Understanding the Grog

Among scholars of Indigenous experiences with alcohol and researchers of the effects of substance abuse more generally, Dr Maggie Brady has no peer. Her studies of Aboriginal drinking and petrol sniffing extend back thirty years and form the most broad-ranging and comprehensive body of investigation and commentary by any single individual. She has looked at the social history of alcohol, examined the habits of non-drinkers and those who “gave away the grog,” charted the ebb and flow of petrol sniffing in remote communities, written on the Indigenous alcohol problem from the perspective of actions undertaken by the Australian Government, and discussed the impact of programs sponsored by the United Nations. Perhaps the quickest way to obtain an overview of her prodigious output is a quick browse through Google Books.

Most recently, Brady has produced a series of six short booklets collectively known as First Taste: how Indigenous Australians learned about grog (Alcohol Education and Rehabilitation Foundation, 2008). At about twenty-five pages each, handsomely designed and beautifully illustrated, these pamphlets aim to dispel many of the myths about Aborigines and alcohol that have accumulated over the years. Brady’s position is that these misconceptions have reinforced a too popular notion that Aboriginal people are victims of the grog, powerless in its grasp. The defeatist attitudes that are thus spawned among both people Aboriginal and white only do more harm in turn. Brady’s intent in this series may be focused–to peel away just a few layers and instill the tiniest bit of hope–but perhaps, as we have all heard many times in other contexts, from little things big things grow. 

The first book, “Aims and Ideas,” sets out the agenda for the series and presages some of the mythbusting that is to follow.

  • Aboriginal people traditionally had no alcohol
  • Alcohol use started in 1788 at Botany Bay with the First Fleet
  • Outsiders always used alcohol to exploit Aboriginal people
  • Aboriginal people were the passive recipients of alcohol
  • Alcohol abuse is determined more by biology than by social and cultural environment

These ideas are explored in the remaining books of the series. “The First Taste of Alcohol” contains sections on indigenous fermentation along with two accounts–one a tale from a startling Aboriginal point of view–of encounters with alcohol in 1788. The story of alcohol prior to the arrival of Europeans is further developed in “Strong Spirits from SE Asia,” which focuses primarily on the role of Makassan traders in bringing alcohol to Australian shores, but also looks at early alcohol use in the Torres Strait influenced by contact with the Philippines and Polynesia. “Learning to Drink form the English” first examines the culture of alcohol use in England prior to the departure of the First Fleet and then takes up the story of Bennelong and Bungaree before concluding with a survey of bush drinking in the Victorian goldfields.

I was fascinated by the fourth book in the series, “The story of the bottle,” an examination of the impact of glass bottles on Indigneous material culture over two centuries: the “bottle” of its title being a literal, not a metaphorical, reference to the containers that alcohol arrived in. Brady examines the archaeological record that reveals how the concave bases of bottles were incorporated into the Aboriginal toolkit as axes and scrapers and square-faced gin bottles were flaked to form highly-prized spear points. She follows this with an engrossing look at the bottle in contemporary artistic expression, from its use as decoration on graves, to its incorporation and depiction in the works of artists like Joanne Currie and Joan Stokes, to the woven bottles of Ramingining, before concluding with a look at how depiction of alcohol use in European illustration has influenced attitudes towards Aborigines in a more general fashion.

The final book in the series, “Struggles Over Drinking Rights,” looks at both sides of the issue, at attempts to win equality before the law as well as attempts to build an Indigenous temperance movement to battle the ills brought with the grog. In this chapter of her examination as in each of the preceding, Brady is at pains to be non-judgmental and to simply present facts and dispel misconceptions. These are educational materials, not polemics. Useful bibliographies supplement each essay, and the clear, simple language makes them appropriate to a wide variety of readers from young students to health workers in Indigenous communities.

The set is available from the Alcohol Education and Rehabilitation Foundation for most reasonable prices: a single copy is free; additional sets cost only A$11.00 each.

While doing a little background research for this post I came across this wonderful video presentation, Maggie Brady: History and Culture in Indigenous Alcohol Use from the ABC. In it, Brady delivers a lecture based on First Taste at ANU’s Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research. You can download the program (from ABC’s Fora.tv series) to your iPod as well as watch it online. Brady is joined in this presentation by Robin Room, who responds to Brady’s remarks and examines the problems of alcohol abuse from a broader perspective of current government policy, initiatives, and culture change. Although the entire presentation is nearly an hour long, a “table of contents” feature allows you to view it in brief chapters of just a few minutes each.

Maggie Brady (click to view the video)

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