SYDNEY TO HOBART WITH CAPTAIN BLIGH – IMAGINE

‘From 1788 there had been continuous disputation between the civil power represented by the autocratic uniformed naval governors and the military’. John McMahon, Not a Rum Rebellion but a Military Insurrection, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 92, 2006.

1808 – 26 January, Sydney: On the twentieth (20th ) anniversary of Britain’s invasion of New Holland Major George Johnston, commander of the New South Wales ‘Rum’ Corps, led his officers and men against the King’s representative Governor William Bligh RN. See: Australia Day Rebellion – 26 January 1808.

Governor Captain Bligh, Britain’s fourth naval Governor of Australia together  with Mary Putland his recently widowed daughter, were seized by ‘a base rabble’ of rebellious Britishofficers.

Throughout 1808 Bligh and his daughter were held, firstly in Government House later, for a short time, at the military barracks in George Street.

1809 – 20 February:  A year after the coup both were released to board HMS Porpoise. See: Coup-ee An Armed Insurrection – 26 January 1808

Deception – to gain freedom Bligh had given his word as ‘an officer and gentleman’ to Major Foveaux, then the head of the rebel administration, once aboard HMS Porpoise, he would immediately set sail for England and ‘not come ashore on any part of the New South Wales coastline’.

Despite Lieutenant John Porteus RN having been sent from England to take command of HMS Porpoise once aboard the imperious Bligh, as senior officer, took command of the vessel.

Instead of ‘immediately’ sailing Porpoise to England as promised, a week later she was still riding at anchor in Sydney Harbour.

The old hands had always known ‘Bounty’ Bligh was not one to give up without a fight. Anxiety and dissension grew in the rebel camp.

1809 – 26 February: They began to breathe a little easier however when, on Sunday 26 February 1809, Porpoise set a light sail, weighed anchor and moved down the harbour.

But just short of the open sea Porpoise dropped anchor. Bligh proceeded to set up a blockade of Sydney Harbour.

Porpoise intercepted all ships entering or leaving the harbour. Each ship’s master was handed a declaration signed by Bligh proclaiming ‘a state of rebellious anarchy’ existed in the colony.

The declaration was accompanied by documents naming all mutinous officers and civilian rebels, including the implacable teetotaller John McMafia’ Macarthur who supplied the rum, and whose personal ambition drove the coup. See: Machiavellian Macarthur

John Macarthur an erratic sociopath, ex-officer of the New South Wales ‘Rum’ Corps ranted and raved threatening to serve defamation orders on anyone who challenged or even offended him. See: Macarthur – The Man Who Made Enemies

It was not long before copies of Bligh’s declaration began to appear on Sydney streets. Many found their way to farming settlements on the Hawkesbury, Nepean and Parramatta River systems where Bligh had many supporters.

A furious Major Foveaux who had, in July 1808, stolen the colony’s administration from Major George Johnston the initial usurper, now reckoned himself the legitimate Lieutenant-Governor of Australia, and rounded up Bligh’s supporters.

Hauled into court some were sentenced to years of imprisonment at Coal River (Newcastle) a brutal penal settlement of secondary punishment.

1809 – March 1809: February morphed into March, the brig Admiral Gambier was now ready to sail for England with Major George Johnston and John Macarthur,co-conspirators in the coup. Both men were summoned to London to answer for their part in the rebellion.

But Captain Harrison her master, fearing Porpoise would fire on the Admiral Gambier delayed departure.

1809 – 17 March: HMS Porpoise upped anchor on the 17th of March, put on more sail, and disappeared from view.

1809 – 19 March: Two (2) days later Porpoise reappeared at the harbour’s entrance.  This time fear gripped the town. She was dressed for action, her gun-ports open, crew at battle-stations.

Just when Bligh appeared on the point of victory he backed-off. The rebels had turned on each other as Bligh knew they would. Perhaps he felt he had made his point or, perhaps even ‘Bounty’ Bligh baulked at opening fire on Sydney Town. See: Pandora’s Box

Whatever the reason, later that same day the 19th March 1809, a fully-rigged HMS Porpoise sailed away. Bligh still had a trick up his sleeve.

He set course not for England as promised, but sailed south to Hobart Town – Van Diemens Land – now Tasmania.

1809 – 30 March: HMS Porpoise anchored in Sullivans Cove on the Derwent River at the end of March 1809.The Governor, Colonel David Collins, yes the same David Collins who twenty-one (21) years earlier, 26 January 1788 had stepped ashore at Sydney Cove.

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Despite Governor Arthur Phillip being Royal Navy and, Collins from the marine arm, Collins had been Phillip’s staunchest ally in his unending confrontation with Major Robert Ross Collins’ commanding officer.See: Take Two – Rules of Engagement

Now Lieutenant-Governor of southern Tasmania, he boarded Porpoise and welcomed Governor Bligh.

1809 – April, Hobart: Collins dismayed to learn of the Australia Day rebellion and offered Bligh the hospitality of Government House.

Bligh chose to stay on Porpoise. Mary suffered severe sea-sickness, she gratefully accepted Collins offer and moved into Government House. There were dinners and entertainments and for a few short weeks all went well. But the good times did not last.

1809 – 10 April, Sydney: Meanwhile when the news of Bligh’s arrival in Hobart reached Sydney Major Joseph Foveaux flew into a rage.

He rounded up and gaoled more of Bligh’s supporters but this time he did so without benefit of a trial.

Hobart was by no means self-sufficient and relied on Sydney for supplies. Foveaux’s decision to deliberately withhold livestock and provisions – food and rum shipped into from Bengal – brought the spectre of starvation to the isolated settlement on the Derwent. See: A War Grave – Tasmania 

After a time Governor Collins’ attitude towards Bligh changed. While the reason for his change-of-heart is not known; probably it was not pressure from Major Foveaux alone.

Its origin, in part at least, may have been domestic. Perhaps it sprang from Mary’s prudish disdain for Collins’ common-law wife Margaret Eddington. An ex-convict she had recently given birth to the couple’s second child.

In her defence Mary, childless and recently widowed, she had been imprisoned for more than a year (1808) while Major George Johnston the man responsible for her imprisonment lived comfortably in leafy Annandale with Esther Abrahams his ex-convict common-law wife, and their growing brood of  children.

In similar vein it could have been down to Bligh. Difficult, vindictive very much his own worst enemy, Bligh wrote of being shocked on seeing Governor Collins ‘walking with his kept woman (a poor low creature) arm in arm about the town’. 

No doubt he found it difficult to keep that opinion to himself. And the two (2) men had history. Earlier, Collins during his first tour of duty,fathered a daughter and son with Ann Yeates a young convict ‘First Fleeter’.

Then again Bligh, at Collins’ request, took the son of that liaison onto Porpoise as midshipman. One morning young Collins appeared late for inspection, perhaps a little-worse-for-wear. Bligh charged him with ‘neglect of duty’ and had him flogged.

Whatever the reason Governor Collin’s rage  knew no bounds. He removed a sentry posted outside Mary’s apartment for her protection.

Warned of impending danger Bligh in great haste rounded-up those of his party ashore. Father and daughter were prisoners once more, this time aboard HMS Porpoise.

Collins threatened to fire on anyone attempting to come ashore from Porpoise. He issued orders any settler attempting to supply Bligh would be flogged.

An example was made of one (1) such man who died after receiving a ferocious five hundred (500) lashes of the cat-o’ nine tails.

Bligh a Royal Navy warrior well versed in the art of blockade, having tried it at Sydney, set up a one-ship blockade of the Derwent River. Porpoise bailed up vessels entering or exiting Hobart, threatening to open-fire if a selected ship refused to supply food and water.

Month after month throughout a long dark freezing winter Porpoise, buffeted by wild winds rolled like a bottle, her strained timbers became increasingly less water-tight.

With Christmas approaching but for Mary’s presence it is highly likely Bligh would have met with ‘an unfortunate accident’.

1809 – 22 December, Hobart:  Porpoise, intercepted Albion a large whaler on 22nd of December 1809. Her master brought Bligh news. Fresh troops had recently landed in Sydney and they were not English – perhaps Scots or Irish.

1810 – 1 January, Hobart:  At first light on New Year’s Day 1810 HMS Porpoise now barely seaworthy slipped silently from the Derwent to face a turbulent Tasman Sea and treacherous Bass Strait.

Bligh an excellent navigator plotted a course for Sydney, a voyage of six hundred and twenty-eight (628) nautical miles.

Epilogue

1810 – 1 January, Sydney: On New Year’s Day 1810 Governor Lachlan Macquarie, the first drawn from military ranks, took up his commission as Britain’s fifth Governor of New South Wales. See: Sliding Doors * Bligh * Johnston * Foveaux * Macquarie

 

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