Thursday, 24 April 2014

The Rum Rebellion: introduction

Just before sunset on 26 January 1808, the twentieth anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet, over 300 soldiers of the New South Wales Corps, the 102nd regiment of the British army expressly created to protect the new colony, gathered on the parade ground in front of their barracks in what is now Wynyard Square.  The officers of the Corps had held a rare full dress dinner at the barracks two nights and the following day, decided to arrest and depose Governor William Bligh, fourth Governor of the colony.[1]  The soldiers were led in formation from the parade ground by their commander, Major George Johnston, with drawn sword in one hand and the other arm in a sling, an injury caused when he fell out of his carriage drunk on the way home after the regimental dinner. Guns loaded, bayonets fixed, sweltering in their scarlet woollen coats, with banners flying and the regimental band playing The British Grenadiers, the column marched down High Street, across the new stone bridge spanning the Tank Stream and up Bridge Street to Government House, a show of force designed to impress and more importantly intimidate the general populace.  There was no possibility of resistance. Bligh’s personal guard had already been suborned and the two naval vessels under his command were out of port.  Bligh was taken by surprise and kept under house arrest for a year and it was a further year before Governor Lachlan Macquarie arrived with his own 73rd regiment to enforce the removal of the NSW Corps. This was the so-called ‘Rum rebellion’.

Under what circumstances is resistance to established authority permissible?  The founders of the colony in NSW thought in terms of the Lockean model of the formation of government. Locke maintained that individual liberties were paramount but that in the progression from a state of nature to civil society some of these liberties would be sacrificed in return for the protection that government could give especially in relation to property. If government acted in a despotic way, the governed could reclaim their original rights through rebellion. The story of what happened in Sydney at the beginning of 1808 is full of contrasting personalities in open conflict, different perceptions of reality and vested interests in sharp conflict. At this distance of time, it is sometimes difficult to avoid an impression of children squabbling. At its distance in London, the British Government of that time appears to have had a similar impression.

[1] Mackaness, G., The Life of Vice-Admiral William Bligh, 2 Vols. (Farrar & Rinehart), 1937, Vol. 2, pp. 95-334 covers his rule in NSW, the rebellion and its aftermath. See also, Shaw, A.G.L., ‘Bligh, William (1754-1817)’, ADB, Vol. 1, pp. 118-122.

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