Back to main

Rum as currency

One of Lachlan Macquarie’s most pressing tasks on his arrival in New South Wales was to restore social, financial and moral order to the colony. New South Wales had been without an official governor since members of the New South Wales Corps (also known as the Rum Corps) deposed Governor Bligh on 26 January 1808.

Governors Hunter and King had unsuccessfully attempted to curb the power of the Rum Corps, and Bligh’s prohibition of ‘the exchange of spirits or other liquors as payment for grain, animal food, wearing apparel, or any other commodity whatsoever to all descriptions of persons in the colony and its dependencies’, led to the overthrow of his administration. With Bligh deposed, the Corps enriched themselves unchecked for a further two years until the arrival of Macquarie.

The Corps had grown in power from the early 1790s, when its officers began to purchase entire cargos from visiting ships, which they sold in the colony at a substantial profit. One of the first purchased was 7500 gallons of rum from the Hope in 1793, giving the Corps its name. The profit made from its monopoly over private trade in the colony allowed it to dominate the fledgling economy.

The use of alcohol as a currency had dire economic consequences. Farmers had little or no incentive to produce more crops when they would only be paid in over-priced rum. They in turn had to pay their workers in rum, bought at monopoly prices. With many in the workforce drinking their pay, productivity was lowered further still.