Steven, 'Birnie, James (1762–1844)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 20 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]




14 July, 1844 (aged ~ 82)
New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death


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