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George Johnston (1764–1823)

by A. T. Yarwood

This article was published:

George Johnston, by Robert Dighton, 1810

George Johnston, by Robert Dighton, 1810

State Library of New South Wales, 832553

George Johnston (1764-1823), soldier and farmer, was born on 19 March 1764 at Annandale, Dumfriesshire, Scotland, the son of Captain George Johnston, aide-de-camp to Lord Percy, later Duke of Northumberland. This patron secured for the young Johnston a second lieutenancy in the 45th company of marines on 6 March 1776. After serving at New York and Halifax in 1777-78, he was promoted first lieutenant and spent the next two years recruiting in England. In 1781 he embarked in H.M.S. Sultan and saw action against the French in the East Indies, where he was severely wounded. After six months leave in England he sailed in the Lady Penrhyn with the marine detachment in the First Fleet, and reputedly was the first man ashore at Port Jackson in January 1788.

When the marines were relieved in 1790 Johnston, now a captain-lieutenant, was chosen by Governor Arthur Phillip as the 'most deserving' marine officer to raise a company that would be annexed to the incoming New South Wales Corps. Though his detachment included a number of ex-convicts, in 1803 Johnston made trouble when Governor Philip Gidley King appointed a bodyguard of five mounted troopers who had been conditionally emancipated the previous year on the ground that their admission would degrade the corps. The governor insisted that transportation 'did not consign the Offender … to Oblivion and disgrace for ever' and, ironically, Johnston found the troops so useful that later he recommended the raising of a troop of cavalry for service in the colony.

He was promoted brevet major in January 1800, and during his service in the colony often held positions of responsibility: as Phillip's adjutant of orders, as Hunter's aide-de-camp, and as commanding officer of the corps during the long absences from Sydney of Lieutenant-Colonel William Paterson. A handsome and popular officer, jealous of the honour of the corps, he quarrelled with both King and William Bligh when those governors appeared to intrude in military administration. In 1800 he had been sent to England under arrest for illegal trading in spirits, but he was not brought to trial and returned to Sydney next year. In March 1804 he showed his courage and presence of mind by his part in suppressing the armed rising of Irish convicts when, after a year of sporadic raids on the exposed settlers near by, the convicts from the government farm at Castle Hill planned a full scale attack on the settlements at the Hawkesbury, Parramatta and Sydney. After a forced march from Sydney, Johnston and a detachment of twenty-six soldiers sighted the main band of insurgents, ten times their number, at Vinegar (Rouse) Hill. Anxious to prevent their planned junction with convicts at the Hawkesbury, Johnston rode with a trooper to within pistol shot and demanded to parley with the leaders, who naively allowed themselves to be overpowered, leaving their confused fellows to be cut to pieces.

The critical point in Johnston's colonial career was his decision on 26 January 1808 to assume the lieutenant-governorship and arrest Bligh. In considering the background of this apparently desperate action one must recall the frontier morality that then prevailed in private and public life in New South Wales and other British overseas territories, and the many precedents for such a mutiny. Quarrels had been endemic, not only between governors and garrison but also among the officers themselves, since Phillip's clashes with Major Robert Ross. Johnston himself had been arrested in 1800 when he ignored Governor John Hunter's regulations on the sale of liquor, but the disciplinary aims of the English authorities, no less than those of Hunter, were frustrated by the readiness of the officers to protect a fellow profiteer. The rebellion of 1808, the scurrilous 'pipes', the character assassinating letters sent to England, the duels and the horsewhippings indicate the recklessness and malevolence with which colonial quarrels were pursued. John Macarthur's success in aligning the corps with him against Bligh may reflect his ability as a 'manipulator of men', but it was facilitated by the governor's disregard for the feelings of the men of power. Bligh's verbal abuse, parsimony in granting land, preference for the small farmers, attacks on the liquor traders, and finally his threat to court-martial the six recalcitrant officers from the abortive Macarthur trial, ensured a concerted front against him.

In deposing Bligh, Johnston consistently represented himself as an agent of the popular will. He claimed to have found the townsfolk of Sydney on his arrival from Annandale on 26 January 1808 in a state of tumult and apprehension, with no man's life or property safe against a tyrannical governor and his sinister adviser, George Crossley. He stressed the appeal by the 'principal inhabitants' and the 'entire concurrence' of the officers, but showed an apparent lack of self-confidence by marching the whole corps against the undefended Government House. Bligh's evidence at the court martial in 1811 brings out vividly the major's state of mind. After acceding at first to Bligh's request to have his secretary, Edmund Griffin, remain at Government House, Johnston hesitated, checked on the wishes of the 'inhabitants outside', and then announced his refusal.

The officers were soon disappointed in their quest among Bligh's official and personal papers for evidence of behaviour sufficiently culpable to justify the act of mutiny. Johnston must have longed for the arrival of Colonel Paterson as his colleagues quarrelled and showed their resentment of the power wielded by John Macarthur as colonial secretary. Contrary to expectation, Johnston was by no means liberal in granting favours and land, though shortly before being relieved by Colonel Joseph Foveaux on 28 July 1808, he gave his son George a conditional grant of 2000 acres (809 ha), later withdrawn by Governor Macquarie, at Emu Island on the River Nepean.

Accompanied by some of their supporters Macarthur and Johnston returned to England, where the latter, who had been promoted lieutenant-colonel in May 1808 before news of the rebellion had reached London, pressed for an investigation which he hoped would vindicate his conduct. In the event, he was himself court-martialled in June 1811, and was unable to make capital of Bligh's exchange of land grants with the outgoing King, or of his improper use of government stock and provisions in running his own farm. Against the patent fact of mutiny was set nothing more substantial than the governor's hot temper, and unproven and irrelevant allegations of cowardice at the time of the arrest. Johnston was found guilty and suffered the mild penalty of being cashiered, though Sir David Baird, a member of the court who was absent through illness on the day that sentence was passed, told Macquarie there was not 'the least palliation that was in my mind worthy of consideration'. However, the Colonial Office seems to have thought differently, for, in response to Johnston's appeals, based on his lengthy past services and strongly backed by Hunter, it provided the cashiered officer with a passage to New South Wales, where he arrived on 30 May 1813, and it directed Macquarie to treat him as he would 'any other ordinary Settler'.

Confirming the accepted picture of Johnston as a misled man his barrister, John Adolphus, wrote after the trial: 'I always considered and indeed understood that the parties who led you into your present most unpleasant and unfortunate situation, would, at least, have taken off your shoulders the expense of the present prosecution, but as you refer in your letter to the smallness of your means, I beg you will consider me as entirely satisfied'. A similar note was struck by Johnston himself when he wrote in June 1820, 'Every person that promised [at the time of the deposition of Bligh to support me with their lives and fortunes] has risen upon my ruin. I alone am the sufferer, having lost my commission, and upwards of 6000 pounds for conceding to their requests'.

At the time of writing this letter Johnston was in failing health and deeply distressed at the loss of his eldest son George, killed while riding in the Cowpastures. But in many ways fortune smiled on him during his thirty-five years in the colony. Esther Julian (Johnston), the beautiful convict girl who had come on the same ship in 1788 and had lived with him ever since, had presented him with a large family, of whom three sons, George, Robert and David, achieved some distinction. Four daughters, Julia, Blanche, Isabella and Maria, sprang from this not unusual colonial union which, probably in response to Governor Macquarie's strictures and warnings, was duly regularized at St John's, Parramatta, on 12 November 1814. By this time Macquarie had become convinced that he had nothing to fear from the erstwhile revolutionary, a colleague from the American war of independence, who was living as an exemplary citizen. The family was frequently entertained by the governor and received from him generous grants of land, valuable appointments and other favours. In turn, Johnston gave Macquarie a thoroughbred stallion, Sultan, and acted as chairman of a committee that presented him with an address in 1821 when he returned from his farewell tour of Van Diemen's Land.

Landed activities had occupied much of Johnston's attention since May 1793 when he received his initial grant of 100 acres (40 ha), Annandale Farm at Petersham, from Lieutenant-Governor Grose. Appropriately, the Johnston papers include a letter from England dated 2 September 1803, conveying to Paterson the commander-in-chief's permission, previously refused, for the officers to engage in farming. The crucial contribution made by the military and civil officers to the provisioning of the isolated settlement is well known. By 1801 Johnston had 602 acres (244 ha) at Annandale and Bankstown, with 160 acres (65 ha) sown in wheat and maize, grazing 7 horses, 27 horned cattle, 136 sheep, 85 goats and 29 hogs. Twice in 1804 the Gazette recorded presents to the major, including a fine stallion and some Teeswater ewes and a ram, from his old commander and patron, the Duke of Northumberland. A grant of 2000 acres (809 ha) at Cabramatta conveyed King's gratitude for his part in quelling the 1804 insurrection, and in April 1817 he wrote enthusiastically of the pastures included in his pioneering 1500-acre (607 ha) grant from Macquarie near Lake Illawarra. All told he received grants amounting to 4162 acres (1684 ha).

Johnston's success as a farmer and grazier (in the latter capacity, as a supplier of meat rather than as a wool-grower), his love of the land and its botanical and feathered curiosities, which his daughters carefully consigned to the Percys in England, and the respect and affection of his fellows must have compensated for the court martial of 1811. He died on 5 January 1823 just as the War Office was inclining favourably towards his claim for compensation. He was buried in the Greenway-designed family vault at Annandale Farm, where a score of years earlier he had planted the colony's first Norfolk Island pines.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vols 1-7
  • Historical Records of Australia, series1, vols 2-8
  • Proceedings of a General Court-Martial … for the Trial of Lieutenant-Colonel George Johnston (Lond, 1811)
  • H. V., Evatt, Rum Rebellion (Syd, 1947)
  • G. Mackaness, The Life of Vice-Admiral William Bligh (Syd, 1951)
  • M. H. Ellis, John Macarthur (Syd, 1955)
  • Johnston papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Piper papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • CO 201/62, 63.

Additional Resources

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

A. T. Yarwood, 'Johnston, George (1764–1823)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

George Johnston, by Robert Dighton, 1810

George Johnston, by Robert Dighton, 1810

State Library of New South Wales, 832553