Back in 1807 Sydney Town’s population of 3,000 – of which about two-thirds were convicts and where there were five men to every woman – trembled each time they heard the all too familiar viceregal shouts of “The law, sir! Damn the law! My will is law and woe to the man that dares to disobey it!”
The Irish were enraged when some of their leaders were sentenced to one thousand lashes and others removed from their farms and ruined.
Thus were the seeds sown for Australia’s first military coup involving the sixth Governor of the colony, William Bligh of ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ fame. Another mutiny was in the offing. Read about it in my book ‘Back to the Wall’.
Governor William Bligh’s treatment of the Military Corps, free men who did not expect to be treated as criminals, was arousing widespread resentment among its members. After an incident in which some of his men were ordered to the guard house, Major Johnson was moved to write to Colonel Gordon in London that “Governor Bligh seems ignorant of any instructions or rules, but such as are dictated by the violent passion of the moment.”
In that same dispatch was a letter from Mary Putland, Bligh’s daughter, in which she wrote affectionately that her father (Bligh) was “dreadfully harassed by business and the troublesome set of people he has to deal with” and that “there are a few we suspect wish to oppose him.”
In England there were rumours that Bligh would be recalled. Grimes, the surveyor-general for the colony, after eight months in Van Diemen’s Land, wrote on his arrival in New South Wales on 28 December that “Sydney is hell.”
The unrest in the colony was exacerbated by a scarcity of food and high prices due to heavy rains and disastrous floods which had all but wiped out the newly established market gardens in the Hawkesbury River valley.
Bligh had been alerted to a movement to have John Macarthur go to England “as the Colony’s agent to impugn his government and represent the heavy grievances of the inhabitants” and that, as Ellis states, although Bligh “might feel himself ‘as removable as Ararat,’ he was not the man to be inert when attacked or threatened.”
On 15 December 1807 a warrant was issued for Macarthur’s arrest. His trial began the following day. It was the point of no return in the personal battle of wills that activated the trigger for insurrection.
Believing it to be an illegal warrant, Macarthur failed to appear. To Bligh such mutinous conduct was high treason. Although the bench ruled that Macarthur had merely committed a misdemeanor, at the end of the day he was committed for trial in a criminal court on 25 January.
While the story of how Australia’s first and only military coup came about is significant
Bligh returned to England in 1810 and, for his service, was elevated to the rank of Vice Admiral. He escaped a court marshal but Major Johnson didn’t. He was dismissed from the service in disgrace. He returned to New South Wales and settled on a grant of land.
Macarthur managed to escape prosecution. He also returned to the colony to resume his sheep breeding activities for which he became famous. Today he is recognised as the pioneer of the wool industry that was to boom in Australia in the early 19th century and become a trademark of the nation.
In recognition of his contribution to Australian agriculture, Macarthur was honored by a postage stamp issued on the centenary of his death in 1934 (depicting a merino ram). He also appeared on the first Australian $2 note issued in 1966. His properties Elizabeth Farm and Camden Park Estates are heritage listed.
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