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Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Why Australia Day Is a Holiday to Raise a Glass (Of Rum) To

More than a few Aussies will hoist a glass of rum when they offer a toast to their country on this day—and for good reason. 

Image: Portrait of Rear Admiral William Bligh by Alexander Huey

This week—January 26—marks Australia Day, special in the fabled “Land Down Under” for two reasons.

First, it was on this date in 1788 that the last of 11 ships in a British fleet landed at what is now Port Jackson near the mouth of Sydney Harbor. That effectively secured British sovereignty over the eastern seaboard of the continent. It is celebrated as the founding date of modern Australia.

Second, it was also on January 26 (but 20 years later, in 1808) that the one and only military coup in Aussie history occurred. Known as the Rum Rebellion, it underscores the importance to Australia of the liquor made from fermenting and distilling sugar cane juice.

More than a few Aussies will hoist a glass of rum when they offer a toast to their country on this day. It’s impossible to do justice to the nation’s history without a generous mention of the stuff. Use of rum as currency in the Australian state of New South Wales even preceded the introduction of metallic coinage. Behind whisky, it’s the #2 spirit beverage there and presently enjoying a spike in popularity.

Partially because of cheap sugar, rum by the late 18th century had become the drink of choice (replacing gin) for two groups of Brits—the poor and sailors in the Royal Navy. The 11 ships that landed at Port Jackson on January 26, 1788, carried lots of both, including 750 convicts and 1,600 liters of rum. It’s no exaggeration to note that Australia was founded as a penal colony by crooks, their booze, and the sailors who escorted them.

(From 1787 to 1868, thousands of convicted felons in Britain were “sentenced to transportation,” which usually meant they were exiled to Australia instead of to a prison or a hanging.)

In modern Australia’s first 20 years, “the population of Sydney was divided into two classes,” wrote historian George Mackaness (cited in Matt Murphy’s excellent book, Rum: A Distilled History of Australia), “those who sold rum and those who drank it.” The new colony descended into widespread drunkenness and dependence specifically upon rum. “Sunday, or the Sabbath,” writes Murphy, “was not a day for the Lord; it was a day for drinking, and rum became the new holy water.”

A regiment of the British Army called the New South Wales Corps (better known as the Rum Corps) assumed governance of the new colony and was in full control by the end of 1792. It soon established a government-protected monopoly by buying most or all imported rum and outlawing local stills and rum production not under its control. Less than three years later, Murphy tells us,

…the colony’s population…was about 3200, 1900 of whom were convicts. Most of them, settlers and convicts alike, were idle, living in deplorable poverty, and chronically drunk. Unless they were associated with the Rum Corps, in which case they were corrupt, comparatively wealthy, and chronically drunk.

The Rum Corps was far less interested in running a colony than its officers were in running a rum racket, and in keeping the populace dependent on them for their addiction. Orders from London to stop the nonsense went unheeded. When somebody did go to jail for an offense, his friends simply burned the jail down—including the main one in Sydney. As rum flowed into the colony, the Rum Corps would buy or seize it, then distribute some to its members, and sell the rest at high prices to the colonists. Even an attempt to get the colonists to drink peach cider instead of rum proved (pardon the pun) fruitless.

Enter William Bligh, the very same man of Mutiny on the Bounty fame. Appointed by London as the fourth Governor of the Australian colony, he arrived in Sydney in August 1806 with orders to clean the place up. He aimed to end the corrupt monopoly of the Rum Corps and its self-serving, haphazard effort at government. Tensions rose steadily between Bligh, the legitimate authority, and the officers who resented his moves against their land schemes and liquor trade. When Bligh attempted to arrest one of the Corps’ principal rum racketeers, John Macarthur, the Corps turned on Bligh and arrested him instead. It was Australia’s first and only military coup.

For the next two years, confusion reigned over whose authority oversaw the colony of New South Wales. Writing in The Sydney Morning Herald in January 2008, jurist James Spigelman looked back on this time and asserted,

[T]he colony was controlled by an illegal government. Every appointment, including to judicial office, was invalid. So was every governmental decision, including every exercise of judicial power. Uncertainty was ubiquitous. Personal and property rights were insecure.

Then in January 1810, Britain’s Colonial Office ordered the recall of the Rum Corps back to London and replaced it with a new regiment. Its commander, Major-General Lachlan Macquarie, became the new Governor, and he quickly dismantled the regime and brought long-overdue good sense and public order to the colony.

The coup was over, the rule of law restored. Macarthur was kicked out of New South Wales and could not return before 1817. Bligh was promoted to the post of rear admiral and died of cancer a few years later.

Growth, entrepreneurship, and opportunity followed in the 19th Century. At the Eureka Stockade in 1854, gold miners famously fought for democratic values and property rights and helped ensure freedom. In 1901, the six British colonies of the continent formed a federation and called it the Commonwealth of Australia.

I love Australia. It’s a beautiful place with a rich history, a country free and inviting. The Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom last year ranked Australia as the world’s 13th freest economy, just ahead of Germany and right behind Norway. The U.S. comes in at #25.

Ron Manners is founder of the Mannkal Economic Education Foundation, headquartered in Perth in the state of Western Australia. He and his foundation work tirelessly to educate their fellow Aussies about the importance of freedom and free markets. When I recently asked him why he’s proud of his country, he wrote me this:

There are so many reasons to celebrate Australia as one of the few countries that the world’s displaced persons seek to flee to. That is the ultimate measure of a nation’s success, and this thought should be pondered by the “leaders” of the many countries from which people flee.

On this Australia Day, I plan to raise a glass (of rum) in tribute to an extraordinary people.

For Additional Information, See:

Coup that Paved the Way for Our Attention to the Rule of Law by James Spigelman

Australia in the Making: The Sensational Story of Bligh and Macarthur by Henry Ernest Boote

Rum: A Distilled History of Australia by Matt Murphy

William Bligh: Mutiny on the Bounty (video) by Simon Whistler of Biographics

Why Australia’s Gold Rush Ushered in Political Freedom as Well as Wealth by Lawrence W. Reed


  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is lawrencewreed.com.