grog @duffythewriter

GROG: Have you ever thrown up on the Sydney Harbour Bridge? I did it at about 70 km/hour with my head half way out the open door of a taxi. The other half of whatever I ate that night I left on the floor of McDonalds at Wynyard. This after a regular Wednesday Night Club or “WNC” outing with the guys I used to work with.

Now, I have actually felt quite guilty about this over the last 20 years…. But what if I have no reason to feel guilty at all? What if in fact I should embrace my behaviour as being entirely consistent with the antics which have been going on in and around Sydney Harbour for over 200 years?

This is where “Grog” comes in!

Grog. What a great word and what a great name for a book! The very word conjures up feelings of expectation, of heart break, of solitude, of revelry, of disgust. And what a great word just to say: Grog……………grog, grog, grog, grog!

“Grog – A bottled history of Australia’s first 30 years” by Tom Gilling is the story of an experiment. It could have gone terribly wrong…….and some say it did or that the English should never have come. But somehow a group of disparate and desperate people went to the other side of the known world, struggled to survive and together built the foundations of what has become the amazing multi-cultural society Australia is today.

This was the greatest “Survivor” series ever! 1373 people were on the First Fleet. 754 were convicts and their children. And they were all going somewhere based on the say so of Captain Cook and his crew – “the fragmentary reports and confused impressions of a handful of men who had spent a week there 18 years earlier, and who could not agree on what they had seen.”

first fleet Grog book review @duffythewriter

How to feed them all? Where would they get their grog? The marines meant to go on the trip had already threatened to “un-volunteer” when they found out the government wanted to cut costs by not giving them the same “spirit allowance” as troops serving in the West India islands. The government was quickly forced to change its position and allowed Governor Phillip to buy them wine and spirits. Little did he know then that grog would be the root cause of many of the new colony’s problems?

Self-interest and free enterprise on the long trip to Australia were king. In the author’s words:

“The voyage from the Cape to Botany Bay was the longest leg of the journey and represented a symbolic departure from the known world into the unknown. For the convicts, however, and for the marines guarding them, life carried on as before. Their task from the beginning had been to stay alive, and to coexist with each other in the cramped and unwholesome conditions. In this floating marketplace private commerce thrived: articles were traded debts were paid, favours returned, good behaviour rewarded. In the absence of money, goods and services had to be bartered, Sex was a desirable commodity, so was labour, and so was liquor, large quantities of which had been accumulated during stops at Tenerife, Rio and the Cape”.

The 11 ships of the First Fleet took 36 weeks to sail 15000 miles to Botany Bay. The Surgeon- General, John White (the author quotes from eyewitness accounts throughout the book), wrote: “To see all the ships safe in their destined port without ever having, by any accident, been one hour separated, and all the people in as good health as could be expected or hoped for, after so long a voyage, was a sight………at which every heart must rejoice”.

The First Fleeters were obviously unimpressed with “The Shire” because within a week they had moved up the coast to Sydney Cove about which Governor Phillip penned those immortal words to Lord Sydney, the Home Secretary: he “had the satisfaction of finding the finest harbour in the world, in which a thousand sail of the line may ride in the most perfect security”

During those early days in Sydney Cove, another avid blogger, Captain Watkin Tench wrote:

“Business now sat on every brow. In one place, a party cutting down the woods; a second, setting up a blacksmith’s forge; a third, dragging along a load of stones or provisions; here an officer pitching his marquee, with a detachment of troops parading on one side of him, and a cook’s fire blazing up on the other.”

With all those people finally getting off the boats, the men and women convicts made up for lost time……. Arthur Smyth, surgeon on the Lady Penrhyn (which carried 109 female convicts) wrote:

“The anarchy and confusion which prevails throughout the camp, & the audacity of the convicts both men and women, is arrived at such a pitch as it is not to b equaled, I believe, by any set of villains in any other spot upon the globe.”

Clashes with the local aboriginals “inspired” Governor Phillip to kidnap one of them to learn more of their ways. Arabanoo (as he became known) was well-treated by Phillip and it was hoped that he would become a bridge between white and black, but he died of small pox within 6 months.

Two other kidnappings followed – two men named Colbee and Baneelon (or Bennelong). Colbee escaped after a couple of weeks, but Bennelong seemed to tolerate his captivity, dressed in fine clothes and picked up English words and manners. He also acquired a taste for grog, but had no trouble holding his drink. He greatly endeared himself to Phillip and his staff, but the infant colony was on rations and Bennelong had a voracious appetite. He obviously figured he could eat better with his own people and he escaped.

But Phillip would continue to meet with Bennelong and later his wife Barangaroo (another name which features prominently in Sydney Harbour today) and Bennelong enjoyed sharing a glass of wine with the Governor. The author writes: “While most of his people spurned British attempts to ply them with grog, Bannelon drank on his own terms, demanding wine when he wanted it and mimicking (or mocking) the toasts that went with it.”

The colony received supplies from visiting supply and trading ships, but clearly had to stand on its own two feet. By late 1790, the colony was on the brink of starvation. Attempts to cultivate the land around Port Jackson were abandoned and agricultural hopes were focused on the outlying settlements at Rose Hill and Toongabbie. Even worse, the colony’s cellars ran dry and the soldiers lost their precious grog ration. The author writes: “Access to liquor was one of the few privileges for a soldier in New South Wales, where the distinction between “free” and “captive” had largely become meaningless. Under Governor Phillip’s policy of equal food rations for all, the grog allowance alone signified the difference in status between the two groups.”

By 1792, when Phillip left for England, things had started to improve. The new settlements were producing good crops.

Lieutenant – Governor Grose who took over from Phillip had previously been in charge of the New South Wales Army Corps. The New South Wales Corps (or Rum Corps) came to control the supply of grog in the colony. They would buy it from visiting ships and sell it on at a handsome profit.

For me, the fascinating development under Grose was his success in boosting the government granaries by encouraging his officers to cultivate land. Lieutenant John Macarthur in particular, was a major beneficiary and became one of the fathers of the Australian wool industry. Ordinary settlers, ex-convicts and government could not match the productivity of the soldiers – although admittedly Grose sanctioned as many as 10 convict labourers for his officers versus two for ordinary settlers. Officers wanting extra labour could get more convicts and pay them in grog. The author writes: “As the amount of grog in the colony increased, so did the number of crimes in which grog was involved. Accounts written by [Captain David Collins, author of Account of the English Colony in New South Wales] and others reported settlers neglecting their farms, and convicts selling their rations and their clothes for drink, then robbing the settlers’ gardens to feed themselves.” Many settlers faced crippling debts because they had pledged their future crops to pay for grog.

Governors after Grose all tried to defeat the Rum Corps and lost – culminating in the rum rebellion against Governor Bligh in 1808. They each walked a tight rope between trying to curb the liquor trade as required by their political masters in England and keeping the army sweet.

Eventually though, the colonists began brewing their own grog. After he gained his freedom, perhaps the best known of the First Fleet convicts, James Squires, became Sydney’s first brewer. His name can deservedly be seen today on beer taps around the country.

So as you marvel at the fireworks over Sydney harbour on New Year’s Eve, bear in mind that what you see was built on a little bit of mischief, a little bit of mayhem and, dare I say, maybe even a little bit of magic!

sydney NYE @duffythewriter Grog