• Miranda Otto voices Eliza Fraser in SBS interactive documentary, K'gari. (Maarten de Boer/Getty Images Portrait (L) and SBS' K'gari (R).)Source: Maarten de Boer/Getty Images Portrait (L) and SBS' K'gari (R).
After voicing Eliza Fraser in interactive doco 'K'gari', Miranda Otto speaks to SBS about the surprising 'Mills & Boon'-esque nature of Fraser's deeply harmful story, and the importance of the fight to return K'gari to its original name.
By
Chloe Sargeant

29 Sep 2017 - 2:47 PM  UPDATED 3 Oct 2017 - 10:34 AM

In April, the national park of the island that's commonly known as Fraser Island, was renamed K'gari (pronounced 'gurri') which is the traditional name for the entire island. But the traditional owners, the Butchulla people, continue their long-standing campaign to officially change the name of the island itself back to K'gari, which means 'paradise'.

Eliza Fraser is the current namesake for the island. She was the creator of a damaging series of lies that led to the massacre and dispossession of the Butchulla people, and created an inherently negative narrative about Aboriginal people for decades to come. 

On the 21st of May 1836, a ship named the Stirling Castle struck a reef of the north coast of Australia, and some of the crew - including Eliza and her husband, Captain James Fraser - ended up on the shores of K'gari. Eliza came across the Butchulla people, who attempted to help her and welcomed her into their community. Despite having little chance of surviving without them, Eliza chose to publish an account of the shipwreck upon returning home, in which she describes her experience as "a fate worse than death", and paints the Butchulla people as primitive, barbaric, murderous and cannibalistic.

Eliza's tale was debunked by other survivors of the shipwreck, but it no longer mattered - the colonial narrative had been created for the Indigenous peoples, which in turn contributed to the entrenchment of harmful rhetoric. 

For decades, the Butchulla people have lived with their home being named after the person that had contributed heavily to their own dispossession, and the personification of their people as 'savages'. 

Created by acclaimed artist and Butchulla woman Fiona Foley, academic Larissa Behrendt, and illustrator Tori-Jay Mordey, the interactive documentary K'gari seeks to tell the Indigenous perspective of Fraser's tale. Renowned Australian actor Miranda Otto was tasked with the difficult role of voicing Eliza Fraser.

I spoke to Otto about the role, who told me that previously to taking part in the documentary, she knew little of Fraser's story - she only remembered seeing promotions for the 1975 film at her local Hoyts when she was young: "I didn’t know much about the Eliza Fraser story at all - most of it was new to me," she explains.

I asked Otto what, in particular, had surprised her about Fraser's story. "I was surprised how much of the piece, obviously reading out excerpts from [Fraser’s account], was remarkably silly," she pondered. "She’d written it like some kind of romantic Mills & Boon book, about these sailors saving her and her honour. She really tried to make it into a sexy kind of story. That surprised me, I really thought it would be more of a testimonial or something."

She also tells me that she found it interesting that, reading Fraser's account now, the things she misinterpreted are now very obvious to us. "You understand immediately, without having to be told, how’s she’s misinterpreted what [the Butchulla people] were trying to do for her. That’s easy from our perspective. Obviously in her time, she was stranded on an island, I’m sure she was scared. But she never really stopped to realise that they saved her life!" Otto says.

"She chose to misrepresent all of their deeds as somehow ‘savage’. Reading it today, we can see what they were trying to do for her. They invited her in to their community. Out of their own humanity, were willing to look after someone who was probably strange and spooky-looking to them!"

"She chose to misrepresent all of their deeds as somehow ‘savage’. Reading it today, we can see what [the Butchulla people] were trying to do for her."

I say to the actor that one of the moments that surprised me was when the Butchulla people were trying to relieve Fraser's severe sunburn by putting dirt and animal fat on her - but she took it as an act of aggression. Otto agrees, saying, "I know, as if the stuff they were putting on her was evil! Or when they tried to hand the baby – they were trying to involve her in some way, but she chose to make some rude comment about the baby."

I tell Otto that hearing Fraser's comment about the baby ("one of the most deformed and ugly-looking brats my eyes had ever beheld") was incredibly distressing: "It upset me too," she says. "In the end, she chose to put those things in the story. She chose to play fast and loose with the truth, to write a bodice-ripper type of story – she wanted to make it quite salacious."

After portraying Eliza Fraser, I ask, did Otto have any thoughts on why Fraser chose to write the falsified account, rather than the truth? "For a woman to be shipwrecked at the time, with a totally different race of people – it definitely would’ve been a culture shock," she explains. "She went through a significant experience. But I think when some people tell themselves a story of something that’s happened to them, they keep embellishing it and changing it. So I think there was a fantasist element to it. I think another element is [...] you want a story to be as exciting and controversial as possible, and maybe she knew they wouldn’t be able to contradict her. She knew she could tell her side of story and no one else would be able to tell theirs."

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I tell Otto that experiencing the K'gari documentary made me consider the history that I've believed to be fact; the history I learned in schools would all have been written by the white settlers - I wondered how much of it had been fabricated or embellished, in the same way Fraser did. The actor tells me that that when she was in high school, learning Aboriginal history seemed to be an afterthought.

"In high school what they did was, 'Chapter 1: Discovering Australia, Captain Cook' - like Australia didn’t exist before that!" she tells me. "Chapter 2 was the Aboriginal people – we didn’t even study it. They told us to go home and do our own project on it. 'Well, you go home and summarise it, that’ll do'."

She continues, "I find it kind of amazing in Australia that there isn’t even any Aboriginal languages taught in school. In other countries there is respect for the languages of the country, and we don’t, even in some small way, try to teach something of the local culture. I just don’t know why...."

I joke that summarising what's now known to be 65,000+ years of Indigenous history in one chapter or project would have been no easy task, and Otto tells me that the enormity of Indigenous history was not even considered. "It was regarded as a side issue, adjunct to the MAIN history. Like, 'we’re only gonna study the REAL history in school'. This was the side project, like it didn’t have significance of the rest of the history we studied. And that’s disrespectful."

"Why not set the record straight? There’s so many problems that are so difficult to solve; who are we going to hurt by changing the name back [to K'gari]?"

I ask Otto what else she believes can be done to reclaim Indigenous narratives on Indigenous history, like the K'gari documentary has attempted to do: "It’s so hard," she tells me. "There just has to be enough Aboriginal people in power in the right areas, so Aboriginal people are speaking for themselves rather than having people speaking for them. I don’t really know the answer to that question; I think we as white people we have to think more before we start trying to speak for other people. People sometimes speak out, y’know, for good reasons, they’re trying to support Aboriginal people, but it can be the wrong thing to do. People should be able to represent themselves, there should be equal representation."

Finally, I ask her about the fight to reinstate K'gari to its original, traditional name. She tells me that she hopes the power of social media will assist in the fight, and help people come together for the cause. "I may be out of touch with events in Australia, but it really does not seem like that much to ask... Why are [the Frasers] being honoured, why are they so important to be honoured, and why can’t it be put back to what it should be? I don’t know, maybe there are big Fraser supporters, I don’t know! But it doesn’t seem to me to be a really tricky one to ask for.

"Why not set the record straight? There’s so many problems that are so difficult to solve; who are we going to hurt by changing the name back?"

You can view SBS' interactive documentary, K'gari, HERE: www.sbs.com.au/kgari/

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