Brian Symonds continues his exploration of Ross-shire man, Hector Munro.
Hector Munro, the hero of Buxar, now wealthy and with social status as an MP, was seemingly established comfortably in his Highland Novar estate. However in 1777 he chose to return to India as Commander-in-Chief of the East India Army. Perhaps Munro lost heavily in the major financial crisis following the Scottish Ayr Bank failure in 1772, and the resulting financial embarrassment created the need for him to once more forsake the Highlands.
In his new position Munro presided over wars with the Indian rulers and the French. He personally commanded the forces which in 1778 stormed and captured the strategically important French base at Pondichéry. This victory was so important for Britain that Munro was awarded a knighthood. The newly ennobled Sir Hector Munro, still officially MP for Inverness Burghs even when in India, re-established his financial standing from prize money.
However, in 1780 his fortunes changed. He failed to send assistance to beleaguered East India troops during the campaign against a prince of southern India. As a result the Company lost the whole Carnatic region to the local rulers and the French and destroyed his reputation. It was considered the worst defeat suffered by the British in the eighteenth century. Munro resigned his command and returned to London but was greeted with the news that he had been dismissed from the East India Company in disgrace.
Trouble followed him north in 1782. The old established landowners were uneasy with the nabobs, those nouveau riche who returned from India with their controversial wealth. This was particularly so when they use it to ‘build grand houses, improve traditional land ownership and to buy political position’.
Once resettled, Munro turned his attention to Novar. There he continued to court controversy. He is said to have found Novar ‘a very inferior property, with poor soil but well adapted for the growth of timber’. He began modernising the management of the estate and initiated improvements to the house and surrounding area, including the construction of the folly of the Gate of Negapatam. Reputedly he spent some £120,000: at current value representing the startling sum of some thirteen million pounds.
It is claimed that Sir Hector’s estate improvements and his folly gave much-needed employment to local men. Paradoxically, he also pioneered the introduction of sheep which displaced populations. He also engaged in other profitable enterprises such as the introduction of larch as a commercial timber crop. The resulting clearances and loss of traditional tenure systems that sustained local communities created high local unemployment and poverty while ultimately provoking widespread resistance by tenants. Sir Hector Munro was ‘a man with considerable experience in India of quelling troublesome natives’ and who still maintained his status as the Colonel of a Highland regiment so. He therefore: ‘ordered certain companies of the regiment to Novar, where they dispersed the people and took some of the ringleaders prisoners’. They were subsequently tried at the Justiciary Court sitting at Inverness, and sentenced to transportation for life.
Motivation for Munro’s pursuit of estate modernisation might be found in the sheer disparity of the gain from his exploits in India and the traditional income from his Highland estate. An early year in India easily secured him £20 000, a sum equal to thirty eight years of income from his unmodernised Highland estate.
Munro continued to prosper through family connections within the East India Company. His nephew, Captain Alexander Munro, was killed in India and left Sir Hector his possessions. In a letter dated 9th June 1779 this was itemised as ‘three chests of Treasure containing as per Invoice & Bill of Lading inclosed Silver Argots Twenty Seven Thousand and Twenty Seven Rupees’.
Despite the apparent inhumanity he displayed in his military career and his seeming callousness in his management of Novar Estate, it is difficult not to feel some sympathy for the family misadventures that accompanied his sojourns to India. Whilst he never married he had three sons and a daughter, not all by the same mother. Munro lost his seventeen year old son in 1792, a cadet in the East India Company’s military service: ‘I heard a roar like thunder, and saw an immense royal tiger spring on the unfortunate Munro, who was sitting down: in a moment his head was in the beasts mouth and he rushed into the jungle with him’. A second son, who joined the East India Company as a Writer in 1796, died aboard ship in 1814 on the journey home. His third son, also seventeen and also a cadet in the East India Company service, was killed in 1804 by a shark in the Bay of Bengal. It is not clear what became of his daughter but she may have joined Munro at Novar. Sir Hector Munro died at Novar House during Christmas of 1805: a local man, sometimes hero and sometimes villain.
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