Thursday, 26 January 2017

Australia Day or Rum Rebellion Remembrance Day?

Who started it?

26 January 1788 was a Saturday. But it was no day off for Arthur Phillip. He had a come halfway around the globe with a fleet of 11 ships and some of Britain’s less than finest citizens to take up a new job and he was afraid the French might take hold of his workplace before he could unpack his pen and proclamation papers. 

HMS Supply had arrived in Botany Bay on 18 January 1788 but it wasn’t the place for a city, so he sailed north and found a better place at Port Jackson, naming it Sydney Cove after the British Home Secretary.

On 26 January, Phillip watched by a few marines, officers and oarsmen, planted the British flag to take possession of the Eastern part of New Holland in the name of King George III. The new Governor didn’t get around to a formal proclamation until 7 February.

The first person ashore was probably an un-named male convict. His Majesty’s officers didn’t leap off the rowboat to wade ashore in their knee breeches – they were carried. On the back of the first arrival was 23-year-old Scottish-born Lieutenant George Johnston.

In 1800 Johnston was promoted and often held positions of responsibility. He argued with Governors who meddled in the military. He also worked with leading citizens of the Colony, in particular, the persuasive John Macarthur who had arrived in 1790 as an officer in the Corps.

In 1792 with the departure of Arthur Phillip, the Officer-in-Charge of the Corps, Francis Grose, took over as Lieutenant Governor. He promoted Macarthur giving him control the Colony’s resources and made him the Colony’s biggest landholder.

Macarthur sent complaints about Governor John Hunter’s administration (1795-1800) to London and clashed with the next Governor, Philip Gidley King (1800-1806). Macarthur resigned from the NSW Corps to devote himself to the wool industry and, while in England to defend charges brought against him by the Governor, sought support from his friends. On his return to Sydney, he presented Governor King with an official order to grant him 5000 acres of land – the largest ever given. King granted the land provisionally, requesting confirmation from London but before this could be given, King was recalled.

His successor, William Bligh, arrived in 1806. Bligh had a reputation for being tough and often harsh. This had contributed to unrest amongst his men when he was Captain of HMS Bounty, leading to the infamous mutiny in 1789.


Rum Rebellion or Bligh Blunder?

Bligh came into conflict with Macarthur over the land grant and he had Macarthur taken to trial over an incident involving one of Macarthur’s trading ships. The jury of NSW Corps Officers refused to recognise the court and so Bligh indicated that he intended to charge them with treason.

Bligh’s bluster was miscalculated because he had pushed the Corps into a corner. The Commanding Officer of the Corps was now Major George Johnston. Johnston spent Tuesday, 26 January 1808 celebrating the day of their first arrival in the Colony exactly 20 years before. He reminisced about their achievements in building the Colony and discussed the problems Bligh had created.

He felt convinced that Bligh’s threat against his men would lead to an uprising by the soldiers and that Bligh needed to be removed from office for his own safety and for the good of the Colony.

That evening, Johnson announced to his troops that he was assuming the title of Lieutenant-Governor and displacing Governor Bligh. He and his men marched through Sydney, bayonets fixed, while the band played ‘British Grenadiers’. When they arrived at Government House, there was little resistance. Johnston arrested Bligh, allegedly finding him hiding under a bed. 

The Colony’s first revolution was a military coup backed by popular support. Macarthur had advised Johnston that he should have a petition from the people before arresting Bligh. Macarthur prepared this though most of the signatures were added after the event.

Bligh’s overthrow became known as the ‘Rum Rebellion’ because of the NSW Corps earlier involvement in the Colony’s rum trade which had earned them the nickname ‘Rum Corps’. However, the term 'Rum Rebellion' was coined over fifty years later by a teetotaler historian who wanted to illustrate the problems of alcohol. Bligh’s arrest was a battle for power between the military and civil establishment who had built the colony on the one hand and an unsympathetic autocratic Governor on the other.

Almost two years later, in January 1810, Lachlan Macquarie arrived as the new Governor proclaiming the 1808 uprising illegal and cancelling all land grants and court sentences made under the regime.

The anniversary of Arthur Phillip’s landing at Sydney Cove was first publicly celebrated some 30 years after the event in 1818. It was the 30th ‘Anniversary Day’ of the landing of Governor Phillip. The Governor gave everyone the day off and a pound of meat as a gift.

By 1846, the 58th celebration of ‘Anniversary Day’ was celebrated in Sydney with a regatta on the harbour by a new generation now riding on the sheep’s back and eager to forget any convict connections. The colonists had created a world-class civilisation out of a ‘wilderness’, but the Colony had been reduced by the separation of Tasmania, South Australia and New Zealand. Western Australia was never part of the Colony and Victoria and Queensland were separated in 1851 and 1859. Separation days were celebrated in each new colony.

Australia Day as we know it is relatively recent. It was not until 1935 that all states and territories used the name and it was not until 1994 that it was consistently a public holiday on that date.



On Tuesday, 1 January 1901, the continent of Australia became united under one government as the Commonwealth of Australia. So why don’t we celebrate 1 January as Australia Day?  Simple really, it’s already a public holiday…


Early fake news - Bligh's arrest the way it didn't happen.

See also: Would Governor Phillip have wanted 7 February for ‘Australia Day’?