This Day in History – January 26th, 1808

The Rum Rebellion of 1808 was the only successful armed takeover of government in Australian history. During the 19th century, it was widely referred to as the Great Rebellion. The Governor of New South Wales, William Bligh, was deposed by the New South Wales Corps under the command of Major George Johnston, working closely with John Macarthur, on January 26th, 1808, 20 years to the day after Arthur Phillip founded European settlement in Australia.

Rum Rebel

William Bligh was portrayed as a coward.

John Macarthur had had a number of quarrels with  Governor Bligh’s predecessors and had actually fought in three duels as a result. Bligh and MacArthur’s interests clashed in a number of ways, but it was when Bligh stopped Macarthur from cheaply distributing large quantities of rum into the Corps that the conflict became severe; Bligh halted Macarthur’s allegedly illegal importation of stills.

John Macarthur

John Macarthur

Macarthur’s interest in an area of land granted to him by Governor King conflicted with Bligh’s town-planning interests. Macarthur and Bligh were also engaged in other disagreements, including a conflict over landing regulations. In June 1807, a convict had stowed away and escaped Sydney on one of Macarthur’s vessels, and in December 1807, when that vessel returned to Sydney, the bond held to ensure compliance by shipping was deemed to be forfeited.

Bligh had the Judge-Advocate, Richard Atkins, issue an order for John Macarthur to appear on the matter of the bond on December 15th, 1807. Macarthur disobeyed the order and was arrested and bailed to appear for trial at the next sitting of the Sydney Criminal Court on January 25th, 1808. The court was constituted of Atkins and six officers of the NSW Corps. Macarthur objected to Atkins being fit to sit in judgement of him because he was his debtor and inveterate enemy. Atkins rejected this, but Macarthur’s protest had the support of the other six members of the court, all officers of the Corps. Without the Judge-Advocate, the trial could not take place and the court dissolved.

Governor William Bligh

Governor William Bligh

Bligh accused the six officers of what amounted to mutiny and summoned Major George Johnston to come and deal with the matter. Johnston replied that he was ill, as he had wrecked his gig on the evening of the 24th on his way back home to Annandale after dining with officers of the Corps.

On the morning of January 26th, 1808, Bligh again ordered that Macarthur be arrested and also ordered the return of court papers, which were now in the hands of officers of the Corps. The Corps responded with a request for a new Judge-Advocate and the release of Macarthur on bail. Bligh summoned the officers to Government House to answer charges made by the judge and he informed Major Johnston that he considered the action of the officers of the Corps to be treasonable.

Johnston, instead, had gone to the jail and issued an order releasing Macarthur, who then drafted a petition calling for Johnston to arrest Bligh and take charge of the colony. 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.

RumRebAt 6:00 pm, the Corps, with full band and colors, marched to Government House to arrest Bligh. They were hindered by Bligh’s daughter and her parasol but Captain Thomas Laycock finally found Bligh, 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. In his book Captain Bligh’s Other Mutiny, Stephen Dando-Collins agrees and goes so far as to suggest that Bligh was planning to escape to the Hawkesbury and to lead settlers who were strongly supportive of him and who were against the coup leaders there. During 1808 Bligh and his daughter Mary Putland were confined to Government House, under house arrest. Bligh refused to leave for England until lawfully relieved of his duty.

Afterwards, the colony was ruled by the military, with the senior military officer stationed in Sydney acting as the Lieutenant-Governor of the colony until the arrival from Britain of Major-General Lachlan Macquarie as the new Governor at the beginning of 1810.

Flourish 3

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