The supply of intoxicating drinks to the aborigines is the fruitful source of nearly all the evils and misery to which the poor creatures are subject.
— George Thornton, Protector of Aborigines, New South Wales, 1882
The first Protector of Aborigines in New South Wales, George Thornton, believed alcoholism, or ‘intemperance’ as he and his peers called it, was the greatest misfortune white society had inflicted on the Aborigines. It was the underlying cause of the offensive behaviour at the Circular Quay boatsheds during his term of office, and, because it unleashed violence, sexual abuse and disease, he thought it the main reason for the decline of the full-blood population. In his first census of 1882, Thornton asked the police to report on whether the Aborigines in their locality were ‘addicted to habits of intemperance’. The returns showed this was a problem in 52 per cent of communities. Apart from the missions, which banned alcohol, many of the remaining communities were dry only because they could not get enough supply.
In 1890, when the Aborigines Protection Board conducted its census for that year, it repeated the survey of intemperance. It asked each of the colony’s 72 police districts to report on whether the local Aborigines were ‘addicted to habits of intemperance’, if so where they obtained their liquor, and to make suggestions for reducing consumption. The census found the proportion of the colony where the majority or all the Aborigines were addicted to alcohol had grown to 60 per cent; while the proportion where the majority were ‘of temperate habits’ had fallen to 40 per cent. By this time, the formerly dry missions had succumbed. The local police recorded that most Aborigines in all three districts where Christian missions were located, Moama (Cumeroogunga), Darlington Point (Warangesda) and Brewarrina, were addicted to alcohol. Here is a sample of returns from all districts:
Tweed River District, Aboriginal population 120: All are addicted to habits of intemperance. The liquor, as a rule, is supplied at night by Europeans of low character and kanakas. The camps have been frequently watched by the police, but so far without success.
Richmond River District, Aboriginal population 524: The majority are addicted to habits of intemperance, but there are a few who do not drink. The liquor is stealthily obtained at public-houses, and from some of the townspeople for whom they do odd jobs. Every attempt is made by the police to check the practice, but great difficulty is experienced in obtaining information to prosecute.
Clarence River District, Aboriginal population 415: The majority are addicted to habits of intemperance. A number of convictions have been obtained against publicans for supplying them with liquor.
Tenterfield District, Aboriginal population 102: The majority are temperate.
Bellinger River District, Aboriginal population 57: Many are addicted to habits of intemperance, the liquor being supplied by the persons who employ them, and by Europeans who visit their camps.
Nambucca River District, Aboriginal population 114: The majority of the full-blood aborigines are addicted to habits of intemperance. The liquor is generally obtained from Europeans. Many of the half-castes are sober and industrious.
Manning River District, Aboriginal population 107: They are all, as a rule, fond of drink. The liquor is generally obtained by half-castes and from Europeans who visit the camps. Two persons were prosecuted during the year by the Taree police for supplying rum to the aborigines and were sentenced to 14 days imprisonment each.
Hawkesbury River District, Aboriginal population 79: They are not addicted to habits of intemperance. On the contrary, they are very temperate.
Shoalhaven District, Aboriginal population 133: The majority love drink, which is generally secretly supplied to them by Europeans. The aborigines resort to all kinds of artifice to obtain liquor.
Wallaga Lake District, Aboriginal population 99: Very few complaints are made of their drinking habits. Generally speaking, they are much improved in this respect.
Warren District, Aboriginal population 105: The majority drink whenever they can obtain the liquor, which is, as a rule, supplied by Europeans who visit the camps for immoral purposes.
Bathurst District, Aboriginal population 32: Only 2 of the aborigines, both full-blood, are of intemperate habits, the liquor being obtained in town. The remainder are hardworking and industrious.
Cowra District, Aboriginal population 70: None are addicted to habits of intemperance.
Brewarrina District (Brewarrina mission), Aboriginal population 163: A large number are addicted to habits of intemperance.
Barringun District, Aboriginal population 109: The majority are addicted to habits of intemperance and opium smoking. The liquor is supplied them by Europeans. In many instances it is purchased direct from the hotels, notwithstanding the vigilance of the police in their efforts to prevent it. The opium is supplied to them by the Chinese, and they are much fonder of it than the liquor.
Mossgiel District, Aboriginal population 98: The aborigines in this district are very temperate
Darlington Point District (Warangesda mission), Aboriginal population 141: They are very much given to habits of intemperance. The liquor is supplied to them by station hands and others.
Deniliquin District, Aboriginal population 74: They all drink when they get the opportunity, the liquor, as a rule, being obtained from station hands during the shearing season.
Moama District (Cumeroogunga mission), Aboriginal population 189: The majority are addicted to habits of intemperance. The liquor is generally obtained at Echuca and Bamah (Victoria).
There was no discernible pattern to these findings. Drunken and temperate Aboriginal communities could be found in all geographic regions of the colony and neither the presence nor absence of Christian missions appeared to make much difference either way to the outcome.
Alcoholism blighted Aboriginal life for the entire existence of the Aborigines Protection Board. From the outset, it crushed the hopes of missionaries and government officials alike for an orderly transition from traditional hunter-gatherer life to the modern world. It consumed individuals, causing even men who earned ‘considerable sums of money’ working for pastoralists and selectors to ignore their obligations to their wives and children:
Unfortunately at present they are frequently led to go into the townships nearest the stations and spend their money in drink, and thus their wives and children are thrown upon the station for support.
Alcohol led women away from their communities in the 1880s:
These miserable women are so degraded by drink and other vice that it is difficult for us to reach them.
Although Maloga is in an isolated position, and free from intrusions of the public, both by distance from town, and being situated in a large bend of the Murray River, still we are not entirely cut off from temptation in the form of strong drink. Two or three of the elder women walked to a public house some few miles away, and slyly obtained spirits.
The same community was still afflicted by the problem in the 1930s:
There was a little settlement across the river and an aboriginal could go over and drink liquor with the white people. That was over the Victorian border, and the aborigines could go over the border and drink as much as they liked, and then come across and create trouble. It was considered the ruin of many of the aborigines. A considerable sum of money has gone across that river to the hotel.
The violence it engendered sometimes became a public issue that prompted commentary in the parliament:
[At Cumeroogunga] these men were frequently intoxicated. On one occasion they became a mob of howling savages, and surrounded the manager’s residence, and shots were fired.
All those concerned saw alcohol as a major cause of death and depopulation:
The twin evils — intemperance and sexual immorality — are carrying off large numbers year by year.
The board note with regret that a large proportion of the deaths has arisen from the effects of intemperance, and much difficulty is experienced in preventing ill-advised persons from supplying the aborigines with intoxicants.
Alcoholism and the violence and abuse it engendered to children was one of the contributing reasons for the high incidence of Aboriginal children being defined as neglected. One former inmate of the Cootamundra Aboriginal Girls’ Home recalled:
I know why I came. My father took off and my mother drank and they apparently found me in the house by myself. This Welfare woman told me that and that I was bruised and that. I don’t want to remember that — if it’s true. I don’t want my kids to know my family was like that. I think it was true — I remember being belted with the buckled end of a belt and I’ve got a scar from that, I think.
The only effective response the authorities came up with was prosecution by the police and the law. Throughout the 1890s and 1900s, police regularly recorded convictions of a variety of people, including publicans, half-castes and Assyrian hawkers, for supplying alcohol to the Aborigines. Some publicans lost their licences for the offence. The stations most successful at resisting the problem were those that were both isolated from town life and had a vigilant local police force. The manager of the Euraba reserve near Boomi on the Queensland border reported in 1911:
This Reserve is geographically well adapted for a home for aborigines, as, owing to its isolation from the town, with its accompanying evil influences and facilities for obtaining drink, the residents are spared the necessity of combating these temptations, and are consequently a sober, well-behaved, hard-working lot of blacks. In this connection, too, the unwavering interest displayed by the local police in the conditions of these people has largely contributed to their present happy state.
The 1909 Aborigines Protection Act extended the existing full-blood prohibition to those of part descent who lived on an Aboriginal reserve or who received the board’s rations. However, this made little impact on the deeply embedded drinking culture on the stations and camps. The authorities never got the problem under control. The powerful temperance movement that arose at the time within the chapels and churches of white working class communities made no headway among the Aborigines.
By the 1930s, all the problems of the 1880s and 1890s had multiplied, with the sole exception of opium smoking. In New South Wales, this addiction never became the problem it was in Queensland, where one of the motives for creating that state’s system of Aboriginal reserves in 1897 was to prevent opium consumption. The New South Wales census report (above) from the Barringun district in 1890 about local opium consumption was repeated in 1892, but not thereafter. The only other reported incident of opium use was in 1901 when a Chinese man was convicted for selling it to the Aborigines at Bourke. In 1937, the former manager of the Brewarrina Aboriginal station, Roderick Brain, was questioned by a select committee of the New South Wales parliament inquiring into the management of the Aboriginal stations:
Did you ever see any drugs about there? — No.
Or any opium or anything like that used? — No, metho at times but not opium.
Who would bring the metho. there? — The aborigines themselves. They got it from the chemist, but the chemist actually did not know what they were getting it for.
Alcohol always remained the Aborigines’ preferred path to intoxication. As long as the 1909 act and its amendments remained in force, the supply of alcohol to stations and reserves remained surreptitious, but still flowed freely enough to wreak its consequences of violence, sexual abuse and of men far too hung over to even think about going to work. If the grog supply did dry up, alternatives such as metho (methylated spirits or 100 per cent wood alcohol) were still available. When a new amendment to the Aborigines Protection Act came before the New South Wales parliament in 1936, some politicians responded to the Aborigines’ acquired taste for this lethal substance by calling for methylated spirits to be added to the definition of prohibited ‘liquor’.