COUP-EE – AN ARMED INSURRECTION – 26 JANUARY 1808

‘From 1788 there had been continuous disputation between the civil power represented by the autocratic uniformed naval governors and the military. In 1792 the military power was significantly strengthened when Phillip, due to ill health, returned to England’. John McMahon, Not A Rum Rebellion But A Military Insurrection. Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 92, 2006.

1770:  Without consent of its First Peoples, Lieutenant James Cook RN, in the name of George III of England, laid claim to the entire eastern portion of a territory, known then as New Holland now Australia; ‘from the Northern extremity of the coast called Cape York…to the Southern extremity…South Cape’. See: A Cracker-Jack Opinion – No Sweat

‘In the beginning, the population of New South Wales was entirely official or criminal’. H.V. Evatt, Rum Rebellion, 1978. 

1788, 26 January, Sydney: By ‘ effective occupation’ – invasion – when Captain Arthur Phillip RN commander of the ‘First Fleet’ raised the Union Jack at Sydney Cove on 26th January 1788 he consolidated Britain’s tenuous 1770 ‘discovery’ claim to the island continent of New Holland.

1792 – 11 December, to England: Arthur Phillip, after five (5) traumatic years of service as Britain’s first commissioned governor of Australia, departed Sydney in the Atlantic on 11 December 1792 for the return to England.

‘There are two kinds of error: those of commission, doing something that should not be done, and those of omission, not doing something that should be done. The latter are much more serious than the former’. The Puritan Gift – Forward – Russell Lincoln Ackoff, Kenneth Hopper and William Hopper, 2009.

Britain failed to appoint an immediate successor to Governor  Phillip. By default the immense power vested in the governor of New South Wales devolved to a ‘rogue military outfit’,  the New South Wales ‘Rum’ Corps. See: Machiavellian Macarthur Post Governor Phillip

1794 – February, London: Captain John Hunter RN, the second commissioned Governor of Australiawas not appointed until February 1794.

1795 – September, Sydney: Inexplicably Governor Hunter did not reach Sydney until September 1795 and by then the military were completely beyond control.

1799 to England:  Governor Hunter failed to curb the power of the military. He was recalled to London and replaced by Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King RN. See: Alice – Down the rabbit hole with Governor Hunter

‘Neither Hunter nor King had been able to enforce obedience to [their] general orders’. M. Bladen, Journal, Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 1

1800 – September: Governor Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King RN, replaced Governor Hunter assuming office in September 1800. He also failed to control the military. See: Alice – Down the rabbit hole with Governor King 

1804 – London: The Home Office decided to recall Governor King but, as with Governor Phillip, there was a lengthy delay in choosing a replacement.

1805 – 14 May, London: Captain William Bligh RN yet another naval officer, was chosen to replace Governor King.

1806 – 8 August, Sydney: More than a year later, August 1806, Governor Bligh aboard the Lady Sinclair arrived in Sydney and immediately took over government from the now ailing Governor King.

Bligh’s wife Elizabeth did not accompany her husband to New South Wales. His daughter Mary, wife of Lieutenant John Putland Bligh’s aide-de-camp, was to act as ‘first lady’.

Governor Bligh’s general orders; ‘put an end to the barter of spirits which appears to have been abused to the great injury and morals of the colony [and] ensure that no spirits land in the colony without his consent’ were identical to those given to Governors Hunter and King.

London believed Bligh’s reputation of ‘tyrannical martinet’ was just the quality needed to re-establish law and order to a colony awash with rum, stinking of vice, gambling, corruption and crime. Bligh was certain he would succeed where his predecessors had failed.

But Bligh had yet to encounter Machiavellian Macarthur.

New South Wales, an outpost of Empire, was drowning in alcohol imported by military officers who sold it to ex-convicts at inflated prices that reaped exorbitant profits and made ‘certain officers’ of the New South Corps very wealthy.

Principal among these wheeler-dealers was John Macarthur the teetotaller who earlier had organised his fellow officers pool their monies to form trading cartels and import ‘firey Indian rum’ from Bengal.

Bligh settled in and worked diligently to understand the nature of the people he had been sent to govern. He reported favourably on Governor King’s ambitious public works programme. However in 1806 torrential rains caused major damage to most of the recently constructed store-houses, wharves, roads and bridges.

The Hawkesbury River supplied most food required by the growing white population of ex-convicts and their ever increasing families. Farms were strung out along both sides of the river but alternating periods of drought and flooding caused heavy grain and stock losses.

Bligh visited the Hawkesbury area where he found farmers, in the main ex convicts or ticket-of-leave men, had received little or no help from the military. Moreover Corps’ officers sought to profit from their misfortunes and Bligh set out to remedy the situation.

Righting some wrongs won Bligh enduring support from most settlers on the Hawkesbury but earned him lasting enmity from the ‘colonels’ who held the colony in an economic strangle-hold.

1807: In 1807 Bligh turned his full attention onto the New South Wales ‘ Rum’ Corps, in particular on the arrogant John Macarthur, now an ex-officer and chief detractor of  Governors Hunter and King.

Macarthur first arrived at Sydney in June 1790 with the second fleet – ‘Britain’s Grim Armada’ . Clever but greedy and grasping he quickly earned a nick-name ‘The Perturbator’.

Earlier, Governor King had sent the then Lieutenant John Macarthur to England to face court martial and a possible death sentence for severely wounding Colonel William Paterson his then Commanding Officer in a duel.

Lieutenant Neill Mackellar, Governor King’s aide-de-camp, was entrusted with  Macarthur’s sword and the documentary evidence against him.

MacKellar set sail in the Caroline but en-route to England Caroline was wrecked. Macarthur’s sword and Governor King’s indictment, along with Lieutenant Mackellar and all aboard the brig went down with her.

In England the case against Macarthur collapsed from lack of evidence.

Macarthur, during his enforced stay in England, took the opportunity to further undermine Governor Gidley King. He successfully sought friends in high places and when opportunities presented that offered far greater rewards than mere military service could guarantee, Macarthur resigned his commission.

Mr. John Macarthur returned to Sydney aboard his own ship the Argo. He had with him documents for a grant for 5,000 acres (2,000 ha) of prime grazing land authorised by Lord Camden of Britain’s Committee of Trade and Foreign Plantations.

The grant came, or so Macarthur claimed, with a pledge for a further 5,000 acres if  he made good his plan to establish a fine wool industry in Australia.

Macarthur, with invaluable support from Elizabeth his wife, fulfilled his ambition. European Australia’s wealth was built on the ‘sheep’s back’, the yearly production of fine wool taken from, what in time, became enormous flocks of merino sheep.

1807 – 8 March, Sydney: Prior to leaving England John Macarthur had purchased two (2) stills. On 8 March 1807 his brewing equipment arrived in Sydney aboard the Dart another vessel the budding entrepreneur part-owned.

Bligh ordered the stills impounded. Macarthur objected to their seizure but offered a compromise. He was prepared to  surrender both ‘heads and worms’, but insisted on retaining the ‘coppers’ [for] agricultural use’ on Elizabeth Farm his grazing property at Parramatta.

Bligh rejected that proposal. Macarthur’s ruthless mind was made up ‘The Perturbator’ would wage war on Bligh and destroy the ‘tyrannical martinet’.

1807: The colony’s English population numbered approximately 7,500 in 1807, most serving and ex-convicts.

‘for every [emancipated] male 30 acres, if married 20 acres more…for every child with them a further 10 acres’.

Ex- convicts ’emancipatists‘ having served their time, were given grants of Aboriginal land. No account was taken that the land they jealously guarded belonged to the First Australians.

Emancipatists were assigned one (1) or two (2) serving convicts to work for them.The military and a handful of free settlers made up the rest of the European population who,  given larger land grants, regarded themselves as ‘exclusives’, principal among them Mr John Macarthur.

‘Men who thought that ‘they had an exclusive right to do wrong and that the public purse was exclusively their property, to use as they pleased …that Government and the public may be duped and plundered without committing a crime and that every man has a right to do so who can do so neatly’. Australian Almanack, 1835. Cited in M.H Ellis, Francis Greenway, His Life and Times, Angus and Robertson, 1953

‘Exclusives’ were a law unto themselves. At government expense, in defiance of standing orders, they used as many as ten (10) or more serving convicts to work their holdings.

It was not only agricultural land that attracted the ‘exclusives’.

‘It is the orders of the Government that no ground within the boundary line from the head of Cockle Bay [Darling Harbour] to the head of Garden Cove [Woolloomooloo] is ever granted or let on lease, and all the houses built within the boundary line are and are to remain the property of the Crown’. Governor Arthur Phillip, Memorandum, 2 December 1792.

1807: In 1807 about 3,000 people lived in Sydney Town most clustered around the world’s ‘finest harbour’. A straggling village it was crowded with shops, taverns, houses and shabby lean-tos, many erected well ‘within the [Phillip’s] boundary line’.

In winter its pot-holed streets were muddy while in summer loose dirt swirled into choking dust when, most afternoons, strong cooling winds swept up the coast from the southern oceans bringing welcome relief from suffocating heat.

‘It is not more risky to attempt to take a bone from an angry dog than to interfere with the monopolies of a privileged class’. F.M. Bladen, Journal, Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 1.

1807: And so it proved when, during the winter months – June, July and August 1807, Bligh turned his attention to land reform and town management.

Bligh discovered numerous building irregularities ‘ from the head of Cockle Bay to the head of Garden Cove’. Many dated back to the first interregnum (1792-1795) when, those who ingratiated themselves during the ‘irregular regimes’ of Major Grose and Captain Paterson when Macarthur was Inspector of Works.

Some tenants were protected by lease, some had lapsed and Bligh would not renew them. He ordered structures erected illegally on Crown land and, occupied mainly by military men, be demolished. See: A Black Hole – The First Interregnum 1792-95.

Bligh’s actions were aimed squarely at the military; ‘the few who prayed on the vitals of the rest’ . However his domineering methods struck fear into many a town-dweller. Soldiers, under officers’ orders, found it easy to whip up resentment against Governor Bligh.

Bligh again focused on the arrogant John Macarthur who earlier had earmarked nearly two acres (1ha) of prime land on Church Hill adjacent to St Phillip’s Church where he intended to build an elegant house-in-town for his growing family. Bligh considered the plot church land and forbade Macarthur interfere with it.

1807 – September, Sydney: The Duke of Portland brought supplies from England towards the end of September 1807. As she was being prepared for her return voyage Bligh ordered Macarthur’s intact brewing equipment be loaded onto her.

1807 – 24 October, Sydney: Macarthur went to court and challenged the seizure of his boilers. Richard Atkins, the civilian judge-advocate ruled in Macarthur’s favour. On 24 October 1807 Atkins found the seizure of Macarthur’s coppers; ‘highly irregular and illegal’.

Bligh was outraged. But judge-advocate Atkins, a known drunkard with no legal training, held a Crown appointment so Bligh’s hands were tied. Link: A Worm-Hole –  Richard Atkins Diary

Bligh immediately sent the Home Office a detailed report of the incident, citing Richard Atkin’s lack of legal education and his many personal and moral shortcomings. Bligh also suggested changes necessary to reform the colony’s courts of justice.

In time his representations bore fruit when, three (3) years later in 1810 Ellis Bent, Australia’s first qualified lawyer, arrived in Sydney Town.

‘Bligh certainly had failed as yet to realize the position into which disturbance of military minds would lead him – in fact he failed to realize it until too late’. M. E. Ellis, John Macarthur. ibid.

Bligh’s next reform proved fatal for his administration. He requested the New South Wales ‘ Rum’ Corps be withdrawn in its entirety – officers and men; ‘send them to India’ he urged the Home Office..

1807 – November, Sydney: In a town as porous as the sandstone on which it stood there could be no such thing as secrecy. Once news of Bligh’s intention to replace the Corps was out, his fate was sealed. In late November, to add insult to injury, Bligh  notified John Macarthur officially, the Church Hill land he coveted, belonged to the Church of England.

In a calculated insult Bligh offered Macarthur an alternate parcel of land at the rough end of town near; ‘where the common gallows had stood’.

Macarthur described the site as; ‘the haunt of prostitutes and vile atrocious characters’. Most certainly it was not a place where an aspiring colonial aristocrat would wish to build a family mansion.

Macarthur had earlier failed to pay a large fine imposed when a convict escaped the colony in the Parramatta, another ship he owned in partnership. A vindictive Bligh decided to go after him on that score.

1807 – 15 December, Parramatta: Constable Oakes attempted to serve Macarthur with a warrant in relation to the escape and called on him at Elizabeth Farm. Macarthur refused the warrant on the grounds  it had not been preceded by a  summons.

1807 – 17 December, Sydney: Two (2) days later – 17 December 1807 – Constable Oakes returned to Sydney and reported Macarthur’s refusal to judge-advocate Atkins. Atkins charged Macarthur with ‘contempt and perverting justice’ and a date was set for Macarthur’s court appearance – 25 January 1808.

1807 – December, Sydney: Towards the end of December 1807, personal concerns overtook Governor Bligh. The health of Lieutenant John Putland, Bligh’s aide-de-camp and his daughter Mary’s husband, had declined steadily since the family’s arrival in the colony. Mary watched the debilitating night sweats of tuberculosis steal her husband’s life.

1808 – 4 January, Government House: Lieutenant John Putland died on 4 January 1808 and was buried in the grounds of Government House.

1808: The year 1808 held great promise for officers of the New South Wales ‘Rum’ Corps. During the lax administrations of Major Grose and Captain Paterson (1792 – 1795 ) Sydney became a honey-pot for traders especially American merchant ships loaded with grog for sale.

1808 –  early January: An American ship carrying 22.000 gallons (100,000 litres) of rum arrived in early January. Her cargo of 7,000 gallons (30,000 litres) of wine was landed and placed in government storage but, on Bligh’s orders, port authorities refused permission for the rum to be unloaded.

This proved the last straw for outraged officers and they began in earnest to plot Bligh’s downfall.

I808 – mid January: First move, John Macarthur defied Bligh and turned up at the Church Hill land in mid- January 1808 with a gang of labourers.

He set them to  work clearing the ground, taking levels, digging post-holes and erecting fences. Surveyor-General Grimes, although anti-Bligh, so closely aligned with the ‘exclusives’, nevertheless obeyed orders and warned Macarthur not to trespass on church land.

‘You cannot overrate the solicitude of H.M. Government on the subject of the Aborigines of New Holland…it is impossible that the government should forget that the original aggression was ours’. Lord John Russell to Sir George Gipps, 21 December 1838, Historical Records of Australia, Series 1. Vol. XX

Meantime preparations were in hand to celebrate the 20th anniversary of  Britain’s ‘original aggression’ the invasion of New Holland in January 1788.

It was an emotional time for Major George Johnston the Corps’ commander. Twenty (20) years earlier ( 26 January 1788) Johnston, then a young marine lieutenant of the Sydney garrison, had disembarked from the ‘First Fleet’. For some time Johnston served as Governor Arthur Phillip’s aide-de-camp.

George Johnston was one of few marine officers who transferred from the ‘troubled’ Sydney garrison to the New South Wales Corps. He built a fine house at Annandale living there with Esther Abrahams his common-law wife – a first fleet convict – together with their many children.

1808 – 24 January: Major Johnston to mark the anniversary of the landing in Sydney Cove in 1788 hosted a commemorative mess dinner for officers and friends of the regiment on the evening of 24 January 1808.

John Macarthur, due in court the next day to answer ‘contempt’ charges, did not attend the celebrations but donated ‘a large quantity of wine’ to the mess. Edward, Macarthur’s son, was a guest he reported the table-talk was of rebellion.

1808 –  25 January: The court convened on the morning of the 25th January. Macarthur stood in the dock and found that, in addition to ‘contempt’  and perverting  justice’additional charges had been laid against him.

He was accused of publishing abroad; ‘false, scandalous, libelous, wicked seditious, unlawful words’ designed to bring Bligh into ‘disrespect, hatred and contempt’.

Small and hot the court-room was ‘crowded with hostile soldiers ordered to attend’. The judical bench consisted of  Richard Atkins a civilian as Crown Prosecutor and six (6) army officers Adjutant, Captain Anthony Fenn Kemp, Lt. William Minchin Quarter-Master  and Lieutenants Thomas Laycock, John Brabyn, Thomas Moore and William Lawson.

‘The officers without legal precedent, allowed Macarthur to enter a plea to bar Atkins from his trial. Having heard Macarthur’s plea, despite Atkins’s objections, Kemp refused to swear-in Atkins and the 6 officers unanimously supported Macarthur’s appeal. Atkins was forced out of the court-room’. John McMahon, Not A Rum Rebellion But A Military Insurrection, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 92, 2006.

Proceedings began and uproar erupted. Macarthur sought to have Atkins removed as prosecutor citing monies owed him by the prosecutor as grounds for his challenge.

Atkins owed money to many and Macarthur claimed Atkins had failed to repay a debt incurred thirteen (13) years previously.

Captain Kemp acting as court president wrote to Bligh requesting Atkins be replaced as Prosecutor. Bligh replied Richard Atkins, as judge-advocate held a Crown appointment, therefore ‘ the officers’ refusal to form a court with Atkins was illegal’ .

Throughout the day letters flew back and forth between Government House and the court-room.

1808 – 25 January: At 5.30 pm Governor Bligh sent a letter by chaise to Major Johnston requesting his attendence at Government House that night. Johnson was  resting at home in leafy Annandale recovering from the previous night’s celebrations.

Johnston pleaded a fall from his horse prevented him travelling to Sydney even in the comfort of Governor Bligh’s chaise.

1808 – 25 January: Night fell with the legal empasse unresolved. Bligh called a conference of his advisors. Robert Campbell, Provost Marshall Gore, Mr Palmer, Dr Arndell and the Reverend Henry Fulton.

1808 – 26 January: Bligh and his advisors worked into the early hours of 26th of January 1806. Bligh determined not to back down ordering Atkins remain prosecutor – the stage was set for rebellion. See:  Australia Day Rebellion – 26 January 1808.

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