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James Mario (Maria) Matra (1746–1806)

by Alan Frost

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James Mario (Maria) Matra (1746?-1806), sailor and diplomat, was born James Magra, probably in the second half of 1746 in New York, son of James Magra and his wife Elizabeth. A member of a prominent Corsican family, Magra senior had migrated to Dublin in the early 1730s and changed his name from Matra. He perhaps studied medicine in Ireland and moved to New York before 1740. By his death in April 1774, Dr Magra had become prosperous, with large property holdings; however, the family lost its wealth in the American Revolution.

According to Evan Nepean, the under secretary at the Home Office, who knew him well, young Magra was educated in England. He entered the Royal Navy as 'Captain's Servant' in May 1761 and served in European waters until the end of the Seven Years War. In July 1764, having returned to New York, he became a midshipman in the Hawke. This and other ships in which he later served undertook peacetime patrols on the eastern coast of North America and around the British Isles.

On 25 July 1768 Magra joined the Endeavour and sailed on James Cook's first great voyage of Pacific exploration. In May 1770, when midway up the coast of New South Wales, suspecting that Magra was implicated in the drunken cropping of his clerk's ears, Cook suspended the midshipman from duty, noting that he was 'one of those gentlemen, frequently found on board Kings Ships, that can very well be spared, or to speake more planer good for nothing'. During this voyage, Magra became acquainted with (Sir) Joseph Banks, and their friendship lasted until his death. The Endeavour returned to England in July 1771. Circumstantial evidence has identified Magra as the anonymous author of A Journal of a Voyage Round the World, which appeared two months later, and which offered some details of Cook's voyage not found in other accounts.

In 1775 Magra petitioned the King to 'take the name and bear the Arms of Mario Matra', so as to obtain a Corsican inheritance. He followed a penurious career in minor diplomatic posts on the fringes of Europe, becoming consul at Tenerife (1772-75), then embassy secretary in Constantinople (1778-80).

Matra became a leading proponent of the idea of establishing a convict colony at Botany Bay. He presented his schemes for settlement to the Portland and Pitt administrations in 1783 and 1784. One of the very few Europeans then alive who had actually visited New South Wales, he testified to the House of Commons committee enquiring into the resumption of transportation in May 1785.

As Nepean's 'Memo of matters to be brought before Cabinet', about December 1784, indicated, when Pitt's ministers considered 'The Erecting a Settlement upon the Coast of New South Wales which is intended as an Assylum for some of the American Loyalists, who are now ready to depart and also as a place for the Transportation of Young Offenders who[se] crimes have not been of the most heinous nature', they were considering Matra's plan. His proposal to colonize New South Wales accorded well with the government's interests in disposing of the convicts, in building strategic resources in the Pacific Ocean and in establishing a trading network linking Asia and the Americas to Europe.

Disappointed in his hopes for a post in his proposed colony, in July 1786 Matra accepted the appointment of consul at Tangier, Morocco, where he was to remain (with some respites at Gibraltar when the plague ravaged North Africa) until his death. His later life exemplified the common lot of American Loyalists who, displaced and poverty-stricken, had to eke out precarious existences. 'I occupy but a small place on this Globe', he wrote plaintively in 1781, '& yet there is not room on it for me'.

In his letters from North Africa, Matra reported informatively on the geography and peoples of the region. He supplied Banks with curiosities; and he assisted travellers sent by the Association for the Exploration of the Interior Parts of Africa. Through the long years of war with revolutionary France, he saw that the British had the food supplies they needed to maintain their garrison at Gibraltar and to keep their Mediterranean squadron at sea.

In October 1793 Matra married Henrietta Maxwell, daughter of the army victualling agent at Gibraltar. They had no children. Matra died on 29 March 1806 at Tangier, survived by his wife. The suburb of Matraville, within the municipality of Randwick, about nine km south east of the centre of Sydney, was named for him in 1904 at the suggestion of the Labor politician John Dacey.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Frost, The Precarious Life of James Mario Matra (Melb, 1995), and for bibliography.

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Citation details

Alan Frost, 'Matra, James Mario (Maria) (1746–1806)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 24 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Margra, James

New York, New York, United States of America


29 March, 1806 (aged ~ 60)
Tangier, Morocco

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