The Rum Historian title
Probably for our younger readers this is hard to believe, but when I was young the Internet did not exist. Therefore no Netflix, no social media, YouTube, Blogs, no nothing. There were not even VHSs or DVDs. Television already existed, but in my country it had only 2 channels and they did not broadcast all day. But we had the movies. And in a movie theatre, on the magnificence of the big screen, I watched “The Mutiny of the Bounty”, the one with Marlon Brando playing the fascinating prime mate Christian Fletcher. Sea, exoticism, adventure, love, honor, death … how much I have loved that film! And the villain of the story was the notorious, but unforgettable, Captain William Bligh.
Many years later I came across Captain Bligh again, at the centre of another mutiny, the Rum Rebellion. I did some checking and I discovered a story that deserves to be told. With a warning: I am not an expert of Australian history and this article relies mainly on Davis Russell Earls “Bligh in Australia: A New Appraisal of William Bligh and the Rum Rebellion” 2010.
In 1788, the First Fleet arrived in New South Wales, Australia, with its cargo of convicts. To protect the new Colony and assist the civilian authorities to maintain law and order, the first Governor, Captain Arthur Phillip had the support of a unit of the Royal Marines. Some years later, the British Government decided that good soldiers like the Marines were needed for the war against Napoleon and so the “New South Wales Corps” was established to relieve them. Guarding convicts on the other side of the world was hardly an attractive career opportunity, so, in order to fill the ranks the Corps accepted men that maybe more respectable regiments would have rejected, and in order to recruit officers, a substantial grant of land in the Colony was promised to anyone who would accept the commission.
Soon, the officers of the Corps made the most of their position. In order to farm their lands, they got themselves assigned a substantial number of convicts, diverting them from ongoing public work, convicts who often kept being clothed and fed at public expense. Moreover, the officers built a sort of trade monopoly: when a trading ship arrived in Sydney Cove, they took whatever they wanted before the civilian traders could acquire any stock, and then resold the goods at a heavy price. “It was trading in alcohol that returned the best profit margins. Dealing into ‘rum’, a term that covered all alcoholic drinks, became a major activity for some officers. They imported supplies directly from India and set up distilleries of their own. When one had a financial dealing with a rum trader, one had no choice but to accept payment in rum. Rum became the unofficial currency of the Colony and alcohol addiction its greatest curse.”
Two successive governors tried weakly to enforce the law and control the Corps, but to no avail. “The British Government was aware of the sad state into which New South Wales had fallen, and it was also concerned that the colony with vast areas of good farming land and an ideal climate for agriculture could not feed itself some twenty years after being settled and was still having to be supplied with grain.” So, the British Government decided to send as new Governor a man known for his honesty, energy, inflexibility and sense of duty. They chose the famous Captain William Bligh, a great naval celebrity, both for the Bounty mutiny and for being one of the greatest British naval heroes of the time.
William Bligh arrived in August 1806; New South Wales has roughly 8,000 white inhabitants, mostly men, but also a substantial minority of women and children. The population consisted of four main groups: members of the military, free civilian settlers, convicts, and “emancipists”, ex-convicts who had received a sort of pardon from the Governor: they were virtually free, providing they stay in the Colony.
Unruly, idle, often drunken, the soldiers of the New South Wales Corps, often called also Rum Corps, were a constant problem. Bligh wrote ‘… about 70 of the privates were originally convicts and the whole are so very much grafted with that order of persons so in many instances have had a very evil tendency, and it is to be feared many lead to serious consequences. Considering this to be the case, there is no remedy but by change of military duty, a circumstance which can only prevent a fixed corps becoming a dangerous militia.’ Bligh asked the British Government that the Corps should be taken back to England and a unit of the regular Army posted to New Wales.The morale among the farming community, both free settlers and emancipists, was low. Floods, high rate of interest, monopoly of trade by the Officers, and a general lack of farming experience made their life very hard. As in every frontier settlement, huge alcohol consumption was a major problem, made worse by the fact that when they sold their produce to the Colony’s traders, farmers were liable to be paid in rum. Bligh planned to use the Government Stores to trade and give credit to the farmers and to discipline the privates of the Corps, something no previous Governor had dared to try.
In February 1807 Bligh promulgated his “General Order designed to effect reforms his Instructions required. The Order prohibited the importation of equipment to distill alcohol and made it an offense for anyone to pay a worker for his labor with rum – whether or not the worker was happy enough to accept it – or to use rum to pay for grain, clothing or any other commodity. Payment had to be in British currency.” Penalties were severe. “On 7th February Bligh wrote to the Colonial Secretary, Windham, reporting in detail the measures he was taking. They were, he stated, necessary ‘to bring labour to a due value and support the farming interest’. Importation and distillation had to be restricted to prevent an undue increase in consumption. He added, ‘I am aware that prohibiting the barter of spirits will meet with the marked opposition of those few who have materially enriched themselves by it.”
Bligh’s actions were fully approved by his superiors, but they stirred up widespread resentment in the Corps and with many civilians and aroused the strong opposition of the wealthiest and most influential of the free settlers, John MacArthur, himself a former Officer of the Corps.
“John MacArthur became determined that Bligh would not have his way. He took upon himself the challenge of forcing the Governor to allow the long-standing local customs to continue. Not only was he a major player in the rum traffic and accustomed to using free or very cheap convict labour, but he had placed an order in England for two new stills”.
“It was not just MacArthur who resented the Governor’s reforms and the hard line he had adopted. By doing what he had been instructed to do, Bligh had polarized the population. The rum traders, the pastoralists who depended upon cheap convict labour, and officers of the Corps (who fitted both the previous two categories) considered him to be an interfering tyrant. The small farmers continued to regard him as a good friend and ally.” Actually, on 1st January 1808, an address signed by 833 settlers arrived at Government House, the signatories expressing their thanks and their support to Bligh.
Among the officers the “interferences” of Bligh aroused discontent. “It had been a long-standing practice for the officers, all of whom owned farms, to take convicts to work on their properties without bothering even to advise the civil authorities whose responsibility it was to control the convict workforce. Bligh issued a blunt order that the practice should cease immediately, and any officer wanting to use convict labour must make a formal application to the proper authorities.” Further tensions arose from the property rights of the land in Sidney, where many had occupied the land reserved to the Crown. Knowing Bligh’s character and history, it is no surprise that in response to the growing hostility he faced, he chose to continue to do his duty regardless of the consequences.
MacArthur took advantage of this discontent and carried on a smear campaign with accusations and threats, both oral and written, against Bligh and other officials. Meanwhile, he conducted an exhausting jurisdictional guerrilla against Bligh and his allies, going so far as to press charges against the very official who seized his stills.
Finally, on December 1807, the Judge-Advocate Richard Atkins charged MacArthur with sedition and contempt of the court, and ordered to arrest him. MacArthur was not frightened; he had good reason to be confident of the support of the Corps because he had maintained a friendly relationship with them since selling his commission, and the animosity of the Corps towards the governor was unquestioned. “Provided that there are no Navy ships in Sidney on the day of the trial, and that was only a remote possibility, the six military officers on the bench would be his friends from the Corps.”
When on 25th January 1808 the trial against MacArthur began, all the six military officers constituting the bench were from the Corps and good friend of his. MacArthur had a defiant attitude and the officers in the bench supported him against the Judge-Advocate who, outraged, declared the trial suspended and left the courtroom. Hours of chaos followed, meetings, speeches, letters to the Governor, etc. Then MacArthur left the courtroom escorted by a group of soldiers.
The next day, early in the evening the Corps with fifes and drums jauntily playing ‘The British Grenadiers’ and with the regimental colors flying, marched up from the barracks and attacked the defenseless Government House. The soldiers were carrying muskets with bayonets fixed, most of them suffering from the effects of the cheap alcohol supplied to them by MacArthur. Major George Johnston, Commander of the Corps and Lieutenant-Governor, arrested Bligh, declared martial law, and assumed control of the Colony.
Later, in an attempt to discredit him, the rebels claimed that Bligh was a coward. They said that the soldiers had dragged him out from under the bed, shaking with fear and covered with dust and feathers. That lie was enshrined in a crude cartoon that has been reproduced often and taken as evidence of the fact. On the contrary, Bligh was as brave as ever and was arrested while destroying official documents.
“With a substantial element of the population still loyal to him, Bligh’s presence posed a potential threat to the rebel administration. Johnson and MacArthur wanted him to leave on the first available ship. Each time there was a ship in the harbor ready to sail for England, they would order him to embark. He would refuse to go. For some reason or other, they were not prepared to use physical force. Perhaps they did not want to be charged with assaulting the King’s representative who was a national hero. A charge of mutiny was enough to be facing. As a result, Bligh remained under house arrest for almost twelve months.”
“For some six months or so MacArthur was a virtual dictator in the Colony of New South Wales. Johnson was content to allow him to do as he pleased. A few days after the coup, MacArthur had leaflets posted around the town announcing that officers and ‘respectable inhabitants’ could purchase a ‘modest supply of spirits’ for domestic consumption from the government store at bargain prices. The store was rushed.” The rebel administration countermanded Bligh’s regulations designed to deal with the Colony’s alcohol problem. The traffic in rum boomed and within a few months of the coup about ninety new liquor stores had opened. The officers took back control of the trade, to make payment in rum and to embezzle public resources.
“Six months after the coup, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Foveaux arrived in Sydney after an extended leave in England. He was then the highest-ranking officer in Sydney, and he took over from Johnston the command of the Corps. One of his first actions was to remove MacArthur from any position of power.” Some months later, a new Governor arrived with the escort of the 73rd Regiment and re-established absolute rule by the King’s representative. The Corps was disbanded and anything the rebels accomplished was cancelled out; the Rum Rebellion was over.
The Rum Rebellion should not be accorded a significance and virtue it does not merit. It was not a claiming of self-rule, something like the American War of Independence had been, nor was it a victory for democracy against tyranny. Later, Australia acquired self-government by degrees, by acts of the Imperial Parliament, without needing any Australian War of Independence.
This story left me with two doubts. This story left me puzzled about two things.
First. Rum was imported from various parts of the Empire, but what exactly was being fermented and distilled in the Colony? Maybe molasses, in which case was sugarcane already being grown? So early? Or grain, even though it was so scarce? Or some other fruit?
Second. According to Wikipedia, “Michael Duffy, an author writing in 2006, says that the Rebellion was not thought of at the time as being about rum: … almost no one at the time of the rebellion thought it was about rum. Bligh tried briefly to give it that spin, to smear his opponents, but there was no evidence for it and he moved on. Many years later, in 1855, an English Quaker named William Howitt published a popular history of Australia. Like many teetotalers, he was keen to blame alcohol for all the problems in the world. Howitt took Bligh’s side and invented the phrase Rum Rebellion, and it has stuck ever since.”
I don’t know enough about Australian history to say if this is true, but it wouldn’t surprise me. We know that also American temperance movements used the word Rum to target every kind of spirits: “Demon Rum”, “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion”, “Rum Runner” etc. So, maybe, there never was a real Rum Rebellion.
The Rum Historian
The Origins of the Rum Rebellion – Part I
A low quality snippet that explains the causes of the Rum Rebellion; Australia’s only successful military coup. From the Australian Documentary series Rogue Nation.