We're in the midst of a sensational debate about colonial history in Australia, not dissimilar to the spike in ‘nationalism’ in America. Conservative (mainly, white) Australians are railing against any changes which would force them to confront the truthful past of this country and this includes believing the convenient narratives weaved by the colonial power players.
There are far too many examples of this in over the last 230 years. From what continues to be called the ‘discovery’ of Australia to the using terms like ‘indentured labour’ rather than the more accurate one, slavery. Australia has a serious problem with facing real events, particularly when it paints the impact of colonisation as anything other than harmless settlement.
"Australia has a serious problem with facing real events, particularly when it paints the impact of colonisation as anything other than harmless settlement."
Perhaps one of the most compelling - and to this day mystifying - examples is that of Eliza Fraser. A woman who concocted a narrative that served her interests and directly lead to the massacre and dispossession of the Butchulla people.
How Fraser Island got its name
Eliza was the wife of James Fraser, Captain of the Stirling Castle, a ship that departed Australia heading for Singapore carrying cargo, mostly liquor and spirits. On the evening of 21 May 1836, the vessel struck a reef on the north coast of Australia and after a long period spent on life rafts, some of the crew - including Eliza - eventuated on the shores of K’Gari, an island occupied by the Butchulla people.
The narrative that followed is demonstrable of the contempt that colonists held for the Indigenous population of Australia and surrounding islands. Despite having little prospect of surviving without the assistance of the Butchulla people, Eliza claimed she was captured and then suffered at the hands of the ‘savages’.
She painted a dark picture of the Butchulla people in which she was a morally superior, and her innocence was degraded by the treatment of the Indigenous people. Despite numerous and compelling accounts by other shipwreck survivors that Eliza’s claims were false, colonial officials took to this narrative like a fish to water and her words eventually lead to the massacre and dispossession of the Butchulla people.
Today, K’Gari is officially named ‘Fraser Island’, paying tribute to Eliza. Plaques installed on the island which mark her as a survivor and hero, contributing to an everlasting cruel and twisted irony placed upon the Butchulla people who still live with the painful repercussions of her story.
In light of the current debate of monuments commemorating colonial invasion, the Eliza Fraser Island is a particularly brutal reminder that very little empathy has existed in Australia pertaining to Indigenous people.
So what about the Butchulla peoples’ continued pain of living on their land where massacres and dispossession occurred? And what about their continued pain having the white man name their home after the woman who personified their people as cannibalistic savages?
We already continue to fight for the truth against the narratives instilled by colonising forces, but how can we seek the cessation of injustice against our people - especially when wider Australia continues to be so emotively defensive of their symbols?
Can we remove the colonial symbols - Can we change the name?
Although rare – changing the name of a place is possible. However, it generally requires a vote (under the current system of governance in Australia) of the suburb, town or – in this case – island affected by the change.
The problem with it, is the likelihood that the majority of the population are non-Indigenous and therefore, do not know the truthful history of their country and land on which they live, or those that do, there remains a significant portion that continue to deny the truth. In circumstances like this, Indigenous calls for change will always fail under the current system.
Another possibility is 'dual naming', like Uluru/Ayres Rock which
In Queensland, the names of places is administered by the Place Names Act 1994 (QLD) which sets out the criteria and process for places to be named. It is accepted practice to suggest names for geographic locations and features in Queensland that have no official name, and it is also possible to suggest name changes to locality names and boundaries if there are problems with the current situation. 'Dual naming', like Uluru/Ayres Rock can be common, if acceptable to the applicant. Of course, not all suggestions for change are approved and are subject to consensus. Fraser Island, given the history and brutal discourse that followed the lies of Eliza Fraser, would certainly be a candidate for a full name change rather than a dual name, but the success of any such application is yet to be determined.
The Butchulla people, not strangers to the struggle to survive, have proven their resilience with their fight for recognition of their native title of the land that ought to be known as K’Gari – the original name for the island.
Their native title rights and interests were recognised in the Butchulla People. Whereby on 24 October 2014, the court recognised the Butchulla People’s non-exclusive native title rights and interests, in relation to ‘Fraser Island’, off the coast of Central Queensland. This year, it saw that a section of the National Park was renamed K’Gari which was welcomed by the Butchulla people as an acknowledgment of their native title and continuing connection to country.
While the reminders remain all around us, Indigenous people continue to demonstrate resilience by striving in small steps to effect change and remove the blinkers of the majority populace.
Explore Eliza Fraser's fabrications in the interactive online documentary, K'Gari: sbs.com.au/kgari