This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005
Eliza Anne Fraser (c.1798-1858?), shipwreck victim and source of myth and legend, was born perhaps in Derbyshire, England. Her maiden name was Slack and she was literate. Sometime before 1821 she married James Fraser, a mariner. In 1835, leaving their 14-year-old daughter and two sons in the care of the Presbyterian minister at Stromness, in the Orkney Islands, she accompanied her ailing, 56-year-old husband, captain of the brig Stirling Castle, to Australia.
The ship left London on 22 October and, after a successful voyage with passengers and cargo to Hobart Town and then to Sydney, sailed north for Singapore. On the night of 21 May 1836 the vessel hit a coral reef and foundered off the north-eastern coast of Australia. Taking to the lifeboats, the survivors headed south, hoping to reach the convict settlement at Moreton Bay. A few days after leaving the wreck, Eliza gave birth to a baby, who died. The two lifeboats lost contact; the faster, mistakenly by-passing Moreton Bay, came ashore at the Tweed River; six seamen died and a survivor was rescued at the Macleay.
Meanwhile, the leaking longboat reached the northern tip of Great Sandy Island—later to be renamed after Captain Fraser. Trading goods with local Aborigines for fish, the castaways repaired the boat. When six seamen defiantly took guns, however, and set off to walk south along the beach, the Frasers and four others were obliged to follow. 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 crossed to the mainland and moved south with Aboriginal groups until, at Bribie Island, they encountered Lieutenant Charles Otter of the Moreton Bay garrison. Commandant Foster Fyans immediately organized a rescue party of volunteer soldiers and convicts, led by Otter and guided by a convict absconder John Graham. Graham rescued two Stirling Castle seamen from the western shore of Lake Cooroibah (near Noosa). From a camp at Double Island Point he proceeded north to Fraser Island and returned the next day with the second mate John Baxter. Graham then located Mrs Fraser near the northern end of Lake Cootharaba. Assisted by his Aboriginal 'relatives', he took her to the beach to meet Otter and his soldiers. The rescue party returned to Brisbane on 21 August 1836.
The survivors recovered from their ordeal at Moreton Bay and then returned to Sydney, where newspapers published exaggerated accounts of their experiences. Eliza stayed at the home of the colonial secretary, was feted in Sydney society and received a large sum of money raised by public subscription. On 3 February 1837 at St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, with Rev. John McGarvie officiating, she married Captain Alexander John Greene. They sailed in his ship, the Mediterranean Packet, for Liverpool. To the authorities there and in London, Eliza purported to be a penniless widow. The lord mayor of London held a public inquiry and opened an appeal. After it was revealed that she had remarried and had already received recompense, the lord mayor's fund was mostly allocated to the Fraser children, and Greene took Eliza back to Stromness to be reunited with them.
Eliza's character was variously described by people who knew her. To the seaman Harry Youlden, she was 'a most profane, artful wicked woman'. But the journalist John Curtis portrayed her sympathetically, believing she suffered from 'aberration of the mind' as a result of her experiences. In 1842 a runaway convict David Bracewell claimed that he had helped to rescue Eliza, adding to the conflicting traditions. Fraser descendants believed that the Greenes eventually moved to Auckland, New Zealand, and that Eliza died in Melbourne in a carriage accident in 1858.
As early as 1841 Charlotte Barton included a synthesised account of the events in her book, A Mother's Offering to her Children. The recounting of the tale had negative effects on Aboriginal-settler relations in Australia and the questions surrounding her rescue and its aftermath led to lasting controversy. Descendants of the Aborigines resented the way their ancestors' attempts to help the castaways were misrepresented. In the twentieth century historians re-examined her story. The painter (Sir) Sidney Nolan, novelist Patrick White and composer Peter Sculthorpe based significant works on her legend, a feature film was produced in 1976 and academics began to study the complex mythologies that her legacy had created.
Elaine Brown, 'Fraser, Eliza Anne (1798–1858)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fraser-eliza-anne-12929/text23361, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 12 February 2016.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005