Fraser Island 3
Fraser Island is loaded with history, beginning about a million years ago with the three rocky outposts of volcanic rock. One of them is called Indian Head, because back in those days, all dark-skinned native inhabitants of anywhere “uncivilised” were called “Indians” by the British. In 1770, as Captain Cook cruised up the eastern coast of Australia, he saw a great number of Aborigines and their campfires on Indian Head. They had been following his large, unfamiliar sailing ship along the coast, as he sailed North. The three rocky outposts caught the sand that the prevailing SE winds and currents were carrying, and backed it up, creating Fraser Island over a million years or so.
Definite proof of Aboriginal occupancy goes back only some 5,500 years.
During the 1980s, the archaeologist Dr. Ian McNiven studied and dated Aboriginal remains in the area, publishing his results in 1990. They left behind huge middens of oyster shells, and many types of stone tools - bevel-edged tools, backed blades, and axes.
Matthew Flinders was the first European to land there on August 1, 1799.
Fraser Island got its name as a result of the crash of Captain James Fraser’s ship, the 500-ton brig Stirling Castle, on the Great Barrier Reef, some 200 km NW of the island. It happened on the evening of May 21, 1836, in heavy seas. He called the reef Eliza Reef, after his pregnant wife, Eliza Fraser. The passengers and crew took to the ship’s pinnace (seven of them) and the longboat (twelve of them). Unfortunately, the longboat was damaged as it was being launched. They decided to row south some 500 km to the penal colony of Moreton Bay (Brisbane). Soon after setting off, Eliza gave birth to a boy, who died almost immediately. He was wrapped in a cloth and thrown overboard. The pinnace and the longboat got separated at sea.
The five men and two boys in the pinnace actually overshot Moreton Bay, and landing in northern NSW. They then began to walk south, dying along the way. The sole survivor, Robert Hodge, was rescued at Macleay River by a passing ship, and returned to Sydney.
After over a month at sea, which included a gale that lasted for a week, the leaking longboat landed at the northern end of Fraser Island. The twelve survivors (including Captain and Mrs. Fraser) began walking south some hundred kilometres, eventually reaching Hook Point at the Southern end of the island. The remaining survivors were unable to cross the wide and fast-moving water that separated them from the mainland. They were taken in/adopted/”captured” by the local Aborigines.
Six of them used canoes to cross the water and after landing, began the 300 km walk to Moreton Bay. Three of them made it to Bribie Island, arriving 11 weeks after the shipwreck. Within a day, Lieutenant Charles Otter, an officer from the garrison at Moreton Bay, set off with two whaleboats and 15 volunteers (two corporals and 13 convicts). They were all volunteers, because of the danger of the rescue expedition. It succeeded mainly thanks to the local knowledge of John Graham, his convict guide. Prior to this, Graham had spent six years living with Aborigines in the area. The Irish convict, Graham and the English officer, Otter had a deep trust and respect for each other’s personalities and skills.
At this stage, there are conflicting histories of what happened back on the island (to add to the conflicting stories of all the other aspects of the aftermath of the shipwreck). Captain Fraser was speared (for some unknown reason), and died. Eliza Fraser was made to work - like any other female member of an Aboriginal tribe. In her weakened state, she was unable to cope, and got weaker. She was rescued after 53 days by John Graham. In the course of long and involved negotiations, he used the story that she was the ghost of his long-dead Aboriginal wife, Mamba. A waiting whaleboat took her back to Moreton Bay, where she recovered for two months. She returned to Sydney and remarried, creating scandal by doing so in less than the “decent” period of a year. She returned to England, becoming famous as a result of her story, which she embellished and improved over the years. As a result, the island got its name of Fraser’s Island, since shortened to Fraser Island.
In 1947, the painter, Sidney Nolan, visited Fraser Island. He heard the story, researched it as best he could, and worked a few series of paintings on the island and Eliza Fraser. He told the story to Patrick White, who then visited the island in 1961. His novel, The Eye of the Storm, has some action set on the island - and it won him Australia’s only Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973. He revisited in 1974, and his 1976 novel, A Fringe of Leaves, in part relates Eliza’s experiences.
The various “histories” had anything between one and ten survivors, Eliza’s time with the Aborigines up to 18 months, and Graham (the rescuer) completely written out of the story. That’s gratitude for you.