Overthrow | State Library of 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.

The arrest of Governor Bligh, 1808, by unknown artist
Watercolour drawing  Safe 4 / 5

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.

> View the petition presented to Bligh by George Johnston at the time of his arrest

View the petition presented to Bligh by George Johnston

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.