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Peter Miller Cunningham (1789–1864)

by L. F. Fitzhardinge

This article was published:

Peter Miller Cunningham (1789-1864), naval surgeon and author, was born in November 1789 at Dalswinton, near Dumfries, Scotland, the youngest son of John Cunningham, a factor of Dalswinton, and his wife Elizabeth, née Harley, the daughter of a Dumfries merchant. His father, a tenant farmer, was descended from a landholding family, and his mother's charm and 'very superior intellect' was inherited to some degree by all of her five sons and four daughters. Of the sons, Allan, the poet and biographer of Burns, Thomas Mounsey, also a poet, and Peter himself, achieved places in the Dictionary of National Biography.

Cunningham was educated at local schools and at the University of Edinburgh, where he studied medicine. On completing his course he entered the navy on 10 December 1810 as an assistant surgeon, serving off the coasts of Spain and North America. He was promoted surgeon on 28 January 1814, and in 1816, while serving on Lake Erie, struck up a friendship with Hugh Clapperton, the African explorer. He saw service also in the East Indies, and when the coming of peace threatened him with retrenchment he applied for employment as surgeon-superintendent in convict transports. In this capacity he made five trips to New South Wales between 1819 and 1828, in the Recovery (August-December 1819 and April-July 1823), Grenada (May-September 1821 and October 1824–January 1825) and Morley (November 1827–March 1828), in which he lost only three of the 747 convicts under his care. On his last voyage, however, his failure to report an outbreak of whooping cough among the soldiers' children on board led to a severe epidemic in Sydney.

In 1825 Cunningham was granted 1200 acres (486 ha) on the Upper Hunter River, with a lease of 1340 acres (542 ha) adjoining, and in 1826 he applied for an additional grant of the leased land, which was issued in 1830. In this application he claimed to have spent £1100 on stock and improvements, the property, on which fourteen convicts were employed, being managed in his absence by Lieutenant William Ogilvie R.N., a neighbouring settler. He proposed to bring out Saxon merinos and agricultural implements to the value of some hundreds more. In 1827 he published Two Years in New South Wales; a Series of Letters, Comprising Sketches of the Actual State of Society in that Colony; of its Peculiar Advantages to Emigrants; of its Topography, Natural History, etc. etc. in two volumes; it was extremely popular, running through three large editions in two years, with a German translation in 1829. On the proceeds of this book and the savings of his naval service he hoped to establish himself as a settler on his property. In this, however, he did not succeed, partly because of a severe drought, and in May 1830 he returned to England.

For the next ten years he was again employed on various ships on the South American and Mediterranean Stations, being present at the blockade of Alexandria in 1840. He went on half-pay in May 1841, was classed as unfit for further sea service in 1850 and retired in 1860. He died at Greenwich on 6 March 1864.

In addition to Two Years in New South Wales, Cunningham published two books: On the Motions of the Earth and Heavenly Bodies, as Explainable by Electromagnetic Attraction and Repulsion, and on the Conception, Growth and Decay of Man, and Cause and Treatment of his Diseases, as Referable to Galvanic Action (London, 1834); and Hints for Australian Emigrants; with Engravings and Explanatory Descriptions of the Water-Raising Wheels, and Modes of Irrigating Land in Egypt, Syria, South America, etc. (London, 1841). In the latter, in which he urged the use of irrigation and described dry-farming methods and crops noted in his travels, he showed that he was still thinking of Australia, where he now had two nephews, and applying his observations to its problems. He was also a prolific contributor to periodicals. He was an acute observer and possessed a pleasant literary style, so that Two Years in New South Wales remains the best as well as the fullest picture of the colony in the 1820s. He was the first writer to give a full account of the native-born, of whom the first generation were growing up.

Cunningham was a man of liberal and humane temper, who prided himself especially on his care for the education and amusement of the convicts under his charge. In his social relations he was 'of the most amiable and conciliatory disposition', and seems to have made no enemies even in Sir Ralph Darling's New South Wales.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 10, 13-15
  • W. R. O'Byrne, A Naval Biographical Dictionary (Lond, 1861)
  • D. Hogg, The Life of Allan Cunningham (Dumfries, 1875)
  • C. Bateson, The Convict Ships, 1787-1868 (Glasgow, 1959)
  • Gentleman's Magazine, June 1864
  • Hassall papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Macarthur papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

L. F. Fitzhardinge, 'Cunningham, Peter Miller (1789–1864)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 18 July 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]


November, 1789
Dalswinton, Dumfriesshire, Scotland


6 March, 1864 (aged 74)
London, Middlesex, England

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