Jacqueline D’Arcy reviews Biting the Clouds, a recent publication by Fiona Foley.

Biting the Clouds: a Badtjala perspective on the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act, 1897, by Fiona Foley, UQP

When one thinks of Fraser Island (K’gari), images of white sands, dingoes, and, more recently, bush fires, come to mind. There’s no hint of frontier violence, opium addiction or Aboriginal reserves in the glossy tourist brochures. Fiona Foley’s Biting the Clouds is her attempt to combat these “historical silences” – a means to being “an uncomfortable truth reminding you of your forefather’s past deeds”.     

The initial chapters of Foley’s work are devoted to an overview of the history of colonisation of the Aboriginal people as described from a Badtjala perspective. Foley utilises Karen Martin’s Indigenous Research Theory method – ways of being, ways of knowing, and ways of doing – to reinterpret Badtjala beliefs and connection to country.

She disputes previous literature that describes the K’gari people as three tribes rather than one, the extent of devastation by smallpox, and the degree of destruction of Badtjala society by the brutal frontier wars. She tells of the Badtjala oral history of the arrival of Captain Cook and writes of the demolition of the stands of Bunya trees, the associated devastation of ceremony and community, and connected, ruthless massacres – including those by the Native Police Force.

Foley’s explanation of the word ‘dispersal’, as used in the contemporary record, as a euphemism for massacre is illustrated through her 2008 installation work Dispersed.

The letters dispersed
Dispersed, installation at Andrew Baker Art Dealer, 2008.

As Foley states: “[t]he effects of dispossession on a race and their sovereign lands were a people subdued into submission”.  It is from this point that Foley begins the story of the “new policy for the humane management of [the] Indigenous survivors…The Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act, 1897.” Foley describes Archibald Meston’s influence on the creation of the 1897 Act (Meston was later Southern Protector of Aboriginals from 1898-1903), and his instigation of the Aboriginal reserve on K’gari – Bogimbah Creek Mission. Meston originally designed the mission to combat opium use amongst the Aboriginal population – opium ash having been used by the local sugar plantation farmers as an effective and relatively cheap means of keeping an Aboriginal workforce.

The mission and the Act, according to Foley, were a means through which to control the Badtjala people. They kept the community confined and compliant. Opium ash is described by Foley as “the Trojan Horse used to gain access into Aboriginal communities”.

Originally, Aborigines on Meston’s mission had been removed from Maryborough and the Wide Bay district to the reserve. Over time, Aboriginal people from thirty other areas, including gaols and former native police, were also relocated to the mission. When Meston’s son Harold, a harsh disciplinarian, took over the running of the mission “the worst possible form of administration unfolded”.

Harold Meston was replaced in 1900 by Ernest Gribble, son of an Anglican reverend. He exposed Harold’s brutal regime of “beatings, intimidation”, sexual coercion, and “violent summary punishments”. Gribble began a campaign of turning the inhabitants into industrious Christian workers, with “locked dormitories for females, compulsory schooling for children and segregation from their parents, enforced labour duties for all adults, [and the] suppression of surviving traditional practices”. By 1904 the mission had been disbanded and the remnant population of 117 removed to Yarrabah, Gribble’s other mission, outside Cairns.

What Foley demonstrates through her close detailing of mission life constructed by Archibald and Harold Meston and Ernest Gribble, is the lack of the Badtjala voice in the archive. Invariably throughout the text the Badtjala and other mission Aborigines are grouped into ‘blacks’ and other clusters, rather than individuals with explicit voices. “Slowly”, Foley states, she “began to understand that the Badtjala people had been written out of history.” This invisibility to mainstream Australia prompted Foley’s “premise for [her] work…to write Badtjala people or Aboriginal nations back into the visual landscape.”

Foley’s final chapter is a retrospective of her work from 2003 (Stud Gins) to 2017 (Series of Breastplates).

Horror Has a Face, 2017, is a series of nineteen photographs exploring the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act, 1897. After the discovery of seventy graves at the Bogimbah mission, Foley began to explore the characters of Archibald Meston and Ernest Gribble and the influence of opium on the Badtjala and other Aboriginal peoples.

As Foley explains:

Horror Has a Face…challenges people to think in a way that…the previous five chapters cannot. Photographs have the capacity to grab hold, probe who you are and what you bring to the image…creating another layer of reading the image…Horror Has a Face presents scenes positioned around race, church, state, life and death.

Throughout the series, the racialised sensuality of the opium den (Licensed Licentiousness) is contrasted with the image of the ‘protector’ and his charge (Protector and Aborigine). In Missionary Zeal Gribble officiates at a graveside whilst the Bogimbah mission brass band and Aboriginal congregation bear witness.  

Missionary Zeal, 2017, Fujiflex digital print, edition 15 45 × 80 cm.

The various vignettes address themes of control, assimilation, addiction, fear and survival. Daily life is reimagined through the use of period costume and exaggerated props. Repetition in the use of certain props – such as a wooden box and kangaroo skin – emphasises major and minor narrative threads. The smoke from the campfire echoes the smoke from an opium pipe. Foley’s posed characters remind the viewer of the early photographs of indigenous Victorians by Fauchery and Daintree in their series Sun Pictures of Victoria (1857-1859).

It is interesting to note that Archibald Meston himself, prior to his mission days, travelled around Queensland giving a series of “illustrated lectures” in which

he would stand before a backdrop of bush scenery, sharing the stage with recreated gunyahs and stuffed native animals, and illustrate what he had to say with lantern slides, artefacts and live people…The Aborigines would be elaborately ‘made up’ with paint, feathers, etc. and bearing weapons to emphasise their savagery…the Aboriginal troupe performed corroborees, war dances, nulla-nulla and spear fights; and, ironically, enacted their own demise by staging attacks on white settlers and consequent ‘dispersals’ by Native Police (McKay and Memmott, 2016).

These lectures led Meston to create his “Wild Australia Show” and “Meston’s Wild Australia”, which toured his troupe around Australia and internationally. In 1892 the troupe was photographed at Tamarama Beach: a group of Aborigines posing with spears attacking and, in turn, being attacked by another Aborigine with a rifle – a tableau of a native trooper ‘dispersing’ the Aboriginal tribe. The photograph could well be one of Foley’s own.

Foley’s Biting the Clouds is an emotive read. It is a combination of well-researched history, emotive visual pieces and indigenous story telling. If Foley’s aim is to make the invisible visible, she has successfully achieved this. The reader comes away from this book with a deeper appreciation of both the direct history of the Badtjala and widespread trauma brought about by colonisation.




Jacqueline D'Arcy

Jacqueline D’Arcy is a freelance historian specialising in Aboriginal history, native title and empire.