In No Sugar, Australian playwright Jack Davis critiques the violence and cultural destruction caused by British colonialism. Davis explores the dispossession, absorption, and marginalization of the Nyoongah peoples of Australia and the imperial attitudes that caused the systematic elimination of their way of life. The British colonizers featured in the play attempt to bring civilization to what they see as the primitive indigenous peoples of Australia, but ultimately embark on a devastating program of racial purification.
The “Native Question”
The definition of civilization in the Oxford English Dictionary (8th ed.) highlights the subjectivity inherent in determining the nature of civilization and what it means to be civilized. A judgment must be made to determine what constitutes “an advanced stage or system of social development” and which peoples are “regarded as having this.” Moreover, civilization can also mean “making or becoming civilized”; if a culture is to be made civilized, the implication is that another culture—at an advanced stage and regarded as having civilization—must aid the allegedly primitive culture in this civilizing process.
In Davis’s No Sugar, the British colonizers assume this role as the advanced culture attempting to civilize the indigenous peoples of Australia. The history of the Nyoongah peoples of southwestern Australia after British occupation in the 19th century is one of failed resistance in the early 1800s and dispossession to the extent that by 1900 there were few truly indigenous settlements or people remaining. Many children of the dispossessed Aborigines were raised in white families, while other Aboriginal children and their families were forced onto reservations, like the Moore River Settlement in No Sugar, where they lived in shanties and had limited access to even the basic necessities. In essence, white Australians attempted to deal with the “Native Question” by systematically destroying the cultural identity of the Nyoongah peoples, first by using violent action to subdue Aboriginal rebellion and then by absorbing Aboriginal children into white culture or marginalizing Aboriginal families on isolated settlements.
Destruction of a Culture
Davis illustrates the destruction of the cultural identity of the Nyoongah peoples in No Sugar. Although the play begins in 1929, the violent clashes between white settlers and indigenous Australians in the early 1800s have not been forgotten. In 1.1., Joe Millimurra reads aloud an article from an Anglo-Australian newspaper, which recounts a celebration for the first white settlers in Australia who faced dangers “in the shape of three lorries…carrying Aborigines.”
It is also clear that A. O. Neville, the Chief Protector of Aborigines, does not protect the Nyoongah peoples, but rather encourages their absorption and marginalization. For example, his letter to the superintendent of the Moore River Settlement reveals an imperialistic concern for civilizing the Aborigines; although budget cuts mean that soap will not be included in the rations for the Moore River Settlement, Neville orders toilet paper and cloth for handkerchiefs: “I’m a great believer that if you provide the native the basic accoutrements of civilization you’re half way to civilizing him.”
Throughout the play, the government’s protection of the Nyoongah peoples is actually a systematic elimination of their way of life. Neville’s introduction of British sanitary practices is only one manifestation of this process. For example, in 1.9, the Mundays and Millimurras learn that they must move to the Moore River Settlement without most of their belongings and animals. Later, when Joe returns to his home in 3.1, he discovers that the camp has been burnt. The homes and belongings of the Nyoongah peoples are destroyed, and they are forced to leave behind their culture when they are absorbed into white society and marginalized in settlements run by white Australians.
The Price of Freedom
The conclusion of No Sugar is at once sombre and hopeful. Throughout the play, the Millimurra family has fought to assert their existence and prevent the elimination of their way of life. In particular, Joe and Mary have fought for their right to love one another and to leave the Moore River Settlement. They finally do receive permission to leave the reservation, a small victory that anticipates the possibility of positive change in terms of the treatment of the Nyoongah peoples.
However, the Superintendent of the Moore River Settlement only allows Joe and Mary to leave if they do not return to Joe’s homeland. Gran’s song at the end of the play makes it clear that Joe and Mary, although they have won their freedom, must leave their families behind and will face great hardship in the future: “Woe, woe, woe. / My boy and girl and baby / Going a long way walking / That way walking.” In short, Davis offers hope that the subjugation of the indigenous peoples of Australia will come to an end, but he also suggests that the price of this freedom from oppression will be great sorrow and hardship.
No Sugar by Jack Davis is published by Currency Press (1986), ISBN 978-0868191461.
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