• Frontispiece to the 1837 New York pamphlet, 'Narrative of the Capture. Sufferings and Miraculous Escape of Mrs. Eliza Fraser'. (University of Queensland)Source: University of Queensland
Do you know where the name 'Fraser Island' comes from? Eliza Fraser's story is one of the finest tabloid spins in history.
Georgia Mokak

29 Aug 2017 - 5:45 PM  UPDATED 5 Sep 2017 - 10:33 AM

The victors write the history, but that story can be challenged by dissenting voices and unpicked until it ultimately frays at the edges – Larissa Behrendt, author of Finding Eliza: Power and Colonial Storytelling

Today we call it 'Fake News' but back in the 1800s, the tale of Eliza Fraser demonstrated the finest tabloid tradition. Spinning at several different stories of murder, torture, slavery, and cannibalism to cater for different audiences, Eliza Fraser was cast as both a survivor and a fantasist and subsequently, the women behind the name Fraser Island. 

What we do know from records is that the Stirling Castle, a ship led by Captain James Fraser, left Sydney and became shipwrecked off the coast of Queensland. After abandoning vessel, Fraser refused to land the longboat out of fear that the local Indigenous peoples were cannibals. Nearing starvation, the crew were coming very close to drawing straws to sacrifice one of the crew members. So began the tale of hardship, endurance, vulnerability, and intrigue that has since captured the captured the imaginations of many readers, writers, artists, and filmmakers, all of which, bring a range of perspectives from a range of historical and cultural eras. At least three of the many variations of the narrative have been provided by Eliza Fraser herself.

After Eliza’s rescue, every subsequent account of her story was embellished to portray herself as the pure, innocent, middle class, vulnerable widow and her ‘captors’, the Badtjala/Butchulla peoples, as the barbaric, cannibalistic savages describing her experience as “a fate worse than death”. Describing the Badtjala women as her worst tormentors, Eliza portrays the women as having an underlying jealousy of her white skin and pure beauty.

The early visual records of Fraser appeared around the late 1830s and supported the captivity narrative that reflects the cultural value of the Empire, colonialism, and the terrifying otherness of the Indigenous people, referred to as the ‘natives’, ‘savages’ and ‘cannibals’.

Despite the strong emphasis on the cannibalism theme, there are a number of details that counter Fraser’s argument. One, Fraser and her audiences neglected to address that if it wasn’t for the Batjala people, herself and the remaining crew would not have survived to tell the sensational narrative. Two, Eliza complains in her stories about “another white man”, James Davis/Duramboi, who countered her argument, stating that he never saw any cannibalism on the Island. Three, Badtjala elders today have shared that if events had happened like this, they would have been passed down orally through the generations and shared through dance. Often told as a tale of first contact, there was actually quite a lot of contact between the prior to this moment with white people – other accounts from convicts and explorers, for example.

Nevertheless, Fraser turned out to be quite the entrepreneur in the way she tells subsequent versions of her story to tailor it to different audiences. One story claims she saw her husband's death, another says the that local Aboriginal women prevented her from being by her partner's side.

The story of Eliza Fraser and her sensational and highly exoticised account of her experience on K’gari Island (Fraser Island), is a classic example of the historical portrayal of Indigenous peoples by colonisers and a 'news story' which does not benefit her as the survivor and the hero, but is a convenient narrative for colonial rule and Indigenous dispossession.   

Larissa Behrendt, Eualeyai/Kamillaroi writer, lawyer and filmmaker demonstrates the deconstructive power of another perspective in her novel, Finding Eliza: Power and Colonial Storytelling, published last year. The Eliza Fraser stories are the perfect example of how stories have been used by Europeans for their own purposes or for institutional purposes, and how they create the ongoing stereotypes of Indigenous people in Australia and across the world. Any truths surrounding Eliza’s relations with the Badtjala peoples were very hastily sacrificed for the traditions of the dramatic tale.

So what does this story tell us about mythmaking in colonial storytelling, and have we really progressed that much further, with the recent conversations surrounding false news in Australia and globally today? The Eliza Fraser stories were examples of sensationalized accounts and misrepresentation, that appear almost completely fictional and absurd to a contemporary audience. That being said, racial biases in fake news is as apparent today as it was in the 19th Century.

Dismantle Eliza Fraser's fabrications in the interactive online documentary, K'Gari: sbs.com.au/kgari

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