James Murdoch [1856-1921] [1]@@




1.     This web page was prepared by Ian Ruxton, but the original text was probably written by Joseph Henry Longford in about 1922 (see endnote no.1). All of the endnotes, links and words added in rectangular brackets are by the former. 

2.     You are visitor number http://counter.digits.com/wc/-d/4/jamesmurdoch since April 5, 2004 according to the counter.

3.     James Murdoch was a much-travelled Scotsman who went to Japan, Australia and South America. He was also a scholar, a radical and a genius of sorts, as will be plain from the following text.

                                                             Ian C. Ruxton    April, 2004



Main text:


James Murdoch was born in 1856 [the twentieth year of Queen Victoriafs reign, 1837-1901], at the village of Stonehaven, not far [South] from Aberdeen [on the East coast of Scotland]. His father farmed a small plot of land and also kept a village general shop. Young Murdoch had very little schooling in his early years, and he had to help on the farm or in the shop as soon as he was big enough to be of use. In some way or other, he got sent to the grammar school when he was about eleven years of age. The master asked him if he knew his multiplication table, and, receiving a reply in the negative, put into his hands an arithmetic book and told him to learn the first table. After an hour or so the master asked young Murdoch if he was ready to repeat the table, and the boy shook his head. Again and again the question was put during the day, only to meet with the same unsatisfactory response, and the master thought a very dull pupil had been sent to him instead of the bright boy he expected. Just before the school closed for the day, the boy brought the book to the master and said he had memorized the table. He then went on to repeat without a single error the multiplication from twice one are two to twelve times twelve are one hundred and forty-four. It will be admitted that this was a remarkable feat for a boy who had never previously been brought into contact with the multiplication table. This retentiveness of memory he held through life. In conversation, he would often quote an author textually or, taking down a book from his well-filled shelves, would turn to the exact page where the reference was to be found.

  While at school, Murdochfs time out of school hours was occupied in helping his father in the shop, an occupation for which he conceived a great distaste. His bent was towards learning, and he eagerly devoured every book he came across. The grammar school had a bursary for the Aberdeen University which was competed for every year. Murdoch determined that he would win the bursary, and every moment that he could spare from his duties in the shop after school hours he devoted to study with this object. Often he sat up all night conning his books in the dim light of a candle, and only putting out the light and scrambling into bed when he heard his father coming to call him in the morning. It was not a healthy life for a young and growing boy, and it undoubtedly left behind a certain delicacy of constitution which continued through life. But he succeeded. He won the bursary and proceeded to the University. Aberdeen was then in the front rank of the Scottish Universities. Alexander Bain was one of the Professors, and he took a great interest in the young student, whose origin was not much unlike his own. Murdoch lived on his meager bursary, his father not being able to supplement it, and devoted himself assiduously to his studies. When he easily graduated he came out first in no less than five subjects, an achievement unprecedented in the whole history of the University, and proceeded to take the degree of M.A. At the same time he won more than one scholarship, which gave him the advantage of going to Oxford or to a Continental [i.e. European mainland] University if he so wished. He chose Oxford, but, as he himself said afterwards, he found that Oxford had nothing to teach him after Aberdeen. He then went on to Göttingen in Germany, where he studied Sanskrit under Professor [Theodor] Benfey, and subsequently to the Sorbonne in Paris.

  His inclination was towards mathematics, but he had been compelled to take up the classical languages as there were no scholarships for the study which he preferred. By now he had become one of the finest of classical scholars, with a remarkable knowledge of Latin and Greek literature and no inconsiderable acquaintance with Sanskrit, while he spoke and wrote French and German with fair proficiency. To these languages, he afterwards added Spanish and Portuguese in order to study the writings of the Jesuit and Dominican missionaries to Japan in the original. At 24, he was made Assistant Professor of Greek at Aberdeen [in 1880]. Shortly afterwards he was offered the second Mastership of a school in Australia at six hundred [pounds] a year, soon becoming headmaster at a thousand pounds a year, a fortune to a boy brought up as Murdoch was. He was a born teacher, and he inspired his pupils with devotion, making them think for themselves rather than learn their lessons by rote. But the work of administration such as falls on the shoulders of a headmaster was intolerably irksome to him. As a result he resigned his post, and for a while took a position as second master in another school. Here he found himself not much happier. He hated the restrictions placed on teachers, the necessity of going into society and talking amiable nothings, the restraint on education itself due to the insincerity of religious and social convention. To the great surprise of those who recognized his educational capacity he threw up his tutorial position and went into journalism. Those were the early days of the Labour movement in Australia, and he was ambitious to organize a great Labour Party, which should take the destinies of Australia into its hands. Suggestions were made that he should stand for Parliament, but he disliked the idea of promising the millennium when he knew that, in the existing circumstances, the millennium was not obtainable. So he continued to devote himself to journalism, believing that political education was necessary before there could be any hope of a material change in social conditions.

  At this time the Labour movement in Australia was greatly agitated by the question of Chinese immigration. The idea of a gwhite Australiah was just being born, and its conception was in large measure due to the fear of the working classes in Australia that the capitalists were determined to reduce the labourers to a position of serfdom by means of the introduction of cheap labour from the Orient. Murdoch received a commission from a leading newspaper to investigate the subject, and took passage for China. In order to see how the Chinese lived on board the steamers which brought them to Australia and brought them back again to their own country when they had made what they regarded as a gpileh, he travelled the first part of the journey in the steerage. Besides the Chinese there were a number of Europeans in the third class, rough fellows most of them. But Murdoch could make himself popular in any company when he liked, and the study of men of all conditions and ranks was a pronounced hobby with him. He found the food and conditions in the steerage abominable, the passengers in the third class being treated with the greatest contempt and indifference to their comfort, it being evidently believed that no complaint by them would have any effect on the company, as of course they were generally persons without any influence, while the Chinese were accustomed to take philosophically any outrage that might be put on them. Murdoch headed a deputation to the Captain, without any effect being produced except a volley of curses, for the man was a bully and did not know that he was talking to a journalist. The scathing articles that subsequently appeared in one of the most important of the Sidney journals probably made him sorry that he had not shown more discretion. An amusing incident arose out of the conditions on board. The cabin passengers regarded those in the steerage from the upper deck as though they were a lot of queer animals. One of the most objectionable of the cabin passengers was a gentleman dressed in the height of fashion, with a heavy gold chain and gold rings covering his fingers, who one day brought a lady to witness the antics of the peculiar population in the steerage. The Europeans were engaged in throwing about the gspudsh with which they had been regaled at the midday meal that day, and which they had found uneatable. Suddenly, as the jewelled gentleman was looking at their antics with contemptuous superiority and pointing out the skill or the reverse with which the missiles were thrown, a very squashy potato caught him full in the face and he retired suddenly much discomfited. Complaint was made to the Captain, who threatened all manner of things and apparently held Murdoch responsible as the ring leader. When, therefore, Murdoch went ashore at the next port and, having purchased a first-class ticket at the agency, appeared in the saloon attired in the usual costume of ocean travellers instead of the garments he had worn in the steerage, the Captain was at first almost speechless with indignation. When he recovered his flow of profanity was so great, as he ordered the supposed steerage passenger to get back to his quarters, that he almost burst a blood vessel. Nor was his equanimity restored when Murdoch coolly showed his ticket and produced his card. But he sobered down when he realized the mistake he had made and its possible consequences, and he was very subdued for the rest of the voyage. The lady, who had been indignant at the outrage upon her escort of the moment, became a great friend of the erstwhile steerage passenger, and being a cultivated woman, discussed poetry and philosophy with him during the remainder of the voyage to Hong-Kong, to the great disgust of the jewelled gentleman.

  After completing his investigations in Hong-Kong and Canton, and sending the results of his inquiries on the Australian coolie traffic to his paper, Murdoch came on to Japan, where he found a University friend established as a teacher in one of the schools in Kyushu. This was in the year 1889. The life attracted him and also the country and people. He went into Kobe and Tokyo, and then returned to Australia to settle up his affairs, having determined that he would enter the Japanese Government service as a teacher. He returned to Japan in the following year, but before settling down to teaching he made a tour through the country, having at the time some idea of preparing a guide-book. While on this tour, he took the opportunity of investigating a well-known coal mine in Kyushu, belonging to one of the big semi-Government commercial companies which still exercises great influence in Japanese affairs. He was amazed by what he discovered ; the miners, he found, being absolutely serfs, working under conditions that were little better than those which prevailed in the worst mines in Russia. He wrote several articles on the subject, which were published in the Japan Gazette, [1867-1923, editor in 1889 E.P. Nuttall] then a journal of some influence, and the result of his revelations was the institution of a series of reforms in the mines which removed some of the worst evils to which he had called attention.

  Murdochfs first employment in Japan was that of a teacher in the Middle School at Nakatsu in@[Oita prefecture in] Kyushu which had been established by the former daimyo. His second position was at the First High School [founded in Tokyo in 1894, previously the First Higher Middle School, founded in 1886]. There he became a well-known member of the scholastic society in Tokyo, at a time when the professorships at the [Imperial] University [of Tokyo] were filled by some very distinguished men, both English and American. He brought out a volume of verse entitled Don Juan in Japan, and some imitations of Aristophanesf Birds, in which he made fun of conditions in the local foreign community and the reputations of some very serious and solemn persons. In later years he published a novel, entitled Felix Holt Secundus, [Felix Holt the Second] the scene of which is laid in Australia and Japan.[2] Another novel, suggested by Burtonfs photographs of Japan and the Japanese, entitled Ayame-san was also issued about this time [in 1892], the beautiful photographs of Burton [3], who was Professor of Engineering in the Tokyo University, being used as illustrations. Some years later, he wrote an autobiographic novel, but on failing to find a publisher at the first attempt, he put it away and took no further interest in it. Another literary venture some time in the enineties [1890s], was the issue of a weekly, with drawings and caricatures by [Georges] Bigot [4], a French artist who for many years lived in Japan, the letterpress being in the main written by himself. It was called the Japan Echo [1890-91, owned by L. Salabelle, edited by Murdoch], and only ran a few weeks. There were, in fact, six numbers.

  About the year 1893, Murdoch took part in a curious adventure. Socialism was fairly strong in the eeighties and early enineties in Australia. A man named William Lane, who was both a visionary and a practical man of affairs, organized a Communist colony in Paraguay, where he obtained a grant of some 25,000 acres from the Paraguayan Government, and to this land of promise he conducted a group of families and single men from Australia, like-minded with himself, there to form a community to be called New Australia. Murdoch, who knew Lane in Australia and had formed a very high opinion of him, determined to throw in his lot with the community, to which he offered his services as a schoolmaster. His offer being gratefully accepted, he sailed from Japan, and arrived in South America to find a war going on between Chili and the Argentine. As a result his steamer was held up at Monte Video for more than a month. He made an investigation into the local politics and the course of the war, and his story of the events was the first connected account to reach the outside world. On finally arriving in Paraguay, he found the new colony already dispirited by its earlier experiences of a life for which many of those who took part were quite unfitted. There were constant bickerings and dissensions, leading to disputes in which there were threats of the use of arms. gMy experience of the practical working of socialism,h he once said, gwas the serving out of meat to a community almost starving, with envy and jealousy so strong that the butcher weighed the meat with one hand while he kept a revolver in the other.h Lane had developed from the gentle and thoughtful leader of equalitarians into an autocrat. The strain developed a curious fanaticism and mysticism in a man hitherto known for his equable temperament and total absence of religious credulity. One morning he rode up to the place where Murdoch was lying on the grass prior to the assembling of the school and remarked that he had been consulting with God about the affairs of the community. gMaybe,h said Murdoch gravely, finding that an answer was required. Eyeing Murdoch again, but getting nothing further, he rode away. gBut that incident decided me,h said Murdoch ; gwhen the leader professed to be ordering his movements and policy by the instructions of a supernatural being, New Australia was no longer any place for James Murdoch.h So he left the community, which lingered on after several secessions, and so far as it still exists has quite altered in character. 

  On his journey back to Japan, via England, he had the misfortune to suffer from sunstroke at Rio de Janeiro, and for some weeks was in a very critical condition. In fact, he never fully recovered from this unpleasant experience. Returning to Japan in a condition of impaired health, he accepted the post of English teacher at the High School at Kanazawa. There he remained for some years, his health meanwhile being slowly restored, though he never showed the great vitality which marked his earlier years in Japan. It was at Kanazawa that he began to study the history of Japan, the idea having attracted him for some years, so that in returning to Japan from Paraguay he took the opportunity of a stay of some weeks in London to make a study of the material in the British Museum of the early voyagers to Japan. At first, it had been his intention to devote himself to the period of early foreign intercourse with Japan, from the year 1542, when Japan may be said to have been discovered by the Portuguese, to the year 1639, when the country was finally closed to foreigners, with [the] exception of the small Dutch colony which for the next two and a half centuries maintained a precarious existence on the tiny inlet of Deshima, in Nagasaki harbour. The result of his labours and investigations was the publication by the Japan Chronicle [editor Robert Young, 1891-1921] of the first volume of his History of Japan, which he called gThe Century of Early Foreign Intercourseh. It was carried out in collaboration with Mr. Yamagata Iso, now Editor of the Seoul Press, who was responsible for the Japanese sources, while Murdochfs work consisted in reading and collating the letters of the Jesuit and Dominican fathers in Spanish and Portuguese and the sifting of the wheat from the chaff in the accounts of the Christian movement in Japan in the sixteenth century compiled by Leon Pages and Charlevoix, who sometimes show a childlike faith and credulity that, however admirable it may be as disclosing a deeply religious nature, is unfitted for sober history. Having accomplished a work that alone will prove an enduring testimony of his great capacity and the skill with which he pieces together the fragments of an engrossing story of the past, Murdoch conceived the idea of treating the whole of Japanese history from its legendary and early beginnings to the present day. To do this he felt that it was necessary to study the documents in the language in which they were written. He had already obtained a certain familiarity with colloquial Japanese, but though he was by this time approaching fifty years of age, he determined that he would master one of the most difficult languages in the world. Not only did this mean the capacity to read a Japanese book or newspaper in the ordinary language of to-day, but the study of archaic Japanese, which is a very different matter. Nevertheless, by dint of his indomitable will, he persisted until he could read the ancient records with comparative ease. He then entered on the work of writing a systematic History of Japan, of which the first volume, bringing the history down to the date of the discovery of Japan by the Portuguese, was issued by the Asiatic Society of Japan about ten years ago. His intention was to complete it in two more volumes, thus making four in all, the History of the Tokugawa period forming one volume and that of the Meiji era, the concluding volume of the series of four. For some years he took up his residence at Shinagawa, a suburb of Tokyo, almost on the site of the place formerly occupied by the British Embassy when the murderous attack was made upon its inmates in the time of Sir Rutherford Alcock [1861]. [5] There he worked at the accumulation of materials for his History. Subsequently he took a position as English teacher at the High School at Kagoshima. He purchased a piece of land in the name of the Japanese lady with whom he had become united, and formed an orchard for the growing of oranges and lemons. He also contributed many articles to the Japan Chronicle, one series dealing with the philosophy of Herbert Spencer and others being fragments from his studies in Japanese history, particularly with regard to the incidents affecting the Dutch colony at Deshima. He was visited at Kagoshima by [British Minister, later Ambassador from 1905, in Japan 1900-12] Sir Claude MacDonald, who took a great liking to him, and when the Australian Government asked that an Englishman should be engaged as Professor of Japanese at the University of Melbourne, the British Embassy recommended Murdoch. With some hesitation, for he had made up his mind to live on his fruit farm at Kagoshima for the remainder of his life, Murdoch accepted the post, and about five years ago, left for Australia. He has made almost annual visits to Japan since that date, sometimes with a view to the engagement of Japanese assistants, sometimes to see about text-books for his students. He was in Japan in the autumn of 1921, and was expected to arrive again this year at the very time that the news of his death was received, May, 1922.

  As a teacher Murdoch acquired an extraordinary control and influence over his pupils. His teaching was quite different from the conventional method, and especially from that followed in Japan. It aimed at making the pupils think for themselves, at encouraging them to reach solutions by their own efforts, after the way had been pointed out. Many of the students who received instruction from him now hold important positions in Japan, and it is to their honour that they never forget their old teacher and were always ready to do him any service on his own account. Curiously, he never lost his Scottish accent, though he was not in Scotland after he was twenty-five years of age, or if so only for a very short time. He described his accent, himself, as a strong Doric, and to the last Englishmen had sometimes a difficulty in following his rapid and strongly accented speech. This was scarcely a good foundation either for teaching Japanese students English or for teaching English students Japanese. Yet he was remarkably successful as a teacher because of the intellectual quality he put into his work. Of a somewhat high-strung and nervous temperament, he was rather apt to take offence where none was intended, but he never bore malice and was incapable of a mean action even towards his enemies. Almost from his University days he was an Agnostic, the religion in which he had been brought up being not so much abandoned as that conviction slipped away from him. It seemed to him to have no basis in reality. The great historical work upon which he was engaged, which competent critics, who have seen the beginning, declare would have taken rank as the standard history of Japan, will now never be finished. How far he had got in his survey of the Meiji era is unknown. The Tokugawa era, was, it is believed, completed, but it is improbable that the history of the Meiji era is very far advanced, and it is now doubtful whether one with the knowledge and competence of Murdoch will ever be found willing to complete the task. He was sixty-five years of age and when in Japan last year said he felt in better health than he had done for years, and looked forward to some ten years more of life to accomplish what he had in view. But it was not to be. His work is left unfinished, but it is a noble fragment. His life is an example of the genius that lies in the Scottish as in other peasantries which only requires favourable circumstances to develop. His Japanese wife, who was devoted to him, accompanied him to Australia, but as was natural, with a somewhat inadequate knowledge of English and a life that was different from any she had experienced, she was not very happy there. Presumably she will return to her own country now and take up residence on the little property purchased at Kagoshima. Murdoch had cherished the idea of returning there to end his days, for he had no relatives left in Scotland, though he had a son in America by his first wife, an Englishwoman. His life has been strange and even romantic as well as useful. There are many with whom he has been brought in contact during his variegated career, besides the students whom he taught, who will hear with regret that he is no more.



Further Reading

D. C. S. Sissons 1987, 'James Murdoch (1856-­1921): historian, teacher and much else besides', Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan (TASJ), 4th series, 2:1­57 (cited in the online bibliography created by Dr. Peter Kornicki of the East Asian Institute at Cambridge University)


Scanned maps from A History of Japan during the century of early foreign intercourse (1542-1651) by James Murdoch in collaboration with Isoh Yamagata (published in Kobe, Japan eat the office of the Chroniclef, 1903) are provided by Nick Wedd here. [Note: Lafacadio Hearn liked the maps – see here!]


Internal Links

Go to Ian Ruxtonfs Home Page.

Go to Ianfs New Book Page.

Go to Ianfs Ernest Satow Page.

Go to the KIT official pages (both Japanese and English are available).



External Links

Go to the Asiatic Society of Japan website. The ASJ was established in Yokohama in 1872.

Go to the Japan Society of London website. The Japan Society of London was founded in 1891.




[1] This brief portrait is not attributed to any author, but was most probably written by Joseph Henry Longford (1849-1925) who retired as Consul for Nagasaki in 1902, was Professor of Japanese at Kingfs College, London 1903-16, Chairman of the Japan Society 1921-22 and the author of several books on Japan. Longford also revised and edited Volume III of the 1926 version of Murdochfs History of Japan , though sadly he did not live to see publication of the three volumes together, and the editing work was completed by L.M.C. Hall. (These footnotes are by Ian C. Ruxton.)

[2] See From Australia and Japan by eA.M.f a pseudonym of James Murdoch. Originally published by Walter Scott Ltd. of London in 1892, reprinted by Ganesha Publishing (London) and Edition Synapse (Tokyo) in 2003 as volume 23 of Japan in English : key nineteenth-century sources on Japan 1890-99, 1st series. This volume includes Felix Holt Secundus, which among other autobiographical material contains the espud-throwingf story related here.

[3] See eW.K. Burton, 1856-99: Engineer Extraordinairef, by Olive Checkland, Ch. 16, pp.174-186, Britain & Japan: Biographical Portraits, Volume IV, ed. Hugh Cortazzi. (Japan Library, 2002.) William Kinninmond Burton was born in Edinburgh. In 1887 he was appointed Professor of Sanitary Engineering at the Imperial University of Tokyo.

[4] gBigot, born in Paris in 1860, arrived in Japan as an instructor in the Military Academy in 1882. He later worked briefly as a journalist, and in 1887 began to produce his humorous magazine, Tôbaé , described as a ejournal satiriquef. As well as Tôbaé, and other short-lived magazines, Bigot produced a series of charming albums illustrating life in Yokohama, focusing on the foibles of the foreign community, but also illustrating many aspects of Japanese life. Bigot later returned to France, dying in Paris in 1927. In 1982, his life and work was featured among the first special exhibitions of the Yokohama Archives of History.h (J.E. Hoare, Japanfs Treaty Ports and Foreign Settlements, Japan Library, 1994).

[5] See H. Cortazzi 1994, 'Sir Rutherford Alcock, the first British minister to Japan 1859-1864: a reassessment', TASJ (4th series) 8: 1-42