Fraser Island – Aboriginal History & Legends (part 2)


Fraser Island - K'Gari - Paradise

Aboriginal life on Fraser Island

In the Butchulla people’s language, Fraser Island was known as “K’gari” (pronounced “gurri”) meaning “paradise”. Butchulla translates as “the sea people”.

Archaeological evidence suggests Aboriginal settlements existed on Fraser Island at least 5000 years ago. The Butchulla (Badtjala) people were the primary claimants of the island, and also controlled the mainland territory to Bauple Mountain, including the current locations of Maryborough and Hervey Bay. Whilst there was a permanent population on the island of around 500, this swelled to in excess of 3000 during the winter months when seafood was abundant.

The arrival of European explorers and settlers around 1840 (see my previous Blog post) had a devastating impact upon Aboriginal life on the island. Weapons, disease, hostility and government intervention forced the Butchulla people from their traditional homelands over the ensuing years, with only 250 survivors remaining by 1890. The timber industry and Anglican missionaries then arrived in force, and over the following 10 years poor treatment and hostile policies implemented by the State Government saw 94 Aborigines buried in 2 cemeteries on the west coast of Fraser.

 In 1904 the balance of the Butchulla tribe (now numbering around 100) were forcibly relocated to missions in Yarrabah near Cairns by the State Government, over 1500km from their traditional homelands. The last known Butchulla tribesman was “captured” in 1930 and deported to Cherbourg mission under police escort for no criminal offence.

On 13th February, 2008 an official apology was made to Indigenous Australians delivered by the Australian Prime Minister on behalf of Parliament and the Australian people, specifically for treatment of Indigenous Australians during the above period (1900 – 1950).

There are now only a handful of surviving descendents of the Butchulla people, some of whom once again live within the Fraser Coast region. Their history and legends are important, and efforts are being made to find and preserve important cultural sites so that this history can be shared with future generations. Proposals have recently been made to officially change the name of the island back to its traditional name of “K’gari”.

The Creation of Fraser Island (K’Gari) – a Butchulla Legend

(From stories told by direct descendent and Elder of the Butchulla people – Olga Miller)

Beiral, the great God in the sky, made all the people.  But after he made the people, Beiral realised that the people had no lands! So Beiral sent a messenger, Yendingie, to solve the problem and create lands for the people. Yendingie came down from the sky, and set to work to make the sea, and then the land. When Yendingie arrived at what is now known as Hervey Bay, he had a helper – the beautiful white spirit called Princess K’Gari.

K’Gari was a great helper, and helped Yendingie make the sea shores, the mountain ranges, the lakes and the rivers. Princess K’Gari enjoyed her work very much, and worked tirelessly to create all this natural beauty. One day Yendingie was concerned, and said to her, “K’Gari, you better rest, otherwise you will be too tired to continue our work.  There are some rocks over there in the sea. Why don’t you go and lie down and have a sleep?”

So Princess K’gari lay down on the rocks and had a long and deep sleep. When she awoke she said to Yendingie, “I think this is the most beautiful place we have ever created. Please, Yendingie, may I stay here forever?” “Oh no, K’Gari, I cannot allow that. You are a spirit, and you belong here with me!” But K’Gari pleaded with him, “Please, please Yendingie … I could still look up into the sky and see what you are doing. I would love to stay here.”

Finally Yendingie agreed. “You may stay here, but you cannot stay in spirit form. I will need to change you.” So he changed her into a beautiful island. So she wouldn’t be lonely, he then made some beautiful trees and flowers, and some lakes that were specially mirrored so that she could see into the sky. He made creeks and laughing waters that would become her voice, and birds and animals and people to keep her company. He gave these people knowledge and laws, and told them what to do, and how to procreate, so that their children and ancestors would always be there to keep K’Gari company.

And she is still there today, looking up at the sky in one of the truly most beautiful places on earth! She is very happy in, and as, “paradise”.

by Rob Lennon        Emeraldene Inn & Eco-Lodge, Hervey Bay

Fraser Island History and Legends


European History

The history of Fraser Island is as diverse and colourful as its flora and fauna. Whilst the island has been inhabited by humans for possibly as long as 5000 years, it’s European history begins in 1770 when explorer Captain James Cook sailed past the island on the 20th May of that year.

Cook first believed the island was part of the mainland, and named it Great Sandy Peninsula. Three decades later Matthew Flinders was the first white man to set foot upon Fraser, landing on the northern point (Sandy Cape) in 1802.

Local Aborigines were sighted and reported by Cook in his logs in 1770, and Aboriginal legends also report sighting Cook’s ship sailing towards a “dangerous sand shoal”.  The Aborigines, standing in a group on the beach, shouted and waved warnings to the ship, which saw the shoal at the last moment and changed course quickly, to then disappear “into the sea” and over the horizon.

The first “official” exploration of the Island occurred 20 years later in 1822, when Captain William Edwardson was sent north by the Governor of NSW to search for a site for a new penal colony. Edwardson soon discovered that the peninsula referred to by Cook and Flinders was, in fact, an island, and renamed it Great Sandy Island. He was in the Hervey Bay / Moreton Bay region for three months, but was deterred by the “hostile natives” from exploring Fraser Island to any great degree. The new penal colony was eventually settled in Moreton Bay and formed the beginnings of what was to become Brisbane.

Perhaps the most interesting story begins on the 20th May 1836, exactly 66 years after Cook discovered “Great Sandy Peninsula”. On this day the 350 ton brig Stirling Castle sailed past the island on a voyage from Sydney to Singapore. On board was Captain James Fraser, his wife Eliza and a crew of 16. The unlucky Captain Fraser was said to have spent more time in lifeboats than onboard the vessels he commanded.  A written account suggests “Fraser was a pompous, fat old bore of about sixty, much in demand by shipowners who had managed to over-insure their vessels. He had the reputation of a man who could succeed in sailing any ship to its destruction in a cloudless sky and in total absence of reef, shoal or iceberg!”.

Sure enough, on 22nd May 1836, Captain Fraser sailed the Stirling Castle straight onto a reef in the Swains Reef group, approx 220km north of Fraser Island (now known as Eliza Reef). The Captain and crew stayed aboard the wreck until the following day, when waves breaking over the vessel threatened to break her up, and it was decided to abandon ship. Eleven crew escaped in the longboat and seven others in the pinnace, and they proceeded to sail for nine days south before landing on Lady Musgrave Island to repair their leaking boats.

After another nine days of sailing south, the crew in the pinnace (at this stage on unpleasant terms with their Captain), discovered they could sail faster than the longboat, and decided to part company with the Captain and others. The Captain disapproved vehemently, but at this stage was not well respected by his crew, and the two boats went their separate ways.

The Captain’s plan was to head to the settlement at Moreton Bay. After a few more days at sea, however, there was smoke sighted ashore, and the remaining crew became mutinous. They threatened to throw the good Captain overboard if he did not agree to put in to shore! They beached about 30km south of Sandy Cape on “Great Sandy Island” (three weeks after leaving the wreck of their ship!). “Natives” came down in crowds as they landed, and whilst at first they were held at bay by firearms, eventually exchanged food and fish for clothing.

The Captain and Second Mate set about repairing the badly leaking longboat, with the other seamen refusing to lend a hand. When the Captain considered the boat again seaworthy and was ready to head south again to Moreton Bay, the crew refused to help launch the boat and informed the Captain they would walk to Moreton Bay!

Captain Fraser, his wife Eliza and the Second Mate Baxter were left behind, and unable to launch the longboat on their own.  They set off south along the beach on foot, taking with them all the supplies they could carry.

From this point on the narrative becomes confusing, as the lone survivor, Eliza Fraser, changed and embellished her story many times over the ensuing years. It is assumed her first account is likely to be the most accurate: “The next day we met with numerous tribes of natives, who finding us unarmed, took everything from us with the exception of our clothes, beating us severely at the least resistance”.

Eliza Fraser

After walking for another 2 days “without food or water”, they came upon another tribe who stripped them naked and forced them to their camp. They were then “enslaved” to “carry wood, water, and bark, and treated with the greatest cruelty”.

Captain Fraser, not the fittest to begin with, soon became weakened and incapacitated. Unable to lift a large log he was instructed to carry, he was speared by one of the natives, the spear entering just below his shoulder blade. He died about 8 days later (approx 4th August) and was buried by the tribe. (The Second Mate also died at the hands of his captors, after being “burned and tortured” by the natives for not being able to “carry wood”.)

A few days later (according to Eliza), one of the natives (who may have been an escaped convict – David Bracewell) rowed her to the mainland in a canoe and aided her escape. Meanwhile, the rest of the crew that had parted ways upon the high seas had reached safety on Bribie Island, and a search party was launched for Captain Fraser, his wife and the rest of his crew.

After being passed through another two tribes on the mainland, Eliza was eventually rescued. Lieutenant Otter, leading the rescue party wrote : “Although only 38 years of age she looked like an old woman of 70, perfectly black and dreadfully crippled from the suffering she had undergone.”

Eliza Fraser Rescue

Initially, Eliza enjoyed much sympathy. This began to wane, however, when her accounts of the ordeal became more and more random, and increasingly embellished. After her return to England she became a minor media celebrity, and her story grew even wilder. In one account she claimed she had given birth to a child during her ordeal just after leaving the wreck – it had died and been consigned to the deep! Controversy followed when she approached the Mayor of London to request a charity be set up for her and her 3 children (not mentioning the fact she had secretly married another sea Captain in Sydney within 6 months of being rescued before heading back to England on his boat).

There is no record of when the island officially became known as “Fraser Island”, but there is no doubt that the first mentions of the island as “Fraser” were in the British press, being named after the “ordeals” of Eliza and her husband.  Eliza became a sideshow attraction in Hyde Park in London, telling ever more exciting versions of her story to anyone who would listen. She was killed in a carriage accident in Melbourne in 1858 during a subsequent visit to Australia.

Throughout it’s long history, the island has been called Fraser Island for only a brief and recent span of time. For thousands of years previous to this, the traditional landowners had their own name for the island - “K’gari”, pronounced “Gurri” in the Butchulla people’s language. There is currently debate calling for the name of the island to be changed back to it’s original and traditional name – K’gari. The Aboriginal stories and legends about the creation of the island are beautiful and timeless, and I will share these in part two of this blog post.

Everyone should visit Fraser Island at least once, preferably by choice and not by shipwreck!! If you are travelling to Hervey Bay, or would like to visit Fraser Island, we would love to have you stay with us at the Emeraldene Inn. We have some awesome packages for tours, accommodation and self-drive to visit Fraser Island.

Acknowledgement : For a full history of Fraser Island, Fred William’s “Princess K’Gari’s Fraser Island” is the best book I have read!

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by Rob Lennon    Emeraldene Inn & Eco-Lodge, Hervey Bay