History in a Bottle

History in a Bottle #1 – The Foundational Orgy

 

wpid-img_20150121_143705.jpgWelcome to the start of the week I like to call History in a Bottle. The aim here is to talk about Australian beer and history. Not the boring history, the interesting stuff. Some posts will start off with a beer and then either talk about its history or use it as a starting point for some historical event that has some link – era, name, geography or whatever – to it. Others will dispense with the beer altogether and just talk about a historical event.

A while ago I had the idea of writing a book called Two Slabs, where I would pick 48 beers and then use them to as a jumping off point to talk about an event in Australian history (It was one of my book ideas that featured in a recent Session post). But I couldn’t be arsed doing a whole book (at least not yet) so I figured, “hey, this might make a good regular feature for the blog”.

Anyway, so let’s get started.

The two beers in the above photo really shouldn’t exist. After all, aside from a few pockets here and there, Australia isn’t a very cold place. It’s a warm climate and warm weather isn’t the time you want to be drinking stouts and porters.

And yet the mega brewers like CUB still have these beers in the fridges of bottle shops across the country. Mega brewers are known for a love of consolidation, of reducing the number of lines they sell. And beers like Sheaf and Southwark have managed to survive that culling process again and again.

It’s handy that they have in a way, because dark beers have links to Australia right back to the First Fleet. When the fleet arrived on January 26, 1788, Governor Arthur Phillip and a few offsiders toasted the success of the new colony with four glasses of porter.

But it’s the alleged events just a few weeks later, on February 6, that interest us here. It’s the day the female convicts were unloaded from the Lady Penrhyn and what followed that night was a wild party full of debauched sex and drinking. It’s a story that Australians seem to like – the idea that our country was essentially founded on a huge party. But it’s nothing to be proud of given that the so-called “foundational orgy” would have involved quite a few cases of what we would consider rape or sexual assault.

READ MORE: History in a Bottle #2 – The Battle of Central Station

So it’s fortunate – both for the female convicts and ourselves – that the whole thing never happened. In her book The Colony – A History of Early Sydney, Grace Karskens suggests Manning Clark started the myth in his 1963 book A Short History of Australia. “Extra rations of rum were also issued,” Clark wrote, “and soon there developed a drunken spree that ended only when the revellers were drenched by a violent rainstorm.” Robert Hughes in The Fatal Shore refers to it as “the first bush party in Australia”. Thomas Keneally devotes two pages to the event in the first volume of his trilogy called Australians.

But, as Karskens points out, there is no evidence it ever happened – a fact which she said Clark realised upon a second reading of the sources but by then the cat was out of the bag. The only “source” was the Lady Penrhyn surgeon Arthur Bowes Smyth, who wrote briefly of “the scene of debauchery and riot that ensued during the night”. But Smyth wasn’t there on the shore – he was still on his ship moored in the harbour and unlikely to have been able to see anything happening on shore, in the dark, during a thunderstorm.

Were such an event have happened it would surely have appeared in journals, diaries and letters of the time. Yet famed diairist Watkin Tench never mentions it – he in fact writes that “nothing of a very atrocious nature” happened in February. Soldier Ralph Clark who apparently loathed the convict women, doesn’t mention it either. Nor does a mention of it appear in any of the numerous letters written home.

The prevalence of the myth of the Foundational Orgy is an example of not letting the truth get in the way of a good story.

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