Saturday, 14 June 2014

The Rum Rebellion: Bligh’s overthrown

On the morning of 26 January 1808 Bligh ordered Provost-Marshall William Gore[1] to arrest Macarthur and again called for the return of the court papers that were now in the hands of officers of the Corps. At 10 am, the officers responded with a request for a new Judge-Advocate and the release of Macarthur on bail but they had received no reply by 3.00 pm and adjourned the court. In the afternoon, Bligh sent a note to the officers summoning them to Government House at 9 am the following morning, indicating that Atkins had charged them with certain crimes, but not revealing what these were.[2] An hour later, Bligh informed Johnston of his action and additionally told him that the actions of his officers were considered treasonable.[3] As the officers were to appear before Bligh and all the magistrates, this would be a charge under criminal not military law. The charge, if proven, was a capital offence. [4] To make this threat against officers was an intemperate and extreme move. There could be no greater slur on their honour.

Bligh’s charge of treason may have been the turning point. Johnston appears to have felt his relationship with Bligh had broken down so much that there was no point in talking to him. It was unlikely that Bligh would have executed the officers; but very likely they might be sent to gaol pending further advice. If this had happened, there would have only remained, apart from Johnston himself, two other officers in Sydney. One of these, Cadwallader Draffin, was mentally unstable. [5] Johnston later maintained that if the officers had been gaoled, the soldiers would have rioted and perhaps killed Bligh. He arrested Bligh for his own protection. Johnston was not particularly close to Macarthur and had in fact been one of the magistrates who ordered Macarthur arrested over the incident that led to this court case. He was an experienced officer, had been in the Colony since 1788, and was apparently highly regarded by his men. What Macarthur had started, Johnston would finish in a way perhaps Macarthur never imagined, though Macarthur certainly supported it.

At 5.00 pm, Johnston went to the barracks and ordered Macarthur’s release assuming, with no legal authority, the title of Lieutenant-Governor.[6] After discussions with his fellow officers and some wealthy civilians now including Macarthur, decided to depose Bligh. Macarthur then drafted a petition calling for Johnston to arrest Bligh as a tyrant and take charge of the colony.[7] This petition was signed by the officers of the Corps and other prominent citizens but, according to Evatt, most signatures had probably been added only after Bligh was safely under house arrest. 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.[8]

At 6.00 pm the Corps, with full band and colours, marched to Government House to arrest Bligh. They were hindered by Bligh’s recently widowed daughter and her parasol at the gates but Captain Thomas Laycock finally found Bligh after an extensive search, in full dress uniform, behind his bed where he claimed he was hiding papers. Bligh was painted as a coward for this but Duffy argues that if Bligh was hiding it would have been to escape and thwart the coup.[9] Stephen Dando-Collins suggests that Bligh was attempting to travel to Hawkesbury and lead the garrison there against Johnston. [10] On 27 February, with Bligh confined at Government House, Johnston revoked martial law and dismissed officers of Bligh’s government including Atkins and Provost-Marshall Gore. There were all-night celebrations across Sydney that included drinking and dancing around bonfires, burning of effigies, satirical posters, oil-lamp transparencies in windows and ‘Bligh under the bed’ cartoon displayed in soldiers’ homes. During 1808, Bligh was confined to Government House. He refused to leave for England until lawfully relieved of his duty.[11]

Johnston had no prospect of material advancement from dismissing Bligh; in fact, he was putting his future income as an army officer at grave risk. He was in no way Macarthur’s tool. This has been obscured by the enthusiasm of both Macarthur’s supporters and his detractors to place him more fully in the centre of the rebellion than his actions deserve. Johnston was a competent and independent official, whose motive in removing Bligh was to resolve a crisis in the colony’s administration and preserve public order.[12] This was not a rebellion in the sense of people grabbing power and possessions for themselves. A mutiny is much more restricted with the aim of removing a bad leader. There was a strongly held belief in the early nineteenth century that gentlemen had the right to overthrow leaders who abused their power. In this context, George Johnston’s action becomes much more principled and this was acknowledged during his court martial in 1811 when the leniency of his sentence was justified by reference to Bligh’s ‘impropriety and oppression’ when he was governor.

There is some debate over the nature of the ‘rebellion’ and the degree to which it was planned. Some historians argue that had Johnston been sufficiently well to meet Bligh on 25 January 1808 that the rebellion the following day would perhaps not have occurred. Had he already decided that Bligh would have to be removed and used his illness as an excuse to bring matters to a head? The same question could be asked of Macarthur’s actions on his trial. The problem is that, while both Johnston and Macarthur had grave doubts about Bligh’s method of ruling, there is no evidence to suggest that they colluded in precipitating rebellion, something that would anyway have proved difficult as Macarthur was under arrest for much of 25 and 26 January. The meeting with some of the wealthier citizens of Sydney on 26 January has been suggested as indicating the existence of some sort of conspiracy. However, Sydney was still a small community and calling important citizens together for an emergency meeting would not have proved difficult. The meeting’s importance lay in giving a degree of civilian legitimacy to the actions of the military. In fact, the rebellion did not require a great deal of planning and the NSW Corps was willing to support Johnston’s order to arrest Bligh. For the rebellion to succeed all that was necessary was to apprehend Bligh. [13]

In the days following the 1808 insurrection, Daniel McKay, a gaoler dismissed by Bligh as too brutal, then a pub owner, erected a sign outside his public house. It showed on one side a Highland officer thrusting his sword through a snake while a female figure of liberty presents him with a cap; on the other side, written in large type, was the phrase ‘The Ever Memorable 26th January 1808’.[14]


[1] King, Hazel, ‘Gore, William (1765-1845)’, ADB, Vol. 1, pp. 459-460.

[2] HRNSW, Vol. 6, p. 433.

[3] HRNSW, Vol. 6, p. 433, HRA, Series I, Vol. 6, p. 236.

[4] Ibid, McMahon, John, ‘Not a Rum Rebellion but a military insurrection’, p. 135.

[5] Duffy, Michael, Man of honour: John Macarthur, duellist, rebel, founding father, (Macmillan), 2003, p. 295.

[6] HRNSW, Vol. 6, p. 433.

[7] HRNSW, Vol. 6, p. 434, HRA, Series I, Vol. 6, p. 240. Apart from Macarthur and the Blaxland brothers, the petition was signed by James Mileham, James Badgery, Nicholas Bayly and by S. (Simeon) Lord.

[8] Johnston proclaimed martial law, HRNSW, Vol. 6, p. 434, HRA, Series I, Vol. 6, pp. 240-241 and sent Bligh a letter calling on him to resign, HRNSW, Vol. 6, p. 434, HRA, Series I, Vol. 6, p. 241.

[9] Ibid, Duffy, Michael, Man of honour: John Macarthur, duellist, rebel, founding father, pp. 297-298.

[10] Dando-Collins, Stephen, Captain Bligh’s Other Mutiny: the true story of the military coup that turned Australia into a two-year rebel republic, (Random House), 2007.

[11] Alan Atkinson, ‘The British Whigs and the Rum Rebellion’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 66, (2), (1980), pp. 73-90.

[12] Johnston to Castlereagh, 11 April 1808, HRA, Series I, Vol. 6, pp. 208-221 provides Johnston’s justification for rebellion.

[13] Gore to Castlereagh, 26 April 1808, HRNSW, Vol. 6, pp. 602-606 gives an accout of Bligh’s arrest by a supporter. Bligh to Castlereagh, 30 April 1808, HRNSW, Vol. 6, pp. 607-629 gives his first account of the rebellion.

[14]For Bligh’s account of the rebellion, 30 June 1808, HRNSW, Vol. 6, p. 670. See also, Bligh to Castlereagh, 30 April 1808, HRA, Series I, Vol. 6, pp. 420-440.

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