Alcohol Abuse


By John Leary MSC

ABORIGINAL people in the Northern Territory, long before they received the right to drink, on their visits to Darwin and other centres, became acquainted with a widespread phenomenon among the non-aboriginal residents called "alcohol abuse". If the aboriginal visitors took a drink, it had to be done in greatest secrecy, well concealed from the prying eyes of the police and often in haste. This, of course, was not good preparation for learning to live with alcohol and for a people who had never had alcohol in their society.


'IT is not only an ancient, but a beautiful custom, to encircle the graves of the dead on the first and second of November. The peasants of the villages hasten to the cemeteries; they kneel by a wooden cross, or other such funeral ornaments. They think on the past, on the shortness of life. Then the departed are crowned with flowers, to signify the life that will never end. The lamp burns, to remind us of the light which shall never be obscured.'

- E. Spindler, Zeitspiegel, 1791

In 1975, two aboriginal men, Pat Dodson and Bernard Tipiloura, a Tiwi and I, were authorised by a Commonwealth Interdepartmental Committee on "Alcoholism and Aborigines" to carry out a general survey on the causes and effects of alcoholism among aborigines. The group was to see how aboriginal people were reacting to the problem, whether any positive approaches towards solutions were forthcoming from them. Also, to contact non-aboriginal individuals or groups, Government or private, who were endeavouring to do something about it on behalf of Aborigines and to discover their methods and approaches.

The survey involved a journey of twenty eight thousand kilometres in a Campmobile. The group endeavoured to meet personally a good cross-section of Aborigines living in varying circumstances throughout Australia. Wherever possible, they spoke to local aboriginal leaders, presidents and members of local aboriginal councils and housing associations, aboriginal teachers, nurses involved in community and aboriginal health, aboriginal police aids, settled families in cities and towns, fringe-dwellers and itinerants so often living in appalling conditions. They sat down with drinking groups in parks, on river banks, in vacant allotments, in gravel pits, under bridges. Their approach was informal. They felt that the formalities required by a scientific survey might well intimidate and jeopardise the naturalness and sincerity of the response of the aboriginal people.

There is no doubt that heavy drinking among Aborigines is a serious problem as it is as well in white society. But is the problem with Aborigines more serious than in white society where alcoholism is assuming such widespread and alarming proportions? White society has developed measures which tend to hide the effects of heavy drinking. The Aborigines, so recently introduced to alcohol, have built up no such protection. Rather, they tend to advertise their drinking. They are exposed and detectable by the very fact that they are black, that they often drink in groups in the same hotel, or in open places such as parks, vacant allotments, river banks. A small group drinking to excess can be most disruptive. For these reasons onlookers can quite illogically pass condemnatory judgment from the drinking group to the total people. It is interesting to note how frequently we heard from people in a position to know that they thought there were far fewer alcoholics per capita among aborigines than among white Australians.


LET no man deceive you, brethren. If you would not be deceived, and if you would love the brethren, know that every calling in the Church has some false professors. I do not say that every man is false; I say that every calling has some false professors; there are bad Christians, but there are also good Christians. You seem to see more bad because they form the chaff and hide the wheat from your sight. Nevertheless, the wheat is there, and you have only to approach it, to see, touch, examine, and use the testimony of your palate. You find some undisciplined people whose profession is holy; are you therefore to condemn the calling? Many religious women do not keep within their own houses; they go about with idle curiosity, talking more than they ought, and are proud, talkative, and given to wine. If they be virgins, what does chastity of the flesh profit when the mind is corrupt? Lowliness in the married state is better than virginity with pride; for if a virgin so minded had married, she would not have been able to glory in the name of the thing, and she would have had a curb to restrain her. But because of evil virgins, are we to condemn those women who are chaste in body and in soul? or, for the sake of the good ones, are we to be forced to praise the reprobate?

- St Augustine, 354-430, AD Enn. in Ps., XCIX, 7. Transl. Mary Allies

Historically, aboriginal society did not prepare its people for alcohol and the handling of it; nor did it prepare them for living in white society. Rather, the meeting of the two societies was productive of many pressures and frustrations that made them very likely candidates for heavy drinking and alcoholism. Like any human being, they would tend to use alcohol as a means of coping with such things as depression, frustration, anger, confusion, sorrow, boredom, problems in all shapes and forms; also to gain 'dutch courage' and brighten things at both the individual and the community level. When asked why he drank so much, one man had the simple solution - "I like it".

In many cases, the excessive use of alcohol is simply symptomatic of the need for many other things that help to make for satisfied living: employment, education, health, good housing, recreation, interest and the feeling of being valued and respected as Aborigines who are part of the community. In many places the Aborigines exist as a separate group barely tolerated. There would seem to be some sort of one-sided agreement - "you remain over there, don't make nuisances of yourselves and we will let you be."

The Aborigines themselves, in the course of conversation, came up with many varied reasons for their heavy drinking. Here are some of them:

  1. Aimlessness. They are somehow caught up between two worlds and have lost direction.
  2. Lack of acceptance of fellow co-religionists when they move from settlement or mission to town. There is a certain disillusionment at a spiritual level.
  3. A feeling of being defeated even before becoming involved in society; so they are possessed of an inherent inferiority complex expressed in an attitude - "What the hang! Only a blackfellow!"
  4. The failure to fill a spiritual vacuum created by the loss of their own rich religious heritage.
  5. Fear arising from racial tension leads to drunkenness and the results of drunkenness sometimes leads to further tension and still more drunkenness.
  6. A desire to feel as good as the next person and show it in word and action.
  7. As a way of being accepted.
  8. To 'change' physical circumstances - eg. to feel warm, to escape the pain, to forget about depressing circumstances.
  9. Not knowing how to behave in a mixed racial setting when drinking and so overdoes things.
  10. Inferiority complex because of the lack of education.
  11. The practice of relatives pressurising a young person for his or her wages or savings has resulted in the young person joining the drinking group.
  12. Family problems, especially the loss of children committed to the State. The loss of children due to family break-up often due to excessive drinking produces deeper alcoholism because of the very difficult conditions required to have the children back i.e. to get off the grog; get a house; the couple to get together; get a job; show stability.
  13. Loss of discipline in their society because of the breakdown in the authority structure. So often the old have lost control of the young.
  14. A sense of belonging to the land no longer theirs to use, recreate in and worship.

THE Church of St Mark at Alexandria was long celebrated as being the depository of the Evangelist's body, of the translation of which to Venice a singular account is given by Sabellicus, one of the ancient Italian historians, in his Historia Venetiae. It happened that at this period (c. 830) two Venetians, Bona de Malamocco and Rustico de Torrello, visiting the church, were struck with the grief exhibited by the attendant priests, and inquired into its cause. Learning their apprehensions of the church being despoiled by the myrmidons of the Moslem, the strangers entreated from the priests permission to remove the relics of the saint, not only promising them a large reward, but also the lasting gratitude of their fellow citizens, the Venetians. The clergy at Alexandria first met the request of Bono and Rustico with a decided negative; but when the sanctuary was actually invaded by the infidels, the defenceless guardians consented to yield up their sacred charge. The difficulty now was to convey the body on board one of the Venetian ships, of which there were several in the port of Alexandria, and at the same time to conceal the circumstance from the knowledge of the inhabitants, who held the remains of the Evangelist in high veneration, on account of the miracles which were performed through their agency. The body of St Mark, being removed, was replaced by that of St Claudian; but a miraculous perfume which spread itself through the church when the holy relics were brought to light nearly betrayed the removal. In transporting the body through the city to the port, it became necessary to adopt some expedient which should prevent the curiosity, both of the infidels and the Christians, from being awakened. The body was accordingly deposited in a large hamper, surrounded with vegetables and covered with pieces of pork, an article which every good Mussulman holds in abhorrence.

Those who accompanied the hamper were ordered to cry Kanzir as they went, which in the Oriental tongue signifies pork. Having succeeded in reaching the vessels, the precious burden was suspended in the shrouds to prevent discovery, till the ship was put to sea. Scarcely had the Venetians left Alexandria when an awful storm arose; and had not St Mark himself appeared to Bono de Malamocco and advised him to furl his sails, the vessel must have been lost. On their arrival at Venice the whole city was transported with joy. The presence of the saint promised perpetual splendour to the republic. The body was received by the Senate with the same words with which his Master had saluted the saint in prison, 'Peace be unto thee, Mark, My Evangelist!" Venice was filled with festivals, music and prayers, and the holy relics were conducted amidst hymns and incense to the Ducal Chapel.

The Doge Giustiniano Participatio, dying a short time after this event, bequeathed a sum of money to build a church to the saint, which was accomplished under his brother and successor, Giovanni Participatio.

- T. Francis Bumpus, The Cathedrals and Churches of Northern Italy.

Throughout Australia there are groups of Aborigines living in conditions which might be called fittingly "Environmental Alcoholism". It is a composite thing, self-augmenting and self-perpetuating, a vicious vicious circle. It is made up of the Aborigine himself with his deeply ingrained feelings of not being wanted, a race apart not only mentally and socially, but in many places physically relegated to the outskirts of the town; in one place actually separated from the European section of the town by an imposing cemetery. In places we found them lacking houses and reduced to living under sheets of iron or in abandoned motor cars or old water tanks. If houses were available they were often short in number or unsuitable as to size.

Roebourne, W.A. at the time we found it, is a classical example of "Environmental Alcoholism". There is a severe drinking problem among aborigines in the town. Aborigines represent ninety nine per cent of court convictions for drunkenness and offences issuing from it. In the first half of the year the group visited the town seventy five percent of the children between the ages of ten years and eighteen appeared in the local court. Liquor troubles started with the ten year olds. There were eighteen offences for drunkenness and related offences among the eleven year olds. Roebourne is fast developing a street culture among the juveniles. They cannot be gaoled until they are fourteen. So they are spared as long as possible until finally they are committed to Perth. They return, often worse for the experience, certainly no better prepared to live in Roebourne.

The present generation of children has grown up on the Reserve with no skills, no opportunities, no motivation. Parents, because of liquor and other offences, often find themselves in gaol. The children tend to be left to themselves, and so from an early age become alienated from their parents and have to fend for themselves in a no-man's land between Aboriginal and European society.

The immediate history of these people, and other groups as well, throws light on this sad state of affairs. Roebourne was predominantly a pastoral area and the Aborigines, for the most part, identified with the pastoral industry. Often they were born, brought up and lived out their lives on one or other of the stations and died there. Then came the decline in the pastoral industry, the introduction of the award wage and possible fear of land rights and the consequent herding of Aborigines into the towns, Roebourne among them. Because of their previous upbringing, namely in tribal, then station life, prepared for town life both socially and in the matter of skills needed for town employment. Citizens rights came and social services, but there was little thought of jobs or job preparation for Aborigines. Finally, to compound the confusion there came the sudden, almost overnight industrialisation of the area with the discovery of iron ore. Towns like Dampier, Karratha, Wittenoon sprung up. There was a mass influx of single white males to take up the many jobs, but still no jobs for Aborigines. Over this period the Aborigines had become dependent on a Government paternalistic situation and the habit of drinking had become entrenched. Along with this went other social abuses, such as the misuse of Aboriginal women and the general denegration of the Aboriginal male.

So for Aborigines, Roebourne and other similar places, is a disaster area. Bystanders tend to regard the Aborigines so forced into these situations as a sort of untidy lot of individuals who drink all day, live on Social Services, belong to Welfare and the Courts. Or as one observer remarked: "They are like wayward white people who happen to be black!" These people forget the aborigine's past, his deeply established cultural values, attitudes and ways of living that enabled him to survive those so many thousands of years, but sadly left him ill equipped to fit into the mould imposed by the recent colonisers. White society seems to have the attitude; "We are right, therefore you are wrong!" It is very much this dominating attitude that will not allow the white man, even to begin to understand the Aborigine and his perilous place in the present world. Rather, it produces tensions on both sides and creates an atmosphere which makes a difficult situation well nigh impossible.

At the conclusion of the survey, after travelling such a distance, after meeting so many aboriginal people in so many different places and circumstances the group was convinced that a primary need of aboriginal people was a spirit of understanding and acceptance from fellow Australians. With this in view, the group pondered further the reasons why, in their estimation, aboriginal people throughout Australia were so consistently marginalized. The group thought the heart of the problem was to be found in ancient aboriginal culture and its wide divergence from the invading culture. The two cultures were at extreme ends of the scale.

The aborigine was very much a religious person. The material world was viewed and lived through the eyes of the spiritual. Spiritually rich, materially poor the Aborigine's spiritual nature found expression in his 'Law', his ceremonies, his traditions, his all-pervading mysterious world of the Dreamtime. His sacred objects, his paintings, whether done on the body or on rock faces were for the most part expressions of his religious beliefs. Both his individual and his social life were inextricably bound up with his religious life. With the loss of his land, the basis of his religion, the Aborigine suffered his most lethal blow, the loss of that part of him that was uniquely him, that gave him his identity, dignity and self-assurance. His way of life, his everything was snatched from him by a people who lived another type of life entirely and now had the ultimate say because they held the ultimate weapon - force. The Aborigine was forced into a situation where he had to blindly compromise with no bargaining power on his side. In place of the religion that made him and whose disappearance unmade him, he was presented with petty baubles of materialism and consumerism which could do nothing but strip him of his dignity, his pride in self, his identity. The loss of his land meant also the loss of his means of living and with it that constant challenge from nature to maintain his hunting skills that made him unequalled throughout the world.

So the Aborigine was literally forced to become a dweller on the outskirts, someone who was totally dependent on another. From being the most independent person in the universe - 40,000 years of it, he suddenly became the most dependent. This is the shattering experience that only the Aborigine can understand because he is the one who has suffered it. But it is precisely at this level that others should try to realise the tragedy that has occurred.


It is almost equally clear that they have never grasped that full doctrine of the Fall - the sole doctrine explanatory of our state - upon which, coupled with that of the Incarnation, the Catholic Church bases all Her theology.

To put the thing in epigram (and therefore, of course, quite sufficiently) they are certain that we are animals which have risen. They have not met the idea that we may be a sort of angel who fell.

- Hilaire Belloc, Survivals and New Arrivals, speaking of former Bible-Christians turned sceptics

We speak of dispossessed people in other parts of the world and our obligations towards them, but here we have on our very doorstep our very own first Australians, the most dispossessed and the most underprivileged. The argument that the Government is giving money to help and that is enough is an admission of our failure to realise that we have personal obligations. The ultimate solution to the problem is beyond Government and money; it is with fellow human beings who come to feel and understand and sympathise and accept, not in a patronising way but on the level of equals. Money and benevolence can do more harm than good to a person who feels he is inferior and merely tolerated.

The plight of the aboriginal people is made all the more severe because of the fact that they are scattered in small groups throughout the land, surrounded by a highly pressurised society. They cannot set their own style and pace, as other indigenous people can, such as their neighbours the Papua-New Guineans, but they must go with the tide and suffer the influences of the society about them. When so much of this society is sick, when its own people are opting out, what of the Aborigines?

The Aborigine is often condemned because of his attitude towards a home. Again there is a failure to understand the past. The white man's concept of 'home' represents an entire way of life foreign to the Aborigine. The Aborigine never lived in a house. His roof was the open sky; a temporary shelter was his protection against the rain or the cold wind or the hot sun and was abandoned as he moved from place to place. Now being restricted in his movements because a foreigner had taken his 'country', his temporary shelter had to become permanent. Yet this permanent temporary shelter continued to represent his way of living. A deeply entrenched way of living is not changed over-night, especially when that way of living is forty thousand years-plus ingrained.

The Aborigine had maintained himself and his group and his social structure over all those years at one with nature. Nature was his wage-packet. He had learnt to woo nature, to sustain himself and survive with confidence. He developed instincts for reading nature, for tracking and for hunting to a degree of high excellence. The intruder's fence and "No Admittance" signs had suddenly put a stop to this way of living. However the instinct and the urge to go on living this way would be there for many generations to come. The good qualities developed in this way of life would now get him into all sorts of trouble in a world where other qualities were needed if he was to survive.

Moving from place to place within his country he solved many of his health problems. Now he could not longer roam. Sickness began to overtake him To make matters worse the new settlers brought with them other strange and fatal illnesses. The Aborigine had his own remedies for the ills he knew. His methods of treatment had kept him going those thousands of years. He had no remedies for the recently introduced maladies. Unkindest cut of all, the intruder now began to accuse the Aborigine of being dirty, unhealthy, unable to cope.


MOST of what passes today for heresy, is either crude denial or muddled thinking.


As with housing, so with work - it was an entirely different concept. The Aborigine developed instruments for hunting and protection. He fashioned objects for ceremonies and decorated them with meaningful signs. All this he did with great skill, laboriously, with primitive tools, with a meticulous and painstaking attention to details, out of crude matter presented by nature, often done under uncongenial circumstances of heat, rain, wind or cold. The creations were wholly his. They were expressions of himself and his culture and he did them with infinite zest.

With his hunting and tracking there was again complete concentration on detail and unbelievable patience and perseverance, to a degree beyond, the capacity of most humans. In the bush he was the complete master, totally competent and confident. Put a white man in a similar situation and he would die within days; whereas the Aborigine would be completely at home, relaxed and healthy. Yet when it comes to the white man's work-situation these outstanding qualities of the Aborigine are found wanting. So he is condemned: he is unreliable, has no perseverance, no attention to detail, wanders from the job. Clearly it is a question of cultural motivation.

The Aborigine developed a complicated language structure that followed thought patterns different from Europeans. So he was condemned by the white man because he could not catch on to 'plain English'. The Aborigine also had law, social structures, customs, values that differed from those of white society, therefore he was a misfit.

The very harmful effects of the clash of the ancient culture with that of the invader were highlighted recently (1994) in a speech to an aboriginal group in Darwin that had come from all parts of Australia. The speech was delivered by Boniface Perdjert, a tribal Murinpatha leader and a Catholic Deacon of twenty years standing. To quote Boniface: "So many things - call them pressures - have come upon us so quickly, we have not had time to handle them. Our priorities have become confused. More important things of the culture, like ceremony, have been cut short and made less effective, because of so many other things that have to be done. We have not had enough time to sort things out. I like to compare what is happening with the eating of food. If we eat the wrong food, or if we eat food too quickly, we end up with a big attack of indigestion, or we don't absorb the food, so we become sick and weak and perhaps die. So with all the new things that have come so quickly into our lives: we have no time to sort out the good from the bad - what will nourish us as aboriginal people, or what will finally destroy us. We are left, I suppose, to learn from our mistakes. But, when mistakes multiply, confusion sets in. There is little space or time for learning."

From "Annals Australasia"    July 1995

Portal to all Annals Australasia and Dr Leslie Rumble files


Sean Ó Lachtnáin's Home Page