Monday, 19 May 2014

The Rum Rebellion: Bligh in Sydney

Soon after his arrival at Sydney, on 13 August 1806, Bligh was given an address of welcome signed by Major Johnston for the military, by Richard Atkins for the civilian officers and by John Macarthur  for the free settlers.[1] However, not long after, he also received addresses from the free and freed settlers of Sydney and the Hawkesbury River  region[2], with a total of 369 signatures, many made only with a cross, complaining that Macarthur did not represent them.

...We beg to observe that had we deputed anyone, John Macarthur would not have been chosen by us, we considering him an unfit person to step forward upon such an occasion, as we may chiefly attribute the rise in the price of mutton to his withholding the large flock of wethers he now has to make such price as he may choose to demand.[3]

This only confirmed what Bligh would have been told about Macarthur by Banks.

A View of Sydney Cove—Port Jackson 7 March 1792

One of Bligh’s first actions[4] was to use the colony’s stores and herds to provide relief to farmers who had been severely affected by flooding on the Hawkesbury River, a situation which had disrupted the barter economy in the colony.[5] Supplies were divided up according to those most in need and provisions were made for loans to be drawn from the store based on capacity to repay. Bligh offered to take wheat from the next crop into the Government stores at 15s per bushel.[6] This delighted the settlers, resulting in strong loyalty to Bligh even after the events of 1808 but it earned the enmity of traders in the Corps who had been profiting greatly from the situation.[7] This was evident in an address to Bligh on 17 February 1809

The memorial of the undersigned, who came free into the colony, - Most respectfully showeth: - That your memorialists had no hand, act, or part in the rebellion that now exists in this colony.

That they do abhor and detest the said act, its aiders, and abettors, and were every way fully satisfied and content under His Excellency’s administration. His Excellency was doing all that public virtue or private worth could accomplish to correct abuses, re-establish discipline, protect and encourage sobriety and industry.

That your memorialists believe the following causes principally led to the rebellion; - That the officers had been (and still continue) merchants, traders, a dealers, which was carried on by employing convicts as their agents in different parts of the colony, by which means a great number of the inhabitants are in debt to them or their agents, which gave them a dangerous influence; and they had entered upon expensive establishments, which nothing but a continuance of abuse could support. That there is no nutritious liquor produced in the colony, either as a restorative to the sick or laborious. That our present rulers monopolised the whole of the spirits brought into the colony at about ten shillings per gallon, which they retail at from two to six pounds per gallon. They had for years commenced land-jobbing. This went so far as the selling of land before the grant was obtained, and was declared a legal transaction by two civil Courts....The officers were interested in impeding agriculture: the more settlers were ruined the cheaper they could purchase estates; the less grain grown by the settlers, the better prices they had for their own.....[8]

A View Of Sydney Cove New South Wales 1804

View of Sydney, 1804

Bligh was under instructions from the Colonial Office to normalise trading conditions in the colony by prohibiting the use of spirits as payment for commodities. Bligh was determined to stamp out the barter of spirits for goods or labour, commenting on 7 February, 1807

It is absolutely necessary to be done to bring labour to a true value and support the farming interest... In addition to the reasons already given to prohibit the barter of spirits, is the strong temptation it holds out to the settlers and other inhabitants to erect private stills, which tend to destroy not only the grain but the industry and morals of the people. The practice of distillation has been so general that the late Governor found it necessary to prohibit it under certain fines and penalties, and to offer emancipations, free pardons, and pecuniary remunerations to those who would give information of persons employed in this ruinous work; but the effect has not yet been produced, as this practice still continues in violation of every order and vigilance of the police.[9]

This was followed on 14 February 1807 by the following proclamation

His Excellency the Governor laments at finding, by his late visits through the colony, that the most calamitous evils have been produced by persons bartering or paying in spirits for grain of all kinds, the necessaries of life, and the labourers for their hire, such precedings depressing the industrious and depriving the settlers of their comforts and wants. In order to remedy these grievous complaints, and to relieve the inhabitants who have suffered by this traffic, he feels it his duty to put a total stop to this barter in future, and to prohibit the exchange of spirits or other liquors as payment for grain, animal food, labour, wearing apparel, or any other commodity whatever, to all descriptions of persons in the colony and its dependencies.[10]

Between October 1806 and February 1807, he introduced further measures to carry out his instructions. On 4 October 1806, Bligh banned departing ships from leaving crew members behind[11] and issued new port regulations securing government control of ships and boat building and on 28 February 1807 declared that all goods shipped to NSW should only be unloaded at Port Jackson.[12] On 1 November, he issued general orders forbidding barter in goods. [13] On 3 January 1807, he proclaimed all promissory notes should be payable only in sterling, not kind[14] and the following month on 14 February he outlawed the importation of stills for alcohol production and bartering with spirits.[15] Bligh communicated his policy to the Colonial Office in 1807, advising that his policy would be met with resistance. Castlereagh, Secretary of State for War and the Colonies wrote back to Bligh, his instructions being received on 31 December 1807. The instructions were to stop the barter of spirits and H.V. Evatt concluded in his history of the Rebellion that

...Bligh was authorised to prevent free importation, to preserve the trade under his entire control, to enforce all penalties against illegal import, and to establish regulations at his discretion for the sale of spirits.[16]

Bligh had come to administer a penal settlement not facilitate private enterprise. Evatt argues that the enmity of the monopolists within the colony stemmed from this and other policies that counteracted the power of the rich and promoted the welfare of the poor settlers. Free settlers such as John and Gregory

Blaxland claimed that Bligh had no interest in supporting their enterprises and did not give them the assistance which the British Government had promised.[17] People came to NSW to make money and Bligh seemed oblivious to this. Bligh ceased the practice of handing out large land grants to the powerful in the colony; during his term he granted just over 2,180 acres of land, half of it to his daughter and himself. One thousand acres were at the Hawkesbury that he farmed as a ‘model farm’ for private gain. He allocated himself publicly victualled convicts and animals from the public herds and erected buildings at government expense. This was, to say the least, insensitive, but Bligh was never known for his tact. He was ‘making hay while the sun shines as fast as he can’, as Surgeon John Harris wrote.[18]

Bligh also upset some people by 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 in custody. Soon after his arrival he replaced most of the officials, many of them from the military, with his own appointments. This did not play well in a small community and did not endear him to the Corps. [19] He dismissed D’Arcy Wentworth[20] from his position of Assistant Surgeon to the Colony and sentenced three merchants to a month’s imprisonment and a fine for writing a letter that he considered offensive. Bligh also dismissed Thomas Jamison[21] from the magistracy, describing him in 1807 as being ‘inimical’ to good government.[22] Jamison was the highly capable (if crafty) Surgeon-General of NSW, had accumulated significant personal wealth as a maritime trader and was a friend and business partner of Macarthur’s. Jamison never forgave Bligh for sacking him as a magistrate and interfering with his private business activities and supported Bligh’s later deposition.

Governor Phillip intended to reserve the land between, roughly, Hunter Street and the water for public purposes.  Cutting into this reserved area, during Phillip’s time, was a track formed by the passage of traffic behind the row of tents that the officers of the First Fleet had pitched on arrival, soon replaced by rudimentary huts, on the western bank of the Tank Stream that flowed into Sydney Cove, now Circular Quay.[23] That track became George Street and this, rather than Phillip’s conception, proved to be the model for the grand Sydney tradition of urban planning.  Phillip’s successors gradually abandoned his plan.  Leases were granted, at first only for short periods. However, the third Governor, Phillip King, attempted to regularise the haphazard system and to establish clearly defined property rights:  creating a register of dealings, quadrupling the rent and granting a large number of leases, many for periods of 14 years.[24] Bligh, wanted to return to critical aspects of Phillip’s original plan by clearing grand spaces around Government House and the church but King’s leases stood in the way. Bligh used his wide discretionary powers to achieve his objective refusing to issue further leases, announcing that he would not approve building on existing leases, ordering residents to surrender possession of homes, demolishing structures built without approval and threatening to demolish others. Intending to revoke the leases, but unsure of his power to do so, he sought instructions from London.[25]

The wife of a commercially successful emancipist wrote complaining:

From some he took good houses and gave them bad ones.  From others he took their houses and turned them into the street and made them no recompense whatever.  Some he stopped building.  Others he made make improvements against their inclinations and on the whole endeavoured to crush every person as much as possible.[26]

When one occupant of a leasehold residence in the environs of Government House objected to Bligh’s order to remove it, asserting that he could not be forced to do so by the laws of England, Bligh allegedly exploded:

Damn your laws of England! Don’t talk to me of your laws of England.  I will make laws for this colony, and every wretch of you, son of a bitch, shall be governed by them.  Or there (pointing over to the gaol) is your habitation! [27]

It is clear that Bligh had made enemies of some of the most influential people in the colony. He also antagonised some of the less wealthy when he ordered those who had leases on government land within Sydney to remove their houses. Even if these measures affected relatively few, this assault on private property was unsettling.


[1] Address to Governor Bligh, 14 August 1806, HRNSW, Vol. 6, pp. 165-166.

[2] Sydney Settlers’ Address to Governor Bligh, 22 September 1806, HRNSW, Vol. 6, pp. 189-189; see also, Hawkesbury Settlers’ Address, undated, 1806, HRNSW, Vol. 6, pp. 190-192.

[3] HRNSW, Vol. 6, p. 189.

[4] Government and General Order, 23 August, 30 August 1806, HRNSW, Vol. 6, pp. 173-174, 176.

[5] Samuel Marsden to King, 28 March 1806, HRNSW, Vol. 6, pp. 53-54 provides valuable details about the flood while King to Camden, 7 April 1806, HRNSW, Vol. 6, pp. 59-61 considers its effects. See also, HRNSW, Vol. 6, pp. 176, 186, 237, 823-831. Newspaper coverage of the floods can be found in Sydney Gazette, 30 March and 6 April 1806.

[6] Sydney Gazette, 21 December 1806.

[7] See, Fletcher, Brian H., ‘The Hawkesbury settlers and the Rum Rebellion’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 54, (3), (1968), pp. 217-237 for a detailed discussion of the relationship between Bligh and the Hawkesbury settlers.

[8] Hawkesbury Settlers’ Address to Bligh, 17 March 1809, HRNSW, Vol. 7, pp. 78-80.

[9] Bligh to Marsden, 7 February 1807, HRNSW, Vol. 6, pp. 246-252.

[10] Government and General Order, 14 February 1807, HRNSW, Vol. 6, pp. 253-254.

[11] Regulations respecting Vessels: Foreign and English, 4 October 1806, HRNSW, Vol. 6, pp. 193-197.

[12] Government and General Order, 28 February 1807, HRNSW, Vol. 6, p. 258.

[13] Government and General Order, 1 November 1806, HRNSW, Vol. 6, p. 198.

[14] Proclamation, 3 January 1807, HRNSW, Vol. 6, p. 236.

[15] Government and General Order, 14 February 1807, HRNSW, Vol. 6, pp. 253-254.

[16] Evatt, H.V., Rum Rebellion:  A Study of the Overthrow of Governor Bligh by John Macarthur and the New South Wales Corps, (Angus & Robertson), 1938, p. 72.

[17] This is evident in Gregory Blaxland to Under-Secretary Chapman, 15 October 1807 and John Blaxland to ?, 16 October 1807, HRNSW, Vol. 6, pp. 301-304, 308-313. See also, Castlereagh to King, 13 July 1805, HRA, Series I, Vol. 5, pp. 490-491 on what the Blaxlands were promised.

[18] Harris to Anna Josepha King, 25 October 1807, HRNSW, Vol. 6, p. 347. Bligh has earlier dismissed Harris from the magistracy: Government and General Order, 2 May 1807, HRNSW, Vol. 6, p. 266.

[19] On Bligh’s early appointments, see Government and General Orders, 15, 16 August 1806, HRNSW, Vol. 6, pp. 167-169.

[20] Bligh to Windham, 31 October 1807, HRA, Series I, Vol. 6, pp. 188-190 stated the Bligh suspended Wentworth on 25 July for ‘extreme misconduct’: ‘it has been a practice to allow them [sick men] to remain victualled as Hospital Patients requiring care, applying their use to private advantage.’ D’Arcy Wentworth to Castlereagh, 17 October 1807, HRNSW, Vol. 6, pp. 313-328 gives Wentworth’s response.

[21] Parsons, Vivienne, ‘Jamison, Thomas (1753?-1811)’, ADB, Vol. 2, pp. 12-13.

[22] Bligh to Windham, 31 October 1807, HRNSW, Vol. 6, p. 355; see also, Nicholas Bayly to Jamison, 12 February 1808, HRNSW, Vol. 6, pp. 518-519 indicates the cause of his dismissal.

[23] Ibid, Atkinson, Alan, The Europeans in Australia, Vol. 1, p. 273. Bligh to Windham, 31 October 1807, HRA, Series I, Vol. 6, pp. 155-156 lists the leases under question.

[24] See generally Atkinson, Alan, ‘Taking Possession:  Sydney’s First Householders’, in Aplin, Graeme, (ed.), A Difficult Infant: Sydney Before Macquarie, (University of NSW Press), 1988, especially pp. 76, 79-82, 83-84.

[25] Ibid, Atkinson, Alan, ‘Taking Possession:  Sydney’s First Householders’, pp. 84-87; HRA, Series I, Vol. 6, pp. 155-156,714-715. See also, Government and General Order, 23 July 1807, HRNSW, Vol. 6, pp. 275-276.

[26] Ibid, Atkinson, Alan, The Europeans in Australia, Vol. 1, p. 273.

[27] Ritchie, John, A Charge of Mutiny: The Court Martial of Lieutenant Colonel George Johnston for Deposing Governor William Bligh in the Rebellion of 26 January 1808, (National Library of Australia), 1988, p. 365.

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