On this day in 1808, 26th January, Australia’s first and only military coup, the Rum Rebellion, took place in Sydney.
Governor William Bligh had attempted to break the rum monopoly of the NSW Corps (rum was used as common currency in the Colony from 1793) and had clashes with Major George Johnston and grazier and businessman, John Macarthur. Bligh was deposed and arrested when the NSW Corps marched up Bridge Street to Government House at 6 pm on January 26 and supposedly found Bligh under his bed. Bligh remained under house arrest until January 1809, when he left for Hobart, before returning to England in 1810. Major Johnston acted as Lieutenant-Governor of the Colony and Macarthur was appointed as Colonial Secretary until they returned to England in March 1809. The Rum Rebellion officially ended when Governor Lachlan Macquarie, backed by the 73rd Regiment arrived in Sydney in January 1810 to take up his appointment as Governor.
This watercolour came into the possession of the New South Wales Government, and then to the Mitchell Library, from the descendants of Lieutenant Colonel George Johnston. As senior officer of the N.S.W. Corps, Johnston ordered the arrest of Governor Bligh.
It is likely that this watercolour was the one commissioned to an unknown artist by Sergeant Thomas Whittle, a soldier in the N.S.W. Corps who participated in the arrest. Whittle displayed this image in his house, enshrined between two candlesticks, a couple of days after Bligh’s arrest.