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Rum Rebellion

Updated on October 24, 2010

The Rum Rebellion is the name was commonly given to the incident in which Governor Bligh was deposed by Major George Johnston, who was the commanding officer of the New South Wales Corps, on 26 January 1808.

The background lay in the efforts by Governors Hunter, King and Bligh to break down the position of economic privilege attained by the officers of the colony's military force, the New South Wales Corps, including attempts to prevent them from trading in alcoholic spirits. Bligh stirred up even greater hostility among the officers than Hunter and King had done, partly because he was more successful than they had been, but also on account of his uncontrollable temper, immoderate language and general lack of skill in handling people. The man who led the opposition to the governor's policies was John MacArthur, who had been an officer of the Corps but had resigned his commission and was devoting himself to farming and commercial activities, particularly to the production of fine wool from Merino sheep.

A series of quarrels between Bligh and Macarthur culminated in a dispute regarding the trading vessel Parramatta, of which Macarthur was part-owner and on which a convict had, without the knowledge of the owners escaped to Tahiti. It was customary for shipowners to enter into a bond of £900 to guarantee that they would not assist convicts to escape, and in this case a board consisting of Bligh, Judge-Advocate Richard Atkins and Robert Campbell decided that the bond should be forfeited. Macarthur retaliated by announcing that he had abandoned the ship, and after several days the crew, running out of food, came ashore, thus breaking port regulations.

Macarthur was charged with causing this offence, but when served with a warrant refused to submit to arrest and spoke with great contempt of the Governor. Shortly afterwards he was arrested on a second warrant, but granted bail. On 25 January 1808, he appeared before a court consisting of Atkins and six military officers, charged with 'inciting the people to hatred and contempt of the government, and certain high misdemeanours'. As soon as the court opened, Macarthur demanded that Atkins step down from the bench, claiming that he owed Macarthur money and that a suit was pending between them, that he had been Macarthur's inveterate enemy for years, and that he was a swindler. The six officers, who had dined with Macarthur until late the previous evening, sided with him, but Atkins refused to step down, and the court broke up in confusion.

On the following morning Macarthur was arrested on an escape warrant and Bligh sent notes to the six officers of the court stating that they were charged with certain crimes, and must appear before him on the following day.

The Rebellion and its Aftermath

On the afternoon of 26 January Major Johnston came to Sydney from his farm at Annandale and quickly decided to support the officers of the court. He released Macarthur, who then drew up a petition, finally signed by about 150 citizens, claiming that the colony was in a state where 'every man's Property, Liberty and Life is endangered' and urging Johnston'to place Governor Bligh under an arrest and assume Command of the Colony'. Johnston sent a letter to Bligh asking him to resign his authority and submit to arrest; when Bligh refused, soldiers were sent to Government House to carry out the arrest. It was alleged that the Governor was found hiding under a bed, but if this was so it could hardly have been on account of cowardice, for he had on a number of occasions given proof of great physical courage. He claimed that he had hoped to evade his captors and to escape to the Hawkesbury, where the small farmers, who appreciated his efforts in reducing the officers' privileges, would have supported him.

The sequel to the affair is explained in the biographical entries on Bligh, Johnston and Macarthur. Here it shall be noted simply that after Governor Macquarie had taken command at the beginning of 1810, Johnston was court martialled in England and found guilty of mutiny, but was punished only by being dismissed from the Army. Macarthur was forced to remain in England from 1810 to 1817. Bligh was exonerated of conduct justifying his deposition and was later promoted to Vice-Admiral, but was never again placed in a position of active command.

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