In recent times it has become apparent that Indigenous Australians were mostly welcoming and helpful to the Europeans who came onto their lands, whether by accident or design, as evidenced by the assistance offered to explorers and escaped convicts; and that narratives about ‘savages’ and ‘cannibals’ were fictions designed to “justify” British occupation of Australia and the killing of Indigenous people.
In Finding Eliza (2016) Larissa Behrendt (1969 -), an “Aboriginal lawyer, writer and filmmaker”, makes a compelling case that the story of Eliza Fraser who lived with/was captured by the Butchulla people on K’gari (Fraser Is., Qld) following the shipwreck of the Stirling Castle in 1836 was framed right from the beginning as a tale to serve colonial interests.
Eliza Fraser, aged about 38 at the time of the shipwreck, was the wife of Captain John Fraser and 20 or so years his junior. They had 3 children whom they had left behind in northern Scotland. The Stirling Castle foundered on Swain Reefs near the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, and the crew were making their way south in two boats to the settlement at Moreton Bay (Brisbane) when, after two months, short of water and with talk turning to which of them they would eat first, the captain agreed to risk the ‘savage natives’ and pull into the big sand island now known as Fraser Is.
Briefly, Butchulla people apprehended the whites. Eliza was taken off by the women, daubed with coloured earths and made to assist in the collection of food. Capt Fraser, who was with the men, died. Some of the crew – presumably in the second boat – made the remaining 220 km to Moreton Bay and after 52 days, Eliza was rescued.
Numerous accounts of Eliza Fraser’s ordeal have been produced, starting with her own Narrative of the Capture, Sufferings and Miraculous Escape of Mrs. Eliza Fraser in 1837, in which Eliza is portrayed “as a vulnerable white woman who finds herself among villainous black people”. In some accounts Capt Fraser is speared while Eliza hides behind a tree, in others he dies accidentally or of his illnesses. Eliza describes the humiliations of being daubed and forced to work, and claims to have been on the point of meeting a “fate worse than death” when rescuers arrived:
… visited by one of the most ugly and frightful looking Indians that my eyes ever beheld or that the whole island probably contained; with proposals that, ‘as I had lost my mate, I should become his squaw!’
The rescue party was led by a convict, John Graham, who himself had lived for six years with Aboriginals nearby on the mainland. Only a few others of the Stirling Castle’s crew survived, including Harry Youlden who, much later, published an account disputing Eliza’s version and saying that “he and his mate were offered food and that the locals seemed concerned about their welfare.”
Behrendt breaks down the Eliza Fraser story and analyses its separate elements:
White women are pure and virtuous, blacks are savage, cannibalistic, immoral – the superiority of the white is/must be asserted;
White women need men’s protection, black women are their men’s slaves – ignoring Eliza’s agency in surviving where many of the men didn’t; and overlooking women’s status as chattels in British law;
Aboriginal women: mean and jealous – they treat Eliza badly out of envy for the greater attractiveness of her white skin.
As a lawyer (a Doctor of Juridical Science from Harvard!), Behrendt of course asks cui bono, who benefits from the distortions in Eliza’s story. The list is long. Graham, the convict, is rewarded for his ‘bravery’ so it pays him to overstate the barbarism of Eliza’s captors; Eliza herself initially makes her living as the brave woman who survived unimaginable horrors; missionaries use Eliza’s tribulations as proof of the need to bring Christianity to the “savages”; colonialists justify their land-grabs by reference to the unworthiness of the original inhabitants; and above all, the British race must continue to assert its claimed superiority.
Captivity narratives form a part of Australian frontier folklore, and they emerged at a time that has more significance than we might appreciate. The clear inferiority of Aboriginal people and the barbarism of their culture as portrayed in a story like Eliza Fraser’s was relied on to justify their dispossession and to ignore their connections to their traditional country, their own laws, and their own systems of decision-making.
A contrary (and more likely) version of Eliza’s story is told by Aboriginal Elder Olga Miller, from the perspective of the people who rescued, rather than captured, her. The island was experiencing a severe drought and it is unlikely the whites could have survived without assistance. Eliza was severely sunburnt and was painted in grease and ash to alleviate this, and was daubed with a white ochre mark which said to the Butchulla men, “this woman is not to be touched”. Eliza’s fearfulness made her an ungrateful guest, and one who was unwilling to help in the everyday tasks of Butchulla women.
Behrendt then offers a striking, shaming example of a Genuine Frontier Captivity Story under the headings:
… captured by savages …
… suffered cruel abuses at the hands of the savages …
… treated like slaves …
… suffered a fate worse than death …
Under which she inserts testimony not from whites, but from Indigenous people in the report of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission Bringing Them Home – children torn from their mothers; children in ‘homes’ undernourished and beaten; wages paid into accounts which Indigenous workers never saw (yes, looking at you Qld Government); routine sexual abuse of children in foster care.
Behrendt goes on to discuss other stories which have demonised Aboriginal people, including a scathing review of Katherine Sussannah Prichard’s Coonardoo (1928). I have criticised Coonardoo myself as not being the story of an Aboriginal woman, but the story of Hugh, her (white) sometime friend and lover, who abandons her and their son. Behrendt takes this much further and points out Prichard’s no doubt unconscious racism. For instance:
The exploitation of Aboriginal labour under the guise of Hugh and Bessie’s [his mother’s] supposed benevolence is tangible. Mrs Bessie teaches Coonardoo the management of the household and threatens her with haunting and fearful ‘guts-ache’ if she lets Hugh down, no matter what happens.
A message reinforced by the fact that Coonardoo’s mother, herself a house-servant, had been kicked to death by Hugh’s father for failing to carry out his instructions.
Coonardoo becomes ostensibly the slave in the [station] kitchen but she also does the men’s work. She is the provider for her own family in a camp that is rarely referred to in the book, as though her whole life could revolve around the homestead kitchen rather than her family and the land that she loves.
Other books are discussed, not much less extensively, including Liam Davison’s The White Woman (1994) – an historical novel around the myth of a white woman captured by savages; Patrick White’s A Fringe of Leaves (1976) – which is of course a reimagining of the Eliza Fraser story; Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) – a religious allegory demonstrating the superiority of the white man over the cannibals; and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899).
There is also a forensic analysis of Elizabeth Durack’s appropriation of Aboriginal culture to create the Uncle Tom-ish Eddie Burrup as a marketing tool for her paintings – incidentally her best work, according to Behrendt.
Durack created a website that featured a constructed account of Eddie Burrup’s life… Eddie’s words appeared in Kriol but were interpreted by Durack, and the website was peppered with Eddie’s totem, the sand crab…
Eddie was a strong supporter of the mining and pastoral industries… Eddie accepted European occupancy as a given… And Eddie had praise for every white authority figure he’d encountered. Even his jailors were ‘all very decent fella’.
Under the headings ‘Cannibalism: Dark Acts on the Frontier’ and ‘Imagining Noble Savages’ Behrendt spreads her net wide, but she brings it all together in the end. Finding Eliza is a surprisingly easy read, a prosecutor’s summing up maybe, with much of the evidentiary heavy lifting left to others, in particular historians Kay Schaffer and Henry Reynolds.
Larisa Behrendt, Finding Eliza, UQP, Brisbane, 2016