8.2 History of tobacco use among Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders

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This section draws substantially on a range of secondary articles and reviews,1–11 which together provide an extensive reference list of primary resources, including accounts of tobacco use provided by Indigenous peoples, early European settlers and anthropologists. Those pursuing further information are referred to these publications in the first instance.

Australian natural flora includes several plants containing nicotine, some of which have traditionally been harvested, prepared, traded and chewed by Indigenous peoples across much of Australia. The most potent of these is 'pituri,' made from leaves of the shrub Duboisia hopwoodii, which has a nicotine content of up to 8%,6 much greater than that found in manufactured cigarettes.5,6 Although Duboisia hopwoodii naturally occurs over much of southern and western Australia, most pituri was prepared in south-western Queensland, and from there distributed almost as far north as the Gulf of Carpentaria, south to Lake Eyre in South Australia, east to the mid-region of Queensland, and west to the area where Alice Springs is now located, an area covering more than half a million square kilometres.4,5 It is also believed that a second centre for pituri processing was located somewhere in Western Australia, but little is known of it.4 It remains unclear exactly why pituri production was such a localised behaviour, when it was considered such a valuable commodity and Duboisia hopwoodii is not an especially rare plant. One theory is that remote end-users of the processed product may not have recognised the association between pituri and the shrub, but it is now considered more likely that the leaves from plants growing in the south-west of Queensland (and possibly those from the Western Australia centre as well) were favoured because they contained nicotine in a less immediately toxic form.4,5

Other plants traditionally used for chewing include the nicotine-containing species Nicotania gossei, Nicotania suaveolens, Nicotania excelsior and Nicotania ingulba.6 These 'bush tobaccos' were chewed by men, women and children, and, like pituri, were widely traded over long distances.1,8 Bush tobaccos are still used and traded in some regions3–6 (see Section 8.5.3). Over time, terminology has altered, and in some regions bush tobaccos are now collectively referred to as pituri.1,3,5,6,8

Pituri was prepared by drying selected leaf and stems of the Duboisia hopwoodii, often in sand ovens,5 then packing the product into specially woven bags, ready for trading.4 Pituri was produced and traded in such considerable volumes that it is probable that those who harvested it also used techniques to maximise cropping.4 Early reports show that knowledge regarding processing had a sacred ritual significance and was vested in specific groups or clans, and that usage was probably restricted to older males.4,5 Prior to chewing, pituri4 (and other bush tobaccos, such as Nicotania spp.)6,1 would be mixed with alkaline wood ash, which facilitated the release of nicotine from the leaf and enhanced its absorption through the lining of the mouth. This process has been likened to the combining of betel with lime prior to chewing,4 as practised throughout much of the Asian subcontinent.12

The mood-enhancing effects of nicotine lent the offering of pituri significance as an overture of friendship, and in some ceremonies the sharing of pituri both symbolised and facilitated social bonding.4,6 It also fulfilled the practical purposes of suppressing appetite, providing sustenance on long journeys,4,7 and, in larger quantities, serving as a painkiller.4,6 Pituri was the most highly valued commodity in circulation; it was so important that it has been described as the 'gold standard'6 of Indigenous trading. Although it is likely that at least a proportion of users were addicted to it,4,6 because its usage was strictly controlled,6 it is probable that quantities of pituri used beyond the immediate localities where the plant was to be found were low.9 Pituri would remain an important social and trading commodity until the early twentieth century,4 but its traditional methods of preparation and constraints on use were lost in the decades following European settlement.4,5

Tobacco, and the practice of smoking, first reached the shores of northern Australia at the beginning of the eighteenth century, when Macassan fishermen sailed from the Indonesian island now known as Sulawesi in search of pearls and trepang (a seafood delicacy intended for export to China). The trade was important to the Macassans. About a thousand men would make the voyage each year and stay in the region for several months at a time, until operations were abandoned two centuries later in the early 1900s.8

The Macassans acknowledged Indigenous ownership of the land and offered pipes, tobacco and other valued goods as tribute to local populations and in return for access to coastal waters and camping places ranging between the Kimberley to the Gulf of Carpentaria.6 The Macassan method of smoking, with a characteristic long-stemmed pipe formed from a crab claw, a hollow root or a reed,7 became part of Indigenous social and ceremonial life in these areas,8 and is still in use in the East Arnhem region.3 Macassan goods, including tobacco and pipes, were prized as trade items by the local population and were borne far inland.6 However, given the sporadic nature of supply from the Macassan fisherman, it is unlikely that exposure to the new tobacco resulted in ongoing addiction.9

Tobacco smoking was also introduced into Cape York and the Torres Strait region, although it is not clear by whom, and according to early eye-witness accounts, Torres Strait Islanders grew plants that contained nicotine and smoked pipes made of bamboo.13 While it cannot be said for sure just how widespread nicotine usage became,8 it is likely that people in south-eastern Australia did not have access to nicotine before European contact.14

With the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, British patterns of tobacco usage were introduced to Australia. Tobacco was commonly used by all echelons of colonial society; officers and other socially elevated males using snuff and later cigars; the marines and convicts favoured clay pipes.6

Tobacco was often presented in early encounters between the Europeans and Indigenous people as a token of goodwill and conciliation.8 The introduced tobaccos and pipes soon became popular and widely sought after by Indigenous communities, whether or not they had been users of bush tobaccos or pituri,8 and were highly valued, along with other introduced commodities such as blankets, flour and sugar. The Indigenous desire for tobacco and other wares was quickly recognised by the European settlers, who offered them in exchange for labour, goods and services, and hoped that such inducements would lead the Indigenous occupants of the land to forego their traditional lifestyle and become compliant participants in the settlement's activities.6 For their part, the Indigenous population actively set about obtaining tobacco and other prized goods from their new sources. Communities negotiated and bargained, exacting tobacco and supplies as just consideration for use of the land and resources, in accordance with Indigenous tradition.6 However the colonial intention to instil a Western work ethic, with its keystones of regular habits, subordination of servant to master, economic incentives and accumulation of wealth and goods, remained contrary to the Indigenous world view.6

That said, tobacco trade in the early days of colonisation has been interpreted as a process of 'mutual exploitation', both parties for the most part initially deriving satisfaction from their side of the transaction.6 If the new settlers had the advantage of controlling tobacco supplies, the local inhabitants equally had the option of providing or withholding information, labour and other markers of cooperation vital to the Europeans. Over time, however, this balance would firmly come to favour the new settlers.

Over the following years, usage—and hence addiction to nicotine—permeated vast tracts of the continent, with the expansion of European outposts through explorers, missionaries, pastoralists, cattle farmers, miners, fishermen and anthropologists.7,8,14 In contrast to the European population, tobacco was used by Indigenous men, women and children.10 Tobacco was also a trade item for some Indigenous groups, allowing the product to penetrate distant regions of Australia long before direct white contact was made.6

The development of tobacco dependency among Indigenous people was variously interpreted by the colonists as a 'civilising' or a 'taming' influence: civilising because it could aid discourse and engender goodwill, and taming because it had the capacity to produce a cheap labour force prepared to work in return for tobacco.6,15 Widespread nicotine addiction made the Indigenous populations vulnerable to manipulation by the settlers, who could make provision of tobacco dependent upon compliance.8 At least one Victorian squatter deliberately fostered tobacco use among local Indigenous people, enabling him to secure their ongoing services in return for small amounts of tobacco.7 Tobacco became standard payment in kind. During the 1800s and the early decades of last century, Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders worked in often brutal circumstances for the cattle and pastoral industries, on sugar plantations, in road gangs, and in the pearl shell and trepang trade, remunerated in full or in part with tobacco.6,11 And not only labour was paid for with tobacco. Material goods, such as artefacts and ceremonial objects, and intellectual property, including language, local knowledge, oral history and cultural heritage, were acquired by collectors, anthropologists and other researchers in return for tobacco.6

The decades following European colonisation saw gradual movement of communities of Indigenous peoples into white settlements, in response to a range of influences, including government policies and other prevailing circumstances, and desire for a range of provisions, including tobacco.6,11 This process has been described as a form of 'accidental migration', whereby once the relocation occurred, reversal became increasingly difficult as intimate knowledge of homelands faded, and dependency and habit bred a new way of life that became normal to successive generations.6,11 As more people moved to missions or settlements, traditional ways of living were less viable for those left behind. The drift to white settlement became difficult to resist.6 Populations that had survived for thousands of years virtually without external intervention were soon to become dependent on European settlement, as a result of which many were to suffer marginalisation and segregation, and shift their connections with their lands and traditional ways of living, as well as their languages, histories and cultures.16

On pastoral mission stations, whether run by churches, the government or privately, tobacco formed an important part of rations, and was provided with the expectation of compliance in a regimen of work (and, in the Christian missions, participation in religious activities as well).6 Tobacco rations undoubtedly initiated and reinforced tobacco use among many individuals, and although the practice of including tobacco in rations declined from the 1940s onwards, it did not stop completely on cattle stations until the late 1960s.9 Interestingly, one researcher has observed that in some remote communities, tobacco is still used as an 'ice breaker' by some health professionals as well as anthropologists and lawyers to facilitate their work.9

Pre-existing traditions of nicotine use and barter among much of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island population predisposed them to ready acceptance of European tobacco,6 but the process of colonisation was to change Indigenous patterns of tobacco use for ever. The cultural mores relating to traditional tobacco use vanished as the 'pituri clans', the custodians of ritual and knowledge, lost their way of life or died out,5 and ready-processed tobacco became widely available in ample quantities.6 The relentless process of more than 200 years of colonisation has done much to reinforce smoking in these populations.17 The effects of ill-conceived social control policies, such as relocation of people from traditional homelands and enforced separation of children and families, and the cumulative burdens of racial prejudice and socio-economic disadvantage, have contributed to continuing socio-economic disadvantage and lower health status for Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders as compared to non-Indigenous Australians.17,18 The connection between low socio-economic status and tobacco use is well established, but in the case of Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders it is reinforced by its origins in early tradition and ritual, its continued ceremonial uses in some communities,14 and its enduring significance as a symbol of sharing, friendship and solidarity.8

Socio-cultural aspects of modern day tobacco use are also discussed in Section 8.9, and socio-economic issues are discussed in sections 8.3 and 8.8.


1. Ratsch A, Steadman KJ and Bogossian F. The pituri story: a review of the historical literature surrounding traditional Australian Aboriginal use of nicotine in Central Australia. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 2010;6:26. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20831827

2. Lindorff KJ. Tobacco time for action: National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Tobacco Control Project final report. Canberra: National Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations, 2002. Available from: http://www.naccho.org.au/Files/Documents/NACCHO_Tobacco_report.pdf

3. Ivers R. Indigenous tobacco—a literature review. Darwin, Australia: Menzies School of Health Research and the Co-operative Research Centre for Aboriginal and Tropical Health, 2001. Available from: http://www.lowitja.org.au/files/crcah_docs/Indigenous_Australians_and_Tobacco.pdf

4. Watson P, Luanratana O and Griffin W. The ethnopharmacology of pituri. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 1983;8:303-11.

5. Low T. Pituri: tracing the trade routes of an indigenous intoxicant. Australian Natural History 1987;22:257-60.

6. Brady M and Long J. Mutual exploitation? Aboriginal Australian encounters with Europeans, Southeast Asians, and tobacco. In Jankowiak, W and Bradburd, D, eds, Drugs, labor and colonial expansion. Tuscon: The University of Arizona Press, 2003. Available from: http://tobacco.health.usyd.edu.au/site/supersite/resources/pdfs/Brady_2003.pdf

7. Walker R. Tobacco smoking in Australia, 1788–1914. Historical Studies 1980;19:267–85.

8. Brady M. Historical and cultural roots of tobacco use among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health 2002;26(2):116–20. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12054329

9. Ivers R. Tobacco addiction and the process of colonisation. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health 2002;26:280-1.

10. Walker R. Under fire. A history of tobacco smoking in Australia. Melbourne, Australia: Melbourne University Press, 1984.

11. Read P and Japaljarri E. The price of tobacco: the journey of the Warlmala to Wave Hill, 1928. Aboriginal History 1978;2(140-8)

12. World Health Organization and International Agency for Research on Cancer. IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans. Volume 85: Betel-quid and areca-nut chewing and some areca-nut-derived nitrosamines. Summary of data reported and evaluation. Lyon, France: IARC, 2004. Available from: http://monographs.iarc.fr/ENG/Mongraphs/vol85/volume85.pdf

13. McNiven IJ. Inclusions, exclusions and transitions: Torres Strait Islander constructed landscapes over the past 4000 years, northeast Australia. The Holocene 2008;18(3):449–62. Available from: http://hol.sagepub.com/content/18/3/449.abstract

14. Briggs VL, Lindorff KJ and Ivers RG. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and tobacco. Tobacco Control 2003;12(suppl. 2):ii5-8. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/cgi/content/extract/12/suppl_2/ii5

15. Angelo A. Kimberleys and North-West goldfields. Early Days. Early Days: Journal of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society 1948;3(10):38–45. Available from: http://histwest.org.au/?page=publications

16. Vickery J, Faulkhead S, Adams K and Clarke A. Indigenous insights into oral history, social determinants, and decolonisation. In Anderson, I, Baum, F, and Bentley, M, eds, Beyond bandaids: exploring the underlying social determinants of Aboriginal health. Papers from the Social Determinants of Aboriginal Health Workshop, Adelaide July 2004. Darwin, Australia: Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal Health, 2007. Available from: http://www.crcah.org.au/publications/downloads/Beyond-Bandaids-CH2.pdf

17. Flick B. Drugs of opulence and drugs of dispossession. Aboriginal and Islander Health Worker Journal 1998;22(4):7-9.

18. Australian Bureau of Statistics and Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. 4704.0 The health and welfare of Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, 2010 Canberra: ABS, 2010, [viewed September 2010] . Available from: http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/4704.0

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