‘You cannot overrate the solicitude of H.M. Government on the subject of the Aborigines of New Holland. It is impossible to contemplate the condition or the prospects of that unfortunate race without the deepest commiseration. Still it is impossible that H.M. Government should forget that the original aggression was ours’. Lord John Russell to Sir George Gipps, Dispatch, 21 December 1838, Historical Records of Australia, Series, Vol XX.

1808 – 26 January, Sydney: On the 20th anniversary of Britain’s ‘original aggression’, the invasion of New Holland and raising of the Union Jack at Sydney Cove by Governor Arthur Phillip RN on 26 January 1788, Major George Johnston, Commanding Officer of the New South Wales ‘Rum’ Corps, marched on Government House and arrested Governor William Bligh RN described as; ‘a man of sterner fibre’.

‘New South Wales had now proved to be the grave-yard of the ambitions of both Hunter and King…[Joseph] Banks knew that both [Governors] Hunter and King had failed to repel the attacks of the officers and rum traffickers and that the new governor must be a man of sterner fibre’. H.V. Evatt, Rum Rebellion.

The previous day – 25 January 1808 – John Macarthur, an ex officer and the teetotaller who put the rum into the New South Wales ‘Rum’ Corps, had appeared in court to answer a charge of uttering; ‘false, scandalous, libelous, wicked seditious, unlawful words’ designed to bring Governor William Bligh RN into ‘disrespect, hatred and contempt’ .

As proceedings began Macarthur immediately challenged the court’s make-up. He demanded Richard Atkins, the civilian judge -advocate, be removed as prosecutor. Stalemate ensued and the court adjourned with the matter unresolved. John Macarthur was arrested and lodged in the town gaol.

Governor Bligh sent Major George Johnston a letter requesting his presence at Government House. Johnston refused citing injuries sustained the previous day in a fall from his horse.

1808 – 26 January, Sydney:  At 9 am the following morning – 26 January – six (6) officers sworn the day before assembled in the court-room. Two (2) players were missing – John Macarthur still under lock and key – and Prosecutor Richard Atkins.

Shortly afterwards; ‘Bligh seized the initiative from the officers’.

Provost-Marshall Gore, informed the six (6) sworn officers; ‘you are charged with certain crimes, you are therefore hereby required to appear before me at Government House, at nine o’clock to-morrow morning [27th] to answer in the premises. John McMahon, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 92, 2006

Lieutenant Minchin, one (1) of the six (6) officers, hurried from the court-room. Accompanied by surgeon Harris, a fellow rebel conspirator, they drove at speed along rough, dusty Parramatta Road to Major Johnston’s home in leafy Annandale.

Minchin brought Major Johnston up to date. Macarthur was in gaol and Bligh had charged six (6) officers with treason. Just after 4 pm a mounted trooper swung into Johnston’s stable-yard bringing documents naming the officers charged with ‘treasonable conduct’.

Around 5pm Major Johnston, arrayed in full battle-dress, drove with Lieutenant Minchin to Sydney arriving at the George Street barracks a little before 6 O’clock.

‘It is from their attachment to their government,  from the sense of the deep stake they have in such a glorious institution, which gives your army and your navy, and infuses into both that liberal obedience without which your army and your navy would be a base rabble’. Edmund Burke, British Parliamentarian.

Major Johnston consulted Captain Fenn-Kemp on the logistics of a projected assault on Government House. Satisfied he had unqualified backing of corrupt Corps’ officers Major Johnston took a momentous decision; he would stage a coup and depose Governor William Bligh RN, the King’s representative. See: Coup-ee

Major Johnston, the now self-styled Lieutenant-Governor of New South Wales, issued his first Directive; a Proclamation of Martial Law.

‘ Sir, I am called upon to execute a most painful duty. You [Governor Bligh] are 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 the Officers under my Command have joined…..Your most obedient humble servant, George Johnston, as Lt. Governor and Major Commg. N.S. W. Corps’.

Johnston’s second Directive authorised John Macarthur’s release from prison. Provost Marshall Gore was given copies of both Directives.

Gore arrived at Government House at approximately half-past six o’clock. Close on his heels came a group of armed officers led by Captain Anthony Fenn Kemp who, on Major Johnston’s orders, was to lead the assault on Governor Bligh.

Lieutenants William Minchin, William Lawson, William Moore, Cadwallader Draffin and Sergeant Major Thomas Whittle – broke down the doors of Government House and seized Governor Bligh at gun-point.

Lieutenant Moore handed Bligh ‘Lieutenant-Governor Johnston’s Declaration of Martial Law ‘…[your] crimes…render you unfit to exercise supreme authority’

Gore attempted to slip away and inform Bligh’s supporters of these astounding events but was spotted and arrested. As he was being escorted to the military barracks, Gore saw Burke’s ‘base rabble’ – a column of three hundred (300) armed troops,  Major Johnston riding at their head, marching up Bridge Street towards Government House.

‘So far as the attack on Bligh by the regiment is concerned….It was, in fact, an organized attack, not only in military array, but by the officers and soldiers with loaded guns, fixed bayonets and all the panoply of war’. H.V. Evatt, Rum Rebellion, 1978.

Just on night-fall Major Johnston and his men arrived at Government House to find Captain Kemp had secured Bligh.

1808 – 1810:  From the 26th of January 1808, throughout the whole of 1808, Governor Bligh and Mary Putland his widowed daughter, were held prisoner in Sydney’s vice-regal residence.

The dramatic story of Bligh’s seizure, his imprisonment and his escape include deception, a blockade of Sydney Harbour, an escape to Tasmania, a blockade of Hobart Town, a perilous return to Sydney, a confrontation with Governor Lachlan Macquarie and a court-martial in England. See: Imagine – nine months and two weeks in a leaky boat with Captain Bligh

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