COUP-EE – AN ARMED INSURRECTION – 26 JANUARY 1808

‘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,  I.B. Tauris, New York, 2009.

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

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

‘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.

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

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

‘Omission’ – 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: Whitehall commissioned Captain John Hunter RN, a returning ‘First Fleeter’, to succeed Arthur Phillip on the 4th of February 1794.

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

‘For the length of the interregnum [December 1792-September 1795] the Government was greatly at fault’. Hunter, Dictionary of Biography 

Governor Hunter failed to curb the power of the military and was recalled to London. See: Alice – Down the rabbit hole with Governor Hunter

1800 – September: Governor Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King RN, another ‘First Fleeter’ replaced Governor Hunter. He arrived as Governor-in- waiting and assumed office in September 1800.

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

In April 1801 the now Lieutenant John Macarthur severely wounded  Colonel William Paterson his Commanding Officer in a duel. Governor King sent o England to face court martial and a possible death sentence.

King sent Lieutenant Neill Mackellar, his aide-de-camp, with documentary evidence and Macarthur’s sword. En-route their brig the Caroline was wrecked. The evidence and all aboard went down with the ship.

Macarthur departed Sydney in the Hunter at the beginning of November 1801. Due to a chance meeting at Amboyna, India  with Robert, the young son of Sir Walter Farqurhar physician to the Prince of Wales, on his arrival in England Macarthur was ‘welcomed with open arms’.

Governor King had also sent duplicates of his indictments with Lieutenant Grant RN. However at Cape Town it was found that these too had vanished. But there is no satisfactory explanation for this mystery.

The evidence no longer existed and with powerful political friends in high places the case against him collapsed.  Macarthur resigned his commission and took every  opportunity to undermine Governor Gidley King.

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In April 1805 a very different gentleman, Mr. John Macarthur, returned to Sydney aboard his own ship Argo.  He handed Governor King documents signed by Lord Camden of Britain’s Committee of Trade and Foreign Plantation authorising a grant for 5,000 acres (2,000 ha) of prime grazing land. See: Your Land is My Land‘From Cape York to South Cape’

The grant came 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.

Macarthur’s ‘Brief Encounter’ at Amboyna led to European Australia’s future wealth, built on the ‘sheep’s back’, enormous flocks of merino sheep. And also to appointment of Sir Robert Farqurah as a Director of the Australian Agriculture Company.

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

Governor King deemed also to have failed to control the military, was recalled to England. See: Down the Rabbit Hole with Governor King

1804 – London: Stemming from Sir Joseph Bank’s responsibilities in in relation to the ‘King’s flock’ at Kew a delay in choosing King’s successor was probably also related to sheep.

Banks did not trust the upstart Macarthur. He had the ear of government and favoured Captain William Bligh RN for the post.

1805 – May, London: Bligh of HMS Bounty fame or infamy, was named as King’s successor on the 14th of May 1805.

1806 – 8 August, Sydney: More than a year later, on a wet blustery day in August 1806, Governor Bligh aboard Lady Sinclair arrived in Sydney. He immediately took over from the now ailing Governor King. See: The English King In Australia

Bligh’s wife Elizabeth did not accompany her husband to New South Wales. Mary his daughter, wife of Lieutenant John Putland Bligh’s aide-de-camp, acted 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 similar to those given to Hunter and King .

London believed Bligh’s reputation of a ‘tyrannical martinet’ was just the quality needed to re-establish law and order to a far-flung outpost of Empire,

New South Wales was drowning in the alcohol imported by ‘certain officers’ of the ‘Rum Corps’. It was on-sold to ex-convicts at inflated prices. The exorbitant profit made these officers very wealthy.

Principal among them the now successful Mr. John Macarthur. The teetotaller who had started the whole sorry saga when, in 1792, he  organised his fellow officers pool their monies to form trading cartels and import ‘firey Indian rum’ from Bengal.

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1806:  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.

Bligh visited the farms of ex-convicts and ticket-of-leave men. Strung out along the fertile flood plains on both sides of the Hawkesbury River their farms supplied most of the fresh food required by the growing white population.

But in 1805-6 torrential rains caused heavy grain and stock losses. Many recently constructed store-houses, wharves, roads and bridges, an initiative of Governor King, were badly damaged. Many farmers’ houses were washed away.

Bligh discovered, not only had these farmers received little or no help from their military overlords, some Corps’ officers, ready to scoop up cheap holdings, sought to profit from their misfortunes. Bligh set out to remedy the situation.

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

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

Bligh ordered the stills be 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’.

At this time (1807) the colony’s English population numbered approximately 7,500, mostly ex-convicts and ticket-of-leave men. Having served their sentence these ’emancipatists‘  were given grants of Aboriginal land; ; ‘for every male 30 acres, if married 20 acres more…for every child with them a further 10 acres’.

No account whatever was taken that the land they guarded so jealously belonged to the First Australians.

A handful of free settlers made up the rest of the European population.The military were allocated larger land grants. They 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 M.H Ellis, Francis Greenway, His Life and Times, Angus and Robertson, 1953

Emancipatists were assigned one (1) or two (2) serving convicts to work for them.‘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.

But it was not only agricultural land that attracted the ‘exclusives’. Not long before  Governor Arthur Phillip left Sydney (December 1792) he issued the following orders.

‘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 . In summer 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.rank Murcott Bladen, Journal, Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 1.

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

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

Some tenants were protected by lease. Some leases had lapsed and Bligh would not renew them. He ordered structures erected illegally on Crown land and, occupied in the main 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.

His intention was to build an elegant house-in-town for his growing family. Bligh considered the plot to be 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 – October, Sydney: Macarthur went to court and challenged the seizure of his boilers. On 24 October 1807 Richard Atkins, the colony’s civilian judge-advocate, ruled in Macarthur’s favour. Atkins found the seizure of Macarthur’s coppers; ‘highly irregular and illegal’.

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

Bligh immediately sent the Home Office a detailed report of the incident. In it he cited, 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.

‘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.

In time Bligh’s representations would bear fruit.Three (3) years later, in 1810, Ellis Bent Australia’s first qualified lawyer, arrived in Sydney Town.

Bligh’s next recommendation for reform proved fatal for his administration. He requested the New South Wales ‘ Rum’ Corps be withdrawn in its entirety; ‘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 coveted  Church Hill land did belong to the Church of England.

In a calculated insult Bligh offered Macarthur an alternate parcel of land ‘where the common gallows had stood’.

At the rough end of town Macarthur described the site as; ‘the haunt of prostitutes and vile atrocious characters’.  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 Parramatta, another vessel 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 was back in Sydney where he reported Macarthur’s refusal to judge-advocate Atkins.

Atkins charged Macarthur with ‘contempt and perverting justice’.  He set a date 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 Mary, his daughter’s husband, had declined steadily since the family’s arrival in the colony. Mary watched the debilitating night sweats of tuberculosis slowly 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 1808. Her cargo of 7,000 gallons (30,000 litres) of wine was landed and placed in government storage. Bligh, in keeping with his orders,refused permission for the rum to be unloaded.

When they saw their large profit sail back out through the Heads of Sydney Harbour it proved the last straw for outraged officers. They began in earnest to plot Bligh’s downfall.

I808 – mid January: The first move, John Macarthur defied Bligh and in mid-January turned up at the Church Hill land with a gang of labourers.They set to  work clearing the ground, taking levels, digging post-holes and erecting fences.

Surveyor-General Grimes, although anti-Bligh and 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 quite some time Johnston served as Governor Arthur Phillip’s aide-de-camp.

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 happily with Esther Abrahams his common-law wife – a first fleet convict – together with their many children.

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

John Macarthur, due in court the next day to answer ‘contempt’ charges, did not attend the celebrations. He did however donate ‘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 following morning the court convened. Macarthur stood in the dock and found that, in addition to ‘contempt’  and perverting  justice’additional charges had been laid.

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

The small hot court-room was ‘crowded with hostile soldiers ordered to attend’. The judicial bench consisted of  Richard Atkins a civilian as Crown Prosecutor, 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. 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 attendance 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 impasse 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: They worked into the early hours of 26th of January 1806. Bligh determined not to back down ordered Atkins was to remain prosecutor. The stage was set for rebellion. See:  Australia Day Rebellion – 26 January 1808.

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