No Sugar by Jack Davis

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Strangers in “our own country”, No Sugar by Dr Jennifer Minter

Ernie Dingo, who performed in many of Jack Davis’s plays, writes: “We are not/ Strangers/ In our own country/ Just/ Strangers/ To a European society/ And it is hard/ To be one/ When / The law/ Is the other.”

Jack Davis, Noong-ah, was born in 1917 in Perth; his mother was taken from her tribe in Broome and reared by a white family; his father, William Davis, was also removed and reared by whites.  Davis grew up in Yarloop, in a big family of 10. According to Aboriginal poet Kevin Gilbert, Davis’s mother displayed grace and courage and a self-sacrificing spirit.  Jack had eight years of education in public schools, then worked as a mill-hand, an engine driver, boundary rider and drover which brought him into contact with the tribal people and afforded examples of the everyday treatment and victimisation of the First Australians.

 No Sugar received standing ovations when performed in Vancouver and Edinburgh in 1986.

“The native must be helped in spite of himself”.

No Sugar by Jack Davis was first performed as part of the Festival of Perth in 1985 to great acclaim. Throughout the play, Davis depicts the First Australians struggling to survive in sub-human conditions on an Aboriginal Reserve in the 1930s. During the depression, life is particularly difficult for the Munday and Millimurra families who are controlled by apartheid-style policies.  Davis uses a variety of dramatic literary techniques to depict their struggle to survive in a hostile white culture, which treats them as “incompetent savages”. That they often speak in their own language helps Davis draw attention to their cultural differences and their alienation from mainstream culture.

Those in a position of power and authority treat the First Australians with contempt and do not provide humane and decent opportunities for them to improve their sub-standard living conditions.  They believe that these “blithering stone age idiots” need to be civilised in order to take their place in mainstream, white society. The constant references to dirtiness, laziness, violence, and drunken, criminal behaviour are used by white “civilised” people to reinforce and justify their discriminatory policies. In this regard, Davis explores the consequences of the dispossession of the aborigines which culminates in a farcical depiction of the Australia Day celebrations.  These celebrations place a strong emphasis on the (main) story of the pioneers and overlook the cultural life, spirituality and history of the First Australians.

The attitude of the “uncivilised” savage is critiqued by Davis in the play from a variety of perspectives.

Davis focuses our attention on:

  • the stereotypical attitudes of the indigenous “savage” held by those in positions of power as well as by ordinary members of the white community; he shows how these views entrench prejudice; the Seargeant who is of the view that the aborigines are “best left to keep to themselves” reprimands Milly: “Your trouble, Milly, is you got three healthy men bludging off you, too lazy to work”. (16); the white citizen opposes a reserve at Guilford Road because he “wouldn’t be able to go out and leave his wife home alone at night” (15)
  • the social and historical context, which makes it difficult for Aboriginal Australians to earn a decent and honest living and to counter these stereotypes;
  • the hypocritical attitude of those in power who exploit the First Australians in convenient and contemptible ways. Note at the beginning the reference to the 30 girls (out of 80) who have returned pregnant from the Moore River Native  Settlement. (15)
Real-life hardship of Indigenous Australians

Jack Davis opens No Sugar with a scene depicting typical daily life on an Aboriginal Reserve in 1929, which consists of a blend of lifestyles.  David and Cissie Millimurra play cricket with a “home-made bat and ball”, Jimmy sharpens an axe “bush fashion” and Joe reads the newspaper “falteringly”. Life is rudimentary, difficult and makeshift but they are spirited and resourceful.

Joe’s inability to read fluently reflects the First Australians’ struggle with the language of the dominant culture – a struggle that Davis would suggest dooms them to second-class status. Although their literacy levels are poor, the government is reluctant to provide them with a decent education.  (As Mr Neal suggests when the Sister wants to start up a library, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing” (90).)  Additionally, the children struggle with racism at the Northam school (note the reference to the apples.) “The ding always sells us little shrivelled ones (pies) and them wetjala kids big fat ones” (10) Furthermore, Joe’s recount of the commemoration of the pioneers as relayed in mainstream news reports captures the dominant White Australian historical narrative that marginalises the history and culture of the First Australians.

Davis depicts the Millimurra family as subject to the vagaries of government decrees and its policies of segregation.  During the 1930s, Aboriginal Australians caught co-habiting with whites in a loving relationship were savagely punished. There were pass laws and curfews. They were restricted from being near any town after sunset on the pain of imprisonment or death. (See note on “social context”.)

The First Australians hunt for food when they can, because there is no meat; they often have to “barter” for goods and food because their rations are insufficient and they are often not paid for a decent day’s work. They rely on damper and lack sufficient blankets (which contributes to Cissie’s ailment). Milly discusses the need of patching up the dilapidated tin house which is “colder than the North Pole” hoping that “that old baldy” (the rations policeman) will “cough up with some more blankets”.

The language and cultural divide

Jack Davis reinforces the consequences of the government’s harsh, discriminatory policies that indirectly reduce Aboriginal Australians to criminal activities often through no fault of their own.  As Davis shows, it is difficult for them to maintain their cultural life style because of their reduced access to rivers and streams and the changing landscape.  Granny cannot grind the jam and wattle seeds (a substitute for bicarb soda) for the damper. Gran remembers gathering a huge bag of seeds, but now the wetjala have cut down the trees and they are difficult to find. (16) And yet, the ration system is insufficient. Their social welfare benefits are considerably less than that of their white counterparts. The Sergeant informs them that there will be no meat as there’s a “bloody depression” on.   Instead, “fat is classified as meat”. They can catch “roos and rabbits”. Joe finds quandongs to eat on the trip back to Northam.

Consequently, and despite the Government’s predicted state of “prosperity”, Jimmy has to steal turnips to add to the rabbit stew (21)  and “snowdrop” to survive. (He has been in jail four times for “drinkin, fightin’ and snowdroppin’” (taking clothes off the clothes lines).   They plan to catch a sheep from Old Skinny Martin’s farm.

Injustice: treated as second-class citizens

The White man’s paternalistic attitude to the aborigines.

The official treatment of the aborigines is based on the premise that as savages they need to be “civilised” in order to become decent and worthy Australians.

  • At the Settlement, Mr Neville spouts the typically paternalistic spin that suggests the natives should be “fortunate” for their shelter and provisions, especially during the continued depression that is plaguing the state.   The whites believe that Aboriginal Australians should live and behave “like whites”.
  • Mr Neville condescendingly tells them that they should be “preparing yourselves here to take your place in Australian society, to live as other Australians live, to live alongside other Australians” (92) Accordingly, they must “shoulder the responsibilities of living like the white man. (Hence the symbolism of the hygiene throughout the play.)
  • Sergeant Carrol’s attitude is typical of law-enforcement officers who believe that Indigenous Australians are lazy and never put in a decent day’s work. They should pay for their “luxury items”.  Typical of their off-the-record banter, the Constable and Sergeant talk about poisoning the “natives”: it is “too late to adopt the Tasmanian solution” (39.)  The Sergeant’s philosophy and attitude is that the “natives (are) best left to keep to themselves”.
  • Joe is apprehended under Section Twelve of the Aborigines Act for absconding from Moore River Native Settlement (79)
  • Aboriginal Australians are treated as second-class citizens. The stage directions draw attention to the sign in the office which says, “Government of Western Australia, Fisheries, Forestry, Wildlife and Aborigines”.
Indigenous languages
  • The use of Aboriginal language authenticates their experiences and seeks to tap into their views and values/mindset.
  • It shows the diversity of their own culture and the extent of their alienation from mainstream culture and norms.

The Millimurra family often speak in their own language which shows their unique relationship to culture, land and lifestyle. Many indigenous terms are used to authenticate their experiences (such as “inji sticks”, the “gugha”, the “jeering meear”); these expressions capture their unique relationship to land and reflect their diverse cultural systems (“mummari” and “boolyaduk”)  and lifestyle customs. (Their use also reinforces Davis’s point that many indigenous terms simply do not have a corresponding word in the white man’s language, because of cultural and lifestyle differences. They cannot be translated.)

Gran often uses terms from her Nyoongah (South West) Language group. This is very significant as it shows that she proudly represents her authentic indigenous culture.  She also speaks in Aboriginal English which reflects her need to blend the two cultures.  (“He give you six months.”)  The use of both these languages reflects cultural differences. It reflects their priority as First Australians.

Gran’s poignant song in her South West language at the close of the play suggests that the indigenous culture and language will survive as long as the First  Australians have the courage and pride to defend their cultural heritage, and to remember the heroic struggles of their ancestors

Furthermore, audiences are invited to identify with the alienating affect of a foreign language with which the First Australians have to deal on a daily basis.  This alienation is also exacerbated by their lack of access to education.

The ration system
  • Davis shows how the ration system is designed to control and humiliate Indigenous Australians.
  • The ration system reflects the patronising attitude of the government; the government relies on the ration system to justify their heavy-handed policies and systems of control.

According to Davis, the First Australians are completely dependent upon Government rations and yet the government restricts these arbitrarily.  Milly and Gran constantly lament the reduction in soap rations (16) although the Sergeant gives Granny her “stick of nigger twist” (gnummarri)  When Joe returns to Northam after his stay in the Settlement, Sergeant warns Joe that he cannot camp at Government Well; there are no longer any rations.  (76-77) “Northam is no longer a ration depot” now that the natives have been “shifted out”. Joe reminds him that they were “booted out” (75).    Mr Neville is constantly cost-cutting.  He believes they should possibly cut the supply of meat in their rations.  Soap has already been discontinued.   The Sergeant believes that they should pay for their “luxury items”.

References to hygiene
  • The constant references to hygiene reflect the prevailing mindset that the First Australians are unclean and “dirty savages” who need to be civilised.
  • Davis again encourages the audience to understand the Millimurra family’s struggle with hygiene owing to sub-standard living conditions and reduced rations.
  • Also, in many cases the family uses their own medicinal resources that are unfamiliar to white culture, but not necessarily inferior.

The constant references to hygiene and the soap rations reinforce Davis’s point that white dogma (policy) typecasts Indigenous Australians as unclean “savages” who need to be civilised and reminded to wash. Right from the opening of the play, Gran and Milly are preoccupied with cleanliness and are dismayed at the restriction of soap in their rations. (The Seargeant tells him, “I’m afraid that soap is no longer included as a ration item”. (p. 16). The stage directions state that David removes his shirt for Milly to wash. “She tugs it off him and swaps it for a clean one”.

After the birth of the baby, the matron encourages Gran to use “clean cotton wool and baby powder and Lysol soap” (98) and yet Gran has had a great deal of experience with childbirth; she uses the “live” firestick and ashes to great advantage to clean the afterbirth.  (Just because she does not adhere to the “white man’s” system of hygiene, Davis would suggest, does not mean that they are unclean “savages”.)  “I got you a little Noongah” she triumphantly exclaims as she gloats proudly after the clean “belly button”. It is “just like your daddy’s” which suggests that Gran is an expert mid-wife and her experience stands the family in good stead.

There is also a suggestion of humour in the constant references to the First Australians who must be given “some practical training” and who must learn to wipe their noses and be given more handkerchiefs (18).  The subtext is that the officials must “inculcate such basic but essential details of civilised living” and they will soon be able to “take their place in  Australian society” (18). Davis suggests that their hypocrisy is breathtaking especially as the government keeps reducing their soap rations.

Despite attempts to humiliate Milly and Gran, they proudly wash their clothes as best they can, and are quick to complain about the reduction in soap rations.

(Despite their humiliating conditions, Davis depicts a pompous Mr Neville, who is quick to remind Indigenous Australians of their need to “shoulder the responsibilities of living like the white man. (92))


Davis’s humour often provides a sense of relief from the relentless hardship and persecution.  Characters like Gran are resourceful and show amazing strength to withstand adversity.  Gran is good humoured despite the hardships she faces daily in her struggle to keep the family together and in her attempts to provide Cissie and David with an education.  Jimmy suffers from the debilitating effect of alcohol and often appears sentimental and maudlin. He stumbles over the bike which David has been trying to fix all day, which precipitates the fight.  Gran separates them, grabbing “both by the hair and pulling viciously”.  Humorously, she “falls on her backside”.

Members of the family are spirited and often give “lip” (58) to the officers as they seek to maintain their dignity and pride in very difficult circumstances. Milly pours the alcohol on the ground as Jimmy sits defeated, “sick in the bloody head”. He “groans” (25). The Constable tells Gran, “I don’t want any lip from you” (37), implying that she like other family members, are inconvenient rabble-rousers or troublemakers. She mocks the Vicar who gives them no help.   At one stage when Jimmy is arrested, yet again, he states that he prefers to walk in front of the sergeant because he does not trust him.

Comparison with Frank Brown:
  • Davis constructs the character of Frank Brown to show how the aborigines are at greater risk and more disadvantaged than their white counterparts during the depression.
  • This depiction also enables Davis to criticise the Sergeant’s attitude — that the indigenous Australians are just lazy and do not want to work;  Davis challenges the audience to question just how much harder it is for indigenous people who also must also battle discrimination.

Through strategic comparisons with other itinerant workers and victims of the depression, such as Frank Brown, Davis shows how Indigenous Australians suffer a far worse fate.  Owing to their disadvantaged social status their problems are magnified and they are more easily exploited. White unemployed people get 7 shillings per week; an Aboriginal Australian gets 2 shillings and fourpence per week.   The Sergeant’s attitude is typical of law-enforcement officers who believe that the “natives” are lazy and should do a decent day’s work.

Frank Brown is also suffering difficulties with work and has to keep his wife and two children with her parents in Leederville while Frank looks for work (12). Frank has not sent money home for six months. He cannot “even raise a train fare to Perth to see them”.  As Frank puts his “cigarettes away”, the stage setting changes to Mr Neville’s office, and Miss Dun, his secretary, has a similar story about her own brother.  His wife and children are staying with her, while he sells wirelesses, “door to door”, in the South West.  She is trying to sell his motorcycle because he has only sold “one (wireless) in three weeks”.  (13)  If unemployment is tipped to reach 30 per cent, then Davis shows how the aborigines will always be the worst affected.

Frank bemoans the  “gubmet” because he had a couple of bad seasons and lost his farm. But as Jimmy points out, at least they can walk down the street after sundown. (23) In contrast the aborigines suffer hardship and discrimination. Jimmy lists the restrictions: ‘they aren’t allowed to go down the soak, not allowed to march” and in the stage directions, “mimes handcuffs and goal” (23) to suggest that the slightest infractions will lead to incarceration. (See “social context”.)

Depression: Unemployment in the West is tipped to reach 30 per cent.

Institutionalised racism

The First Australians are treated as second-class citizens. They are belittled and humiliated — constantly. Mr Neville treats Jimmy with contempt when he is trying to get his train fare to return home. He is forced to wait until Mr Neville finishes his trivial conversation even though Jimmy may miss the train. “He can wait” says the scornful Mr Neville as he reads the newspaper and converses with the Constable about sport.  Davis notes in the stage directions, that Mr Neal throws the tobacco contemptuously on the floor to Billy who must search for the runaways. (68)   Mr Neal refers to him as a “blithering stone age idiot” and a “bloody incompetent savage” when he doesn’t find Joe and Mary and doesn’t answer swiftly and respectfully. (71)

Barter: The fact that Sam often has to barter his labour in order to get food and medical services. This leaves him open to exploitation and reinforces again his second-class status as well as the stigma attached to their aboriginality. Joe knows that he is going to have to do “another hundred posts”. The white employers believe they can make them work for very little, or for ‘a pair of second-hand boots and a piece of stag ram so tough even the dawgs couldn’t eat it” (17)

Jimmy is evidently frustrated and exasperated at the injustice.  Likewise, David also reflects the injustice in the reference to the fact that “the ding always sells us little shrivelled ones (pies) and them wetjala kids big fat ones” (10)   The Sergeant is subtly intimidating and threatens to put the “bush lawyer” brother “ “straight inside” if he stirs up trouble.  Mr Neville treats Jimmy with contempt when he is trying to get his train fare to return home. He is forced to wait constantly even though he may miss the train. “He can wait” says Mr Neville as he reads the newspaper and converses with the Constable about sport.

Billy Kimberley – the “black tracker” is interpreted as the magic man boolyaduk. He is “carrying a whip” which he uses on his own people at the behest of the white authorities.   He often prods the natives with the whip (54). Neal throws the tobacco contemptuously on the floor to Billy who must go and search for the runaways. (68)

A political activist and “troublemaker” 

As a proud indigenous activist and “troublemaker” (“ringleader”), Jimmy draws attention to social injustice and the discrimination they face on a daily basis. He believes that the theft of land has caused terrible scars.  Jimmy states that the whites (wetjalas) “took our country” and therefore the Indigenous Australians are in a helpless position of dependence.  In the stage directions, Davis states that Jimmy nicks his finger with the axe and raises blood. This is symbolic of the violent act of dispossession, which so infuriates Jimmy. He chastises (criticises) the Indigenous Australians who “danced” for the white man.

At the Moore River Settlement, Jimmy asks Mr Neal if he voted for “Jimmy Mitchell’s lot”. He knows that their forced removal was just a political stunt and that Mr Mitchell wanted to protect his power   “so he could have a nice, white little town, white little fuckin’ town”  (94).    After his confrontation with Mr Neal, Davis suggests in the stage directions that he is “he is left alone, shouting”.   Jimmy’s death symbolises the difficulties faced by the First Australians and their sense of hopelessness.  Davis depicts the circumstances of his death and Mr Neville’s attitude as deplorable. Jimmy dies a dehumanising death. He does not gain justice. He is isolated and marginalised and treated like a “troublemaker” or an “unruly nigger”.

  • Jimmy criticises the political system of control and curfews. He states: “you know we’re not allowed in town, not allowed to go down the soak, not allowed to march”.
  • As well as Gran, Jimmy is the other character to sing a song in his South West language, it is the grandfather’s song as he celebrates the crabs in the river and mimes a corroborree. (60)Davis suggests that his problem with alcohol is linked with his feelings of despair.
  • Jimmy leads the parody of the words to the song during the Australia Day celebration, which they repeat “even louder”: “No sugar in our tea/bread and butter we never see”. He mocks the celebration of a “happy land” that is “bright, bright as day”. .. Jimmy challenges Mr Neville to share their supper of “bread and drippin’ and black tea”
  • For white settlement, Australia Day celebrates the first fleet, which is particularly offensive for the First Australians who make it obvious that they have been completely discarded and treated contemptuously by officials such as Mr Neal and Mr Neville. Davis depicts Mr Neville’s response as typically vindictive and indignant. He vows that they will “rue this day” and accuses them of rank and “disgraceful” “ingratitude”.

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The violent act of dispossession

Indignantly, Jimmy draws our attention at the beginning of the play to the fact that the land was forcibly taken from the First Australians. Likewise, Billy recounts the massacre (in Creole) and mimes the violence and tragedy that befell the tribe. The use of pidgin English reinforces cultural differences and the importance of oral stories in the indigenous historical narrative. Davis uses this story to foreground the disproportionate and indiscriminate violence that occurred during the colonial period.

Mr George flogged the “old man”, almost to death, who in an act of retaliation, speared the “gudeeah” with his “chubel spear”. The police force returns to “shoot ‘em everybody mens, kooris, little yumbahs”. In addition, contrary to the official version of history as narrated in Mr Neville’s Australia Day speech, the colonial government with its “big mob politjmans” are the ones to massacre the children and mothers and “chuck ‘em on a big fire”. (62) Davis suggests that this is the story of settlement that is not included in the early official narrative. Even Mr Neville refers to the first 70 days of Tasmanian settlement, or the “Tasmanian solution” (30) during which only one Aboriginal Tasmanian remained out of “some six thousand natives (who) disappeared”. (81)

Davis also shows how the oral indigenous version of history differs from the pioneer narrative which foregrounds the notion that bravely, the settlers fought hostile and violent indigenous tribes. Clearly, the colonial government with its “big mob politjmans” are the ones to massacre the children and mothers and “chuck ‘em on a big fire”. (62) For the remaining members of the clan, the place becomes superstitiously haunted by the cries of mothers. These shrieks enable Davis to highlight the hypocrisy of colonial settlement that judged the First Australians as violent and barbaric.

The Decree to Move

Davis refers to a typical political and social situation whereby the Government and Council conflict over the best way to remove Aboriginal Australians from the township. In this case, the government wants to move the families from their tents to a new reserve earmarked for the Guilford Road site which is not acceptable to the council. (The Council opposes the gazetting of the Guilford Road site.)   However, the sergeant believes that it has water supply and a couple of acres of grazing land (implying that the government is moving cattle).  The council would rather a park for boy scouts and picnic parties. (37)

The attempted resettlement highlights the stereotypical attitude towards Indigenous Australians typically held by the white townspeople. The council wants the new site to be “well away from any residences”.  Adjoining landholders have lodged objections.  No one in Northam Shire wants to be living near Aboriginal Australians because they believe it will be unsafe to leave wives and children, despite the fact that many of the neighbours are getting drunk at the Shamrock Hotel “till stumps” and, as we will discover, the men in charge at many reserves are abusing aboriginal women in their care.

Aware that the Aboriginal Australians are victims of a wilful political campaign, Jimmy scathingly and infuriatingly explains that the wetjalas “in this town don’t want us ‘ere” don’t want our kids at the school” (45). Jimmy asks Mr Neal if he voted for “Jimmy Mitchell’s lot”. He knows it is just a political stunt; he wishes to protect his  power   “so he could have a nice, white little town, white little fuckin’ town”  (94).  (For political reasons, the government fears that Bert Awkes may upseat Jimmy Mitchell in the forthcoming election.     There are a lot of Chinamen working on his farm at Grass Valley which is very unpopular (45).)

Mr Neville instigates the procedure to forcibly remove the aborigines owing to “scabies”. They will be transferred to Moore River Settlement (42)  They are given a meagre allowance and will have to leave all their animals behind.  Of course, Neville is keen to impress upon his officers that they must maintain “absolute confidentiality of the matter” (43)

The government justifies the forced repatriation because of “health reasons” and issues warrants for the arrest of those who refuse to move. Later, when the matron examines the natives, only 4 out of 89 have scabies. As Davis clearly shows, it is a complete farce. They are meant to be in the quarantine camp but there is no need for it. (58)

Joe returns to their previous camp and recognises that everything has been wilfully burnt, even David’s bike. They were fed lies – they were assured that the officials would “look after everything we left behind”. Joe seethes resentfully. “It’ll never be over.”

Language is used constantly to reinforce  differences. For example, when one of their horses turned up at Martin’s property, the language downplays the act of theft.  The horse just “wandered down”, just as Mary is the “give girl”.  However, Joe believes the horse was “grabbed”, that is, stolen. In contrast, the supposed “criminality” of Indigenous Australians is always reinforced. They are presented as thieves and criminals.

Prison rates: Law and order

Davis reminds the audience that Indigenous Australians must constantly be controlled by white man’s laws that are foreign to them.   The laws, especially those relating to the consumption of alcohol, are discriminatory and patronising; often Aboriginal Australians have no legal defence and are often ignorant of their changes because of their inability to read.  This again reinforces their alienation from mainstream society and its laws.

Sergeant Carol apprehends Frank and accuses him of supplying liquor to the natives, which is an offence under the Aboriginal Act. (12)  It appears that James Munday was apprehended drunk after Frank supplied him with two bottles of port wine in the Shamrock Hotel.  (12)   Joe is apprehended under Section Twelve of the Aborigines act for absconding from Moore River Native Settlement. The Sergeant almost boasts – is certainly proud – of the fact that he “nabbed” a bloke for giving a native wine and he is “doing three months hard labour in Fremantle” . Jimmy suggests that he has been in gaol four times for “drinkin, fightin’ and snowdroppin’” (taking clothes off the clothes lines).

Legal system: During the court proceedings,  it is evident that Sam and Jimmy are dealing with a “foreign” or strange legal system that is often designed to alienate and humiliate them.  They are ridiculed because of their apparent ignorance of a system that criminalises them through no fault of their own (31).   The contrast and distance between the aborigines and the officials is apparent as Jimmy and Sam revert to aboriginal terms, while the JP spouts legalese such as “contempt of court” .  Jimmy and Sam repeat native terms such as ‘gnoolya’ (brother-in-law) which is foreign to the JP. Millimurra gets a minor fine of two and sixpence or seven days imprisonment by default. (31)  The JP eventually loses patience at Jimmy who seems to prolong the hearings because he highlights the humiliating circumstances of the “piss” and the “ “shit bucket” . The JP tells Jimmy, “shut up, you bloody idiot or I’ll charge you with contempt of court” (Of course, the audience would infer that Jimmy does not understand this legal terminology.

When Jimmy complains about the “piss bucket” which is leaking, the Sergeant reminds him, “if you know what’s good for you, you’ll shut up”. (27) Humiliated, Jimmy becomes angrier. “Fuck ‘em all”. He is aware of his completely powerless situation and “hurls the bucket against the wall”.  The Constable carries a baton; they do not hesitate to use force when needed.  Jimmy’s charges increase.  Frank testifies to the charity of the aborigines and their kindness in giving him a meal and a razor, 30. By way of “explanation” he excuses the gift, but this is inconsequential to the Sargeant.  Jimmy is sentenced to six weeks imprisonment  with hard labour (30))

The Moore River Native Settlement

The act of becoming “civilised” is presented as a hypocritical concept as Davis shows that  taking their “place” in white society, often dooms them to exploitation or physical and sexual assault. Mary is the “give girl” and slavery is referred to as ‘wardship’.

Many white officials exploit and rape the Indigenous women; their babies are frequently killed. Of 80 girls from the Moore River Native  Settlement who went into domestic service in one year, 30 returned in a “pregnant condition”.  (16).  If Mary does not fulfil Mr Neal’s whims she will be sent back to the “old man” at home.   She is petrified of Mr Neal who carries a “cat o nine tails”; he is always leering at the girls and it is no secret that those he wishes to rape those he conveniently sends to the hospital. (56).  Vulnerable but not defeated, Mary refuses to leave herself so exposed, but also knows that if she is sent to work on the farm for the “guddeeah” she will return pregnant as most of them do.  She is haunted by the story of one girl whose baby was fatally choked after she was raped by an employer’s sons on the farm. (57)

Neal is infuriated that Mary refuses to work in the hospital where she can be raped and exploited. He takes this as a personal challenge to his power. Degradingly and contemptuously he tells her, “Millimurra seems to have learnt you well. Well I’m going to unlearn you”.

Neal whips her barbarically with a “cat o nine tail” over the bag of flour. The fact that Billy holds her “outstretched over a pile of flour bags” also raises questions about the complicity of the aborigines in the colonial settlement. After “Neal raises the cat o nine tails” there is a blackout. The audience hears Mary’s heart-rendering and pitiful scream that becomes a powerful symbol of Aboriginal resistance in the face of shameful violence.

As Mary later explains,  “he got wild I wouldn’t knuckle under to him”.  “He’s yours for life” says Gran who delivers her baby safely. (97)

Despite the Matron’s constant sarcastic remarks to Mr Neal regarding  his assaults and binge drinking episodes at the hotel (she is “scared of living”), she is powerless to affect any change.

Literacy levels are very low: sub-standard education

Joe Millimurra tries to read “falteringly”. Mary probably can’t read and gives Joe’s letter to  Cissie who has been going to school in Northam.    Mr Neal forbids books at the Settlement; but the sister wonders whether the bible would be classified as a book. Neal is contemptuous of “do gooders”  Mr Neal is adamant that no books are needed – they have enough troublemakers.  “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing” (90).   Neal intimidates Sister and suggests she takes a transfer to Mulla Bulla on the edge of the Gibson desert.  (90)  She also wants to set up a library.   They often cannot read the official papers that they are forced to sign; clearly, their ignorance is exploited.

Cultural beliefs and stories: different histories

Davis includes many indigenous terms to show how they relate to land and to show their awareness of the country, their daily-life dependence on nature and wildlife and their separate histories.   At this time, the aboriginal stories are relegated to second place; they are subordinate to the pioneering myths of settlement.  Davis suggests that Australian pride revolves around the achievements of the pioneers. (9.) Evidently they faced dangers from the aborigines who are dancing to the “wetjala’s” tune.

Jimmy is annoyed that the “blackfellas dancin’ for ‘em”, that is, for  the white man’s brass band, instead of focussing on their own corroborees.   The reference to the stolen country implies that the aborigines are not doing enough to resist and to draw attention to their plight.

Comparative versions of history

Mr Neville is head of department: Chief Protector of Aborigines Office, Government of Western Australia, Fisheries, Forestry, Wildlife and Aborigines.  Mr Neville’s speech to the Royal Western Australian Historical Society.  He typically gives a glowing picture of the pioneers;  and a different account of the massacre that rationalises the violence.  An Aboriginal Australian was shot while stealing flour and that was “the beginning of the end”  at Pinjarra. The official account of history remains against the oral hearsay of the natives.  The official estimate was 15 to 20 dead.

Typical of their off-the-record banter, the Constable and Sergeant talk about poisoning the natives; it is  “too late to adopt the Tasmanian solution” (39). The author insinuates that the Western Australian Government was not as brutal or not as lucky as the Tasmanian Government which oversaw the death of 6000 natives during the first 70 years of settlement.  In the West, (from 1829-1901) the number of indigenous, 13,000, was reduced to 1,419 – many of whom were half castes.

During their life at the Moore River Settlement, the aborigines are (forcibly) exposed to the Christian religion which replaces their own rich cultural beliefs and oral stories. David is whipped by Billy and forced to attend religious lessons despite the Sister’s protestations, “we don’t hit people to make them do God’s will” (84).

Australia Day ceremony 

The Settlement is, inappropriately, preparing for the Australia Day ceremony. Hypocritically, Mr Neville expresses his gratitude to Mr Neal about the “splendid ceremony”. As Davis suggests, there appears to be a lot of empty pomp and ceremony, but little real action.  The hymn, “The Happy Land”, is later humorously, parodied by the natives. As Davis suggests, the hymn reveals an exclusive view of  Australia – one which denies Aborigines basic necessities such as “sugar in our tea”. They also note, “bread and butter we never see”.  The trivial reference to the “fading away” is also a sinister reminder of an understated goal of government policies – racial genocide, also euphemistically known as the “Tasmanian solution”.  The playwright suggests that Christian institutions are complicit in the destruction of aboriginal dignity and culture whilst purporting to “save” them at the same time.

Mr Neville’s exaggerated and dramatic reaction is farcical. He criticises the Aborigine’s “demonstration of ingratitude” which is reflects his paternalistic attitude that the aborigines need to be civilised in order to take their place in White Australian society. Furthermore, the fact that Neville intends to restrict privileges is ironic because the Millimurra family has constantly struggled with bare necessities.

History and culture

The parody of the hymn also highlights another of Jack Davis’s concerns – that aboriginal myths and stories have been relegated to the margins in place of the dominate Christian narrative. Earlier, we learn that Jimmy was a choir boy at the New Norcia Mission, singing “Ave Maria”, but with conditions so tough, it was difficult to live off God alone.   Jimmy sings a Christian hymn that he has learnt at the mission which again reminds the police of their hypocritical culture. “Mother of Christ, star of the sea”.

The aboriginal stories are inconsequential; they are subordinate to the pioneering myths of settlement.  Davis suggests that the focus of Australian pride centres around the achievements of the pioneers. (9.) Evidently they faced dangers from the aborigines who are dancing the “wetjala’s” tune. The white people ignore the black man’s cultural stories and histories. Instead, they reinforce the stories of the pioneers which are offensive to the native people. They also give priority to Christian stories, myths and values which the aborigines are forced to learn, once again implying that their stories are insignificant and uncivilised. (See Billy’s story of the massacre.)

The official version of history is the focus of Mr Neville’s address to the Royal Western Australian Historical Society. Davis shows how the official white man’s narrative typically gives a glowing picture of the pioneers  and a rationalising account of massacres in order to downplay the act of theft and the violence.  For example, an Aboriginal Australian was shot while stealing flour and that was “the beginning of the end”  at Pinjarra.  The official account of history remains against the oral hearsay of the First Australians.  The official estimate was 15 to 20 dead.    However Billy gives a different account which reveals errors in the white man’s version.   Billy relates the 1926 massacre that killed most of his tribe. Mr George belted the old man with the stockwhip; the old man was bleeding from the cuts. He picked up the chubel spear and speared Midja George.  Retribution was swift and brutal; the tribe was killed. He hates to return to the area because of the sounds of the bush: “Mothers cryin’ and babies cryin’, screamin’, Waiwai! Waiwai! Waiwai!” (63)

Religious doctrine is used to “educate” the aborigines and replace their own cultural stories. David is whipped by Billy to attend church despite the Sister’s protestations, “we don’t hit people to make them do God’s will” (84. Contrastingly, Jimmy is often depicted dancing and having a corroborre. Jimmy enacts the dance about crabs and the eagle, which shows awareness of traditional customs and lifestyles.

Through the characterisation of the matron, Davis shows their awareness of their shameful complicity, and their inability to challenge authority figures because of the consequences (an inferior out of the way posting).

Jimmy’s resistance

Jimmy’s protest symbolises the angry voice of the dispossessed. In the opening scene he displays a sense of pride in his indigenous roots and anger at the government and the “blackfellas” who are “dancin’ for ’em”. “Cause them bastards took our country and them blackfellas dancin’ for ’em. Bastards!” (10)

Proud, angry and frustrated, Jimmy “savagely” “drives the axe into a log and nicks his finger. The stage directions note that he “watches the blood on the ground”, symbolising the blood spent by his indigenous forebears. He claims that he would not have been so coerced. At 12 years old, Jimmy was a choir boy at New Norcia Mission and rails at the fact that they are not even allowed to march. He “mimes handcuffs and goal” which reflects a series of miming actions throughout the play. He enacts the discrimination he faces; this is not only a dramatic tool of the playwright’s but it also reinforces the language difficulties. (Notice the reference to religion which is, Davis, believes a hypocritical tool of dispossession used by the white man.)

Death and rebirth

As a proud indigenous activist and “troublemaker” (“ringleader”), Jimmy draws attention to social injustice and the discrimination they face on a daily basis. Sadly, his death becomes a potent symbol of despair. Jimmy sees through the rhetoric spoken by the ‘wetjalas’ and he is unafraid to voice his opinions to both his family and white people in positions of authority over him. Jimmy systematically exposes the hypocrisy of the Government, but his addiction to alcohol acutely captures their loss of faith, their soul and their degradation.   Jimmy’s willingness to stand up for himself is shown when Neville tries to dismiss him and he replies “I’m not wait’ ‘round here all day.” On Australia Day, he insightfully and courageously announces to the entire assembled company at the Moore River Settlement that the transfer of his family and other Aborigines to said settlement was “nothin’ to do with bloody scabies” but so “them wetjalas vote for [Jimmy Mitchell],” showing that he is a voice for the Aboriginal people. His heart attack symbolically represents the death of the voice of protest amongst Aborigines  – despair.

Although he shows how dis-heartening life can be for the Aborigines, David also suggests there is hope. One symbol of hope is Joe and Mary’s baby which is named after Jimmy, suggesting a future rebel who will fight for Aborigines. Cissie and David also represent the hope for Aborigines in ‘joining’ white society while maintaining their Indigenous heritage through use of English interspersed with Nyoongah words. Gran’s insistence on Cissie and David attending school shows that she understands the importance of, and power, that derives from learning the dominant language.

  • The fact that Mary is a “good milker” symbolically points to their survival. Also she proudly wins her fight against Mr Neal and withstands his barbaric actions. She restrains Joe who wishes to assault him, and states, “He got wild ‘coz I wouldn’t knuckle under to him” (101)
  • As Joe and Mary bid farewell to “each member” with the “fire [] burning” and a “magpie squawk[ing]”, Davis suggests that there is hope through reconnecting with their cultural identity.
  • As Billy “hands [Joe] his whip”, Billy seems to redeem himself through the help he offers. He subverts the white authorities attempts to dehumanise and control him.
  • Joe uses Billy’s whip to catch rabbits and Sam gives him the knife. These are symbolic tools of survival in a harsh bush landscape. (Sam notes that “he can always make another one”)
  • Gran’s poignant song in her Indigenous language at the close of the play suggests that the indigenous culture and language will survive as long as the First  Australians have the courage and pride to defend their cultural heritage, and to remember the heroic struggles of their ancestors

Make a summary on some of the author’s most critical views

  • The paternalistic, contemptuous treatment of the Indigenous Australians by the authorities; i.e Mr. Neville and the policemen (include literary devices, symbols etc.)
  • The stereotypical view of First Australians as perpetuated by the authorities (in order to justify the oppression and what Davis depicts as scandalous and dehumanising treatment.)
  • How Davis defies/uncovers/deconstructs these stereotypes through his humanising portrayal of the families. For example Molly and Gran are obsessed with hygiene and soap despite their extreme sub-standard living conditions.
  • The families’ relationship with the dominant/mainstream cultural views and values: the story about the pioneers; attempts to read; (literary devices: alienating effect of language etc.); their options to belong; think about Jimmy’s comments
  • The contradictory efforts of the authorities: they seek to “civilise” Aboriginal Australians but restrict their rations and in particular soap; they want to “civilise” them and prepare them to take their place in mainstream society and yet undermine their efforts through the restriction of education and access to decent work; how those in a position of power exploit the domestic and itinerant workers
  1. See No Sugar: Two perspectives
  2. See No Sugar: Some sample plans
  3. See also our VCE workbook for students: The Language of Persuasion: an essay-writing guide.
  4. See Language Analysis Tips and Questions for the exam

(For students who wish to excel in “Analysing Argument and Persuasive Language” please see our new workbook and free online exercise study program).
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For EAL students, please see the Techniques of Persuasion: $14.95 techniques 


Social context:

The Aboriginal poet Kevin Gilbert grew up in the 1930s. He describes an “apartheid system” whereby the aborigines “were not allowed to be in ‘town’ later than 30 minutes after the end of the last movie. “We were separated from the white audience by a roped enclosure, not allowed into hospital dormitories, but kept out on the verandahs of the hospital known as the ‘boong’ ward where pillows, sheets, bedding were stencilled in black with the word ‘Abo’ on them.” They had to ask for a ‘pass’ from the manager to visit ‘missions’ where the relatives lived.  (“Inside Black Australia: an anthology of Aboriginal Poetry” edited by Kevin Gilbert.)

“I was born ‘black’ in a white society that spoke oh so easily of ‘justice’, ‘democracy’, ‘fair go’, ‘Christian love’ and had me and mine living in old tin sheds, under scraps of iron, starving on what we could catch – goanna, rabbit, kangaroo, or on what we could find – bread and fat, treasures of old lino and hessian bags from the white man’s rubbish tip to keep us a little bit dry and warmer in the winter.’

In the 1980s and 1990s in Western Australia, Indigenous Australians consisted of 3 per cent of the population, yet their numbers in prison often increased to 30 per cent of the population. Gilbert echoes Davis’s beliefs that this disproportionate number reflects not the Aboriginal Australian’s criminality, but the government’s policy of discrimination and the attitude of a police force that practices racial profiling and targets a minority group.

Originally Aboriginal Australians’ rights were written into the Letters Patent that approved land and usufructuary rights to hunt; 15% of land sales were to be set aside for aboriginal benefit; but governments did not honour the Letters Patent obligations. The people were placed in reserves.

Indigenous Australians were exiled in areas euphemistically called ‘reserves’. Apartheid laws were enacted and co-habiting with whites in a loving relationship was savagely punished, while house slavery and sexual abuse was considered more or less a ‘civilising’ influence. Children were not allowed to speak their language in many of the ‘missions’ and were discouraged by the simple expedient punishment of locking an offender away in solitary confinement on a bread and water diet. Even saying “hello’ in the local lingo was punished. The ‘master’ of the camp determined degrading roles such as tinker, tailor, drover, jacky, dish washer, maid and cane-cutter.

By 1911, the Northern Territory and every State except Tasmania had “protectionist legislation” giving the Chief Protector or Protection Board extensive power to control Indigenous people. The management of the reserves was delegated to government-appointed managers. Enforcement of the protectionist legislation at the local level was the responsibility of protector’s who were usually police officers.  In the National Overview, “Bringing them Home Report” into the Separation of Aboriginal Children from their Families (April 1997) it is claimed that: “in the name of protection, Indigenous people were subject to near-total control. Their entry to and exit from reserves was regulated as was their everyday life on the reserves, their right to marry and their employment. With a view to encouraging the conversion of the children to Christianity and distancing them from their Indigenous lifestyle, children were housed in dormitories and contact with their families strictly limited.” (p. 29) In Tasmania, most indigenous families had been removed to Cape Barren off the north coast. “Until the late 1960s Tasmanian governments resolutely insisted that Tasmania did not have an Aboriginal population, just some ‘half-caste’ people.”

In some states and in the Northern Territory, the Chief Protector was made the legal guardian of all Aboriginal people, displacing the rights of parents.  Mr Neville, (the Chief Protector of WA) was of the view that “within one hundred years the pure black will be extinct.” He reported that in 1937, the population of full-blooded had decreased from 60,000 to 20,000. He believed that it was important to segregate half-castes from full-blooded Aborigines because the increase in the numbers of the former created a problem. In his view, “skin colour was the key to absorption. Children with lighter skin colour would automatically be accepted into non-indigenous society and lose their Aboriginal identity”.

Accordingly, the ‘protectionist’ legislation was used to remove Indigenous children. The protector did not have to establish whether or not the child was neglected. The aim was to remove children from their mothers around the age of four years and place them in dormitories away from their families. They would be sent to missions to work at 14 years of age.

Consequently, the Indigenous Australians lived in sub-human conditions. Many were denied access to rivers and waterholes by pastoralists and miners; they lived in scraps of tarpaulin and hessian and derelict car bodies, and died from curable eighteenth century diseases.

In 1984, Robert Walker, (aged 25) died in Freemantle Gaol; in protest, he cut his wrists and played his guitar. The prison officers removed him from his cell; screaming in mortal fear he was removed to a grassed area; held by officers and beaten with fists, boots and truncheons over a period of 17 minutes. 126 Coroner McCann dismissed the evidence of prisoner witnesses; he found that “death arose by way of misadventure”.

Aboriginal culture, dreamtime origins and oral stories

To many white people, a group of Aboriginals who sit around a camp fire are just singing a corroboree song or “yacking”.  But for the Aboriginal Australians, it is a deeply sacred and spiritual experience; so much so that if an uninvited man or woman enters the circle unbidden, they can well court a death sentence, for which that circle the Great Creator Essence is present.

Davis also highlights the importance of oral histories in Aboriginal culture. Martin Flanagan says of “revisionists” in Australia concerning Aboriginal history: “if it’s not written down, it didn’t happen”. (The Age, 19/7/14)

Indigenous labourers were forced to work without pay, apart from a few rations – dry bread or flour, camp meat, a stick of tobacco.  If aborigines killed cattle to eat, they risked death or at the very least, imprisonment, or removal from family.

Doris Pilkington Garimara       Writer    1937 — 10-4-2014

“Sometime in 1937, Doris Pilkington Garimara was born Nugi Garimara under a wintamarra – mulga – tree on Balfour Downs Station, the daughter of Molly Craig and Toby Kelly, an Aboriginal stockman. Six years earlier, in 1931, Molly had escaped from Moore River Native Settlement with her two sister/cousins, Daisy and Gracie, and walked all the way back to Jigalong, an extraordinary journey along the rabbit-proof fence that took them three months.  (See Rabbit Proof Fence).

When Doris was 4, she, her mother and Annabelle, her new little sister, again came to the attention of Auber Octavius Neville, the chief protector of Aboriginals in Western Australia. They were interned at Moore River. Molly ran away, taking the baby with her but leaving Doris behind. She did not see her mother again for 21 years.

Pilkington grew up at Moore River and at 12 was transferred to Roelands Mission where missionaries brought her up to believe Aboriginal people were dirty and evil. ”I actually despised my own traditional culture because we were taught to,” she said. ”We were told that our culture was evil and those that practised it were devil worshippers. I was taught to deny my own people – be ashamed of them even. The blacker your skin was, the worse individual you were.””

She described the conditions as “more like a concentration camp than a residential school for Aboriginal children”.

“Young men and women constantly ran away (this was in breach of the Aborigines Act. Not only were they separated from their families and relatives, but they were regimented and locked up like caged animals, locked in their dormitory after supper for the night. They were given severe punishments, including solitary confinements for minor misdeeds. (Choo 1989, p. 46.)

The per capita funding for the Moore River Settlement was half that of the lowest funded white institution (the Old Men’s Home).  The children were taught basic literacy, numeracy and hygiene, with a view to employment as domestic servants and rural labourers. An Aboriginal witness to the “Bringing them Home” Inquiry in Perth who taught in the school at Moore River during the 1950s gave evidence that inmates were flogged with a cat-o’nine-tails (now held in the Western Australian museum).

In 1936, Western Australia spent less per capita on Aboriginal affairs than any other State.

See full article: “Fearless writer revealed the lives behind the Sorry Day stories of dispossession”, The Age, 26/4/13     Published: April 26, 2014 – 3:00AM

“Where are my first-born, said the brown land, sighing/ They came out of my womb long, long ago. They were formed of my dust – why, why are they crying / And the light of their being barely aglow?”  “The First-born” (poem by Jack Davis).

Dr Jennifer Minter, English Works, (VCE Resources)

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