Review: Finding Eliza by Larissa Behrendt

Book cover

Finding Eliza: Power and Colonial Storytelling by Larissa Behrendt (UQP, 2016).

Larissa Behrendt has written a nuanced and engrossing book about colonial attitudes as they operated through a particular Australian colonial ‘captivity tale’. Using the story told by Eliza Fraser who was helped by the Aboriginal people of Fraser Island after surviving a ship wreck in 1836, Behrendt turns the colonial gaze back on itself to examine the motives, the fears and the deficiencies of the Europeans as revealed in stories such as Eliza’s.

Behrendt uses her background as a novelist to examine the dramatic elements that drive the stories of Eliza Fraser.  These stories were written to satisfy the expectations of British readers for a tale of ‘barbaric natives‘, gripping adventure with a dash of sexual danger to titillate the audience. Behrendt retells the story from the point of view of the Butchulla people, the Aboriginal people of Fraser Island. She then goes on to demonstrate how various fictions justified colonial violence against indigenous people and wended their way into the legal framework that supported the dispossession of land from the traditional owners. Behrendt shows the power of stories, whether they are fictional, historical or legal in shaping a narrative that can perpetrate violence, but how these stories can also be used to dismantle the structures that caused great injustices.

In Finding Eliza Larissa Behrendt examines gender across the racial divide in colonial settler society. She rejects a simplistic judgement of Eliza Fraser’s role in all this. Behrendt acknowledges Eliza’s strength and tenacity to not only survive what would have been a terrifying ordeal for a middle-class European woman but to take the initiative to tell her story in a European culture where women’s voices struggled to be publicly heard.

Colonial European male observers denigrated Aboriginal women while ignoring the huge issue of the low status of European women and the myriad injustices against them.  While Europeans regarded Eliza Fraser’s story as a tale of a British woman captured by indigenous people and threatened with unmentionable violence, Behrendt points out that the Europeans ignored the appalling cruelty and violation of Aboriginal women by European men which was far more common. The colonial frontier was violent and Behrendt is blunt about the massacres, the rapes and the slave-like conditions that Aboriginal people were held in across Australia giving a few well-known and little disputed examples.

Behrendt uses Eliza Fraser’s story as a launching pad to examine attitudes that are embedded in colonial literature. She critiques the work of authors such as Katherine Susannah Prichard, Robert Hughes, and Marlo Morgan. Morgan’s New Age novel, Mutant Message down Under was first published in post-colonial 1991 and was very popular in the United States yet Behrendt identifies tired colonial stereotypes and attitudes were embedded in this novel. This is not just a litany of criticism, the work of writers such as Liam Davison and Kate Grenville are given as examples of respectful inclusion of Aboriginal people and culture in novels.

The harm done by negative stereotypes is well-known but Behrendt also discusses the harm done by attempts to portray Aboriginal people in a positive light using the ‘noble savage’ motif. She warns of how many Aboriginal people who live a contemporary lifestyle are denied their identity when people argue that only those living a traditional lifestyle are ‘genuine’ Aborigines. All cultures change over time, but the ‘noble savage’ ideal fossilises Aboriginal culture and denies Aboriginal people the agency to determine their own culture. This problem infiltrates the legal system as Behrendt’s account of the failed Yorta Yorta native title case demonstrates. Readers of Anita Heiss’s Am I Black Enough For You? will be familiar with this issue.

“The law tells our national story as much as historians, prime ministers and novelists do”, she argues. Behrendt points out that the legal process is about competing narratives mounted by the opposing parties in a bid to convince judges or juries of their case. The chapter about the law is a good introduction to how the legal ‘fiction’ of terra nullius was introduced and how it was removed through the Mabo case.

Many writers and historians have taken a similar approach to all sorts of colonial history and a few have also deconstructed Eliza Fraser’s story. I have previously read about the colonial trope of the ‘savage cannibal’ but Behrendt’s discussion about this is the best I have read. The European allegations of cannibalism among ‘primitive peoples’ have been well exposed as a fiction created by the fears of Europeans. Behrendt uses legal cases to identify the rarely used, but accepted European practice of cannibalism in times of desperation by survivors of ship wrecks. In contrast, there is no strong evidence that any other peoples practised cannibalism.  “Evidence of cannibalism in first-contact experiences and second-hand accounts is suspect because of the cultural and racial lens of the viewer, whose expectations and assumptions lead them to interpret what they see according to what they expect to find” observes Behrendt.

Behrendt hopes Australia will develop an inclusive nationalism that embraces diversity and holds Aboriginal cultures at its centre with no one dominant national narrative. She praises the work of Australian historians since the 1980s in challenging the dominant, triumphalist national story. “Through these counter-narratives, this wave of historians showed that, while victors write the history, that story can be challenged by dissenting voices and unpicked, until it ultimately frays at the edges.”

Larissa Behrendt is a well-known Aboriginal author, a professor at University of Technology Sydney and holds a doctorate in law. She has written a book that engages the reader on a serious topic. In an era when authors and publishers seem to be enamoured of large tomes, the small size of this book is a welcome sight. For the busy reader this book is perfectly proportioned, yet it still tackles large questions with the depth that is needed. It is a good book for anyone wanting to read about big questions in Australian history, and western history generally.

This is the perfect book to review for International Women’s Day (it is still that day in many parts of the world) because of its focus on women’s history, both that of indigenous and European women. I also chose to review this book because in my review of my last five years of blogging I have found that I am not reviewing enough books by diverse authors. In the past I might review one or two books by Aboriginal authors a year and even fewer by authors from any other non-Anglo background. This is not good enough.

This month I am launching a renewed focus for my book reviews. I will continue to review histories, biographies and the occasional memoir by women and men of all backgrounds, but I hope to increase the number of books I review by women of diverse backgrounds.

UQP, the publisher of Finding Eliza, provided me with a review copy of this book.

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016 logo

Other discussions about this book:

  • Michelle Scott Tucker reviews this on her blog, Adventures in Biography
  • Professor Larissa Behrendt talks about Finding Eliza on ABC Radio National’s Late Night Live. The segment starts at 18:05.

This review is part of my commitment to the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2016. 

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7 thoughts on “Review: Finding Eliza by Larissa Behrendt

    • Thanks Michelle. It would be interesting to read a review of this book by someone who was previously unaware of this history. I think this book is a good and thorough introduction to these issues in colonial history.

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  1. “Colonial European male observers denigrated Aboriginal women while ignoring the huge issue of the low status of European women and the myriad injustices against them”. Yes indeed! True then and probably true now.

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    • My befuddled morning mind is struggling to think of examples of this today, but your comment sparked another thought which is vaguely related to what you said..

      Finding Eliza reached out to women in history across the racial divide but I was also reminded by the book of the importance of checking in my privilege and this is where intersectionality comes in. Our society is a complex tapestry of privilege and prejudice. Women of all backgrounds face significant hurdles due to gender prejudice but then there is an additional layer of prejudice that many women suffer from and that is racial prejudice. Larissa Behrendt did not discuss this explicitly but the material is there for the reader to consider this question. The scourge of prejudice is at once simple, treat everyone as your sister or brother, but simplicity can begat binary thinking. Larissa Behrendt pointed out that European male observers assumed that Aboriginal women had the same status, the same function, as European women which they did not. In considering the issue of prejudice against women today we need to remember that every woman’s experience is different and always make space to ensure that we can hear the voices of women of all cultural backgrounds.

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    • I try to avoid reading reviews of books that I am planning to review until after I have written the review, so I understand you not reading my review when I first wrote it. I’m adding hyperlinks to your comments so that people can link through to your reading list.

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