The Australian island named after a castaway from Orkney

Fraser Island. PIC: Creative Commons.
Fraser Island. PIC: Creative Commons.
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Fraser Island, off the coast of Queensland, Australia, is admired for its towering rainforests, never ending sands, mangrove forests and free wandering dingoes.

A veritable paradise and world heritage site, it was once known to Westerners as Great Sandy Island but the arrival of Eliza Fraser and her sea captain husband, James, from Orkney, who were shipwrecked with their crew after hitting a coral reef in 1836, changed all that.

Eliza Fraser. PIC: Creative Commons.

Eliza Fraser. PIC: Creative Commons.

It was an episode that was to lead to both devastation, scandal and legend.

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Mrs Fraser lost her baby as she tried to reach safety with Captain Fraser then allegedly speared to death by a local after they ventured into the island.

His wife claimed she witnessed the murder and was forced to live as a slave at the hands of Batchulla Aborigines who lived there.

Plaque on house in Stromness, Orkney, where she is said to have lived. PIC: Flickr.

Plaque on house in Stromness, Orkney, where she is said to have lived. PIC: Flickr.

Mrs Fraser, who left her three children on Orkney to embark on the trip to the southern hemisphere, lived on the island for roughly two months following the death of her husband.

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By the time of her rescue, it is said her sunburnt skin hung like flakes from her shoulders with vines wrapped around her body in a bid to protect her modesty.

Food had become scarce, with honey, ants eggs and water lily bulbs relied upon for sustenance, according to accounts.

Later, Mrs Fraser profited from her tales of captivity with a subscription fund set up to support her following the ordeal.

Later, she was accused of exaggerating her stories but there was some kindness amid the criticism with a theory she had suffered a form of nervous breakdown gaining some traction.

However, the tales and their retelling later caused resentment in the Aboriginal community with claims their ancestors attempts to help the castaways were misconstrued.

What is known is that Eliza Fraser arrived on the island after spending two weeks on a life boat following the crash off the north east coast of Australia on May 21, 1836.

The couple had set sail from London some seven months earlier having left their children in the care of a Presbyterian minister in Stromness.

The voyage had gone well. Passengers and cargo had safely been delivered to Hobart Town, the main settlement on what is now Tasmania, and then to Sydney, before the Stirling Castle headed north to Singapore.

After hitting the coral, the Frasers and their crew deployed two lifeboats and sailed south hoping to reach the convict settlement at Moreton Bay but the vessels lost contact.

The Frasers and 10 others shored up on Great Sandy. At first, goods were traded with Aborigines for fish.

According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, the situation altered as the Aborigines took charge of the new arrivals.

It said: “Along the way Aborigines stripped the party of clothes, blankets and possessions.

“At the southern tip of the island a strait barred their way. The Aborigines divided the men among family groups to assist with hunting, fishing and gathering firewood.

“Aboriginal women cleansed Eliza’s sunburned body with sand, rubbed it with charcoal and grease and decorated it with colour and feathers.

“She was required to nurse their children, dig fern roots and rob bees’ nests, but was so inept and resentful that the women tormented her.

“She witnessed the death of her husband, after he was speared. His first mate also died and two seamen drowned attempting to swim the strait. Fed on scraps and taken by canoe to the mainland, but not permitted to contact the other castaways, Eliza felt herself a slave.”

Three crewmen managed to raise the alarm at Moreton Bay Garrison after heading to the mainland with a group of Aborigines.

Commandant Foster Fyans immediately organised a rescue party of volunteer soldiers and convicts. At the head of the group was John Graham who had escaped from prison and had long lived among the Aborigines, learning both their language and territory.

In his account of the rescue, he claimed to have been able to save Ms Fraser from 700 natives given his knowledge of the area.

He wrote in testimony: “I was determined to brave the worst of fates or finish a miserable existence to rescue that abject captive lady.”

Graham, an Irishman, added: “No horror struck me (so much) as the sight of that unhappy lady who caught my eye....in the most distressed state that can be painted.”

After finally getting back to Sydney, newspapers published colourful accounts of Mrs Fraser’s experiences although others in the group discounted her recollections.

Before leaving Australia in February 1837, she married again to a Captain Alexander John Green and the two sailed for Liverpool in his sip, the Mediterranean Packet.

On her return to London, a public inquiry was held into her circumstances. After it was revealed that she had remarried and received compensation, money raised by the lord mayor’s fun was mostly allocated to the Fraser children.

Meanwhile, her daughter spent most of her days walking around Stromness, waiting for her mother to come home.

And for many years, filmmakers, authors and academics have picked over what may, or may not have, happened on the island to Mrs Fraser, who died in 1858 in Melbourne after being hit by a carriage.