This week on 2SER Breakfast, the Dictionary’s special guest Dr James Dunk talked to new breakfast host Tess Connery about the mental health of some of the participants in the Rum Rebellion.
In 1808 in Sydney a group of colonists and officers orchestrated a rebellion against the Governor William Bligh who was attempting to limit their commercial interests in the new colony. They marched on Government House, where the Museum of Sydney stands today, and arrested the Governor, putting him under house arrest. The Rum Rebellion as it is often called is one of the best known episodes in Australian history, and historians and journalists have been taking sides ever since.
A few years ago I was reading the memoirs of George Suttor, a small-time botanist who, like most other small settlers at the time, remained loyal to Bligh. The rebellion had been orchestrated by a ‘triumvirate’, he wrote shortly before his death in the 1850s, which pressured Major George Johnston, the ranking officer in Sydney, to arrest the governor. The three in question were the wealthy grazier and ex-officer John Macarthur, the Corps’ second-in-command, Captain Edward Abbott, and the disgruntled settler Nicholas Bayly. Of these men, according to Suttor, two ‘went mad, and the third shot himself in Sydney,’ while the ‘catspaw’ Johnston, ‘pined to death’. Suttor, who from 1814-19 was superintendent of the asylum at Castle Hill, moralized these psychological histories – they were the ‘evil consequences’ of ambition. Suttor was not a neutral commentator by any account, but I wondered whether he was right and what that would mean for the history of the rebellion, so I started looking into the mental health, and subsequent unravelling, of some of the rebellion’s participants.
We usually talk about John Macarthur in relation to merino sheep and the development of the wool industry in early New South Wales. A former officer and powerful, charismatic colonist, he was the driving force behind the rebellion.
On his first voyage out to New South Wales Macarthur had been afflicted by a severe illness, and he afterward suffered from chronic depression, variously called melancholy, low spirits, and a ‘malady of the mind’. His illness did not begin with the rebellion, but was sharply inflected by it, and its aftermath.
In 1832, 24 years after the rebellion, Macarthur was declared insane by the Supreme Court. Argumentative and troublesome in colonial society after his return to Sydney in 1817 (where he became known ‘the great peturbator’), his mania finally emerged in delusions of persecution. He believed his sons had been poisoned, ‘their intellects were deranged and their loyalties perverted’. They had fled with ‘a formidable band of adherents’ they had ‘taken possession of a strong position in some remote part of the Colony’ and were plotting against him. He believed that he himself had already been poisoned, with ‘the most grievous effect’ to his body and a ‘sore on his head’. He threw his wife Elizabeth out of the house (that he had manically been renovating) with ‘pistols, swords and offensive weapons in his hands!’
Other participants in the rebellion also suffered.
Edward Abbot, a senior officer in the New South Wales Corps and a moving force in the rebellion, later became a commandant in Tasmania where he died in 1832. There are hints of his unravelling in the newspaper report of his death, in which his anxiety and infirmities are described as ending in his ‘dissolution’.
Nicholas Bayly, another of Suttor’s alleged ‘triumvirate’ was ostracised after the rebellion and struggled financially. He slipped into delusion on the days before he died, in May 1823; he had been ‘for some time past been in a declining state of health’. The mind often breaks down in tandem with the body; neither Abbott or Bayly seem to show the ‘evil consequences’ of rebellion, as Suttor wants them to. It may be however that he had better information; madness is often private, and treated with discretion.
George Johnston, after whom Johnston Street in Annandale is named, had been the officer to actually arrest Bligh under instruction from the other rebels, and he suffered deeply afterwards. His supporters had rapidly fallen away and he appears to have had deep regrets and abiding sadness. His wife Esther was declared insane by her children after his death in 1823, and during the trial a history of alcohol and abuse was displayed. Esther spoke of a conspiracy against her, and ‘violent and oppressive acts’.
In early 1809, William Bligh wrote perhaps with some satisfaction, Lieutenant Cadwallader Draffin ‘was attacked with violent insanity’. Draffin had been ‘very active among the officers’, he noted – he had had a lead role in the deposal and sat on court benches and in committees of the rebel administration. But he had manifested crippling symptoms of mental illness for at least the previous five years and his inclusion in the events has to be wondered at.
Gregory Blaxland, who crossed the Blue Mountains with Wentworth and Lawson in 1813, signed the petition with his brother John to arrest Governor Bligh. He had some success and grew wealthy afterwards, but retired from public life in the 1820s and lived in isolation for the last 25 years of his life. He hanged himself in 1853 at the age of 74. The coroner found that he had been temporarily deranged, but it is difficult to interpret a verdict which was frequently used as an emotional, social, and financial workaround.
When we look at something as dramatic and public as a colonial rebellion but largely ignore the participants’ interior life, and their emotional and mental health, it produces a kind of hollowness, and looking at their subsequent lives can go some way to filling this gap. While it’s not possible to diagnose their illnesses or to prove any causative link between their participation in the rebellion and their subsequent ill health, it does show the strain of colonial living. The mercantile collapse, and social failure, anxiety, and bitterness that cut through the lives of the rebels were refracted throughout colonial society. Historian and journalist Malcolm Ellis, writing in his biography of Macarthur, suggested that his illness was not remarkable; that brain disease, or madness was a ‘product of the age’. He meant, in fact, that it was a product of the specific conditions of colonisation of New South Wales – it was ‘the Botany Bay Disease’.
Dr James Dunk is an historian of medicine and imperialism at the University of Sydney and is interested especially in the history of madness, paperwork, and settler colonial society. His book ‘Bedlam at Botany Bay’ will be published by NewSouth Books next year. He appears on 2SER for the DIctionary in a voluntary capacity. Thanks James!
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