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James Murdoch (1856–1921)

by D. C. S. Sissons

This article was published:

James Murdoch (1856-1921), Orientalist, was born on 27 September 1856 at Fetteresso, Kincardineshire, Scotland, son of William Murdoch, labourer, and his wife Helen, née McDonald. After attending the local parochial school and the Grammar School, Old Aberdeen, he topped the entrance examination at the University of Aberdeen in 1875 and graduated M.A. with first-class honours in classics in 1879. The Fullarton travelling scholarship then took him to Worcester College, Oxford; but on 26 June 1880, three months after passing Responsions, he married Lucy Parkes (daughter of a Congregational minister at Lyme Regis) and soon afterwards returned to Aberdeen as assistant to the professor of Greek.

Murdoch arrived in Queensland in July 1881 as headmaster of the new Maryborough Grammar School. He became unpopular with the trustees (possibly because of his atheism and the deterioration of his marriage) and in March 1885 they summarily dismissed him for resisting their instructions that his staff give lessons at the Girls' Grammar School. For the next two years he was second master at Brisbane Grammar School. In 1886 he also sat the Bar examinations, but failed in two of the eight papers because he, mistakenly, attempted to answer every question. He left Brisbane Grammar at his own wish and, after some months working with William Lane, Francis Adams and other kindred spirits on the radical nationalist journal, the Boomerang, embarked in April 1888 for a visit to East and South-East Asia. In a series of articles for that paper, key elements of his radicalism emerge: he disparaged in highly racist terms the Chinese communities in the ports he visited; he predicted that within a generation the Australian colonies would form a republic, and that Australians would be driven to nationalize land (a process in which he thought blood might be shed).

After briefly returning to Brisbane to wind up his affairs, Murdoch in September 1889 took up a lectureship in European history at the First Higher School, a highly selective institution which young men attended before entering Tokyo Imperial University. In addition to his teaching duties, the next four years saw him vigorously engaged in literary activities. In June 1890 he published a long piece of satirical verse, Don Juan's Grandson in Japan. In November he launched a weekly magazine, the Japan Echo, which lasted for six issues. In 1892 he published From Australia and Japan (a volume of short stories which went through three editions) and a novel, Ayame-san. These were romances in which the heroes tended to be socialists of high competitive achievement in the academic and sporting fields, and the women either mercenary and cruel or paragons of erudition, beauty and good breeding. He also wrote several descriptive texts for pictorial works addressed to the historically minded tourist and edited the memoirs of Hikozō Hamada, the castaway who became the first Japanese to acquire American citizenship.

In September 1893 Murdoch left Japan to join Lane's 'New Australia' commune in Paraguay. By the time of his arrival, however, about one-third of the colonists had seceded. He remained only a few days and, leaving his 12-year-old son in South America, proceeded to London. After five months at the British Museum translating the letters of sixteenth-century European religieux in Japan he returned to that country. From 1894 to 1897 he taught English at the Fourth Higher School at Kanazawa. On 23 November 1899, while teaching economic history at the Higher Commercial College (today's Hitotsubashi University) in Tokyo, he married Takeko Okada.

In 1901 Murdoch moved to the Seventh Higher School at Kagoshima. A severe illness in South America (diagnosed as sunstroke) had weakened him and he hoped to benefit from the milder Kyushu winters. The first volume of his A History of Japan, dealing with the century of early foreign intercourse, 1542-1651, appeared in 1903. The sources in European languages—Latin, Spanish, French and Dutch—he sought out and translated himself. The Japanese sources were selected for him by a young history graduate, Kenko Murakawa, and translated into English by Murdoch's former pupil, Isoo Yamagata.

In 1908 his teaching contract was not renewed. Murdoch, nevertheless, remained at Kagoshima. He contributed regularly to the Kobe Chronicle and, to supplement this income, planted a citron orchard. Although he was never to achieve fluency with the spoken language, he had now become proficient in classical Japanese and had no longer to rely on Japanese assistants. The next volume, From the Origins to the Arrival of the Portuguese in 1542 A.D., appeared in 1910.

In 1915, following the completion of the manuscript of the third volume, The Tokugawa Epoch 1652-1868, straitened circumstances forced Murdoch to teach at junior high-school level, at Shibushi. In February 1917, however, he was able to return to Australia to teach Japanese at the Royal Military College, Duntroon, and at the University of Sydney, concurrent appointments instituted on the initiative of the Defence Department. The following year, in response to an attractive bid by Waseda University, the Sydney position was raised to a chair. In return for £600 a year from the Defence Department, the university permitted Murdoch to supervise a deputy at Duntroon and to visit Japan annually to brief the department on shifts in Japanese public opinion and foreign policy. The first such visit resulted in a memorandum by Murdoch's friend, the director of military intelligence (E. L. Piesse), highly critical of Australia's intransigence on the racial equality issue at the Paris Peace Conference. Similarly, two years later Murdoch was called to Melbourne to give the prime minister his views on the renewal of the Anglo-Japanese alliance.

Murdoch died of cancer at his home at Baulkham Hills on 30 October 1921. He had just completed the research for the fourth volume of the History but had not begun writing. He was survived by his son (in South America) and by his wife (who returned to Japan).

As testimony to Murdoch's vigour and influence, within eighteen months of his arrival Japanese was being taught at two Sydney high schools by native speakers recruited by him in Japan and the first matriculation examination was held in 1921. The subject had not, however, become firmly established and in the years that followed failed to make progress—either at the university or at Duntroon. Murdoch's lasting contribution was the History (whose third volume was published posthumously in 1926). It was a pioneer work and remained the standard work until the late 1950s.

Select Bibliography

  • K. Maki, Kindai ni okeru seiyojin no nihon rekishi kan (Tokyo, 1950)
  • S. Hirakawa, Soseki no shi madokku sensei (Tokyo, 1984)
  • American Historical Review, 17 (1911), p 630
  • Aberdeen University Review, 9 (1922), p 109, 226
  • P. H. T. Dowding, Okayama Shodai Ronso, 18, no 2-3
  • T. Sugiyama, Okayama Shodai Ronso, 18, no 3, 19, no 2, 20, no 1-2
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 5, 26 Nov 1921
  • Japan Weekly Chronicle, 17 Nov 1921
  • D. C. S. Sissons, Australia's First Professor of Japanese: James Murdoch, 1856-1921 (unpublished paper, 1982, National Library of Australia, MS 3092).

Citation details

D. C. S. Sissons, 'Murdoch, James (1856–1921)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


27 September, 1856
Fetteresso, Kincardineshire, Scotland


30 October, 1921 (aged 65)
Baulkham Hills, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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