Reading the Rum Rebellion

At about five o’clock on the afternoon of 26 January 1808, Major George Johnston of the New South Wales Corps led his men from the barracks in Bridge Street.  They marched in a line two or three deep along the streets of Sydney to Government House.  They carried the regimental flag, and played The British Grenadier.  They carried their weapons, with bayonets fixed.  Their plan was to arrest Governor Bligh.  Arriving at Government House, they found the governor’s daughter and a number of his supporters who had just finished dinner, but they spent some time hunting for her father, until he was found in an attic bedroom.  He would later say he was destroying documents there.  The soldiers insisted he was hiding under a bed.

Governor Bligh seized under the bed

One of the few contemporary images of the Rum Rebellion. Painted on thin paper, the illumination would have been placed in the window, with a lamp behind it. Needless to say it is propaganda rather than an accurate portrayal of the arrest

In the last few weeks, I’ve been revisiting a long neglected project of mine, a biography of an early Australian settler called Walter Davidson who became an opium trader in China.  I ran out of puff and abandoned the manuscript at Chapter 7, a few years ago.  If all goes well – and New Year is a time for making resolutions – regular readers of this blog may hear more about Walter this year.

At present I’m grappling with the episode known to all Australians as the Rum Rebellion, when the officers of the New South Wales Corps put the Governor under house arrest and took over.  The interregnum lasted until Governor Macquarie arrived at the beginning of 1810.

There’s been plenty written about it, not least because Governor William Bligh, of Bounty fame, is such a well known figure.  One account of it is even called Bligh’s Other Mutiny (by Arthur Hawkey, 1975).  The Rum Rebellion has appealed to amateur historians, who have often reshaped it to talk about contemporary issues – and who am I to criticise them, since this is what I do in this blog most of the time.

H. V. Evatt (Rum Rebellion, 1938) was a High Court Judge and Labor politician who became leader of the ALP in the 1950s.  He saw the rebellion as a fight, often taking place in the Court, between greedy capitalists and a governor trying to support small farmers and government enterprise.  M. H. Ellis (John Macarthur, 1955) was a strident anti-communist friend and sometime speechwriter for the Liberal (conservative) Prime Minister Robert Menzies.  He saw John Macarthur’s support for the rebellion through the lens of free enterprise and the right to trade, free of unnecessary government regulation.

The Rum Rebellion is a bit like a Rorschach inkblot, on which people can impose their own preoccupations.  Even the name was coined later, in the 1850s, when the temperance movement was growing, and people tut-tutted about the amount of rum consumed in the early colony.

The problem for professional historians is that so few primary sources survive.  If Bligh’s story is true, and it probably is, then he was burning documents – what documents? – in the attic right as the mutiny took place.  Then the army took control.  They knew each other, met in the officers mess, dealt in spoken rather than written orders – and they don’t seem to have generated as much paper during these 2 years as a normal bureaucracy would have done.

Besides, they were likely to be tried for treason, for which the punishment was death (drawing and quartering optional, but still on the books).  They had no desire to leave a paper trail that might implicate them further, so their letters are often carefully crafted to develop their defence of justifiable rebellion against a tyrant.

But even so, where are the other documents you might expect to find that cover these 2 years?

Within the literate elite in New South Wales, those who weren’t part of the rebellion mostly kept their heads – and their pens – down.  One who didn’t was a plant collector working for Sir Joseph Banks.  He wrote to Banks about the rebellion, adding that ‘I am well aware, that I am running a great risk in having my letters intercepted; but I never mean to submit my neck to the yoke of slavery.’  Perhaps he was needlessly anxious, but there was no regular postal service, and letters entrusted to ships’ captains sometimes mysteriously disappeared on their way back to England.  Cock up or conspiracy?

It’s also striking that New South Wales’s only newspaper, The Sydney Gazette, just publishes regulations and announcements of the new regime without editorial comment.  When John Macarthur and Joseph Foveaux, both men within the rebel leadership, fell out and fought a duel, the Gazette mentioned it only very elliptically in the following edition by reprinting without comment a poem about an 1807 duel in Co. Wexford.  Only those already in the know would get the point – which is hard luck for us historians.

Back in Britain, the affair generated very little interest.  Thanks to the wonders of searchable databases, I’ve been able to look more closely for printed references than I could when I first researched this chapter, but references to New South Wales, to Bligh or to the mutiny are still thin on the ground.  Maybe I’m missing something obvious, but I don’t think so.

Occasionally a new source still turns up.  Ann Marie Whitaker found the diary of Joseph Foveaux’s secretary, James Finucane, in the National Library of Ireland, while Pamela Statham tracked down the account books of the New South Wales Corps’s army agent in London.

But much is lost forever.  I recall hearing once, though it was just a rumour, that George Johnston kept a diary that remained in his family until the 1930s – but if so, it has since disappeared.  And a bombing raid on Exeter during World War II destroyed many records in the Devon Country Record Office that might expand our knowledge of Macarthur and Bligh, both Devonshire men.

On New Years Day, when the latest batch of papers are released by the Archives under the 30-year rule, be grateful that we don’t burn archives any more – although whether we will be able to read today’s electronic data in 30 years’ time is anybody’s guess.

Ann-Marie Whitaker (ed), Distracted Settlement: New South Wales after Bligh, from the Journal of Lieutenant James Finucane 1808-1810 (1998)

Pamela Statham (ed), A colonial regiment: new sources relating to the New South Wales Corps 1789-1810 (1992)

6 responses to “Reading the Rum Rebellion

  1. It’s my firm belief that in (name your number) years, the post computer world will be known as another Dark Age, because there will literally be nothing left behind. Digital archives are as fragile as a butterfly’s wing; besides the fact that every new advance leaves more and more inaccessible (5″ floppies? Wordstar? 8track tapes?), but the simple fact that if the grid goes down, it’s all gone. Future historians will be working with our landfills, trying to piece together our world. Luckily for them, plastic is almost indestructible…

  2. Hi Eve. I fear you are right. There’s also the danger that it is so much easier to destroy an archive deliberately, when it is electronic. Bligh could have destroyed a lot more documents if he could have just put a magnet close to the Government House PC!

  3. Hi,
    Very interesting piece of History, throughly enjoyed the read.

  4. Hi, one person who certainly did pick up his pen was Bligh himself – when under house arrest, presumably, he wrote a very long summary of events to Sir Joseph Banks, refer to the State Library of NSW collection of Banks papers – 87 pages I think!

    Perhaps he was the only person in the colony with time on his hands!
    But I agree it would be great to have some other accounts from the colony at the time
    Cheers history buff Hugh Tranter

  5. Pingback: Family Business | Historians are Past Caring

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