¶ … controversial than a person could ever imagine. Historical interpretations must be questioned so that faulty historical thinking can be identified. One of the most complicated aspects in historical interpretations is that they are precisely that -- interpretations. This means that people cannot help but look back at history through the lens of today's history; this affects interpretation and today's interpretation will be different than yesterday or tomorrow's interpretation because it will be a completely different time. Historians have a very difficult job because they must be able to take in information and interpret it in responsible ways. Historians need the humility to listen and trust others and the courage to interpret (Cathcart 1995, p. 16)
In studying the past, historians use primary and secondary sources as well as oral history. A primary source is considered to be something that is created by a person who witnessed an event. Examples of primary sources are letters, diaries, eyewitness articles, videos, speeches and artifacts, which are the most informative sources because they are from people who actually saw the event occur; however, one of the disadvantages of primary sources is that they are subjective. Letters and diaries will undoubtedly be imbued with the person's own personality and point-of-view, which oftentimes means that we are getting a very biased view of something. Secondary sources are created after an event by a person who wasn't there to witness the event. These sources come in the forms of paintings, books, and media reports, which are all based on primary sources. Of course the disadvantage to secondary sources is the fact that the person wasn't there and so the creation is just that -- a creation not a memory. What is good about secondary sources is that they allow the person to offer a more objective view of the event. Because there are cultures that do not have any written records, oral history is a way of maintaining the past. Oral history is simply unwritten verbal accounts of events like stories, songs, histories, and traditions which are passed down from generation to generation. There are major issues with oral history because just like in the game of "Telephone" that children play, the story continues to change each time it is told.
In Schaffer's (1995) writings on Eliza Fraser, 'Her Story/History: The Many Fates of Eliza Fraser,' it becomes apparent how history is not so much reported by people as it is created by people. Schaffer first tell us the most common rendition of the Eliza Fraser story and how she was shipwrecked and taken captive by 'barbarous' Aboriginals in 1836 until she was rescued by a convict whom she reportedly seduced and then betrayed (Shaffer, p. 358). This has now become a legend -- a legend of a woman who was nearly held captive by Aboriginals -- abused both sexually and physically, forced to watch her husband killed, give birth in the sea only for her child to drown, and be forced to nurse dirty children that weren't her own. The legend continues that when Fraser got back to England, the story was a sensation and people wanted to help the poor Mrs. Fraser as much as they could and thus gave her money. Mrs. Fraser is said to have taken advantage of this kindness and was later found to be inflating her story so she could get money. There is even a rumor that Mrs. Fraser told her story as a sort of act in Hyde Park for an entrance fee (Shaffer 2001, p. 360).
The story is an intriguing one and it is easy to see why people would want to believe and retell this "horrific" tale, but what Shaffer becomes concerned with is the way in which the story is told. The story is told in a way so that the reader will be persuaded that Mrs. Fraser was a victim of Aboriginal barbarism. However, can we trust Mrs. Fraser? Why is the crew's story different from her story? What really happened? Shaffer points out that the story is missing perspective and it is missing key facts to give the story any validity. In fact, Shaffer (2001, p. 359) suggests that the legend has little or even nothing to do with the actual Mrs. Fraser or the 'historical' event she said occurred. Shaffer goes so far as to say that "what is known of the woman as a historical agent pales in significance next to the textual production of 'Eliza Fraser' as a colonial and postcolonial object of power/knowledge" (2001, p. 359).
We know for a fact that British colonization of Aboriginal lands was anything but fair or kind. Singh (1994, p. 33) states that it is easy to replace the words 'genocide' and 'invasion' with words such as 'settlement' and 'development,' which has often been the type of language that has been used when discussing colonialism and imperialism. Therefore, how we view or interpret history has to do with the way in which we talk about it -- just like the way in which we contemplate Fraser's story has to do with...
359) believes that the significance of what happened to Fraser was understood with reference to imperialism, Christianity, evolution, and Victorian sexual politics. It was this very controversy surrounding the event that contributed to the evolution of the nation of Australia (2001, p. 359). The story's circulation in both high and popular culture was a way of "regulating racial, class, and gender division, the effects of which can be traced within Australian cultural politics today" (2001, p. 359).
Mrs. Fraser had three accounts of her story, according to Shaffer (2001, p. 361). The first is about 1,500 words in length and two-thirds of the report talks about the shipwreck and the performance of the ship's crew; the final third part is a summary of what happened on the island and the treatment of the "natives." The first report pays special attention to the "mutinous behavior of the crew" (2001, p. 361). The second version of Mrs. Fraser's time on the island is a result of interviews by local journalists in Sydney who reported her story to the public via the press (2001, p. 361). These reports pay much more attention to what happened on the island with the natives and is much more sensational (not uncommon for the media as its purpose is to sell newspapers). Words like "cannibals" and "savages" are used to great effect and while the natives are spearing people to death, Mrs. Fraser is depicted as a victim, helpless and terrified.
Shaffer claims that this way of telling the story titillated the colonial imagination with these terrifying acts against white people (2001, p. 361). It creates a division in humanity -- them and us; the savages and the civilized. It was exactly what people wanted and needed to hear at that time as Australia was a booming new society and the only thing they had to fear were these "other" people on the fringes living like animals. What this shows is that history has a way of writing itself. There was no other more perfect time for a story like this to have taken place.
Shaffer (2001, p. 361) notes that it was the third account of Mrs. Fraser's story that was the one to reach the "English-speaking colonial world in the form of a classic captivity narrative." Other papers soon followed suit and published this account:
The deplorable case of Mrs. Fraser and others, who have miraculously survived an awful shipwreck, and the cruelties practiced on them by the saves of New South Wales, amongst whom they were thrown, and by whom the majority of the ship's crew have been enslaved in lowest bondage, and in short tortured to death, by means at which the old Inquisition of Spain might blush (Shaffer 2001, p. 361).
Perhaps this sensationalized version of Fraser's story was a way in which people could justify what was going on with imperialism. To believe that the Aboriginals on that island were simply delighted when the shipwrecked individuals got off the boat so that they could torture and kill them is a crazy notion. Therefore it is important to think about some questions when approaching stories like this deemed as partial histories. Attwood (1996, p. 45) claims that the student of history (or historians) must think critically and ask these questions: What was the content? Who produced the history? When and where was it produced? About and for whom is this history? What are the outcomes of it? In what form is it produced? For what purpose was it created? And what is the value of this history for both its makers and others?
Considering the imperialism occurring in Australia, it is easy to look at Mrs. Fraser's story and see the brains of white men (and women) working to…
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