Unpacking Opium


In Queensland, opium was a legal drug throughout the 1800s.  It was purchased through registered dealers and its use was widespread.  By late in the century, however, contemporary documents articulated opium on a register of race, labour, money and sex.  Tonight I want to look briefly at how this rising opium alarm informed the framing of a law to take total control of Aboriginal Queenslanders, control that structured their lives into the 1970s.

It is clear from the records that Aboriginal labour was critical to this State’s development.  From the earliest days local people acted as guides, chopped wood, cleared bush, supplied fish and food, washed and cooked, built fences and roads, logged timber, drove and yarded cattle.  By the early 1880s there were already over one thousand Aborigines in permanent work in rural Queensland.  The usual payment was tobacco, adulterated liquor, food scraps and cast off clothing.  Just as commonly, whether their bosses were respected pastoralists or Chinese market gardeners, payment was made with opium charcoal, the foul debris from used opium pipes.  Highly addictive, tobacco, liquor and opium snared compliant, dependent workers, and access to their wives and children.

Few Europeans were willing to endure the hard labour and poor conditions of rural employment, and few settlers could afford the wages to retain them.  As occupation intensified, there was fierce competition for this cheap, locally available labour pool and much resentment that Aboriginal families were free to choose between food gathering, ceremonial travel and obligations, or work.   To corner the labour market, Europeans played the race card, alleging Chinese employers traded opium and exploited Aboriginal women.  An investigation after complaints around Mackay in the late 1890s found that Aborigines preferred to work for the Chinese who provided them better food and shelter, paid higher wages, and paid them when due.  A similar protest by Atherton Tableland farmers in 1900 was also dismissed; the northern protector said the farmers ‘have only themselves to blame’ for labour problems.

The note of alarm that did strike an urgent chord in the minds of authorities was the interlinking of opium and sex.  Induced drug dependency, and the moral disinhibition that went with it, trapped Aboriginal men, women and children in a spiralling vortex of sexual disease.  Whole families and tribal groups – contemporary estimates suggested one thousand deaths during the 1890s alone – were lost to endemic syphilis, gonorrhoea and physical degeneration.  In the early 1890s Yarrabah missionary Ernest Gribble found that many children around Cairns were addicted to alcohol or opium, and young girls prostituted themselves to feed their craving.  Commissioner Archibald Meston wrote in 1896:

Opium apparently takes complete possession of the Aboriginal, to the paralysis of mental and physical faculties, the total destruction of energy and willpower, and the annihilation of all sense of manhood and womanhood, self-respect, shame, virtue, honesty, and veracity …

Overwhelmingly it was the Chinese who were blamed for supplying the drug and demoralising the Aboriginal race, but Meston found ‘there are many white men who give it as the only agent which will induce them to work.’  He was digusted that these men of ‘position and reputation’ contemptuously flouted a police directive banning the supply of opium to Aborigines, their close links to local judiciaries guaranteeing token penalties.

It was on the rising tide of anti-Chinese sentiment that the Queensland government passed The Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act in 1897.  Taking note of electoral concerns, the government made it a criminal offence to supply liquor or opium to Aborigines.  And taking note of the immeasurable economic value of a cheap captive labour force in the rapidly developing colony, the government took control of all Aboriginal employment, designating the senior police officer in each district an Aboriginal protector, to negotiate compulsory work contracts, manage wages, and nominate any person or family for permanent removal to a government reserve.

Controls over Aboriginal lives were easily enforced.  Controls over opium exploitation another matter.  Restrictions were simply defied by Treasury, keen to protect import revenue equivalent to $2.5 million.  Treasury invited dealers to apply for trading licences in northern ports such as Cooktown and Cairns, the latter town boasting two wholesale and eight retail opium outlets in 1899.  On Thursday Island the opium provisions of the 1897 Act were officially suspended.  In this context, in 1901 opium continued as the wage of choice in the north, and was as ‘as common as sugar’ in the West.

The opium alarm was officially expressed in terms of the degeneration of the Aboriginal race, but records show the underlying concern was with associated contamination of the white race.  The removal of fifty-one people from Maryborough to Fraser Island in 1897 is typical.  They were publicly identified as opium smokers, but what actually triggered their removal was the prevalence of venereal disease among white youths, infected by girls police described as ‘mere children’ who had been ‘hawked around for purposes of prostitution’. Only after 1906, after intensive lobbying in the federal arena by Queensland’s chief protector, was opium importation banned except for medicinal purposes.

In my view the opium alarm of the turn of last century operated as a signifier of white exploitation.  Opium was exploited to eliminate competition by Chinese employers for Aboriginal labour, it was exploited, including by prominent townsmen, to hold a subservient workforce, and it was exploited to allow free sexual congress, including with children.  In fact parliamentarians in 1901 successfully argued that no criminality should attach to intercourse with Aboriginal girls if they had reached puberty, on the grounds that they ‘ripened’ faster than white girls and the sexual maturity of children of nine or ten could easily be mistaken.  Their words.

Controls over labour and female sexuality were harnessed from the early twentieth century to feed what authorities described as an ‘insatiable demand’ for domestic servants that initially included children under twelve.  Because of their sexuality, and instead of convicting white assailants, authorities transported far more Aboriginal girls and women to reserves than males.  And then, to feed the labour market, authorities contracted back into that risk environment as many girls and women as possible, including the much sought after girls ‘fresh from school’, despite continuing reports of assaults and pregnancies.  In a scandal in 1934 the chief protector decided that the ‘moral welfare’ of the girls was less important than the financial gain of maintaining access to their wage bonanza and avoiding the cost of supporting them safely on the settlements.  On that note, missions generally refused to let girls and women go to external employment, despite government pressure to exploit this revenue source.  The Queensland government was still contracting girls to employment in remote areas in the late 1960s, as well as their sisters, mothers and aunts.

During the nineteenth century thousands of Aboriginal families were trapped and destroyed by the introduced opium dependency.  During the twentieth century thousands of Aboriginal families were trapped and destroyed by the imposed dependency implemented on the back of the opium scourge.  The word ‘opium’ was dropped from the legislative title in 1939, but the controls over Aboriginal lives, work and wages continued into the 1970s.

Copyright Dr. Rosalind Kidd. Website development by: Ryan-Thomas Robinson