Div­ing: Ladies on the Shore

An ex­tract from Swal­lowed by the Sea

Outer Edge - - Contents -

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/

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