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Governor Bligh - Hero or Coward?
Year of production - 2008
Duration - 5min 0sec
Tags - Australian History, civics and citizenship, colonisation, Constructing Australia, heroes and villains, historical representations, pioneers, propaganda, television documentaries, see all tags
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Governor Bligh – Hero or Coward? is an excerpt from the documentary Rites of Passage the second episode of the two-part series entitled Rogue Nation, produced in 2008.
Historian Michael Cathcart tells the epic story of how the colourful characters of early colonial Australia transformed a penal settlement into a land with rights and opportunity in a mere 40 years. This sweeping two-part dramatised documentary covers formative events in Australia’s history, including the Rum Rebellion and early court cases, which established independence and civil rights for all settlers. Rogue Nation explores how a fledgling colony on the wrong side of the globe was rapidly transformed from a place of punishment to a place of opportunity; a confident and prosperous community. It goes behind the power struggles between wealthy landowners, the educated offspring of convict settlers and the governors who ran the colony.
A Screen Australia production in association with Essential Media & Entertainment.
Images in the clip courtesy of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.
investigate why Australia was colonised by Britain and how Australia was governed from colonisation to federation.
investigate the influence of significant individuals and events on the development of democracy in Australia.
Curriculum links National: Civics and citizenship Year 5 Historical perspectives
New South Wales in the early 1800s is generally thought of as a place of unrelenting brutality and squalor: a harsh prison colony, punctuated with sodomy, the lash, rum, rum, and more rum.
But while present to some degree, these things make up only a tiny part of the whole picture. Yes, the place had its harsh elements – hangings and floggings given out as required – but it was no gulag archipelago. Most convict arrivals quickly found more actual freedoms, more agency, more capacity to negotiate, hustle, bribe or legitimately work their way to prosperity than if they had remained in Britain.
People were making money and getting ahead, some eager to return to Britain with a quick-fire colonial fortune, others just keen to start new lives here in NSW. Alongside the primitive frontier conditions there sprang up a thriving entrepot, a sort of hustlers’ paradise for convicts, ex-convicts, free, and military alike.
First place amongst preeminent hustlers must surely go to John Macarthur, and his on-again off-again officer comrades in the NSW Corps.
Macarthur and his like had no interest in maintaining the kind of discipline-and-punish regime generally thought fit for a “proper” penal colony. They were far more concerned with making money very quickly. If you got the work done for them they didn’t care how you spent your free time.
As well as the officers there were the convict retailers they needed as middlemen, who sold the goods, who happily jacked up the price, and without whom officers couldn’t exist. Then there were the convicts who’d arrived with trades and highly sought after laboring skills – carpenters, builders, bricklayers, blacksmiths. So desperate was the young colony for their freely available labor that Governors started handing them their freedom – Tickets-of-Leave – as soon as they got off the boat.
Then, finally, there was a large class of convict and ex-convicts with no particular skills but who thrived by working as contractors, carters, laborers who hired themselves out at high rates. Many of these – shocking as it is to report – weren’t particularly interested in rationally accumulating wealth, saving and investing for the future. They were – even more shocking still – quite happy to simply get frequently and spectacularly drunk. Life in the new colony was not, complained various outraged moralists and clergymen, at all geared to penitence, piety and reform.
On top of all this, practically all the money to pay for all this was coming, directly or otherwise, from the coffers of the British Treasury. The colony was costing a bomb. Britain in the early 1800s was quite literally fighting for its national life, embroiled in the Napoleonic War. This meant that in New South Wales governors and inhabitants frequently had to develop ad hoc solutions to unforeseen problems due to a Home Government with far more pressing demands on its time and attention. It also meant that when London took time to look at their penal colony expenses bill they decided that it was well past time to crack down on this half-feral colonial outpost.
Something had to be done. Luckily they had just the man to send out to fix up the mess, someone with a reputation as a hard man, not afraid to crack heads. Fellow by the name of William Bligh…
Students can work in a variety of ways – individually, in small groups, and as a class to investigate, respond to and discuss the questions and points that follow.
- How is Governor Bligh presented in the opening of this clip? Look at what you can see and hear. What is he doing? What words are used? How is the camera used? What else can you hear in this shot? What information does this tell the audience about Governor Bligh? Why do you think it is important to include this scene of Governor Bligh in this clip?
- What is the significance of the soldier saying Bligh had been found ‘underneath the bed’? What does this say about Governor Bligh? Why do you think this is a problem for him?
- What does the narrator mean when he says ‘Now the spin starts? What is ‘spin’? What examples of ‘spin’ or propaganda can you find happening today?
- Following the rebellion, one of the officers commissioned a drawing of Governor Bligh being dragged from underneath a bed by soldiers of the NSW Corps. Why did this cartoon have such a powerful effect on William Bligh’s reputation?
- Look closely at the cartoon and then review the way the same event is portrayed in the clip. Does the film show Governor Bligh hiding under the bed? How is Governor Bligh represented in this clip? What do you think the filmmakers think about Governor Bligh? Which view do you think is closest to the truth?
- It is important to remember that primary sources (from the historical period) often represent the ‘views of specific individuals at a single point in time’. Whose views were best served by this cartoon at the time? What did it mean for the soldiers and landowners? What did it mean for Governor Bligh?
- Conduct a survey with your parents and other older people who may not have seen this documentary. Ask them what they know of and think of Governor William Bligh. How many think he is a coward? Does anyone tell the story of him hiding under the bed?
- Discuss how this view of William Bligh has lasted for over 200 years. Is this fair?
- After watching this clip and thinking about these questions above, do you think Governor Bligh was a coward or a hero? Why?
- This event is important in Australian history as the only armed uprising against the government. What does the narrator mean when he says there was ‘...a moment when all could have gone horribly wrong’? What could have happened?
Go to William Bligh at The State Library of New South Wales