Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 10, 2016

Finding Eliza, Power and Colonial Storytelling, by Larissa Behrendt

finding-elizaI was always going to read this book, but I have a reason for reading it now.  Amongst my pile of books for review is an intriguing new one from NLA (National Library of Australia) Publishing.  Written by John Maynard and Victoria Hoskins, it’s called Living with the Locals: Early Europeans’ Experience of Indigenous Lifeand this is its blurb:

living-with-the-localsLiving with the Locals comprises the stories of 13 white men, boys and women who were taken in by the Indigenous people of the Torres Strait islands and of eastern Australia and who lived in their communities between the 1790s and the 1870s, from a few months to over 30 years. The white people had been shipwrecked or had escaped the confines of penal servitude and survived only through the Indigenous people’s generosity. Many of them were given Indigenous names—Bunboé, Murrangurk, Duramboi, Waki, Giom, Anco. They assimilated to varying degrees into an Indigenous way of life—several marrying and learning the language—and, for the most part, both parties mourned the white people’s return to European life.

The stories in Living with the Locals provide a glimpse into Indigenous life at the point of early contact between Indigenous people and British colonists. It was a time when negative attitudes towards Indigenous people gave rise to misinterpretation of events and sensationalised versions of the stories. However, many of the white survivors spoke up against the appalling treatment of the Indigenous people, and advocated for conciliation and land rights. They also were unwilling to reveal Indigenous beliefs and customs to unsympathetic colonists.

So as you can see, Finding Eliza, Power and Colonial Storytelling is a perfect companion piece for my reading of a book about how Australia’s indigenous people were written about in the early days of settlement.  And I had to read it first…

Eliza Fraser's house (Source: Creative Commons at Wikipedia)

Eliza Fraser’s house (Source: Creative Commons, Wikipedia)

Larissa Behrendt of the Eualeyai/Kamilaroi people, is an author, a lawyer and an Aboriginal activist. This book analyses the famous story of Eliza Fraser, shipwrecked in 1836 and taken in by the Butchulla People of K’gari (now Fraser Island), to show how colonial storytelling about Indigenous people in Australia came to be the dominant, mostly negative stereotype, and how that storytelling has contributed to racism to the present day.  And if you have any doubt about the pervasive power of the stories that were told, you have only to look at the Blue Plaque outside Eliza Fraser’s house in the Orkneys.  Like that house, the plaque looks about as solid and dependable as you can get, eh?

Eliza Fraser, artist unknown, Wikipedia Commons

Eliza Fraser, artist unknown, Wikipedia Commons

But as Behrendt shows, Mrs Fraser may have been not particularly dependable at all.  Widowed and in need of public sympathy and financial support, she told an horrific story, not of the harrowing moments of shipwreck, but of her captivity at the hands of the Butchulla People.  The story records her enslavement, their brutality, the barbarism (including cannibalism) and her rescue In the Nick of Time from a Fate Worse Than Death.  The story was embroidered with exotic details for different audiences (including bizarre descriptions drawn from her (faulty) knowledge of American Indians) and was retold with variations over time, even by our Nobel Prize winning author Patrick White in A Fringe of Leaves (1976).  Mrs Fraser had motives aplenty for dramatizing her experiences: a ripping yarn that played to her audience’s fears and prejudices was more likely to be marketable…

dancing-with-strangersThe oral history of the Butchulla People tells a different story, one of rescue and protection rather than captivity.  And it was fear of cannibalism amongst the shipwrecked sailors that made Captain Fraser agree to a landing after four weeks in the lifeboat.  Behrendt generously suggests that misunderstandings may have accounted for some of the misrepresentations: for example, the women painted Mrs Fraser in a particular way to indicate that she was not to be harmed, and when one of the white men pushed her, he was promptly reprimanded – with some physical emphasis – to make it plain to him that he had to respect the women’s authority in this manner.  You only have to have read Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing with Strangers to realise that mutual incomprehension bedevilled early relationships between the indigenous people and the settlers; what is not so clear is why these misunderstandings continue to be perpetuated.

Behrendt is particularly interested in two elements of the Fraser story: the representation of Aboriginal women as promiscuous, as bad mothers, as vindictive and also the fear of cannibals.  The author makes a convincing case that the stereotyping says more about the storytellers than about their subjects.  There is an assumption that the Black women are jealous of Eliza, because she is white, and her narrative plays on fears about sexual vulnerability at the hands of lecherous Aboriginal men.  There is also an assumption and that the women are slaves to the men and that they therefore wish to enslave Eliza too.  Believing in her own superiority, Eliza resents being expected to do her share of the work, unaware that the area was in drought and that she is dependent on the generosity of the people who are sharing what little they have.  Eliza, far from being the fragile vulnerable woman of the stories, is a survivor, and the real truth of colonial life is that it was Aboriginal women who were at risk of abduction, rape and enslavement by white men.  But their stories are not the dominant narrative, the captivity narrative excludes them.

Behrendt explores the cannibalism motif extensively.  She points out that there is almost no documentary evidence of cannibalism in any of the colonised societies that are represented in literature, everything from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to R.L.Stevenson’s Robinson Crusoe.   But in colonial Australia, although there were valiant warriors in the frontier wars, the sad statistics show that it was the indigenous people who were most vulnerable to violent death.

The ‘savagery’ of Aboriginal people as it was represented in stories such as Eliza Fraser’s helped to propagate the idea that Aboriginal people needed to be tamed.  When this wasn’t achieved through ‘retaliatory’ lethal violence or atrocities against Aboriginal women, it was done through the implementation of the policies of assimilation and dispossession, or by controlling Aboriginal people within their segregated communities on reserves or missions. (p.76)

coonardooTwo of the books analysed were of particular interest to me because I’ve read and reviewed one of them, and the other is on my TBR.  Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Coonardoo (1929) is a landmark novel in Australian literature because it depicts a relationship between Hugh Watt, a pastoralist, and Coonardoo, who gives birth to his child but as Behrendt points out, is never accorded the status of an equal partner.  The white characters are represented as benevolent caregivers, fulfilling their duty to take care of their Aboriginal workers, when in fact they have dispossessed them of their land, are not paying them for the work they do, and offer no opportunity for advancement or full participation in the new society.  Prichard never mentions the massacres taking place throughout the period of her novel, nor does she acknowledge the exploitation of Aboriginal women by characters like Mrs Bessie.  I haven’t read this novel yet, but I know now that I will read it differently because I have been made aware of the subtext.

The White WomanLiam Davison’s The White Woman, (1994) on the other hand, is a story of white men searching for a mythical white woman said to be held captive by the Aborigines.  It has a post-colonial perspective, exploring the motivations of one of the searchers, and the ideologies that inspire the story.

Through this fictional reconstruction, Davison explores themes of the colonial agenda, the amorphous nature of truth, and the victor’s version of history.  He also explores the white woman as a symbol of the Empire and delves into the paternalistic attitudes that white male frontiersmen held about white women.  He highlights the fantasy of playing the ‘saviour’ with all its sexual undertones. He is sensitive to the way in which this construct of white femininity places the Aboriginal woman in the position of the feminine and sexual ‘other’.   (p.100)

As I said in my review:

The search for the woman was motivated by romantic notions of rescue, but the gruesome reality that they uncovered instead was that pioneer settlers on the ungoverned frontier in Gippsland were massacring the indigenous people.  What’s more, the ideals that motivated the narrator were not shared by other members of the expedition: they knew that it was better not to find a ‘sullied’ woman because it was the search itself which furthered their grandiose ambitions.

In the chapter titled ‘Fictionalising Aboriginal Women’ Behrendt brings up the vexed issue of ‘appropriation’.

Successful storytelling requires the writer to create characters that ring true – whether in historical fiction, romance or science fiction.  As readers, we have to believe in their authenticity.  And you cannot create an authentic Aboriginal character unless you are able to deeply and truly understand their experience and perspective. In 1920 when Prichard was writing, the last people to be asked about how issues facing Indigenous people should be dealt with were the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people themselves.  They simply weren’t included in public discourse.  (p. 105)

The point is well made that we should remember this when we are reading narratives about them from the past, and equally so in contemporary narratives, depending on who is writing the narrative and in what context.

There is a great deal more to think about in this slim book of only 200-odd pages, but this post is quite long enough already and I would rather encourage you to get a copy and read it for yourself.  I think that Finding Eliza is essential reading for anyone engaged in Australian literature whether reading, writing, or editing it.

You can find out more about Larissa Behrendt in Sue’s ‘Spotlight’ at Whispering Gums.

Author: Larissa Behrendt
Title: Finding Eliza, power and colonial storytelling
Publisher: UQP, 2016
ISBN: 9780702253904
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Finding Eliza: Power and Colonial Storytelling


Responses

  1. I’ve had Finding Eliza for ages and am embarrassed I have not got round to reading it yet. Coonardoo I read a few years ago. Although it is often read as the first novel about an Indigenous woman, the centre of the novel is Hugh, the station owner’s son and KSP makes it clear he uses and abandons Coonardoo. Ten years later, Ernestine Hill was another who was willing to speak up about the mistreatment of WA Aboriginals.

    • Don’t worry, I am embarrassed that I only borrowed it instead of buying it, I think it’s going to be a book I need to refer to again and again.
      I have been meaning to read Coonardoo for ages. Nathan Hobby is writing a bio of KP, and if I haven’t read it by the time his book comes out I am going to be really cross with myself.

      • If you want an out, I pretty sure Nathan’s (first) KSP ends before Coonardoo. I think he’s planning a lifetime’s work over 3 volumes!

        • Gosh. 3 volumes. I suppose this means I will have to take out a bank loan to buy a copy.
          But no, I’m not looking for an out. I’ll get to it soon, as long as I don’t keep getting distracted by shiny new things.

          • Yes it’s true! At least, my current biography stops at 1919 before Coonardoo. Have to see what happens once it’s done.

            • You’re doing her proud:)

  2. The issue of appropriation is a vexed one isn’t it? Since Lionel Shriver’s little pantomime at the BWF, I’ve been thinking about it more and more. I wrote a post a while ago (‘Can White Women Write Black Women’s History?’). I was so set that that in any circumstances it should be avoided- as in the end it all comes down to power. But it is a tough nut to crack I think.

    • LOL I am sitting firmly on the fence on this one, and it was the book Hurma that put me there. It’s written by a bloke in Yemen, telling the story of a woman under the veil. Guaranteed to raise hackles, eh? But read the review (https://anzlitlovers.com/2016/09/11/hurma-by-ali-al-muqri-translated-by-t-m-aplin/) and you see why… how can a woman in a society like that raise her voice?
      I’ve read a bit of brave Soviet writing from the Stalinist years, and I realise that the mere act of writing takes courage and opportunity, and then there’s getting out of the private domain and into the world. I’d rather read the imperfect voice of Hurma than not read it at all, and I have the critical capacity to evaluate the appropriation issues. I think that’s what works for me…

    • I’ve written a post too, Weezelle, on white writers writing black stories. Fundamentally I don’t think there should be rules about who can write what, but I think that when imbalance of power is involved, those with the power need to be particularly careful AND be prepared for some backlash or robust commentary. As some say, for white writers NOT to refer to indigenous people at all in their stories is also exerting power by making (keeping) them invisible. It’s a bit of damned if you do damned if you don’t …

      • Well said, Sue:) Good will is the most essential ingredient, IMO.

        • Yes, in the writer and the reader I think.

      • I will check out your review, thanks for the tip.

        • I’ll be interested in your comment. BTW can I subscribe to your blog by email? I couldn’t see a widget for it.

  3. Thanks for the link Lisa. I WILL read this book too, but maybe not till next Indigenous Writers Week the way I’m going. I have read Coonardoo, but way back in my teens, when I was trying to read anything about or by indigenous Australians and black Americans. I intend to read it again one day. KSP was writing of course at a very different time to now. I think we need to be aware of the subtext/the stories not told, when we read stories from the past, but I think we should also give credit for what was told, when very little was being told at all.

    • Yes, I agree, people write in the context of their own time, and it’s up to us to interpret them.

  4. […] great companion reading to Larissa Behrendt’s Finding Eliza, Power and Colonial Storytelling (see my review).  It’s a combination of tales of shipwreck and escape, a glimpse into indigenous life and […]

  5. I’ve added Larissa Behrendt’s Finding Eliza on my reading list. I admire Behrendt’s activist work in fostering the civil rights, cultural integrity, and land ownership of Aboriginal people.

    Behrendt’s study is so critical and important not only to academic and literary communities but general readers across the global. It serves as a teaching tool for reassessing historical narratives that project racial, gender, cultural, and sexual stereotypes and false views on indigenous people. I’ve read Behrendt’s novel, Home, and personal essay based on her experience attending law school in the United States. She has also produced legal and social studies and directed a film based on her short story. What seems to be one of Behrendt’s motivations through her legal rights, writing, and film work is to provide a revisionist lens for correcting or revealing histories and personal cases of Australian Aboriginal people who has been systematically oppressed.

    There is a media-based study that was published this year entitled Skin Deep: Settler Impressions of Aboriginal Women by Liz Conor. Conor’s study would be a good companion piece to Behrendt’s thesis on appropriating false perceptions of Aboriginal people in documented histories, master narratives, and media records.

  6. […] reviews: Michelle at Adventures in Biography here Lisa at ANZ LitLovers here Sue at Whispering Gums on Larissa Behrendt […]

  7. […] her book Finding Eliza: Power and colonial storytelling (a book I’ve still to read but which Lisa, Michelle and Bill have reviewed on their […]


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