You know how people always talk about “the good ol’ days”? Well, I’m pretty sure they’re referring to 18th century Australia. Maybe they have a thing for Captain Cook and his powder-white wigs but I’d be willing to bet they’re referring to the fact that RUM was once legal tender.
You heard me. Rum was, in fact, the very first currency used in the new colony of New South Wales beginning in the late 1700s. Captain Cook, that sexy dude, made Europe’s first discovery of this land giving it its name but forgetting to give it some cash. The shortage of any actual money during the colony’s first 25 years prompted lawmakers to develop a new system of currency—alcohol.
And they had the Americans to thank… sort of.
In 1793 a cargo ship arrived from America carrying 7,500 gallons of rum on board. Of course there was other “important” stuff on the ship but the jerk of a captain refused to sell any of it until all of the rum was purchased. Light bulbs went off in the heads of the officers of the New South Wales Corps. Cha-ching! They bought all the rum, sold it at a fat profit, and by 1806 rum was the country’s leading currency.
For the next quarter century rummity-rum-rum would be used to buy and sell just about everything. One significant use is how some of Australia’s most well known landmarks came to be. Specifically, construction workers for the country’s first church were paid this way and construction for Sydney’s first hospital was contracted for 60,000 gallons of rum. Legend has it a man even once sold his wife for four gallons of the liquid gold. (Don’t get any ideas, fellas!)
As great as this all sounds, the plan went south. Quickly.
Because of the need to constantly produce an endless supply of rum, New South Wales’s agriculture took a major hit. And because rum is NOT ACTUALLY MONEY, there was no fixed value and all Hell broke loose. Inflation. Corruption. Some drunk guy on the dance floor doing the robot. It was madness!
In 1810, the new Governor, Lachlan Macquarie, saw what a disaster rum was making of the country and dance floors everywhere. He sought to establish a new currency—you know, real money this time—and started by increasing the supply of rum. Pretty soon rum was about as valuable as… well, something that there was a lot of that wasn’t worth a lot in the early 19th century. Monocles? Powdered wigs? Wives, apparently?
But how far has Australia really come?
It was just a few months ago I was telling you about Australia’s new currency—beer. But this system works today for reasons exactly opposite why it didn’t work in the 1800s. The worth of today’s currency changes almost on a daily basis but the value of alcohol never sways. Yo ho ho!