SHAD Interview—”Problem Substances: Temperance and the Control of Addictive Drugs in Nineteenth-Century Australia” with Matthew Allen

Editor’s Note: This is the third Points interview with authors from the Spring 2021 issue (vol. 35, no. 1) of ADHS’s journal Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, published by the University of Chicago Press. Today we feature Dr. Matthew Allen, a lecturer in the Faculty of Humanities, Arts, Social Sciences and Education at the University of New England in New South Wales, Australia. You can see his article here. Contact the University of Chicago Press to subscribe to the journal or request access to this article or any other article from SHAD’s history. 

SHAD Interview Matt Allen Title Card
Left: Esther Paterson, “Keep This Out: Prohibition, Poison Liquor and Drugs – Vote No, Thus,” (Melbourne: J.J. Liston, 1930). Image courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales.

Article Abstract

During the second half of the long Australian nineteenth century (c. 1840–1914), drugs were subjected to increasing government control in a process largely driven by the temperance movement. Temperance activism and its highly public campaign against alcohol were the key to a profound shift in the social imaginary of drugs—the common understanding of intoxicating substances—which were converted from symbols of individual deviance to the structural cause of social problems.

The temperance movement promoted the disease concept of addiction and lobbied governments for expanded controls on alcohol, a model that was later copied by critics of opium. But more importantly, temperance and its radical attack on alcohol as a problem in itself inspired a fundamental shift in the public discourse about drugs that paved the way for modern drug prohibition. This article uses a series of government inquiries into alcohol and opium to illustrate their transformation into problem substances by the early twentieth century.

Tell readers a little about yourself

I’m a historical criminologist at the University of New England (for North American readers, that’s the new New England, in New South Wales, Australia). My work is focused on understanding the unique and extraordinary transition of New South Wales from a penal colony to responsible democracy (c. 1788–1860) and using this enlightenment experiment to understand changing ideas about politics and government in the British world.

Dr. Natalie Thomas, my co-author, is a Post-Doctoral Research fellow at the Institute for Social Science Research, at the University of Queensland whose research interests include alcohol and other drug regulation and policy, qualitative research methods, and the role of non-government organizations in criminal justice and alcohol and other drug policy and service delivery.

What got you interested in the history of alcohol or drugs?

I came to the history of alcohol by observing different drinking cultures and trying to understand the way they developed. This drew me into the history of alcohol regulation in Australia, and, initially, my PhD was proposed as a study of the origins of the six o’clock closing of pubs—which was the law in New South Wales from 1916–56.

This flawed regulatory system was the consequence of a temperance campaign that culminated in successful early-closing referenda in most Australian states during the first world war. It resulted in what became known as the “six o’clock swill”—an hour of hard drinking between the end of the working day and the closing of pubs—which distinctively shaped Australian culture during the mid-twentieth century. However, my search for origins drew me ever backwards into the nineteenth-century, and my eventual thesis focused on the temperance movement and alcohol regulation in New South Wales from 1788–1856. I do hope to return to the six o’clock swill in future work.

Explain your article in a way that your bartender won’t find boring.

We argue that the contemporary war on drugs has its origins in a profound shift in the way people thought about drugs during the nineteenth century. The temperance movement—a popular international campaign against alcohol which culminated in Prohibition in the United States— helped to promote this new idea that alcohol, and by extension other intoxicating drugs, were problem substances that directly caused the harms associated with their use.

Where drunkenness and intoxication had once been seen as symbols of individual sinfulness, alcohol and drugs were increasingly understood as structural causes of social problems, necessitating stricter controls on their production, trade, and use. We explore this shift in the context of colonial Australia, using a series of government inquiries to illustrate the way this new logic came to dominate the public understanding of drugs as problem substances and underlying their criminalization in the twentieth century.

An army of sly grog sellers
Anti-Prohibition poster from Melbourne, c. 1930: “An Army of Sly Grog Sellers Created by Prohibition; Vote No!.” Image courtesy of State Library of New South Wales.

Is this part of a larger project? What else are you working on?

My interest in this shift in what we call the “social imaginary of drugs” relates to my research on the history of alcohol regulation, which was the subject of my PhD thesis. Building on this work, I now interpret alcohol controls as evidence of an underlying governmental imaginary—that is, as a shared background understanding of how society should be governed.

In the context of colonial New South Wales—which originated as an authoritarian penal colony but became a chartist-inspired democracy—alcohol controls were not simply imposed, but they were negotiated and contested, and this complex process illustrates the governmental imaginary. I am currently working on a book exploring these ideas, provisionally titled, Drink and Democracy: Alcohol, Politics and Government in Colonial Australia,which is under contract with McGill-Queen’s University Press’ Intoxicating Histories Series.

Based on your research and experience, what do you see as the future of the field?

Historians know that predicting the future is an exercise in storytelling (of course, so is writing about the past). With that in mind, I’d like to imagine a future in which we cease to essentialise a distinction between “alcohol” and “other drugs.”

For historians, this would mean understanding the category “drugs,” at least in part, as a modern way of distinguishing substances that are imagined as having problematic physiological effects and are hence in need of government control. This broader history of “drugs” as objects of government would therefore need to explain why some problem substances are criminalized, others regulated, and others merely criticized.

Which scholar, living or dead, would you most like to have dinner with?

Herbert “Doc” Evatt was a brilliant high court judge, an Attorney-General, and key advocate for the formation of the United Nations, who consistently defended civil liberties. But he was also a legal historian who wrote the definitive history of what has become known as the “rum rebellion”—the military coup against Governor Bligh in 1808. Evatt was a brilliant and profoundly humane Australian, who for decades helped lead the long (and ongoing) fight against Australia’s instinctive cultural conservatism.

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