Our Social Anaesthetic
The Fatal Shore’s author, Robert Hughes, tells us that rum was ‘the social anaesthetic and real currency of early New South Wales’:
In this little community… nearly all the men and most of the women were addicted to alcohol. In Australia, especially between 1790 and 1820, rum became an overriding social obsession. Families were wrecked by it, ambitions destroyed, an iron chain of dependency forged. Many colonists drank with an oblivion-haunted thirst, determined to blot out the harsh tenor of their lives.
The forebears of many of us - those who arrived here between 1788 and 1820 - were doomed to become a generation of addicts. We craved grog not just after a day’s slave labour or tilling the land, or spearing a kangaroo or whipping one of our fellow humans until he bled - no, we craved it when we first woke up and until the moment we fell asleep. We then gave it to the First Australians.
Upon landing in Botany Bay, Governor Phillip offered wine to two Indigenous tribesmen. They both took a sip and promptly spat it out. But soon enough, they too started using grog to bury their anguish, and alcohol began decimating large segments of the Indigenous population. Then the invaders’ cat-o’-nine-tails and guns did the rest.
Grog wasn’t just a pastime. It became the bedrock of our economy. It was our currency. It was what we traded in. We saw that it was more useful than food. It wasn’t simply the drug that subdued the masses - it was more powerful than money. Grog was gold before the Gold Rush was even thought of. Grog was God. It wasn’t like it is today - pockets of troubled communities addicted to substances. The addicts were all of us. Our entire community was overridden with addiction.
Every one of us needed that drink. We chose it over water and food. We chose it over clothes. We’d rather have been naked. And why not? Those of us who were white were stuck on an island with little idea of how to grow our own food. Or how to forage for it. We were dislocated from our families. We’d been left without resources. We were being tortured and we were torturing each other. Those in charge were amassing wealth and keeping us confined in our little cages, like lab rats. And like lab rats - which have a simple choice between water and water laced with morphine - we chose the latter.
We had shit for life. All of us. Black. White. Man. Woman. Child. And so alcohol became the best way to cope. We were all addicted to it. Of course, this has only become slightly easier to admit to now that we’re 230 years older...