The mystery of the Scottish gentleman emigrant from 1782

The mystery of the Scottish gentleman emigrant from 1782 – attempt by an unidentified Scottish to colonize New Zealand

Rudiger Mack

In 1839 Rene-Primevere Lesson, one of the scientists on board the French naval vessel La Coquille which cirumnavigated the world in the years 1822-25 under the command of Louis Isidor Duperrey, published the second volume of Voyage autour du monde… sur la corvette La Coquille.(1) This volume contains the following anecdote:

It is said that a Scottish gentleman, inflamed by the desire to civilise the New Zealanders, embarked in 1782 with sixty peasants and all the equipment necessary for the cultivation of the soil. His project was to establish himself on the shores of the River Thames or in Mercury Bay, and to teach the natives to clear their land, but he has never been heard of since.(2)

If this story is true, it would have been the first attempt to colonise New Zealand from Britain and would be of major significance for the history of early European contact.

Andrew Sharp, who edited Lesson’s account of his visit to New Zealand in 1824, described him as a person of wide learning who had read numbers of accounts about New Zealand.(3) In a footnote Sharp gives the following explanation:

This story may stem from hearsay information about Thomas Fyshe Palmer, a Scottish minister of religion who was transported to Botany Bay in 1793 for advocating universal suffrage. Later he joined with a number of friends in Sydney in acquiring a vessel named the Plumier, which visited the Firth of Thames in 1801 to acquire a load of timber. The vessel went aground, but was saved with help from another vessel, the Royal Admiral, which had on board a number of missionaries en route to Tahiti. A garbled account of Palmer and the Plumier may have come to Lesson through missionary sources or informants in Sydney who did not know of their subsequent fate. The Plumier eventually reached Guam, where she was seized as a prize; Palmer died shortly after.(4)

A. S. Thomson mentions the arrival of an English ship in Mercury Bay about 1790.(5) Was this connected with Lesson’s anecdote or the source of it? S. Percy Smith drew a connection between the Scottish gentleman mentioned by Lesson and the Maori tradition of the ship of Rongotute.(6) According to Maori tradition the ship of Rongotute, a European vessel, was wrecked either at Palliser Bay or in Queen Charlotte Sound and its crew was killed and eaten. This was followed by an epidemic.(7) Smith argued that, because the authority on which the date for this epidemic was fixed at 1790 was not known to him, ‘it might be any date within ten years of that time, and quite possibly as early as 1782 or 1783’.(8) Elsdon Best referred to Smith and also raised the question whether the ship mentioned in the account of the voyage of La Coquille was the ship of Rongotute.(9) The idea of a connection between the Scottish gentleman and the ship of Rongotute was again put forward in an article in the Dominion of 24 February 1924, but it was not until 1978 that more light was thrown on the source of the Scottish gentleman anecdote.

Early Antipodean Colonists?

Sir – I have a copy of The Saltburn [sic] and Winchester Journal for March 7, 1785, which says that about two years earlier, a Scottish gentleman on the Isle of Herries, having been crossed in love, sold his estate, bought two ships, and, taking with him 60 families of his old vassals, who all bore the same surname as himself, sailed from Glasgow, intending to establish a fort and colony on the river Thames in New Zealand. He intended to marry a New Zealand girl in order to convince the natives of his friendly intentions. Surely this news-item must be the first mention of a plan to colonise the Antipodes? Do any of your readers know what became of this bold adventure? – R. B. Godward, 30 Kyme Street, Bishophill, York.(10)

Five years later the above mentioned article from the Salisbury and Winchester Journal was reprinted in New Zealand together with some comments by R. Bruce Godward in which a possible connection with the ship of Rongotute was suggested again.(11)

The Salisbury and Winchester Journal article itself is a reprint of the following article in the London Magazine:

Anecdote of an extraordinary emigration.

A very singular event took place about two years ago:- A Scotch gentleman, in the Isle of Herries, one of the Western Isles, having been very much crossed in love, sold his estate, which produced him upwards of 7000[pounds], with which he fitted out two good ships, embarking at Glasgow himself, and sixty families of his old vassals, with every article necessary for the establishment of a fort and colony, and set sail, designing for New Zealand. His intention was to enter the river Thames of Captain Cook, and to navigate his ships into some very secure creek, where they might be fixed to remain, in the vicinity of a rock, to serve as a fort. He took every sort of cattle and seed from England, birds, &c., &c. Being a man of great temper and prudence, there is little doubt he will entirely conciliate the affections of the natives, by doing them good offices; and should that be the case, he will, in a few years, be sovereign of that noble island: should the scheme fail, he is provided for building, if necessary, other ships. The great misery of the natives arises from want of cultivation. He will be able, when he has made some progress in their language, to explain fully the importance of a very different agriculture from their’s – will set them the example, and teach every useful art, as amongst his people (all of whom bear his own name) there are artizans of every kind. A friend and neighbour (a seaman settled on the isle) promised to make a voyage to the Thames, to pay him a visit, in three or four years, with intention, if his colony thrives, to settle with him. The gentleman intended to marry a New Zealand girl, in order, by that means, to be more connected with the natives, and convince them of his friendly intentions.(12)

The influential Dutch journal De Algemene Vaderlandsche Letteroefeningen reprinted the London Magazine article in a Dutch translation in 1785.(13) This date rules out Sharp’s suggestion that Lesson’s anecdote ‘may stem from hearsay information about Thomas Fyshe Palmer’ but what about the possible connection with the ship of Rongotute?

John Knox mentioned that the island of Harris, together with a number of lesser ones, was purchased ‘eight years ago from the laird of Macleod, by his kinsman, captain Macleod of the Mansfield East-Indiaman’.(14) This would put the date of the purchase at 1778.

There are further references to this sale:

and while he [General Norman Macleod, chief of the Clan Macleod, R.M.] was in America and India his Commissioners had sold large tracts of his estate (Harris and Loch Snizort Side) for less than half their value… Harris and St Kilda were sold in 1779 to Alexander Macleod, one of the Macleods of Bernera, late Captain of the Mansfield Indiaman, for the small sum of [pounds]15,000.

… Alexander, Captain of the East Indiaman Mansfield … in 1779, after he retired from sea, became proprietor of Harris and the adjacent isles, including St. Kilda, by purchase for [pounds]15,000 from the trustees of General Macleod, XX. of Macleod.(15)

Norman Macleod was born in 1754. He succeeded his grandfather as Chief of the Clan Macleod in 1772. In an autobiography written in 1785 and published in extracts by Alexander Mackenzie he wrote about this time in his life:

I remained at home, with my family and clan till the end of 1774; but I confess that I consider this as the most gloomy period of my life. Educated in a liberal manner, fired with ambition, fond of society, I found myself in confinement in a remote corner of the world; without any hope of extinguishing the debts of my family, or of ever emerging from poverty and obscurity.

Then Mackenzie writes about the crucial period:

In that year (1774), he finally determined to enter the army. His relative, the Hon. Colonel Simon Fraser of Lovat in 1157 raised a regiment of 1460 men,… In 1775, he received Letters of Service for raising another regiment of two battalions in the Highlands. Having very soon completed his task, he in April, 1776, marched with a fine body of 2340 men to Stirling, and thence to Glasgow. From Glasgow they proceeded to Greenock, whence they sailed in a large fleet for America, accompanied by the 42nd Highlanders and other troops. For this 71st regiment, designated the Fraser Highlanders, Norman Macleod of Macleod raised a company, and joined the First Brigade, with the rank of Captain, at their head … In a few years he returned to Britain, and was in 1780 made Lieutenant-Colonel of the second battalion of the 42nd Highlanders, raised by himself. He was appointed to this high rank on the 21 st of March, 1780, and continued at the head of the battalion until, in 1786, it was formed into a separate regiment, designated the 73rd, when he became its Lieutenant-Colonel.

He left for India in March 1781 and returned to England in 1789. From 1790 to 1796 he represented the county of Inverness, and died in Guernsey in August 1801.

The parallels between General Macleod’s biography and the anecdote of the Scottish gentleman are obvious. The sale of Harris and Norman Macleod’s departure from Scotland square with the dates in the anecdote. He might have been crossed in love because his first wife did not accompany him to India and died in France in 1784 during his absence. While in India in 1783 there was a resolution to draft the men of the 42nd Highlanders to other regiments. Norman Macleod strongly urged that his men should not be drafted into other corps.

My own company are all of my own name and Clan, and if I return to Europe without them, I shall be effectually banished from my own home, after having seduced them into a situation from which they thought themselves spared when they enlisted into the service. They are now much reduced, and being on a brisk actual service their numbers will then not exceed 30 or 40 men.(16)

The London Magazine article mentions that all 60 families bore his own name and were of his own clan. There can hardly be any doubt that General Norman Macleod is the Scottish gentleman referred to by Lesson and the London Magazine and thus the supposed emigration of a Scottish gentleman and 60 peasants to New Zealand in 1782 or 1783 never happened. Speculation on a connection with Rongotute is therefore groundless.

There seem to have been some misunderstandings which might have led to the article in 1785. The transport Myrtle which took Macleod to India left Portsmouth on 12 March 1781 and arrived in Bombay on 5 March the following year. It separated from the rest of the fleet in a gale off the Cape of Good Hope. The vessel had neither map nor chart and it arrived after many months at Madagascar, the arranged rendezvous. The rest of the fleet had already left. Macleod and his companions made their way back to St Helena, procured charts and finally reached Madras on 25 May 1782.(17) It is possible that during these 12 months of absence rumours about Macleod’s whereabouts started; it is not unlikely that he had talked about an interest in New Zealand.

Macleod’s supposed emigration was not the first time that a colony in New Zealand had been contemplated. Captain Cook remarked in his journals ‘Should it ever become an object of settleing this country the best place of the first fixing of a colony would be either in the River Thames or the Bay of Islands’.(18) Alexander Dalrymple and Benjamin Franklin published their ‘Plan for benefitting distant unprovided countries’ in August 1771, only six weeks after Cook’s arrival back in England.(19) The author of the anecdote must have been familiar with Cook’s journals and Dalrymple’s/Franklin’s scheme. The idea that ‘the great misery of the natives arises from a want of cultivation’ and the intention to ‘explain fully the importance of a very different agriculture from their’s … and teach every useful art’ has very strong parallels in Dalrymple’s/Franklin’s scheme.(20) Dalrymple and Franklin also suggested manning their planned expedition with 60 men staying for three years. The anecdote sometimes reads like a reminder of these early proposals.

At this point the question of the author of the London Magazine article should be examined, and it seems more than likely that it was James Boswell. Boswell had contributed to the London Magazine and been part owner since 1770.(21) He published there anonymously (e.g. ‘The Hypochondriack’), and also used anonymous names in his writings.(22) Boswell was also Scottish, and knew Norman Macleod personally. On Macleod’s invitation he visited him together with Samuel Johnson at Dunvegan Castle from 11 to 25 September 1773.(23) It is not clear whether they spoke of New Zealand but in one of their conversations Tahiti and the South Seas were mentioned.(24) Boswell met Macleod again on 29 September 1774 in Edinburgh and he mentioned him in his journals in 1775 and 1776.

Boswell knew Captain Alexander Macleod of the Mansfield East Indiaman and of Norman Macleod’s intention to sell the barony of Harris.(25) Boswell also had contact with other members of the Macleod family and other people who knew Norman Macleod. He was familiar with the family situation and did not approve of Norman Macleod’s extravagance. He thought it might be better for the family if Macleod died in America.(26) In 1773 he had had high expectations of the young man, and it was Boswell’s desire to see him doing something useful instead of further increasing family debts.

Boswell had wished to go to New Zealand for three years, and he seriously considered accompanying Cook on his third journey to the Pacific. Boswell met Captain Cook, Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander several times. On four occasions in April 1776 he expressed the idea of going to the South Seas.

Wednesday 3 April… I called on Dr. Johnson; I gave him an account of Captain Cook, and told him I felt an inclination to make the voyage. ‘Why, so one does,’ said the Doctor, ’till one considers how very little one learns.’ I said I was certain a great part of what we are told by the travellers to the South Sea Islands must be conjecture, because they cannot know language enough to understand so much as they tell. The Doctor was of that opinion. ‘But,’ said I, ‘one is carried away with the thing in general, a voyage round the word’. Thursday 18 April … I placed myself next to Captain Cook, and had a great deal of conversation with him;… We talked of having some men of inquiry left for three years at each of the islands of Otaheiti, New Zealand, and New Caledonia, so as to learn the language and… bring home a full account of all that can be known of people in a state so different from ours. I felt a stirring in my mind to go upon such an undertaking, if encouraged by Government by having a handsome pension for life.

And later the same day:

I then went to the Royal Society and heard two pieces read. After Sir John Pringle had come down from the chair, I mentioned to him my inclination to go with Captain Cook. ‘Take care,’ said he, ‘your old spirit (or some such word) is reviving.'(27)

A few days later Boswell discussed his idea again, this time not talking about himself, probably because he had already decided not to do the voyage but still fancied the idea.

A gentleman expressed a wish to go and live three years as Otaheite, or New Zealand, in order to obtain a full aquaintance with people, so totally different from all that we have ever known, and be satisfied what pure nature can do for man.(28)

Boswell made regular trips to Scotland and met fellow Scotsmen, and it is possible that he received hearsay information about Macleod. The anecdote was published in the intelligence column, but it seems likely that Boswell intended to write a very small piece of literature in the tradition of Robinson Crusoe or Hildebrand Bowman. This would explain why he did not use a name though he certainly knew it was Norman Macleod who sold the Isle of Harris, raised 60 men of his own name and clan and left Scotland. The Scottish gentleman in the anecdote is much closer to Boswell’s own philosophy than was Norman Macleod. As Lesson put it, Boswell was inflamed by the desire to civilise the New Zealanders.

It seems that Boswell’s article was written after reading George William Anderson’s Collection of Voyages Round the World. Here we find a romantic love story of a youth belonging to the Discovery and a Maori girl of about 14 years of age, in Queen Charlotte Sound in February 1777. The youth decided to jump ship and stay with his loved one, taking with him his working implements, a pocket compass, a fowling piece and numerous other articles. He was found out and captured, and subsequently interrogated on board the Resolution, where he gave the following explanation:

He said, the first idea of desertion struck him, when in an excursion round the bay, in which he attended Capt. Clerke, he was charmed with the beauty of the country, and the fertility of the soil; that seeing the gardens that had been planted on Long Island, at Motuara, and other places, in so flourishing a condition; and that there were European sheep and hogs, and goats, and fowls, sufficient to stock a large plantation … it came into his head, that if he could meet with a girl that was to his liking, he could be happy introducing the arts of European culture into so fine a country, and in laying the foundation of civil government among its inhabitants … When Capt. Cook heard his story, his resentment was converted into laughter at the wild extravagance of his plan, which he thought truly romantic.(29)

Boswell would have been delighted by this story. Here was a young man without any means who was inflamed by the desire to civilise the New Zealanders, and on the other hand Norman Macleod who was educated and able to raise a company but who was gambling away his family inheritance. The Scottish gentleman story combines elements of the two.

Another known proposal for a British colony in New Zealand was William Hussey’s suggestion of forming a penal colony there, in the debate in the House of Commons on the bill for the temporary reception of criminals under sentence of death on 11 March 1784. Because of the war in America there was a serious shortage of penal colonies. As a temporary measure the convicts destined to be sent overseas were kept on vessels on the Thames. The full text of Hussey’s speech was never published, only a summary of it:

Mr Hussey did not understand why those who had been delivered over to Mr. Campbell had not been transported: he was convinced that nothing short of transportation would cure the evil complained of; the expedients proposed would, he was sure, serve only to multiply it. He would advise government to send them to an island and to give every man a woman; there was an island where they might be landed, and where they might establish a useful colony. He was called upon to name the island, and he said he meant New Zealand, lately discovered in the South Seas.(30)

Apparently this was never followed up and a short time later a decision was made to establish a penal colony in Botany Bay. Hussey was the MP for Salisbury from 1774 to 1813. He was described as one of the most frequent back-bench speakers, concentrating mainly on financial matters. Hussey was a shareholder in the East India Company, and advocated considerable strengthening of the navy.(31) Is the publication of the ‘Anecdote of an extraordinary Emigration’ only 11 months after Hussey’s speech merely coincidence? It seems that the article could be seen in a political light, written to direct the government’s attention to the idea of forming or supporting a British colony in New Zealand. It is interesting that its author reported many details of the supposed emigration but did not give the actual name of the Scottish gentleman, though it is unlikely that he did not know it; possibly he decided not to publish it because if he had it would have been easy to prove the supposed emigration a fabrication.

The anecdote could possibly have played a role in the political and diplomatic struggle for colonies in the South Seas between Britain and France. On 5 May 1785, only three months after its publication, the British ambassador in Paris, the Duke of Dorset, reported to Lord Carmarthen, the Foreign Secretary, that

Mon. de la Perouse will shortly sail from Brest & it is reported with some degree of authority that he has orders to visit New Zealand with a view to examine into the quality of the timber of that country … It is believ’d that the French have a design of establishing some kind of settlement there if it shall be found practicable …

On 9 June 1785 the Duke of Dorset wrote again with more details:

I can inform your Lordship upon good authority that sixty criminals from the Prison of Bicitre were last Monday convey’d under strong guard & with great secrecy to Brest where they are to be embark’d on board M. de la Peyrouse’s ships & it is imagined they are to be left to take possession of that lately discover’d country.(32)

France and Britain were closely watching each other’s activities in the South Pacific and the anecdote in the London Magazine must have been noticed in Paris. It was published in the same year in, Holland. It would not be surprising if an article about the supposed emigration were found in a French journal of that time. It was certainly not completely forgotten by the time Lesson wrote his Voyage autour du monde.

It is known that the establishment of a French penal colony in New Zealand was not part of La Perouse’s instructions, but could the rumours have been France’s answer to Hussey’s proposal in the House of Commons and to the Scottish gentleman anecdote? Was the number of 60 convicts a coincidence or was this part of a diplomatic chess game?

1 R. P. Lesson, Voyage autour du monde entrepris par ordre du gouvernement sur la corvette La Coquille, II (Paris 1839).

2 Andrew Sharp (ed.), Duperrey’s Visit to New Zealand in 1824 (Wellington 1971), 106-7, Eng. trans. by Diana Quarmby; see also Lesson, Voyage, II, 382.

3 Sharp, Duperrey’s Visit, 22-3.

4 Ibid., 107; see also Robert McNab, Historical Records of New Zealand (Wellington 1908-14, repr. 1973), 90-2.

5 A. S. Thomson, The Story of New Zealand (London 1859), I, 219. R. A. A. Sherrin was more cautious, stating correctly in The Early History of New Zealand (Auckland 1890): ‘Of such a visit there is no record’.

6 S. Percy Smith, ‘Wars of the northern against the southern tribes of New Zealand’,Journal of the Polynesian Society, 8 (1899), 203.

7 See also Rhys Richards, ‘Rongotute, Stivers and “other Visitors” to New Zealand “before Captain Cook” ‘, Journal of the Polynesian Society, 102 (1993), 7-38. Richards does not discuss the Scottish gentleman as the year 1782 is outside the scope of his essay.

8 See also Ian Pool, The Maori Population of New Zealand 1769-1971 (Auckland 1971), 116.

9 Elsdon Best, ‘The ship of Rongotute. Tradition of a ship being wrecked at Palliser Bay in the 18th century’, Early Settlers Journal, 1:1 (1912-14).

10 Letter to the editor, Country Life, 23 Feb. 1978.

11 ‘Our Scottish colonists … of 1783’, Otago Daily Times, 26 May 1983, p.30.

12 London Magazine, Feb. 1785, 86-7.

13 De Algemene Vaderlandsche Letteroefeningen (1785), 460-1; see also B.J. Slot, Abel Tasman and the Discovery of New Zealand (Amsterdam 1992), 110.

14 John Knox, A Tour through the Highlands of Scotland and the Hebride Islands in 1786 (1787), 156. I am grateful to Prof. Parsonson, Dunedin, for this source.

15 General Norman Macleod, ‘Memoirs of His Own Life’, MS, 1785, extracts published in Alexander Mackenzie, History of the Macleods (Inverness 1889), 181, 251 (original of Macleod’s memoirs not found).

16 Ibid., 165, 166-7, 176, letter to Sir Eyre Coote, Commander-in-Chief in India, 18 Mar. 1783.

17 Mackenzie, History, 167.

18 J. C. Beaglehole (ed.), The Journals of Captain James Cook. Vol. I The Voyage of the Endeavour, 1768-1771 (Cambridge 1955), 278, 31 Mar. 1770.

19 John Savage, Savage’s Account of New Zealand in 1805 together with Schemes of 1771 and 1805 for Commerce and Colonization, repr. with notes by A.D. McKinlay (Wellington 1939), 175-80. This proposal was also published in France in 1771 and again in England in 1779.

20 Ibid., 179-80.

21 James Boswell, Boswell: The Applause of the Jury, 1782-1785, ed. Irma S. Lustig (London 1982), 92-3.

22 James Boswell, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, ed. George Birkbeck Hill, 6 vols (Oxford 1934-50).

23 Samuel Johnson, A journey to the western Islands of Scotland;James Boswell, The Jurnal of a Tour to the Hebrides, ed. Peter Levi (London 1990), 236-92. Mackenzie, History, 157-65.

24 Boswell’s Life of Johnson, V, 246-7.

25 James Boswell, Boswell for the Defence 1769-1774, ed. W. K. Wimsatt and F. A. Pottle (Melbourne 1960), 64-5; James Boswell, Boswell: the ominous years, ed. C. Ryskamp and F. A. Pottle (London 1963), 169.

26 Boswell: the ominous years, 256.

27 Ibid., 310, 341.

28 Boswell’s Life of Johnson, III, 49. Hill believes the gentleman was Boswell himself; it is equally likely that Boswell was talking about Norman Macleod.

29 George William Anderson, A New, Authentic, and Complete Collection of Voyages Round the World, Undertaken and Performed by Royal Authority. Containing an Authentic, Entertaining, Full and Complete History of Captain Cook’s First, Second, Third and Last Voyages (London 1784), 430-3.

30 William Cobbett, Parliamentary History of England from the Norman Conquest in 1066 to the Year 1803 (London 1806-20), XXIV, 757.

31 Sir John Namier and John Brooke, The House of Commons 1754-1790: Volume II Members A-J (London 1964), 663-4.

32 Dorset to Carmarthen, 5 May, 9 June 1785, Knole MSS, c. 170, folios 25 and 33, Maidstone, Kent County Records Office. See also John Dunmore, Pacific explorer. The life of Jean-Francois de la Perouse, 1741-1788 (Palmerston North 1985).

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