Old Tales of a Young Country

The Rum-Puncheon Revolution

Marcus Clarke

THE SOCIAL condition of Sydney in 1807 was somewhat curious. The place being under military discipline, and controlled by military officers, the army was at a premium. The Governor was a sort of proconsul with absolute power, and his officers monopolised all the good things of the colony. Among the principal of these good things was the rum-trade. From the first settlement of New South Wales the unrestrained importation of ardent spirits had prevailed to an alarming extent. Rum poured into the colony in barrels, in hogsheads, in puncheons. Rum flowed like water, and was drunk like wine. Rum was taken morning, noon, and night, was paid as “boot” in exchanges, and received as payment for purchases. Rum at last became a colonial currency. The governor, clergy, and officers civil and military, all bartered rum. The New South Wales Veteran Corps (a regiment of pensioners tempted by promise of privilege to emigrate) was called the “Rum-Puncheon Corps.” Mr. Macarthur (the chief actor in the drama about to open) says in his evidence on the trial of Major Johnston, that such barter “was universal. Officers, civil and military, clergy, every description of inhabitants, were under the necessity of paying for the necessaries of life, for every article of consumption, in that sort of commodity which the people who had to sell were inclined to take: in many cases you could not get labour performed without it.”

This being the case, one may judge of the disgust that prevailed among the rum-storers when it was reported that a new Governor was to replace Governor King—a bluff sailor, who loved rum—with strict injunctions from the home Government to put down the monopolists. The name of this new Governor was Captain Bligh, a bold and daring, though somewhat pig-headed post-captain, who had gained some notoriety by reason of the famous mutiny of the “Bounty.” This story is so well known that I will do no more than glance at it. The “Bounty” was sent to collect seeds of the breadfruit tree of the South Sea Islands, for the purpose of planting them in the West Indies. Tired of this botanical exploration, and seduced by the black eyes of the Tahitian damsels, the crew of the “Bounty,” led by a lazy old reprobate named John Adams, mutinied, and putting Bligh and his officers adrift in a longboat, gave themselves up to unrestrained licentiousness on one of the lovely islands of the South Pacific. Here they lived for some years, until Adams, worn out by debauchery, achieved patriarchal dignity, and preached the gospel to his numerous family of half-caste children. Although it is more than probable that he never heard of Byron, the old gentleman verified the poet’s statement anent “rum and true religion,” for he tried the charms of both, and died in the odour of sanctity. His companions, ultimately found, were given the convict settlement of Norfolk Island as a residence. They—with Adams at their head— have since been canonised by the Low Church missionary story-books, and the “Mutiny of the ‘Bounty’ ” was for some time the strong point of the Sunday at Home. Bligh displayed much ability in navigating his boat to safety, and as a sort of recompense for the sufferings he had endured, was made Governor of New South Wales. His previous history was a good one. He had been for nineteen years a post captain; had fought under Parker, Howe, and Nelson. At Copenhagen he commanded the “Glatton,” and was thanked by Nelson publicly on the quarter-deck for his services. He was said to be a tyrant, and to have ill-treated the crew of the “Bounty.” It is possible he did so, but it is also possible that they deserved it.

The expectations of the colonists were realised. Bligh landed in 1806, and forthwith announced his intention of travelling through the colony in order to ascertain the condition of its inhabitants. Now, but four months before his arrival, occurred the great March flood of 1806, and the colony was suffering from scarcity of grain. According to Dr. Lang1 maize-meal and coarse flour were sold in Sydney at 2g. 6d. the pound, the two-pound loaf being 4s. 6d., and sometimes 5s., while “whole families on the Hawkesbury had often no bread in their houses for months together.” Bligh riding round, like the King of Yvetôt, made personal inquiries into the condition of each settler, and volunteered to take from each a certain quantity of wheat or produce, giving in payment orders in advance on the King’s stores at Sydney. This arrangement, however beneficial to the settlers, did not accord with the interests of the military and civil importers of rum and tobacco. No settler who could obtain tea, sugar, and woollen stuffs at nearly cost price from the King’s stores would sell his crop for the fiery Jamaica compound of the monopolists, or accept as part payment the usual puncheon of strong waters at the usual high rate of valuation. The merchants of Sydney were most indignant, and their indignation was not decreased by the publication on February the 14th, 1807, of a general order prohibiting the rum-puncheon trade altogether. By this alarming order the monopoly was at once crushed. Bligh prohibited “the exchange of spirits or other liquors as payment for grain, animal food, labour, wearing apparel, or any other commodity whatever.” A prisoner convicted of such sale or purchase rendered himself liable to 100 lashes and twelve months’ hard labour. A settler, free by servitude, pardon, or emancipation, was deprived of all indulgences from the Crown, fined £20, and imprisoned for three months. Free settlers and masters of ships were fined £50, and deprived of indulgences from the Crown. This sledge-hammer proclamation at once knocked to shivers the brittle pot of profitable monopoly which had hitherto boiled so briskly, and the merchants and trading members of the New South Wales Corps began to mutter curses against the popular despot of Government-house.

At last a spark from an unexpected quarter fired the train. In March, 1807, the ship “Dart” arrived in Sydney. Among her cargo were two large stills, one addressed to Captain Abbott, of the New South Wales Corps, and the other to Mr. Macarthur. It seems that Mr. Macarthur was part-owner of the “Dart,” and that the agent to whom Captain Abbott had written for the still, thinking that the speculation would be a profitable one, took upon himself to send another to the owner of the vessel. The vapours from these stills, when condensed, proved to be that fiery spirit, called Rebellion.

According to custom, the manifest of the “Dart” was exhibited to the Governor, who, observing the unlucky stills ordered them to be both placed in the King’s stores, in order that they might be shipped back to England on the first opportunity. It so happened that the coppers of the stills had been filled with drugs, and the naval officer to whom the execution of the Governor’s mandate was entrusted, retained only the heads and worms, allowing the coppers to be placed in Mr. Macarthur’s stores.

Mr. Macarthur, formerly captain and paymaster of the New South Wales Corps, and then a merchant of respectability, was not on good terms with the Governor. As might naturally be expected, he sided with the monopolists. Indeed, he was bound to the “opposition” by a threefold band. As an old member of the military corps he possessed all the camaraderie by which a regiment hangs together, and resented the proclamation of the Governor as injurious to the interests of his old companions. As a merchant, with whom the rum-puncheon trade was necessarily a source of income, he saw himself deprived of large and sure profits. As a private gentleman of wealth and station, holding a position universally admitted to be only inferior to that of the Governor himself, he had imagined himself injured by the action of Bligh with reference to an appeal from the law courts, and refused to visit at Government-house. At this distance of time, and in the absence of anything like satisfactory evidence, it is impossible to decide how far the conduct of Macarthur was dictated by petulance or vanity. Mr. Flanagan, in his History of New South Wales, warmly supports the course he took, and declares that Bligh’s protended affection for the people but veiled his quarter-deck detestation of all interference, and that he tyrannised grossly over Macarthur and his friends; while Dr. Lang contends that Bligh was an honest, rough, and well-meaning man, who opposed himself sturdily to a monstrous system of mercantile robbery. Having due regard to Bligh’s former career, I feel inclined to agree with Dr. Lang.

Macarthur, annoyed at the order of the Governor, was yet to be subjected to another act of oppression. The “Duke of Portland” being about to sail for London, it was discovered that the stills were not on board her, and the Governor ordered them to be shipped forthwith. Macarthur replied that he had nothing to do with Captain Abbott’s still, and that he intended to dispose of his own to some ship going to India or China; but that if that should be objected to, the head and worm could be disposed of as His Excellency thought fit, and that he would apply the copper to some domestic use. His Excellency but reiterated his former order, and after some complication and correspondence, a Mr. Campbell was sent to “take the stills.” The merchant showed him where they were placed, and told him that he might take them at his own risk if he chose. Campbell did choose, and Macarthur prosecuted him instantly for illegal seizure of property, asking in court “if an Englishman in New South Wales was to have his property wrested from him on the mere sign-manual of the Governor?” The rebellion against despotism had begun.

Now another complication arose. In the month of June, a convict named Hoare had escaped in the “Parramatta” to Tahiti. Macarthur was part-owner of this vessel, and the English inhabitants of Tahiti (that is to say, a few missionaries who had usurped the lands of the natives under the pretence of converting them) complained to the Governor. Proceeding were taken against Macarthur by the governor, and a bond of £900, given by the owners of the “Parramatta” to the Government, declared forfeited. Macarthur appealed to the Governor against this sentence, but without effect, and thereupon refused to pay the fine. In default of payment the vessel was seized, and Macarthur, hearing of the seizure, informed the captain and crew that as they had “abandoned” the vessel, they might expect nothing more from him. By the colonial regulations, no seamen were allowed ashore in Sydney unless under certain conditions, and the men were therefore compelled to make affidavit of their owners’ procedure. In consequence of this affidavit, the Judge-advocate sent a summons commanding the appearance of Macarthur at court on the following day.

Unfortunately, Richard Atkins, the Advocate-general, was himself involved in Macarthur’s personal quarrels, and an action at law was then pending between them. Moreover, Atkins was a man of intemperate habits and profligate character. He is characterised by Dr. Lang as “the broken-down relative of a person in power,” and was notoriously incapable of fulfilling his legal duties. Governor Bligh, indeed, having been desired by the Secretary of State to inform him privately of the characters of individuals holding office, wrote thus of Mr. Atkins:—“He is accustomed to inebriety. He has been the ridicule of the community. Sentence of death has been pronounced in moments of intoxication. His determination is weak, and his opinion floating and infirm. His knowledge of the law is insignificant, and subject to private inclination; and confidential causes of the Crown, where due secresy is required, he is not to be trusted with.” The result of this mingled ignorance and intemperance on the part of Atkins was, that he was obliged to have recourse to a convict named Crossley in order to prepare his indictments and aid his wavering judgment. Crossley had originally been an attorney, but was transported for perjury, and having been pardoned by Governor King, was living on his acquired property on the Hawkesbury River.

As may be easily imagined, the scandal anent Atkins and his friend was considerable, and Macarthur in his quarrel was supported by the majority of the officers under Government. Desirous of pushing matters to a crisis, and, I am afraid, not without a certain malice prepense against his enemy, the Governor, Macarthur replied to the Judge-advocate’s summons by a cold and stinging letter, briefly refusing to attend. Upon this, Atkins committed an error. Galled by the contumacy of the wealthy merchant, he determined to put a slight upon him which he would not easily forget. He issued a warrant for his arrest. The execution of this warrant was entrusted to a man named Francis Oakes, who had been a “missionary” to Tahiti, but was now head-constable at Parramatta. Oakes, having thus from a fisher of souls become a fisher of bodies, repaired to Macarthur’s residence on the 15th December, 1807, and, “after many humble apologies,” presented the warrant. Macarthur read it, and—remarking to Oakes that “if he came a second time to enforce it, to come well armed, for he would never submit until his blood was shed”—refused to comply. “I have been already robbed of ten thousand pounds,” said he; “but let them alone, and they will soon make a rope to hang themselves.” Poor Oakes then requested that the great man would give him some document to show that the warrant had been duly executed, and Macarthur wrote the following:—

                “Parramatta, December 15th 1807.

“Mr. Oakes—You will inform the person who sent you here with the warrant you have now shown me, and given me a copy of, that I never will submit to the horrid tyranny that is attempted until I am forced; that I consider it with scorn and contempt, as I do the persons who have directed it to be executed.


                “J. MACARTHUR.”

Oakes having obtained this document, posted off to Atkins, and (doubtless chuckling at the speedy humiliation of his superior) recapitulated all that had passed. Atkins, furious with rage, sought the Governor; and Mr. Oakes’s deposition having been taken, a warrant was issued for Macarthur’s arrest. The next day three constables, armed with cutlasses, apprehended the “monopolist” in the house of Mr. Grimes, the Surveyor-general, and he being brought on the 17th before a bench of magistrates, was duly committed for trial for “high misdemeanours” before a special criminal court to be summoned for the purpose. To the inhabitants this intelligence was as startling as the news of the arrest of the Five Members had been to their ancestors. The despot had accomplished a coup d’état.

Macarthur, however, was liberated on bail, and in the interim between the 17th of December and the 25th of January the greatest excitement prevailed. The ill-feeling between the prisoner and the Judge-advocate was well known and freely commented upon. Macarthur himself was not idle. He enlisted the sympathies of the New South Wales corps, and seems to have informed its officers (who were to try him) that he relied upon their favourable verdict. This reliance was not unfounded. The officers rallied round their old comrade, and it is on record that the night before the trial Macarthur’s son and nephew and two of the bailsmen dined at a public mess-dinner of the corps. The colours of the regiment were displayed and the regimental band playing, Mr. Macarthur himself walking up and down the parade and listening to the music. History again suggests a distant parallel in the “white cockade” Opera-house dinner of bodyguards at the Œil de Boeuf.

It is, I am afraid, beyond question that Macarthur, not content with the knowledge that the six jurors would acquit him, to the confusion of the Government party, determined to strike a final blow at his old enemy the Judge-advocate; nay, it is possible that, strong in his own position, he meditated nothing less than the downfall of Governor Bligh himself. On the 25th of January, 1807, the court was crowded not only with civilians, but with many soldiers of the Veteran Corps, muttering discontent, and fingering their side-arms. It was generally understood that the prisoner had, in a letter addressed to the Governor, protested against the presence of the Judge-advocate; and as it was evident that the Judge-advocate was about to preside, the action of Macarthur was anxiously looked for. The indictment—prepared by Crossley, charging Macarthur with contempt and sedition—was then read, and the six officers having been sworn, Atkins was preparing to take the oath himself, when the prisoner challenged him. The point was argued, and Atkins declaring that by the terms of the patent the court could not be formed without him (which was perfectly true), Captain Kemp replied that the Judge-advocate was nothing more than a juror, and Lieutenant Lawson desired the prisoner to state his objections, calling out, “We will hear him!”

Amid the greatest confusion, Atkins vacated his seat as president, and Macarthur harangued the court. He stated that he had been brought to trial in ignorance of the charge against him, that he had in vain attempted to obtain from Atkins a copy of the indictment, and that he objected to him on six grounds:—First, that a suit was pending between them. Second, that Atkins cherished a “rancorous inveteracy against him.” Third, that having given evidence to support an accusation against Atkins, he was therefore exposed to his enmity. Fourth, because Atkins had “associated and combined with that well-known dismembered limb of the law, George Crossley,” to accomplish his destruction. Fifth, because Atkins knew that should he fail to procure a conviction he would be prosecuted for false imprisonment. Sixth, because Atkins had already pronounced sentence against him at the bench of magistrates, and consequently came into court with the intention to convict. This speech contained a quotation of eight “authorities” on the question of challenge, and ended with an ad captandum appeal to the New South Wales corps.

At the conclusion of the harangue Atkins swore he would commit the speaker for contempt, but Captain Kemp cried, “You! you commit! No, sir; but I will commit you to gaol.” The soldiers began to cheer, and Atkins, apprehensive of violence, called out that he adjourned the court, but the six refused to listen, and told the people not to disperse, saying, “We are a court. Tell them not to go out.”

The Judge-advocate having left, Macarthur demanded protection, stating that he had been informed that a force of armed ruffians had been prepared against him, and begging for a military guard. As perhaps had been previously agreed upon, this request was instantly granted. The provost-marshal, however, considering this proceeding a rescue, left the court in search of Atkins and three magistrates, in order to get a warrant for the apprehension of Macarthur.

The six, thus left masters of the situation, desired to proceed pro forma, and solemnly then and there concocted a letter to the Governor, requesting that another Judge-advocate might be appointed in the place of Atkins. At half-past twelve the reply came. The Governor refused. “Willing to wound, but yet afraid to strike,” the six sent another letter, reiterating their opinion, and begging further consideration.

Atkins, however, had not been idle. He, too, sent a memorial to the Governor, giving his version of the story, and complaining that the six had impounded his papers. Upon the receipt of this letter, the Governor, at a quarter-past two, sent his secretary, Mr. Edmund Griffin, to the court-house with a peremptory order to bring away all papers. The six, however, respectfully refused to comply with this command, unless “His Excellency would be pleased to appoint another Judge-advocate.” At a quarter to four the Governor played his last card. He sent a letter “finally demanding an answer in writing” as to the intentions of the six, and with italics “repeating that they were no court without the Judge-advocate.” The six at five p.m. closed the campaign by formally informing His Excellency that they intended to retain the original correspondence, and had adjourned to the following day.

That evening was one of intense excitement in Sydney. The recalcitrant six were in some tremor as to the result of their proceedings, and one may not unreasonably think that the mess-table talk was not of the brightest. Mr. Macarthur, snatched out of the hands of the fowler, and exultant in his temporary triumph, could not but be alarmed as to the ultimate issue of the struggle; Richard Atkins, Esq., and Crossley his companion, were indignant and revengeful, breathing threats and warrants; while His Excellency, Governor Bligh—whose fits of rage were notorious—paced the dining-room of the verandah-cottage called “Government-house,” waiting with furious impatience for the arrival of his allies. The Prussians of this Waterloo were represented by Major Johnstone, commanding the New South Wales corps; and immediately upon the receipt of the last manifesto of the six, Bligh had sent a despatch commanding his appearance. If the presence of their commander-in-chief did not quell the rebellious officers, Bligh’s quarter-deck knowledge was good for nothing. Unluckily, Major Johnstone had been thrown out of his chaise some time before, and was unable to come. He lived four miles from town, and returned merely a verbal message, regretting his inability to comply with His Excellency’s order. “He was too ill to come, and too weak to write.” This was the coup de grace. It was evident that the major sided with his comrades. Nothing now remained but to try conclusions with Macarthur.

Early the next morning (January 26) Macarthur was arrested, and lodged in gaol. The court, reassembling, demanded that he should be restored to his former bail, and at ten o’clock addressed another letter to the Governor, asserting that the deposition of the provost marshal was false, and that the prisoner ought in law to be released. No answer was vouchsafed to this document, and at three p.m. the court adjourned, wondering what His Excellency would do next. They were soon informed. In the course of the afternoon Bligh had decided upon war, and before dinner each of the six received a letter summoning him to Government-house on the morrow to answer for “treasonable practices.” It was also rumoured that Major Johnstone had received another letter, containing a tacit threat that, unless he appeared to support constituted authority, he would be virtually superseded in his command by Captain Abbott.

The utmost dismay now prevailed. It was urged that Bligh intended to set aside all forms of law, and ignoring the powers and jurisdiction of the Criminal Court, would seize upon his enemies in virtue of his untempered despotism. The barracks were in a ferment. Officers and men were alike ready for resistance. In the midst of the turmoil, at five p.m., a chaise containing the injured Johnstone drove up to the barracks. Lafayette’s white horse could not have produced a greater sensation. The crowd on the barracks-steps received him with open arms, and, amid a storm of mingled cheers and hisses, demanded whether he was come to ruin or to save the state. Johnstone, whose action would seem to point to a foregone conclusion, vowed that he had no intention of injuring his old companions in arms, and his utterance was received with intense enthusiasm. Presently, the waiting mob outside the gates, eager to know the result of the noisy council within, were gladdened by a visible sign of power. Two merchants, Messrs. Bloxcell and Bayley, appeared flourishing a folded paper, and took the way to the gaol. Major Johnstone, the “Lieutenant-Governor,” had signed an order for Macarthur’s release, and was ready to back it with the muskets of the regiment under his command. Presently Macarthur appeared amid more cheering, and was conducted by his rescuers to the Council Chamber. For more than an hour the council deliberated, and at last a strange noise was heard in the barrackyard. The soldiers were getting under arms. It was more than a revolt—it was a revolution.

At half-past six the drums beat hard and loud, and the regiment, having been formed in the barrack-square, marched down to Government-house, with colours flying and fixed bayonets. Government-house was a verandahed-cottage in O’Connell-street (in 1852 it was still standing), and was guarded by the usual guard of honour, under Lieutenant Bell. As the regiment approached Bell was heard to order his men to prime and load, and the instant after joined his comrades. In another moment the house was surrounded. The Bligh dynasty had fallen. Major Johnstone was Governor of New South Wales.

The entrance of the revolutionary army was opposed by but one person—and that a woman. Mrs. Putland, the widowed daughter of the Governor, ran down to the gate and endeavoured to dissuade Johnstone from entering, but she was put aside, and a search was made for the Governor. It has been stated that Bligh took refuge under a bed, and was dragged thence in a condition of craven terror; but this statement is stoutly denied by many persons. It seems, indeed, almost impossible to suppose that a man of Bligh’s well-known courage would be guilty of such an act of gross cowardice. All that we know of his past life militates against such a supposition. In times of danger he had always been found brave to rashness. His very vices were those which spring from an overweening self-confidence, combined with strong personal courage. It is not likely that a captain who had fought his ship so as to merit the thanks of Nelson, and had lived through such a voyage as that which followed upon the mutiny of the “Bounty,” would hide beneath a bed to escape from the violence of officers who had dined at his own table. Moreover, there was nothing in the aspect of affairs to warrant such a display of timidity. The “revolution” was after all but a civil matter. There was no infuriated mob waiting to tear him in pieces. No threats of personal violence had been used, and Bligh must have known that his life was never in danger. Apart from the evidence of “character,” which is directly opposed to the supposition of rank cowardice, there is not the shadow of motive for such a dastardly act as that with which he is charged, while the story is in itself precisely one of those coarse lies which are so easily invented, and so readily believed by the vulgarer sort. Bligh and his bed is only another version of James II. and his warming-pan.

What really took place is—as nearly as I can discover—as follows:—

On entering the house Major Johnstone despatched Lieut. Minchin to summon the Governor to his presence, and calling for pens and paper, composed in Bligh’s dining-room a formal letter of dismissal. This letter stated that Bligh “having been charged by the respectable inhabitants of (sic) crimes that render him unfit to exercise supreme authority,” it was the painful duty of the writer to require him, “in His Majesty’s sacred name,” to resign his authority and submit to arrest. This letter was addressed to “William Bligh, Esq., F.R.S.,” and signed “George Johnstone, acting Lieutenant-Governor, and Major commanding the New South Wales Corps.”

Bligh, in the meantime, had resolved on his course of action. Seeing that resistance was hopeless, he called to his orderly to saddle his horses, and ran upstairs to put on his uniform. His idea was to escape from the house and get to the region of the Hawkesbury, where he believed that the people, remembering the benefits he had formerly bestowed upon them, would rise in his behalf. While standing on the stairs, waiting for a servant who had gone for his sword, he was surprised by a number of soldiers with fixed bayonets, who made their way upstairs. Conceiving at once that Johnstone wished to take him prisoner, he stepped back into a bedroom adjoining, and attempted to get from a cupboard some papers which he wished to destroy. In this position he was found by Lieutenant Minchin, who arrested him in the name of the king.

Minchin brought his prisoner into the drawingroom, “crowded,” says Bligh, “with soldiers under arms, many of whom appeared to be intoxicated.” The letter written by Johnstone was then brought by Lieutenant Moore, and while Bligh was in the act of reading it, the new Governor appeared in the doorway, surrounded by officers, and verbally confirmed the contents of the letter.

Martial law was then proclaimed, all official papers and letters, together with Bligh’s commission as governor, and the “great seal” of the colony, were seized, and Bligh was left with his daughter and another lady, sentries being placed round the house to prevent his escape. Strangely enough, this eventful evening was the 26th of January, 1805, the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the colony.

On the 27th a general order was published, headed with the following Napoleonic fustian:—

“Soldiers! your conduct has endeared you to every well-disposed inhabitant in this settlement. Persevere in the same honourable path, and you will establish the credit of the New South Wales Corps on a basis not to be shaken. God save the king!”

By the general order all the officers of the late Government were deposed, Atkins heading the list. The ringleaders of the revolution were appointed magistrates, and Mr. Campbell, the Treasurer, was dismissed, with directions to balance his accounts without delay.

Nor was this all. Three days afterwards, Mr. Fulton, the chaplain, was suspended, and all civil and military officers, and every well-disposed inhabitant, were ordered to join in thanks-giving to Almighty God for His merciful interposition in their favour by relieving them without bloodshed from the awful situation in which they stood before the memorable 26th inst.

On the 2nd of February Mr. Macarthur was tried over again before the same court which had already sat upon his case, Mr. Grimes Acting as Advocate-general in the place of Atkins, and was unanimously acquitted. Ten days afterwards he was made Colonial Secretary and territorial magistrate.

Not satisfied, however, with advancing their friends, the successful revolutionists determined to take vengeance on their enemies. Mr. Lowe, the provost-marshal, who had arrested Macarthur, was imprisoned for nearly three months on a charge of perjury, and finally sent for four months to the coal-mines at Newcastle. Atkins was too high to be assailed, but Crossley, the attorney, was sentenced to transportation for seven years.

These arbitrary acts caused some sensation among the free settlers, and the Government went the length of prohibiting all public meetings, fearing lest a demonstration might be got up in favour of Bligh. Notwithstanding this, however, a memorial was drawn up, signed by a large number of persons, and forwarded secretly to England. This proceeding was discovered, and the most active mover in the business, Mr. George Suttor, was imprisoned for six months.

Notwithstanding the enthusiasm with which the rum-puncheoners had hailed the accession of Major Johnstone (bonfires had been blazing in all directions), the disaffected mustered largely, and it was rumoured that a conspiracy was afoot to reinstate Bligh. The illustrious prisoner was the white elephant of the Johnstone Government. He was kept at Government House, and followed by a sentry wherever he went; but upon these rumours gaining ground, was with his daughter placed as a close prisoner in the military barracks. At last it was decided to send him to England, and in March, 1809, he was permitted to go on board the “Porpoise,” on the condition that he sailed straight for Great Britain, and did not attempt to land on any part of the Australian coast. Bligh gave his word to this effect; but I am sorry to say that he broke it immediately, and landed at Hobart Town, Van Diemen’s Land being then a dependency of New South Wales. His coming created considerable excitement, and for some time he received the honour due to his rank; but before long an attempt was made to seize him, and he was compelled to lie on and off the coast in the “Porpoise,” hoping for despatches from England.

For nearly nine months the “Porpoise” beat about the Van Diemen’s Land coast, and at last the wished-for succour arrived. On the 25th December Colonel Macquarie arrived in Sydney with orders to reinstate Captain Bligh for twenty-four hours, and to then assume the command. Johnstone was to be sent home in strict arrest, and the New South Wales Corps was to be replaced by the 73rd regiment. In January, 1810, Bligh arrived from Adventure Bay, where he had been lying when the news of the arrival came to him, and was received with due honour by Colonel Macquarie. The former officers were reinstated, and a special act passed to legalise proceedings taken under the usurped Government.

On the 12th May Bligh sailed for England, and was followed by Johnstone and Macarthur, together with a cloud of witnesses of all kinds. The Government—caring but little for its convict colonies—was willing to deal gently with the culprits. Bligh was certainly made rear-admiral, and sent on active service, but Major Johnstone was not prevented from becoming lieutenant-colonel. At length, on the 7th May, 1811, the trial took place. The Court sat at Chelsea, the Right Hon. Charles Manners-Sutton (grandfather of the present Lord Canterbury), being Judge-advocate General. Colonel Johnstone was found guilty, and cashiered. In publishing this sentence in the general orders the following rider was added:—

“The Court, in passing a sentence so inadequate to the enormity of the crime of which the prisoner has been found guilty, have apparently been actuated by a consideration of the novel and extraordinary circumstances which by the evidence on the face of the proceedings may have appeared to them to have existed during the administration of Governor Bligh.”

Colonel Johnstone returned to the colony, and died there, universally respected, during the government of Macquarie. Mr. Macarthur, after a compulsory absence of eight years, also returned, and did better than poor Johnstone—he founded a family.

So ended the rum-puncheon revolution. To us it may seem something like a storm in a teapot, but to the worthy residents of New South Wales in 1807 it was a very terrible hurricane indeed.

1.    History of New South Wales.    [back]

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