Australia in the 1800s

Bligh and the Rum Rebellion

On 26 January 1808, the 'Rum Rebellion' took place when 400 New South Wales Corps soldiers, led by Major George Johnston (1764–1823), marched from their barracks and arrested Governor William Bligh. The day was significant as it was the 20th anniversary of their arrival in the colony.

Captain William Bligh (1754–1817) was the fourth and last naval officer to be appointed Governor of the New South Wales penal colony, replacing Governor Phillip King (1758–1808) in 1806. Although he was a man of great integrity and courage, he was known for his hot temper and intemperate language. When Bligh arrived in the British colony it was in a poor state. Floods, the lack of supply ships and a reduction in convict labour had severely diminished the self-sufficiency of the colony. Bligh set up flood relief for the struggling farmers and promised immigrants that the government stores would buy their crops after the next harvest. Bligh also set up a government farm on the Hawkesbury as a 'model', to show the colonists what they believed to be the benefits of efficient farming.

Bligh's reforms drew resentment from both the New South Wales Corps and landowners as he tightened government control over visiting ships and their cargos, and ordered that promissory notes be made payable in sterling currency. John Macarthur (1767–1834) was at the forefront of the opposition and when Bligh ordered the destruction of illicit stills and prohibited the bartering of spirits for grain, labour, food or any other goods, especially rum, these orders aroused immediate and heated revolt.

The New South Wales Corps was a powerful force economically and numerically within the small colony. When Bligh tried to quell their opposition to his reforms, he deployed the ringleaders to different parts of the colony. Essentially, the New South Wales Corps felt that Bligh, a naval officer, interfered with their military command and this spurred Major Johnston to complain to the British commander-in-chief. Subsequently, Bligh recommended that the Corps be relieved of their commission in the colony. The balance of power was usurped when John Macarthur convinced the officers of the New South Wales Corps to arrest Bligh and put an end to his reign.

Governor Bligh did have supporters but they were mainly British landholderswho had been given small areas of land in the Hawkesbury area. He had gained their support by assisting them during times of need. After the coup, the New South Wales Corps were withdrawn from the colony, Major Johnston was court-martialled and John Macarthur was exiled from the colony for eight years. Governor Bligh was promoted to rear admiral and then to vice admiral before his retirement.

Captain Bligh and the Rum Rebellion

A snapshot of 1808

  • January
    • The governor, Captain William Bligh, was deposed and placed under house arrest.

  • May
    • Thomas Livingstone Mitchell became surveyor-general following the death of John Oxley.

  • September
    • The first medical diploma in the colony was issued to William Redfern.

  • October
    • The colonial office in London announced the recall of the New South Wales Corps to England.

  • November
    • The Cascades Female Factory for women convicts opened in Hobart Town.


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