Fraser Island - Culture and History

The first European to sight Fraser Island was Captain James Cook who passed along the coast of the island between 18-20 May 1770 and named Indian Head after seeing a number of Aborigines assembled there. He was not impressed with the island observing that 'The land hereabouts which is of moderate height, appears more barren than any we have yet seen on this coast, and the soil more sandy'.

In 1799 and 1802 Matthew Flinders sailed past the island. He mapped it both times but on neither occasion did he confirm that it was separated from the mainland. He suspected that it was an island but was unable to sail around it.

Like Cook before him, Flinders was far from impressed with the land noting: 'This part of the coast is very barren; there being great patches of moveable sand many acres in extent through which appeared in some places the green tops of grass, half buried, and in others the naked trunks of such as the sand has destroyed.'

The most famous early contact with the island was that of Eliza Fraser (after whom the island is named) and her shipwrecked companions from the brig the Stirling Castle. On 13 May 1836, while travelling from Sydney to Singapore, the Stirling Castle struck the Great Barrier Reef about 320 km south of Torres Strait. Captain James Fraser, his pregnant wife Eliza, and 18 passengers and crew launched the ship's longboat and pinnacle and set course for Moreton Bay. During the next six weeks Eliza gave birth (the baby survived for only a few hours) and the pinnacle was cut adrift and, although Captain Fraser had been trying to avoid the coast for fear of the Aborigines, it was forced to land for water on the Great Sandy Island (Fraser Island) on 26 June.

The local Aborigines stripped the survivors and separated Eliza from her husband. For the next two months the Frasers (the Captain was to die) and the other survivors were put to work and forced to live in arduous conditions.

Eventually a search party from Moreton Bay led by Lieutenant Charles Otter was sent out to search for the survivors. John Graham, a remarkable convict who had once lived with the Aborigines, found Eliza and escorted her back to Moreton Bay. She subsequently sailed to Sydney where she was feted as a heroine. The people of Sydney, impressed by her bravery, raised a considerable amount of money for her by public subscription.

Before Eliza departed for England she married Captain Alexander John Greene of the Mediterranean Packet. In England she published a book of her adventures which went by the delightful title of The Shipwreck of Mrs Fraser, and the loss of the Stirling Castle, on a Coral Reef in the South Pacific Ocean. Containing an account of the hitherto unheard-of sufferings and hardships of the crew, who existed for seven days without food or water. The dreadful sufferings of Mrs. Fraser. who, with her husband, and the survivors of the ill-fated crew, are captured by the savages of New Holland, and by them stripped entirely naked, and driven into the bush. Their dreadful slavery, cruel toil, and excruciating tortures inflicted on them. The horrid death of Mr. Brown, who was roasted alive over a slow fire kindled beneath his feet. Meeting of Mr. and Mrs. Fraser, and inhuman murder of Captain Fraser in the presence of his wife. Barbarous treatment of Mrs Fraser, who is tortured, speared, and wounded by the savages. The fortunate escape of one of the crew, to Moreton Bay, a neighbouring British settlement, by whose instrumentality, through the ingenuity of a convict, named Graham, the survivors obtain their deliverance from the savages. Their subsequent arrival in England, and appearance before the Lord Mayor of London.' Yes, that was the book's title!

It was a huge best seller in England. After such a dramatic life Eliza slipped into quiet obscurity. She and Captain Greene returned to the Antipodes. Eliza was accidentally run over and killed in Melbourne in 1858.

The story has captured the Australian imagination. It has been made into a TV program and a film. Sidney Nolan did two series of paintings based on the story and Patrick White's novel A Fringe of Leaves is based on the events.

For people who are seeing the island's rainforests for the first time, White's description is evocative: 'Now it hushed the strangers it was initiating. At some stages of the journey the trees were so densely massed, the columns so moss-upholstered or lichen-encrusted, the vines suspended from them so intricately rigged, the light barely slithered down, and then a dark, watery green, though in rare gaps where the sassafras had been thinned out, and once where a giant blackbutt had crashed, the intruders might have been reminded of actual light if this had not flittered, again like moss, but dry, crumbled, white to golden.'

The first European to sail between the mainland and Fraser Island was Lieutenant Robert Dayman. He had been one of the survivors of the Stirling Castle ordeal. He managed to complete the journey upon his return to the area in 1847. Dayman Point at Urangan (see Hervey Bay) was named after him.

The history of Fraser Island through the latter half of the nineteenth century is one more sad example of the decimation of Australia's original inhabitants. It has been estimated that the Aboriginal population of the island was between 2000-3000 in 1850. By 1890 it had been reduced to 300. The combination of diseases brought by passing sailors (Fraser Island was used as a kind of trading post for Maryborough), alcohol, the exploitation of the island's timber reserves from 1863 and the enslavement of the Aborigines, wreaked havoc on the population. The 1860 decision to gazette the island as an Aboriginal Reserve meant nothing. By the turn of the century most of the Aborigines had been dispersed to the mainland or had died in the dubious missions which were established on the island. The last of the Fraser Island Aborigines to be removed to the mainland was 'Banjo' Henry Owens who was sent to the Cherbourg Mission in the 1930s. The island's population had been as totally destroyed. The situation bore remarkable similarities to the genocide of the Aboriginal population of Tasmania.

In 1870, as a result of a series of shipwrecks, a lighthouse was built at Sandy Cape. This was the first permanent European settlement on the island.

There have been a number of excellent books written about the island. The best, in terms of the history, flora, fauna and geomorphology, is Discovering Fraser Island by John Sinclair (one time President of the Fraser Island Defence Organisation and The Australian's Australian of the Year in 1976) which is detailed, comprehensive and informative. No serious visit to the island should be attempted without it. It lists all the major fauna and flora to be found on the island as well as providing a detailed geomorphological explanation of the island's formation.

Sinclair's list of twenty places of interest on the island is definitive. There is Woongoolbver Creek which carries clear water through the island's rainforest at Central Station (Central Station was once the home of over 100 people and the centre of the forestry industry on the island), Lake Wabby, the island's deepest lake which is rich in fish and surrounded by ancient melaleucas (it is slowly being filled by a giant sandblow), Rainbow Gorge with its coloured sand formations, Eli Creek, the wreck of the Maheno (after thirty years of service in Australian waters it was being towed to Japan as scrap when it hit cyclonic conditions off the coast and was washed ashore on 9 July 1935), the rocky outcrops at Indian Head, Middle Rocks and Waddy Point, the multi-coloured 'Cathedrals' and 'Pinnacles' which lie to the north of the wreck of the Maheno, the various lakes on the island which include Lake Bowarrady (120 m above sea level), Lake McKenzie, Lake Boemingen (reputedly the largest perched lake in the world), Ocean Lake, Hidden Lake, and Coomboo Lake, the scrubs and swamps, and McKenzie's Jetty which was originally built as an access point to the mainland for the timber cutters and subsequently used by the Z Force during World War II (see Hervey Bay). It is now derelict.

Since the 1960s Fraser Island has been at the centre of a series of bitter environmental battles. The first battle, in the 1970s, focussed on sand mining and most recently there has been a battle over the logging of the island.

The environmental history of the island is not something which Australians can be very proud of. The first attempt to establish the island as a National Park was made as early as 1893 but the timber interests which were already on the island managed to dissuade the government and for the next 60 years the island was logged. In 1961 there was a move to give the island to the Nauruans to compensate them for the wholesale destruction of Nauru by phosphate (bird droppings) miners from Australia and New Zealand. The timber industry managed to ensure that this proposal did not proceed.

By the mid 1960s a number of mining leases had been taken out on parts of the island by Queensland Titanium Mines Pty Ltd and Murphyores. The wealth of the island lay in its rich deposits of rutile, ilmenite, zircon and monazite. The battle raged through the both the state and federal courts and resulted in the historic Fraser Island Environmental Inquiry which, in October 1976, decided that all sand mining should be banned and that the island should be recorded as part of the National Estate. The inquiry concluded that: 'The natural environment of Fraser Island is of great significance, complexity and fragility. The island possesses individual features of great attraction and importance - such as its perched lakes, immense beaches, cliffs of Teewah (coloured) sands, sandblows and rainforested sand dunes. But the inevitable highlighting of the presence and importance of these individual features of its natural environment should not be allowed to obscure the links and interdependency of its many fragile elements, while, overall, an impression of wilderness gives unity to the broad spectrum of the particular natural features of the island.'

It may have seemed like the fight over Fraser Island was over but in 1990 there were still battles going on over the logging of the island's rainforest. The arguments of the timber lobby were predictable. Timber had been logged on the island for over a century so how could further logging damage an already damaged environment. The environmentalists argued that the island was simply too valuable for logging to continue.