Eliza’s landfall

Posted by on Apr 12, 2012 in Comment, Heide, Nolan | 1 comment


Both Sidney Nolan and Sunday Reed are associated with Eliza Fraser – he through his paintings, and she through his linking of her and Eliza in the theme of betrayal.  The essay Threads and the paper Mrs Fraser: Reconstruction and Deconstruction both examine this relationship.  This article provides a more detailed account of Eliza Fraser’s time on Fraser Island and her rescue, and examines in detail the role of the two convicts John Graham and David Bracewell.

Eliza’s landfall

In late 1835 the brig Stirling Castle of 350 tons weighed anchor in Stromness, the main seaport on the Orkney Isles, bound for Hobart Town and Sydney.  The crew of twenty were led by Captain James Fraser, who at age 56 had both poor health and a poor Antipodean track record – the brigantine Comet under his command having been wrecked in the Torres Strait.  He was joined by his wife Eliza on a voyage that would see his name given to the world’s largest sand island where he would lose his life, and would see Eliza become an international celebrity – at least by the standards of the early nineteenth century.  On her return via Sydney for Singapore the Stirling Castle ran aground on Swain Reef off the central Queensland coast.  The crew abandoned ship, and taking to the ship’s pinnace and longboat, headed south. Thus began the tale of hardship, endurance, intrigue and adventure that has captured the imagination of successive generations of readers – and writers, painters and musicians – all of whom bring to the story, and take from it, a range of perspectives unique to and distinctive of quite differing cultural and historical eras.

Several versions of the story have held sway over the years, Mrs Fraser herself providing at least three variations.  The 400 kilometre longboat voyage to Orchid Beach on the northern tip of what is now Fraser Island, but was then called Great Sandy Island, lasted about six weeks.  Her crew then mutinied and left Fraser, Eliza and ten other crew on the island with the ship’s leaking longboat.    Unable to relaunch the longboat, they set off south along the beach and meeting up with groups of aborigines, bartered their way south until their equipment and clothing became exhausted as did the patience of their aboriginal hosts who saw these white ghosts as completely lacking the most basic skills for a self-sufficiency they and their ancestors had known for millennia.  The white men and Eliza were stripped of their clothes and naked, were forced to  shoulder the workload of a primitive day-to-day existence, in which, reversing the biblical fate of the dark-skinned Gibeonites, they became the hewers of wood and drawers of water.  Eliza was made to nurse a sick aboriginal child, search swamps for fern roots, and goaded with fire-sticks, climb trees in search of bush honey.  Badly sunburnt, with little food, forced to sleep without shelter and ‘punished’ in accordance with local custom when seen to be uncooperative, it took several exhausting weeks for the longboat party to reach the mainland at the southern tip of the island.  By this time five of them, including Captain Fraser, had been killed or perished, and the second mate Baxter had been left on the island.

Eliza, Baxter and the other five crew would all survive, Eliza being rescued dramatically from the midst of hundreds of aborigines at a corroboree and reaching Moreton Bay exactly three months from the day the Stirling Castle was wrecked.  She remained at Moreton Bay for several weeks recovering from her ordeal and was then taken to Sydney where she soon married Captain Alexander Greene, sailed with him to London where she is said to have been a sideshow attraction in Hyde Park.  John Curtis’ ‘official’ history The Shipwreck of the Stirling Castle appeared in 18381 and Eliza Fraser, although disappearing then from historical records, began her transition to myth and legend. The first visual records of Mrs Fraser appeared at that time and support what is essentially a captivity narrative reflecting the cultural values of Empire, colonialism, and the fearsome otherness of the local aborigines, variously referred to as natives, savages and cannibals.


Mrs Fraser: "Shipwreck of the Stirling Castle", John Curtis, 1838

Mrs Fraser: “Shipwreck of the Stirling Castle”, John Curtis, 1838


Few historical records surround the shipwreck and  Eliza’s rescue, and details of her birth and death remain unclear – possible birth places include the Orkney Islands, Derbyshire and Ceylon, and she is reported to have lived in New Zealand to an old age and also to have been killed in a Melbourne carriage accident in 1858.2  In his 1888 book of memoirs, The Genesis of Queensland,3 Henry Stuart Russell recounts his 1842 encounter with an escaped convict David Bracefell, who told his tale of single-handedly rescuing Mrs Fraser, and hoping for pardon, leading her from her capturers through swamps and bush towards Moreton Bay, only to be betrayed by her as they neared the settlement.  This account quickly became the narrative of legend, displacing the historical account in which the convict John Graham joined Lieutenant Otter in a dedicated rescue activated when reports of the castaways reached Moreton Bay.  The Bracefell version remains the popular rescue narrative to this day.  In it Mrs Fraser becomes the faithless betraying woman as portrayed in this 1948 account: if indeed Bracefell spoke truthfully, then Mrs Fraser’s suffering among savages had made her inhuman – a monster of ingratitude.4

Exactly what happened in the days before Eliza’s rescue will probably never now be known with certainty, but the legend can be looked at afresh by learning what we can of David Bracewell – not ‘Bracefell’ as Russell remembered him incorrectly, or ‘Bracefield’ as some other records have him.  The official record of his trial at the Old Bailey on 14 September 1826 conveys the harsh reality of the times:5

1687. DAVID BRACEWELL was indicted for feloniously assaulting William McKenzie, on the 1st of August, with intent, 1 watch, value 20s., from his person, violently and feloniously to steal.

SECOND COUNT, stating his intent to be to rob him.

WILLIAM McKENZIE. I am a seaman, and live in Peartree-court, Ratcliff-highway. On the 31st of July I was going home, about twelve o’clock at night; I found the gate shut, and could not get in; I went and stood in the middle of the street for the gate to be opened; the prisoner came and asked me twice if I did not want a lodging; I said No; he asked me a third time, and I told him to go along – he then ran with his full force against me, and pushed me down, struck me on the chest, and got hold of the ribbon of my watch; he very nearly got it, but I prevented it – I then felt his hand in my pocket; I heard the watchman coming – he then took to his heels, and ran off – the watchman followed, and took him; I lost sight of him, but I am sure he is the person.

WILLIAM PHILLIPS. I am the watchman. On the 1st of August I took the prisoner, between twelve and one o’clock – McKenzie was in the road, and nobody near him – he was so alarmed and hurt he could hardly speak – he said he should know the man, and pointed which way he ran; I could not see him, but in a short time another watchman was driving the prisoner along, and desired me to see him out of the parish, as he was a bad character; I took him to the watch-house, and fetched McKenzie to the watch-house – he immediately said he was the man; there was nobody else near – McKenzie had been drinking, but was not intoxicated.

Prisoner’s Defence. There were two watchman driving me about; I was taken to the watch-house; he said to the prosecutor, “That is the man, is it not?”

GUILTY. Aged 21.

Transported for Fourteen Years.

Convicted not of robbery – nothing was stolen – on the evidence of a seaman who had been drinking and a watchman intent on driving him out of the parish as he was a bad character, and with his recorded defence amounting to little more than an acknowledgement of the inevitability of what was to befall him, Bracewell would have found little comfort in the appearances immediately before his: 1682, William Crowther, aged 14, stealing a coat, value 5s., transported for seven years; 1683, Sarah Chambers, aged 17, stealing a pair of shoes, value 3s., transported for seven years; 1684, John Connery and Stephen Keefe, aged 18 and 17, stealing a handkerchief, value 5s., transported for seven years; 1685, Daniel Holding, aged 16, stealing a hat, value 9s., whipped and discharged; 1686, John Cook, aged 64, stealing eight napkins, two pairs of stockings, an apron and four live tame fowls, total value 14s., confined fourteen days.  On that day at the Old Bailey it paid to be old, or if young, to steal only hats.

Bracewell’s convict file lists his number as 2367 and records that he was 5’ 5 1/2” in height, with brown hair and grey eyes, a labourer and native of Shadwell, the small parish measuring only 900 yards by 750 yards next to Wapping on the north bank of the Thames less than a mile downstream from the Tower of London, and today a hamlet in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.  Bracewell would almost certainly have lived in Lower Shadwell,6 the drained area of the Wapping Marshes extending from the river back to the red cliff escarpment on which stood the eponymous Ratcliff-highway, and by the time of Bracewell’s transportation an overcrowded slum and home not only to the thousands of coal-heavers and sailors who worked the trade in sea-borne coal for the burgeoning city of London, but also to those less gainfully if more colourfully employed and who earned the district a reputation for crime and debauchery:  In beastliness it surpasses Cologne with its seven and thirty stenches, or even Bristol or a Welsh town opined one 1857 author.  Peartree Court, where McKenzie lived and was not quite robbed of his watch, is now Peartree Lane and leads to the waterside apartments surrounding Shadwell Basin, built soon after Bracewell was transported, and today, the only portion of the old London dock system not to have been land-filled, it is a recreational leisure area and a popular haunt of joggers, cyclists and pedestrians.  The Ratcliff-highway is now simply known as The Highway and is a main arterial road into the City of London, but was then often called Upper Shadwell and here – only a few years before he sailed up the Queensland coast and because a number of natives were there assembled named as Indian Head the eastmost point of Great Sandy Island a few hundred meters south of Orchid Bay where the Stirling Castle longboat would beach – James Cook had lived at number 126.

Bracewell spent 10 months in the hulks before being transported to Tasmania with 159 other convicts on the Layton in June 1827.  Arriving in Hobart in October 1827, he was one of seven convicts seen as fit objects to be transferred to Norfolk Island.  Instead, the seven were sent to Sydney and Bracewell thence in December 1827 to the penal settlement at Moreton Bay. He first absconded six months later and when recaptured received 30 lashes for each day of his five day absence. He absconded again in 1828, again for two months in 1829, and then in February 1831 he left a survey gang working at Eagle Farm and heading north towards Noosa, was recognised by an aboriginal woman as the white ghost of her dead husband.  He is also said to have been adopted as a son by the aboriginal leader Huon Mundy or Euanmundi whose name is seen in the township of Eumundi in the Noosa hinterland.  He lived with the aborigines until finally captured in May 1837 some nine months after Eliza was rescued and is reputed to have been a great wanderer and to have spoken several aboriginal dialects, whence his aboriginal name Wandi, meaning “Great Talker”, “Many Talks” or “Interpreter”.  Bracewell was not alone in absconding from Moreton Bay and living with the aborigines.

John Graham had escaped a year earlier than Bracewell and he too on heading north was claimed as the returned dead husband Moilow by the aboriginal woman Mamba, and accepted as such by her two sons, her father and her nephew.  Graham lived with aborigines for six years until 1833 when his wife Mamba died and he then decided to return to Moreton Bay in the mistaken belief that because his time was up he would be free, and unaware that a change in the law required that his full sentence be served out.  In 1836 with four years still to serve, in the hope that his success would lead to a pardon, he volunteered to join the party being assembled under Lieutenant Otter to rescue the white woman held captive by aborigines.  He must have had high hopes of success; he had first hand knowledge of the area where she was held, could speak the language fluently, was accepted by his aboriginal tribe, had their trust and respect, and had the loyalty of his aboriginal family.  This family loyalty would prove to be crucial during the rescue.

Another absconder was Samuel Derrington who escaped in December 1827 and lived further north with the Burnett River aborigines until he too returned to Moreton Bay in October 1836 two months after Eliza’s rescue.  Sentenced to another 14 years, this was halved in May 1837 when, with Lieutenant Otter, he set out to rescue the survivors of what turned out to be a falsely reported shipwreck and instead seized Bracewell with the help of some aborigines and returned him to captivity at Moreton Bay. Bracewell remained at Moreton Bay until July 1839 when, fearing the closure of the penal settlement there might mean he would be sent to Norfolk Island, he absconded again and lived with the aborigines near Wide Bay until he was found by a party led by Petrie and including Russell who would write his Genesis of Queensland more than forty years later.

Another ‘wild white man’ was James Davis who in March 1829 followed Graham, Derrington and Bracewell north to near where Maryborough now stands.  Davis took the name Duramboi and over the next 13 years became completely assimilated into aboriginal life and custom.   When Petrie and Russell encountered Bracewell at Noosa in 1842 he led them to Davis and the two convicts returned with them to Moreton Bay, now a free settlement, where they received their tickets-of-leave.7

Whether Bracewell played any part in the rescue of Eliza Fraser is shrouded in uncertainty and some mystery.8  

Without doubt it was John Graham who brought Eliza to Lieutenant Otter on the beach near present-day Teewah, and without doubt Russell’s claim that Bracewell walked with her to Moreton Bay is incorrect.  Although probably a memory lapse by Russell forty years on, this error has served to destroy the credibility of Bracewell’s claim.  However without detracting from the central role of Graham, a close analysis suggests that Bracewell probably did play some, perhaps a crucial, part.  By the time the longboat party had reached the southern tip of the island, three persons including the Captain had been killed, and two more perished in attempting to swim to Inskip Point on the mainland.  Eliza and five crew were taken across the channel in canoes with the second mate Baxter being left on the island opposite the entrance to Tin Can Bay Inlet.  The five men were moved south along the Noosa River through Lake Cootharaba to Lake Cooroibah, not far upstream from present-day Tewantin, where two of the crew were held.  The remaining three were taken to the mouth of the Noosa River where they escaped their aboriginal captors and headed south.  Meeting other aborigines who were perhaps more familiar with white men, they were taken across Pumicestone Passage to Bribie Island where on 8 August 1836 they met Lieutenant Otter and some others who were there on leave from duties at Moreton Bay.

Otter returned to the penal colony immediately.  On August 11, a rescue party led by Otter and comprising two soldiers and fourteen convict volunteers, including Graham, set sail in two boats from Moreton Bay.  Two days later the boats put into present-day Noosa Inlet and that evening Graham walked along the North Shore a few miles and finding a group of aborigines around their campfire beside a small freshwater lagoon, learned that the white woman was with another group further up the coast and that two white men were being held a few miles to the west.  The aborigines were induced to bring back these two crew members to the rescue boats at Noosa.  The next day Sunday August 14 the boats headed north and anchored in a small tidal lagoon, still there today, on the lee side of Double Island Point.  From here, before dawn on the next day Monday August 15, Graham headed north along the beach past the present day township of Rainbow Beach to Inskip Point where the 4WD car ferries now depart to Fraser Island.

Here two aboriginal women told him that a “she-ghost” was held inland some distance away, and that a “he-ghost” was held on the island.  In the afternoon he paddled a canoe across the passage and found a weak Baxter held by hostile aborigines who, spoken to by Graham in their own language, agreed to go back to Inskip Point with him and Baxter.  Here they all spent a cold night, and setting out at 3am the next day, Tuesday 16, induced by promises of axes and knives, the aborigines assisted Baxter back to the boats and Otter’s tents at Double Island Point.  Graham now explained his rescue plan to Otter, and set out at 11am that morning to walk back south along the beach to where he camped in a gully 25 miles from the tents.  There he spent a miserable night – “the most disturbed night I ever spent” – and early on the morning of Wednesday 17 walked a little further along the beach to the site of present-day Teewah, where the coloured sands end, and where he would leave a mark high in the sand where Otter and three others, who early that same morning had set out down the beach from Double Island Point, should wait.9

Graham’s own report is the only account of the rescue of Eliza from a corroboree at a popular campsite at Figtree Point just north of the present-day Kinaba Information Centre on the northern shore of Lake Cootharaba where the Noosa River enters the lake from the so-called Everglades.

According to Graham, he walked from the beach one mile inland to the eastern shore of Lake Cootharaba, waded anti-clockwise around the shoreline to the northern end, and confirmed with an aboriginal couple that the white woman was held at the camp.  Entering the camp boldly, naked like everyone else and speaking the aboriginal language, he loudly proclaimed he was Moilow, that the white woman was the ghost of his dead wife Mamba, that she was plainly starving (as indeed she was) and that he was taking her from the camp over to the beach where she would be fed properly on fish and turtles.  His claims were backed up by his aboriginal step-sons, father-in-law and nephew.  Boldly, in the face of anger and threats, the six of them boarded canoes, paddled across the lake and walked the few kilometers to the beach where they arrived soon after noon to find Otter and his party waiting.

They immediately headed back towards Double Island Point, mostly carrying Eliza on a litter as she was extremely weak.  They finally reached the boats at 2am on Thursday 19 August.  Unable to beat against the wind southwards, they were unable to leave Double Island Point until Sunday 21.  Their situation was precarious – during this delay one of their number was speared through the leg when venturing only 100 yards from the camp.  They finally reached the Moreton Bay settlement on the evening of Monday 22 August.


Mrs Fraser’s escape from the savages: "Shipwreck of the Stirling Castle", John Curtis, 1838

Mrs Fraser’s escape from the savages: “Shipwreck of the Stirling Castle”, John Curtis, 1838


This account remained the narrative of record, with no mention of Bracewell, until Petrie and Russell met with Bracewell at the Noosa Inlet on 6 May 1842.  Petrie records When I spoke to him he could not answer me for some time; his heart was full, and tears flowed, and the language did not come readily to him.10  The story Bracewell told them was very different to Graham’s account and to authenticate his version, he took Petrie and Russell in their boat to the localities in his tale.  He told how he had rescued Eliza at night from a corroboree at the Poverty Point bora-ground where Caloola Creek enters the end reaches of Tin Can Bay Inlet, and that the two of them had then waded south along the inlet to leave no tracks and walked overland through the night towards Lake Cootharaba.  This he said was to trick the aborigines who expected he would take Eliza the direct route six or seven miles more or less due east to where Lieutenant Otter was waiting with the boats at Double Island Point. He then claimed, according to Russell, that he had accompanied Mrs Fraser all the way back to Moreton Bay – and this is obviously untrue.

Looking back it is not surprising there is a conflict in the stories, both men had a strong motive – a pardon – to be seen as the sole rescuer.  Certainly if Eliza had been held for some time at the Figtree Point camp on Lake Cootharaba, which would be the case had she been taken south on the mainland with the other five crew members from Inskip Point, then Bracefell could not have been involved.  However a number of things suggest he was.

First, it seems unlikely that six years after the event Bracewell would take Petrie’s party to places around which he had fabricated a story containing the truth of Lieutenant Otter’s presence at Double Island Point, which Bracewell could hardly have known had he not been there.  Second, the aborigines Graham met on the night of August 13 on the North Shore above Noosa Inlet said that the white woman was further up the coast, ie towards Double Island point, rather than inland at Lake Cootharaba.  Third, Eliza complained of another white man; however this perhaps refers to Davis known as Duramboi, and both Eliza and Baxter mentioned a wild white man they called “Tallboy”.  Fourth, the Commandant’s official report records that Eliza complained to Graham when rescued  that the white men she met were worse than the blacks; although this could have been a reference to the soldiers and convicts who were somewhat amused by her appearance when rescued, or to some of the Stirling Castle crew.  Finally, Eliza later observed that all she could remember as the canoes were paddled to safety across Lake Cootharaba was how extremely fatigued she was from the long walk of the day before; and hence, by virtue  of Graham’s own account, her long walk to Lake Cootharaba could not have been with him.

It seems unlikely we can ever know with certainty, but I incline to this interpretation of events which involves Bracewell.

On the night of Monday 15 at Inskip Point, Graham holds before Bracewell the prospect of a pardon and enlists his aid to take Eliza from the Poverty Point bora-ground near Double Island Point to the Lake Cootharaba corroboree site, and to alert Graham’s aboriginal family members to be ready to stand by him and assist him when he arrived to take her away to the beach.   In this scenario, Bracewell would also have been at Figtree Point and would have gone with them towards Teewah beach, but instead of joining them on the beach, he turned and disappeared into the bush.  This would explain why Graham, anxious to remain the sole convict rescuer of record, wrote a second letter to the Governor in Sydney denying a story being told that another white man had assisted him – perhaps those there at Teewah had been speaking of a second absconder who turned tail on seeing the Redcoats.

And if indeed Bracewell was there, was involved with Eliza’s rescue and did, as he told Petrie and Russell, turn back at the beach – why did he do this?  Was it because he dreaded the lash?  Was it the prospect of being sent to Norfolk Island?  Or was it that he and Eliza had a sexual encounter, consensual or otherwise, leading her to indicate she would speak against him, or at least not for him?  This possibility is given plausibility by official reports made after her return to Moreton Bay which indicate she was very worried she might be pregnant, and it became the belief of popular legend when Russell’s account was published.  It does not necessarily point to Bracewell – Eliza’s fears may have been irrational following her severe physical and mental ordeal, and even if she had real cause for concern, the ‘white men who were were worse than the blacks’ need not have been Bracewell, they could have been other absconders or ship-wrecked crew members.



  1. John Curtis, The Shipwreck of the Stirling Castle, George Virtue, London, 1838.

  2. The literature on Eliza Fraser is extensive.  Apart from the books referenced here, two others highly recommended are: Michael Alexander, Mrs Fraser on the Fatal Shore, Michael Joseph, London, 1971, (a popular history); and Kay Schaffer, In the Wake of First Contact, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995, (a scholarly history with an excellent bibliography).  See also http://www.fido.org.au/moonbi/backgrounders/34%20Eliza%20Frasers%20Troubled%20Times.pdf.

  3. Henry Stuart Russell, The Genesis of Queensland, Turner & Henderson, Sydney, 1888.

  4. Charles Barrett, ‘White Women among Cannibals’, in White Blackfellows: The Strange Adventures of Europeans Who Lived Among Savages, Hallcraft, Melbourne, 1948, p. 79; referred to in Kay Schaffer,  In the Wake of First Contact, op.cit., p. 25.

  5. http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t18260914-375&div=t18260914-375.

  6. An account of the desperate life of the poor in Shadwell appears in a modern-day recounting of the 1811 Ratcliffe murders.  Until Jack the Ripper, these murders were the quintessence of British horrer crime and occurred only a few hundred yards from where Bracewell is said too have unsuccessfully attempted to steal McKenzie’s watch 15 years later.  See P. D. James and T. A. Critchley, The Maul and the Pear Tree, Warner Books, New York, 1971, p. 6-20.
  7. Raphael Cilento, Wild White Men of Queensland, Smith & Paterson, Brisbane, 1959.

  8. Neil Buchanan and Barry Dwyer, The Rescue of Eliza Fraser, Tewantin, 1986.  The authors are local historians who look at the mystery of Bracewell’s involvement in light of their personal knowledge of the terrain. The account following here is largely drawn from their analysis.

  9. Robert Gibbings, John Graham, Convict, 1824, Faber and Faber, London, 1937, pp. 94-121. This book, researched in the mid 1930s at the Mitchell Library in Sydney where official records of the rescue had lain virtually untouched, reproduces the reports written by Graham and by Otter within days of their return to Moreton Bay. The two reports provide a fascinating account of the ten days the boat party was away – particularly fascinating when read with a first hand knowledge of the topography.

  10. Constance Campbell Petrie, Tom Petrie’s Reminiscences of Early Queensland, Watson Ferguson & Co., Brisbane, 1904.

One Comment

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  1. Maria McNamara

    I have a slide taken in the 1970`s on the western side of Fraser Island, in the background there is an image of a woman in period costume. I am looking for someone to have a look at the picture and tell me what they think it could be? Thank you Maria

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