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Not a rum rebellion but a military insurrection.

On 26 January 1808, exactly twenty years after the founding of the colony of New South Wales, an insurrection by the New South Wales Corps (NSWC) led to the arrest of the governor, Captain William Bligh RN, and replacement of the colonial government by the military power. This mutiny against their sovereign's commissioned governor, was carried out, under arms, by the Sydney town garrison under command of Major (later Lieutenant Colonel) George Johnston.

The first recorded investigation of the mutiny was by Governor Lachlan Macquarie, who reported finding no evidence that the insurrection resulted from any direct fault on Bligh's part. Nor did he attribute the blame to any incident in the prolonged power struggle between the naval 'Captain-General and Governor-in-Chief' and the military force under his orders. In May 1810, Macquarie wrote to the Secretary of State in London, that it was:
 extremely difficult to form a just Judgement on this delicate and
 mysterious subject, ... in justice to Governor Bligh, ... I have
 not been able to discover any Act of his which could in any degree
 form an excuse for, or in any way warrant, the violence and
 Mutinous Proceeding pursued against him. (1)

Macquarie's statement, regarding a naval officer he did not respect (a 'most unsatisfactory Man to transact business with'), appears unbiased. Yet Macquarie's comments were incomplete as he refrained, possibly deliberately (having served with fellow ensign and Scot, George Johnston, in North America in 1777) (2), from stating who, or what set of circumstances, was responsible for the mutiny.

The ambiguity in this first investigation was perpetuated in the subsequent court martial in England of Lieutenant Colonel George Johnston. On 5 June 1811, the thirteenth, and final day of Johnston's court martial, Bligh in his concluding comments for the prosecution, acknowledged that the defence had endeavoured to shift the blame for the mutiny onto him. In his written statement, he noted 'it is I, and not Col Johnston, who for some days past have been on trial'. (3) While the court found Johnston guilty of mutiny, his sentence, being cashiered, was a lenient punishment for what was after all a capital offence. In the public announcement of the court's finding, an explanatory comment by the Commander-in-Chief, stated:
 the Court have apparently been actuated by a consideration for the
 circumstances of impropriety and oppression which, by the evidence
 of the proceedings, appear to have so strongly marked the conduct
 of Governor Bligh in the administration of the high office with
 which he was entrusted by his Majesty. (4)

With Macquarie's inconclusive investigation and the court martial finding being ambivalent concerning the basic cause of the mutiny, this has inevitably led to a wide diversity of theories as to why it occurred.

A short selection of literature dealing with the cause of the insurrection indicates a multiplicity of opinions. In his 1898 Introduction to Historical Records of New South Wales, F. M. Bladen, probably assisted by additional verbal and written insights from his acquaintance with Johnston's daughter and grandson (5), considered the 'military officers ... charged by Bligh with treason were the principal advocates for his arrest ... [and their 'attitude' provides] the only feasible explanation of the mutinous demeanour of the private soldiers'. (6) Rather than a response to an act of Bligh's, F. Watson in his Introduction to Historical Records of Australia, writesf a preconceived plan, with Macarthur 'determined to force a crisis with Bligh'. (7) Ida Lee, in 1906, attributed the mutiny to NSWC support for Macarthur because Johnston 'erroneously' assumed that Bligh intended to dispense with the criminal court, investing 'magistrates with its powers'. (8) In Rum Rebellion, H. V. Evatt wrote that self-interest of trading monopolists, including officers, was the underlying cause of the rebellion, also that John Macarthur united the officers to overthrow Bligh by force, the timing being left to the discretion of Macarthur and Johnston. (9) A. Atkinson considered the 'interweaving of three [British] patronage networks' provided the background to the events leading up to the Rebellion; namely Banks' pro-Bligh group, naval elements opposed to Bligh, and the 'political influence of the Whigs, ... patrons of Bligh's [colonial] enemies'. (10) On the other hand, A. G. L. Shaw depicts the rebellion as 'a personal quarrel' between Bligh and Macarthur 'with disaffected military officers [acting with Macarthur] against constituted authority'. (11) Supporting this view, J. Ritchie writes that 'if Bligh could break Macarthur, he would succeed in imposing his authority on every inhabitant; if Macarthur could resist the governor, he would reduce him to a figurehead'. Nevertheless, Ritchie also notes that the soldiers were 'spoiling for a showdown' being alarmed by rumours of Bligh's intention to charge six officers. (12) Like Shaw, C. M. H. Clark sees Bligh and, to a lesser extent, Macarthur as the villains of the incident, but while giving an account of the rebellion, he offers no explanation for its cause. (13) J. Grey in A Military History of Australia, writes that Johnston 'intervened' when six officers who 'protested Bligh's conduct of a court martial [criminal court] against Macarthur' were charged with treason. In comment on the mutiny's background, Grey considers that the officers, enjoying a relatively good standard of living, were reacting to impositions 'placed on it in a manner which all--save Bligh--understood as vouchsafed by custom if not by law'. (14)

Such opinions formed from a variety of different perspectives, even where apparently contradictory, are all based on an interpretation of evidence from the primary sources. However, it is considered that, with the dominance of Macarthur and his undoubted influence on the NSWC's role in the insurrection, major emphasis has been placed on the broader and longer term factors leading to the insurrection. But a detailed examination of the motivating force, or forces, driving key military individuals is also required. Why did these persons risk their lives by engaging in the capital offence of mutiny, and especially why did Major George Johnston deliberately lead the NSWC in defiance of military law?

This paper argues that there was one compelling factor which led to the insurrection: Johnston's concern over Bligh's threat, that on 27 January, he would charge six NSWC officers with treason. If these officers were jailed, such an action could precipitate a mutiny with soldiers attempting to free their officers. This would have had a disastrous effect on the Corps and have prejudiced internal security in the colony. R. Fitzgerald and M. Hearn reach a similar conclusion, stating Johnston was motivated because of 'potential danger to his officers (and ... [the] Corps)'. (15) After taking advice, and apparently having his worst fears confirmed by the six accused officers and Macarthur's supporters, Johnston decided to lead a mutiny against Bligh. While some of these individuals deliberately attempted to manipulate Johnston to rebel for their own ends, it is considered that Johnston was only receptive to the six officers' and Macarthur's supporters' pleas because they conformed with his overriding concern--that he must prevent disorder spreading in the NSWC. While this paper does not suggest that Johnston's actions were either correct, or the only course which could have been pursued, it is an attempt to explain why Johnston and the NSWC took the irrevocable step to mutiny.

From 1788, there had been continuous disputation between the civil power, represented by the autocratic uniformed naval governors, and the military. In 1792, the military power was significantly strengthened when Governor Arthur Phillip, due to ill health, returned to England. Thereafter, for almost three years, until the arrival of the next governor, the military administered the colony. First to assume power on Phillip's departure was the commissioned lieutenant-governor, Major Francis Grose, who also commanded the NSWC. When old wounds caused his return to England, Grose was succeeded by the next senior officer, Captain William Paterson. During this period, the administration granted both military and civil officers large land holdings and many privileges, including the right to monopolise colonial trade. Efforts by subsequent governors, Captains John Hunter RN (1795-1800) and Philip Gidley King RN (1800-1806), to implement instructions from London, were unsuccessful in curbing the power of these monopolists. Both governors were, in turn, recalled to England with their reputations undermined by their colonial opponents. King was replaced by the fiery disciplinarian, Captain William Bligh RN, appointed in the belief that he could effectively enforce the rule of the civil power over the military and their associates. Opposing him, the monopolists, and those who stood to gain from Bligh's downfall, were determined to destroy the governor's credibility and have him recalled, as they had Hunter and King. A principal figure amongst this group was John Macarthur, a self-opinionated former captain of the NSWC, now a wealthy and influential landowner. His opposition to Bligh precipitated the chain of events which caused the insurrection.

Before considering the mutiny, an overview of the NSWC is necessary. By 1808, the NSWC had been stationed in the colony since the arrival of the Second Fleet in 1790. With the officers having time, and financial incentive to become engrossed in their private affairs, and soldiers the opportunity to intermingle amongst their social peers in the civilian population, discipline normally associated with regular troops in barracks would have been less rigourous. It was stated at Johnston's court martial that in January 1808, from a garrison of about 300 in Sydney, only 120 slept in barracks, the others 'mix, marry and live' in town. (16) After he became governor in 1810, Macquarie had disciplinary concerns regarding soldiers of the 73rd Regiment (many of whom transferred from the NSWC) living outside barracks. His description of the problem in 1812, would have applied to the NSWC with its long residence in the colony:
 nearly the one half of the 73rd Regiment and Veteran Company are at
 present quartered in Houses and Huts in different dispersed and
 distant parts of this populous town ... a circumstance attended
 with great present inconvenience and much prejudice ... to the
 discipline, morals and sobriety of the Soldiery and occasionally to
 the disturbance of the Peace and tranquility [sic] of the
 Inhabitants. (17)

Pertinent to this study is a consideration of the relationship between officers and other ranks. Despite the more relaxed disciplinary regime, when an officer gave a command, he demanded instant obedience from soldiers. If this did not occur, offenders could face severe punishment, a fact of army life accepted by the men. This was embedded in social attitudes of the time, which functioned within clear class distinctions. But while soldiers, recruited from the 'same parts of ... society as the convicts' (18) accepted this treatment, they expected in return that their superiors display towards them certain responsibilities and apply an accepted code of behaviour. For example, before the mutiny, Bligh had broken this unspoken rule by assailing the soldiers with foul and abusive language without due cause. In 1807, this was a major issue in Johnston's pre-mutiny formal complaint to the office of the Commander-in-Chief, writing 'Governor Bligh seems ignorant of any instructions or rules whatever, but such as are dictated by the violent passion of the moment'. (19) With a long deployment in the colony with its healthy climate, the NSWC enjoyed an advantage not shared by other battalions, which suffered casualties while engaged in operations in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, or in garrisoning unhealthy regions. The Corps was described by R. H. Montague as an 'ageing although healthy and contented garrison force', (20) additionally, A. Atkinson notes, its longer serving members had a deep-seated 'code of brotherhood, which prescribed an absolute loyalty to the regiment'. (21) Any external threat to this status quo would strengthen the loyalty between officers and their men. In March 1809, Dr Robert Townson wrote of the officers, with the same comment being applicable to them and the other ranks: 'Tho' the senior officers are generally at variance with each other, yet, when they have a common interest, they unite'. (22)

Key officers also enjoyed lengthy periods of service in the Corps, with Johnston a striking example. A marine officer who arrived in the First Fleet, he raised the fifth company of NSWC, in Sydney, from marine volunteers still in the colony in 1792. Governor Phillip noted that Johnston was well respected by the men, who volunteered on condition they serve under him. Johnston also displayed leadership when commanding a depleted company which quelled the Castle Hill Rebellion in 1804. Other officers who had also served for years in the Corps, and became involved in events leading to the mutiny, included Captain Anthony Fenn Kemp who, as an ensign, arrived with Governor Hunter in 1795 and Lieutenant Thomas Laycock, appointed quartermaster in 1791, the only other officer, with Johnston, at the suppression of the convict uprising of 1804. Lieutenant William Minchin was appointed adjutant of the Corps in November 1796, and gazetted an ensign in March 1797. (23) A long serving soldier involved in the insurrection was the pro-Macarthur, anti-Bligh Sergeant Major Thomas Whittle who, at the time of Johnston's court martial in 1811, had forty-two years service in the army. During the mutiny, as the Corps' sergeant major, Whittle held a powerful appointment, being the equivalent of a regimental sergeant major--'the RSM'--in a battalion today.

In 1806, the NSWC consisted of a headquarters in Sydney and an establishment of eight companies, each of sixty private soldiers. (24) This organisation may have been adjusted to suit local conditions, one secondary account noting that during this period the Corps consisted of six companies. (25) Either way, the NSWC was widely dispersed, with considerable commitments, as shown in a September 1807 summary: (26)
Sydney: 9 officers 364 other ranks (includes 3 headquarters
 staff; adjutant,
 quartermaster and

Parramatta: 3 " 88 " " (possibly including 1
 headquarters staff;

Hawkesbury: - " 14 " "

Newcastle: - " 17 ' "

Norfolk Is.: 1 " 31 " " (correct as at 17 June
 1807: the island was
 being evacuated)

Pt Dalrymple: 5 " 70 " " (at 23 April 1807:
 figures include 1 staff
 assistant surgeon, but
 not the commanding
 officer, who was the

Total: 18 officers 584 other ranks (not including the commanding

Notes: 1. Marine garrison at Hobart Town (4 officers and 45 other
ranks) plus lieutenant-governor, not included above.

 2. Kemp returned from Port Dalrymple in late 1807, increasing
officers in Sydney to ten.

Apart from administrative problems associated with the NSWC's dispersion, a most significant factor in relation to the January 1808 insurrection was that the Corps' commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel William Paterson, was absent on duty from Sydney. Paterson, the commissioned lieutenant-governor of New South Wales, was stationed at Port Dalrymple in northern Van Diemen's Land, with the additional duty of being lieutenant-governor of that struggling settlement. Had Paterson been at his headquarters in Sydney in January 1808, displacing Johnston, who was administering command of the unit in his absence, there may not have been a mutiny. A key factor, discussed later, was the repetition of court tactics similar to those of 1803 (which had then adversely impacted on Governor King's standing), which in 1808 precipitated insurrection against Bligh. It is notable that the same two officers were principals in both trials, namely Johnston, who on both occasions was administering command of the NSWC, and Kemp. A repetition of the 1803 tactics would have been less likely under Paterson's command, but had this been attempted, events may have unfolded differently.

Additionally, had Paterson been in Sydney, it is unlikely Macarthur would have received the same level of support as he did from Johnston. This is not to suggest Johnston had particular bonds of friendship with, or obligations to Macarthur, or any apparent reason to favour this former officer. Indeed, as mentioned below, Johnston, as a magistrate, found against him in December 1807. Nevertheless, it is a reasonable assumption that Johnston's initial motive in supporting Macarthur's cause was that he saw this as as an opportunity to reduce Bligh's standing in the colony and consequently in London. With both men having an alliance of interest in belittling Bligh, there is a strong presumption of collusion between the military and Macarthur before the trial on 25 January. This is demonstrated by the efficient manner in which Kemp and Macarthur worked with team-like precision to bring the trial to a halt before the charges against Macarthur were read, while at the same time (as referred to later) the court house was packed with soldiers supporting Macarthur in a 'barefaced' way. (27)

In 1807, preceding the insurrection, Macarthur, now a civilian, was charged with illegally importing a still to make spirituous liquor, and separately, for refusing to forfeit a bond after a convict escaped on a ship of which he was part owner (with complications arising from his refusal to ration the crew of the impounded vessel). Additionally, arising from these incidents, Macarthur was twice charged with using seditious language against Bligh and his government. Brought before a bench of magistrates on 17 December 1807, he was placed on bond pending committal proceedings against him in the criminal court. Of the four magistrates who heard the case against Macarthur, two were military officers, Johnston and Captain Edward Abbott who commanded the NSWC detachment stationed at Parramatta. In the Sydney region, Abbott was the next officer in seniority after Johnston. Significantly, both concurred in the bench's finding, demonstrating their impartiality in dispensing justice against their former comrade, Macarthur. Of the two other civilian magistrates, one was Deputy Judge-Advocate Richard Atkins, commissioned by the Crown as the colony's only legal officer. Over indulgent in alcohol and lacking any legal training, bitter enmity existed between him and Macarthur. Nevertheless, it was Atkins' responsibility to prepare the papers for Macarthur's trial scheduled for Monday, 25 January 1808.

The night before the trial, the NSWC officers held a formal dinner, which was attended by some Macarthur supporters including his son Edward. John Macarthur was seen stalking around the mess building during the evening. As all officers detailed for the court proceedings next day were present, it is probable that tactics to foil the prosecution case against Macarthur, if not agreed earlier, were finalised at the dinner. Later that night, returning to his home at Petersham, four miles outside Sydney, Johnston was injured when his gig overturned. Whatever the nature of the accident, or the severity of injuries received, this incident provided an excuse for Johnston to remain in seclusion at his home for almost two days while dramatic events were taking place in Sydney. On the morning of 25 January, with Johnston injured at home, and Abbott at Parramatta, the senior officer available for duty in Sydney was Captain Kemp. Kemp was also senior amongst the six NSWC officers who, together with trial president, Judge-Advocate Atkins, were scheduled to compose the criminal court for Macarthur's trial. The other military members of the court were Lieutenant and Adjutant William Minchin, Lieutenant and Quartermaster Thomas Laycock, Lieutenants John Brabyn, Thomas Moore and William Lawson. This satisfied the law which stated the Court of Criminal Jurisdiction 'shall consist of the Judge-Advocate ... together with six officers of his Majesty's forces by sea or land'. (28)

Following normal procedure when the court convened, Atkins swore-in the six officer members, after which the senior officer was due to swear-in the judge-advocate as president of the court. However, this did not occur, and here the chain of events began which led directly to the insurrection. The officers, without legal precedent, allowed Macarthur to enter a plea to bar Atkins from his trial. (29) Having heard the plea, despite Atkins' objections, Kemp refused to swear-in Atkins, as the six officers unanimously supported Macarthur's appeal. Without being allowed to collect his prepared trial papers, Atkins was forced to withdraw from a hostile courtroom crowded with soldiers ordered to attend, this being instigated by Sergeant Major Whittle. Subsequently, at Johnston's court martial, Private Thomas Finnegan stated that on '25th [January] I got orders ... to go in full uniform, and take my side-arms with me, to the Court House, to support my officers'. (30) After forcing Atkins' removal from the court, Kemp wrote to Bligh, requesting another judge-advocate be appointed to replace Atkins. In doing so, he maintained the six officers still constituted a court. This set the stage for a trial of strength between the governor and these six officers.

It is considered no coincidence that in 1803 a similar situation had occurred when Johnston, as acting commanding officer, demanded during a court martial in which Kemp was the defendant, that Governor King replace the trial judge-advocate, Surgeon Harris. Johnston was able to justify his demand for Harris' replacement by bringing a trumped-up court martial charge against him which after the completion of Kemp's trial, was withdrawn on a technicality. As the judge-advocate in a court martial acted as a prosecuting officer, as opposed to his criminal court role as president, (31) this charge against Harris effectively stopped the governor's prosecution of Kemp. King initially refused to replace Harris, and a battle of wills developed between Johnston and King. Johnston refused to budge from his circular argument that the officers sworn-in as a court for Kemp's court martial, were unavailable for other vital duties until Kemp's trial was completed, and that this could not happen until Harris was replaced. King was finally forced to capitulate and appointed another official to act as judge-advocate for Kemp's trial. (32) Afterwards, this incident was raised in correspondence to further blacken King's reputation in London. (33) It is reasonable to speculate that Kemp was influenced by the outcome of these devious 1803 legal manoeuvres when, on 25 January 1808, he wrote to Bligh requesting Atkins be replaced in Macarthur's trial. Presumably Kemp's motivation ran parallel to an objective of Macarthur 'to drive the Governor [Bligh] into violent and precipitate measures'. (34) While both men were obviously attempting to embarrass Bligh, it is improbable that either intended to precipitate a mutiny.

In reply to Kemp's letter, Bligh asserted that the officers' refusal to form a court with Atkins was illegal. Judge-Advocate Atkins was appointed by the Crown and could not be replaced by any other authority, and without him the six officers did not legally constitute a court. Further, Macarthur's appeal against being judged by Atkins was invalid in law. Correspondence between Kemp and Bligh became increasingly acrimonious during 25 January, with Bligh and the six officers each maintaining their position. To apparently help resolve the impasse, at 5.25pm Bligh sent a letter to Johnston at his home, requesting that Johnston 'see him without delay'. (35) Johnston told Bligh's messenger that he was injured from a fall from his 'chaise' and could neither write a reply, nor attend on Bligh. Apparently Johnston was deliberately remaining removed from the day's events which he had no wish to see upset. Up to this time it is noteworthy that from his correspondence with Kemp, Bligh was still attempting to negotiate an end to the officers' defiance. Bligh could not change his stance, for apart from being humiliated, his authority would have been irreparably eroded had he backed down to the demands of an army captain and five lieutenants. Subsequently, at Johnston's court martial, Bligh's position was vindicated when Judge-Advocate General Charles Manners Sutton argued for the legality of Bligh's actions in remaining firm; no protest could be lodged, or upheld, against Atkins' presence as judge-advocate at Macarthur's trial. (36)

At 9am on 26 January, Bligh seized the initiative from the officers, when Provost-Marshall William Gore arrested and jailed Macarthur, who had been released on bail by the six officer 'court' on 25 January. This removed Macarthur from protective jurisdiction of this 'court'. Therefore, when it reconvened at 10am, as H. V. Evatt noted, they were without 'either a judge-advocate or a prisoner'. The officers now wrote to Bligh demanding that as well as a replacement for Atkins, Macarthur be handed over to them, so that the trial could continue. With this defiant letter, all hope of compromise was gone and Bligh did not reply. Atkins, assisted by the only trained lawyer in the colony, ex-convict George Crossly (transported for perjury, and despised by the Corps' officers), commenced work at Government House on a Memorial to Bligh, concerning the actions of the six officers. This concluded by stating their deeds 'amount to an usurpation of His Majesty's Government, and tend to incite or create rebellion (or other outrageous treason) in the people of this territory'. (37) The crisis was coming to a head: it only remained for this opinion to be aired publicly for an explosive situation to develop. Bligh's final move to regain command of the situation occurred during the afternoon of 26 January, when he circularised the six 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, to answer in the premises'. (38)

The implication of Bligh's circular was that the six officers were to face a magisterial board to answer, yet to be specified, civil not military charges. For Bligh this avoided the impossibility of bringing the six officers before a court martial which would require a mandatory thirteen army officer members. Presuming the previously noted September 1807 officer strength had remained unaltered, with the six officer defendants excluded, and Paterson included, there were only thirteen NSWC officers remaining in the whole colony. Even utilising several marine officers from Hobart, anarchy would have resulted if Bligh had attempted to virtually withdraw every NSWC officer to Sydney for a prolonged court action. It would also have been a near farcical situation with a court martial membership including Johnston and comrades of the accused. However, ignoring the question of the appointment of a trial judge-advocate, Bligh could have formed a criminal court of six officer members, including naval officers from HMS Porpoise or marines from Hobart Town. It is also possible that the governor could have kept the six officers under a form of arrest, and then (possibly after their reliefs arrived in the colony) send them back to England still under arrest, as had been done when Governor King ordered Captain Macarthur's return. Both Bligh and Johnston on the afternoon of 26 January would have been considering the likely ramifications if the the six officers were arrested: for Johnston, such thoughts would have been alarming.

Receiving Bligh's summons, without charges being specified, the six officers could only speculate whether or not treason charges were to be laid against them. At Johnston's 1811 court martial in England, Minchin was questioned about his reaction to this circular when discussed with another of the six. He was asked 'did [you] not say to him, [Lieutenant Laycock] "If you are afraid, I am not; we will find a way to cool the Governor, by arresting him before he arrests us?"' This allegation was denied under oath by Minchin, who disingenuously then stated he knew nothing of the proposed arrest of Bligh 'until the very moment it took place'. (39)

At 3pm on 26 January, with further sitting pointless and the 'court' having adjourned, (40) Minchin subsequently denied in court that he had visited Johnston's home, claiming he went to Harris' house to dine, from whence he then drove the injured Johnston into Sydney. (41) But at 4pm, Harris himself was at Petersham, advising Johnston that charges, possibly of treason, would be laid against the six officers next day and that 'an insurrection ... was to be feared'. (42) There is also a strong presumption that Minchin, after 3pm, also hurried out to Johnston's home. It would have been a normal military practice for Adjutant Minchin to have reported to Johnston, detailing developments within the unit and, as a means to extract himself and the other five officers from their dilemma, have supported Harris' pessimism.

At Johnston's home, serious concern would have been felt that with Macarthur already in jail (a man popular with the troops, who occasionally supplied them with spirits), (43) should he be joined next day by six officers, the situation could become critical. It was now clear to Johnston that a major crisis had developed which could have dire consequences for his unit. What had been commenced as legal manoeuvres to undermine Bligh's credibility, was now out of control due to the governor's unexpected initiatives which had not been foreseen in the military's planning before the court case commenced. As Johnston had studiously avoided contact with Bligh, he was unaware of any opinions expressed by the governor as to his likely intentions; also it is reasonable to assume that this isolation made Johnston more reliant on views put forward by Harris, and Minchin if present. However, it is not argued that Johnston was unaware of what was transpiring in Sydney one contemporary account noted 'your well wishers were so disturbed [at reports of his accident] as to repair to your house'. (44)

Shortly after 4pm on 26 January, a mounted trooper delivered to Johnston a further letter from Bligh. In this, for the first time, the word 'treasonable' was openly used to describe the activities of the six officers. Additionally, Bligh advised that they were summoned to appear next day 'before me, and all the magistrates have directions to attend'. (45) This was confirmation that the six would be charged with a capital offence under criminal, not military law. This would have aggravated existing resentment of Bligh by the Corps' officers and men, already evident from Johnston's 1807 complaint to the Commander-in-Chief. Sergeant Major Whittle, with a personal grudge against Bligh, (46) was in a position to inflame discontent amongst the troops as developments unfolded. If the anticipated jailing of the six officers had occurred, testimony shows soldiers would have mutinied to release them. In 1811 Atkins, as a defence witness at Johnston's court martial, was cross=examined by the court:

[Question] If six out of the ten officers had been arrested and sent to prison at that time, do you think that would have induced the soldiers to join in an insurrection? [Answer] I do think that under those circumstances they would. (47)

Similarly, Sergeant (then Private) John Sutherland, one of three soldiers who allegedly found Bligh hiding under a bed, admitted that if the officers had been jailed, 'the soldiers would have raised, and taken them out'. (48)

Johnston, from experience, was well aware that the Corps' soldiers, if sufficiently roused, would take the law into their own hands. In 1796, as a result of a dispute with soldiers, a workman's house and its contents had been completely and wilfully destroyed by off-duty soldiers, who then jubilantly returned to their parade ground adjacent to their commanding officer's home. Another incident in 1801 escalated out of control when Macarthur, under arrest for wounding Lieutenant Colonel Paterson in a duel, gave a present of spirits to troops formerly under his command at Parramatta. The spirits were legally confiscated by a civilian constable for being transported without the necessary permit. Upon learning the spirits would not be restored, the soldiers, as a mob armed with staves, moved out to forcefully recover Macarthur's present. However they were turned back by two officers. Now, late on 26 January, Johnston would have had no doubt that some soldiers would attempt to release their officers if they were imprisoned.

For Johnston, Bligh's letter was a watershed, forcing him to either decide to call on the governor and attempt to resolve the situation by compromise, or fob him off while he sought to clarify his options. Retrospectively, Johnston's verbal reply to Bligh's letter, that he 'was so ill as to be unable to write, but that he would get a person to write an answer in the evening [Bligh's emphasis]', (49) indicates Johnston was playing for time to seek further advice while not irreversibly committed himself to any particular action. His grave problem was how to resolve the issue of criminal treason charges against his officers which if not stopped, had the potential to engulf soldiers in mutiny against the civil power. Probably Johnston's immediate assessment of the implications was alarming, with the prospect of having to order the Corps to put down rioting elements from amongst their own ranks. This would have to be attempted without the majority of his officers, and the possibility of discontent simultaneously spreading into the community.

Meanwhile, gathering at the barracks, were some of the accused officers and several civilian supporters of Macarthur, including the two men who had previously bailed him, Garnham Blaxcell, and former officer, Nicholas Bayly. They were intent on securing Macarthur's release, proclaiming he was not 'safe' in jail, being in charge 'of a constable of notorious bad character'. (50) Probably both they and the officers mutually agreed that their problems could only be resolved by the forceful removal of Bligh and that Johnston was the key to the solution. He was the only person in Sydney with sufficient authority to lead the military in overthrowing the civil power. For their own personal ends, it was important that they manipulate Johnston. Fortunately for them, because of overriding regimental reasons, Johnston was receptive to their arguments.

As it was after 4pm when Johnston spoke to Bligh's messenger, he probably reached the barracks in Sydney a little before 5pm, having been driven by Minchin for some, or all of the way. There Johnston spoke to 'all the responsible people, officers civil and military'--a 'wretched assembly of four or five persons' as counterclaimed by Bligh. Bligh's letter of that afternoon to Johnston was produced. Kemp asserted that he was 'much alarmed' by being 'accused of treasonable practices'. (51) A brief, but emotion-charged discussion must have taken place at the barracks, during which Johnston, whose aim above all else would have been to restore normality in the Corps, had his worst fears--that his only practical option was mutiny--confirmed by hearing 'The gentlemen ... assembled ... earnestly entreating me to adopt decisive measures'. (52) Irrespective of particular factors which influenced Johnston, he now took an irrevocable step in defying Bligh, by illegally assuming the absent Paterson's title of lieutenant-governor, subsequently using this assumed title as the authority for all his actions. Probably at the prompting of Macarthur's supporters, this assumed power was first used to issue a directive to the jailer ordering Macarthur's release.

Macarthur's release possibly took place a little before 5.30pm and he immediately joined Johnston at the barracks. It was a 'little after six o'clock' when Provost-Marshall Gore showed Johnston's illegal release authority to Bligh. (53) As Gore departed Government House, he saw Captain Kemp and Lieutenants Minchin, Lawson and Draffen approaching. Supported by the Main, or Governor's, Guard their task was to arrest Bligh and his close confidants, also to prevent any escapes from Government House. Gore was arrested on the spot and was 'proceeding in custody of ... two soldiers ... when about thirty yards outside the gate [of Government House] I passed the battalion ... advancing ... Major Johnston was at their head'. (54) According to Minchin, the NSWC arrived at Government House about 6.30pm. (55)

For the Corps' approximately 300 soldiers, already standing by in the barracks, to be paraded, prior to marching about 700 yards to Government House, it presupposes the troops would have been called onto parade about, or shortly after, 6pm. Therefore, between about 5pm and 6pm, Johnston consulted at the barracks, assumed the title of lieutenant-governor, and prepared and signed a release document for Macarthur. Arriving at the barracks, and no doubt after further hurried discussion with Johnston, Macarthur drafted a petition calling on Johnston to depose Bligh. This was then signed by Macarthur and his civilian supporters present, providing a written record of justification for the insurrection. Later, many other settlers were retrospectively induced to sign this document. Another letter was prepared to be handed to Bligh by the officers arresting him. Additionally, at about the same time, a proclamation of martial law was drafted which was published above Bayly's signature as secretary to the lieutenant-govenor. (56) Finally, orders had to be issued for the troops to be paraded and also to direct the Main Guard to support the four officers who were to arrest Bligh. This would have been a nerve-racking hour at the barracks for Johnston.

The imperative for the NSWC in seizing control was to ensure that no civil unrest developed which could have led to a breakdown of internal security. On the evening of the insurrection this was achieved by three means. The speed with which the situation developed on the late afternoon of 26 January was to Johnston's advantage as he achieved surprise when the coup was mounted. Bligh was caught unprepared for such an event. Had he had some warning, or even a strong suspicion that the Corps may move against him, he could have taken counter measures such as are outlined below. Next, precautions had to be taken in case there was some anti-Corps disturbance as a result of the mutiny. The worst situation would have been if dissident convicts, with strong memories of Johnston's heavy-handed suppression of the 1804 Castle Hill Rebellion, exploited civil unrest to cause a breakdown in internal security. Precautions were taken against such an eventuality by the declaration of martial law as mentioned above. The final, and most essential measure, was to secure Bligh to prevent his escape.

On Johnston's arrival at Government House, he learned that Bligh had initially eluded those sent to arrest him. Johnston later admitted that 'This intelligence was truly alarming, for I had everything to fear from the agitation it was likely to produce'. (57) Bligh's intention in hiding in an upstairs room at Government House was to prevent his capture. A man of his character would not meekly surrender, and the statement he later made at Johnston's court martial rings true, that he hid:

to defeat their object, and to deliberate on means to be adopted for the restoration of my authority, which in such a critical situation could only be accomplished by my getting into the interior of the country adjacent to the Hawkesbury, where I knew the whole body of the people would flock to my standard. (58)

In other words, Bligh was contemplating a form of civil conflict by raising a militia to oppose the military. While B. H. Fletcher casts doubt on the degree of support Bligh may, or may not, have had from settlers in the Hawkesbury, he nevertheless concludes 'a balance of probability ... seems weighted in favour ... that there was strong support for Bligh at the Hawkesbury'. (59) It was a matter of demonstrable concern to Johnston that his soldiers failed to immediately secure Bligh's arrest.

Bligh, as well as being governor, was also the naval commodore with command over HMS Porpoise which had returned to Port Jackson at some time prior to 14 January 1808. (60) Had he not been secured, Bligh with Porpoise under his orders, would have been in a position to launch countermeasures. For example, sailing to the Hawkesbury; or Van Diemen's Land, where he could have sought support from Lieutenant-Governor Collins and his marines in Hobart, or from Lieutenant Colonel Paterson at Port Dalrymple. With Bligh at sea, and in position to exercise such initiatives, encouragement would have been given to the governor's supporters around Sydney. Bligh could even have sailed to India or England, with the intention of initiating action to put down the mutiny. But with his highly publicised capture, while allegedly hiding under a bed, Bligh's hopes were dashed and the initiative remained with Johnston to consolidate the rebel clique's hold over the colony.

With no civil disturbance after the mutiny, on 27 January Johnston was able to issue a proclamation revoking martial law. This document was obviously intended to strengthen the rationale that the mutiny took place to provide for the colonists 'Protection which I have felt it was my duty to give them ... [and] In future, no Man shall have just Cause to complain of Violence, Injustice, or Oppression'. (61) But from evidence given at Johnston's court martial, the insurrection was not precipitated by unrest amongst the local inhabitants because of Bligh's injustices. Claims by Johnston and his supporters that the NSWC had to mutiny to 'prevent an insurrection of the inhabitants, and to secure him [Bligh] ... from being massacred by the incensed multitude', (62) were repudiated by George Suttor, a Bligh supporter. At Johnston's court martial, the following was recorded:

[Question] Would there have been any danger of tumult or insurrection, at the end of January 1808, if the military had remained firm to the Governor? [Answer] None, I apprehend; I never saw the colony more tranquil. (63)

Although Suttor's testimony predictably supported Bligh, evidence indicates that, excluding Macarthur's clique, the local inhabitants did not precipitate, or take any part in, the act of rebellion.

Johnston had obviously decided to pre-empt Bligh's moves, planned for the morning of 27 January. Paradoxically, if Johnston had not acted on 26 January, it would appear that should some soldiers have attempted to release their officers, Johnston could have relied on the regiment to deploy and bring the rioters under control. This was achievable irrespective of whether he remained loyal to Bligh or not. Sergeant Major James Cox, a witness for the defence, surprisingly gave the following evidence in response to cross-examination by the court:

[Question] If Col Johnston had placed himself at the head of his men, with the intention of carrying into execution the Governor's orders, would the men have obeyed him? [Answer] Exactly, sir, with as much pleasure as upon any other occasion, if Col Johnston had put himself at the head of the regiment.

[Question] If those six officers had been sent to prison, would not the regiment have obeyed Col Johnston the commanding officer? [Answer] I have not the least doubt that they would. [Question] In any thing he desired them? [Answer] In any thing he desired them, if he had been there himself. I have been in the regiment twenty years, and never knew them disobey any lawful command. (64)

Another defence witness, Sergeant Sutherland who, like Cox, would have been expected to colour his evidence to defend Johnston's pre-emptive mutiny, was also cross-examined by the court:

[Question] But if Col Johnston, Maj. Abbott, and the other officers, who were not taken up, had remained at the head of the regiment, would the regiment have mutinied? [Answer] They would do the same as their officers do, of course; but they would not have liked to have seen their officers in prison.

[Question] If Maj. Johnston ... had been at the head of their battalion, when the Governor would have arrested the other six officers, and sent them to gaol, do you think the regiment would have mutinied against the commanding officer, that is, Maj. Johnston? [Answer] They would do, I suppose, according to the commanding officer's orders: if he was at the head of them, of course they would go by his orders. (65)

From both the above statements, it appears that the NSWC would have obeyed Johnston's orders as commanding officer, to suppress any rioting soldiers. However unlike Cox and Sutherland, who in making these statements had over three years to reflect on soldiers' attitudes to events of the mutiny, Johnston had no such luxury on the afternoon of 26 January 1808. Once he reached the barracks, and under overwhelming pressure from the accused officers and Macarthur's supporters, he was persuaded to confront the governor as the only means of resolving the crisis. Probably his officers, and the greater majority of the other ranks, (66) like Johnston himself, believed that for the integrity of the regiment, they had no option but to mutiny. Nevertheless, on the late afternoon of 26 January 1808, as commander, the final decision to take up arms against the governor was Johnston's alone.

In Johnston's estimation, he gave his orders to prevent the likelihood of his officers being imprisoned, sparking a mutiny amongst numbers of his soldiers, with the fear this would gravely weaken the regiment and threaten the stability of the colony. In fact, from Johnston's viewpoint his orders were successfully executed, for while martial law was proclaimed that night as a precautionary measure, it was revoked next day as the Corps was firmly in control and no security concerns developed. Thereafter the NSWC, redesignated the 102nd Regiment, carried out its primary role of maintaining internal security and the King's peace, despite deposing their sovereign's representative.

Although tainted by mutiny, the 102nd was relieved with due military ceremony on 1 January 1810 by the 73rd Regiment. After a period in England and Guernsey, the regiment served creditably in Bermuda and on active service in the war against the United States, returning from Canada in 1817, before being disbanded on 12 March 1818. (67) While Johnston suffered the ignominy of court martial and cashiering in 1811, his aim in mutinying, to maintain the integrity of the regiment, was achieved.

Taroona, Tasmania


(1) Historical Records of Australia, Series 1, volume VII, (henceforth HRA, 1, 7), p. 331.

(2) J. Ritchie, Lachlan Macquarie A Biography, Melbourne, 1986, p. 116. Australian Dictionary of Biography Vol. 2:1788-1850 I-Z, section eds. AGL Shaw & CMH Clark, Melbourne, reprinted 1989, pp. 20 and 187.

(3) A Charge of Mutiny The Court Martial of Lieutenant Colonel George Johnston for deposing Governor William Bligh in the Rebellion of 26 January 1808, introduced by J. Ritchie, Canberra, 1988, p. 406.

(4) The Times, London, No.8338 of Friday, 5 July 1811, p. 2, column 5. These comments were softened by an amendment published in No.8343, Thursday, 11 July 1811, p. 2 column 3.

(5) Historical Records of New South Wales, Volume VI (henceforth HRNSW, 6), p.lii. Johnston's daughter provided Johnston's portrait, and his grandson gave Bladen access to their family papers. Presumably these were the papers later destroyed by Johnston's descendants; G. Lemcke, Reluctant Rebel Lt. Col George Johnston 1764-1823, Willoughby, privately published, 1998.

(6) HRNSW, 6, p. lxiii.

(7) HRA, 1, 6, pp. xxvi (preconceived) and xxiii (determined).

(8) I. Lee, The Coming of the British to Australia 1788 to 1829, London, 1906, p. 69.

(9) H.V. Evatt, Rum Rebellion A Study of the Overthrow of Governor Bligh by John Macarthur and the New South Wales Corps, Australian Classics edition, London, 1978, pp. 350-351; HRNSW, 6, pp. 831-832. Abbott to Ex-Governor King, February 1808; basis of claim that Bligh's arrest was by prior agreement.

(10) A. Atkinson, 'The British Whigs and the Rum Rebellion', Journal of Royal Australian Historical Society (JRAHS), vol. 66, pt 2, Sydney, September 1980, pp. 84 and 74 respectively.

(11) A.G.L. Shaw, 'Some Aspects of the History of New South Wales 1788-1810', JRAHS, vol. 57, pt 2, June 1971, p. 108.

(12) J. Ritchie, The Wentworths Father and Son, Melbourne, reprinted 1999, p. 111.

(13) C.M.H. Clark, A History of Australia, 1, From the Earliest Times to the Age of Macquarie, Melbourne, reprinted 1974, pp. 214-227.

(14) J. Grey, A Military History of Australia, Cambridge, 1999, pp. 11-12.

(15) R. Fitzgerald & M. Hearn, Bligh, Macarthur and the Rum Rebellion, Sydney, 1988, p. 120. While providing a background analysis of the mutiny, regrettably this book contains errors of military detail.

(16) A Charge of Mutiny, pp. 272 and, for mixing, 148.

(17) HRA, 1, 7, p. 529. In 1810, 267 soldiers from NSWC, redesignated the 102nd Regiment, transferred to the 73rd Regiment and another 111 older soldiers to the Veteran Company.

(18) P. Stanley,' 'Soldiers and Fellow-Countrymen' in colonial Australia', Australia Two Centuries of War and Peace, (eds.) M. McKernan and M. Brown, Canberra, 1988, p. 69.

(19) HRNSW, 6, pp. 652-654. Quotation, p. 654.

(20) R.H. Montague, 'The Men of the New South Wales Corps: a Comparison?', JRAHS, vol. 62, pt 4, March 1977, p. 222.

(21) A. Atkinson, The Europeans in Australia A History volume one The Beginning, Oxford, 1997, p. 285. However, he notes 'some new sergeants resented antipodean methods'.

(22) HRNSW, 7, p. 61, Letter to Viscount Castlereagh.

(23) M. Austin, 'William Minchin of the New South Wales Corps', JRAHS, vol. 50, pt 6, December 1964, p. 415. Minchin served as a 'gentleman' before being commissioned.

(24) HRNSW, 6, p. 183.

(25) P. Stratham, 'A new look at the New South Wales Corps, 1790-1810', Australian Economic History Review, vol. 30, no. 1, March 1990, p. 61.

(26) HRA, 1, 6, p. 140; table condensed. Troop numbers often differ in primary and secondary accounts. Establishment remained at eight companies following substantial reinforcement after the mutiny; HRNSW, 6, p. 834.

(27) HRNSW, 6, p. 687.

(28) HRNSW, 1, pt 2, pp. 67-70, for the 1787 'The Act of Parliament Establishing The Colony' and pp. 70-76 for 'Letters Patent Constituting the Courts of Law'.

(29) A Charge of Mutiny, pp. 465-469.

(30) A Charge of Mutiny, p. 117.

(31) H.V. Evatt, Rum Rebellion, pp. 79-80, for the judge-advocate's differing roles.

(32) HRA, 1, 4, pp. 160-163 and 177-210.

(33) HRNSW, 5, p. 104. Letter by influential felon, Sir H. B. Hayes to Lord Hobart of May 1803.

(34) Some Early Records of the Macarthurs of Camden, ed. S. Macarthur Onslow, Sydney, 1914, footnote p. 147. Statement attributed to Macarthur's son James.

(35) HRNSW, 6, p. 427.

(36) A Charge of Mutiny, pp. 36-37.

(37) A Charge of Mutiny, pp. 440-444. Quotation, p. 443.

(38) HRNSW, 6, p. 433.

(39) A Charge of Mutiny, pp. 268-269. Minchin was lying, admitting earlier (pp. 242 and 267) to being present when a proposal to arrest Bligh was discussed.

(40) HRNSW, 6, p. 430.

(41) A Charge of Mutiny, pp. 267-268.

(42) HRNSW, 6, p. 578, Justifying the mutiny, it was falsely stated that it was 'an insurrection of the inhabitants' which was feared.

(43) HRA, 1, 3, p. 299. A Charge of Mutiny, p. 371.

(44) HRNSW, 6, p. 687.

(45) HRNSW, 6, p. 433.

(46) HRNSW, 6, p. 588. Alleged threat by Bligh to remove Whittle's house.

(47) A Charge of Mutiny, p. 175. Similar claim by Minchin, pp. 241-242.

(48) A Charge of Mutiny, p. 374.

(49) HRNSW, 6, p. 616.

(50) HRNSW, 6, p. 429.

(51) HRNSW, 6, p. 579, 'responsible inhabitants'. A Charge of Mutiny, p. 220. Kemp named five civilians present; also 'alarmed'; (on p. 236, he agreed seven present). Bligh's counterclaim, p. 401.

(52) HRNSW, 6, p. 579.

(53) HRNSW, 6, p. 557, for time. A Charge of Mutiny, p. 99, for Gore delivering Johnston's authority.

(54) HRNSW, 6, pp. 557-558. Draffen elsewhere spelt 'Draffin'.

(55) A Charge of Mutiny, p. 249.

(56) HRNSW, 6, p. 434.

(57) A Charge of Mutiny, p. 152.

(58) A Charge of Mutiny, p. 9.

(59) B.H. Fletcher, 'The Hawkesbury Settlers and the Rum Rebellion', JRAHS, vol. 54, pt 3, September 1968, p. 234.

(60) HRNSW, 6, pp. 818-819.

(61) Proclamation of 27 January 1808. National Library of Australia manuscript no. 4175, p. 1 of 1.

(62) A Charge of Mutiny, p .419.

(63) A Charge of Mutiny, p. 119.

(64) A Charge of Mutiny, pp. 376-377.

(65) A Charge of Mutiny, p. 374. Variations in rank, for Johnston and Abbott, reflect promotions prior to Johnston's court martial.

(66) A. Atkinson, 'William Bligh's Chickens', The Push From The Bush, No.25, Armidale, October 1987, passim; for soldiers with doubts about mutinying, but obeyed Johnston's orders. See also comment to Endnote 21.

(67) W.A. Steel, 'Captain Henry Steel and the New South Wales Corps, later the 102nd Regiment', JRAHS, vol. 29, pt 2, 1943.
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Title Annotation:New South Wales
Author:McMahon, John
Publication:Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society
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Date:Dec 1, 2006
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