Sunday, 1 June 2014

The Rum Rebellion: Bligh and the New South Wales Corps

By 1808, the New South Wakes Corps was a powerful Sydney institution. Its members comprised 10 per cent of the white population of 4,000 that included their families and a large number of former soldiers. The Corps owned a great deal of property and ran many businesses in Sydney, including one-third of the town’s pubs. The numbers of Corps and ex-Corps members, therefore, formed a substantial and influential group, exhibiting what Governor King had called ‘the jealousy but too often attendant on professional esprit de corps’.[1] The rank-and-file members of the Corps were not recruited from the dregs of society as has often been claimed. Over a third were skilled men. [2] Their life in NSW was a vast improvement on what they would have had in Britain and they would fight to retain it. They were used to power and influence. But Bligh did not treat them with respect. 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 NSW Corps. Before the rebellion, this was the only official complaint sent to London. However, the burden of his letter was that Bligh did not treat the Corps with the dignity it deserved. He spoke roughly to it, criticised it and insulted it: ‘his abusing and confining the soldiers without the smallest provocation’, ‘his casting the most undeserved and opprobrious censure on the Corps’.[3]

Watercolour portrait by R. Dighton: Major George Johnston, 1810

Some officers had built up capital during the 1790s and early 1800s when profits were high and through their preferential access to land grants, cheap labour by assignment of convicts and supply of provisions, livestock and equipment delivered for government purposes at the cost of the British taxpayer.  In 1808, many officers retained an interest in trade, which had become more diverse and much more competitive, but their principal economic interests now lay agricultural grants and in urban leaseholds in Sydney, where one sub-divided block changed hands for £900 just before Bligh’s arrival. Although those adversely affected by Bligh’s policies included many with no association with the NSW Corps, no coup could have occurred without the united resolve of the current officers.  Bligh had stirred the acute status anxieties of the officers by challenging their individual and collective reputation.  This was a serious affront under the code of honour that they regarded as the most important social bond of their lives.[4] He also offended members of this caste by his conduct, by his bearing and perhaps most of all, by his language. Bligh proved incapable of treating other gentlemen in the language or with the respect that the code of honour required.  Devoid of tact, quick tempered, infuriated by insubordination or incompetence, incapable of compromise, prone to indulge in mockery and abuse, he failed to respect the boundary between criticism and derision.[5] Manning Clark described him in the following terms

If anyone dared to object or remonstrate with him, he lost his senses and his speech, his features became distorted, he foamed at the mouth, stamped on the ground, shook his fist in the face of the person so presuming, and uttered a torrent of abuse in language disgraceful to him as a governor, an officer and a man.[6]

The officers of the NSW Corps, as well as most free settlers, were attracted to the colony precisely because their family background did not enable them to live as a gentleman should at home.  Commissions in the army were then bought and those who signed up for the NSW Corps could not afford to buy a commission in one of the more fashionable regiments.  The economic and, therefore, the social status of the officers were never secure. Bligh not only attacked their commercial and agricultural interests, he challenged the core of their personal identity.

Whatever his formal powers may have been, Bligh undermined what the local elite regarded as property rights, especially with respect to the urban leases.  This was fundamentally inconsistent with contemporary understanding of the rights of free Englishmen. Bligh, of course, relied on his formal authority and had the personal strength to exercise powers that his two predecessors, Hunter and King, had compromised.  They, Bligh believed, had permitted private men to grow wealthy at the expense of the Crown.  He was determined to reassert the public interest as he saw it and to act strictly in accordance with his instructions.  In most respects, his approach to governing was disciplined and purposeful.  However, even in a small settlement like Sydney, effective government required an understanding of communal expectations and an element of consent.  Bligh proved as oblivious to the fears and aspirations of the Sydney elite as he had earlier been to the delights that the crew of The Bounty had experienced in Tahiti. The scene was set for a conflict of institutional cultures between that of the navy, where authority was typically exercised in the confined autocracy of a ship and that of the army, where the exercise of authority often required interaction with a broader community.

Although Bligh had returned to England a hero in 1790 after the mutiny on the Bounty, he was on his second breadfruit voyage on HMS Providence between 1791 and 1793, when some of the mutineers captured at Tahiti were placed on trial in September 1792 and could not defend himself. As a result of the campaigns launched by Fletcher Christian’s brother and others to justify the actions of the mutineers, the view took hold in certain quarters that it was Bligh’s tyranny that had caused the mutiny. In NSW, those who wished to be rid of him realised that his reputation made him vulnerable. According to Surgeon Edward Luttrell before

Governor Bligh [came] into the colony a clamour [had] been raised against him, and an opposition formed to counteract his government’.[7]

The old rhetoric about tyranny, used against King, could be revived and intensified against Bligh, a known tyrant. The accusations, though, were long on rhetoric but short on actual examples. As early as January 1807, Elizabeth Macarthur had written to her friend at home, Miss Kingdon

The Governor has already shewn the inhabitants of Sydney that he is violent — rash — tyrannical. No very pleasing prospect at the beginning of his reign. [8]

Lieutenant William Minchin commented

...a deluge worse than that of the Hawkesbury has since swept off every path to...industry and happiness...if a Military Officer might be allowed to use the words Tyranny and oppression, I would inform you that until now I never experienced their weight. [9]

John Harris, the Corps’ surgeon, who had been dismissed from his positions of naval officer and magistrate, reported

...it is completely the reign of Robertspere [sic], or that of Terror...I have heard much said of Bounty Bligh before I saw him, but no person could conceive that he could be such a fellow...Caligula himself never reigned with more despotic sway than he does. [10]

In October 1807, a verse with direct reference to the Bounty mutiny was circulating in Sydney:

Oh tempora! Oh Mores! Is there no Christian in New South Wales to put a stop to the Tyranny of the Governor.[11]


[1] King to Under-Secretary Cooke, 18 June 1808, HRNSW, Vol. 6, p. 656.

[2] McAskill, Tracey, ‘An asset to the Colony: The social and economic

contribution of Corpsmen to early New South Wales’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 82, (1), 1996.

[3] Johnston to Sir James Gordon, military secretary to the Duke of York, 8 October 1807, HRNSW, Vol. 6, p. 652.

[4] The emphasis on the code of honour as a critical factor in the coup was first put forward by Parsons, George, ‘The Commercialisation of Honour: Early Australian Capitalism 1788-1809’, in ibid, Aplin, Graeme, (ed.), A Difficult Infant: Sydney Before Macquarie, pp. 18-41.  The theme was developed by ibid, Duffy, Michael, Man of Honour: John Macarthur, Duellist, Rebel, Founding Father.

[5] See, Denning, Greg, Mr Bligh’s Bad Language: Passion, Power and Theatre on the Bounty, (Cambridge University Press), 1992.

[6] Clark, C.M.H., A History of Australia, Vol. 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1962, p. 216.

[7] Surgeon Luttrell to Under-Secretary Sullivan, 8 October 1807, HRNSW, Vol. 6, p. 296.

[8] See, Elizabeth Macarthur to Miss Kingdon, 29 January 1807, ML A2908, Vol. 2.

[9] William Minchin to Philip Gidley King, 20 October 1807, ML MSS 681/2, pp. 397-399.

[10] John Harris to Anna Josepha King, 25 October 1807, ML A1980, pp. 237-248.

[11] John Harris to Philip Gidley King, 25 October 1807, ML MSS 681/2, pp. 401-408.

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