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Figments of Eliza

By Sue Davis

‘Food gatherer’ by Judith Laws

Figments of Eliza

This chapbook has been created as a program and resource to accompany the performance of Figments of Eliza First staged at Cooroy Cultural Precinct 4 November, 2010

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Figments of Eliza

Figments of Eliza



Cast and production support


Accounts, fiction and mythmaking


Timeline of events






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Figments of Eliza

Background The land on which I live was once dairy farming land. Before that it would have been covered in forest, and have belonged to traditional custodians from the Gubbi Gubbi people. My journey began with questions about how nonIndigenous people first entered this terrain and this region. Signage and monuments in our local town recall the first industry of the region being the timber industry. Timber-getters came in search of the Red Cedar and Kauri Pine, felling the towering giants to feed the growing settlements in Moreton Bay and Sydney, and then Gympie and other Queensland locations. But why here, how did they find out about the timber in the first place? It is generally acknowledged that Tom Petrie’s father Andrew travelled to the region in 1842 in search of the grave of Captain James Fraser and locations for possible settlement. Fraser had died on Fraser Island (then known as K’gari or Gari) after the wreck of his ship the Stirling Castle. Petrie didn’t find the grave, but he did report back on the rich timber resources of the region. This, in part, lead to the establishment of Maryborough, an emergent timber industry and later a Gold Rush at Gympie (1867). So Captain Fraser, the shipwreck and the events that followed helped activate interest and white habitation of the region… the tale of what happened to Fraser’s wife, Eliza, was also to have long-lasting ramifications. So that brings me to Eliza … She would have lived a somewhat interesting but none too remarkable life, if it hadn’t been for the events following a shipwreck one windy eve in May 1836. What followed has grown into a story of mythological proportions, and she most certainly lived through the most tragic and cataclysmic of experiences. A tragic heroine in so many ways… but with a fatal flaw. Her flaw - perhaps greed, perhaps being open to manipulation by others, perhaps it was madness. Nobody knows for certain but we are left with fragments and figments. Page 4

Figments of Eliza

My feelings towards the persona of Eliza Fraser are decidedly mixed and my loyalties torn by my consideration of her tale. Some versions of events point to her highly exaggerated accounts of her experiences as contributing substantially to European attitudes to Aboriginal people in the 19th and 20th century and the justification for treating them as sub-human. On the other hand, if you consider what she lived through - a shipwreck, starvation, possibly giving birth at sea, suffering exposure, extreme physical exertion and witnessing her husband’s death… then perhaps it was enough to drive her to madness. As the accounts she gave afterwards became more exaggerated perhaps she felt she had to give her audiences the horrific tale they expected (shipwreck tales being quite common place in those times) … perhaps she was suffering what we might now call post-natal depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. In deciding to explore the narrative I have focused on trying to understand how one might live through such an experience, without making judgements, trying to consider a frame other than our present one. To take on such a task, I believe, you have to work from an empathic perspective, and explore why someone may have done things that they did, what might have driven them to act as they did. Whilst this work is based on extensive research, it is in the end a fictional imagining of what may have occurred, a story to prompt thought and reflection. The focus on Eliza’s perspective does not ignore or disregard that of others, especially those of the Aboriginal people she encountered, lived with and gave accounts about. There is a whole other story to be told from that perspective, one explored by artist Fiona Foley and discussed by Batjala elder Olga Miller. If this project continues on, that is a story that I hope would be included more fully. In the meantime I have used this story as a means of reflecting on our experiences of this place and what it means to belong.

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Figments of Eliza

Cast and production support Eliza:

Mary Eggleston

Writer/director/video imagery:

Sue Davis

Music/sound design:

Leah Barclay

Featured artwork:

Judith Laws

Mary Eggleston is a Sunshine Coast based actor who runs her own drama school and has been festival director for the children’s festival Solarcoaster. She has performed in a range of theatre pieces on the Sunshine Coast, in Brisbane and overseas. This year she appeared in La Ronde & Erotique produced by XS Entertainment and The Secret Lovelife of Ophelia with Fractal Theatre. Sue Davis is a lecturer, writer and ‘pracademic’ – combining teaching with research and creative practice. Her work includes exploring the ways that new media and the pervasive technologies can be used for creating drama. She currently sits on state education advisory panels for Senior Drama and The Arts. Sue has extensive experience managing arts-based community projects and events, writing and directing performance work. Leah Barclay is an Australian composer and interdisciplinary artist who has been recognised internationally for her distinctive sonic language. Her work has been commissioned, performed and exhibited across Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Europe, India, China and Korea. She creates complex sonic environments with a strong focus on the textural and timbral properties of sound. Her work spans film, theatre and dance to hybrid performance, interactive media and site-specific installations. Judith Laws is a Sunshine Coast based artist who has exhibited widely throughout Australia and internationally. Her Eliza Fraser series can be seen on the website of Art on Cairncross. Thanks also to: Jim McDonald for male voiceovers, Judy Barrass for the screencast drawing and Hari Scholes for sewing. Page 6

Figments of Eliza

“I was a most ordinary woman, a wife and a mother. I did not desire riches, fame, or notoriety. I never thought of the possibility of my name living on, of being responsible for the actions of others, or even for some of my own. I have been called a liar, a victim, a thief, a sideshow spectacle. Perhaps there is truth to be found in these labels. To be honest, I wished only to survive and live to see my children grown …to keep heart and soul alive.” (Figments of Eliza)

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Figments of Eliza

Accounts, art and mythmaking

Various accounts of the Stirling Castle and events that followed were given by survivors including Eliza Fraser, John Baxter the Second Mate, and Joseph Corralis, the Steward. Other accounts were recorded from Lieutenant Otter, the soldier who led the rescue party; Captain Foster Fyans, Moreton Bay Commandant; John Graham, the convict who rescued four of the survivors; and later by David Bracewell, who also claimed he rescued her. Bracewell’s account was reported by Henry Stuart Russell in his “Genesis of Queensland” but was not supported by any other accounts. As none of the official accounts were published at the time, the main stories that fed the public imagination were generated by the media and newspapers in Sydney, the US and the UK. 1838 - John Curtis a journalist, interviewed Eliza Fraser & John Baxter, wrote “The Shipwreck of the Stirling Castle” but never visited Australia 1841 - Sydney children’s book “A Mother’s Offering to her Children” by Charlotte Barton, includes an account of the Eliza Fraser story 1853 - Henry Youlden (Bribie Is survivor) publishes his story in “Knickerbocker magazine” he had an intense dislike for Eliza Fraser 1888 – Henry Russell Stuart published the “Genesis of Queensland” including accounts of the Fraser story as told to him by the escaped convict Bracewell 1947 – Sidney Nolan visited Fraser Island and worked on a series of paintings. In 1957 he exhibited a series of Eliza Fraser paintings Nolan introduced the story to Patrick White who visited Fraser Island in 1961 and wrote the novel “A Fringe of Leaves”, loosely based on the Eliza Fraser story (the character is called Ellen Roxburgh)

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Figments of Eliza

1971 Michael Alexander published “Mrs Fraser on the Fatal Shore” a comprehensive fictionalised account - references not all recorded 1976 Kenneth Cook’s “Eliza Fraser” was published – “A rollicking tale of lust and adventure from the violent, bawdy colonial past” 1976 David Williamson wrote the script for feature film “Eliza Fraser” made by Tim Burstall, starring UK actress Susannah York 1978 Peter Sculthorpe “Eliza Fraser Sings” with text by Barbara Blackman 1979-80s Neil Buchanan, a local researcher works out a way that it might have been possible for both Graham and Bracewell to have been involved in the rescue. He writes up his account in various forms 1986 To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the wreck of Stirling Castle Neil Buchanan and Barry Dwyer reprint their publication “The Rescue of Eliza Fraser”, with more attention to black/white relations and primary evidence 1990s Fiona Foley – a descendant of Fraser Island Aborigines produces work which depicts her reaction to Eliza Fraser’s influence on the way Aborigines were treated after the shipwreck and subsequent events 1990 Play by Allan Marott in style of Japanese Noh drama – “Eliza” 1991 Documentary film produced by Gillian Coote’s “Island of Lies” which looks at the effects of Eliza Fraser’s story 1995 Dr Kay Schaffer publishes “In the Wake of First Contact: The Eliza Fraser Stories” and “Constructions of Colonialism: Perspectives on Eliza Fraser’s Shipwreck 2000 Elaine Brown publishes “Cooloola Coast” which is based on her research into the history of the area, including the Eliza Fraser story 2009 Judith Laws (a Sunshine Coast based artist) produces a series of paintings of the Elisa Fraser story after visiting Fraser Island. Judith and partner Rex Backhaus-Smith are developing a book based on the series.

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Figments of Eliza

And when they reached the fatal shore, Its name is call’d Wide Bay, The savages soon them espied, Rush’d down and seiz’d their prey, And bore their victims in the boat, Into their savage den, To describe the feelings of those poor souls Is past the art of men. (Wreck of the Stirling Castle, 1837, John Curtis)

“The soul withers but the body endures – that is how to survive such a time.”

“Before I leave this fatal shore, I must give thanks and raise a stone, an Ebenezer. I must honour my James, my Lord... and honour our Lord and Saviour.” (Figments of Eliza)

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Figments of Eliza

“Today I dreamt of new bonnets and babies… of fresh raspberries and cream, and embroidered silk scarves. Every day I make myself think of something beautiful, of something simply perfect. And there are oranges cut into eight … pudding with nutmeg and raisins … and a bright pink bonnet with a silk satin ribbon ….” (Figments of Eliza)

‘Sweet Charity’ by Judith Laws

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Figments of Eliza

Timeline of events (drawn from different accounts) May 15, 1836 – Stirling Castle set sail from Sydney bound for Singapore. (Interestingly Andrew Petrie came to New South Wales in 1831 by the Stirling Castle). May 21/22 - the Stirling Cast struck the outer edges of Swain’s Reed off Rockhampton. Two boats launched, a pinnace and a longboat. Third or fourth day in the longboat (which was leaking) – Eliza Fraser possibly gave birth and the baby died at sea. Fifth day reached a small island in the Cumberland group (Fred Williams says Bunker group after 8 or 9 days). Mrs Fraser found water up a cliff. May 29 – set off from Cumberland, towards mainland. Attempted to land at Repulse Bay, wind changed. 28 days unable to land, during this time the pinnace parted company with the longboat. On the Longboat – the Frasers, Brown, Baxter, Youlden, Doyle, Corralis, Darge, Elliot, Denny, Dayman and Carey. With no food or water left on the longboat, the crew started talking about drawing lots (cannibalism of survivors). Early July – the longboat landed on Fraser Island (then known as Gari/K’Gari) near what is now Orchid Beach or Indian Head. Mrs Fraser had a sou-wester (Aborigines did not like it). When met by Aborigines they traded clothes for a piece of kangaroo (or fish). 23 July (approx) Darge, Youlden, Dayman, Denny, Elliot and Carey set off down the beach. 4 August (approx) – Captain Fraser died – apparently too weak to work, he stumbled, was speared, possibly died in his wife’s arms.

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Figments of Eliza

7 August (approx) – Eliza and Brown taken to the mainland. Brown died a few days later apparently from burns. 8 August - Lt Charles Otter on a recreation shooting trip on Bribie Is, encountered Corralis and Darge, joined by Youlden. Otter returns to Brisbane and raises a rescue party. 10 August (approx) Eliza moved to the place where a tribal gathering was held near Fig Tree Point. 13 August - Dayman and Carey rescued by John Graham 15 August - Graham walked north to Inskip Point, crossed to Fraser Island in a canoe and found an emaciated Baxter near Hook Point. 16 August – Graham set off to locate Eliza, via Teewah Beach, then inland to “Wa Wa” near Fig Tree Point. Graham convinced the Aborigines that Eliza was the ghost of his Aboriginal wife and persuaded them to release her into his care. 21 August - The rescue expedition arrived in Brisbane – Eliza rested for two months in Brisbane. 6 September – Eliza Fraser’s account recorded in Brisbane. Mid October – Eliza went to Sydney in the Prince George. Public funds were raised. 3 February, 1837 - Eliza Fraser secretly married Captain Alexander Greene in Sydney 16 July - Eliza Fraser arrived in Liverpool, England with her new husband, but they kept the marriage a secret. They later travelled to London and asked the Lord Mayor for help – public funds were again raised. The marriage was revealed and her accounts were increasingly questioned.

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Figments of Eliza


Alexander, M. (1971). Mrs Fraser on the Fatal Shore. London: M. Joseph. Brown, E. (2000). Coolooa Coast. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press. Buchanan, N., & Dwyer, B. (1986). The Rescue of Eliza Fraser (150 Anniversary edition ed.). Pomona: Cooroora Historical Society. Curtis, J. (1838). Shipwreck of the Stirling Castle. London: George Virtue. Genocchio, B. (2001). Fiona Foley: Solitaire. Annandale, NSW: Piper Press. Russell, H. S. (1888). The Genesis of Queensland. Sydney: Turner & Henderson. Schaffer, K. (1995). In the Wake of First Contact: The Eliza Fraser Stories. Melbourne & New York: Cambridge University Press. Schaffer, K., McNiven, I., & Russell, L. (Eds.). (1998). Constructions of Colonialism: Perspectives on Eliza Fraser’s Shipwreck. London: Cassell/Leicester University Press. Steele, J. G. (1984). Aboriginal Pathways: in Southeast Queensland and the Richmond River. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press. Williams, F. (1982). Written in Sand: A History of Fraser Island. Milton, Qld: Jacaranda Press.

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Figments of Eliza


The NeoGeoGraphy project has involved five Sunshine Coast artists using arts practice and digital media to explore stories about place. The project also had a focus on using the spaces and facilities at the new Cooroy library and cultural precinct, and I would like to acknowledge the wonderful support we have received from all the staff at the precinct. This project was supported by the Sunshine Coast Council and the Queensland Writers Centre, and arose from the 3Cs project developed by Jock McQuinnie in collaboration with Arts Queensland and the Australia Council for the Arts. The project has provided us with wonderful opportunities to meet the other artists, to work with community members and with leading thinkers and cultural organisations. Thank you to the people who have added their creative input to this performance project, including Leah Barclay, Mary Eggleston and Judy Barrass. Thank you also to Judith Laws, who has given permission for us to use images of her beautiful paintings which complement our telling of the story so well. Thank you to Sunshine Coast Council for hosting this project and Christine Ballinger and Megan Marks for nurturing and supporting its unfolding. I would like to thank Ray and Jackson for supporting me through another mad obsession, and my work colleagues and CQUniversity for supporting my involvement in this project.

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Figments of Eliza

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Figments of Eliza  

This chapbook has been created by Sue Davis as a program and resource to accompany the performance of Figments of Eliza First staged at Coor...