My unfortunate habit of ‘nipping’*: Alcohol and the Native Mounted Police

By Bryce Barker

The historical record tells us that alcohol consumption in the early days of European ‘settlement’ was prodigious (Dingle 1978, 1980; see Figure 1). Indeed, the most common artefact we have recovered during excavations at Native Mounted Police (NMP) camps is glass, by far the most common type of which comes from alcohol bottles.

Alcoholism and/or the over consumption of alcohol amongst the European officers of the NMP is a relatively common complaint in official records and the reason for a number of dismissals of officers from the force (Richards 2008:143). Loneliness, isolation and the brutal nature of the work they were tasked with probably all contributed to excessive alcohol consumption by NMP officers—most of which was tolerated unless it resulted in an inability to carry out their duties. For example, Commandant Frederick Walker was dismissed from the force in 1855 after complaints that he ‘had fallen into habits of great intemperance that incapacitated him from performing his duties properly’—specifically irregularities, drunkenness, abuse to the officers, and his general irregularity in the management of the force’ (as cited in Skinner 1975:153). Second Lieutenant Richardson was dismissed in 1863 for ‘becoming intoxicated while on duty and subsequently shooting a black boy whom he had in custody as a deserter from the force’ (as cited in Richards 2008:145). Richards goes on to say that, although Commandant Bligh reported he was made aware of Richardson’s intemperance, he did not report his behaviour due to ‘extenuating circumstances … in the hope he might still prove an efficient officer’.

Figure 1 Per capita consumption of alcohol 1843–2013 (litres of alcohol) (from Anderson 2015).

So what were NMP officers drinking in 19th century Queensland? A perusal of contemporary newspaper advertisements show a wide range of alcoholic beverages for sale. For example, in the 14 February 1884 edition of the Cairns Post there were advertisements for “Regular shipments of wines, spirits and ales”, including A van Hoboken gin, wines, ports and sherries —both colonial and European—rum, whiskey, brandy and liqueurs. Figure 1 clearly shows a preference for spirits throughout most of the 19th century in Australia, with beer consumption only becoming the more popular alcoholic drink at the end of the 19th century and wine consumption remaining relatively low until the mid-20th century.

To what extent this consumption is reflected in the archaeological record is difficult to ascertain, as, although some bottles at archaeological sites remain intact, the majority are broken into thousands of fragments, making it very difficult to identify bottle types. These fragments are sorted into colour groups and examined for tell-tale clues as to how they were manufactured—which may give us clues about the date of manufacture—or for lettering and other marks which may tell us who made the product where it came from and what the bottle was used for (Figure 2).

Figure 2 Examples of glass fragments from broken bottles typically found during excavations at NMP sites.

Gin and Schnapps

Of the many types of bottles, two in particular are universally found in all the NMP camps we have studied so far: gin and schnapps. These bottles are readily identifiable archaeologically because they tend to be square and more often than not have lettering or other marks identifying the company that made them. They also tend to be dark green/black in colour and the glass is often significantly thicker than other bottle types. These square bottles are called ‘case bottles’ because of the method of their transport, packed neatly into rectangular wooden cases (Figure 3).

Figure 3 Early wooden case with 12 case gin bottles (late 18th century) (from http://www.crockerfarm.com/photos/2013-05-04/13378.0.jpg).

It was common for manufacturers to have their names embossed on the sides of the bottle—usually on two opposite sides and sometimes with a ‘blob seal’ containing a design or their initials. For example, Figure 4 shows a gin bottle with the maker’s name ‘A Houtman & Co Schiedam’, on the side and a blob seal on the shoulder with the maker’s initials ‘A H.’. A schnapps bottle with the words ‘Aromatic Schnapps’ on one side has the place of manufacture—‘Schiedam’—on another and the maker’s name ‘Adolphus Wolfes’ on a third. Blob seals are especially helpful in identifying a manufacturer, as they often include the maker’s initials and, because they are quite thick, they usually survive well in archaeological sites. An interesting detail in regard to the blob seals on these commonly found bottles is that they both appear to have the same initials: ‘AH’. Upon closer examination, however, it is clear that the A Van Hoboken initials are not AH but AVH – the V being formed by joining the bottom of the A and H together (Figure 5). For the A Houtman bottle the letters A and H are clearly separate.

Figure 4 Examples of embossed lettering on two commonly found gin and schnapps bottles.
Figure 5 Blob seals from two commonly found manufacturers A H (A Houtman) and AVH (A Van Hoboken).

Most of the gin and schnapps brought to Australia in the 19th century was imported from Holland. Two common gin manufacturers whose bottles are found on NMP sites are A Van Hoboken and Co, Rotterdam, and A Houtman and Co, Schiedam. The Houtman distillery building, built in 1872, still stands in Holland today and is said to be a typical example of a gin distillery from the period 1850–1880.

Many of the gin case bottles were large. A Van Hoboken case bottle weighed almost 1 kg when empty and could contain up to 1.5 litres of gin (over 2.6 British pints), meaning if they came in a case of 12 they would weigh a substantial 30 kg—case not included—and contain 18 litres of gin.

Schnapps was often not sold as an alcoholic drink per se, but rather was promoted as a medicine, as the advertisement for Adopolphus Wolfe’s Aromatic Schnapps below—dated 1871—makes clear (Figure 6). Despite its alleged medicinal qualities, however, it was ‘sold by all wine and spirit merchants, hotels and store keepers throughout the colony’ and there is little doubt that the strong alcohol content of this ‘medicine’ was an important factor in its ‘restorative’ properties. From examining inventories and receipts of purchases of supplies by the NMP it would appear that alcohol purchases were not funded by the government, although ‘medicinal’ alcohol may have been an exception.

Figure 6 Advertisement for Wolfe’s Schiedam Aromatic Schnapps (from the Sydney Morning Herald 1871).

Wine and Beer

Other commonly found glass at NMP camps is associated with wine and beer bottles. One of the features of wine bottles is a distinctive and pronounced upward indentation on the base—referred to as a push up or kick up—commonly found on wine and champagne bottles today (Lindsey 2018) (Figure 7). Although kick up bases were not wholly restricted to wine bottles in the 19th century, those with very pronounced kick ups were most likely to be wine containers rather than beer.

Wine bottles were most commonly olive green in colour, with beer bottles more likely to exhibit a wider range of colours, including olive green, brown/amber, black and clear. Although beer bottles sometimes had embossed lettering, wine bottles more often had paper labels, making it difficult to attribute to manufacturer, place of origin or wine type. Bottles with no markings made them eminently suitable for recycling and any given bottle could have been recycled and reused many times for totally unrelated products, making it difficult for archaeologists trying to attribute contents based on bottle type (Lindsey 2018).

It is clear from contemporary newspaper advertisements that both imported and ‘colonial’ wines were available in colonial Queensland, and that ‘claret’ (a generic term for red wines from the Bordeaux region of France) and Sauternes (a sweet wine also from Bordeaux), as well as fortified wines such as sherry and port were commonly consumed. Available beer types were advertised as ales, porter and stout, and could sometimes come in stoneware containers. These types of heavier beers had a higher alcohol content than lighter beers such as lagers, which acted as a preservative—an important consideration before pasteurisation and the invention of the crown seal lid in 1892, and which is still common to beer bottles today (Lindsey 2018).

Figure 7 Base of bottle with pronounced ‘kick up’; these are often associated with wine bottles.

It is clear from the amount of imported alcohol-related bottle glass found at NMP camps (in the case of gin and schnapps from as far away as Holland and wine from France, Portugal and Spain), transported overland across vast distances to some of the most remote places in the state, that alcohol was an important component of daily life for European NMP officers on the Queensland frontier. How this affected their performance, judgement and relationships with their Aboriginal troopers is little understood, but the effects of heavy alcohol consumption, especially in the form of strong spirits such as gin and schnapps, would inevitably have taken a severe toll on the mental and physical health of these men over time.

*From a letter by ex-Sub-Inspector Alfred Smart in 1888 attempting to reapply to the NMP after having been dismissed for drunkenness.

References

Anderson, K. 2015 Growth and Cycles in Australia’s Wine Industry. A Statistical Compendium, 1843 to 2013. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press.

Dingle, A.E. 1978 Drink and Drinking in Nineteenth Century Australia: A Statistical Commentary. Melbourne: Monash University Department of Economic History.

Dingle, A.E. 1980 ‘The truly magnificent thirst’: an historical survey of Australian drinking habits. Historical Studies 19(75):227–249.

Lindsey, B. 2018 Bottle Glossay. The Historic Glass Bottle Identification & Information Website. Accessed online 30 March 2018 at <https://sha.org/bottle/glossary.htm>.

Richards, J. 2008 The Secret War: A True History of Queensland’s Native Police. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Skinner, L.E. 1975 Police of the Pastoral Frontier: Native Police 1849-1859. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

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