Sunday, January 10, 2021

5 Minutes of History: The Rum Rebellion, the only armed takeover of government in Australia’s history.

With the news being dominated by the events in Washington and the experts debating the uncertain future in terms of an attempted coup, sedition, pardons and the like, I was involved in a discussion with some people as to whether there has ever been a coup in New South Wales, or in Australia at large. 
The answer is: yes, once only, in 1808. It is known as the Rum Rebellion when the NSW military deposed Governor William Bligh, he of Mutiny on the Bounty fame. It is the only armed takeover of government in Australia’s history. 

Here are the facts and comments in brief: 

In 1805 Australia was a British penal colony of Great Britain, consisting of a collection of States, each under the control of a local Governor. First settled in 1788 with the First Fleet under Captain Arthur Phillip, who then became Governor, society initially consisted of convicts sent as punishment from England, the military (and their wives and families) which oversaw and regulated them. 

Captain Arthur Phillip, portrait 1786 

Raising the flag in Sydney Cove, 26 January 1788 


The Lancer Barracks in Sydney, where convicts were locked up each night 

Over time the colony expanded to include free persons: those who arrived in the country free, those convicts who had served their time and those convicts who had been granted a ticket of leave. A ticket of leave was a parole document issued to convicts who had shown they could be trusted with some freedom. 

Phillip returned to England for respite in December 1792 and Francis Grose, commander of the New South Wales Corps, became Governor 1792-1794. The New South Wales Corps had been formed in England in 1789 as a permanent regiment of the British Army to relieve the New South Wales Marine Corps, who had accompanied the First Fleet to Australia. Grose immediately abandoned Phillip's plans for governing the colony, established military rule and set out to secure the authority of the Corps. He abolished the civilian courts and transferred the magistrates to the authority of the military. After the poor crops of 1793 he cut the rations of the convicts but not those of the Corps, overturning Phillip's policy of equal rations for all. He also made generous land grants to officers of the Corps, who were provided with government-fed and clothed convicts as farm labour. 

Francis Grose 

Grose also relaxed Phillip's prohibition on trading of rum (sometimes a generic term for any form of distilled beverage, usually made from wheat), usually from Bengal. The colony, like many British territories at the time, was short of coins, and rum soon became the medium of trade. The officers of the Corps were able to use their position and wealth to buy all the imported rum and then exchange it for goods and labour at very favourable rates, thus earning the Corps the nickname "The Rum Corps". By 1793 stills were being imported and grain was being used to make rum, exacerbating the shortage of grain. 

In 1805 William Bligh was appointed the fourth Governor of New South Wales. Known as a hard man, he had been the captain of HMS Bounty when in 1789 Lieutenant Fletcher Christian mutinied and seized control of the ship. Part of the reason for the mutiny had been the deterioration in relations between Bligh and his crew after he began handing out increasingly harsh punishments, criticism and abuse. Bligh and 18 loyal crew were set adrift in the ship's open launch with Bligh navigating more than 3,500 nautical miles (6,500 km; 4,000 mi) in the launch to reach safety. 

Captain William Bligh 

It has been suggested that Bligh was deliberately selected by the British Government as governor because of his reputation as a hardass, that it was expected that he might be able to rein in the New South Wales Corps, something that his predecessors had not been able to do. 

One of the powerful men of the colony at the time of Bligh’s appointment was John Macarthur, a British army officer recognised as the architect of settlement in Australia, the pioneer of the wool industry that was to boom in Australia in the early 19th century and become a trademark of the nation. 

John Macarthur 

Bligh’s policies, actions and style of governance almost immediately drew hostility of the colony’s powerful, notably the Rum Corps and Macarthur and rich settlers. Examples: 

- Bligh, supported by the Colonial Office, sought to prohibit the use of spirits as payment for commodities. 

- He acted against the power of the rich and promoted the welfare of the poor settlers, including ceasing the practice of handing out large land grants to the powerful. 

- Allowing a group of Irish convicts to be tried for revolt, by a court that included their accusers, and then when six out of the eight were acquitted, he kept them under arrest anyway. 

- Dismissing D'Arcy Wentworth from his position of Assistant Surgeon to the Colony without explanation. 

- Sentencing three merchants to a month's imprisonment and a fine for writing a letter that he considered offensive. 

- Ordering some of the less wealthy in the colony who had leases on government land within Sydney to remove their houses. 

In October 1807 Major George Johnston wrote a formal letter of complaint to the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, stating that Bligh was abusive and interfering with the troops of the New South Wales Corps. 

Bligh made a particular enemy of Macarthur, who had arrived with the New South Wales Corps in 1790 as a lieutenant. By 1805 he had substantial farming and commercial interests in the colony. He had quarrelled with Bligh's predecessor governors and had fought three duels. 

Bligh had stopped Macarthur from cheaply distributing large quantities of rum into the Corps. He also halted Macarthur's allegedly illegal importation of stills. Further conflict had taken place over Macarthur's interest in an area of land granted to him by Governor King which ran foul of Bligh's town-planning interests. Bligh had also curtailed Macarthur’s attempted manipulation of commodities prices 

On the morning of 26 January 1808, 20 years to the date on which the flag had been raised in Sydney Cove, Bligh ordered the arrest of Macarthur or a violation of port regulations. His arrest early in January 1808 bode ill for the colony’s more prosperous settlers, including the corps officers. The Corps responded with a request for a new Judge-Advocate and the release of Macarthur on bail, Bligh informing Johnston that he considered the action of the officers of the Corps to be treasonable. 

Johnston went to the jail and issued an order releasing Macarthur, who then drafted a petition calling for Johnston to arrest Bligh and take charge of the colony. This petition was signed by the officers of the Corps and other prominent citizens but most signatures were added only after Bligh was safely under house arrest. 


The petition written by John Macarthur and addressed to George Johnston. The text states: 
"The present alarming state of this Colony, in which every mans property Liberty and Life is endangered induces us most earnestly to implore you instantly to place Governor Bligh under arrest and to assume the command of the Colony. -- We pledge Ourselves at a moment of less agitation to come forward to support the measure with our fortunes and our lives." 

Johnston then consulted with the officers and issued an order stating that Bligh was "charged by the respectable inhabitants of crimes that render you unfit to exercise the supreme authority another moment in this colony; and in that charge all officers under my command have joined." Johnston went on to call for Bligh to resign and submit to arrest. 

At 6:00 pm, the Corps, with full band and colours, marched to Government House to arrest Bligh. 



They were hindered by Bligh's daughter and her parasol but Captain Thomas Laycock finally found Bligh, in full dress uniform, behind his bed where he claimed he was hiding papers. Bligh was painted as a coward for this but it has been argued that if Bligh was hiding it would have been to escape and thwart the coup. In his book Captain Bligh's Other Mutiny, Stephen Dando-Collins agrees and suggests that Bligh was planning to escape to the Hawkesbury and to lead settlers who were strongly supportive of him and who were against the coup leaders there. During 1808 Bligh and his daughter Mary Putland were confined to Government House, under house arrest. Bligh refused to leave for England until lawfully relieved of his duty. 

Johnston took control with the rank of lieutenant-colonel. Macarthur was appointed as Colonial Secretary and effectively ran the business affairs of the colony. 

The coup became known as the Rum Rebellion and, during the first half of the 19th century, was widely referred to in Australia as the Great Rebellion. 

After the coup: 

- Shortly after Bligh's arrest, a watercolour illustrating the arrest by an unknown artist was exhibited in Sydney. The watercolour depicts a soldier dragging Bligh from underneath one of the servants' beds in Government House and with two other figures standing by. This watercolour is Australia's earliest surviving political cartoon and like all political cartoons it makes use of caricature and exaggeration to convey its message. It also shaped perceptions of Bligh’s character and circumstances of arrest for the next 200 years. 

The propaganda cartoon created within hours of William Bligh's arrest, portraying him as a coward 

- Bligh was recalled to England. He was cleared and made a rear admiral, continuing his naval career in the Admiralty, without command, and died of cancer in 1817. 

- Johnston was sent to England for court martial. He was found guilty and cashiered (dismissed from the military), the lowest penalty possible. He was then able to return as a free citizen to his estate, Annandale, in Sydney. 

- Macarthur was not tried but was refused permission to return to NSW until 1817, since he would not admit his wrongdoing. Upon his return to NSW in 1817 he devoted himself to the development of the wool industry, farming and horse breeding. He died at Camden in 1834. 

- After deposing Bligh on January 26, 1808, the corps controlled the colony until Lachlan Macquarie became governor in January 1810. In the course of 1809, the name of the corps was changed to the 102nd Regiment of the Line as a preliminary to its recall to England. In May 1810 half of the regiment accepted reassignment, while the rest chose to remain in Australia and joined either the 73rd Regiment or the Veteran Corps. The 102nd Regiment subsequently saw service in the War of 1812 against the United States, was renumbered the 100th Regiment, and was disbanded in 1818. 

- Bligh was succeeded as Governor of NSW by Lachlan Macquarie, a British Army officer and colonial administrator from Scotland. Macquarie served as the fifth and last autocratic Governor of New South Wales from 1810 to 1821, and had a leading role in the social, economic and architectural development of the colony. He is considered by historians to have had a crucial influence on the transition of New South Wales from a penal colony to a free settlement and therefore to have played a major role in the shaping of Australian society in the early nineteenth century. 

Lachlan Macquarie, early 1800s 

Michael Duffy, an author writing in 2006, says:

Essentially it was the culmination of a long-running tussle for power between the government and private entrepreneurs, a fight over the future and the nature of the colony. The early governors wanted to keep NSW as a large-scale open prison, with a primitive economy based on yeomen ex-convicts and run by government fiat. 

... almost no one at the time of the rebellion thought it was about rum. Bligh tried briefly to give it that spin, to smear his opponents, but there was no evidence for it and he moved on. Many years later, in 1855, an English Quaker named William Howitt published a popular history of Australia. Like many teetotallers, he was keen to blame alcohol for all the problems in the world. Howitt took Bligh's side and invented the phrase Rum Rebellion, and it has stuck ever since. 

- Michael Duffy 



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