Fraser Island's namesake Eliza Fraser.
Fraser Island's namesake Eliza Fraser. Contributed

CALL IT K’GARI: Fraser Is namesake ‘original reality star’

TO SOME, Eliza Fraser is a tragic shipwreck victim.

But a new book has slammed Fraser Island's namesake, branding her "Australia's first reality star ... combining the undignified characteristics of the worst MAFS and Survivor contestants in one sad, colonial package".

Associate Professor Daryl McPhee of Bond University, author of The Ecology and Environmental History of Fraser Coast and Noosa, was researching shipwrecks for his book when he started exploring the story of Eliza.

Dr McPhee said while his book was always going to touch on Eliza, the work of Eualeyai/Kamillaroi woman and esteemed Professor Larissa Bernhardt encouraged him to dig deeper.

What he found encouraged him to throw his support behind a push to rename the island K'gari, meaning 'paradise' in the Butchulla language.

Eliza Fraser was marooned on the island following the wreck of the Stirling Castle in 1836.

The ship was captained by Eliza's husband, the accident-prone James Fraser, who had also been at the helm of another shipwrecked vessel, The Comet.

The Stirling Castle collided with another vessel even before it left the harbour in England on its fateful voyage to Australia.

Associate Professor Daryl McPhee of Bond University.
Associate Professor Daryl McPhee of Bond University. Contributed

After the shipwreck, Capt Fraser had not wanted to land his dinghy on the island because he was fearful of the 'savages' who, he assumed, were cannibals.

He died soon after landing, but just how is uncertain.

In some accounts, Eliza witnessed his death.

In others, she had already been sent to join local indigenous women.

"In the end I came to the conclusion that long before television, Eliza Fraser was Australia's first reality star desperate to cling to her 15 minutes of fame," Dr McPhee told the Chronicle.

"Her lies, exaggerations and cultural misinterpretations had deep repercussions for the traditional owners of Fraser Island and Aboriginal people in general."

He said like many current day reality TV stars, Eliza Fraser ultimately lived a sad existence and became an object of ridicule when her lies unravelled.

Dr McPhee said Eliza's tale was used to falsely highlight the barbarity of Aboriginal people, including their supposed propensity for cannibalism.

After World War II, the Eliza Fraser story came to life again at the hands of artists, authors and film-makers who set about further embellishing the already sad tale with further untruths at a time when the fight for Aboriginal land rights was coming to prominence.

"Particularly guilty in this regard is Australia's first Nobel Laureate for Literature Patrick White who in his 'historical novel' A Fringe of Leaves identified the Aboriginal people of Fraser Island as cannibals who so corrupted Eliza Fraser that she herself partook of a cannibal act," Dr McPhee said.

"As a Nobel Laureate, gifted intellectual, Australian of the Year and friend of the then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, Patrick White must have known not only that his insinuations to sell a few books were untrue, but the hurtful ramifications they would have for indigenous Australians."

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Dr McPhee said given the controversies associated with Capt Fraser and his wife, it was not fitting a World Heritage-listed site bore their family name.

He said the traditional K'gari was more appropriate.

Butchulla elder Glen Miller said like many other Butchulla people, he was in favour of changing the name of the island to K'gari.

But he recognised a lot of tourism dollars had been directed to the name Fraser Island over the years and any re-branding would have to be gradual.

He pointed to the way in which Ayers Rock had been renamed, first by using both names and then by gradually changing the branding to Uluru.

"The Eliza Fraser story means nothing to me or any other Butchulla person," he said.

"So naturally, personally I'd like to see the name change, but I realise it will take some time."

Fraser Coast Tourism & Events general manager Martin Simons said K'gari had been the name of the island for thousands of years and that needed to be respected.

He envisioned in the future, similar to Uluru, the island would be re-branded, but it would be a progression, particularly in international markets where the Fraser Island brand was well-known.

"From a tourism point of view, there are millions tied up in marketing the Fraser Island brand," he said.