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Penal Settlements, The New South Wales Corps

Captain William Bligh, Captain Philip, fine wool, sharp eye, governorship

In 1792 the Royal Marines were replaced with the New South Wales Corps, which had been specifically recruited in Britain. Given grants of land and convict labor, members of the corps became the colony’s best and largest farmers, but they also posed a serious threat to the governors through their power over the economy. With a sharp eye for enhancing their income, they specialized in controlling the price of rum (a term that denoted any kind of alcoholic drink), which served largely as a means of internal exchange. Originally sent to protect and help administer the colony, the corps soon gained control of almost all aspects of colonial life.

Captain John Hunter, who was named Phillip’s successor as governor of New South Wales in 1795, tried in vain to gain control of the rum traffic. He was recalled to Britain and replaced by Captain Philip G. King, who served from 1800 to 1806. King instituted reforms designed to weaken the corps’s virtual monopoly on trade and was partially successful in restoring power to the government. In 1804, however, he had to use the corps to put down a rebellion by Irish convicts. In 1806 Captain William Bligh replaced King. The captain had gained notoriety earlier, when the crew of his ship, the Bounty, had mutinied in the Pacific. Bligh now set his sights—and exercised his notoriously rough tongue—on the officers of the corps, challenging their monopoly of rum and their rapid accumulation of town and rural land. He was met with the so-called Rum Rebellion, and on January 26, 1808, officers of the corps arrested him.

Bligh was later sent to London, where he successfully defended his policies, but he was not restored to his governorship. For the time being, the leaders of the corps had won. One of their ringleaders, John Macarthur, had meanwhile helped to establish the foundations of a valuable export industry. In 1802 he had shown British manufacturers samples of Australian wool, and with his wife, Elizabeth, he was among the leading breeders of merino sheep, whose fine wool later became the foundation of a thriving local industry.

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