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Thomas Muir (1765–1799)

by John Earnshaw

This article was published:

Thomas Muir (1765-1799), lawyer and political reformer, was born on 24 August 1765 in Scotland, the only son of Thomas Muir, a prosperous Glasgow merchant. Educated at the local grammar school, he entered the University of Glasgow at the early age of 12. At first intended for the church, he came under the influence of the liberal-minded John Millar (1735-1801), a professor of law who collected into his circle the keener young men of his school. Muir entered warmly into college politics and showed a bent for satiric verse, often at the expense of the faculties. After graduating at Glasgow (M.A., 1782), he completed his studies at the University of Edinburgh and was admitted a member of the Faculty of Advocates in 1787. Although soon recognized as a fluent and eloquent speaker, his talent as a lawyer was not considered remarkable.

Radical opinion was then greatly influenced by the French Revolution, and Muir soon identified himself with the advocates of parliamentary and constitutional reforms. In October 1792 he was elected vice-president of the newly formed Glasgow Associated Friends of the Constitution and of the People. In December 1792 a general convention of the Scottish Societies of the Friends of the People was held in Edinburgh at which Muir read an inflammatory address from the United Irishmen of Dublin. This action, together with evidence that he had distributed an allegedly seditious pamphlet by Thomas Paine resulted in his arrest in January 1793. Released on bail, he went to Paris with the quixotic but futile idea of interceding for the life of Louis XVI who was then awaiting execution; when he failed to return to Edinburgh for trial he was declared an outlaw and struck from the roll of advocates.

Muir obtained a French passport and decided to take refuge in the United States, but touching at Belfast on the way he rashly crossed to Scotland to make a clandestine visit to family and friends. Soon after landing at Portpatrick he was arrested, and brought to trial at Edinburgh on 23 August 1793. There, before a biased jury and the fearsome Lord Justice Braxfield, he was found guilty of sedition and sentenced to fourteen years transportation. The severity of this sentence evoked consternation both in Edinburgh and London where influential Whigs interceded on his behalf; but the Home Secretary, Henry Dundas, was adamant that an example be shown, and Muir, together with his fellow reformers, Thomas Palmer, William Skirving and Maurice Margarot sailed in the transport Surprize for New South Wales. This group, with Joseph Gerrald, who was transported later, became known as the Scottish Martyrs.

Muir arrived in Sydney in October 1794. As a political prisoner he was freed from the usual convict restraint. He lived on a small farm he had bought across the harbour from Sydney Cove where he occupied himself with rural pursuits and prepared documents in exculpation of himself and fellow exiles.

Early in 1796 the American ship Otter, Captain Ebenezer Dorr, called at Sydney for refreshments while on a fur-trading voyage to the north-west coast of America. Urged by his companions Muir planned his escape with Dorr. On the night of 17 February he made his way out of the harbour in a small boat with two servants and was picked up by the Otter some miles off the coast. There is no evidence to support statements that President Washington arranged Muir's escape from the colony. After crossing the Pacific and reaching Nootka Sound, he learned that H.M.S. Providence was then in those waters. Fearing recapture, he transferred to the Spanish gunboat Sutil and in June 1796 reached Monterey, Spanish California, where he was hospitably received by the governor. Thence he wrote to Washington, Dr Joseph Priestley and others describing his escape and outlining his intentions of making his way to the United States. These letters were intercepted and are now in the Archives of the Indies, Seville.

Under the covert surveillance of the Spanish authorities he was allowed to go by sea to San Blas and thence by land to Mexico City and Vera Cruz. In November 1796 he reached Havana, but owing to the outbreak of war between England and Spain he was imprisoned there for four months and his original intention of reaching Philadelphia was frustrated. He was placed on board the frigate Ninfa sailing for Spain, but close to her destination she was intercepted by a British squadron under Sir John Jervis. In the subsequent engagement Muir was severely wounded in the face and lost his left eye, and though the British learnt he was on board they failed to recognize him because of his mutilation. He was sent ashore with the Spanish wounded to the hospital at Cadiz, whence news of his plight reached Paris; after some months he was released through the intercession of Talleyrand, the French foreign minister, and in December 1797 reached Paris. Here he was for a time a guest of the Directory and was consulted on proposals for an invasion of England, while the circumstances of his exile, wounds and disfigurement centred much public attention upon him. In two quarto volumes he prepared a manuscript, since lost, describing his exile and travels, and offered it to the French government as security for a small estate to which he could retire and recruit his shattered health. For months his petition remained unheeded; neglected by friends, pursued by poverty and enfeebled by his wounds, he drifted into obscurity. He died at Chantilly, near Paris, on 26 January 1799. His burial place is unknown.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vol 2
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vol 1
  • An Account of the Trial of Thomas Muir (Edinb, 1793)
  • Histoire de la Tyrannie du Gouvernement Anglais Exercée Envers le Célèbre Thomas Muir, Ecossais (Paris, 1798)
  • F. Péron, Mémoires du Capitaine Péron, vols 1-2 (Paris, 1824)
  • P. Mackenzie, Life of Thomas Muir (Glasgow, 1831)
  • A. Savine, Les Débuts de Botany Bay (Paris, 1911)
  • J. W. Meikle, Scotland and the French Revolution (Glasgow, 1912)
  • J. Earnshaw, Thomas Muir, Scottish Martyr (Syd, 1959)
  • H. W. Meikle, ‘Two Glasgow Merchants in the French Revolution’, Scottish Historical Review, vol 8, 1911, pp 149-58
  • M. Masson and J. F. Jameson, ‘The Odyssey of Thomas Muir’, American Historical Review, vol 29, no 1, Oct 1923, pp 49-72
  • H. W. Meikle, ‘The Death of Thomas Muir’, Scottish Historical Review, vol 27, 1948, pp 201-02
  • J. G. Lockhart, ‘A Skeleton in the Cupboard’, Blackwood's Magazine, vol 268, no 1617, July 1950, pp 36-49
  • manuscript catalogue under Thomas Muir (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

John Earnshaw, 'Muir, Thomas (1765–1799)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


24 August, 1765


26 January, 1799 (aged 33)
Chantilly, France

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Passenger Ship
Convict Record

Crime: insurrection
Sentence: 14 years