Grog: A Bottled History of Australia’s First 30 Years

Grog: A Bottled History of Australia’s First 30 Years, by Tom Gilling

Review: Grog: A Bottled History of Australia’s First 30 Years. By Tom Gilling. Published by Hachette Australia.

The current debate over the lock-out laws in Sydney has some interesting parallels with the controversy that once raged in the early colony over the control, sale and use of ‘the demon drink’. Both then and now, the issue isn’t simple and there are many vested interests and individuals all trying to exert their influence on the authorities. Violence and public drunkenness were issues that marked the founding of the white settlement in Australia and there is an ironic link with contemporary Sydney.

The fascinating thing about this book is that Tom Gilling identifies alcohol as a common theme that flows through the founding and life of the colony affecting the lives of the convicts, the marines, free settlers and the early governors. If we think that alcohol is a big part of our lives now, it was even more so back then. Alcohol was much more significant in the daily life of all levels of English society. It was regarded as a necessity and some Marines refused to set sail on the First Fleet when it looked like their ration would cease when they arrived in New south Wales.

At that time, the daily ration in the Royal Navy was half a pint of rum and one gallon of beer to every man on the ship, including the cabin boy. The term ‘grog’ came about when the Navy, some years prior, had decided to issue rum mixed with water, in an attempt to lessen the effects of drunkenness. Grog was a mixture of three or sometimes four parts water and rum. Any attempt to dilute it further or restrict it was a likely cause of mutiny.

Enough grog for three years

The departure of the First Fleet was delayed for some time while Governor Arthur Phillip battled with the Admiralty and the Government to get adequate supplies of food and other items necessary to survive in the colony. They did however arrive in Sydney with enough grog to last for three years.

Grog quickly became a form of currency in New South Wales, paying for food, crops and various other items of trade and finding its way to the convicts as a substitute for wages, rations or payment for other services. The officers of the Marines moved quickly to established a monopoly on the grog trade but after the New South Wales Corps arrived with the Second Fleet, their officers became the kings of the trade. Because of their grip on the grog trade, the Corps was often in dispute with, or in direct opposition to, a succession of Governors, most notably William Bligh. Just like the present Government of New South Wales, the Governors of the early colony were conflicted about how to respond to the trade in alcohol and its inherent problems.

James Squire: chicken thief turned brewer

Examining the initial European settlement through a bottle as it were, reveals some fascinating stories, characters and issues, but in some respects this book doesn’t go far enough or provide some of the analysis or commentary that the narrative invites. It is written very close to some primary sources, most notably David Collins’s Account of the English Colony in New South Wales. Collins wrote two volumes of that account in which he was “disgusted by the effects of liquor on the colony”. It is probably that reliance on Collins which means that the latter part of the first 30 years of the colony and particularly the time of Lachlan Macquarie as Governor gets relatively short attention in this book.

During Macquarie’s time as Governor there were major changes in New South Wales and the nature of the colony and how alcohol figured in that evolution would have been interesting to explore a lot further. For instance, although Gilling acknowledges that James Squire “was emblematic of Governor Macquarie’s doctrine of convict rehabilitation”, the success of the chicken thief turned brewer was part of a wider social change in the colony that had far reaching consequences. In contrast to many others in power at the time, who thought that ‘once a convict, always a convict’, Macquarie believed that convicts could become worthwhile members of society and gave them a chance.

Gilling provides a fascinating portrait of Squire, who may not have been the first person to brew beer in the colony, but was certainly the first successful commercial brewer and a convict that became both respectable and wealthy. His story like many other convicts who achieved success, runs parallel to those who fell victim to the ‘evils of drink’.

There are many little known and intriguing stories in this book – enough to either quench your thirst or wet your whistle for more reading on early Australia. Tom Gilling has done what other writers haven’t done before and given to grog the importance and relevance that it surely had in the life of the colony. This is the sort of history you didn’t learn at school but it all makes more sense when alcohol is factored into the equation. Meanwhile, where are things up to with those lock-out laws?

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