Fraser, Eliza (c. 1798–1858)

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Fraser, Eliza (c. 1798–1858)

Legendary Australian heroine. Born Eliza Anne Slack, possibly in Ceylon, around 1798; died in 1858 in Melbourne, Australia; married Captain James Fraser (died 1836); married Captain Alexander John Greene, on February 23, 1837; children: (with first husband) three.

The true and extraordinary adventures of Eliza Fraser, the wife of Captain James Fraser, began in 1835, when, age 37 and pregnant with her fourth child, she left her three children in Scotland to accompany her ailing husband on a voyage from London to Sydney Australia. In May 1836, their ship, Stirling Castle, foundered and sank on the Great Barrier Reef off New South Wales. Set adrift in a leaky longboat with her husband and several crew members, Eliza delivered a "born drowned" baby, which was buried at sea. After 28 days, during which time they were unable to land except on small sections of reef exposed at low tide, the survivors went ashore on what was then Great Sandy Island, where they were subsequently captured by a tribe of Stone Age Aborigines described as "of rude habits and cannibalistic tendencies." After witnessing the death of her husband who was speared in the back, Eliza was made a slave of the tribe and forced to endure ritualistic punishments carried out at the will of her captors. She and the remaining survivors were eventually rescued by John Graham, an ex-convict and member of the 14th Regiment from Moreton Bay. A member of the rescue party, a Lieutenant Otter, later wrote a letter to his sister in England in which he described Eliza's condition at the time of her rescue.

You never saw such an object. Although only thirty-eight years of age, she looked like an old woman of seventy, perfectly black, and dreadfully crippled from the sufferings she had undergone.… She was a mere skeleton, the skin literally hanging on her bones, whilst her legs were a mass of sores, where the savages had tortured her with firebrands.

Recuperating in New South Wales, Eliza remarried in haste and returned to England, where she petitioned the Secretary of State for the Colonies for "charity" money. (She was turned down by the Treasury, although she did receive private funds raised on her behalf.) There is also evidence that for a time Eliza hired out as a sideshow attraction. Henry Stuart Russell, in Genesis of Queensland (1888), related that while walking near Hyde Park in London, he encountered a man carrying a show advertisement displaying crude artwork representing savages with bows and arrows and some dead bodies of white men and women, under which was written: "'STIRLING CASTLE' WRECKED OFF THE COAST OF NEW HOLLAND, BOTANY BAY, ALL KILLED AND EATEN BY SAVAGES: ONLY SURVIVOR A WOMAN: TO BE SEEN: 6d. ADMISSION." Eventually, Eliza, Captain Greene, and the Fraser children settled in Auckland. Eliza was reportedly killed in a carriage accident in Melbourne in 1858.

Years after her death, Eliza's ordeal inspired a number of books, including Robert Gibbings' John Graham, Convict (1937), Charles Barrett's White Blackfellows (1948), Michael Alexander's Mrs. Fraser on the Fatal Shore (1971), and Patrick White's A Fringe of Leaves (1976). The dust jacket on the original edition of White's novel featured the Eliza Fraser painting by Sidney Nolan that inspired yet another novel, An Instant in the Wind (1976), by South African Andre Brink. An Australian film, Eliza Fraser, scripted by David Williamson, was also made in 1976. The history of Great Sandy Island, which was later named Fraser Island, is told in Written in Sand (1982) by Fred Williams.

sources:

Alexander, Michael. Mrs. Fraser on the Fatal Shore. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1971.

Wilde, William H., Joy Hooton, and Barry Andrews, eds. Oxford Companion to Australian Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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