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Governor Bligh arrives in NSW

Video clip synopsis – In 1806 William Bligh, accompanied by his daughter Mary Putland arrives as the new Governor of the colony of NSW.
Year of production - 2008
Duration - 2min 56sec
Tags - Australian History, civics and citizenship, colonisation, Constructing Australia, historical representations, pioneers, see all tags


Governor Bligh arrives in NSW

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About the Video Clip


Governor Bligh arrives in NSW is an excerpt from the documentary Rites of Passage the second episode of the two-part series entitled Rogue Nation, produced in 2008.

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.

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 of 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. Governor William Bligh is described by the narrator as a man who ‘... will set the colony on its head and change its destiny forever’. What does the narrator mean? How is Governor Bligh presented in the opening scene of the clip? Look at the camera angle and the stance of the actor playing Bligh, and what the narrator says. What message does this give the viewer about him?
    1. The narrator refers to the Mutiny of the Bounty, another event in Bligh’s life. What do you know about this? Research this event and report information back. What bearing does this past event have on this story now? Is this important? What does it tell us about William Bligh?
  2. William Bligh was recommended for this position by his friend Sir Joseph Banks. Who is Joseph Banks? What is his connection to the colony of NSW? What role has he played in this story so far? Why do you think Sir Joseph Banks recommended a man like William Bligh for this job as governor of the young colony of NSW?
    1. Introduce or revisit the concept of a ‘primary’ source and a ‘secondary’ source of historical information. What are primary sources? What are secondary sources? Why is it important to use original records or documents created by someone who live at the time of the event?
    2. Find and read a copy of the letter from Sir Joseph Banks to William Bligh offering him this position as Governor of NSW. What information can you find from this letter from the time? What else does it tell you about William Bligh and about the situation in NSW?
    3. What can we learn about this time from the historic drawing of early NSW shown? What can you see in the details? Describe life in the settlement as shown in the drawing.
  3. Rogue Nation is described as a dramatised history documentary. What does this mean? What sort of information did the producers and writers need to create this series? Think about the story, the characters, the setting, the costumes and artefacts required to make it look real. Find out more about the production and how this setting was recreated.
    1. Describe life in the colony presented in the re-enactment in this clip. What can you see in the details in the set design, costumes and actions? What can you hear? How effective is the dramatic presentation of life in the colony of NSW in this clip? Where do you think the production team would have got the information needed to recreate this place and time?
  4. Use the school and local library to research more about what life in the young colony of NSW would have been like around the time of Governor Bligh’s arrival. Choose one person from the following list and present your description and opinion of the colony from their viewpoint: a soldier, a new settler (male or female), a convict (male or female), or a landowner (male or female). Describe what their life might have been like in the colony in a diary entry, or as a storyboard, an interview, a painting, a play scene, or a diorama. List the resources you used for information.
  5. What is the rum economy that Bligh is determined to end and why is that important in this story? Research this topic to find out more and create a presentation for the class.
  6. The narrator concludes this clip saying ‘But the real battle is about land’. What do you think this means? Why would land be important in this new colony?

Further Resources


William Bligh – an interactive graphic novel

The life, times and travels of the extraordinary Vice-Admiral William Bligh – Study Guide

Postcard portrait of Governor William Bligh

Project Gutenberg Australia – Bligh, William