Ingeborg van Teeseling

About Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating from Holland fifteen years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She endeavours to explain Australia to migrants new and old at her website, and runs, telling people's life stories.

Drinking: The bitter part of our national psyche

While we may not consume the most on a global scale, our proud history of drinking could see it last far beyond modern hand-wringing.



Poor, poor Australia. Another day, another alcohol-fuelled incident. And everybody at a loss to explain why we’re in this mess. To quote the otherwise admirable Senior Australian of the Year, Gordian Fulde: “Australia is a podium finisher on the legal drug of alcohol. We’re up there and I don’t know why.”

First of all, let’s set some records straight: Australia is nowhere near the top when it comes to worldwide alcohol consumption. Among the countries in the OECD, we come 15th, with Austria claiming the top spot. According to the figures of the WHO, we are even lower on the list, at number 19, top honours being taken out by Belarus. So we have to be a little careful before we claim bragging rights.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have a problem.

We drink an average of 10 litres of pure alcohol per person per year, which is just above the OECD average of around nine litres. Fifteen people die each day due to alcohol-related problems, which is an increase of 62 percent within a decade. Crimes connected to alcohol cost 1.7 billion dollars a year, 10 percent of police time is devoted to dealing with incidents related to alcohol, one in four Australians are victims of alcohol-related verbal abuse and up to half of domestic violence and violent crimes can be (at least partly) attributed to alcohol.  3.8 million Australians average more than four drinks a day and account for 75 percent of alcohol sales. But those sales are impressive.

The beer industry on its own makes profits of $680 million a year. In total, the trade in liquor has a revenue of 10 billion dollars and is able to employ more than 30,000 people.

As far as I can see, this completely fits in with Australian traditions going back to our earliest origins. Alcohol has always been at the centre of our culture. In fact, it has made our country. Not just because it was the basis of our economy and political system, but also because we have used it as a practical symbol to give the finger to authority. As we all know, Australia did not start with the loftiest of principles, nor did it attract the cream of society.

And I am not just talking about the convicts.

Eris O’Brien’s 1937 book on the foundations of Australia has described the marines and officers who inhabited this country in the first twenty years or so as “flotsam and jetsam,” an undisciplined lot who refused to work towards setting up the new colony and were more interested in their own entertainment and gains.

Most of the early convicts came from big cities like London and Liverpool, and were poor people who scraped a living together from odd jobs and some extra-curricular activities like stealing and prostitution. Gin and beer were their juice of choice, in order, as David Malouf once wrote, to “escape in lightheadedness the harshness” of their lives. Alcohol was viewed as far more than a route to drunkenness or a flight into oblivion. Doctors used wine as a medicine and it was, of course, also at the centre of the Sunday sacraments as the blood of Christ. For centuries, people had been drinking beer instead of water, which was usually polluted and could make you very sick. The “genteel” classes drank port, the ladies a sweet wine and looked down on the “lower orders” although they drank in similar quantities. As Fulde rightfully said last week: alcohol is and has always been an issue across the social spectrum, with the working class tanking up on beer and the privileged on Moet or Veuve.

Both the convicts and the colony officials, military and seamen transported their drinking habits to NSW when it was first settled. Even before they arrived, they celebrated Christmas 1787 on board ship with pork with apple sauce, beef and plum pudding and “four bottles of rum, which was the best,” as James Scott, a sergeant of marines, wrote from the Prince of Wales. The marines were fortunate, because one of their perks was the one-quarter pint of rum daily on the voyage in. Convicts were not forgotten either. When they were sick, the onboard surgeons liberally “revived” them with wine and spirits. The new colony was soon in starvation mode, with harvests failing and few provisions coming in from home, but rations of rum were the last to be cut. Although wheat was in short supply, rapidly illicit stills sprang up, because it was far more profitable to distil the grain than to put it in the warehouses and sell it to the public stores. Because the authorities in England had forgotten to set up a monetary system for NSW, promissory notes and rum were the currency of the day until 1813, when the first coins were made by punching the middle out of Spanish dollars.

Many officers and some free settlers like John Macarthur were swift to take their opportunity. Especially after Arthur Phillip left in 1791, officers took over the political and economic reigns and saw to it that they were paid four times: they got their military pay, were given large land grants and got free convict labour, men and women who were fed by the government. They also set up a trade, where they chartered ships and sold the contents (alcohol included) for a searing profit to free settlers and the government. Governors like John Hunter tried to limit this practice but failed, because people would barter food and clothes for drink, even when they were almost starving. Hunter issued a Public Order in April 1796, subjecting both buyer and seller to corporal punishment, but he was ignored. A little later he ordered convicts, their overseers and the military staff to attend church on Sundays, in an attempt to get them out of the myriad pubs that had sprung up. Within a few weeks, the church was burned down. In the meantime, the officers and men like Macarthur were getting rich. Macarthur, who had come to the colony with a debt of 500 pounds, had amassed a fortune of 20,000 dollars by 1808, and he was not going to give that up when new Governor Bligh came in and put measures in place to stop the lucrative business ventures. This led, as we all know, to the Rum Rebellion, Bligh’s exit from the Colony, and a victory for the officers. All in all, alcohol had been used to stick it up the authorities, and the authorities had lost.

But the Rum Rebellion was not the only example in our history of alcohol as a tool to fight political arrogance.

In 1918, there was a similar incident in Darwin. At the time, John Anderson Gilruth, a Scottish veterinary scientist and, in the Australian parlance, a bit of a wowser, had been brought in as an administrator of the Northern Territory. Gilruth had two pet hates: alcohol and the working classes. Soon he started moving against both. He nationalised the supply of liquor in the NT, which resulted in a drastic rise in the price of beer and the closure of a fair number of hotel bars. He also screwed down on the workers, who went on strikes and protested against taxation, unemployment and their lack of political representation. After WWI ended, Gilruth made two fatal mistakes. A group of working women had asked for a few hours off to celebrate the end of the conflict, by having a drink in a hotel. Although their bosses had allowed it and a hotel had made a place for them in one of the bars (which, then, were only accessible to men), Gilruth decided to put a stop to it. He put out a declaration, ordering the women to stay at work. When they ignored it, he sacked them and closed the hotel in question. A few weeks later, just before Christmas, he added insult to injury by refusing permission to offload 700 cases of beer from the Darwin docks. The next day, more than a thousand people marched on the NT equivalent of Government House and took Gilruth and his family hostage. He was only released months later, when he had to be freed by a military contingent and a gunboat. Gilruth left, never to return.

It was another warning: in Australia, the combination of political arrogance and alcohol are a dangerous mix.

A few years earlier, in 1916, a new measure had been accepted into law in most Australian states. It had been influenced by a riot in Liverpool, where soldiers mutinied against conditions at Casula Camp. Angry and later full of alcohol, they went on a rampage, which resulted in a full-scale battle in the latter part of the day, at Sydney’s Central Station, where one of the soldiers was shot and killed. The incident was grist to the mill of the Temperance Movement, which soon advocated for a new austerity measure, which would also be good for public morality: a 6pm closure of pubs and hotel bars. Again, the Australian populace decided to thwart authority. As soon as they left work at 5pm, they rushed to their favourite bar-maids and started drinking as much as they could before last orders. Sly grog shops also sprang up everywhere, more and more people started brewing their own, and drinking at work became even more prevalent than it had already been. It was not just the fact that authorities had taken liquor away that annoyed people. Alcohol had also become a symbol for masculinity. “Hard-earned thirsts” were built up in shearing sheds, on building sites and down mines and the idea was that “you should never trust a man who doesn’t drink,” because he was not, somehow, a real man, a mate, a man’s man. Because women were not allowed in pubs, this was the place where men could be together without restrictions and prying eyes. The upper classes had their own sacred spaces, of course, with gentlemen clubs and membership-only associations. They were the men’s sheds of the era, and men loathed to give them up – especially by the force of the women who ran the Temperance Movement and some know-it-all-politicians in Canberra.

In Australia, therefore, alcohol is more than just a means to an end. It is certainly more than a tool to have fun or loose your inhibitions. It is, and always has been, a way to flip the bird to the authority of the day. In the past, that authority was mostly political, now it is mostly moral. But the sentiment remains the same.




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