Sunday, 13 July 2014

A Conclusion: What was the ‘Rum Rebellion’?

The ‘Rum Rebellion’ had nothing to do with rum.  Almost no one at the time of the rebellion thought it was about rum. Bligh briefly tried to give it that spin to smear his opponents, but there was no evidence for it and he moved on. The label was conferred some fifty years after the event by William Howitt[1], a writer with teetotal sympathies and popularised by H.V. Evatt as the title of the series of lectures he delivered at the University of Queensland for its 150th anniversary.[2] Officers of the NSW Corps had monopolised the rum trade in the 1790s, but this ended years before the rebellion, with the arrival on the commercial scene of successful former convicts such as Simeon Lord and free traders like Robert Campbell. The name seems to have persisted partly due to the power of alliteration and partly because it has allowed left-leaning writers to blame the event on Australia’s proto-capitalists. Neither was it really a ‘rebellion’. Contemporaries thought of it as a mutiny or military insurrection though it might more accurately be described as a coup d’etat in that, once the NSW Corps had seized power by arresting Bligh, it was its leaders who ruled the colony and, in the case of Paterson and Foveaux refused to reinstate Bligh, until replaced by Macquarie.

With Macquarie’s inconclusive investigation in 1810 and the ambivalence of the court martial findings on the basic cause of the mutiny, there has been a diversity of theories as to why it occurred and have polarised into two distinct and divergent perspectives.  At one extreme, historians argue that the rebels had been granted large tracts of land that they successfully exploited in their own interests and that Bligh’s policies threatened their wealth.  John Macarthur, a former officer of the Corps who had become one of the wealthiest men in the colony, is cast as a conniving puppet master and Bligh’s personal defects are played down.  This interpretation appeals to those who have faith in government enterprise and an egalitarian inclination to support, as Bligh did, the small farmers of the settlement on the Hawkesbury flood plain.

At the other extreme, the primary focus is on the part played by the officers of the NSW Corps in providing much of the entrepreneurial drive in trade and agriculture that was necessary to enable the colony to succeed.  Bligh’s policies threatened that success. His was a static vision of a government-dominated society serviced by yeoman farmers that starkly contrasted with the dynamism of Sydney-based commerce.  Adherents to this approach emphasise the defects in Bligh’s character and policy and play down the greed and cunning of the rebels. Certainly those involved in the coup were quick to put their spin on events. A picture of Bligh being pulled from beneath the bed where he had hidden for two hours was possibly produced and put on display within hours of the event. It was part of a campaign to brand Bligh a coward and reduce support for him in the colony and in Britain. This seems to have been at least partly successful. Following the rebellion, the NSW Corps was withdrawn, Johnston was cashiered and Macarthur had to stay out of the colony for many years for fear of prosecution had he returned. Yet the outcome could have been far worse for the rebels, but for the antipathy that existed towards Bligh in England at the time of Johnston’s trial in 1811. The perspective appears also to have been the judgement of the only systematic contemporary investigation of the events, the court martial that simply cashiered Johnson, a punishment universally regarded as exceptionally lenient.

Both perspectives are plausible because the available contemporary evidence consists largely of assertions by those with a vested interest in the outcome, perhaps inevitable with an event that polarised a small community.[3]  Three issues are important when assessing this event.  First, any explanation of why the coup occurred can look like justification or condemnation.  Secondly, it is important not to project today’s values backwards to judge the corruption of the officers.  Early nineteenth century British politics and public administration was, by today’s standards, profoundly corrupt and the early Sydney colony was no different. Finally, this was an age in which conduct was defined by the code of honour to which all gentlemen had to subscribe. This code is expressed through the tradition of duelling that was already evident in colonial NSW and that provides part of the explanation for the military coup of 1808.

The coup was the result of a range of factors including various aspects of commercial self-interest.  The traffic in rum was of little if any significance, except to some of the non-commissioned officers.  Much more important, amongst multiple causes, was the conflict between real estate developers and the public interest over the exploitation of prime urban land near the water.  The tension over urban leases was one of a number of conflicts in which Bligh sought to reverse practices permitted by his less resolute predecessors.  He made only three land grants in 18 months and issued no leases; he pardoned only two convicts in 18 months; he cracked down on profiteering and enforced import restrictions.  His policies undermined the wealth and the prospects of that part of the local elite with access to capital.  On a number of occasions he deployed his authority over the rudimentary judicial system to attack those he opposed and intervened directly in court cases to achieve his ends.

This kind of untrammelled executive power was unacceptable to ‘free-born Englishmen’.  Government by whim or caprice in the exercise of an absolute discretion was tyranny, typical of Continental nations and an anathema to the English. Jeremy Bentham maintained that military rule breached the Enlightenment tenet of liberty since there was no separation of powers to prevent the executive becoming excessively powerful and that the colonies reflected the spirit of French absolutism rather than British constitutionalism. Broad discretionary powers may have been necessary for NSW governors to deal with convicts, but when applied to free settlers and emancipists, they challenged the dominant Lockean ideology of eighteenth century Britain and the principles of the rule of law and provided the civic discourse of early Sydney.[4] Bligh’s conduct may have been acceptable on a ship where a culture of authority created an expectation of unquestioning and immediate execution of orders.  However, such conduct was unacceptable when applied to free subjects, who made up the majority of the 7,000 persons in the colony.  Indeed there were serious doubts, privately expressed by Bentham but known to some settlers, about whether, in the absence of express parliamentary authority, the Governor could lawfully exercise such authority over free men and women at all.[5]

The sense of personal security of citizens, indeed the existence of social order, is determined in large measure by the extent to which people can arrange their personal affairs and their relationships with associates, friends, family and neighbours on the assumption that basic standards of propriety are met and reasonable expectations are satisfied.  All forms of social relationships, including economic interaction, are impeded by the degree to which personal and property rights are subject to unpredictable and arbitrary incursion, so that people live in fear or act on the basis of suspicion, rather than on the basis that others will act in a predictable way. The rule of law provided the central legitimising discourse of eighteenth century England.  It was firmly established in Australia by the experience of the coup itself and, perhaps more significantly, by the experience of government under a military regime. Bligh had united a number of disparate interests.  His removal took away that unity. 

The absence of a clearly legitimate authority enabled those with a grievance to seek vengeance and anyone with access to power to abuse it.  After the coup, the sense of personal security was lost to a substantial degree and the rule of law compromised and, on occasions, set aside. Later, the courts appeared to operate more normally and fairly. However, throughout the two years between the deposition of Bligh and the arrival of Macquarie, the colony was controlled by an illegal government.  Every appointment, including to judicial office and every governmental decision was invalid.  Personal and property rights were institutionally insecure and the residents of NSW welcomed the restoration of legitimate authority under Lachlan Macquarie. In accordance with his instructions, he invalidated the appointments and the decisions of the rebel administration, including appointments to and decisions by the courts. Completed court orders were not reopened on the basis of necessity, perhaps most poignantly applied in the case of the invalid death sentences that had been carried into effect. Nevertheless, some redress was available for the past illegal exercise of governmental power.  One of those banished to the coal mines sued successfully for false imprisonment.[6] The rule of law was emphatically restored.

[1] Howitt, William, Land, labour, and gold: or, Two years in Victoria: with visits to Sydney and Van Diemen’s Land, 2 Vols. 1st ed., (Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans), 1855, p. 118, 2nd ed., (Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, and Roberts), 1858, Vol. 2, p. 78.

[2] Ibid, Evatt, H.V., Rum Rebellion:  A Study of the Overthrow of Governor Bligh by John Macarthur and the New South Wales Corps remains useful because, although partisan in favour of Governor Bligh, it was written by an eminent Australian lawyer. Ellis, M.H., John Macarthur, 3 editions, (Angus & Robertson), 1955, 1967, 1978 is partisan in the opposite direction. A more balanced account is Fitzgerald, Ross and Hearne, Mark, Bligh, Macarthur and the Rum Rebellion, (Kangaroo Press), 1988.

[3] This is particularly evident in the correspondence in HRA, Series I, Vol. 6 where Bligh, Johnston, Foveaux and Paterson and pro- and anti-Bligh factions placed their positions on the record.

[4] See ibid, Neal, David, The Rule of Law in a Penal Colony, pp. 92-94, 97-98; Braithwaite John, ‘Crime in a Convict Republic’, Modern Law Review, Vol. 64, (2001), p. 11;  ibid, Gascoigne, John, The Enlightenment and the Origins of European Australia, pp. 39-44;  Krygier, Martin, ‘Subjects, Objects and the Colonial Rule of Law’, in Krygier, Martin, Civil Passions: Selected Writings, (Black Inc), 2005;  Thompson, E.P., Whigs and Hunters:  The Origin of the Black Act, (Pantheon), 1975, pp. 265-266;  Hay, Douglas, ‘Property, Authority and the Criminal Law’, in Hay, Douglas et al, (eds.), Albion’s Fatal Tree:  Crime and Society in Eighteenth Century England, (Pantheon), 1975, pp. 17-63;  Cole, D.H., ‘‘An Unqualified Human Good’:  E.P.Thompson and the Rule of Law’, Law and Society Review, Vol. 28, (2001), p. 117.

[5] Alan Atkinson, ‘Jeremy Bentham and the Rum Rebellion’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 64, (1), (1978), pp. 1-13, at p. 1.

[6] Ibid, Kercher, B., Debt, Seduction and Other Disasters:  The Birth of Civil Law in Convict New South Wales, p. 40.

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