On this date in 1808 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, 20 years to the day after Arthur Phillip founded European settlement in Australia (celebrated now as Australia Day https://www.bookofdaystales.com/australia-day/ ). 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.
William Bligh, well known for his overthrow in the mutiny on the Bounty (https://www.bookofdaystales.com/mutiny-bounty/ ), was the fourth Governor of New South Wales. He succeeded Governor Philip Gidley King in 1805, having been offered the position by Sir Joseph Banks. It is likely that he was selected by the British Government as governor because of his reputation as a hard man. He stood a good chance of reining in the maverick New South Wales Corps, something which his predecessors had not been able to do. Bligh left for Sydney with his daughter, Mary Putland, and her husband while Bligh’s wife remained in England.
Even before his arrival, Bligh’s style of governance led to problems with his subordinates. The Admiralty gave command of the store ship Porpoise and the convoy to the lower ranked Captain Joseph Short and Bligh took command of a transport ship. This led to quarrels which eventually resulted in Captain Short firing across Bligh’s bow in order to force Bligh to obey his signals. When this failed, Short tried to give an order to Lieutenant Putland, Bligh’s son-in-law, to stand by to fire on Bligh’s ship. Bligh boarded the Porpoise and seized control of the convoy.
When they arrived in Sydney, Bligh, backed up by statements from two of Short’s officers, had Short stripped of the captaincy of the Porpoise – which he gave to his son-in-law – cancelled the 240-hectare (600-acre) land grant Short had been promised as payment for the voyage and shipped him back to England for court martial, at which Short was acquitted. The president of the court, Sir Isaac Coffin, wrote to the Admiralty and made several serious accusations against Bligh, including that he had influenced the officers to testify against Short. Bligh’s wife obtained a statement from one of the officers denying this and Banks and other supporters of Bligh lobbied successfully against his recall as Governor.
Soon after his arrival at Sydney, in 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. However, not long after, he also received addresses from the free and freed settlers of Sydney and the Hawkesbury River region, with a total of 369 signatures, many made only with a cross, complaining that Macarthur did not represent them, as they blamed him for controlling the market in sheep so as to raise the price of mutton.
One of Bligh’s first actions 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. 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. This earned Bligh the gratitude of the farmers but the enmity of traders in the Corps who had been profiting greatly from the situation.
Bligh, under instructions from the Colonial Office, attempted to normalize trading conditions in the colony by prohibiting the use of spirits as payment for commodities. Bligh communicated his policy to the Colonial Office in 1807, with the advice that his policy would be met with resistance. Robert Stewart, Viscount 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. It is likely that the enmity of the monopolists within the colony stemmed from this and other policies which counteracted the power of the rich and promoted the welfare of the poor settlers. Bligh ceased the practice of handing out large land grants to the powerful in the colony; during his term he granted just over 1,600 hectares of land, half of it to his daughter Mary Putland and himself.
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 under arrest anyway. He dismissed D’Arcy Wentworth from his position of Assistant Surgeon to the Colony without explanation, and sentenced three merchants to a month’s imprisonment and a fine for writing a letter which he considered offensive. Bligh also dismissed Thomas Jamison from the magistracy, describing him in 1807 as being “inimical” to good government. Jamison was the highly capable (though devious) Surgeon-General of New South Wales. He 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 he supported Bligh’s later deposition.
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 New South Wales Corps. It is clear that Bligh had made enemies of some of the most influential people in the colony. He also antagonized some of the less wealthy when he ordered those who had leases on government land within Sydney to remove their houses.
Macarthur had arrived with the New South Wales Corps in 1790 as a lieutenant, and by 1805 he had substantial farming and commercial interests in the colony. He had quarreled with Bligh’s predecessor governors and had fought three duels. Bligh and MacArthur’s interests clashed in a number of ways. Bligh stopped Macarthur from cheaply distributing large quantities of rum into the Corps. He also halted Macarthur’s allegedly illegal importation of stills. 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 15 December 1807. Macarthur disobeyed the order and was arrested and bailed to appear for trial at the next sitting of the Sydney Criminal Court on 25 January 1808. The court was constituted of Atkins and six officers of the NSW Corps. Macarthur objected to Atkins being fit to sit in judgment 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.”
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 26 January 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.
At 6:00 pm, the Corps, with full band and colors, marched to Government House to arrest Bligh. They were hindered by Bligh’s daughter but Captain Thomas Laycock finally found Bligh, in full dress uniform, behind his bed where he claimed he was hiding papers. 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.
Johnston appointed Charles Grimes, the Surveyor-General, as Judge-Advocate and ordered Macarthur and the six officers be tried; they were found not guilty. Macarthur was then appointed as Colonial Secretary and effectively ran the business affairs of the colony. Another prominent opponent of Bligh, Macarthur’s ally Thomas Jamison, was made the colony’s Naval Officer (the equivalent of Collector of Customs and Excise). Jamison was also reinstated as a magistrate, which enabled him and his fellow legal officers to scrutinize Bligh’s personal papers for evidence of wrongdoing. In June 1809 Jamison sailed to London to bolster his business interests and give evidence against Bligh in any legal prosecutions that might be brought against the mutineers. Jamison died in London at the beginning of 1811, however, so he did not have an opportunity to testify at Johnston’s court martial, which was not conducted until June of that year.
Following Bligh’s overthrow Johnston had notified his superior officer, Colonel William Paterson, who was in Tasmania establishing a settlement at Port Dalrymple (now Launceston), of events. Paterson was reluctant to get involved until clear orders arrived from England. When he learned in March that Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Foveaux was returning to Sydney with orders to become acting Lieutenant-Governor, Paterson left Foveaux to deal with the prevailing situation.
Foveaux arrived in July and took over the colony, which annoyed Macarthur. Since a decision was expected from England, and feeling that Bligh’s behavior had been insufferable, Foveaux left Bligh under house arrest and turned his attention to improving the colony’s roads, bridges and public buildings, which he felt had been badly neglected. When there was still no word from England, he summoned Paterson to Sydney in January 1809 to sort out matters. Paterson sent Johnston and Macarthur to England for trial, and confined Bligh to the barracks until he signed a contract agreeing to return to England. Paterson, whose health was failing, then retired to Government House at Parramatta and left Foveaux to run the colony.
In January 1809 Bligh was given the control of HMS Porpoise on condition that he return to England. However, Bligh sailed to Hobart in Tasmania, seeking the support of the Tasmanian Lieutenant-Governor David Collins to retake control of the colony. Collins, however, did not support him and on Paterson’s orders Bligh remained cut off on board the Porpoise, moored at the mouth of the River Derwent south of Hobart, until January 1810.
The Colonial Office finally decided that sending naval governors to rule the colony was untenable. Instead the NSW Corps, now known as the 102nd Regiment of Foot, was to be recalled to England and replaced with the 73rd Regiment of Foot, whose commanding officer would take over as Governor. Bligh was to be reinstated for 24 hours, then recalled to England, Johnston sent to England for court martial, and Macarthur tried in Sydney. Major-General Lachlan Macquarie was put in charge of the mission after Major-General Miles Nightingall fell ill before departure. Macquarie took over as Governor with an elaborate ceremony on 1 January 1810.
Governor Macquarie reinstated all the officials who had been sacked by Johnston and Macarthur and cancelled all land and stock grants that had been made since Bligh’s deposition, though to calm things down he made grants that he thought appropriate and prevented any revenge. When Bligh received the news of Macquarie’s arrival, he sailed to Sydney, arriving on 17 January 1810 to collect evidence for the forthcoming court martial of Major George Johnston. He departed for the trial in England on 12 May, arriving on 25 October 1810 aboard the Hindostan.
Having informally heard arguments from both sides, the government authorities in England were not impressed by either Macarthur and Johnston’s accusations against Bligh, or by Bligh’s ill-tempered letters accusing key figures in the colony of unacceptable conduct. Johnston was court-martialed, found guilty and cashiered, the lowest penalty possible. He was then able to return as a free citizen to his estate, Annandale, in Sydney. Macarthur was not tried but was refused permission to return to NSW until 1817, since he would not admit his wrongdoing.
Bligh’s promotion to rear admiral was held up until the end of Johnston’s trial. Afterward it was backdated to 31 July 1810 and Bligh took up a position that had been kept for him. He continued his naval career in the Admiralty, without command, and died of cancer in 1817.
The term “Rum Rebellion” is commonly used now, but it was generally known as the “Great Rebellion” for much of the 19th century. Rum imports and taxes were certainly at issue, but they were not the main cause of the revolt. At stake were numerous financial issues that divided factions within the colony. Bligh was clearly unable to keep the peace between headstrong and powerful people. Obviously people are given to wonder from time to time how Bligh could have suffered mutiny on the Bounty, been exonerated, been rebelled against in NSW, exonerated again, then served as rear and vice admiral, but without command. Based on my own reading of primary texts over the years I’d say that Bligh was always technically correct in his actions, and therefore above legal censure, but was petulant, ill tempered, undiplomatic, and vindictive, thus earning the dislike of all who served under him. It seems to me that the Royal Navy treated Bligh more than fairly by refusing to condemn his actions in Australia, but also by never giving him command again.
I gave a recipe for rum baba here, https://www.bookofdaystales.com/prohibition-ends/ and it’s quite possible to give countless recipes for desserts that use rum. But rum is perfectly serviceable in savory dishes too. Here it is as the liquid base for a marinade for chicken based on a Jamaican recipe. I use leg parts in preference for grilling, because they can grill long enough to cook through, yet retain moistness. For this recipe I usually just buy a big pack of thighs.
Rum Marinated Chicken
8 shallots, finely chopped
8 garlic cloves, crushed or pounded
1 medium-sized knob ginger (about half a thumb)
1 handful fresh parsley, finely chopped
1 handful fresh coriander, finely chopped
2 limes, juice only
2 lemons, juice only
2 oranges, juice only
1 scotch bonnet pepper, finely chopped
4 tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp ground nutmeg
1 handful fresh thyme, finely chopped
1 tbsp English mustard
1 tsp ground allspice
½ cup dark rum
1 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp ground sea salt
2 tbsp olive oil
10 chicken pieces
Put all the ingredients except the chicken in a large bowl and mix well. Divide the chicken between sealable plastic bags so that they can lie flat in one layer. Divide the marinade between the bags, press out all the air, seal, and refrigerate overnight.
Next day, remove the chicken pieces to a platter and pour the marinade into a bowl. Grill the chicken pieces over hot coals, constantly basting with the marinade until the skin is crisp and dark. Serve with rice and a green salad.
Serves 4 to 6