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A military coup in Australia

It is not widely known even in Australia that in 1808 the NSW Corps of the British Army deposed the Governor of New South Wales, William Bligh, in a coup. This is known as the ‘Rum Rebellion’, but it was not really about rum. Reading about it on Wikipedia, it is clear that Governor Bligh, a Captain in the Royal Navy, who had already endured the Mutiny on the Bounty, was not fit to govern a colony like New South Wales was at the start of the 19th Century.

For there were already free settlers in New South Wales at that time, and they wanted their rights and liberties as British subjects respected. Chief among them was John Macarthur. Michael Duffy writes about the rebellion and Macarthur’s role in it here.

As for myself, since it is also Australia Day today, I am going to do the patriotic thing and toast my nation onwards- with good old Australian Rum.

10 comments to A military coup in Australia

  • CountingCats

    it is clear that Governor Bligh, a Captain in the Royal Navy, who had already endured the Mutiny on the Bounty,


    Not sure about this. Bligh, apart from being one of the greatest mariners who ever lived, was clearly able to inspire great loyalty from his men.

    He may have been a hard bastard, but he also had the misfortune to twice come up against complete shits, in the forms of Fletcher Christian and John MacArthur, both of whom were willing to use violence to protect their personal and criminal interests.

  • CountingCats

    Sorry, this was the bit I meant to quote – was not fit to govern a colony like New South Wales was at the start of the 19th Century.

  • Bligh, apart from being one of the greatest mariners who ever lived, was clearly able to inspire great loyalty from his men.

    And disloyalty, judging from his record.

  • Paul Marks

    Bligh was NOT from “gentry” stock. Everyone would have laughed at such a notion – which was one of the problems he faced.

    Also “the details need not concern us” – the details of MacArthur’s court case are very important.

    What was he charged with?

    What was the evidence?

    The site the link goes to is next to useless.

    As for Bligh:

    He had his faults.

    For example, he used disgusting language (not a minor point if one thinks about it) when he lost his temper and would shout at people (in front of others) at the top of his voice.

    Actually whilst in the Royal Navy he tended order corporal punishment a bit LESS than other captains (which goes against the myth).

    But having this man of rather humble origins shout abuse was bad enough for men who had a very good opinion of themselves.

    He was a ships master by training – which meant that he was indeed a very good sailor, but not the sort of background the Royal Navy would normally pick a captain from (let alone a Governor).

    On the other hand he could inspire great loyalty as well – among people who got to know that, under the insecurity, was a man of great loyalty who would always try and do what was right.

    The munity.

    Fletcher Christian and the others not only went after native girls they had also been using various chemicals – they may even have been undergoing “cold turkey” when they went nuts.

    Actually more men sided with Bligh than with Christian (a point the films miss).

    But Christian and co got the firearms – which rather made the difference.

    Even when Bligh was being driven on to an open boat more men wanted to go with him than stay on the Bounty – but there was not enough room.

    Of the men who went with Bligh not a single one died.

    And Bligh managed to make charts (whilst on the open boat – whilst he was navigating to save the lives of those on board) that were still being used in World War II.

    The trouble with Bligh was that he was at his best when things were at their worst.

    If you were in trouble (life or death) he would be polite and kind, and even risk his own life to save you.

    But over some minor matter he would blow up and start shouting stuff (no need for the exact words).

    He was not a coward (far from it – under fire he was calmer than he was normally), but he could not take the pressure of command. Well in a crises he could – but not the day to day stuff (it worn him down and hit his nerves).

    He would have been an ideal ships master – but he wanted to be a captain.

  • spence

    I’d agree with much that Paul says, the open boat voyage from the mutiny to Batavia was a sensation at the time and an incredible feat of seamanship that has only been bettered once (to my limited knowledge). In fact he did lose one man on the return, John Norton was killed by island natives.

    Much of Bligh’s reputation is myth and black propaganda stirred up by the Christian and Heywood families, who has some high-powered connections in England whom they used to serve their version of events and harry Bligh throughout his life and beyond it.

    Bligh was an excellent seaman, he served with distinction on one of Cooke’s voyages (he was present when Cook was murdered). Bligh was a young capt. of the Bounty, but this was his appointment, not his rank – he was a Lt at this time.

    It is the verdict of much recent analysis that his problems on the Bounty probably stemmed from this lack of true rank authority, as several of his junior officers were of a higher social class – and class was very important at that time.

    Bligh served with distinction in the Navy, he became a senior captain, fought with Nelson at Copenhagen (Glatton).

  • Robert Hoffman

    The so called “Rum Rebellion” of 1808 had as much to do with Australian nationalism or any early revolutionary spirit as it did with rum.

    To equate John Macarthur’s rights and that of the ordinary people then, is like equating those of a Bond or a Skase with those of ordinary Australians now.

    This was not a revolutionary event in Australia, it rather was maybe the first of many corrupt acts against the interest of broader Australia perpetuated by elites and vested interests against the people.

    Bligh was the hero of these events in the eyes of this Australian patriot and libertarian.

  • Brad Ackerman

    On the Bligh side, Leviathan: The Unauthorised Biography of Sydney by John Birmingham is IMNSHO worth reading, albeit somewhat expensive because it’s only been published in Australia.

  • Paul Marks

    That was a good reminder from Spence.

    Yes Bligh did seem to settle down as a Captain later.

    Of course having as almost his first comand a ship (without marines) that was going thousands of miles away and would have no real contact with the rest of the Royal Navy was not good.

  • Jim Fitz

    The reason William Bligh became a maligned victim of corrupt elements within the colony of New South Wales was that he attempted to curb some of their more harmful commercial activities that included those of officers of the infamous “Rum Corps”. They wanted the right to monopolize the rum trade and the liberty to make a fortune at the expense of the common people.

    Bligh was sent to the colony to put a stop to the growing level of corruption but was unable to do so because the only troops he could use for this purpose were commanded by officers who conspired against his every move to carry out his mission. Ultimately, this conspiracy saw Bligh slandered and defamed, but not deposed. The historical facts also record that a subsequent inquiry completely cleared him of any maladministration.

    Incidentally, John MacArthur, one of the principle conspirators, later succumbed to madness, one hopes not as a result of the effects of a prolonged excessive intake of rum, and died alone.

  • Marko

    I would have put the ‘rum rebellion’ of the corrupt NSW officer corps down more as a ‘coup’ than as a rebellion. For something more to tickle your fancy, look at the ‘Darwin revolution’ of 1919. Of interest in both events, the role of alcohol – in the latter that spark that lit the tinder was a rise in the price of beer…