Chapter 6 [A Short History of Australia, by Ernest Scott]

[Editor: This is a chapter from A Short History of Australia (6th edition, 1936) by Ernest Scott (1867-1939).]

Chapter VI

Government and governors

System of government — An autocracy — Hunter’s governorship — His difficulties — Recalled — King’s governorship — The rum traffic — Bligh’s governorship — John Macarthur — His arrest and trial — Deposition of Bligh.

Until the year 1823 the Government of New South Wales was vested entirely in the Governor, who worked under the control of the Secretary of State for the Home Department, or, later, the Secretary for War and the Colonies; for there was no separate Colonial Minister till 1854. The Governor during this period had no local council to advise him or check him. He might consult the Judge Advocate on judicial questions, or the Surveyor-General as to what roads and buildings should be constructed, or the Commissary about supplies; but whether he did or not was for himself to determine. They were his subordinates; he was an autocrat, wielding the widest powers, amenable to no criticism but that of the Minister in England.

According to the Governor’s will a condemned man might be put to death or reprieved. There was no court of appeal beyond him. He granted pardons according to his own judgement or caprice. One day two prisoners presented petitions for pardons to Governor King. One petition was signed by nearly all the best-known men in Sydney, whilst the other had only one name upon it. The Governor asked the man who presented the latter why he had but one signature whilst the other had so many. The man answered that he had lived as the assigned servant of only one master, and knew nobody else. King gave him a pardon, but dismissed the other applicant with the comment, ‘As you know so many rich friends, you do not need a pardon.’

The whole of the financial administration was in the Governor’s hands. He made grants of land and controlled the assignment of servants. He restricted, like a modern Diocletian, the profits which merchants might make, issued ordinances like a Solon, rewarded and punished like a Tzar. When Governor Bligh was reproached with acting against the law, he exclaimed, ‘The law, sir? I am the law!’ And he was not far wrong.

The Governor was appointed by the Secretary of State. The first three Governors received a salary of £1,000 a year; the fourth and his successors received £2,000. When settlement extended to Norfolk Island, Hobart, and Port Dalrymple, Lieutenant-Governors were appointed at each of those places, and they were paid £450 per annum.

The Governor appointed the civil officers, some of whom — but never the judicial officers — were emancipists. At one time grave perplexities were occasioned because a clerk in the Governor’s office took bribes from convicts to alter the papers recording their sentences, so that some who were sent out for life had the sentence cut down to seven years. The fraud was not discovered till much confusion had arisen, and doubtless some whom their friends in England had never expected — probably never wished — to see again, returned home.

The first four Governors were naval captains, and three of them, Phillip, Hunter, and King, were with the First Fleet. John Hunter entered upon his duties in 1795 in the vexatious circumstances which have already been described, with an Augean stable to cleanse and a besom which was not adapted for clean sweeping. He was an honest, sincere, conscientious man, whose acts and words often suggest a sensitiveness of feeling which was out of harmony with his rough environment. He was described by one who was subject to him as ‘a perfect gentleman in his manners, gracious and condescending to all, without compromising his dignity, personal or official.’ But the officers who during the interim when Grose ruled had learnt how to make profits from rum and general trading were determined not to lose this lucrative but discreditable business, and they worked secretly and openly to frustrate the Governor’s efforts at reform. Behind his back they weakened his authority, and they found the Secretary of State willing to lean his ear to anonymous charges against his administration. A man of more ruthless determination might have crushed the evils which Hunter had to fight, but he could not have done it without making enemies, and the enemies that Hunter made were too numerous and too cunning for him. He was ill supported by the authorities in England, who recalled him in 1800 with a grudging recognition of the value of his services and no appreciation of the magnitude of his difficulties.

Philip Gidley King was altogether a stronger ruler than his predecessor. He was capable of meeting a situation by an audacious assumption of royal authority, and when he did not think that an English Act of Parliament which applied to the colony was stiff enough in its terms, he would alter it by a stroke of his own pen. There are in existence orders issued by King as ‘His Majesty’s commands,’ which in fact were simply his own commands. He, Governor King, was the King, when he thought it necessary to take strong measures. He attacked the rum traffic and the private trading of officers with energy; but he had to acknowledge that ‘every step I took clashed so much with the interest of trading individuals, both commissioned as well as non-commissioned, that all set their wits to work not only to thwart my exertions but also to use every measure that art, cunning, and fraud could suggest, to impede my efforts.’

An evil especially injurious to the spread of settlement, which had grown out of the iniquitous rum traffic, was that of persons of small means to whom grants of land had been made, mortgaging their properties and bartering their live stock to officers for spirits, which these officers only, on account of their monopoly, could supply. A farmer had been known to sell his property for a gallon of rum, and several officers had become large and wealthy landowners by acquiring estates in this manner. King therefore had to cope with what he described as ‘the artifice of thieves and the duplicity of the tools I have to govern,’ and the task was as baffling as it was unpleasant. At the beginning of his term he found that ‘the cellars, from the better sort of people to the blackest characters among the convicts, are full of that fiery poison.’ He even established a brewery with Government funds, in the hope of preventing the thirst for spirits by encouraging the consumption of beer; but lost money on the venture ‘owing to the description of people it was necessary to employ.’ He forbade trading by officers, but could not entirely eradicate it; he prohibited the importation of rum, but still the place was ‘inundated’ with it. So much were some of his officers his open enemies, that they would not attend Government House even on His Majesty’s birthday, and they only just stopped short of open defiance of the Governor’s orders. King did secure a measure of success with his reforms, but it was hard to get right done through officers who regarded themselves as ill used in being prohibited from doing wrong. It is not wonderful that a tone of weariness and disappointment is apparent in King’s correspondence towards the close of his governorship.

His successor, Captain William Bligh, was well known in connexion with the famous mutiny of the Bounty before he accepted the Governorship of New South Wales. He had been a junior officer under Captain Cook, and had commanded a ship under Nelson at the battle of Copenhagen. He owed his appointment to Sir Joseph Banks, who was supposed by English ministers to know more about New South Wales than any other Englishman, and was frequently consulted about its affairs. Banks certainly was well informed about the drift to the bad which had occurred under Grose, of Hunter’s failure to stem the riotous tide of rum, and of King’s difficulties with the military officers. He knew that a strict disciplinarian was required, and he thought Bligh was the most suitable man for the position.

Bligh’s insistence on discipline was indeed sufficiently stiff, but unfortunately he was also a quarrelsome, ill-tempered, coarse-speaking man. His manner of doing business with those who had to see him was repellent. He would, with no regard for the dignity of his position, pour forth a stream of personal abuse, loaded with dire threats; and if he felt angry with any one he would blurt out his displeasure, no matter where he was — on the parade ground, in the street, in his own house, or in church. One who had experience of the Governor in his tantrums wrote that he would not brook contradiction or protest; ‘his features became distorted, he foamed at the mouth, stamped on the ground, and shook his fist in the face of the person so presuming.’ He was a law unto himself, and he said so. It can hardly be contended that Bligh’s acts were more arbitrary than those of his predecessors, and he had the same refractory material to deal with; but his manner soon made him hated by those who came into personal contact with him, and at length brought about the mutiny by which he was deposed from office.

The man who hated Bligh most, and was in turn heartily detested by him, was John Macarthur. He had come out to Sydney as a lieutenant in the New South Wales Corps, and was one of those officers who profited from private trading in rum and general merchandise. One of his enterprises, the breeding of sheep and the improvement of the quality of wool, conferred very great benefits upon Australia and the world at large. For that valuable work Macarthur is best known. From wool he derived a considerable part of his ample fortune. A strong-willed, hot-tempered person, affectionate in his circle of friends but equally strong in his antipathies, he would strain every nerve to get his own way. He had quarrelled with the last two Governors, whose authority he had endeavoured to undermine. Hunter described him as a ‘busybody,’ and a man who had ‘employed the whole of his time in this country in sowing discord and enriching himself by means truly disgraceful.’ King said that Macarthur would stop at nothing which ‘art, cunning, and a pair of basilisk eyes can afford.’

When Bligh assumed the governorship in 1806 John Macarthur was the richest man in New South Wales, and he was fully conscious of the power which his wealth gave to him. He had retired from the regiment after a violent quarrel with King, who had put him under arrest for fighting a duel, and had sent him home for trial. On his return to Sydney he applied his energetic abilities especially to sheep-breeding and wool production, and was granted 5,000 acres of land at Camden to encourage his breeding experiments. In 1805 he owned one-third of the sheep in the colony, and these were for the most part merinos, which produced the finest fleeces. Differences between Bligh and Macarthur arose within a few months of the arrival of the new Governor, and each of them had means of annoying the other. The quarrels of two obstinate men would have no historical interest except that the culminating one led to a mutiny against the Governor’s rule. Bligh was determined to crush the trade in spirits, and to punish those who engaged in it. He found that, notwithstanding the efforts of his predecessor, rum had secured such a hold over the life of the community that it was used as a currency; people paid for clothing, food, tools, and goods of all kinds in rum. This pernicious traffic, Bligh said, must stop, and he imposed severe penalties on any who were found to engage in it.

A few months after Bligh issued this order two stills for the making of spirits were sent out from London, one of them being consigned to Macarthur. He said that he had not ordered it; his London agent had sent it out amongst a cargo of general merchandise, as a speculation. The Governor ordered the seizure of the still. Macarthur made no objection to the taking of the head and worm, the parts which made the apparatus useful as a still, but said that he intended to keep the copper boilers for his own domestic use. But Bligh was not satisfied, and ordered the seizure of the coppers also. Thereupon Macarthur brought an action against the officer who took them, for illegal seizure of his goods; and the Court (though the decision was not unanimous), recorded the verdict that the officer had not been authorized in seizing them. The Governor was much annoyed with the result, especially as it followed upon a fiery address to the Court by Macarthur, wherein he had asked whether it was true that a British subject was liable to have his property wrested from him without any other reason being assigned than that it was the Governor’s order.

Macarthur had flung down the gage of battle to Bligh, and it was soon taken up. He was part owner of a trading schooner, the Parramatta, which, upon a cruise to Tahiti, had unwittingly carried a convict stowaway from Sydney. Owners of vessels incurred penalties for carrying away prisoners, and in this case the Governor commanded the forfeiture of a bond of £900 into which the owners of the Parramatta had entered. Macarthur determined to abandon the vessel rather than pay, and, as he ceased to provide for the crew, they went ashore. But it was forbidden by the port regulations for ship-owners to permit their sailors to be at large in the convict settlement, and Macarthur was summoned before the Judge-Advocate, Atkins, to answer for the offence. Macarthur refused to attend because he had abandoned the ship to the Government, which therefore, he held, became responsible for her and her crew. There were other disputes. Macarthur had lent money to Atkins, and could not sue him because he presided over the only Court which could deal with such a case. He therefore appealed to the Governor, whose friend Atkins was, pointing out the absurdity of issuing a writ calling upon the Judge-Advocate to ‘bring himself before himself,’ and adjudicate in his own case. There was another quarrel with the Governor about a piece of leased land on which Macarthur wished to build. He was prohibited from so doing by Bligh’s order.

In short, these two men, the one the Governor of the colony, the other the richest and most influential man in it, both self-willed ‘super-men,’ had got at cross purposes. They were out of temper with each other, and violence was bound to ensue.

On December 16, 1807, Macarthur was arrested on a warrant issued by Atkins, and was brought to trial on a formidable indictment drawn up under the direction of the same person, who, not being a lawyer (though he was Judge-Advocate), obtained the assistance of a drunken convict solicitor. It specified a long list of charges against Macarthur, whom it described as ‘a malicious and seditious man, of depraved mind and wicked and diabolical disposition,’ and, further, as ‘a person of evil disposition and dishonest conversation.’

The members of the Court which sat to try Macarthur on January 25, 1808, were six members of the New South Wales Corps, presided over by the Judge-Advocate. But the prisoner naturally objected to being tried by his debtor, Atkins, with whom he was notoriously at enmity. The officers accordingly objected to sit with Atkins, who thereupon retired from the bench, but maintained that the Court was not properly constituted without him. Bligh upheld this opinion, sending to the officers the message, ‘You are no Court without the Judge-Advocate.’

The extraordinary position was thus created that the prisoner had objected to the presence of the Judge-Advocate upon the bench and that his objection had been upheld by the other members of the Court; that the Governor had declared that the Court was not properly constituted without the Judge-Advocate; and that meanwhile Macarthur continued a prisoner, the six officers contending that he was answerable to them, since they had been sworn to try him, the Governor that they had no right to try him. So that the Governor had brought himself into sharp conflict with the officers of the only military force in the colony.

On January 26 Bligh summoned them to appear before him at Government House, to answer for ‘certain crimes’ with which the Judge-Advocate had charged them; and on the same day he sent a message to the commanding officer of the corps, Major George Johnston, informing him that he intended to arrest the six officers for treasonable practices. Early in the morning of the same day Macarthur’s bail had been disregarded, and he had been lodged in the common jail.

While these things were occurring there was intense excitement in the colony. The arrest of Macarthur had naturally aroused feeling against the Governor; for while Macarthur had many enemies, some moved by envy, some because they had come in conflict with his masterful temper, he also had troops of firm friends. To Macarthur’s adherents, increased by those who, though not liking him, felt that he had not been fairly treated, were now added the whole of the military. In addition there were many who had grievances against the Governor on a variety of grounds, most of them relating to his abusive manner and his arbitrary actions. Wentworth, one of the colonial surgeons, was amongst the number. There were others whose dissatisfaction had no more justifiable foundation than that they had profited from dealing in rum, and realized that Bligh’s determined action would ruin that trade.

Major Johnston, who resided at some distance from Sydney, found, when he drove in on the afternoon of the 26th, that groups of soldiers and civilians were conversing excitedly in the streets, and that ‘everything denoted terror and consternation.’ His officers, backed up by a number of influential people, urged him to use his force for the arrest of Bligh. Johnston was a cool, mild-mannered, but resolute officer, by no means turbulent by temperament. He stated, after the occurrence of the events to be described, that he was convinced that unless he placed the unpopular Governor under arrest there would be an insurrection, ‘and that the blood of the colonists would be upon my head.’ An immense number of people, ‘comprising all the respectable inhabitants except those who were immediately connected with Governor Bligh,’ had rushed into the barrack square, and urged him to take decisive measures. That he acted from a conscientious sense of duty is hardly questionable.

Johnston first gave the order for the liberation of John Macarthur from prison, and sent soldiers to see that it was executed. The jailer complied with his command. Macarthur then joined the throng in the barrack square; and he it was who drew up — using a gun for a writing desk — the requisition to Johnston begging him to place the Governor under arrest and to assume command of the colony, and pledging those who signed to support him with their fortunes and their lives.

It is clear that Major Johnston had resolved to depose Bligh before the liberation of Macarthur. He had signed the order for release as Lieutenant-Governor, and could not have taken so decisive a step as to order the release of a prisoner unless he had been prepared to accept full responsibility for his action.

It was now late in the afternoon of January 26, about an hour before sunset. Johnston determined to arrest the Governor before the close of the day. He placed himself at the head of his soldiers, and, with the drums beating to the rhythm of ‘The British Grenadiers,’ and the regimental colours floating in the air, the redcoats swung out of the barrack square and marched towards Government House. Bligh from an upper window saw them coming. He already knew what the intention was, for Johnston had sent him a letter informing him that the respectable inhabitants had charged him with crimes that rendered him ‘unfit to exercise the supreme authority another moment in this colony.’

The soldiers, on arrival at Government House, were drawn up in line opposite the gates, with pieces of artillery presented against the building, while four officers and a number of troops were sent inside to execute the arrest.

The entrance of the soldiers was for a short while blocked by the Governor’s daughter, but she was respectfully moved aside, and a search of the house for Bligh was commenced. Some difficulty was experienced in finding him. The Governor himself heard them ‘rummaging all the outhouses and searching the grounds,’ while he, in full uniform with his medal on his breast and his sword by his side, was in a lumber-room tearing up some official papers and stuffing others inside his waistcoat. The lance-corporal who at length found him deposed on oath that he was hiding under a bed, whence he had to be dragged forth. Bligh emphatically denied this statement, though he admitted that he had concealed himself in order that he might, by gaining time, see whether anything could be done for the restoration of his authority. To suppose that a man with Bligh’s record was hiding on account of fear would assuredly do him an injustice; but that he really was hiding is not to be doubted. The soldiers were searching a considerable time before he was found. Major Johnston reported that he was ‘discovered in a situation too disgraceful to be mentioned,’ and another contemporary supplies the picturesque detail that when he emerged his uniform ‘was befouled with white feathers.’

That night the streets of Sydney were illuminated. There were bonfires and festivities; and a little later several shops erected signboards whereon the ‘ever-memorable January 26’ were symbolized by the brush of some colonial Dick Tinto. One of these paintings represented Major Johnston in Highland uniform, standing with his foot upon a snake and his sword-point through its head, while close by stood a female figure presenting him with a cap of liberty — an ironical allegory, surely, to meet the gaze of most of the inhabitants of Sydney at this time.

It must in fairness to Bligh be added that he seems to have been popular amongst the farming class, who appreciated the efforts he had made to suppress the spirit traffic; he had been their friend when the properties of many of them had been ruined by flood; but, from the nature of their occupation, they would not have had much personal contact with him. A more dependable witness was George Cayley, the botanist, who, while thinking that Bligh was unfit to be Governor because deficient in policy, thoroughly disapproved of the violent act of deposition, and blamed Macarthur as the real author of it.

After the arrest of Bligh and pending action by the British Government, affairs were administered under the direction of officers of the New South Wales Corps, with John Macarthur occupying the position of Colonial Secretary without salary. But, able as he was, his temperament was not calculated to win popularity, and if he had continued long in the exercise of power there probably would have been another revolution. The Secretary of State was very slow to act after the news of the mutiny reached England. That event occurred in January 1808, and it was not until December 1809 that a successor to Bligh arrived in Port Jackson.

When an inquiry into the mutiny was made in England Johnston was sentenced to be cashiered, with an addendum to the decree of the court-martial admitting that he had had to face novel and extraordinary circumstances calling for immediate decision. He returned to New South Wales, and lived there upon his farm, a much-respected man, for the remainder of his life. John Macarthur, who went to England to give evidence, could not, without danger of arrest, return to Australia until 1817, and suffered a chafing exile of eight years. Bligh was promoted to the rank of Rear-Admiral, but was not again entrusted with public office.

Ernest Scott, A Short History of Australia, London: Oxford University Press, 6th edition, 1936, pages 63-74

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