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Biting the clouds: a timely, new book

Introduction by Croakey: So many Australians in positions of power and leadership, from the Prime Minister down, continue to enact a wilful ignorance about the brutal history of colonisation and its ongoing strategies, as we’ve again seen in the lead up to 26 January.

The importance of historical truth telling, and acceptance, extends far beyond any single day or date.

Croakey thanks Dr Fiona Foley, an artist and writer from the Wondunna clan of the Badtjala nation, for permission to publish an extract from her new book, Biting the clouds: A Badtjala perspective on the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act, 1897.

Biting the clouds is a euphemism for being stoned on opium, the currency Indigenous people were paid for their labours. Introducing the book, Foley writes:

My truth has been to challenge patriarchal white society and ask them to look at themselves, their hypocrisy, arrogance, silences and denial.”

The extract below is from Chapter 4, “The Opium Pipe Beclouds Their Lives” [reference notes have not been included here but are available in the book].


Fiona Foley writes:

To understand the colony or colonial attitudes and race politics in Australia is to know that many overlapping layers of unjust treatments were unfolding at the same time for Indigenes. Aboriginal nations were severely affected in numerous ways by the cruel pathology of another race. Raymond Evans outlines one of these succinctly when he says, ‘The denial of race-murder was ultimately the denial of European guilt and incrimination
in the destruction of Aboriginal life and culture.’ In order to cover up their crimes, another brutal element came into play.

Dr Foley. Credit: Dominic Lorrimer

An attitudinal change in the colony was afoot, with an informal truce in the townships described as ‘letting them in’. This was in no small part dictated by labour shortages. The Queensland government also wanted to lessen the burden of ‘victory’ with their conscience weighing heavily upon them after decades of brutality. An Aboriginal labour force was manipulated through forms of payment not known to them before: the use of opium ash or charcoal opium. This form of the drug was already smoked, with the residue more potent than the first, and it was used in lieu of payment to Aboriginal men, women and children. It meant the addiction of a race; in return an economy flourished.

Archibald Meston, the first southern Queensland Protector of Aboriginals, was one of the principal architects behind the 1897 Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act. Meston’s own life and ideology came into question as he traversed from killer to autocratic protector of Aboriginals. His reports influenced the legislation in Queensland for decades and, in turn, helped shape policy for two other Australian states and the Northern Territory, ‘The Queensland Act set the pattern for the Western Australian Act of 1905 and for the South Australian Acts of 1910 and 1911.’ Thirty-three sections in the Queensland Act dictated terms on how Aboriginals should live. The township of Maryborough, within Badtjala country, is a stringent reminder of how race interactions often unfolded, and is an example of the ‘problem’ Meston was charged with ‘solving’.

Maryborough was founded in the year 1847. ‘When George Furber first arrived on the Mary River to build his store and shanty, he sought the assistance of local aborigines.’ This working relationship was amicable until, at some point, a perceived deception in the payment of flour for labour transpired. An axe was thrown at Furber’s head. He was badly wounded, and sought medical attention in Ipswich.

There are a number of accounts of Wide Bay Aboriginals or the Badtjala nation working with non-Indigenous people in the early establishment of Maryborough and the Wide Bay district. ‘Aborigines with their intimate knowledge of the river and bay were used extensively by ships’ captains as pilots.’ Different types of interactions were negotiated, sometimes cooperative but, at other times, wholesale mischievous endeavours resulted.
Petty robbery seems to have unsettled the settler. In these accounts, the generalised language used sees no individual names used for Aboriginals or their nation in Maryborough. They are simply lumped together as ‘blacks’.

Skirmishes with Badtjala people were reported in the local newspaper. An account from 1853 reads:

One night the blacks, broke into the store, and re-moved fully two tons of the flour, which had been made up into 200lb. bags, and carried it across the Mary River. All the residents of the town went in pursuit of the plunder’s, and the writer’s father and Messrs. Paddy Glindon, and J.E. Brown came upon the blacks resting on a flat piece of ground, on the coast, opposite Fraser’s Island. They were surrounded by the natives, and had to stand back to back, to withstand an attack until re-enforcements came to their assistance. The whites were unable to re-capture the flour, however, and were obliged to beat a hasty retreat to escape with their lives. The flour was transferred by the blacks, from bags to containers made out of tea tree bark. The natives responsible for the robbery came from Fraser Island.”

The Protector, from the series Horror Has A Face, 2017. (Courtesy of Andrew Baker Art Dealer)

The Badtjala were a nuisance to the settler society of Maryborough, forcing many to pack up and leave altogether. ‘The town felt under siege, particularly in the period 1852–55.’ Letters were sent to the Maryborough Chronicle and to the government requesting more police. It is reported that Maryborough lost up to 10 per cent of its population due to Aboriginal attacks. As a result, the town folk constantly carried their firearms and also asked the Mounted Native Police to intervene. In 1864, a letter to the Maryborough Chronicle was sent by the newly formed Maryborough Vigilance Committee.

They wrote:

I would suggest that Government be asked to again establish a Section of native police at their old quarters, Cooper’s Plains; if they do so we will hear no more of our roads being infested by bands of unmolested savages … Signed, An Old Hand, Mary River, 20 June 1864

As time marched on so did retribution for localised robbery and the murder of violent whites. The Evening News of Maryborough, reporting on an attempted robbery in July 1877, complained that ‘the audacity of the blacks in this district is becoming simply intolerable’. This scenario was replicated many times across the state. Sporadic attacks kept the settlers on guard and in constant fear. For two decades the Badtjala people kept up a guerrilla resistance. In response, the 1851 Fraser Island massacre was one of a number of killings orchestrated by the Native Mounted Police during this period.

Following successive waves of frontier and settler violence there was ideological change on a number of fronts by township men and women. Noel Loos identifies that ‘In each district when the decision was made to “let the blacks in”, there was a variety of factors operating.’ Circumstances meant that Aboriginals came in of their own volition. As Reynolds points out, ‘When enough members of the warring bands had been killed or the
hunt for food became too arduous, the survivors “came in” to towns, camps and stations.’

An underlying factor to their acceptance when they came in was a shortage of labour. Industries such as pearl-shell and bêche-de-mer diving, mining, sawmilling, small-lot farming, sugar cane plantations and pastoral work all required menial workers. In a multiracial society, attitudes of a class division also came into play. ‘White men disdained to do “nigger” work – that is, demeaning “servile” labour for others which offered no prospect of rising in the social structures.’ Aboriginals existing on the fringes of towns, colloquially called ‘blacks’ camps’, were engaged in ‘rough work’, and not paid in wages but in items of food, clothing, alcohol and opium dregs. It started to dawn on the settlers, who were now readjusting their interaction with remnant Aboriginal populations in the districts, that ‘Instead of driving them away with guns into the scrub, they could be brought into the open by offering them rations’.

What had added to the decline in available labour at this time were ‘the gold rushes of the 1860s and 1870s [which] compounded chronic labour shortages and many pastoral properties were totally dependent on their Aboriginal workers’. The tide of the colonising onslaught now saw the urgent need for a working co-existence between the races. Labour was at the crux of the matter, although it simply offered another form of control
over Aboriginal peoples’ lives. ‘The frontier labour shortage was obliquely noted in 1866: “If we had known how useful these blackfellows could be, we should not have shot so many of them”, said the Bishop of Sydney.’ Under the harsh conditions of a Queensland sun, the colonial mindset now saw Indigenous men, women and children as a pool of cheap labour. The underlying purpose behind ‘letting them in’ allowed menial labour to be done for little or no expense to the settler. As Loos writes, ‘There was … a strong economic incentive for the colonial to make “terms of friendship”.’ This one-sided economic exchange was the new order of the day.

Aboriginal people who had come out the other end of the brutal colonial onslaught were offered a period of economic inducement. Their labour was sought and taken advantage of in a multifaceted arrangement. ‘For many employers narcotic dependency was a far cheaper means of keeping a regular Aboriginal workforce.’ Unscrupulous settlers paid Aboriginal labourers in ‘opium ash’. ‘The use of such cheap, readily available, tension-releasing drugs
as alcohol and opium dross was understandable, a system of the stress of the rapid culture change with its associated demoralisation and loss of hope and purpose.’ The newcomers achieved the subordination of a sovereign peoples and their culture. Over time, Aboriginal employees suffered the consequences of opium addiction.

Opium hessian bag on display at the Bond Store, Wharf Street, Maryborough, Queensland.

Opium may have offered a form of momentary release, a means to forget their emotional and psychological pain. Aboriginal people were now living in a state of poverty they had not experienced or witnessed before. As Loos points out, ‘group cohesiveness was accompanied by a squalor previously unknown’. A proud people, reduced to hanging on to the fringes of white society, were forced to eke out a daily existence.

Aboriginal people did not smoke opium in dens like other users, but drank from a communal mixture of water and residue called ‘charcoal opium’. Opium could simply have been the mind-numbing release Indigenes were independently seeking. After decades of warfare, sexual violence, transmitted syphilis and gonorrhoea, kidnapping, a decline in birth rates, the destruction of ceremonial life and resources, and the taking of lands, there was not only a lot to comprehend, but grieving as well. The loss of engagement in society was being offered an alternative mechanism to obliterate the memories. Aggressive cultural change forced new coping strategies. Reynolds writes, ‘They were overrun by avalanches of unexpected, unimaginable change.’ Along with the decimation of the race now came a new wave of psychological trauma.

For a number of years, Fraser Island had been targeted for recruiting Aboriginals for its coastal island qualities and its ease of access. The whole east coast of Queensland was known for its ill treatment of Aboriginal men, women and children, who were often taken and forced onto fishing vessels. Underscoring this was, ‘the kidnapping of women not only for their labour but also to satisfy the sexual needs of an otherwise almost entirely male fishing population’. Aboriginal women were kept close to service the sexual urges of white men. This unspoken cohabitation seemed to rule race interactions in Queensland from senior levels of government to the lower classes of white men in the districts. The pressure of sexual abduction, assault and infection by venereal disease on Aboriginal women created increased insecurity. There was no safe environment from marauding white males bent on sexual raids.

Shirleene Robinson encapsulates the levels of abuse that were prevalent on board ships, writing, ‘the physical, sexual and emotional abuse of adult and child Aboriginal workers was extensive’. Fishing boats were packed to the gills, ‘with some vessels having as many as 40’ Aboriginal workers on board. The bêche-de-mer and pearl-shell industries (and the numbers of ships) reached their peak in the early 1880s.

Croakey acknowledge and thanks Dr Fiona Foley and UQP for permission to publish this extract.

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