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Muir, Thomas


Was born at Glasgow, Scotland, on 24 August 1765. His father, Thomas Muir, was a well-to-do business man, and Muir was educated at the grammar school at Glasgow and the university. He became a leader of the students who warmly took up the cause of one of the professors who had been in conflict with his colleagues. It was alleged that Muir had written offensive squibs against the professors concerned, and he was expelled from the university. Muir then went to the university of Edinburgh and in 1787 was admitted a member of the faculty of advocates. He was a good speaker and during the next five years made progress in his profession. In 1792 with other well-known residents of Glasgow he took part in a public meeting which formed an association under the name of "Friends of the Constitution and of the People", the object being to procure a reform of the house of commons. Branches of the association were established and in connexion with these Muir took a prominent part as a speaker. Pitt was then prime minister and his ministry was strongly against the proposed reforms, feeling ran high, and the objects of the association were much misrepresented. Muir visited France and arrived in Paris the evening before the execution of Louis XVI. He deplored this himself, but during the following six months appears to have been in close touch with many of the leading revolutionaries. The British government sought for evidence to bring a charge against Muir, and at the beginning of 1793 he was indicted for sedition. War had been declared with France and it was impossible at first for Muir to return and meet the charge. He reached Scotland in July and was immediately arrested. He was tried on 30 and 31 August, found guilty and sentenced to 14 years transportation. Before he left England efforts on his behalf were made in parliament, and Fox and Sheridan spoke for him without avail. Muir arrived at Sydney with Palmer (q.v.), Margarot and Skirving, transported for the same offence, on 25 October 1794. Lieut.-governor Grose was, however, especially instructed that he was "not at liberty to compel their services", the practical effect of this being that they were not to be regarded as convicts but as men banished from their country. In February 1796 Muir escaped in an American ship named the Otter which called at Sydney, his biographer, P. Mackenzie, states that the ship was especially sent to Sydney by admirers of Muir in the United States of America. Some four months later the ship was wrecked on the west coast of North America. Muir and two sailors were the only survivors, but he became separated from his companions and lived with an Indian tribe for three weeks. He then made his way down the coast and at last reached the city of Panama. From there he went to Vera Cruz and then to Havana. Thence he was sent to Spain but near Cadiz his vessel was attacked and taken by an English man-of-war, and Muir was severely wounded. He was sent ashore with other wounded men and lay for two months in a hospital at Cadiz. He received a communication while at Cadiz from the government of France, offering him French citizenship and inviting him to spend the remainder of his life in France. He arrived at Bordeaux in December 1797 and Paris on 4 February 1798. But he was in a very weak state of health, and though he lingered for some time he died at Chantilly on 27 September 1798.

Muir was a man of noble character and ideals, who had the misfortune to be tried before a hostile jury and bench of judges at a time of popular excitement. Lord Cockburn begins his account of his trial with the words: "This is one of the cases the memory whereof never perisheth. History cannot let its injustice alone" (An Examination of the Trials for Sedition). The only mitigating circumstances were that Muir was able to engage a cabin on his way to Australia, and that while there he was able to live quietly in retirement and was not treated as a convict. He has been referred to as the author of The Telegraph; a Consolatory Epistle from Thomas Muir, Esq., of Botany Bay, to the Hon. Henry Erskine late Dean of the Faculty, which has also been called the first publication of verse written in Australia. It was neither written by Muir nor in Australia. Muir had left Australia long before he could have heard of the matters referred to in the pamphlet. In Australia Muir is possibly only known to students of history, though it is sometimes stated that Hunter's Hill, a suburb of Sydney, was named after a property he had of that name. His farm, however, appears to have been near Milson's Point. There is a monument on Calton Hill, Edinburgh, to the men generally known as "The Scottish Martyrs", which was erected in 1844. Muir's name appears first on the list, and a short quotation from one of his speeches is also engraved on the stone.


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