21st May 1836

Eliza Fraser is shipwrecked off Australia

Eliza Fraser was shipwrecked on a reef off the coast of Australia and, after taking to a longboat, landed on the island of K’gari. She had sailed to the southern hemisphere with her husband, Captain James Fraser, and his crew on a brig called the Stirling Castle. The pair had left their children at home in Orkney.

Although some sources say the ship was wrecked on 22 May, The Pilot or Sailors’ Magazine of November 1837 records the wreck as having occurred on 21 May 1836, and it reported in some detail Eliza Fraser’s account of what happened.

After [the crew] had been on shore some time a great number of the natives were observed, and Mr. Fraser suggested giving themselves up quietly to the natives, as they were entirely defenceless , and of course already in their power. They had scarcely time to make the suggestion when several tribes came down upon them, one of which immediately captured Captain Fraser; another tribe took Mr. Brown, and a third Mr. Baxter. The natives would not allow Mrs. Fraser to go with either of them, and left her alone upon a sandy beach; and the next morning a number of old women, with some children, came down, and they gave Mrs. Fraser to understand that she must go with them, and carry one of the children upon her shoulders, which Mrs. Fraser of necessity complied with.

She told the magazine that she had not seen her husband again for three week but that when they were finally reunited he was being forced to drag around a heavy board. They were separated again and the next time she saw him, he had been speared in the shoulder for not having made sufficient progress. He died of his wound that night. Another member of the party, Mr Brown, was then burned to death, according to Eliza’s telling, from the feet upwards, for “showing some sign of dissatisfaction at the death of his captain”.

It is difficult to know for sure what happened on the island, and there have been suggestions that Eliza Fraser may have exaggerated her stories (or possibly made them up) in the hope of making a living from them after returning to Britain. For example, it has also been said that when the party landed on K’gari, they split up and went in opposite directions, with the group that didn’t include Eliza finding assistance almost right away.

Eliza was rescued around six weeks after arriving on K’gari, and the island, which is now a World Heritage-listed site, was renamed Fraser island in 1847, despite having by then been inhabited for thousands of years. It regained its original name in 2023.



Other events that occured in May

FREE Scotland history newsletter

Don't miss our weekly update on Scotland's fascinating history. We promise never to sell your data to anyone else, and there's a super-easy unsubscribe link on the bottom of each email so you can leave whenever you want.