Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Munro, James (1779–1845)

by Barbara Valentine

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

James Munro (c.1779-1845?), convict, seaman and storekeeper, was convicted at the Old Bailey, London, in January 1799 of stealing twenty yards (18 m) of printed calico from a haberdasher in Oxford Street. Aged 20, he was sentenced to transportation for seven years and reached Sydney in the convict transport Royal Admiral on 22 November 1800. He was probably exposed to religious teaching en route, as twelve missionaries from the London Missionary Society were also on board. In the 1806 Sydney muster roll he was described as a boatswain, free by servitude, and he sailed on a number of voyages from Sydney from 1809.

Munro's navigational skills stood him in good stead in the dangerous waters around the Furneaux Group, Bass Strait, where he settled (on Preservation Island) about 1820. By 1824 he had a good vegetable garden, fowls, pigs, goats and sheep. Two years later an observer described his establishment as 'a little village, situated under a Cluster of Trees. It has a very pretty appearance'. He also grew wheat and barley, and bred rabbits. He sold his produce to vessels, traded in mutton birds, bartered his vegetables with sealers and acted as a storekeeper for their seal skins. Known as 'King of the Sealers' or 'Governor of the Straits', he was distinguished by his 'crack-jaw dictionary words and wise looks'.

Following his letter to the superintendent of police at Launceston reporting the arrival of prisoners on the island, in 1825 Munro was appointed a constable in the straits, with a special brief to watch for escaped convicts. When G. A. Robinson came to the region in 1830 to establish an Aboriginal settlement, he attempted unsuccessfully to remove Munro—whom he accused of having previously abducted indigenous women from the mainland. Next year Munro went to Hobart Town to frustrate Robinson's attempts to deprive the sealers of their Aboriginal consorts. Munro has been called 'an exception among the sealers, who were rogues almost to a man'. Looking for contentment on Preservation Island, he was a religious man who wanted 'to make peace with his maker', received religious tracts, read the Bible to local children and taught an Aboriginal woman to say her prayers.

Robinson described Munro as being 5 ft 5 ins (165 cm) tall, with light hair and a fair complexion. A water-colour (1831) by Henry Laing depicted his establishment on Preservation Island. Six Tasmanian Aboriginal women, a native of New Holland and a New Zealand woman lived with him at various times, and Munro for the most part treated them well.

Munro died in December 1844 or January 1845 on Preservation Island and was buried near his dwelling. The Hobart Town Courier, in an obituary headed 'The Tasmanian Crusoe', praised his hospitality and many acts of kindness. According to the Courier, he left three children by an Aboriginal woman, although other accounts of his issue varied. Louisa Briggs was reputedly his granddaughter. Mount Munro and Munro Bay on Cape Barren Island were named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • N. J. Plomley (ed), Friendly Mission (Hob, 1966)
  • N. J. B. Plomley, Weep in Silence (Hob, 1987)
  • A. C. Begg and N. C. Begg, The World of John Boultbee (Christchurch, NZ, 1979)
  • D. Barwick et al (eds), Metaphors of Interpretation (Canb, 1985), p 185
  • Papers and Proceedings (Tasmanian Historical Research Association), vol 37, nos 2 & 3, June–Sept 1990, p 37
  • Old Bailey Sessions papers, 1788-99, no 99, p 105, reel FM4/7163 (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Barbara Valentine, 'Munro, James (1779–1845)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/munro-james-13122/text23745, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 12 December 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2017

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Munroe, James
Birth

1779

Death

1845
Preservation Island, Tasmania, Australia

Occupation