Learning to drink then and now: A new approach to understanding and intervening in problem drinking among Indigenous Australians


Dr Maggie Brady, ANU


The prevailing belief that Indigenous alcohol problems are due to colonisation has resulted in a sense of powerlessness in relation to Indigenous alcohol misuse, both on the part of service providers and those receiving the services.

The aim of this research is to counter such maladaptive views by presenting findings as a set of six books written in plain English. This reflects a social learning approach and will hopefully contribute to an increase in motivation related to treatment and intervention.

From a research perspective, this project fills a gap that presently exists in terms of a detailed and systematic historical account of Aboriginal contact with alcohol.

The project addresses factors which underlie present Indigenous drinking patterns, in particular, heavy periodic consumption among those who do drink. It documents the evidence for pre-contact uses of alcohol and other licit substances and provides a history of the introduction of commercially produced alcohol and licit substance products to Indigenous Australians. It also investigates an historical basis for a social learning model of drinking and promotes community education encouraging responsible consumption, using the historical evidence of ‘learning to drink’.

Misunderstandings about alcohol use and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples affect the way in which Indigenous people feel about themselves, and the ways in which they look for solutions to drinking problems. Stereotypes about drinking also affect perceptions of Indigenous Australians by people in the general population. These ideas have been around for a long time, and many of them relate to the history of what happened when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples first came up against alcohol.

The books challenge the idea that Aboriginal people traditionally had no alcohol; that alcohol use among Aboriginal Australians started in 1788 at Botany Bay with the First Fleet; and that outsiders always used alcohol to exploit Aboriginal people. They also challenge the notion that Aboriginal people were the passive recipients of colonial goods including alcohol, and that alcohol abuse and intoxicated behaviour among Indigenous people is determined more by biological than by cultural and social factors.


The research is presented as a set of six booklets:
Book 1 Aims and Ideas
Introduces the series, and challenges the common ideas and misunderstandings about alcohol and Indigenous people that are discussed in books 2 to 6.

Book 2 First taste of alcohol
Tells the story of traditional Aboriginal alcoholic drinks and describes how Aboriginal people in southern Australia responded to the first taste of European alcohol by rejecting it.

Book 3 Strong Spirits from Southeast Asia
Tells how strong liquor first arrived in the north, not the south of Australia. The Makassans from Sulawesi brought arrack, and the Filipinos brought tuba to the Torres Strait Islands.

Book 4 The story of the bottle
Tells how important bottle glass was to Indigenous people, as the raw material for making spear points and cutting tools. Today modern Aboriginal artists use bottles in different ways to make statements about drinking.

Book 5 Learning to drink from the English
Tells the story of how the early settlers drank. Aboriginal men such as Bennelong were taught English drinking customs; others witnessed and mimicked drunkenness.

Book 6 Struggles over drinking rights
Explains the effects of prohibition laws on the process of ‘learning’ to drink and on all-or-nothing patterns of consumption. Aboriginal Christians and civil rights campaigners had different views on lifting the drinking bans.

By stressing that drinking to intoxication and violence are learned in a social and cultural environment, the books are designed to encourage the view that all societies have it in their power to change their cultures of drinking. A message to be gained from the series is that drinking behaviour is learned behaviour, and Indigenous drinking behaviours have developed out of historical experiences grounded in, and influenced by, their social and cultural environments.

The underlying message is that if expectations and behaviours around drinking are learned then they can change and be re-learned.

FARE continues to fund and undertake research that contributes to the knowledge-base about alcohol harms and strategies to reduce them.

This research is used to inform our approach to evidence-based alcohol policy development, ensuring that the solutions we are advocating for are informed by research. FARE’s research is also often quoted by governments, other not-for-profit organisations and researchers in public discussions about alcohol, demonstrating that FARE is seen as a leading source of information.

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