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Significant Scots
James Murdoch


VERY brilliant and exceedingly accomplished graduate of the University, who had a varied and interesting career, has passed away in the person of Mr. James Murdoch, Professor of Oriental Studies in the University of Sydney.

Little known in this country, he had a great reputation in Japan and latterly in Australia. Resident for over twenty years in Japan, withdrawing from European intercourse and steeping himself in the life of the country, he acquired a singularly wide knowledge of its language and its history. In the former he became so efficient as to be recognized as an authority, even by the Japanese themselves—quite a unique distinction for a Briton. He wrote a great “History of Japan” in four volumes (unfortunately not completed), based on laborious researches in official and other archives—a remarkable feat to be accomplished by a foreigner. Recently recalled to Australia, where his career began, he was engaged in organizing the Oriental Studies in school and university which the authorities there now deem essential in view of the position of Australia as an Eastern Power. A man of prodigious learning and industry, he bears a similarity to Thomas Davidson, the famous scholar, who was also a son of Aberdeen University. And he had a career, too, in which there were many novel incidents, much wandering, and not a few vicissitudes. He died at Sydney in the end of October last (his funeral took place on the 31st), aged sixty-five. To notices of him in Japanese and Sydney papers we are indebted for much of the sketch that follows.

James Murdoch was born at Stonehaven, Kincardineshire, on 27 September, 1856, the son of William Murdoch, a grocer in the town, who had also a little farm in the vicinity; and he helped on the farm and in the shop as soon as he was big enough to be of use. He had very little education in his early days, but was sent to the Fetteresso Public School when he was about eleven years of age. There is a story that he was then totally ignorant of the multiplication table and was told to learn the first table, astounding the schoolmaster at the end of the day by having learned all the tables and being able to repeat them correctly. This is cited as an early instance of the extraordinary memorizing power he possessed. It is said that in after-life, in the course of 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 a reference he had cited was to be found. Murdoch was intensely bent on educating himself, and by strenuous application he speedily overcame the deficiencies by which he was at first handicapped. He studied for a time at the Grammar School, Old Aberdeen, and ultimately he won the first bursary at the University, in the competition of 1875, though by that time he had reached the somewhat advanced age of nineteen.

Murdoch was essentially of the type of Northern student who prosecutes his studies with straitened means and consequential privation, for he had to maintain himself chiefly on his meagre bursary; but, like many another “lad o’ pairts” who has undergone the same rigorous discipline, he studied with unabated zest and with very notable success. He passed through the University curriculum with great distinction. In his first session he “swept the board,” taking the first prize in each of the five classes, and in his second session he stood first in the classes devoted to the Classics; later on, he distinguished himself in Logic and Philosophy. His wonderful memorizing powers were again manifested, for on one occasion when-”Professor Geddes gave out the “Cedipus Tyrannus” for homework, Murdoch recited a large portion of the choral odes to a fellow-student the same afternoon. He graduated in 1879 with first-class honours in CIassics and second-class honours in Mental Philosophy, carrying off the Simpson Greek Prize, the Hutton Prize, and the Seafield Latin Medal, while he subsequently won the Fullerton Scholarship for Classics. He studied for a time at Oxford and afterwards at Gottingen and the Sorbonne in Paris.

Somewhere about his middle “twenties,” Murdoch emigrated to Queensland and for a time was Rector of the Grammar School at Maryborough. He gave up teaching for some reason or other, and for several years devoted himself to journalism, especially in connection with the Labour movement, which was then beginning to be a factor in Australian politics. It was the time of the agitation for the restriction of Chinese coolie immigration and the formulation of the idea of a “white Australia”. Murdoch was commissioned by a leading newspaper to investigate the subject of immigration and the introduction of Chinese cheap labour. He proceeded to China, taking a steerage passage in order the more thoroughly to ascertain the conditions under which the coolies lived in the steamers that brought them to Australia and returned them again to China. After completing his investigations in Hong-Kong and Canton, he went on to Japan; and, according to a biographical sketch of Murdoch in the Japan Weekly Chronicle (17 Nov.), he settled in Japan in 1890, engaged in teaching, ran a weekly paper (of which there were only six issues, however), and published a volume of satirical verse, entitled “Don Juan in Japan,” and a novel with the title of “Felix Holt Secundus”.

Then, in 1893, occurred one of the most curious incidents in Murdoch’s extraordinary career. He became associated with a scheme organized by a man William Lane, a Brisbane journalist, to establish a Socialist colony in Paraguay to be called “New Australia”. A grant of about 450,000 acres of land was obtained near Villa Rica, about 110 miles from Asuncion, and this land was to be settled by 400 families. The common ownership of the land and the equal division of expenses and profits was a fundamental principle of the settlement, and an endeavour was to be made to run the settlement in conformity with other Socialistic doctrines. Murdoch determined to throw in his lot with this novel community, to which he offered his services as schoolmaster, and he was appointed Minister of Education in the new colony. He was speedily disillusioned, however—in a fortnight, he is reported to have once said. Lane told him one day —so the story goes—that he had been consulting with God about the affairs of the community, and Murdoch thereupon came to the conclusion that with a leader of that kind “New Australia was no longer any place for James Murdoch”. He accordingly left the community, which before long was rent by dissensions and secessions.

The Odyssey of this “wandering scholar” of ours began again. He travelled through Paraguay on foot, and embarked on a German tramp steamer bound for Europe. It touched at Japan, and there Murdoch was landed, sick and impecunious, spending his first days in a hospital. Recovering his health, he accepted the post of English teacher at the High School at Kanazawa, where he remained for several years. He then took up his residence at Shinagawa, a suburb of Tokyo, and seems to have taught Japanese in Japanese Colleges; and subsequently he became English teacher at the High School at Kagoshima. Murdoch lived for over twenty years in Japan, adopted the Japanese mode of life, married (as his second wife) a Japanese lady, and set up a fruit farm at Kagoshima, on which he intended to stay for the rest of his life. Like Lafcadio Hearn, he made it his aim to enter into the very heart of the country by personal association and intercourse with Japanese of all classes, and the better to assimilate the true Japanese feeling he avoided, so far as possible, European society and contact with European influences.

In the process of this assimilation of Japanese ideas Murdoch devoted himself to the study of the history of Japan, and gradually became imbued with the notion of producing a work on the subject. His investigations were at first directed to the period of early foreign intercourse with Japan, from 1542, when Japan may be said to have been discovered by the Portuguese, to 1639, when the country was finally closed to foreigners. The result of his labours was the publication by the Japan Chronicle, in 1903, of the first volume of his “History of Japan,” which he entitled “The Century of Early Foreign Intercourse”. The volume has been characterized as one “that alone will prove an enduring testimony of his great capacity and the skill with which he pieced together the fragments of an engrossing story of the past”. After its publication it occurred to Murdoch to treat the whole of Japanese history from its early and legendary beginnings to the present day. To do this, however, he felt it necessary to study official and other documents in the language in which they were written. He had by this time acquired a knowledge of Japanese, Chinese, and Sanskrit, as well as of Ethnology and Comparative Religion, which, obviously, were cognate to his historical inquiry, but he had now to learn archaic Japanese, which is quite a different thing from colloquial Japanese, and he had to do this when he was approaching fifty years of age. “Nevertheless,” we are told, “by dint of his indomitable will, he persisted until he could read the ancient records with comparative ease.” In fact, he came to be recognized as an authority in the languages named—recognized by the Japanese themselves, as well as by specialists in Britain, Europe, and America. He was familiar, too, with Spanish and Portuguese, a knowledge of which was essential to his work.

After these preliminary labours, Murdoch set himself to compile his systematic “History of Japan”. 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 in 1911. It has been described as “a book of extraordinary learning and originality,” the outcome of twenty years’ research work in many libraries in Japan; some 50,000 pages of old and medieval Japanese, it was pointed out, were “boiled down” to 636 pages of text. Murdoch’s intention was to complete the history in two more volumes, thus making four in all.

The history of the Tokugawa period (1639-1853) was to form one volume, and that of the Meiji era (1853-1911) the other. The manuscript of the Tokugawa volume was completed, but Murdoch postponed its publication until a time of greater leisure and better financial capacity: the volume, apparently, still awaits publication. The Meiji volume (the fourth volume of the complete work) will never be published, it seems, the following curious explanation of this most regrettable loss to literature being furnished by Professor MacCallum, of Sydney University, in an appreciation of Murdoch contributed to the Sydney Morning Herald (5 Nov.):—

The conclusion of “The History of Japan” is absolutely lost. In a way the last volume was finished, and in a way it was never begun. This is no paradox: Murdoch’s method of working explains its absolute truth. He had a memory, like Macaulay’s, extraordinarily retentive and ready, so that he seemed able to recall at will anything he ever knew, e.g. the number of a page in which some passage occurred, though he had not read the book for years. The gift, so useful to a historian, determined his procedure. He hunted out all the authorities, assessed them, assimilated their information, pondered it in his mind—all this without taking a single note—and when the heterogeneous material was reduced to a coherent and organic whole, took his pen and gave it its final shape in words. A few weeks before his death he said: “My fourth volume is now ready; I have only to write it, which will take a month or two”. Now, that fourth volume, though ready, will never be read. In this as in much else his death was premature, though he lived till sixty-five.

The writing of the monumental “History of Japan” did not complete Murdoch’s remarkable career. Five or six years ago, it was thought advisable to introduce the teaching of Japanese in the course at the Australian Military College at Duntroon, and the Australian authorities consulted the British Government on the selection of an instructor, with the result that, on the recommendation of the British Embassy at Tokyo, Mr. Murdoch was appointed. About the same time, various leaders of commerce urged the University of Sydney to take up the teaching of Japanese. In 1917, a provisional arrangement was made by which the University secured a share of Mr. Murdoch’s services, and this continued until, at the end of 1918, he was attached altogether to the University staff as Professor of Oriental Studies (Japanese and Chinese). Judging from Professor MacCallum’s appreciation, Mr. Murdoch entered on his new sphere of labour with enthusiasm, keenly recognizing that Australia is primarily a Pacific, and therefore an Eastern, Power, and should accordingly acquire a thorough knowledge of its neighbours, and also regarding Sydney University as the proper home for a great school of Oriental learning. Unfortunately, he has been cut off before he had the opportunity of fully manifesting his powers in his new vocation and developing his ideas, which embraced the inclusion of Japanese in the ordinary school curriculum. According to Professor MacCallum—who characterizes Mr. Murdoch as “one of the most remarkable men in the Empire”— he has left no successor. “The teaching of Japanese,” writes the Professor, “will doubtless proceed efficiently, but where shall we find one so able to interpret to our students the conditions and culture of our Near East? It may safely be said that, in the wide commonwealth of British nations, he has no successor. And who has the requisite knowledge, zeal, and circumspect energy, to advance his scheme of Oriental study? Again it must be answered that he has left none even second to himself.”

“D” (presumably Mr. James Davidson, M.A., 1881), in the course of an appreciation of Professor Murdoch, under the title “A Scottish Scholar,” in the Bulletin, Glasgow, of 30 December, said:—

James Murdoch, Professor of Oriental Studies in the University of Sydney, whose death is announced, was a hero of my youth. At Aberdeen University from 1875 to 1879, where he graduated with honours in Classics and Philosophy, he was regarded, by seniors as well as us juniors, with admiration approaching to awe of his extraordinary cleverness. He was otherwise different from the common undergraduate. He had worked himself up to university level with very little tutoring or schooling, and as he was older than most of his classmates, it is probable that he had had to work for his living at the same time, though he seemed to pass through his course with financial ease. Anyhow, he was not only aloof and inclined to be dogmatic when drawn into debate, but he had a curious mental twist that might have repelled worship. It did not; his queerness did not count against his scholarship and quickness of apprehension that was quite out of the common. Perhaps M‘Naughton, who was the classical “don” of the preceding class, and who died Professor of Greek in M‘Gill, was considered a more solid classic. But he left on me no such impression as Murdoch did. Of all my contemporaries, I have been curious about none more than Murdoch the classic. To the youngsters it seemed almost a calamity when he did not carry off a first prize, and that was not often, and there was strong competition in a class that included Sir Francis Grant Ogilvie (one time Principal of Heriot-Watt, and now Principal Assistant Secretary in the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research); Charles Chree, LL.D. (Superintendent of Kew Observatory); and Professor Milligan of Glasgow.

There is generally a man in a University class who strikes his contemporaries thus. Their anticipations of great doings by their hero are often disappointed, but it was not so in Murdoch’s case. True to character, he made a queer start in workaday life, and I have always wondered how he “got on” with fellow-writers in Japan and Australia, but he certainly made a fine use of his exceptional brain.

Murdoch made good, and it is a reproach to his Alma Mater that in all these years she never laureated her distinguished graduate of 1879.


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