Hector Munro: Highland Villain or Fallen Hero? part 1

Brian Symons is a recent graduate of the University of the Highlands and Islands Masters programme in British Studies. He is a ‘serial student’ whose interests and previous degrees span a wide range of cultural studies. Now retired and living in the far north Highlands, his most recent interest has been the impact of the great wealth brought into the Highlands by the nouveau riche returning from service with the East India Company in the 1800s

The imposing Gate of Negapatam stood above its city and port in Madras, India. Its replica is set on the hilltop at Cnoc Fyrish less than twenty kilometres from the Dornoch Firth. A folly built in the nineteenth century by Sir Hector Munro, it was erected to celebrate his military successes in India, to demonstrate his position and immense wealth and to, allegedly, provide employment during its construction for the local population of his Novar Estate.

Gate of Nagapatnam Fyrish

Hector was born in 1726 the son of Hugh Munro, a merchant. He entered military service at an early age and fought against the Jacobites in 1745. It was rumoured that he was captured but escaped. In 1746 the Duchess of Gordon was travelling in Sutherland accompanied only by an increasingly drunken coachman. Twenty year old Hector Munro gallantly ‘rescued’ her and delivered the Duchess to her destination. In appreciation she used her influence to secure Hector a Lieutenant’s commission in a Highland Regiment and so launched the young Highlander on his controversial career and his road to wealth.

As a newly commissioned officer, Hector was despatched to Badenoch with a troop of soldiers to apprehend ‘all disaffected persons in that district’. Munro and his soldiers tracked down the notorious Cameron, known as ‘Sergeant Mòr’ and transported him to Perth where he was executed. Another Jacobite rebel, Ewen MacPherson of Cluny, seemingly evaded Munro and escaped to France, however rumour suggested that Munro knew MacPherson and allowed him to avoid capture.

In 1759 Hector Munro was appointed a major in a newly formed Highland regiment of the private army of the East India Company. The Company, by means of military might, personal and institutional corruption and political manipulation, exploited the Indian continent extracting prodigious wealth for individuals and the British state. The cost of realising such wealth was the constant wars in India involving the East India Company Private Army, local rulers and the French who had also established trading and military bases on the continent.

Arriving in India with his Highland regiment Major Munro quickly established a formidable reputation. His regiment, as in most of the East India Company army, included locally recruited native soldiers attached as Sepoy battalions to the core British contingent. In 1764 unrest and near-revolt arose in these battalions in support of the claim that sepoys received a far smaller share than the British troops of the ‘donations’ made to the army by the puppet Nawab of Bengal. Despite the justice of the sepoys’ claim, Munro chose to quell the unrest by court-martialling and executing twenty-four of the ringleaders by gruesomely blowing them away from guns’.

execution of mutineers at Peshawur

No doubt Munro believed that his approach to discipline contributed to his success in later years at the Battle of Buxar, where he defeated the significantly larger combined Nawab armies (local princes and potentates) of the Mughal Emperor. In recognition, the East India Company instantly promoted Major Munro to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. However as the main part of the Mughal army fled, Munro was infuriated at the loss of substantial booty. He reportedly estimated the value of the jewels at some two or three million, a colossal sum when converted to current value. However one Nawab, seeking to avoid reprisals, promised a settlement of a vast sum of money to reimburse both the Company and the Army, ‘including eight lacs personally to Major Munro’. Munro’s eight lacs at today’s value amount to some twelve million pounds.

Munro had reached an apex of his military career: his battle success was decisive in establishing control of northern India, effectively making the British East India Company the rulers of the richest provinces of India. In 1765 he resigned his command in India and returned to the Highlands. ‘Nabobs’, the label for such wealthy returnees from India, frequently bought estates throughout Britain. Other Highlanders used their Indian money to buy estates in St Kilda, Orkney and Skye.

Seeking social status, Munro successfully campaigned for election to Parliament as Member for Inverness Burghs. He remained the MP for over thirty years having purchased the estate of Muirtown, Elgin, to meet the electoral residency qualification. His home and primary estate was, however, that of Novar, close to Alness. It was here he began the process of modernisation and ‘improvement’.      (To be continued)

Sources:

The Lawes or Standing Orders of the East India Company 1621 (Farnborough: Gregg International Publishers Limited, 1968)

Anon., ‘The Extraordinary Black Book, Chapter XII: East-India Company’, in The Extraordinary Black Book: (Usually Called the ‘Reformer’s Bible’), ed. by ‘The Original Editor’ (London: Effingham Wilson, 1831), pp. 350–76

Bryant, G. J., ‘Munro, Sir Hector (1725/6–1805/6)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004 <https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/19546&gt;

Cain, Alex M, The Cornchest for Scotland: Scots in India (National Library of Scotland, 1986)

Devine, T. M, and John M MacKenzie, ‘Scots in the Imperial Economy’, in Scotland and the British Empire, ed. by John M. MacKenzie and T. M. Devine, Oxford History of the British Empire–Companion Series (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 227–54

Gardner, Brian, The East India Company: A History (London: Hart-Davis, 1971)

Keay, John, The Honourable Company: A History of the English East India Company (Scribner, 1994)

Mackenzie, Alexander, History of the Munros of Fowlis: With Genealogies of the Principal Families of the Name: To Which Are Added Those of Lexington and New England (Inverness: A. & W, Mackenzie, 1898)

Mackillop, Andrew, ‘The Highlands and the Returning Nabob: Sir Hector Munro of Novar, 1760-1807’, in Emigrant Homecomings: The Return Movement of Emigrants, 1600-2000, ed. by Harper. Marjory (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012), pp. 233–61

McGilvary, George K., East India Patronage and the British State: The Scottish Elite and Politics in the Eighteenth Century, International Library of Historical Studies, 54 (London ; New York: Tauris Academic Studies, 2008)

‘Members Biographies: Munro, Hector (1726-1805), of Novar, Ross’, The History of Parliament <http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1754-1790/member/munro-hector-1726-1805&gt;

4 thoughts on “Hector Munro: Highland Villain or Fallen Hero? part 1

  1. Hello
    I am researching our GGGGrandfather Private Alexander Munro born 1794, he was one of 7 soldiers to survive the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, he spend the last few years of his life as a Chelsea Soldier, he dies 1864 in London. We are trying to find who his parents were? He married Maryann Waters, all of his children attended the London Royal Caledonian School for Soldiers children, these children had to be sponsored in the the 1800’s, where they boarded during their education and while their fathers were away at war.
    Alexander we believe had a middle name ‘Henry’. The male family names that were carried down through generation were: Thomas, William, Hector, Donald, Charles. We are hoping you might be able to help us find out who our GGGGrandfather’s Parents were or if you have any information in regards to our Alexander we would greatly appreciate hearing from you
    thanking you in advance
    regards
    Jan & Family Tree Members
    (Munro Waterloo Family Tree)

    • Hi Jan, sounds like an interesting project for you! I imagine there were a lot of Alexander Munros. Do you know where he was from? Was he from the Easter Ross area? If so posting on a local heritage society facebook page might yield some results. Was he one of 7 men called Alexander Munro to survive Waterloo? I suspect a professional genealogist would be really helpful to you. I know someone who works on northern Scottish genealogy that I can recommend. Otherwise you might want someone who has a specialty in working with military records. The Highland Family History Centre in Inverness might be able to help. This blog is a collaboration between a museum and university History department I am afraid, so we don’t hold genealogical records.

      • Hi Elizabethritchie
        Thank you for your reply, sorry I have taken so long to reply. Our Alexander Munro was born 1794 in NairnShire Scotland, we know he was educated & it was important to him that his children were also educated. It appears they were very good friends (perhaps related) to The Hamiltons wealthy Landowners this might also give us some clues as Alexander & his wife pulled one of their daughters out of School to work for the Hamiltons as a housemaid (which was a very important job back in those days). I am interested to seek help with a professional genealogist if you can recommend one or someone who works with military records.
        thanking you
        Munro Family Tree (Coolamon NSW Australia)

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