In the early days of colonial Australia, rum was a popular drink among the settlers. The British government had established a method of payment for soldiers, civil servants, and farmers by paying them in rum. Soon, rum became the currency of the colony and the dominant beverage consumed.
This arrangement led to a blossoming trade in rum, with merchants importing large quantities of the drink from the West Indies. One of these merchants was a man named John Macarthur, who had built a fortune by importing rum and selling it at exorbitant prices to the settlers.
But not everyone was happy with this state of affairs. A group of influential citizens, led by the colony’s governor, William Bligh, began to protest against the pervasive influence of rum on the colony. They argued that it was leading to drunkenness, corruption, and lawlessness.
Bligh was especially vocal in his opposition to the rum trade, and he attempted to restrict the importation of rum into the colony. This move was met with anger and resistance from the merchants, including Macarthur, who saw it as a threat to their livelihood.
In 1808, tensions between Bligh and the rum merchants came to a head, leading to what became known as the Rum Rebellion. Macarthur and a group of other merchants conspired to depose Bligh, forcibly removing him from power and taking control of the colony.
The rebellion was short-lived, however, as the British government sent a military force to restore order and reinstate Bligh as governor. Macarthur was arrested and sent to England to stand trial, although he was eventually acquitted and allowed to return to Australia.
The Rum Rebellion was a turning point in the history of colonial Australia, marking the end of the rum trade and the rise of a more sober and responsible society. It also demonstrated the challenges that the colonists faced in forging a new way of life in a distant and unfamiliar land.
Today, rum remains a popular drink in Australia, but the legacy of the Rum Rebellion lives on, a reminder of the dangers of unchecked power and the importance of responsible governance and moderation in all things.
(Ed: I always like to write an article as an introduction for a future speaker but, running out of time, I decided to ask ChatGPT to do the job for me. I have reproduced it here, as written. As you can see (from the comment below), Artificial Intelligence can write a good story but it doesn’t always let the truth get in the way of a good story. Looks like I’ll have to go back to the old-fashioned way of researching the story. I’m sure Matt with set the story straight when he is the speaker at our museum in September.)
At 2:00 pm on Saturday, 2nd September you are invited to come to the City of Canada Bay Museum to hear Matt Murphy talk about his latest book . . .
Australia and its formation – through the distorted view of a rum bottle.
Could the Rum Rebellion have been averted if Major Johnston wasn’t hungover?
Would the Eureka Stockade have been different if the rebels weren’t pissed?
How were prisoners to get drunk if Macquarie closed the only pub in the gaol?
And why should sailors under fourteen be deprived of their sixteen shots of rum per day?
These are just some of the questions raised in Matt Murphy’s account of Australia’s colonial history. Brimming with detailed research and irreverent character sketches, Rum looks at not just how much was drunk in colonial Australia (a lot!), but also the lengths people went to get their hands on it, the futile efforts of the early governors to control it, and the often disastrous and/or absurd consequences of its consumption.
Those consequences aren’t just in our past. Murphy goes beyond foundation stories to look at the legacy our love affair with alcohol has created, from binge drinking to lockout laws and from prohibition to urinating on the parliamentary carpet.
So here’s to Rum, for making bad decisions look like a good idea at the time.
About the Author
At school, Matt Murphy failed English and couldn’t see the point of history. He became a firie and has been serving in Sydney’s inner city for 33 years. He is now also a part-time historian and teacher, tolerating the attitudes of kids towards history that he used to share. His previous book, Weight of Evidence, is about what was the longest civil court case in New South Wales. Matt’s younger self would be aghast that he is now writing history books but be consoled by the absurdist voice old Matt has achieved. Matt also can’t believe he has to write his own bio.