A disastrous change of diet.


In 1991, while preparing a speech, I rang the history department of a large university and asked to be connected to someone who worked on the history of food. There was a pause, and the person who answered replied with a question: ‘And what, might I ask, has food got to do with history?’ This was, admittedly, even at that time, a somewhat antediluvian answer, but it does reflect the academic attitude towards food in history until relatively recently.

Seven years later, Tim Rowse published his book White Flour, White Power: From Rations to Citizenship in Central Australia which makes a clear and powerful connection between food and history.

‘From the 1890s,’ wrote Rowse, ‘rationing began to replace violence as a mode of government.’ The massacres could not be allowed to continue, because they seemed to be having no effect on the behaviour of the Indigenous people, often simply making them more belligerent.

What do I mean by massacres? Let me offer just one example, from Tony Roberts’ essay in The Monthly ‘The Brutal Truth’:

‘In 1881, a massive pastoral boom commenced in the top half of the Northern Territory, administered by the colonial government in Adelaide…. By the end of the year the entire Gulf district (an area the size of Victoria, which accounted for a quarter of the Territory’s pastoral country) had been leased to just 14 landholders… Once they had taken up their lease, landholders had only three years to comply with a minimum stocking rate. By mid-1885 all 14 stations were declared stocked. What happened in the course of this rapid settlement is the subject of this essay. At least 600 men, women, children and babies, or about one-sixth of the population, were killed in the Gulf Country to 1910. The death toll could easily be as high as seven or eight hundred.’

The arrival of Europeans in 1788, with their own foods and livestock, and a way of farming entirely alien to this country, began the process of removing the indigenous people from their traditional diet.


Not only did European Australians ignore the foods that grew here, they actively discouraged the hunting and collecting of traditional food. The authorities considered such practices primitive and undisciplined, and believed they had no place in the process of ‘advancing’ Aboriginal society.

At first the rations were given to supplement native foods. Then, as settlement increasingly denied Aboriginal people access to food and water, they began to develop tastes for beef, flour, sugar, tea and tobacco, and, as anthropologist Annette Hamilton writes, ‘the comfort of a blanket, the luxury of soap’. But in many outback areas, the official rations were inferior in quality and insufficient in quantity. They were just sufficient to encourage Aborigines to stay near the ration depot, but not enough to give them one square meal a day.

As the widely admired anthropologist and writer on Aboriginal culture W. E. H. Stanner wrote in 1938:

‘Most of the detribalised and semi-civilised natives would be shown [by experts making a tour of Australia] to be badly under-nourished … Many of them are short of essential proteins, fats, minerals salts and vitamins. The number of Aborigines just over the threshold of scurvy, beri-beri and other deficiency diseases must be very great.’

The cultural results of this forced change can be seen to this day. Removed from the land and a diet of nutritionally rich wild foods, and the exercise associated with hunting, fishing and gathering them, their health deteriorated rapidly and their numbers dwindled.

The indigenous diet came to consist, typically, of white flour, white sugar, camp pie, salt and beer. A nutritional disaster which has led to indigenous populations having three times the average incidence of diabetes, twice the average incidence of heart disease, and six times the level of renal (kidney) disease.

As we are learning more and more every day, what people eat, why and how they eat it is a very good way of looking at history. As I do hope is reflected in my latest book The Oldest Foods on Earth: a history of Australian native foods (gratuitous plug).