Throughout No Sugar, the white civil servants who control the lives of the Aboriginal Australians constantly justify their authority and their actions by claiming that they are merely helping to civilize the Aboriginals and bring them into the twentieth century. For these white men and women, most notably Matron Neal, Mr. Neville, and Mr. Neal, religion and so-called civilization are tools of control and oppression, which they can use to disenfranchise the native people they are ostensibly supposed to be caring for. By contrasting the reality of the Aboriginal Millimurra-Munday family’s living conditions against the high-minded rhetoric of government officials, Davis suggests that the concept of Western civilization, including the introduction of Christianity and a white, Western government, is not meant to serve the best interests of the Aboriginal people, but instead to make it easier for white colonizers to control them.
The government controls almost every aspect of the Millimurra-Munday family’s lives, as well as the lives of all other Indigenous Australians. Supposedly, this is for the good of the Aboriginal people, but in reality, it limits their autonomy and deprives them of the freedom granted to whites. At the beginning of No Sugar, the Millimurra-Munday family lives on the Government Well Aboriginal Reserve. However, the local government and local whites want the Millimurra-Mundays to move and consequently force them to relocate to the Moore River Settlement. The people who are most affected by this decision have no say in it, but are forced to uproot their lives or else be arrested. Later in the play, when Joe and Mary try to escape Moore River, they are first tracked down by police, and eventually arrested and returned to their settlement. Their movement is supposedly restricted so that they can more easily access government resources, but in reality, the government imprisons the Millimurra-Mundays and others because their white neighbors do not want to live near Aboriginals.
The government also controls the food its Aboriginal citizens can eat and what goods they receive. The Millimurra-Mundays receive rations from the government, which are constantly being decreased. In 1929, when the play begins, rations for soap have just been cut, and Milly and Gran are upset to realize that, without money to buy soap of their own, they will be unable to clean themselves or their families. Later, in 1932, Milly is shocked to discover the meat ration has been indefinitely discontinued, as has the fat in which she cooks food. Although the Millimurra-Mundays objectively benefit from rations, they are given much less food than is allocated to their white counterparts, keeping them on the verge of starvation. Whereas unemployed white Australians receive seven shillings a week, Aboriginal Australians rations cost only two shilling and fourpence. Even as the government claims to help them, it is starving them instead.
The white government officials who care for the Aboriginal population of Western Australia often refer to their mission as one of “civilisation.” They believed they are doing good work, and enhancing the lives of Australia’s native population, by forcing them to live according to Western ideals. However, instead of genuinely caring for the Millimurra-Mundays and other Aboriginal Australians, the government is instead trying to exploit them or drive them out. Early in the play, Neville writes a letter to M.S. Neal, Superintendent at the Moore River Native Settlement. Neville explains, “I’m a great believer that if you provide the native the basic accouterments of civilisation you’re halfway to civilising him. I’d like to see each child issued with a handkerchief and instructed on its use.” He notes that although money is tight, he has a plan for how each Aboriginal child could have a handkerchief with which to wipe their nose. Neville makes it clear that he does not care about the wellbeing of those under his care; he only cares about the appearance of wellbeing. It is not the lack of food or opportunities that concerns him, but the “dirty little noses amongst the children.” In the same letter, Neville notes that if you “can successfully inculcate such basic but essential details of civilised living you will have helped them along the road to taking their place in Australian society.” Although he presents civilization as something that could benefit the Aboriginal Australians, in reality, civilization is a list of rules and restrictions designed to make the Aboriginals more manageable for whites in power, not necessarily happier or healthier.
Religion, specifically Christianity, is also used to oppress and control the Aboriginal population. The rhetoric surrounding the white settlers’ colonization of Australia suggests that it was God’s plan for them to take over, painting the genocide of the native population as an inevitability (and even a divine right), as opposed to a preventable tragedy. During the Australia Day speech, Sister Eileen suggests that everyone should “remember today not just our country and King, but the King of kings, the Prince of princes, and to give thanks to God for what He has provided for us.” She continues, “The Lord Jesus Christ has sent His servant, Mr. Neville, Chief Protector of the Aborigines, to speak to us on this special day.” Sister Eileen implies that the white colonists who took over Australia were allowed to do so by a mandate from God, and suggests that Neville is not only in a position of authority because of his profession but because he was selected by Jesus. Instilling the white colonial mission with divine purpose helps the white Australians justify their actions, and undermines the Aboriginal Australians’ claim to the land of their ancestors.
The Aboriginal Australians recognize that their colonizers are using religion to justify participating in what is essentially genocide. Sister Eileen and Neville lead the group in the song “There is a Happy Land,” which is a religious hymn that includes the lines, “’Worthy is our Saviour King!’ / Loud let His praises ring, / Praise, praise for aye!” However, the Millimurra-Mundays and others corrupt the lyrics, singing, “no sugar in our tea, / bread and butter we never see. / That’s why we’re gradually / Fading away.” The Aboriginals recognize that the white Australians’ Christianity has blinded them to the injustices that their neighbors face. Although religion, welfare, and the comforts of Western civilization are potentially uplifting forces, the white colonizers use these forces as tools to oppress and control the Aboriginals.
Government, Civilization, and Religion ThemeTracker
Government, Civilization, and Religion Quotes in No Sugar
JOE: ‘The—blood—was stirred…as if by a trumpet… by the history-ical…Headed by a tab-leau… […] ‘…Commemorating the pioneers whose lives…’ […] ‘…Were a steadfast performance of duty in the face of difficulty and danger. With them was a reminder of the dangers they faced, in the shape of three lorries…carrying Aborigines.
[They all stop what they are doing and listen.]
JOE: All right! ‘…Dancing…to a brass-band.’
SAM: Koorawoorung! Nyoongahs corrobereein’ to a wetjala’s brass band!
JIMMY: Ah! That beats everythin’: stupid bloody blackfellas…You fellas, you know why them wetjalas marchin’ down the street, eh? I’ll tell youse why. ‘Cause them bastards took our country and them blackfellas dancin’ for ‘em. Bastards!
JOE: ‘The pag…page…page-ant pre-sented a picture of Western Australia’s pre-sent condition of hopeful optimum-optimis-tic prosperity, and gave some idea of what men mean when they talk about the soul of the nation.’
SAM: Sounds like bullshit to me.
NEVILLE: Can you take down a note for the Minister, please? […] Item one: the native weekly ration currently costs this Department two shillings and fourpence per week. Perhaps this bears comparison with the sustenance paid to white unemployed which I believe is seven shillings per week. […] Item two: off the cuff, the proposed budget cut of three thousand one hundred and thirty-four pounds could be met by discontinuing the supply of meat in native rations. Soap was discontinued this financial year. Item Three: of eighty girls from the Moore River Native Settlement who went out into domestic service last year, thirty returned—
NEVILLE: Where was I?
MISS DUNN: Of eighty who went out in the domestic service last year…
NEVILLE: Thirty returned to the settlement in pregnant condition, yours etcetera… If you could type that straight away I’ll run it up to the Office myself.
MILLY: Whose idea was it to stop the soap?
SERGEANT: The idea, as you call it, came from the Aboriginal Department in Perth.
GRAN: Mister Neville?
MILLY: I just can’t believe it: no soap!
SERGEANT: Your trouble, Milly, is you got three healthy men bludging off you, too lazy to work.
MILLY: Where they gonna get work?
SERGEANT: They’re afraid to look for it in case they find it.
MILLY: Cockies want ’em to work for nothin’.
GRAN: They not slaves, Chergeant!
SERGEANT: Well, they’ll have to work if you want luxury items like soap.
MILLY: Look, last week my Joe cut a hundred posts for old Skinny Martin and you know what he got? A pair of second-hand boots and a piece of stag ram so tough even the dawgs couldn’t eat it; skinnier than old Martin ’imself.
As I mentioned, I was a little concerned to see so many dirty little noses amongst the children. I’m a great believer that if you provide the native the basic accoutrements of civilisation you’re half way to civilising him. I’d like to see each child issued with a handkerchief and instructed on its use. […] I think some practical training from yourself and Matron in its correct usage would be appropriate. If you can successfully inculcate such basic but essential details of civilised living you will have helped them along the road to taking their place in Australian society.
CONSTABLE: You’re being transferred to the Moore River Native Settlement.
GRAN: I ain’t goin’.
CONSTABLE: You’re all goin’. You’re under arrest.
GRAN: What for? We done nothin’ wrong.
SERGEANT: It’s for health reasons. Epidemic of skin disease.
JIMMY: Bullshit, I’ll tell you why we’re goin’.
CONSTABLE: You wouldn’t know.
JIMMY: You reckon blackfellas are bloody mugs. Whole town knows why we’re goin’. ‘Coz wetjalas in this town don’t want us ’ere, don’t want our kids at the school, with their kids, and old Jimmy Mitchell’s tight ’coz they reckon Bert ’Awke’s gonna give him a hidin’ in the election.
Mary: I don’t like the way [Mr. Neal] looks at me.
Joe: Well, you got me now, for what I’m worth.
Mary: He’s always hangin’ around where the girls are workin’; in the cookhouse, in the sewin’ room. And he’s always carryin’ that cat-o’-nine tails and he’ll use it, too.
Joe: Bastard, better not use it on you or any of my lot.
Mary: He reckoned he was gunna belt me once.
Joe: What for?
Mary: ‘Coz I said I wasn’t gunna go and work for guddeah on a farm.
Joe: Why not? Be better than this place.
Mary: No! Some of them guddeahs real bad. My friend went last Christmas and then she came back boodjarri. She reckons the boss’s sons used to belt her up and, you know, force her. Then they kicked her out. And when she had that baby them trackers choked it dead and buried it in the pine plantation.
MATRON: Apparently you told [Mary] she was going to work at the hospital and stay in the nurses’ quarters.
NEAL: Who told you that? [Yelling] Billy!
BILLY: [off] Comin’, boss.
MATRON: It seems she was terrified at the prospect of working in the hospital.
NEAL: They’re all scared of the dead.
MATRON: I think she was scared of the living.
When referring to Australia’s treatment of her Aborigines we are apt to refer somewhat scathingly to Tasmania’s harshness in ridding herself of her natives within the first seventy years of settlement. In that time some six thousand natives disappeared and only one was left alive. Yet here, in the south-west of our State, within an area about twice the size of Tasmania between 1829 and 1901—seventy-two years—a people estimated to number thirteen thousand were reduced to one thousand four hundred and nineteen, of whom nearly half were half-caste.
NEAL: Just a moment… There’s another matter I’d like to discuss with you. I believe you’ve been lending books—novels—to some of the natives.
SISTER: Yes, I have.
NEAL: There’s a sort of unofficial directive on this is; it’s the sort of thing which isn’t encouraged by the Department.
SISTER: What do you mean? That you don’t encourage the natives to read?
NEAL: That’s right.
SISTER: [incredulously] But why? I’d intended to ask your permission to start a small library.
NEAL: I’m sorry, Sister, but—
SISTER: [interrupting] It won’t cost the Department a penny, I can get the books donated. Good books.
NEAL: It’s quite out of the question.
SISTER: But why?
NEAL: Look, my experience with natives in South Africa and here has taught—led me to believe that there’s a lot of wisdom in the old adage that ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’.
SISTER: It gives me great pleasure to be with you all on this very special day, when we gather together to pledge our allegiance to the King and to celebrate the birth of this wonderful young country […]. We must remember today not just our country and King, but the King of kings, the Prince of princes, and to give thanks to God for what He has provided for us […]. Even we here today, Mr Neal, Matron Neal and myself, are but His humble servants, sent by Him to serve your needs. The Lord Jesus Christ has sent His servant, Mr Neville, Chief Protector of Aborigines, to speak to us on this special day. Mr Neville is going to say a few words before leading us in a song of praise to our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
[NEVILLE rises. The whites clap while the Aborigines remain silent.]
There is a happy land,
Far, far away,
Where saints in glory stand,
Bright, bright as day:
Oh, how they sweetly sing,
‘Worthy is our Saviour King!’
Loud let His praises ring,
Praise, praise for aye!
[As the whites continue, the Aborigines break into full clear voice with a parody of the words.]
There is a happy land,
Far, far away.
No sugar in our tea,
Bread and butter we never see.
That’s why we’re gradually