‘A knowledge of the position of the military and their immediate friends occupied from 1792-1810, affords a key to the whole history of the colony; and without this knowledge many important transactions, affecting the civil, social and political  interests of the community would appear almost incomprehensible’. Samuel Bennett,Australian Discovery and Colonisation, Vol. 1 to 1800.

1800 – 15 April, Sydney: Phillip Gidley King RN, Britain’s third naval governor of Australia, arrived in the colony aboard HMS Speedy in the middle of April 1800.

Lieutenant Gidley King delivered Captain John Hunter RN, the incumbent Governor of New South Wales, a Home Office dispatch dated 5 November 1799 that; ‘severely censured Hunter and ordered him to return to England by the first safe conveyance’.

Tragically for the colony and Australia’s First Peoples, London could not have devised a more destabilising arrangement than Phillip Gidley King’s ambiguous appointment. It was an ‘Anomalous… dormant commission’  to became effective only if Governor Hunter died or was absent from the colony.  

‘It is probable, therefore, that the home department was not prepared to give King the full appointment of governor-in-chief in the year 1799…[His] limited commission was practically the appointment of a locum tenens or a  governor-in-chief on probation, and was recognised as such by both King and the English officials, when it became operative’. Commentary, Historical Records of Australia, Series 1, Vol 3.

Relations between Governor Hunter and Lieutenant King were fraught to say the least. Hunter felt ‘his authority was invaded’  expressing his bitterness in dispatches to the Duke of Portland the then Home Secretary.

‘He [King] appeared, and not to me [Hunter] only, either to have been in possession of some extraordinary secret or confidential instructions (a circumstance which indeed he had not hesitated to say was the case), or had himself some particular objects in view which I cou’d not clearly comprehend. Governor Hunter, Historical Records of Australia, Series 1, Vol. 2.

It does appear Gidley King adopted devious methods to wrest authority from Governor Hunter. While the two (2) naval officers slugged it out the military went on its destructive way.

1800 – 28 September: John Hunter eventually accepted the inevitable,, at the end of September 1800,  embarked for England in HMS Buffalo.

1800 – September, Sydney: Phillip Gidley King RN took up his commission as Britain’s third naval Governor of Australia. He found himself juggling many balls; an unruly soldiery, a tsunami of grog, French colonial ambition and a possible Irish rebellion.

Initially Governor King had more success than Governor Hunter in facing down a military whose monopolistic tentacles dominated the colony’s entire commercial dealings.

He introduced regulations to curb the officers’ power. But the Corps’ commander Colonel William Paterson, his opinion coloured by knowledge of King’s ‘limited commission’, treated King with barely veiled contempt.

Gidley King turned his attention to the colony’s crumbling public infrastructure that had been completely ignored during the Grose-Paterson interregnum 1792-1795.

Existing roads were repaired and new ones constructed. King saw to it that ex-convict farmers were supplied with adequate amounts of seed, tools and stock. Work hours for assigned prisoners were regulated and restrictions placed on punishments, actions that afforded some protection from cruel, ruthless masters.

In the period 1792 to 1795 general-orders relating to the mandated number of assigned convicts allowed land-owning officers of the New South Wales Corps had been ignored. King further infuriated officers by limiting these numbers and instead directed their use to government projects  – roads, bridges, warehouses and wharves.

Initially Governor King, like Governor Hunter before him, attempted to protect the Dharug Aborigines, whose country centred on the Hawkesbury River, from the vicious excesses of both settler and soldier on the ‘lawless [Hawkesbury ] frontier’.

‘In October 1799 he [Lieutenant Neill Mackellar] was a member of a court wherein five men were charged with the murder of two native boys. Under questioning he stated that orders issued for the destruction of Aboriginals whenever encountered, after they had committed outrages, had not been countermanded during his command [1797-99] at the Hawkesbury nor to his knowledge since. M. Austin, Lieutenant Neill Mackallar, Australian Dictionary of Biography, 

Five (5) years earlier (June 1795) – three (3) months before Governor Hunter arrived in the colony September 1795 – Captain William Paterson had sent a detachment of sixty-six (66) soldiers and two (2) officers to the Hawkesbury area to subdue the Dharug.

Paterson’s intervention had dire consequences as increased fire-power saw sporadic skirmished escalate to ‘open war’ and Governor King made an effort to examine the cause.

‘Wishing to be convinced myself what cause there was for these alarms, three of the natives from that part of the river readily came on being sent for.

On questioning the cause of their disagreement with the new settlers they very ingenuously answered that they did not like to be driven from the few places that were left on the banks of the river, where alone they could procure food; that they had gone down the river as the white men took possession of the banks; if they went across whitemen’s grounds the settlers fired upon them and were angry; that if they could retain some places on the lower part of the river they should be satisfied, and would not trouble the white men.

The observation appeared to be so just and so equitable that I assured them that no more settlements should be made lower down the river. Governor Phillip Gidley King, despatch to Lord Hobart, 20th December 1805, Historical Records of New South Wales, Vol. 5 

However Governor King, like Hunter before him, had no means of enforcing his orders. Apart from his ‘anomalous commission’  King, an officer of the Royal Navy faced an uphill battle in his dealings with the military. King had brought baggage to his new post.

Norfolk Island: When Phillip Gidley King was Lieutenant-Governor of Norfolk Island he had earned the ire of the New South Wales Corps. Corps.

Officers serving on the island accused King of punishing their men more severely than the convicted criminals they guarded. When some soldiers threatened mutiny King sent twenty (20) to Sydney for court-martial.

At that earlier time Major Grose commander of the Corps was also Acting Lieutenant-Governor. He refused to accept Gidley King’s evidence and, in an army versus navy tit-for-tat, Grose issued orders increasing the power of the military.

Phillip Gidley King had made an enemy of the New South Wales Corps and more particularly of Lieutenant John Macarthur, the teetotaller who dominated the drunkards of a military clique that held the colony in a strangle-hold.

‘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….Grose was particularly tender towards his brother officers, in permitting them to acquire landed estates and to have the services of convict labourers. Ernest Scott, A Short History of Australia. Oxford University Press, Melbourne 1953.

1800:  In 1800 the colony was a hotbed of  jealous tittle-tattle, back-stabbing, double-dealing and snide, sniggering gossip.

1801- September: A farce more suited to the music-hall or a Jane Austen novel than a military establishment, occurred in September 1801. At that time Colonel William Paterson, the Corps’ commanding officer, challenged Lieutenant John Macarthur a junior officer to a duel over a ‘private matter’.

Their quarrel centred on letters exchanged between friends – wives of the two (2) men. It appeared Macarthur regaled the mess with juicy tid-bits from Mrs. Paterson’s letters. Despite the impropriety of a senior officer challenging a junior officer Colonel Paterson challenged Macarthur to a duel.

Even before the two (2) men faced off the result was a foregone conclusion. Macarthur, a teetotaller with a steady hand and Paterson, wounded in the American War, a heavy drinker. Macarthur fired first, his shot found its mark shattering the older man’s right shoulder. Paterson never fully recovered.

The duel presented Governor King with the opportunity to rid himself of the clever, but pernicious Lieutenant Macarthur. He placed Macarthur under open arrest and prepared a case against him.

1802 – May: Macarthur had departed Sydney in HMS Hunter by the middle of May 1802 for England court-martial and a possible death sentence.

Lieutenant Neill Mackellar, Governor King’s aide-de-camp, boarded the brig Caroline taking with him Governor King’s depositions and Macarthur’s sword. Unfortunately Caroline was wrecked with all hands lost.

1803, London: The case against Lieutenant Macarthur collapsed from lack of evidence. In London Macarthur resigned his commission and took every opportunity to further undermine Governor King. So successful was he, by the end of 1803, the Home Office decided to recall Governor King.

When Governor Gidley King took office in 1800 increasing numbers of French ships began appearing ‘ in and about ‘Australian’ waters. Some used Sydney’s naval facilities to water, re-provision, rest and repair their vessels.

Governor King welcomed visiting French officers entertaining them at Government House. He was however in no doubt that France, England’s traditional enemy, was intent on establishing a physical presence in New Holland and determined it must not happen on his watch.

Governor King wrote urgently to Lord Hobart outlining his concerns. After all he knew what he was talking about. At Botany Bay on the 23rd January 1788, then the young Lieutenant Gidley King, had stood at the bow of HMS Sirius when La Boussole with Comte La Perouse at the helm and L’Astrolabe emerged out of the sea-mist. See: Britain By a Whisker

‘I am the more solicitous respecting forming this settlement [Port Phillip – King Island  ],  from the probability of the French having it in contemplation to make a settlement on the northwest coast [of Bass Straits] which I cannot help thinking is the principal object of their researches’. Dispatch, Governor King to Lord Hobart, 21 May 1802.

Lord Hobart’s reply gave King the go-ahead to protect England’s vital commercial and strategic interests in the southern oceans.

 ‘The sea abounds with the seal and the seal elephant…it need scarcely be observed that the establishment of any foreign power on that part of the coast might, in the event of hostilities, greatly interrupt the communication with Port Jackson, and materially endanger the tranquility and security of our possessions there’.  Despatch Lord Hobart to Governor King, 14 February 1803.  

Hobart’s dispatch spelt out the exact strategic and commercial reasons that had led Britain to invade New Holland in 1788; France, whales, seals and hostilities.

Western Port & Bass Strait: Long before Lord Hobart’s memo reached Sydney Governor King had sent Lieutenant James Murray RN to survey Western Port [Victoria] on the mainland.

Earlier in 1798 Matthew Flinders and George Bass had proved a body of water – Bass Strait – separated Tasmania from the mainland. King sent Lieutenant James Grant RN to further explore Tasmania with a view to establishing a settlement there.

1803 – September: At Governor King’s instigation, Lieutenant John Bowen RN established a settlement in the south of Tasmania at Risdon Cove on the Derwent River.

1804 – Port Dalrymple: With southern Tasmania secured, King turned his attention to the unoccupied north centred on the Tamar River; ‘near the eastern entrance to Bass’s Straits’.

1804 – 8 June, Sydney : In early June 1804 a recuperating Colonel Paterson aboard Integrity attempted to sail to Tasmania. However wild seas whipped up by a typical wind driven east-coast low weather system, forced him return to Port Jackson.

1804 – October, Sydney: Not until October 1804 was Paterson, this time in HMS Buffalo and, accompanied by ‘the colonial vessels Lady Nelson, Francis and Integrity’, able to voyage to northern Tasmania.

 1804 – November, North Tasmania: Colonel William Paterson arrived at Port Dalrymple on the 11th of  November 1804 and ‘Hoisted His Majesty’s Colours with the usual Ceremony’.  Paterson established two ( 2) settlements George Town and Yorktown thus securing the whole of  Tasmania for the British Empire. See: A War Grave – Tasmania

1804 – Tasmania: By the end of 1804 Hobart in the south, George Town in the north, effectively stymied French ambition in Tasmania but did not stop their ambitions for settlement on mainland Australia.

London: Governor King’s efforts on behalf of the Empire did not win him a reprieve from the consequences of John Macarthur’s malicious white-anting.

And as early as 1803 the Home Office decided owing to; ‘unfortunate differences which have so long subsisted between you and the military officers of the colony’, Governor King was to be recalled to England.

‘When all is said and done, the most malignant policy is less mischievous probably in its results than a policy of drift’. Hugh W. Egerton, British Colonial Policy, Methuen, 1928

1805, London: While the Home Office had taken a decision to recall Governor King in 1803 the delay that marked the selection of Governor John Hunter as Phillip’s successor was repeated. Not until the beginning of 1805 was serious consideration given to Governor King’s replacement.

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

1805 – 14 May, London: Not until mid May 1805 was the ‘autocratic’ Captain William Bligh RN of HMS Bounty fame or infamy named Britain’s fourth naval governor of Australia.

1805 – mid year, Sydney:  John Macarthur, having resigned his military commission, was back in Sydney by mid 1805. Now a civilian he arrived in time to enjoy the downfall and departure of Governor Phillip Gidley King and, as it turned out, train his sights on Governor William Bligh.

1806 – 8 August, Sydney: Governor Bligh arrived in Sydney aboard the Lady Sinclair on a cold blustery winter’s day in August 1806.

The weather could perhaps be seen as an omen for Bligh’s tempestuous period as King George III’s representative in Australia that saw him deposed and imprisoned  by officers of the corrupt New South Wales ‘Rum’ Corps. See: Dark Matter.

1807 – February, Sydney to England: Illness prevented Governor King leaving Sydney until the 10th of  February 1807.

1807 – November, England: King arrived home in England in November of that year and died nearly a year later, September 1808.


In a strange twist, Anna Maria one (1) of Governor King’s (4) daughters married Hannibal, favourite nephew of his tormentor John Macarthur. The couple settled at Camden, a rural suburb on the outskirts of Sydney named by John Macarthur for his patron Lord Camden who had authorised Macarthur’s initial land grant of 5,000 acres. See: Machiavellian Macarthur

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