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A direct north general view of Sydney Cove, the chief British settlement in New South Wales as it appeared in 1794, being the 7th year from its establishment. Painted immediately from nature by T. Watling

From Terra Australis to Australia

In May 1787 the British government sent the First Fleet 20,000 kilometres around the world to establish a  British colony in New South Wales.

The overthrow and aftermath

Major Johnston went to the military barracks on the evening of the 26th January 1808 to announce to the troops that he was assuming the title of Lieutenant-Governor, displacing Governor Bligh. He and his men marched through Sydney, bayonets fixed, while the band played ‘British Grenadiers’. When they arrived at Government House, Johnston arrested Bligh, allegedly finding him hiding under a bed.

Macarthur had advised Johnston that he should have a petition from the people before arresting Bligh. Macarthur prepared this though practically all the names were inscribed after the event.

Bligh remained under house arrest for a year. He refused to return to England until a lawfully appointed successor arrived in the colony. During this year, Johnston appointed Macarthur Colonial Secretary, effectively making him the most powerful man in the colony, until William Paterson returned in July to assume the Lieutenant-Governorship. In March 1809, after a spell in the military barracks, Bligh finally agreed to sail back to England in the Porpoise (the ship he commanded for his voyage to the colony, three years earlier). Once on the ship, he instead headed for Hobart, where he hoped that Lieutenant-Governor David Collins would support him. This was not the case, though, and in January 1810, Bligh returned to Sydney, where Lachlan Macquarie had just arrived. Macquarie had already officially proclaimed the 1808 uprising to be illegal and had cancelled all land grants and court sentences made under the rebel regime. 

In May 1810, Bligh finally set sail for England to stand witness in the court martial of George Johnston. Johnston was convicted of mutiny and cashiered from the army. His sentence was lenient, though, and he later returned to live a comfortable farming life in NSW. The court found that some of his conduct could be explained by ‘extraordinary circumstances’, further cementing Bligh’s reputation for inflexible and temperamental leadership. Macarthur attended Johnston’s court-martial, but as a civilian, he could not be tried for treason in England. Governor Macquarie was sent instructions that Macarthur was to be arrested and tried in NSW as soon as he returned. Macarthur took the easiest course and stayed away, leaving the running of his profitable farm and wool business to his wife Elizabeth. Six years later, in 1817, he was finally given permission to return, as long as he did not involve himself in public affairs. He spent the rest of his life working at his wool export business and raising thoroughbred horses. In 1825, after Macquarie had left the colony, Macarthur was appointed to the NSW Legislative Council where he served for seven years.

The petition against Governor Bligh

This petition was written the day of the arrest but most of the 151 signatures were gathered in the days after Bligh's overthrow. It was written by John Macarthur and addressed to George Johnston. The text states:

"The present alarming state of this Colony, in which every mans property Liberty and Life is endangered induces us most earnestly to implore you instantly to place Governor Bligh under arrest and to assume the command of the Colony. -- We pledge Ourselves at a moment of less agitation to come forward to support the measure with our fortunes and our lives."


Government proclamations

These four government proclamations date from 1808 and 1810. The first was issued by George Johnston, on January 27, 1808, the day after Governor Bligh was deposed. In it, Johnston proclaims the end of martial law and praises the ‘manly, firm, and orderly Conduct’ of the inhabitants.

The next three proclamations were all issued by Governor Lachlan Macquarie, who took up his position in January 1810. The first (dated January 1, 1810) informs the Colony of ‘His Majesty’s high displeasure’ at the ‘outrageous conduct’ of his colonial subjects. It also resinstates Bligh as Governor for 24 hours, after which Macquarie is to assume control. 

The next proclamation, on January 4, 1810, revokes all appointments, grants, leases etc made in the two years since the rebellion until the arrival of Macquarie. 

A week later, on January 11, 1810, Macquarie’s next proclamation annouces that all those who were appointed to an office of law (magistrate, gaoler etc) after Bligh's deposition will be immune from prosecution for any act they performed while holding those positions. He calls for ‘Union, Tranquility, and Harmony’.

Government proclamations



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