Major George Johnson of the Rum CorpsSuccessive governors of New South Wales failed to control the excesses of the officers of the New South Wales Corps, which became known as the Rum Corps. They had a monopoly over the trade in rum and much of the new colony’s food. Rum (a name given to any strong spirit) was used as currency and was both imported and manufactured locally. Governor Lachlan Macquarie eventually introduced a licensing system and established a stable coin currency which curbed the trade.

Rum arrived in Australia with the First Fleet in 1788. The colony was founded by navy men, so it’s not surprising that the new settlement was awash with the traditional navy drink. In a society where barter was the common form of trade, rum was the favoured currency.

In those early days, rum was imported from the West Indies and, more commonly, from India. Jamaica Rum was highly prized, but most imports were Bengal Rum. This was of variable quality. Rum was made from molasses – a by-product of sugar refining. But in India, the raw product was often not cane sugar but palm sugar, or a mix of both. The resulting product, which might more properly be called arrack, likely had little to recommend it beyond its ability to inebriate the drinker.

John Macarthur enjoyed the support of the Rum Corps
John Macarthur (1767-1834), by unknown artist State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 – 06190

When Governor Bligh arrived in Sydney in 1806, he prohibited the use of rum as payment for other commodities. In doing so, and by other high-handed actions to remove some of the traders from public office, he made enemies of most of the Marine Corps and the leading citizens of the day.

One of those enemies was John Macarthur, a former member of the Corps who had significant land and commercial interests in the colony. Bligh had already stopped Macarthur from selling illegal spirits and from importing stills but, when he had the man arrested over a technical matter related to one of his ships, matters came to a head.

Macarthur enjoyed the support of the so-called Rum Corps and on 26 January 1808, Major George Johnston led the Corps to Government House and arrested Bligh. Two years of military rule ensued. However, word of the chaos reached the British Colonial Office which ordered both Johnson and Macarthur to be arrested and sent to England for trial. The Marine Corps was recalled in 1810 and the same year Governor Lachlan Macquarie arrived. He was finally successful in curbing the trade in rum.