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Aboriginal History Volume 36, 2012

The People of the Paroo River: Frederick Bonney’s Photographs by Jeanette Hope and Robert Lindsay, 112 pp, Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water NSW, Sydney South, 2012, ISBN 9781742323282, $24.99.

At the back of Bourke lies the Paroo River, the last tributary of the Darling that flows unregulated by dam or weir. The town of Wanaaring – really a hamlet – is nestled within its serpentine bends. Graziers arrived at these always brown and usually sluggish waters in the mid-nineteenth century, as did an epidemic that brutalised the population of Paakantyi-speaking people, indigenous to the area. What followed for the Paakantyi was typical of the Aboriginal experience in western New South Wales. Doing what they could to recover and regroup, many formed strategic relationships with their colonisers and contributed to the sheep and cattle businesses that overran their ancestral lands.

Highly atypical in the colonial context was Frederic Bonney (1842–1921), the protagonist of The People of the Paroo River. A native of Staffordshire and an alumnus of Marlborough College, Frederic followed his brother Edward to Australia, arriving in Melbourne in 1865. The Bonney family included clerics and academics. There was also a Charles Bonney, uncle to Frederic and Edward, who served as a commissioner of Crown Lands and as a parliamentarian in South Australia. Charles had played a role in opening the overland stock route along the Murray River in 1838 and helped inspire his nephews to come to Australia where they established themselves on the Paroo. Their property, Momba Station, is now part of Paroo-Darling National Park.

The Bonney story would be unremarkable were it not for the fact that Frederic was a deft photographer. With his camera he channelled his deeply humanist vision. This is not the first book on Bonney. Robert Lindsay who, with Jeanette Hope, is co-author of the volume under review, published a shorter study in 1983, based on a series of photographs held by the Mitchell Library. Held (in the past tense) is the critical word here. Scandalously, all but 13 of these priceless portraits of Paakantyi people, dating from the 1870s, ‘disappeared’ from the Mitchell collection some time after the publication of Lindsay’s first book. Consequently, many reproductions in The People of the Paroo River were by necessity made from the duplicates he ordered in the early 1980s. While Lindsay has generously (and hopefully not rashly) now donated his duplicate copies to the library, they are a poor substitute for the lost originals, printed from glass negatives.

The new book was inspired by the unearthing of a further cache of Bonney photographs, contained in an album put together by a Scottish medico and zoologist, Dr John Kerr Butter, that is now in the collection of the National Library of Australia. Butter lived ten kilometres from Bonney, who returned to England in 1881. This may explain how Butter became the owner of 29 Bonney photographs, a quarter of which are group portraits of Paakantyi. The remainder are views of the river country and station life in the 1870s. The new book contains reproductions of all known Australian photographs and commentary on the life and times of the photographer, based on careful archival research.

Much of my knowledge of the upper branches of the Darling comes from my investigation of the Federation era ethnographer, RH Mathews, who wrote extensively on this region of Australia. Mathews published on the mourning rituals of the area, influenced as they were by the presence of gypsum. When ground into a plaster, known as ‘kopi’, widows and widowers would mix it with water and mould the resulting paste about their head to form a grieving cap to signify their loss. These traditions were coming to an end when Mathews wrote about them in the early 1900s, but they were still in vogue during Bonney’s time on the river. Among the many Aboriginal people whom Bonney befriended was a woman named Wonko Mary. A quartet of photographs, in which Mary is seen at various stages of the mourning period, are among the most resonant in Bonney’s oeuvre.

The interface between Aboriginal people and photographers has for some years now provided important ground for rethinking the colonial experience, as is seen very notably in Jane Lydon’s work on nineteenth-century Victoria. While Hope and Lindsay’s study makes no attempt to scrutinise visual culture with this sort of rigour, it throws light upon it by reproducing the work and making thoughtful commentary, milking to the utmost the fairly minimal documentary evidence of Bonney’s life story. The main disappointment is that the standard of photographic reproduction is mediocre.

Viewed collectively, Frederic Bonney’s photography gives a vivid insight to the Paakantyi world in the decades following the invasion of their homelands. We meet Bonney’s subjects as pastoral workers, as makers of ceremony and as producers of material culture. The sitters pose willingly in these photos, which betray not a hint of approbation on the part of their maker. In terms of both content and technical quality, these are exceptional images for the period. Photography could only be a hobby for Bonney, the fulltime grazier, yet in his ethnographic picture making he found his metier. Quite possibly he took many more photos than those now attributed to him. Not surprisingly, his work found its admirers in the colonies and was exhibited at the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880.

It is likely that Bonney would be better known had he remained in his adopted country. But his brother’s ill health forced the sale of Momba Station. Frederic retired to England after little more than a decade and a half in Australia. Installed in the village of Colton, where he lived the remainder of his days, Bonney – as we know from surviving photographs – decorated his house with a remarkable collection of Aboriginal artefacts, obtained during his Paroo years. Some were later acquired by the University of Cambridge. Bonney kept a knowing eye on the emerging science of anthropology and was utterly appalled when he heard Carl Lumholtz speaking condescendingly on the ways of ‘savages’. Bonney, in contrast, said of the people of the Paroo that he ‘loved them for their loyalty and integrity’.

Martin Thomas

School of History

The Australian National University

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