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MURRAY, JOHN, army officer and colonial administrator; b. c. 1739 in Ireland; m. Mary Pasco, and they had at least two sons; d. 4 May 1824 in Paris.

John Murray entered the British army on 6 March 1760 as an ensign and served in different parts of the world, becoming a brigadier-general in 1796. Two years later he came to Nova Scotia to serve under Prince Edward* Augustus, commander of the forces in the Maritime provinces. Murray never took to Halifax society, and his “haughty and despotic” temperament did not sit well with the local élite. He alienated himself from the prince by suggesting that the king might be displeased if Edward took his companion Mme de Saint-Laurent [Montgenet] to London, and angered Lieutenant Governor Sir John Wentworth* by blocking him in his attempt to improve his own land at government expense. Consequently both men were pleased when early in 1799 Murray, as a senior officer in the Atlantic region, was appointed to administer Cape Breton, a colony from which Lieutenant-General James Ogilvie* had been begging to be allowed to retire.

Before leaving Halifax in June, Murray was given all the lurid details of the political quarrelling in Cape Breton. The contending parties, both trying to gain the ear of the colony’s ruler, were headed by the Reverend Ranna Cossit* and Attorney General David Mathews*. When Murray arrived in Cape Breton on the 21st he was particularly suspicious of Mathews, about whom he had been warned in Halifax. But in an effort to follow the non-partisan path of the absentee lieutenant governor, William Macarmick*, he appointed his Executive Council from both parties. Mathews made it practically impossible to maintain this balance. When in July Murray attempted to conciliate the two sides by giving a dinner for the council, Mathews refused to dine with his political foes, and relations between the two men started to deteriorate.

Given Murray’s impetuous nature, Mathews’s dismissal from office seemed a certainty. However, Murray could not indulge his wishes since he was under the surveillance of his enemies in Halifax. He felt certain that they would be delighted by Mathews’s disaffection and indeed that they were promoting it. He thus decided to build up as much support as possible in Sydney before moving against Mathews. In turn, Cossit and his supporters saw the situation as an opportunity to gain Murray’s favour and destroy Mathews. Murray was correct in his supposition about his enemies, for even as he reached Sydney negotiations were under way between Edward Augustus and Major-General John Despard for his replacement as military commander, and by the fall rumours had reached Sydney of Murray’s impending removal. The Cossit faction began passing petitions asking that Murray be kept in Cape Breton; the opposing group drew up another resolution disclaiming support for the petitions.

Now sure of some backing, Murray decided to destroy Mathews’s power. He had also sought approval from the Home Department for dismissing Mathews and a dispatch giving it was sent by the home secretary, the Duke of Portland, in October 1799. In November he dismissed Mathews as attorney general, appointed William Campbell in his place, and a month later had the council agree to Mathews’s removal from that body. Mathews would not give in without a fight and contended that Murray had no legal authority since his mandamus was made out to Thomas Murray, a clerical error which Murray had already noted to the Home Department. Murray was in no mood to argue and also dismissed Mathews’s followers, who included secretary William McKinnon*, councillor Archibald Charles Dodd, and joint chief justice Ingram Ball*.

While Murray was contending with his political enemies, he was still able to devote time to colonial improvements. Soon after he arrived he used the 150 troops brought by Ogilvie to complete a road from Sydney to the northwest arm of Sydney Harbour. He also improved the road from Sydney to the Mira River, and began construction of a new barracks, a government house, a brewery, and a market-house.

Murray’s main achievement, however, lay in increasing the production of coal. He wanted a new pit dug at the mines since he felt that the existing one would soon run out of coal. The lessees of the mines, Jonathan Tremain and Richard Stout*, claimed that there was still plenty of coal, but Murray mistrusted their assessment and thought that the partners would let their lease expire and force the government to pay the cost of opening a new pit. He concluded that the government should assume control, but realized that this scheme would be expensive and therefore bargained with Tremain and Stout, offering to sink a new pit if they would renew their lease. In October 1799, as the contract was about to be signed, James Miller, the superintendent of mines, died. Murray was loath to let Tremain and Stout run the mines without Miller’s supervision and allowed the lease to lapse. Stout meanwhile mercilessly stripped the pit. Murray, placing the mines under crown control, appointed Campbell superintendent to work with Miller’s sister, Jane, a woman with good business sense and knowledge of mining. A new pit was opened without delay, and by the summer of 1800 this pit and a new pier had resulted in increased shipments of coal. Murray also made the first important innovation in the treatment of the miners when he began paying them in cash at regular intervals. The change broke Tremain and Stout’s economic hold on the miners, who had previously had to take their wages in supplies.

In the mean time, Murray’s position as administrator was becoming less secure. Though he had apparently broken the back of Mathews’s party, its members were feeding the Duke of Kent [Edward Augustus] and Wentworth with any information that might lead to Murray’s dismissal. Acting on this information, in March 1800 the duke charged Murray with naming military officers to the council. Murray admitted to the truth of the charge but pointed out that past lieutenant governors and administrators had done so because of a lack of qualified civilian candidates, and that he was only following a precedent. Since the defence was unanswerable, the duke decided not to press the point, and sent Despard, who had received a letter of appointment for assuming the military command, to take over control.

Murray had feared that he would be replaced, and he was not willing to surrender power easily. Since Ogilvie’s time it had been assumed that the military commander would also have civil authority, and Murray used the wording of Despard’s letter of appointment to retain the civil office after the latter’s arrival in June 1800. Despard was confused and on advice from Wentworth bided his time. Early in September Wentworth became convinced that the person commanding the forces was ex officio civilian chief as well, and he advised Despard to prepare to take over.

Since Murray would not leave office peacefully, the dispute was settled by brute force. Despard had the advantage since he controlled the military and also because the captain of the militia was a son of Richard Stout, who was opposed to Murray. On 17 September Despard convened a meeting of the council to have himself proclaimed administrator. Murray was still popular because of the improvements he had effected, and a mob gathered at the governor’s quarters. The militia was called out to prevent a riot. Murray was helpless: the presence of the troops and militia kept his followers from the meeting, and he could only send William Smith* to England in a fruitless effort to explain his case. Despard took no action but let him linger until the end of June 1801.

Murray’s career after Cape Breton is unknown, although it has been claimed that he was a prisoner in Napoleon’s France for 12 years. He was promoted by seniority to major-general on 25 Sept. 1803, to lieutenant-general on 25 Oct. 1809, and to general on 12 Aug. 1819. At the time of his death he was living in Paris.

The fate of John Murray provides a perfect example of the effect that the hopeless state of Cape Breton before 1800 had on careers. Though enthusiastic and well-intentioned, he was prey to warring factions, the ineptitude of the Home Department, and the interference of Nova Scotia in Cape Breton’s affairs. Despite these obstructions, he managed to destroy the power of David Mathews and lay the groundwork for improvements which would be built upon by his successors.

R. J. Morgan

PAC, MG 11, [CO 217] Nova Scotia A, 131. PRO, CO 217/117–18. [William Smith], A caveat against emigration to America; with the state of the island of Cape Breton, from the year 1784 to the present year; and suggestions for the benefit of the British settlements in North America (London, 1803). The royal military calendar, containing the service of every general officer in the British army, from the date of their first commission . . . , ed. John Philippart (3v., London, 1815[16]), 1. R. J. Morgan, “Orphan outpost.”

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Cite This Article

R. J. Morgan, “MURRAY, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 2, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/murray_john_6E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/murray_john_6E.html
Author of Article:   R. J. Morgan
Title of Article:   MURRAY, JOHN
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1987
Year of revision:   1987
Access Date:   March 2, 2024