Diving: Ladies on the Shore
An extract from Swallowed by the Sea
The role of women in Victorian Britain was to marry and take part in the interests and business of their husbands. Before marriage, they would learn the housewife skills of cooking and cleaning. It was men who invariably held the wheel when ships sailing around the British Empire struck upon rocks, while the women, who made up a substantial proportion of the passengers, huddled passively below deck. So how did women of the Victorian era cope with the aftermath of shipwrecks?
Two Scottish women of the Victorian era, Eliza Fraser and Barbara Crawford, were themselves shipwrecked: cast upon remote islands off northern Australia, ‘a country of thorns, whips, murderers, thieves, shipwrecks and adulteresses’. They adapted to the unfamiliar physical and cultural environs of the Australian bush frontier, surviving where their male companions died. On return to ‘civilised life’, however, they again faced the challenge of those Victorian conventions.
Thirty-seven-year-old Eliza Fraser was one of several survivors of the wreck of the brig, Stirling Castle, just prior to Queen Victoria’s ascension to the British throne. Her story has received much attention because she was literate—and because she told whoppers, making her a scoundrel. In 1835, Eliza was pregnant. Nevertheless, she loyally accompanied her ailing 56-year-old husband, James Fraser, commander of the Stirling Castle, on a round trip from London to Sydney. Then, heading from Sydney for Singapore via Torres Strait, the brig ran on to a reef off the Queensland coast.
The 18 people on board remained with the brig for two days and then took to the longboat and smaller pinnace. Eleven people left the Stirling Castle in the longboat, including Eliza, Captain Fraser and the two mates. Captain Fraser was suffering from ague, a malarial fever characterised by sudden violent outbursts and fits of shaking or shivering. The longboat leaked badly and, after 4 days of enduring water up to her knees and drinking salt water, Eliza gave birth to a child, who gasped a few times and then died. After 7 days with no food or water, the crew took the longboat ashore on Fraser Island. John Otter, who led a rescue party, was horrified when he first saw Eliza: You never saw such an object. Although only 38 years of age she looked like an old woman of 70, perfectly black and dreadfully crippled from the sufferings she had undergone.
Another Scottish Presbyterian woman spent time as a castaway on the north-east coast of Australia during the Victorian era. Barbara Crawford arrived in Sydney from Aberdeen as an assisted migrant on the bounty ship, John Barry, in July 1837, aged six. The Crawford family found life in Sydney to be hard; her father fell into debt and was imprisoned for receiving stolen property and 12-year-old Barbara was charged with stealing a gown.
She either served a very brief sentence or, more likely, absconded. She made her way to the free settlement of Moreton Bay with William Thompson, a young seaman, whom she married, still aged just 13 or 14.
Barbara later said that an old sailor who had survived a shipwreck in Torres Strait gave her husband the idea that he might salvage whale oil from the wreck and then go on to Port Essington. William fitted out a 10-ton cutter named America and set off with Barbara, the old sailor and two additional crew members in September 1844. However, the old man was not able to find the wreck, two of the party drowned when their dinghy sank, and they ran out of provisions.
In December the America was driven onto a reef off Horn Island near Cape York. William and the remaining crew member drowned while trying to swim ashore; Barbara remained alone on the wreck. Barbara was rescued by a party of Kaurareg people from Muralug Island, and she lived with them in harmony for 5 years, becoming the wife or, more likely, the sister, of a Kaurareg man named Boroto.
In October 1849, a watering party from the British warship, HMS Rattlesnake, conducting survey and ethnographic work, found Barbara on Muralug Island, and brought her and some young Kaurareg men back to the ship. They then returned Barbara to Pyrmont in Sydney in February 1850 and she resumed residence with her parents.
The conflating and mythologising of the experiences of the two castaways, Eliza Fraser and Barbara Thompson, started while Barbara was still living with the Kaurareg and has accelerated in more recent times. In the 1940s, Sir Sydney Nolan painted both Eliza’s naked humiliation and her husband’s death.
Patrick White’s 1976 novel, A Fringe of Leaves, was based on the Eliza Fraser story but, according to Tim Flannery, White’s title comes from the fringe of leaves that Barbara Thompson was wearing when sighted by the Rattlesnake men.
Edited extract from Swallowed by the Sea, by Graeme Henderson (NLA Publishing $44.99), now available at good book stores and online at http://publishing.nla.gov.au/