1793 - Thomas Muir arrested for sedition

Thomas Muir

Scots radical Thomas Muir was a great supporter of both the American and French Revolutions and a proponent of far-reaching parliamentary reform in Great Britain. Born in Glasgow, he studied to become an advocate - not the Scots profession most readily linked with radicalism, but Muir was a man of a different stamp from most of his fellows at the Edinburgh bar. He was active in spreading the London Society of the Friends of the People to Scotland. This was a pressure group for parliamentary reform, but in the wake of the beginnings of the French revolution, any demands for reform were enough to cause government hysteria. Muir read an address from the United Irishmen - another radical group - which led the government to accuse him of sedition. To make matters worse, he then set off on a fraternal visit to France, on behalf of the Friends of the People, to plead against the execution of Louis XVII. He arrived too late to make any difference and instead busied himself in making political and intellectual contacts in France. He was outlawed in Edinburgh and returned home where he was tried on sedition charges in 1793.

The result was a highly politicised trial in which Muir was found guilty of distributing and recommending Thomas Paine's radical work The Rights of Man. He was sentenced to fourteen years transportation to Botany Bay, a penal colony from which he had a remarkable but arduous escape (which he did not long survive). Here is the account from the Gazette Nationale - the primary newspaper of the French Revolution - of his escape and his arrival in France in 1797.

The celebrated Scot Thomas Muir, escaped from a thousand dangers is on the point of arriving in Paris. His transportation belongs to the history of revolutions; his courage in the face of adversity must serve as an example to the converts of philosophy and the happy issue of all his misfortunes must encourage all the martyrs of liberty.

The Scots have never forgotten their ancient independence, the massacre of their ancestors, the tragic death of their last Queen, the expulsion of the Stuarts from the throne of Great Britain: these memories, the consciousness of their want, the shocking contrast of English luxury, perhaps finally the example of our revolution, were the causes of the revolutionary movements which appeared in Scotland in 1792, in which Thomas Muir played one of the premier roles.

The secret committees which had been formed throughout the whole of Scotland unmasked themselves all at once. They sent delegates to Edinburgh who met together in a national convention with the avowed goal of obtaining parliamentary reform. Thomas Muir, enlightened thinker and impassioned orator was a member of this convention and left his mark on it. The British government deeply alarmed by the sudden meeting of this assembly, at once dispersed it. Many members were arrested and brought to trial in 1794, some of them, amongst others one named Jackson, were condemned to death; Thomas Muir and three others were deported to Botany Bay.

The uprising in Scotland gave great hopes to our revolutionary government; the hopes evaporated; but the republicans of France, who saw in the Edinburgh convention only the friends of liberty, interested themselves deeply in their fate. When the old committee of public safety learnt of the deportation of Muir and many of his companions, it sent out several frigates to rescue them, but they did not succeed and these unfortunates were left on the desolate shore of New Holland [Australia] Botany Bay: the vast tomb where the British government indiscriminately heaps together the most vile scoundrels and brave thinkers against whom it has taken umbrage. It was there that Thomas Muir, treated as a criminal for having wanted the liberty of his native land, was to end his days, but one often says and I repeat with a sort of devout credulity: a benevolent spirit watches over the friends of man and the destiny of free peoples. Such a guardian angel took an interest in our unfortunate philanthropist, an American boat landed in this place of despair. Thomas Muir was received on board and conducted to the North West coast of America, but there he met new dangers, an English warship left Botany Bay several days before the American, and anchored in the same waters. Muir was in danger of being discovered and recaptured. To escape his persecutors once more, he resolved to traverse the continent of America: a terrifying enterprise, for which he needed the courage of a hero and the resignation of a sage. Happily the Captain of a Spanish schooner which he found in the harbour of Nootka gave him passage to Saint Blas, at the mouth of the gulf of California. As soon as he arrived Muir wrote to the viceroy of Mexico asking for hospitality in the name of the Republic of France, friends of the King of Spain. His request was favourably accepted and he was permitted to cross Mexican territory. He arrived next at Havana. The governor of this colony, without giving reasons, treated the stranger as a prisoner of war. Captive for four months, Muir suffered the most horrible treatment. Such are the most part of the petty despots who govern the colonies of great powers, they demonstrate their authority on defenceless individuals and think that the arbitrary power they exercise makes them equal to their masters. Finally, Thomas Muir was put on board a frigate to be taken to Spain, but this wasn't the end of his misfortunes. When the frigate was about to enter Cadiz it was attacked by part of Jervis's squadron who were blockading the port. The English had been informed that Thomas Muir was on board this ship and they wanted to put an end to the escape of this famous republican. This made them very eager for combat. The Spaniards defended themselves bravely. Muir saw the captivity awaiting him and preferred death. He armed himself, he fought, he hurled himself into the midst of danger. He had the courage of despair. He was wounded in the face and fell bathed in his own blood. The frigate was forced to surrender to the English. Muir became the principal object of their search. The English were told that he had been killed in combat and thrown in the sea. He lay for six days in their custody without being recognised - due to the disfigurement of his wound. Finally persuaded that he was no more, the English returned him to shore with the other prisoners.

Transported to the hospital at Cadiz, Muir was recognised by a Frenchman. The consul of the republic hurried at once to see him and to offer him his condolences, help and testimony of his high regard.

Muir addressed to the Directory the tale of his adventures and solemnly declared that he adopted the Republic of France as his native land. He received a very favourable response from the government, which was all that he could desire. Since then he has considered himself our fellow-citizen, free in the universe. He waits only for his recovery to come to France.

Translated by L. Yeoman from Gazette Nationale ou le Moniteur Universel, No 72, 2 December 1797

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