26 January 1808: Australia’s Rum Rebellion

On this day in 1808, the New South Wales Corps led by Major George Johnson carried out the only forceful takeover of power in Australian history.

On this day in 1808 the New South Wales Corps (NSWC) led by Major George Johnson carried out the only forceful takeover of power in Australian history. The revolt is popularly known as the Rum Rebellion, because the illicit trade in alcohol and spirits was one of the main causes of the coup d’état. 

At the time, Australia had only recently been discovered by Europeans and was home to both convicts and free settlers, who moved to the new lands in search of a fortune. One of those people was former British army office, John Macarthur, whose business interests including farming, livestock and liquor.

In August 1806, New South Wales received a new governor from London, naval officer William Bligh. He was infamous as being the commander of HMS Bounty during its mutiny. Soon after arriving in Sydney, he set restrictions on trading conditions and stopped the use of spirits as payments for trades. This directly affected George Johnson, John Macarthur and other officers in the NSWC who were making large amounts of money from these trades. The tensions grew over the next year until in December 1807, Bligh order the arrest of Macarthur because of a shipping dispute.

The court constituted of six officers from the NSWC and judge-advocate Richard Atkins. Macarthur protested Atkins’ involvement, because the judge owed him money; the officers agreed. The next day, 26 January 1808, the six officers released Macarthur on bail. Bligh denounced it as treason. Macarthur then drafted a petition calling for Bligh's arrest. That evening the NSWC, with full band and colour, marched to the governor's house and arrested Bligh. Macarthur and Johnson were now in charge and ran the colony for nearly two years until the NSWC was recalled to England in January 1810. They were replaced by Lachlan Macquarie and his regiment.

Bligh, like much of the rebellion, was viewed with disdain by the Admiralty in London and he never again held command. Johnson escaped serious punishment and later returned to Australia as a free settler. Macarthur was exiled for a short period of time, after which he returned to Australia and established one of its most powerful dynasties.

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