‘Until, the year 1823 the government of New South Wales was vested entirely in the Governor who worked under the control of the Secretary of State for the Home Department….He was an autocrat, wielding the widest powers, amenable to no criticism but than of the Minister [13,000 miles (21,000 km) away] in England’. Professor Ernest Scott, A Short History of Australia, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1953

Captain Arthur Phillip RN, Britain’s first commissioned Governor of Australia ‘broken in health’ after five (5) traumatic years of service, returned to England.

Phillip, accompanied by Bennalong and Yemmerrawannie two (2) Aboriginal warriors, aboard the Atlantic departed Sydney for London at the end 1792. See: Manly – Location, Location, Location

Whitehall due to a ‘policy of drift’ failed to commission a second governor; ‘for the length of the interregnum the British Government was greatly at fault’. J.J. Achmutty, John Hunter, Australian Dictionary of Biography See: A Black Hole the First Interregnum December 1792-September 1795

William Wyndham Grenville, a cousin of Prime Minister Pitt, had replaced Lord Sydney as Home Secretary in June 1789. At the beginning of January 1790 he ordered infantry troops replace the Sydney Marine Garrison of 1788.

‘I am commanded to signify to you the King’s pleasure that directions be immediately given for the embarkation of the Corps raised for service in New South Wales and commanded by Major Grose’. Right Hon.W.W. Grenville to Secretary of War, London, 20 January 1790

London:  Grenville made his move after receiving the first news to arrive from New Holland via returning First Fleet transports.

1790 – June, Sydney: The first contingent, one hundred and fifteen (115) infantry of the New South Wales Corps, seventeen (17) officers and ninety-eight men (98), reached Sydney in June 1790 aboard Neptune, Scarborough, Suprize, the death ships of Britain’s Grim Armada the second fleet.. See: Britain’s Grim Armada, The Dead and the Living Dead.

1790 – December, London: In April 1790 Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King RN had departed Sydney for Jakarta in HMS Supply. Supply was to purchase tons of supplies, charter a Dutch ship to bring them to Sydney and herself return with as much as she could carry.

Gidley King was to make his way to England ‘by whatever means’ and deliver Governor Phillip’s despatches, written after HMS Sirius’s voyage of circumnavigation to and from Africa (October 1788 – May 1789).

It would seem, in view of the information contained in these later despatches, it was decided to bring the Corps up to establishment. Major Francis Grose, the Corps’ commanding officer, remained in England to recruit more men.

‘The great change came in the arrival with the Second Fleet of the first companies of the New South Wales Corps [among them] Lieutenant John Macarthur  – a central figure in the military ‘mafia’ which quickly established itself as Austrlia’s first governing and property elite’. Nigel Rigby, Peter van der Merwe, Glyn Williams, National Maritime Museum Greenwich, Pacific Explorations, Bloomsbury, Adlard Coles, London 2018     

In the meantime at Sydney Lieutenant Macarthur, a junior officer took advantage of long-standing dissension among his fellow officers, and moved to fill the power vacuum created by Grose’s absence. See: The Switch 1790 – Context – War With France 1793-1815

1792 – February, Sydney: Major Grose arrived in February 1792 with an additional two hundred (200) troops; ‘a proportion of the rank and file were drawn from the Savoy military prison’. Brian Fitzpatrick, The Australian People 1788-1945, Melbourne University Press, 1951

1792 – 13 December, Sydney: The day after Governor Phillip’s departure (12 December), Grose assumed the ‘widest powers…vested entirely in the Governor’.

‘Major Grose, by virtue of his military status, assumed the command, as Lieutenant-Governor. It does not appear that Grose’s antecedents had qualified him in any way for the performance of gubernatorial functions. He had been trained from his youth to arms and was essentially and only a soldier’. M H. Bladen, Journal, Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. I

Australia’s First Nations’ Peoples whose land Britain invaded in 1788 were abandoned to ‘a rogue military outfit’ the aptly named New South Wales ‘Rum’ Corps.

Grose; ‘had not been many hours in charge before he introduced into the Government of the colony the same system, and very much the same forms, which prevailed in his regiment…From this period, the ascendancy of the military dates. They became an aristocracy’. Bladen. op.cit.

Although Whitehall had appointed Captain John Hunter RN Phillip’s successor, albeit belatedly in February 1794, ‘inexplicably’ this hero of the ‘First Fleet’ did not reach Sydney until September 1795.

‘Until 1795 racketeering officers conducted the government of the settlement, and New South Wales Corps, a regiment of army derelicts and delinquents raised for this special service, relieved the [Sydney garrison] marines’. Fitzpatrick. ibid.

1794 – December, England:  Major Grose, wounded in the War of American Independence (1775-83) unable to bear the heat of another long Sydney summer, left for England at the end of 1794.

Power passed to Captain William Paterson his second-in-command also a veteran of America’s Revolutionary War.

‘There were plans to use the corps in expeditions against Panama, Peru and the Phillipines, but nothing eventuated and the Corps’ first experience of war came in January 1795 on the Hawkesbury River north-west of Sydney’. Dr Peter Stanley, The Remote Garrison, The British Army in Australia 1788-1870, Kangaroo Press, 1986

1795 – April:  While Hunter was still on the high seas Captain Paterson took a military decision that compounded difficulties on the Hawkesbury – Deerubbun – River.

Paterson moved against the local Dharug Aborigines and sent a detachment of sixty-six (66) troops and two (2) officers to the river. See: A Worm Hole – Richard Atkin’s Diary & The First Black Hole 1792-1795


‘No one who knows anything about the history of the New South Wales Corps will deny the pernicious system of spirit traffic was universal, and that as already stated, enormous profits were made by the [Rum Corps] officers in defiance of repeated orders’. Bladen. ibid.

The colony of New South Wales remained under ‘autocratic’ military rule until Governor John Hunter RN arrived in September 1795.

‘It was a great misfortune that this period of military rule occurred; because in the course of it the colony was brought to degradation by drink, corruption, and general iniquity, which required years to mitigate’. Ernest Scott. ibid

Lieutenant John Macarthur, clever ambitious and chief ‘racketeer’ who, in June 1790, arrived with first contingent of the New South Wales Corps was ‘the power behind the military throne’.

Teetotaller Macarthur’s power lay with ‘the pernicious system of spirit traffic’. Rum from India oiled every wheel and made ‘certain officers’ very rich.

‘Rum afforded the best and speediest means of maddening the brain and sickening the stomach…The men got to their third nip before they fell upon each other screaming, yelling and punching the living daylights out of each other’.

It seemed that Smokey rum was made up from the foulest, rankest, colonial tobacco that could be found shoved into a rum barrel – filled to the top with rum – sealed and left to ferment’. Wayne Kelly, Booze Built Australia, 1994.

At Macarthur’s instigation some fellow officers pooled their monies and bought shares valued at £200. £4000 was raised and visiting ships chartered to sail to Bengal and buy rum. Corps’ officers formed cartels and operated as both wholesale retail merchants pledged not to under-cut each other.

‘Every commodity arriving in port they bought cheaply and sold at extortionate prices’. H.V. Evatt, Rum Rebellion, A Study of the overthrow of Governor Bligh by John Macarthur and the New South Wales Corps, Angus and Robertson, 1944

Rum as currency enabled the military ‘aristocracy’ maintain a stranglehold over the whole of the colony’s commercial dealings. Grog, greed and guns ruled the colony.

1795 – September: Governor John Hunter RN arrived in Sydney in the last quarter of 1795. In 1800 he was recalled to London and replaced by Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King another ‘First Fleeter’. See: Alice – Down The Rabbit Hole With Hunter

Following a duel in which Macarthur severely wounded Colonel William Paterson, his commanding officer, Governor Gidley King sent him to England for censure. Due to misadventure – shipwreck and loss of documents – the case collapsed from lack of evidence.

Macarthur sought friends in high places, resigned his commission and, successfully undermined Governor King, who was recalled to England. See: Alice – Down the Rabbit Hole with King

Macarthur was the common denominator in the downfall of both Governors Hunter and King.

‘New South Wales had now proved to be the grave-yard of the ambitions both of Hunter and King he [Joseph] Banks knew that both 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. ibid.

In order to diversify from, cattle and cropping to sheep grazing and wool production, Lord ‘Plantations’ Camden handed Macarthur a large grant – 5000 acres of Aboriginal land.

Government believed Captain Bligh RN, hero or anti-hero of the ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’, had credentials to be a strong administrator and possessed the ability to rein in an out of control military.

There was however another reason for Bligh’s selection as Britain’s fourth ‘autocratic naval governor’ of Australia. 

1805 – May, London: Sir Joseph Banks a wealthy botanist with the ear of government played no small part in Bounty Bligh’s appointment. Banks, keeper of the ‘King’s Flock’ at Kew, had an obsessive interest in preserving the integrity of the ‘royal’ flock blood-line.

Banks, with an aristocrat’s instinctive distrust of the up-start Macarthur needed Bligh, a frequent caller on Bank’s at Soho Square, to keep a sharp eye on Macarthur and Macarthur knew it.

1806 –  8 August, Sydney: Governor William Bligh RN, full of confidence and enthusiasm, arrived in Sydney aboard Lady Madeline Sinclair accompanied by HMS Porpoise at the beginning of August 1806.

Bligh could not have conceived that cold blustery winter’s morning, the military opposition that plagued Governor Phillip and triumphed over Hunter and King (2nd and 3rd naval governors) would – within 18 months – overthrow and imprison him. See: Coup-ee

‘One of Bligh’s first official acts was to publish a Government and General Order prohibiting under heavy penalties the use of spirits as a means of exchange. The publication of this order is in itself a proof that neither Hunter nor King had been able to enforce obedience to the general orders’. Bladen. ibid.

Alcohol was the colony’s only currency, all work was paid for with rum, everything bought or sold was exchanged for rum. When Governor  Bligh moved to stop its importation he threatened the wealth and power of the military.


Military power was the most decisive fact about the early settlements; it was the frame within which everything else happened’. R. Connell and T.H. Irving, Class Structure in Australian History, Documents, Narrative and Argument, 1987

At the beginning of 1808 officers of the New South Wales Corps, egged on by a puffed-up Macarthur proud of his 5000 acres and, now a powerful man-about-town to be courted, resorted to mutiny.

1808 – 26 January, Sydney: Governor Bligh was seized and held prisoner in Government House. See: Australia Day Rebellion – 26 January 1808.




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