On the evening of 26 January 1808, 400 men in scarlet uniforms marched down to the Government House in Sydney Cove to arrest William Bligh, the fourth governor of the state of New South Wales.
It was the most famous alcohol-related incident in Australian history, coinciding with the date that we now call Australia Day.
Those scarlet-clad men were members of the NSW Corps, a permanent regiment posted to the fledgling colony in the early 1790s, where it was quickly dubbed the ‘Rum Corps’.
The officers of the regiment gained this nickname by running a lucrative monopoly on imports, with most goods that arrived on early trading ships passing through their hands. The chief of these goods was rum, which those days was a name for any distilled liquor.
“Colonial Sydney was a drunken society, from top to bottom. Men and women drank with a desperate, addicted, quarrelsome single-mindedness,” writes historian Robert Hughes in The Fatal Shore.
Albeit it’s a compelling description, other historians argue that any Australia Day party today would far exceed the levels of drunkenness seen in Sydney Cove over 200 years ago.
“Scholars have been aware for decades that on a per capita basis there was actually less alcohol drunk here than in Britain at the same time—or indeed, in modern Sydney,” journalist Michael Duffy wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2006.
Either way, rum was a prized commodity in those days, and featured heavily in the complex barter system that dominated early colonial trade. Men of the military power ring, controlled by John Macarthur and George Johnston, became the colony’s wealthiest people by trading in this currency of liquor.
Bligh, who had been assigned as governor to reign in the powerful Rum Corps, quickly ran into repeated conflict with Macarthur (who by that point was no longer an officer), most notably over a large grant of a coveted 2000 hectares of fertile grazing land at Camden.
Soon after the rebellion, the overthrowing of William Bligh was depicted in what is thought to be Australia’s earliest surviving political cartoon.
In fact, when those men marched into Government House on 26 January, Macarthur was in a jail cell, imprisoned over an incident involving one of his trading ships.
“A faintly surreal air has always surrounded this strange rebellion, where the only resistance was (according to one account) that offered by Bligh's daughter with her parasol, and no one was hurt,” writes Duffy.
After overthrowing Bligh and putting him under house arrest, NSW Corps’ commanding officer Johnston appointed himself Lieutenant-Governor, made Macarthur Colonial Secretary, and ran the colony for two years until the hard-handed Lachlan Macquarie ended the military rule in 1810.
The uprising wasn’t even referred to as the ‘Rum Rebellion’ until some 50 years later.
Ultimately the coup was more about the culmination of long-competing interests between military officers and their government than it was about actual grog—but the alliteration still has a nice ring to it.