Jan. 26, 2023

The Rum Rebellion

The Rum Rebellion

January 26, 1808. British Officer William Bligh is deposed as Governor of New South Wales, Australia in a coup called the Rum Rebellion.


Cold Open

It’s the morning of April 28th, 1789.

A British ship sails through the Pacific Ocean near the island of Tofua. Below deck, 34-year-old Lieutenant William Bligh sleeps soundly in his quarters. Bligh is the commander of this vessel - the HMS Bounty - a Royal Navy ship on a supply run from Tahiti to the West Indies. Right now, he’s getting some much-needed rest. But his sleep is interrupted… when the door to his cabin flies open.

Blight wakes with a start as several armed men rush into his cabin and pull him from his bunk. For a split second, Bligh wonders if his ship has been boarded by enemy sailors. But then, when he sees the faces of his assailants, he realizes that this is no ordinary attack. It’s mutiny.

Bligh struggles to resist as his crew hauls him outside onto the Bounty’s upper deck.

There, he sees some sailors loyal to him being shoved toward the side of the ship at gunpoint. Then, Bligh is approached by one of his officers, an experienced seaman named Fletcher Christian. Bligh holds his head high as Fletcher tells him that he has been relieved of command. Bligh looks Fletcher square in the eye and assures him he will be punished for this mutiny.

Fletcher pushes Bligh onto a ladder down the side of the Bounty's hull. Bligh’s face is red with rage as he descends to a small boat bobbing in the ocean. He watches in fuming silence as half the crew are forced to join him.

Then, from up above on deck, Fletcher severs a rope and the boat drifts away.

Bligh’s tiny crew begins to row, and every man prepares himself for the long and perilous voyage back to civilization. Bligh knows that even if he is lucky enough to survive, his reputation will be severely damaged by this event. Still, he is determined to make it back to land and report mutiny, doing whatever it takes to redeem his good name.

The Bounty Mutineers, as Fletcher Christian and his compatriots are known, gave William Bligh and his men some basic supplies like food, fresh water, and swords to defend themselves against the natives of the Pacific Islands. But after casting them adrift in the Pacific, the mutineers do not expect them to survive long.

William Bligh, though, is a determined man. In the course of just over six weeks, Bligh’s small boat sails more than 4,000 miles before it arrives at a Dutch colony in modern-day Indonesia. After surviving the mutiny on the Bounty and the long voyage at sea, Bligh also survives a naval inquiry that exonerates him of any blame in the incident. This result helps Bligh repair the damage to his reputation and rebuild his career in the Royal Navy.

But the mutiny on the Bounty is not the last time William Bligh’s subordinates will turn against him. 19 years later, Bligh will face a second uprising. Only this time, his career will come to an unceremonious end after he is deposed as Governor of New South Wales, Australia on January 26th, 1808.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is January 26th, 1808: The Rum Rebellion.

Act One

It’s September 1801, seven years before William Bligh is deposed for a second time.

Just outside Sydney, in the British colony of New South Wales, Australia, a duel is nearly underway. 34-year-old Captain John Macarthur loads his pistol under the careful supervision of his second, Captain John Piper. Traditionally, the second is responsible for loading the weapon, but Macarthur is about to put his life on the line. The next few moments might be his last so he’s not taking any chances. When Macarthur is finished loading the weapon himself, he glances up at the man who challenged him to this duel: a fellow naval officer, and his direct superior, Colonel William Paterson. Macarthur and Patterson’s disagreement is about honor. But it is also about alcohol.

Since Sydney was established as Britain’s first colonial settlement in Australia, soldiers like Captain Macarthur have been responsible for keeping order. But the officers in the New South Wales Corps, men like Macarthur and Patterson, quickly realized that they could subsidize their wages. Many got into the illegal liquor trade and began importing rum into the colonies without paying taxes or duties to the British crown. This earned the officers a nickname: the Rum Corps. But soon, tensions arose in the Rum Corps as various officers competed for business using increasingly dubious methods. Today, Captain Macarthur is answering the challenge of Colonel William Paterson, who is accusing Macarthur of blackmailing.

Now, Macarthur holds up his pistol to signal he is ready to defend his honor. He strides to one side, glaring at Paterson while their seconds toss a coin to decide who will fire first. Macarthur smiles when he is told he will have the first shot.

The two men take their places. And Macarthur lifts his pistol and takes aim. He slows down his breathing and points the barrel at Paterson’s chest. Then he softly pulls the trigger.

Macarthur’s hand jerks back as the pistol fires and smoke erupts from the barrel. Paterson collapses backward with a cry, his second rushing toward him, but miraculously, Paterson painfully gets back to his feet.

Macarthur has a moment of panic, thinking that Paterson is preparing to return fire. But then Paterson grunts in pain as he tries to lift his arm. Blood blossoms on his shoulder. The pistol drops out of his fingers. Paterson shakes his head, muttering that he can’t fire, and then slumps to the ground.

A week later, Macarthur sits in the parlor of his expensive house on the outskirts of Sydney. There's a light knock on the door, and he looks up to see the familiar and unwelcome face of a soldier standing guard, ensuring he is kept under house arrest.

But walking past that soldier and into the house is, Captain Piper, Macarthur's second. Piper says that he has an update on Macarthur’s situation, and reports that although Colonel Paterson lost a lot of blood, he will survive. But there’s more news: the Governor of the colony is insisting that Macarthur face a court martial.

Macarthur nods, unsurprised. After all, a duel between two officers cannot go unpunished. He asks whether the panel of jurors has been chosen. Macarthur hopes they will be made up of officers from the Rum Corps because he knows they won’t want to convict one of their own.

But Piper says the trial will not be held in Australia and explains that the Governor thinks the trial will not be fair if Macarthur is judged by his peers. So instead, Mcarthur is being shipped back to London. 

Macarthur’s face drops. But Piper tries to reassure him. The trial in London will not likely go in his favor, that's true, but Macarthur's friends in the Rum Corps will make sure the evidence against him never reaches London.

And soon, Macarthur and a pile of evidence sent by the Governor are loaded onto a ship bound for home. But when the boat docks in London, the Governor’s evidence has mysteriously disappeared. The army has no choice but to quietly drop the case against Mcarthur.

Acquitted, Macarthur resigns his commission and quits the army. But he is not yet finished with New South Wales. The ex-army man secures a grant from the Colonial Office in London for 10,000 acres of land near the colony to graze his sheep. And then he heads back to Sydney to start a new career.

But in August 1806, Macarthur’s ambitions, and growing wealth, will bring him into the sights of the brand new Governor of New South Wales; the infamous captain of the Bounty, William Bligh.

Act Two

It’s December 1807, one month before the Rum Rebellion.

Captain Glenn, skipper of the merchant vessel Paramatta, is happy to see Sydney Harbour again, after a five-month voyage to transport a cargo of wood to Tahiti. It’s been a trouble-free voyage, apart from discovering an escaped convict who stowed away when the Paramatta left Sydney. Captain Glenn dealt with him by letting the convict go free in Tahiti, rather than face questions about how he got on board from the authorities - or his boss, John Macarthur.

Captain Glenn stands on the deck of his ship as his crew maneuvers his vessel against the wharf of Sydney Harbor. Looking out, he marvels at the progress that’s been made in the colony. New buildings and warehouses line the docks.

But Captain Glenn’s moment of peace is interrupted when he catches a small company of soldiers marching toward his ship. Instantly, he suspects he knows why they’re coming: they must have found out about the stowaway.

As soon as Captain Glenn’s crew lowers the gangplank, the soldiers bound up the ramp. The officer in charge approaches Captain Glenn and asks whether this ship is the Paramatta, owned by John Macarthur. Captain Glenn confirms it is. Then the officer declares that the ship and her crew are being seized on the orders of Governor William Bligh.

Two years ago, William Bligh arrived in Sydney to take up an appointment as the new Governor of New South Wales. He was tasked by the Colonial Office in London with reining in the power of the Rum Corps. So after his arrival, Bligh promptly banned soldiers from importing and trading rum, allowing only merchants licensed by him to participate in the lucrative trade. But Bligh also butted heads with the wealthy and influential figures of the colony, and nobody was more wealthy and powerful than John Macarthur. Bligh confiscated Macarthur’s illegal alcohol stills. He threw into question Macarthur's land grants, and now, Bligh is harassing his merchant boat. 

Captain Glenn tries to stop his hands from shaking as the officer reads a proclamation declaring that the Paramatta is barred from sailing because the ship has been used to harbor convicts.

Captain Glenn sputters that the convict was not allowed on board. He was a stowaway and only discovered when the ship was underway. The officer asks where the convict is now. Captain Glenn pauses. Eventually, he says that the convict ran away when they docked at Tahiti. The officer shakes his head. He says that this affair will be dealt with by the courts.


A few weeks later, on January 25th, 1808, Judge-Advocate Richard Atkins calls his court to order.

Not only is Judge Atkins the presiding officer of this court, he is also the senior legal mind in New South Wales. Today, he’s due to hear the case against John Macarthur, a wealthy and wildly man that will likely use every technique in the book to wriggle out of the charges against him.

After the Paramatta was impounded by Governor Bligh, Macarthur, and his business partner were issued a large fine for allowing a convict to escape on board their ship. But Macarthur saw the fine as part of Bligh’s vindictive campaign against him. He refused to pay and wrote a withering letter outlining his scorn and contempt for the Governor. Bligh responded by arresting Macarthur for sedition. Now, Judge Atkins will stand judgment. 

Atkins glances at the six officers of the Rum Corps who have been sworn in as the jury. Atkins suspects that they will be sympathetic to their old colleague, John Macarthur. But that’s none of his concern. His job is to preside over a fair proceeding. So Atkins begins by reading out the charges against Macarthur and asking how he pleads.

Macarthur answers that he will not enter a plea until Atkins recuses himself from the trial. Atkins is stunned and asks why he should. Macarthur explains that Atkins is not a neutral arbiter of the case because Atkins owes Macarthur money.

The judge's mouth falls agape. He almost forgot about the small amount of money he borrowed from Macarthur. He stutters that a small debt is no reason to withdraw from the case.

And then Atkins turns and addresses the Rum Corps officers in the jury explaining that according to British law if Macarthur refuses to enter a plea, they must assume he is declaring himself not guilty. But one of the officers stands and interrupts Atkins. The officer says that he agrees with Macarthur and thinks Atkins should step down from the case.

Atkins almost starts shaking at the impertinence. He then declares the court to be in recess and announces that it will reconvene tomorrow after he has consulted with the Governor. But the Rum Corps officers ignore him. They confiscate official court documents and refuse to serve as a jury until Atkins recuses himself.

This false start to Macarthur’s trial leads to open rebellion. Governor Bligh insists that the court reconvene. But the Rum Corps officers refuse to hand over the paperwork they stole. In response, Bligh will order his men to arrest the officers for treason. But this will only escalate the bitter conflict and spark the New South Wales Corps into mutiny.

Act Three

It’s 6 PM on January 26th, 1808, one day after John Macarthur’s trial was suspended.

Captain Thomas Laycock marches along the road to Government House, the residence of the Governor in New South Wales. 400 soldiers trail behind him, followed by a band and a color guard carrying the flag of the Rum Corps. Captain Laycock is in a cheerful mood because Governor William Bligh—a man who has been a thorn in the side of the Rum Corps ever since his arrival—is finally being shown who truly controls New South Wales.

Earlier this morning, Governor Bligh issued warrants for the arrest of the Rum Corps officers who refused to serve on the Macarthur jury. But Captain Laylock’s commanding officer, Major George Johnston, was incensed at Bligh’s threats. Johnston marched on the town jail with a company of soldiers and ordered Macarthur to be released. Then Johnston and Macarthur plotted the overthrow of Governor Bligh. Now, Laycock is here to follow his commander’s orders and take Bligh into custody.

When he arrives at Governor's house, Laycock raps officiously on the door. After a moment’s pause, Bligh’s daughter answers. Before Laycock can say a word, she angrily declares that Bligh is not home and blocks the way in. Laycock gently pushes her aside and enters Government House his soldiers crowding behind him.

Laycock then orders his men to search the home. They run up the stairs, keen to be the man to arrest the hated Governor. And after a moment, Laycock hears a shout from the top floor. He bounds up the stairs and into a bedroom. There, soldiers stand with their weapons pointed at a bed. Laycock walks further into the room for a better look and finds Bligh crouched behind the bed, cowering. Laycock orders the soldiers to take him into custody.

Bligh spends the next year under house arrest. When a new governor is sent from Britain, Bligh is sent back to England to face another inquiry. The Rum Rebellion is declared an illegal mutiny, but the British government brushes the affair under the carpet. Macarthur keeps his freedom under a promise to stay out of government affairs. And just like with the mutiny on the Bounty, William Bligh is absolved of all blame. But this time, the damage to his reputation will be too great to overcome. Bligh will never again receives an important command. Britain’s leaders are simply too suspicious of the man who was on the receiving end of a second mutiny when the Rum Rebellion occurred on January 26th, 1808.


Next on History Daily. January 27th, 1945. In the midst of World War II, Soviet forces liberate the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.