Saturday, 17 May 2014

Rum and Raisings - James Slater and the Rum Corps

I know a few of you are waiting for me to write about John O'Toole and his marriage to Mary Marcella Hall. I will get to that, but I am waiting on a certificate (isn't it always the way?). In the meantime here is another chapter in the varied life of Mary Marcella Hall's great grandfather, James Slater.

How much have we heard lately about the Rum Corps? Everytime there's a mention of Eddie Obeid or Chris Hartcher, the Corps gets brought up - "The most corrupt public figure since the Rum Corps" (um, actually I think that dubious honour goes to Robert Askin - he died with all his corrupt dealings unpunished and his ill-gotten gains intact. At least this lot are being pursued), "nothing like it since the days of the Rum Corps" and so on.

Redcoats at Old Sydney Town. Image from Wikimedia Commons
Yes, things are bad. Many of our politicians are little more than self-serving, greedy, manipulative pigs who treat the public (their BOSSES, which they seem to have forgotten) with utter contempt. I'd love a federal ICAC, but both LNP and Labor have yet again blocked that (ask youself why, what are they trying to hide).

But are things really as bad as the days of the Rum Corps? Look into it a little and you may find that the answer is no1.

Why no? We have ICAC, which has been fearless, and the judiciary has remained separate from the corrupt operators. That was not the case with the Rum Corps.

Some things are the same. There are brave, hard-working journalists doing all they can now, such as Kate McClymont of the Sydney Morning Herald, and there were brave, hard-working journalists then, too. They did all they could to expose the dealings of that ruthless bunch of jumped-up bully-boys.

So let's start with what the Rum Corps actually was. First off, it was the New South Wales Corps. It was given the nickname Rum corps when it gained a monopoly on trade goods coming into the colony (the most popular means of payment for goods was rum). The NSW Corps was sent out with the Second Fleet to replace the Royal Marines. It was to be the permanent military force in the Colony and subject to the rule of the Governor. It was not made of the best the English army had to offer. Some members had been in military jails, or were known troublemakers. Many had been in occupations displaced by the industrial revolution and had joined the army as a last resort2. When Governor Phillip left the Colony to return to England there was a power vacuum, and Grose, head of the NSW Corps, filled it. He gave large land grants to officers, and assigned them convicts to work the land, paid for on the public purse. This was then extended to other Corps members. Produce from the farms was sold to the government at a steep profit. Grose ensured the Corps had a monopoly on Rum importation and on Rum distillation, and a general monopoly on trade3. During 1793 there was a drought and a resultant shortage of grain. Rather than ensure a good supply to the populace, much of the grain was held back for distillation. At one point John Macarthur was Colonial Secretary, which meant that the man with the largest trade capacity in the colony was also in charge of government business and trade. As Max Gillies once said, not so much a conflict of interest as a confluence.

All this sounds fairly familiar – those in power granting favours and control of money-making enterprises to friends and colleagues. It's not that different to all the murk surrounding Cascade Coal or AWH. But Grose went further. He suspended the civil courts and set up military rule, giving judicial appointments to Corps officers and friends, such as John Macarthur.
Francis Grose. Image from Wikimedia Commons

The Corps enjoyed the exercise of power and stymied the efforts of two subsequent governors, Hunter and King, to bring them to heel. Then Bligh came along, who immediately set about reining them in. He took strong measures to give relief to the settlers on the Hawkesbury (who were struggling after a flood) and acted to end the monopolies of the Corps and Macarthur (Macarthur had been using the supply problems from the Hawkesbury as a means of raising prices on some commodoties, such as sheep). Bligh was something of a bull in a china-shop, and a known authoritarian, but it was the threat to vested interests that caused the Great Rebellion4. Forget the rewritings of history that have since taken place - it was not a blow for democracy or the overthrow of a scoundrel and dictator. And Bligh did not hide under a bed – that story came from the colony's first political cartoon, commissioned or drawn by Sergeant Major Whittle of the Corps within hours of Bligh's arrest. It is probable that Bligh was actually trying to escape from Government House to join the settlers on the Hawkesbury5.

Macquarie, the next governor after Bligh, was able to restore some order and stabilise the currency by bringing in the holy dollar and dump, but it took time to truly break the corrupting influence of the Corps in New South Wales. The problems with the judiciary continued for many years, well into the rule of Governor Darling. Those who had risen to the top in the bad old days remained firmly entrenched.

What's the big deal about the Rum Corps and the judiciary? Well, just imagine if ICAC was headed by Ian McDonald, or Joe Tripodi, or Arthur Sinodinos. What if Chris Hartcher could pass judgement on his case if it comes to court, or could sit in judgement on Darren Webber or Nick di Girolamo? This is the situation that existed in New South Wales in the early part of the 19th Century.

And James Slater got caught up in it.

The Monitor was a Sydney newspaper that only operated between 1826 and 1828 but in those two years it fiercely targetted the misuse of judicial power. There were numerous reports, including the appalling case of a convict shepherd complaining to his master of insufficient rations and being sentenced by his master, a magistrate, to 500 lashes. In another case, a man was imprisoned for fourteen weeks without formal charge for insulting a clergyman-magistrate before finally being released6. James' problems were mild by comparison.

In the early months of 1828, James was ordered by a local magistrate, G. Innes, to put up his servants when they were in Sydney (Innes had moved out to Bathurst, but sent his convict servants up to Sydney to complete some business for him). The servants stayed with James in his Pitt Street residence for a number of days and James then duly presented Mr. Innes with an invoice for expenses incurred, amounting to £4 15s 6p. Innes' response was to issue a summons for “harbouring prisoners of the crown”7. The Monitor continues:

But it didn't end there. James had had enough of corrupt lawyers and corrupt judges (he's the one I think was framed to get him out to NSW), and what's more he was literate and smart. James got a counter summons issued against Innes, but was told there was insufficient evidence that the money was actually owed. He approached the Solicitor General, Commissioner Foster and asked how to proceed. Foster told him to get affidavits from Innes' servants, which he did. On 5 June 1828, James appeared before Commissioner Foster and presented the affidavits which Foster refused to receive. Moreover, Foster dismissed the suit. James asked for an adjournment of ten minutes so he could fetch a witness. This was also refused8. They all back each other up.

As far as I can tell, James Slater had little option but to give up. He was owed over £4 and had incurred at least another £1 in legal expenses, but there was little he could do. The corrupt establishment in New South Wales had well and truly won. I am sure James would have loved an ICAC.

1Don't think for a minute I do not believe things are bad. There is no denying the corruption, calumny and fraud that is coming out in ICAC and that many of us were fairly certain was going on before that. Just ask anyone living on the Central Coast how much they thought was being spent on the election campaigns of the three Liberal candidates. There were unhappy mutterings well before the 2011 election.
2“So... What Was the Rum Corps?” Linda Mottram interviews Paul Burton of State Library of NSW, ABC 702, 13 November 2012,
3The 1808 'Rum Rebellion', State Library of New South Wales,
4 In the 1850s William Howitt wrote a history of Australia. Howitt was a Temperance man and keen to paint alcohol as the cause of all Australia's woes, hence the appellation of the Rum Rebellion (prior to Howitt that event was known as the Great Rebellion).

6 “To the Editor”, The Monitor, 28 June 1828, p. 5, col. 3; digital images, Trove ( : accessed 5 Nov 2012), Digitised newspapers and more
7 “Domestice Intelligence”, The Monitor, 17 May 1828, p. 8, col. 1; digital images, Trove ( : accessed 23 Feb 2013), Digitised newspapers and more
8“To the Editor”, The Monitor, 7 June 1828, p. 5, col. 3; digital images, Trove ( : accessed 23 Feb 2013), Digitised newspapers and more

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