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Bligh, Macarthur and The Rum Rebellion

Video clip synopsis – On January 26, 1808 troops from the New South Wales Corps march on Government House to place Governor William Bligh under arrest.
Year of production - 2009
Duration - 2min 33sec
Tags - Australian History, civics and citizenship, colonisation, Constructing Australia, historical representations, pioneers, television documentaries, see all tags


Bligh, Macarthur and The Rum Rebellion

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About the Video Clip


Bligh, Macarthur and The Rum Rebellion is an excerpt from the documentary Rites of Passage the second episode of the two-part series entitled Rogue Nation, produced in 2009.

Rogue Nation
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.

Curriculum Focus


Students will:
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.

Background Information


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…

Classroom Activities


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.

  1. The clip opens with the NSW Military Corps marching on Government House on 26 January 1808. Who are the key characters featured in this story? What are the key events shown in the following segments leading up to this event? Create a list of the main events and main people involved and discuss.
  2. What does the word ‘rebellion’ mean? Why was this uprising called the ‘Rum Rebellion’? What does the narrator believe this struggle is really about?
  3. This event has also been described as a military coup. Find out what this means. Discuss any recent military coups in other countries you might have heard about.
  4. Write down three words to describe what you think of Governor William Bligh from what you can remember from the clip.
    1. Do the same for John Macarthur. Compare responses within groups and then across the class and discuss. Does everyone think the same way about each of these men? Why? Why not?
    2. Think about and discuss why you have these opinions. What information do you have about these people? Add in information to support your opinion from the clip. What did you see on the screen? What did you hear? For example, what does the narrator say about him?
    3. How is each man introduced? Look at the scene where John Macarthur first meets William Bligh in the garden at Government House. Examine the use of camera angles, shots such as close-ups, use of music, and what the narrator says about him in the voiceover.
    4. View the whole clip again, looking for new information about both characters and add this to the table above. For example, look closely at John Macarthur in the opening scenes of the attack on Government House. Where is he and what is he doing? Why is he shown walking at the back? What does this tell the audience about him?
  5. What do we know about Bligh’s daughter Mary Putland from this clip? What else can you find out about her? Research more about these people and these events using the web resources listed below, your school library and the local library.
  6. People can have quite different interpretations of the same event, for many reasons. Choose one of the main characters in this clip, John Macarthur, William Bligh or Mary Putland. Draw a comic strip, or write script and record a radio interview with one of your characters, describing this event, the storming of Government House in 1808 from their point of view.

Further Resources


William Bligh – an interactive graphic novel

William Bligh study guide

Mary Putland O’Connell, née Bligh