‘You cannot overrate the solicitude of H.M. Government on the subject of the Aborigines of New Holland. It is impossible to contemplate the condition or the prospects of that unfortunate race without the deepest commiseration. Still it is impossible that H.M. Government should forget that the original aggression was ours’. Lord John Russell to Sir George Gipps, Dispatch, 21 December 1838, Historical Records of Australia, Series, Vol XX.

1808 – 26 January, Sydney: On the 20th anniversary of Britain’s ‘original aggression’, the invasion of New Holland and raising of the Union Jack at Sydney Cove by Governor Arthur Phillip RN on 26 January 1788, Major George Johnston, Commanding Officer of the New South Wales ‘Rum’ Corps, marched on Government House and arrested Governor William Bligh RN.

‘New South Wales had now proved to be the grave-yard of the ambitions of both Hunter and King…[Joseph] Banks knew that both [Governors] 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, Rum Rebellion.

1808 – 25 January, Sydney: The previous day -the 25th of January – John Macarthur an ex officer, the teetotaller who put the rum into the New South Wales ‘Rum’ Corps, had appeared in court to answer a charge of uttering; ‘false, scandalous, libelous, wicked seditious, unlawful words’ designed to bring Governor William Bligh RN into ‘disrespect, hatred and contempt’ .

As proceedings began Macarthur immediately challenged the court’s make-up. He demanded Richard Atkins, the civilian judge -advocate, be removed as prosecutor.

Stalemate ensued and the court adjourned with the matter unresolved. Macarthur was arrested and lodged in the town gaol.

Governor Bligh sent Major Johnston a letter requesting his prompt appearance at Government House. Johnston refused citing injuries sustained the previous day in a fall from his horse.

1808 – 26 January, Sydney:  At 9 am on the 26th, the same six (6) officers sworn the day before, assembled in the court-room. But two (2) players were missing – John Macarthur still under lock and key – and Prosecutor Richard Atkins.

Shortly afterwards; ‘Bligh seized the initiative from the officers’.

Provost-Marshall Gore, informed the six (6) officers; ‘you are charged with certain crimes, you are therefore hereby required to appear before me at Government House, at nine o’clock to-morrow morning [27th] to answer in the premises. John McMahon, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 92, 2006

Lieutenant Minchin, one (1) of the six (6) hurried from the court-room. Accompanied by fellow rebel conspirator surgeon Harris they drove at speed along rough, dusty Parramatta Road to Major Johnston’s home in leafy Annandale.

Minchin brought Major Johnston up to date. Macarthur was in gaol and Bligh had charged the six (6) officers with treason. Just after 4 pm a mounted trooper swung into Johnston’s stable-yard bringing documents formally naming the officers charged with ‘treasonable conduct’.

Around 5pm Major Johnston, arrayed in full battle-dress, drove to Sydney with Minchin arriving at the George Street barracks a little before 6 O’clock.

Johnston consulted Captain Fenn-Kemp on the logistics of a projected assault on Government House. Satisfied he had unqualified backing of corrupt Corps’ officers Major Johnston took a momentous decision; he would stage a coup and depose Governor William Bligh RN, the King’s representative. See: Coup-ee

‘It is from their attachment to their government,  from the sense of the deep stake they have in such a glorious institution, which gives your army and your navy, and infuses into both that liberal obedience without which your army and your navy would be a base rabble’. Edmund Burke, British Parliamentarian.

‘ Obedience to the glorious institution of government’ was lacking when Major Johnston, the now self-styled Lieutenant-Governor of New South Wales, issued his first Directive; a Proclamation of Martial Law.

‘ Sir, I am called upon to execute a most painful duty. You [Governor Bligh] are charged by the respectable inhabitants, of crimes that render you unfit to exercise the supreme authority another moment in this Colony and in that charge all the Officers under my Command have joined…..Your most obedient humble servant, George Johnston, as Lt. Governor and Major Commg. N.S. W. Corps’.

Johnston’s second Directive authorised John Macarthur’s release from prison. Provost Marshall Gore was given copies of both Directives.

Gore entered Government House at approximately half-past six o’clock. Close on his heels came a group of armed officers led by Captain Anthony Fenn Kemp who, on Johnston’s orders, was to lead the assault on Bligh.

Lieutenants William Minchin, William Lawson, William Moore, Cadwallader Draffin and Sergeant Major Thomas Whittle – broke down the doors of Government House and seized the Governor at gun-point.

Lieutenant Moore handed Bligh ‘Lieutenant-Governor Johnston’s Declaration of Martial Law ‘…[your] crimes…render you unfit to exercise supreme authority’.

Gore attempted to slip away and inform Bligh’s supporters of these astounding events but was spotted and arrested. As he was being escorted down Bridge Street to the military barracks, Gore saw Burke’s ‘base rabble’ – a column of three hundred (300) armed troops,  Major Johnston riding at their head, marching up Bridge Street towards Government House.

‘So far as the attack on Bligh by the regiment is concerned….It was, in fact, an organized attack, not only in military array, but by the officers and soldiers with loaded guns, fixed bayonets and all the panoply of war’. H.V. Evatt, Rum Rebellion, 1978.

Just on night-fall Major Johnston and his men arrived at Government House to find Captain Kemp had secured Bligh.

1808 – 1809:  From the 26th of January 1808, throughout the whole of 1808, Governor Bligh and Mary Putland his recently widowed daughter, were held prisoner in the vice-regal residence.

The dramatic story of Bligh’s seizure and imprisonment include deception, a blockade of Sydney Harbour, an escape to Tasmania, a blockade of Hobart Town, a perilous return to Sydney, a confrontation with Governor Lachlan Macquarie, a farewell and a court-martial in England. See: Sydney to Hobart with Governor Bligh – Imagine


Why was Bligh ‘a man of sterner stuff’ here? Let’s ask Sir Joseph Banks ‘father of Australia’ and ‘keeper of the King’s flock’ at Kew. See: Machiavellian Macarthur


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