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Mexico’s first Australian tourist

20 June 2008

Not that I’ve been paid yet… or will earn very much, but my book has gone off to the publisher, and I’m just finishing up a shorter project for a British guide book (all I can say at this point), and am starting on a commissioned project to write a short history of Mazatlán, intended for the tourist trade and gringo colony.

I’m using “gringo” in the broad sense… we have a huge colony of both U.S. and Canadian retirees and winter residents here (including French-Canadians), and a sprinkling of Dutch. Lately, thanks to some engineering projects, we’re also getting more Australians. While the first Australian to visit Mexico probably didn’t come to Mazatlán he might have. If he sailed on a naval vessel, or the weather was bad, the ship may have called here. Mazatlán didn’t become a town until 1824, after Independence, but there was a small naval station here, and small coastal ships often anchored in the harbor during storms or if they needed to take on water.

This snippet from Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore: The epic of Australia’s founding (New York: Vintage Books, 1986) is worth passing along, if for nothing else, to remember how much trouble some of us have gone through to get to Mexico.

In the early 1790s, “reforming” English intellectuals flirted with Jacobinism. To enable such parsons, lawyers and pamphleteers to make contact with like-minded workers, discussion groups known as “Corresponding Societies” were formed. Their officers called themselves “Jacobins” but were, in fact, reforming constitutionalists, who wanted to recall Britain’s labors and artisans to a sense of their ancient rights…

…the blow against Corresponding Societies was struck in Scotland, where juries were easily rigged. If fell on a young, blue-eyed Scottish lawyer named Thomas Muir (1765-1799), vice-president of a Jacobin discussion group in Glasgow. Muir was an ardent constitutionalist whose offense was to advocate yearly elections of Parliament and a broadening of the Scottish franchise. He stood trial for sedition in Edinburgh in 1793… The jury quickly and unanimously found Thomas Muir guilty and and was sentenced to 14 years’ transportation.

The course intellectual clay of Sydney was not to [Muir and other Scots Jacobins’] shaping. They tried to catechize some prisoners but got little response. Then Thomas Muir, with extraordinary daring, contrived to escape. Early in 1796 he managed to contact the skipper of an American fur-trading vessel, the Otter, provisioning in Sydney Harbor. As soon as the ship sailed, Muir stole a rowboat and hauled out through the Heads, at night; the Yankees picked him up a few miles offshore. Months later, when the Otter reached Alaskan waters, Muir learned that a Royal Navy ship had been seen in the area. Fearing capture, he transferred to a cruising Spanish gunboat, which took him south to Monterrey in Spanish California.

From Monterrey he made his way to the Caribbean, via Mexico City and Vera Cruz.

He should have stayed in Mexico. From Veracruz, Muir made it to Cuba, where he sailed for Cadiz on a Spanish frigate. The frigate was attacked by the British Navy: “an exploding shell mutilated Muir’s face and destroyed his left eye; he was so badly wounded that the British officers, learning he was aboard, could not recognize him.” Muir languished for several months in a Cadiz hospital until English Republicans arranged for political asylum in France. He wrote an account of his travels, which have unfortunately been lost, and died in obscurity and poverty in Chantilly on 26 January 1799.

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