Perspectives on Australian History
William Bligh's 2nd Mutiny
The Rum Rebellion
by Scott Brown
The 26th of January is a significant date in Australian history - on this day in 1788 the Colony of New South Wales was founded, and on the 20th Anniversary of the young Colony in 1808, the duly appointed Governor was overthrown and replaced with a military Junta in what is now known as the Rum Rebellion. The key players in this drama were the Governor (William Bligh) , John Macarthur and the Officers of the New South Wales Corp. In the years following the rebellion there were a number of divergent reasons given for these events in the fledging Colony.
In a letter to Viscount Castlereagh, dated 30 April 1808, William Bligh states that, until January 26th 1808, the Colony was prospering as a result of the efforts of the settlers and the emancipists and that the convict population had accepted their position in the colony and were content. Bligh asserted that 'the Arch-Fiend' John Macarthur along with Nicholas Bayley seduced the men of the New South Wales Corp from their duty and into open rebellion. Macarthur, according to Bligh, used his influence to create dissent among Corps over the prohibition of the use of spirits as a medium of exchange which was, he insists, a monopoly enjoyed by the Officers and men of the Corp. Bligh singles out the actions of Macarthur as the cause of the discontent that drove the Corp to engage in treason and rebellion. Other participants in the rebellion attributed very different causes to their actions than those of Bligh.
John Macarthur, the main agitator according to Bligh, considered that the capricious administration of Governor Bligh had resulted in 'every Man's property, liberty and life being endangered'. Macarthur thought Bligh a tyrant and requested that Major Johnson, of the Corp, place him under arrest and assume the command of the Colony himself. Macarthur's views were supported by Major Johnson's explanation of the rebellion.
Major considered that he took the steps necessary to avoid the dishonour of popular insurrection. He had been compelled to take the action of arresting Governor Bligh due to his extraordinary conduct. Johnson considered that Bligh showed a total disregard of justice, violated private property with the seizure of houses and land with no pretext, arrested citizens without sanction of the law and had threatened magistrates who had the audacity to rule against the Governor's will. Johnson felt that the population was clamouring for relief from the oppression, tyranny, gross fraud and robberies upon public property that marked Bligh's administration.
Major Johnson was supported by John Blaxland in that he (Blaxland) considered that William Bligh had manipulated and reshaped the Courts of the Colony into instruments of his oppression, applying law in contradiction to set English law in order that the Governor's will be satisfied in all cases.
William Bligh's assertion that the Rum Rebellion was a direct result of Macarthur's actions regarding the Spirits prohibition can be largely discounted when earlier events in the Colony are taken into consideration. The alleged monopoly of spirits, and foreign exchange, by the New South Wales Corp effectively ceased to exist after 1800 'when eighteen settlers, other than officers, petitioned Governor Hunter for permission to purchase the cargo of the 'Minerva''. A further factor in the collapse of the Corps monopoly was the arrival of Robert Campbell, a free merchant, in the Colony, with his own sources of foreign exchange.
In all likelihood the causes behind the Rum Rebellion were those expounded by Macarthur and Johnson. William Bligh was a man who not only 'wanted obedience, but praise' and was renowned for possessing a volatile and irrational temper, Elizabeth Macarthur referring to him as 'violent, rash, tyrannical'. These traits tended to alienate people coming into contact with him and characterised his leadership as tyrannical and oppressive.
- Fitzgerald, Ross and Hearn, Mark Bligh, Macarthur and the Rum Rebellion, Kangaroo Press, Kenthurst, 1988
- Evatt, H.V., Rum Rebellion; A Study of the Overthrow of Governor Bligh by John Macarthur and the New South Wales Corp, Lloyd O'Niel Pty Ltd, Hawthorn, 1971
- Aplin, Graeme (Ed.), Sydney Before Macquarie; A Difficult Infant, New South Wales University Press, Kensington, 1988
- Atkinson, Alan, The Europeans in Australia; A History, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, 1997
- Historical Records of New South Wales, as reproduced in Resource Materials, Book 1, History 154 Australia through Two Centuries, University of New England, Armidale, 1998
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