26 January 1808 – Rum Rebellion, the only successful armed takeover of government in Australia (so far)

Governor Bligh being dragged from under his bed by members of the NSW Corps

The appointment in 1806 of naval officer William Bligh to serve as governor of the English prison colony of New South Wales should have been a resounding success. All the elements of clean public administration and good governance were in place.

First, Bligh’s firm-but-fair approach to command (with different views being taken on the appropriate ratio of firmness to fairness), had already inspired one crew under his command, that of The Bounty, to mutiny against him. And mutiny as we all know – like lightning and a lazy death adder – rarely strikes in the same place twice.

Second, he was a naval officer being sent to bring order to a fractious army regiment, the New South Wales Corps. And since when have those two great branches of the armed forces – the navy and the army – failed to get along?

Third, current and former members of The New South Wales Corps – also known as The Rum Corps – had a healthy set of business investments in the importation, production and sale of alcohol, food and clothing as well as the exploitation of desirable farming land and free convict labour. With such a thriving business environment, it would seem unlikely that anyone would have had anything to complain about.

Finally, wealthy landowners and senior members of the Corps had already helped to persuade two previous Governors to accept early retirement. Their concern for the well-being of the Crown’s representatives was noteworthy.

So, with so much stacked in Bligh’s favour, what went wrong? Why, less than two years after his arrival, was William Bligh relieved of command by a cabal of wealthy landowners and officers of the New South Wales Corps?

Perhaps we’ll never know. All we can know for sure at this historical remove is that 26 January 1808 was marked by heavy drinking and merriment on the part of the plotters and others in the colony, establishing an unbreakable Australia Day tradition.

And no NSW politician has stood in the way of real estate developers and business interests ever since.

File under: the business of new south wales is business (and also rum) | mutiny against me once, shame on you…

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Stories and other writing by Ben Thurley

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