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What Was The Rum Rebellion? And Was Rum Really To Blame?

On January 26 1808—20 years to the day that Arthur Phillip landed his First Fleet in Warrane (Sydney Cove)—Australia experienced its first and only coup d’etat known as the Rum Rebellion. But was rum really to blame?

Rum. Golden glorious rum. The spirit that should be Australia’s national drink, but whose reputation has been damaged by a certain distillery that rhymes with ‘dundaberg’, was once the darling of the nation.

More than that, in the 150 years between the 1620s and 1770s saw rum become the favourite tipple across the known world.

But after that, while everyone else was moving on to other spirits like whisky and gin, the new penal colony of New South Wales still held rum in high regard.

In fact, the colony, which was run on a barter system, used rum as the main currency. And the military regiment that ran the colony—known as the Rum Corps—held all the cards, controlling the supply of alcohol and its raw ingredients.

By 1805, the colony was well and truly in its cups with more rum being traded and consumed than ever before.

With his reputation as a hard nut and self-confessed rum hater (how could you trust him?), William Bligh was appointed Governor of New South Wales and strong-arm of the colony.

Yes, this is the same William Bligh who lost control of his ship The Bounty a few years before because he wanted to stop his crew having fun!

Once again, Bligh’s killjoy attitude—and his innate ability to rub people up the wrong way—saw his popularity plummet in his three-year tenure to the point where the Rum Corps marched on Government House in Sydney and deposed him.

Nice work, Bill.

Was It Rum’s Fault… And Was It Even Rum?

Early on, the coup was simply known as the Great Rebellion, and was seen more as the reaction from the Rum Corps and wealthier settlers whose trade and income were being damaged by Bligh’s heavy-handed approaches.

And let’s not forget, Bligh was at best dislikable.

But because Bligh’s hatred for booze was only equalled by the colonists love of it, it stands to reason that rum was probably a touch paper in the rebellion.

It wasn’t until 1855, when author William Howitt—a Quaker and teetotaller—published his history of Australia, that the name Rum Rebellion was coined. I’m sure Bligh would’ve approved.

As for whether what the Corps, colonists and convicts were drinking rum or not, it’s hard to say. Certainly rum was the gold standard in terms of demand, but as imports of grains like wheat from Bengal were common, as were illicit bush stills, ‘rum’ was probably a catch-all term.

Aussie Craft Rum

These days, Australia crafts some of the finest rum in the world, from White Rum from the Kimberley to Black Spiced Rum from Bathurst the ever-increasing range of Aussie craft rums would have the likes of Bligh and Howitt turning in their graves.

What a merry thought!


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