‘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, departed Sydney for London in the Atlantic 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

London – 1789:  William Wyndham Grenville, a young cousin of Prime Minister Pitt, replaced Lord Sydney as Home Secretary in June 1789. In mid-October the London Gazette informed the public reinforcements were to be sent to New South Wales.

‘War Office: A Corps. of Foot for New South Wales Major Francis Grose from the Half-Pay of the late 96th Regiment, is appointed to be the Major Commandant’https://www.the gazette.co.uk/London/issue/13140/p653

Whitehall – January 1790: ‘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

1790 – 1 JANUARY @ SYDNEY 

‘No communication  whatever having passed with our native country since the 13th May 1787…The misery and horror of such a situation cannot be imparted even by those who have suffered under it’. Sydney’s First Four Years, Marine Captain Watkin Tench, ed. F.L. Firtzhardinge, Angus and Robertson, 1961

The previous year a look-out had be erected ;’on a high bluff, called South-head, at the entrance of the harbour…every morning from daylight until the sun sunk, die we sweep the horizon, in the hope of seeing a sail’. 

Norfolk Island – March 1790: Creeping starvation forced Governor Phillip evacuate 50% of ‘his people’ to Norfolk Island. He took the opportunity of ridding himself of Major Robert Ross the troublesome commander of the Sydney Garrison.

‘No one in the colony caused Phillip more trouble than Major Ross. Of all Phillip’s problems, including the terrible famine of 1789 and 1790, probably none was so harassing as the persistent antagonism, both covert and open, which Ross pursued against him’.  John Moore, The First Fleet Marines, 1786-1792, Queensland University Press, 1986

HMS Supply after landing marines, convicts and supplies would return to Sydney with Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King RN. King was a trusted confrere who had served under Phillip in the recent American war 1775-1783.

China: HMS Sirius the fleet’s flagship, largest of the two (2) king’s ships, was to sail onto China and arrange an urgent rescue mission.

Sydney – March: ‘A further retrenchment of our ration…four pounds of flour, two and a half of salt pork, and one and a half of rice per week’. Tench. ibid.

In foul weather, on the 19th of March, Sirius had swung on her anchor, hit a submerged reef, and sank. All souls landed safely. The crew one hundred and sixty (160) Royal Navy personnel were now marooned on the island along the evacuees.

Sydney – 6 April 1790: ‘I saw captain Ball [Supply] make an extraordinary motion with his hand, which too plainly indicated that something disastrous had happened…we learned, that the Sirius had been wrecked on Norfolk Island’.

The following day Governor Phillip called a meeting-in-council;  ‘at the present [weekly] ration…2 pounds [salted] pork until 2d July, 2 ½ pounds flour 20 August, 2 pounds rice 1 October’. 

The decision was taken to send HMS Supply to Batavia for relief supplies.

Indonesia – 17 April 1790:  HMS Supply sailed for Jakarta. Captain Ball RN was to purchase tons of supplies.and charter a Dutch ship to bring them to Sydney.  Ball would return to Sydney with as much food and medicines as Supply could carry.

Tench says; ‘all hopes were now concentrated in the little Supply’.  In more ways than one. Aboard was Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King who was to make his way to England ‘by whatever means’ and deliver Governor Phillip’s despatches.

Some had been written after HMS Sirius’s epic voyage of circumnavigation to and from Africa (October 1788 – May 1789). Together with a covert letter requesting; ‘a regiment…six hundred[enforcers] to guard the settlement effectually against the  ferocious incursions of the natives’. Anon. Historical Records of New South Wales

‘Happily Captain Hunter, and every other person belonging to her [Sirius] was saved’.

Unhappily for Governor Phillip Captain Hunter, with all the details of his extraordinary voyage via Drake’s Passage and Cape Horn, was stranded on Norfolk Island.

Whitehall:  Phillip’s aim was to have Gidley King, who had sailed with him in HMS Europa to attack Monte Video (January 1783,) add weight and confirm the enormous benefits that could be derived from securing the Sydney settlement as a strategic military and naval base.  See Proximity not Distance Drove the Invasion of New Holland.

Sydney – May 1790: ‘Without distinction… a further reduction in our ration….to every child of more than 18 months old…and every grown person, two pounds of pork, two and a half pounds of half flour, two pounds of rice, or a quart of pease


‘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 Australia’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 

1790 – June, Sydney: The first contingent of enforcers – one hundred and fifteen (115)  of Foot, the New South Wales Corps, -seventeen (17) officers and ninety-eight (98) rank and file arrived at Sydney in June 1790 aboard Neptune, Scarborough, Suprize, the death ships of Britain’s Grim Armada the second fleet.

‘The slave trade’ declared Marine Captain Hill who sailed in the Suprize in a letter written to William Wilberforce England’s prominent anti-slavery advocate ‘is merciful compared with what I have seen in this fleet’. See: Britain’s Grim Armada, The Dead and the Living Dead.

Major Francis Grose, their commanding officer remained in England to recruit members to meet establishment requirements. He would not arrive in Sydney until February 1792.

Meantime at Sydney Lieutenant Macarthur, a junior officer took advantage of long-standing dissension among his fellow officers and moved swiftly  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 aboard Pitt 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

‘[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’ .M H. Bladen, Journal, Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. I

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

Although Whitehall, albeit belatedly – February 1794 –  had appointed Captain John Hunter RN Australia’s second governor,  ‘inexplicably’ this hero of the ‘First Fleet’ would not reach Sydney until September 1795.

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

1792 – 1795: 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.

1792 – 14 December: ‘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’. Bladen. op.cit.

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

Power passed to Captain William Paterson Grose’s second-in-command also a wounded 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

While Governor Hunter was still on the high seas Captain Paterson took a military decision that compounded difficulties on the Hawkesbury – Deerubbun – River. He moved against the local Dharug Aborigines sending 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.

1795 -September: The colony of New South Wales remained under absolute ‘autocratic’ military rule until Governor John Hunter RN arrived in last quarter of 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. At his instigation some fellow officers pooled their monies and bought shares valued at £200. The enterprise raised £4000. Visiting ships were chartered to sail to Bengal and buy the rum

‘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.

Officers formed cartels, pledged not to under-cut each other, they operated as both wholesale retail merchants. Rum as currency enabled the military ‘aristocracy’ maintain a stranglehold over the whole of the colony’s commercial dealings

‘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

1795 – September: Fuelled by grog – greed and guns – ruled the colony until Governor John Hunter RN arrived in Sydney in the last quarter of 1795.

In 1800 Hunter was recalled to London and replaced by Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King RN. 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.

However due to misadventure – shipwreck and loss of documents – the case against Macarthur collapsed from lack of evidence. A relieved Macarthur resigned his commission, sought friends in high places and successfully undermined Governor King who too was recalled to London. See: Alice – Down the Rabbit Hole with King

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.

‘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.

Banks convinced government 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.

1805 – May, Soho Square: London: There was however another reason for Bank’s advocacy of Bligh to be Britain’s fourth ‘autocratic naval governor’ of Australia. 

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

With an aristocrat’s instinctive distrust of the up-start Macarthur he needed the cantankerous Bligh, then a frequent carping caller on Bank’s at his London home, 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, with an equally cantankerous Captain Short at the helm.

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 ‘mafia‘.


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 ex-officer Macarthur, now a powerful, preening man-about-town proud of his 5000 acres, resorted to mutiny.

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

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





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