Friday, August 15, 2014

Australian Rum Rebellion (1808)

Australian Rum Rebellion (1808)

PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Australian liquor interests and
their military supporters vs. colonial governor William

PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Sydney, Australia


MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: Bligh, with typical bluster,
sought to rule Australia with an authoritarian hand; the
local liquor interests and military commanders sought to
deny his authority and have him removed from office.

OUTCOME: Bligh was court-martialed and acquitted; the
Australian military leader of the rebellion was courtmartialed
and convicted.




In 1805, after a distinguished naval career, English sea
captain William Bligh (1754–1817) was awarded the governorship
of New South Wales. On instructions from the
king to “clean up” the colony, Bligh departed Britain for
the Pacific the following year. His arrival in Sydney was
met with both approval from the residents and apprehension
by profiteers and monopolists. Bligh immediately
instituted monetary reforms and prohibited barter in
liquor. He then began to question the legality of certain
land leases and labor practices in the colony.
Bligh’s “high-handed” policies provoked considerable
resistance among the Australians to their famously temperamental
new governor, and in February 1807 two
local leaders, John Macarthur and Captain Edward
Abbott, challenged Bligh’s proclamations by purchasing
or setting up stills. In response, Bligh tightened the government’s
hold on the supply of rum in the colony and
confiscated the stills. Macarthur, however, had many supporters;
he sued the government for the return of his stills
and won. Bligh responded by impounding Macarthur’s
trading ship Parramatta at Port Jackson. On December
15, 1807, Bligh arrested Macarthur for sedition, claiming
he had breached local naval regulations. A trial date was
set for January 25, 1808.
Although Bligh succeeded in gaining the support of
the settlers—he received a petition of gratitude signed by
900 settlers on January 1, 1808—he could not control the
pro-liquor officers who had infiltrated his very administration.
They were Macarthur’s trump card. The court consisted
of six military officers and a judge-advocate named
Richard Atkins. Atkins, a hard-drinking old gentleman,
was one of Macarthur’s creditors. On the day of the trial
Macarthur petitioned the court—Atkins and the six proliquor
officers—to remove Atkins because of his obvious
conflict of interest. The request was upheld over Atkins’s
protest, and Macarthur was released on bail.
On January 26, 1808, the Rum Rebellion began.
Atkins revoked Macarthur’s bail, arrested him, and reconvened
the court with himself in charge. Atkins demanded
the six officers be tried for treason. Bligh responded by
summoning them to the Government House the following
morning, but by that evening New South Wales corps
commander George Johnston arrived and released
Macarthur from jail. He then marched to the Government
House and arrested Bligh, without incident, for unsubstantiated
violations of royal authority. Martial law was
declared, with Johnston the acting head of the colony.
Bligh was detained for more than a year because he
refused to promise to return to England. Finally, in February
1809 he agreed, but once aboard the Porpoise, Bligh
reneged, took control of the vessel, and sailed to Hobart,
where he hoped to gain the support of Lieutenant Colonel
David Collins, in order to regain Sydney. Collins, however,
was no more receptive to Bligh than anyone else in the
colonial military had been, and Bligh waged an unproductive
harassment campaign of Sydney from the surrounding
waters. In 1809 the British government recalled Bligh, and
he returned to London and a court martial. In the subsequent
trial Bligh was acquitted of the charges brought
against him and promoted to rear admiral in 1812. Lieutenant
Colonel George Johnston then faced his own court
martial for his role in the Rum Rebellion, and he was convicted
and removed from office.

Further reading: H. V. Evatt, Rum Rebellion: A Study of
the Overthrow of Governor Bligh (Hawthorn, Australia:
Lloyd O’Niel, 1971); Ross Fitzgerald and Mark Hearn,
Bligh, Macarthur and the Rum Rebellion (Kenthurst, Australia:
Kangaroo Press, 1988).

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