Alcohol Fermentation in Australian Aboriginals
KeywordsIndigenous People Aboriginal People Torres Strait Islander Coconut Palm Palm Wine
Australia, it has been said, was the world’s only “dry” continent, and its Indigenous peoples were one of the few societies in the world that had no traditional alcoholic beverages (Cleland, 1957, p. 159; Dingle, 1980, p. 228; Spencer, 1988). Australians commonly believe that prior to contact with outsiders in the eighteenth century, neither Aboriginal people nor Torres Strait Islanders (the two Indigenous peoples of the country) knew of the process of fermentation and thus how to make drinks containing alcohol. This is taken by some commentators to be the explanation for widespread alcohol abuse in later years. If people had no alcoholic drinks, it is argued, they lacked the traditions and rituals associated with alcohol consumption and had no need to develop the internal social controls that would contain any unwanted effects of intoxication.
These interpretations are only partly true for there are documented accounts suggesting that Aboriginal people in some regions did, in fact, know about fermentation and produced mild, low-alcohol drinks from the natural flora. The Torres Strait Islands (between Australia and Papua New Guinea) are a little different, with the residents of some islands learning how to ferment and distill an intoxicating drink (tuba), as a result of contact with outsiders from the East Indies or the Philippines. In this case, as a result of cultural diffusion, Islanders adopted and made indigenous a drink that originated from elsewhere.
Before European settlement, Aboriginal hunters and gatherers also harvested, prepared, and used a number of plant-based narcotics and stimulants. These were primarily chewed, nicotine-containing drugs, including the highly prized narcotic pituri (from the plant Duboisia hopwoodii), and numerous wild tobaccos of the genus Nicotiana. All these plants required detailed knowledge of the landscape (the strongest pituri grew in a particular region of southwest Queensland and was traded from there), preparation techniques (drying and fragmenting the leaves), and methods of enhancing the drugs’ effects by the addition of alkaline wood ash from particular trees. This increased the absorption of nicotine through the skin once the mixed quid was chewed or stored behind the ear (Clarke, 2007, pp. 105–109; Watson, 1983). Smoking was not practiced prior to contact with outsiders.
Way-a-linah: A Drink from the Tasmanian Cider Gum
The natives caught seven kangaroo this evening, but what interested me most were the numerous cider trees which skirted this extensive plain and which were the first I had seen. Most of those trees had been tapped by the natives. This they had effected by perforating a hole in the tree a short distance above the ground by means of sharp stones and then making a hole at the bottom of the tree into which the liquid is conveyed and from which they extract it, sometimes if the hole is small by sucking it through a reed or twisted bark. In some of these holes I observed upwards of a quart [one litre] of this juice and which my people greedily partook of. It is exceeding sweet and well flavoured and in this respect resembles the flavour of cider. Some that had been dried by the sun had an apple taste. …The natives are very fond of the juice and I am told it frequently makes them drunk. (Plomley, 1966, p. 534)
Holes at the bottom of those trees had been made to receive the juice and which answered the purpose of a tank. Some of the liquor had dried and was white and resembled in appearance and taste a bruised apple; some was brown. It was amusing to see the natives run from tree to tree to suck this juice, of which they are very fond.
Another nineteenth-century description from the naturalist Daniel Bunce provides further detail. He states that the Aborigines covered these collecting holes with a flat stone in order to stop birds and animals from drinking, which implies that the liquid rested there for some time. “When allowed to remain any length of time,” Bunce wrote, “it ferments and settles into a coarse sort of wine or cider, rather intoxicating if drank to excess” (Bunce, 1857, p. 47; Clarke, 2007, p. 105). Little is known about exactly how strong way-a-linah might have been: J. H. Maiden (the Government Botanist who wrote an 8-volume revision of the genus Eucalyptus) tested the fluid from a sample of sap and found that it contained sugar, acetic acid, water, and alcohol. Some non-Aboriginal people likened the juice to black beer or treacle, and Aboriginal people themselves used language terms which distinguished the unfermented “honey” (which was known as wen.ner) from the fermented “cider” (way-a-linah) (Plomley, 1976, p. 183). Early accounts by R. C. Gunn (after whom the eucalyptus species was named) mention that (European) shepherds and stockmen also cut the trees and harvested and consumed the sap. There were unsourced reports that at Christmastime 1826, the Aborigines of Lake Arthur indulged in a great eucalyptus cider orgy (MacPherson, 1921).
Sadly, in recent years large numbers of old Eucalyptus gunnii have been dying as a result of drought, and the trees are under threat from clearing, grazing, burning, and seed collection. The feet grooves can still be seen around the trunks of a few particular trees, along with old scars from the tapping process. Many present-day Aboriginal people have made and tasted the drink. Mick Quilliam, the painter, describes it as being sweet and tangy and about as alcoholic as a light beer.
Mangaitch: A Fermented Drink from Western Australia
We made it by soaking blossom of banksias and eucalyptus, and by dissolving the nectar and allowing it to stand. But the alcoholic content was slight and the use of these drinks was limited to special occasions and certain times of the year. In other words we exercised our own restraints. (Noongar Alcohol and Substance Abuse Service [NASAS], 1992)
The vat was next filled with these cones and water, in which they were left to soak. The cones were subsequently removed and replaced with others until such time as the liquid was strongly impregnated with honey, when it was allowed to ferment for several days. The effect of drinking this “mead” in quantity, was exhilarating, producing excessive volubility. The aboriginals called the cones and the fermented liquour produced therefrom both by the same name – the mangaitch. (Roth, 1904, p. 49)
Daisy Bates, an eccentric amateur anthropologist who worked in Western Australia, wrote that in the early 1900s there were annual feasts of mangaitch, with visitors from elsewhere hosted by the Aboriginal people of the South Perth district. She also described how the “mungaitch honey-groves” were being razed to make way for flocks of sheep and herds of cattle (Bates, 1985, p. 241).
Kambuda: A Drink Made from the Spiral Pandanus
Another Indigenous fermented drink has been documented from the Borroloola region, near the Gulf of Carpentaria in the Northern Territory. It was made from the nuts of the spiral pandanus – a common pandanus in the Northern Territory from which Aboriginal people also harvest its leaves, which are stripped and rolled to make fiber for baskets. When ripe and red or orange in color, the nuts were roasted on the fire, then crushed. The crushed pulp was soaked in water for 2 days in a bark dish, making a mixture known as wuthuwuthu (in the Yanyuwa language). This made a fermented drink known as kambuda. It was said by Herbert Basedow that on ceremonial occasions the Aborigines drank more than usual and that the drink produced “merriment” (Basedow, 1918). One anthropologist recalled older Yanyuwa-speaking women were still making this drink in the 1980s (Brady, 2008).
The Makassans were, by all accounts, enthusiastic consumers of arrack, which was produced locally around the town of Makassar as well as being imported from Batavia in Java. Arrack can be made by distilling “toddy” (eighteenth-century Europeans often referred to this as “palm wine”), the fermented sweet juices exuding from the flowering buds of a number of palm trees, such as nipa, fan, areca, and coconut palm (Burkill, 1966; Clarke, 2007; Wallace, 1989). There is some evidence that visiting Makassans deliberately planted both areca and coconut palms on Australian soil in an effort to produce toddy and arrack during their regular months-long visits (cf. Clarke, 2007, p. 129; Ganter, 2006, p. 46); whether they succeeded, however, is unknown.
It was in the islands of the Torres Strait (TSI), following contact with outsiders, that local people learned and adopted the techniques of both fermentation and distillation in order to produce what was, in effect, an “indigenous” alcoholic beverage known as tuba (Brady & McGrath, 2010). It was indigenous to the extent that the ingredients for making it were sourced and harvested locally from palm trees, its manufacture was incorporated into local knowledge systems, and its consumption became embedded in local Indigenous economic and social practice. It is difficult to say exactly when and by what means the technical knowledge of palm toddy fermentation and distillation arrived in the Torres Strait which, by the nineteenth century, was a busy international maritime hub, part of the “polyethnic north” attracting pearl and trochus divers and lugger crews and laborers (Ganter, 2006, p. 198). Knowledge of tuba making could have arrived from several directions: from the Malay Archipelago to the west (including the Makassan and Bugis traders from Sulawesi), from the islands in the Pacific to the east, or from Singapore or the Philippines to the northwest. Peoples from all these regions at various times manufactured these drinks, but oral histories collected from Torres Strait Islanders, together with a Filipino origin for the term tuba, point to the Philippines and the “Manila men” (as they are known locally) as being the most likely source for this diffusion of technical knowledge.
The distilled version was a strong “rough and ready job” as one Islander described it and virtually identical to the arrack that had been introduced to mainland Aboriginal groups by the Makassan bêche-de-mer fishers. Perhaps because it was so strong, it seems to have been drunk sparingly. With the advent of easily available commercial alcohols, licensed outlets and the end of race-based prohibitions on alcohol in the mid-twentieth century, tuba is now no longer consumed on the TSI, but in earlier years it had many uses. Tuba was explicitly made and consumed during the years of prohibition in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (supplies of liquor were banned to Aboriginal “natives and half-castes,” Aboriginal natives of the Pacific Islands or Polynesians born in Queensland), and thus it played a role in deliberately undermining the authority of the superintendent teachers who were responsible for local governance on the Islands. Offering tuba was a means for Islander families to show hospitality to their guests. It was sold to other Islanders for cash, and during World War II (when thousands of US and allied air force men passed through a northerly air base on Horn Island), several Island families “made a quid” by selling steamed tuba to the “Yanks.” It seems that relatively few health or social problems were associated with drinking tuba or steamed tuba, and in general Torres Strait Islanders have positive memories of the drink. This introduced but indigenized alcohol was harvested, manufactured, and distributed as part of an informal local economy and became embedded in the social and cultural life of the people of the islands on which it was made.
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