A Rum Deal – History of Rum in Australia
Rum was as good as currency in colonial New South Wales, so a cash-strapped Governor manipulated the liquor trade to build Sydney’s ‘Rum Hospital’.
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 became the favoured currency. The marines of the New South Wales Corps, who controlled the rum trade, became known as the Rum Corps.
Bengal or Jamaican
In those early days, rum was imported from the West Indies and, more commonly, from India. Jamaican Rum, made from molasses – a by-product of cane sugar – was highly prized, but most imports were Bengal Rum. This was often made not from cane sugar but palm sugar. Better described as arrack, the most that could be said for it was that it still got you drunk.
The Rum Rebellion
One early governor tried to stop the trade in rum. Governor Bligh, better known as the ship’s captain who was set adrift after the famous mutiny on the Bounty, banned its use as currency. As a result, in 1808, there was another mutiny. The Rum Corps rebelled and arrested Bligh, resulting in two years of military rule.
A New Broom
Governor Lachlan Macquarie arrived in 1810, charged with sorting the whole mess out. The rebellious marines were recalled to England and Macquarie set about improving conditions in the colony. He found a way to control the rum trade and, simultaneously, improve the health system.
The first Sydney hospital had evolved from a series of tents to a leaky wooden building, but couldn’t cope with the many cases of scurvy, dysentery, smallpox, typhoid and other infectious diseases.
The British Government refused to provide money to build a new one, so Macquarie turned to private enterprise. In return for funding the hospital, he granted a group of businessmen a monopoly over the rum trade. Financed by this lucrative deal, the hospital they built became known as the Rum Hospital. Parts of the building still stand, and now house the New South Wales Parliament.