Thomas Muir and the Scottish Martyrs

Thomas Muir and the Scottish Martyrs

 

scottish martyrs1

 

 

 

 

 

 

To the Memory of

Thomas Muir
Thomas Fyshe Palmer
William Skirving
Maurice Margarot
and
Joseph Gerrald

Erected by the Friends of Parliamentary Reform
in England and Scotland
1844

“I have devoted myself to the cause of the people.
It is a good cause – it shall ultimately prevail – It
shall finally triumph.”

Speech of Thomas Muir in the Court of
Justiciary on the 30th of August 1793

“I know that what has been done these two days
Will be RE-JUDGED”

Speech of William Skirving in the Court of
Justiciary on the 7th of January 1794

“I have devoted myself to the cause of the people.
It is a good cause – it shall ultimately prevail – It
shall finally triumph.”

Speech of Thomas Muir in the Court of
Justiciary on the 30th of August 1793

“I know that what has been done these two days
Will be RE-JUDGED”

Speech of William Skirving in the Court of
Justiciary on the 7th of January 1794

Convicts, Unionists and Democratic Rights

Most convicts transported to Australia were regarded as petty and hardened criminals. The crimes that were pursued by British authorities in the 18th and 19th century were often brought on by the massive social changes that accompanied the development of industrial capitalism. For centuries workers had acted co-operatively to maintain there trades skills and conditions.

Powerful employers and landowners acted as one to deny the rights of workers.

A very early example were the Scottish Martyrs of 1792. Thomas Muir, Rev. Thomas Fyshe Palmer, William Skirving and two delega tes from the London Corresponding Society, Joseph Gerrald and Maurice Margarot . These men were arrested and sentenced for the act of forming a People’s Convention to seek reform of parliament. The judge ruled that is was a seditious act. The trials were held at various times from 1794Margarot was the only one who survived to return to Britain after 1800.

scottish martyrs
Radicals in the House of Commons immediately began a campaign to save the men now being described as the Scottish Martyrs. On 24th February, 1793, Richard Sheridan presented a petition to Parliament that described the men’s treatment as “illegal, unjust, oppressive and unconstitutional”. Charles Fox pointed out in the debate that followed that Palmer had done “no more than what had done by William Pitt (now Prime Minister of Britain) and the Duke of Richmond” when they campaigned for parliamentary reform. Attempts to stop the men being transported failed and on 2nd May 1794, The Surprise left Portsmouth and began its 13,000 mile journey to Botany Bay. The men arrived on 25th October to join the Colony of 1,908 convicts (1362 male, 546 female).

As a political prisoner, Muir was given more freedom than most convicts and he was allowed to buy a small farm close to Sydney Cove. 

After two years at Port Jackson, New South Wales, Thomas Muir escaped with the help of Francis Peron, the chief mate of the American ship, the Otter of Boston. Muir reached Vancouver Island but after being offered help by a Spanish captain, he was arrested and taken on board the Ninfa. While on the way to Cadiz the Ninfa was attacked by the British warship Irresistible. During the battle Thomas Muir was hit by a glancing blow from a cannonball which smashed his left cheekbone and seriously injured both his eyes.

For several days Muir’s condition was so bad he was expected to die. When the French government heard about what had happened to Muir they tried to persuade the Spanish authorities to release him. The Spanish eventually agreed and Muir arrived in Bordeaux in November 1797. 

Muir joined up with Tom Paine in Paris where they continued the fight for parliamentary reform in Britain. However, Muir had never fully recovered from the wound he received on the Ninfa and his health began to deteriorate at the end of 1798. Thomas Muir was taken to Chantilly where he died on 26th January, 1799.

Free settlers were very limited in their ability to achieve any rights as citizens largely because their ability to be paid properly for labour they performed was undermined by the free convict labour used by the military who ran the colonies and later by those who were given grants of land. Any attempt by the convicts to improve their own lot, just to gain better food and shelter was greeted by the rulers with horror and swift retribution. James Straiter a convict assigned to Hannibal Macarthur was given 500 lashed for organising a strike of shepherds in 1822.

Download or listen to ABC Hindsight documentary “The Trials of Thomas Muir” first broadcast 26th May 2013.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s