Begin by finding out some information about Larissa Behrendt herself, such as her:
- cultural background
- family, family history and relationships
- personal experiences
Behrendt is a Eualeyai/Gamillaroi woman and a distinguished lawyer, writer and academic. She was born in Cooma in New South Wales in 1969. Ask students to use the AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia or Gambay First Languages Map to locate the contemporary parts of NSW that intersect with Eualeyai/Gamillaroi country (variant spellings include Yuwaalayaay and Gamilaraay). They can start researching the Eualeyai and Gamillaroi peoples using general sources like Wikipedia, then build more authentic knowledge from there.
Now, using a map, locate for students the World Heritage-listed K’gari. This is the largest sand island in the world and is situated just off the southern coast of Queensland, to the east of the town of Maryborough. It is part of the Great Sandy National Park and is a popular tourist destination.
Explain to students that K’gari was once known by Europeans as Fraser Island. Captain James Fraser was the commander of the Stirling Castle, a vessel that was shipwrecked on a reef just to the north of the island in 1836. The ship was sailing north inside the Great Barrier Reef, towards the Torres Strait and eventually Singapore, when it ran aground. This route had opened to British traders in the years since the First Fleet’s arrival on Gadigal land (now called Sydney) in 1788, following voyages by navigators like James Cook and Matthew Flinders.
Discuss the obvious fact that many places in Australia are named after British colonial figures. For example, the capital city of Queensland was named after Sir Thomas Brisbane, who was the governor of New South Wales at the time that Queensland became a separate colony in 1859 (today Brisbane is also called Meanjin, the traditional name used by the local Turrbal people).
As a prelude to their study of Finding Eliza, explain to students that in June 2023 Fraser Island was officially renamed K’gari. This was the original name used by the island’s Traditional Owners (the Butchulla people), which should alert students to the focus of Behrendt’s book: the move from focusing exclusively on Australia’s colonial past to an emerging acknowledgement of its pre-colonial First Nations history.
Ask students to speculate on the meaning of the book’s title.
As a class, read Judith Wright’s poem ‘At Cooloola’ (which is in the Great Sandy National Park just south of K’gari) to see how the poet expresses her lack of connection to this environment – and, by extension, that of other European people who have tried to claim it. Also refer students to James Moloney’s novel A Bridge to Wiseman’s Cove (with a Reading Australia teaching resource), which is partly set in a fictionalised town at the southern end of K’gari.
Provide students with a summary of what happened after the Stirling Castle was shipwrecked and Captain Fraser, his wife Eliza and some of his crew went ashore where the Butchulla people lived (Behrendt provides a brief overview at the start of her interview with The Garret podcast).
Preparing to read Finding Eliza
Students may be unfamiliar with the vocabulary and/or history underpinning Behrendt’s account of how Eliza Fraser’s story has been used: firstly by Eliza herself, and later by writers, artists, filmmakers and so on (often to achieve their own purposes). The following activities should help them to understand the book better:
Students can then compare their completed overviews with this model (PDF, 102KB).
Writing graphic outlines
Show students how to construct a graphic outline for Chapter 1: Once Upon a Time. This should help them understand how Behrendt has organised the content without becoming overwhelmed by the details. Refer to this model (PDF, 109KB) as an example of how to construct the outline.
Once you have covered Chapter 1 together, students should go on to complete graphic outlines for the rest of the chapters in the book.
Personal response on reading the text
Begin by introducing students to a piece of cultural theory that will help them form a personal response to the text, as well as reflect on themselves.
On pp. 191–192 of her book Behrendt refers to the French philosopher Michel Foucault, who says that certain social groups – through their specific use of language – have the power to promote their own worldviews while suppressing the views of others. Foucault called this specific language use, and the associated behaviour of individuals within the group, a discourse or cultural practice. Discourse theory sets out how humans derive their personal identities from their social groups: behaving in certain ways; subscribing to certain attitudes, values and beliefs; and using language in ways that are specific to these groups.
As an example, together examine the discourse of conservation (PDF, 106KB) and its associated cultural and social practices. Students can then consider an opposing discourse, such as cotton farming, and how those practices might differ.
Now explain to students that they also belong to discourses. They might be football players, classical pianists, gamers and so on. For the purpose of the next activity, however, they will need to focus on:
Ask students to reflect briefly on their identities within these discourses. This will require them to think broadly about how the discourses operate in Australian society.
Then, using the information in their graphic outlines, students can write a personal chapter-by-chapter response to Finding Eliza in a reading journal. Some may agree wholeheartedly with Behrendt’s argument; others may agree generally, with a few points of difference; and others still may disagree entirely. They can respond to the text as well as reflect on what they have learnt about themselves in the process. This might include opinions, both positive and negative, about the information in each chapter; questions about the content; and a commitment to explore some of the details further.
Arrange students in groups of four or five to share their journal entries and discuss any points of agreement or disagreement. Each group should nominate one major idea from their discussion to share with the rest of the class.
NOTE: This may not be a culturally safe experience for First Nations students in your class. Make sure that you check in with them prior to this activity and adjust your approach accordingly.
When they have finished reading the book and writing journal entries for each chapter, ask students to write a short commentary (250 words) on Finding Eliza, incorporating their personal views on Behrendt’s purpose for writing it.
Outline of key elements of the text
Although she is passionate about the power of storytelling, and is herself a novelist, Behrendt has not written a narrative in this book. Rather, she has taken on the role of a cultural analyst and literary expert, analysing how language can be used to construct certain worldviews while marginalising others.
An individual can belong to multiple overlapping discourses with shared or similar attitudes, values, and beliefs. The discourses that shape Behrendt’s worldview will include her profession as a lawyer and academic; her identity as an Aboriginal woman; and, of course, her role as an educated person. Presumably, her main purpose in writing Finding Eliza was to challenge the ideologies promoted in the Eliza Fraser stories, and to support First Nations peoples in their quest to gain a voice in society and demand their human rights.
Behrendt says that she was fascinated by the way Eliza’s spirit (rather than the real person, who has melted into history) has been used by various storytellers to achieve different ends – particularly to silence First Nations peoples, steal their land, and destroy their culture as part of colonisation by English settlers/invaders in the nineteenth century. In Finding Eliza she explores the devices that storytellers have employed for this purpose, including:
- the description of First Nations peoples as cannibals
- the concept of ‘noble savages’ developed by several European philosophers
- the negative descriptions of First Nations women
- the use of stereotypes to deny First Nations people status as humans
From a humanist point of view, writers construct characters that fit into a creative piece of writing, such as a short story or novel. From a post-structuralist perspective, however, the writer’s subjectivity has also been constructed within the particular discourses to which they belong. In other words, not only are the people mentioned in texts based on the Eliza Fraser story considered characters, but so are the writers whose identities have been shaped by discourses such as British imperialism, ‘whiteness’, Christianity and so on.
Behrendt explores some important themes in Finding Eliza. We can draw connections between these themes and her knowledge of Australia’s colonial history, including the dispossession of First Nations peoples; her political purpose in fighting for their rights; and her role as a lawyer.
Here are some themes that will help get students started:
- the power of storytelling to promote certain values and ideologies
- the way in which discourses (language, behaviour, beliefs and so on) serve the interests of some social groups at the expense of others
- the power of language to construct dominant worldviews, but also to challenge them
Finding Eliza is not a call to locate the burial site of the historical person, Eliza Fraser. Rather, Behrendt is referring to the cultural and political roles that Eliza (the idea, not the person) plays in various texts, and declaring her intent to explore them.
Discuss this with students as they move further into the book.
Not only do discourses shape personal identities and individual responses to texts, but they also influence the way storytellers construct their own stories to gain readers’ support.
Ask students to choose ONE of the following scenarios that involves a conflict of attitudes, values and beliefs:
|Trees in public parks are routinely trimmed or cut down by council workers to keep the park neat (discourse of public administration).
|This activity can upset people who oppose the cutting down of trees (environmentalist discourse).
|A local First Nations group is making a native title claim for an area with a popular surfing beach (discourse of Aboriginal rights).
|A young man who loves surfing opposes the claim because it threatens his access to the beach (discourse of beachgoers).
|Female students at a local high school want the right to play contact football (feminist discourse).
|A male student at the school opposes their right to do so (discourse of masculinity).
Students will first take on the role of the protagonist in their chosen scenario. They should think about their character’s attitudes, values and beliefs, as well as those of the antagonist (the other character involved in the conflict of ideas). They will then prepare the protagonist’s argument and deliver it as a spoken monologue to the rest of the class. The goal is to convince the audience that their perspective is correct. Students must use language that persuades but also creates empathy with listeners by:
- presenting their character’s perspective clearly
- using emotional language to gain listeners’ sympathy
Once they have argued as the protagonist, students will then take on the role of the antagonist and prepare another short monologue. This time they will promote the opposing beliefs that led to the initial conflict.
The writer’s craft
In Chapter 1 of Finding Eliza, Behrendt explains that she was fascinated by how Eliza Fraser’s story – first told by Eliza herself after ‘escaping’ K’gari in 1836 and returning to Britain – has been transformed by writers, artists and filmmakers to suit their own creative purposes. Behrendt understands that these stories are not purely for entertainment, but are also motivated by politics. Here ‘politics’ means the way that a text promotes the ideology and interests of a particular social group (within a dominant discourse or cultural practice) at the expense of other less powerful social groups (within marginalised discourses or cultural practices). In Finding Eliza Behrendt focuses on the way in which Eliza’s story served the interests of white (European) colonial society and silenced the stories of the Butchulla people who lived on K’gari.
The next two chapters recount the known historical facts about the shipwreck of the Stirling Castle; the coming ashore of Captain Fraser, Eliza and crew members; and the stories that flowed from this event, beginning with those told by Eliza herself and continuing with other writers over time. Behrendt then analyses these stories for their political purposes, and explores how writers positioned their readers to accept their version of what ‘actually’ happened.
From this point Behrendt widens her focus to include other texts that represent First Nations people through the lens of colonial storytelling. She begins with the early twentieth century novel Coonardoo by Katherine Susannah Prichard (pp. 82–99) before moving on to several more contemporary stories. These include the invention of Eddie Burrup, the Aboriginal ‘alter ego’ of non-Indigenous artist Elizabeth Durack (pp. 147–160), and the New Age novel Mutant Message Down Under by Marlo Morgan, an American author who represents fictional First Nations characters within the spiritual beliefs of her own philosophy (pp. 161–168). Behrendt also explores colonial storytelling outside Australia, in texts like Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (pp. 112–119) and Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (pp. 179–183).
NOTE: Although many people view Heart of Darkness as a criticism of imperialism and colonial enterprise in Africa, renowned Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe considers it an example of European racism. He argued that only African writers could or should speak authentically about Africa from an African point of view. Students can read Achebe’s critical essay (or a summary) to understand why he thought that Conrad’s novel dehumanised its African characters.
The central thesis of Finding Eliza relates to the power of storytelling. As a lawyer, Behrendt is no stranger to compelling narratives. She signals her belief that stories both reflect and shape the world we live in by titling Chapter 1 ‘Once Upon a Time’. On the very first page, she refers to a famous storyteller called Scheherazade who told stories to save her own life. These stories form the basis of One Thousand and One Nights, a famous collection of Middle Eastern folk tales that convey simple lessons or morals.
Ask students to read and analyse one of the first stories in the collection, The Fisherman and the Jinni. Discuss the idea of a ‘moral lesson’ and ask students what they think the lesson might be in The Fisherman and the Jinni.
The German literary theorist Hans Robert Jauss argued that the meaning of any text depends firstly on the historical context within which it is written, and secondly on the changing historical contexts within which it is read. He called this idea the ‘horizon of expectation’. To help students explore this theory, ask them to respond to the following questions:
- Who tells The Fisherman and the Jinni?
- What dominant cultural practices/discourses are revealed in the language, attitudes, values and beliefs expressed in the story?
- Which character is the protagonist? Are they powerful in the context of the story? How is this character represented within the dominant discourses? How are other marginal or less powerful characters represented?
- What position does a modern reader have to adopt to make the invited reading of the story (i.e. find the meaning that was originally intended)?
- What attitudes, values and beliefs would encourage a modern reader to make an alternative or even resistant reading of the story?
As a class, make a list of all the stories that Behrendt has referred to in Finding Eliza. Then ask students whether they think these stories were designed to teach a moral lesson. If not, discuss what they think the purpose of the various stories was, going as far back as John Curtis’ Shipwreck of the Stirling Castle (1838).
Place students in small groups and allocate each group a story from the list. Remind them of the conventional structure of a narrative:
Orientation > Complication(s) > Crises > Climax > Resolution > Coda
Within their groups, students are to scan their allocated story to see if the author has, in fact, followed this narrative structure. They should identify the various sections of the story and note their contribution to its overall meaning.
Then ask students to analyse the story in terms of its subject matter, meaning and purpose. Does the story promote a moral lesson or, alternatively, espouse the benefit of an individual or social group?
Regroup as a class and discuss Behrendt’s response to each of the stories mentioned in her book. Does she support or oppose their meaning and purpose? What might be her reason for doing so?
Approach to characterisation
Until recently, reader reception theory encouraged students to view fictional characters as ‘real people’ and to compare those characters to themselves and others in real life. This theory has since been replaced, however, by a critical literary theory that regards characters as ‘constructions’ whose identities are established within discourses or cultural practices. These involve language; shared attitudes, values and beliefs; and a common view of the world.
An interesting example is the titular character from Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel, Robinson Crusoe. Behrendt refers to this book to illustrate how, as far back as the early eighteenth century, Europeans visualised people in other parts of the world as different and inferior (the ‘Other’).
Robinson Crusoe’s story is narrated in the first person by Crusoe himself, who is cast away on a desert island for twenty-eight years. In his twenty-fourth year he rescues an indigenous man (possibly belonging to the Kalina or Kalinago people) who has been taken captive by ‘savages’ and ‘cannibals’. Crusoe calls this man ‘Friday’, teaches him English, and converts him to Christianity.
Defoe represents Crusoe as the epitome of the superior white man, being:
- keen to start businesses after he leaves the island, including entering the slave trade
Ask students to read two extracts from Robinson Crusoe (PDF, 251KB). Explain that Defoe’s worldview would have been influenced by the dominant cultural practices (attitudes, values and beliefs) in England at the time. Students can then unpack Defoe’s representation of Crusoe and Friday; the power relationship between these characters; and what it reveals about the prevailing British attitudes towards peoples from other parts of the world.
- Notice how the personal pronoun ‘I’ makes Crusoe the focus of the story: the one who has the power to interpret his limited ‘world’.
- List some of the verbs that construct him as the brave actor in this episode.
- List some of the words (especially adjectives and verbs) that construct the ‘savage’ as dependent on Crusoe.
- Explain how Crusoe’s assumption of the right to describe the ‘savage’ in detail reveals his sense of entitlement as a white man.
- Point out how his ‘complimentary’ description nevertheless reveals his racist view of the local people.
- Again, consider Crusoe’s assumption of the right to name the ‘savage’ Friday, after the day he was rescued. Would Friday already have a given name?
- How do Friday’s actions reveal his instant acknowledgement of Crusoe’s superiority?
Now speculate about the discourses/cultural practices within which Defoe’s own sense of self was constructed, and within which he constructed the character of Robinson Crusoe:
- A general sense of English-ness?
- Capitalism (overseas maritime trading)?
Students could map these discourses on a Venn diagram to identify any shared or overlapping attitudes, values and beliefs. They can then revisit the stories that were allocated to them in the previous lesson (Text Structure) to find examples of cultural practices that would have shaped those authors’ identities. How does this influence their representation of First Nations peoples?
Finally, consider whether stories like Robinson Crusoe would have influenced the worldview of British people who arrived in Australia from 1788 onwards.
One might assume that textual descriptions of people, places, events and things are intended to reflect reality, when in fact language is being used to construct a version of it. This is a major theme in Finding Eliza.
Behrendt points out early on that Eliza Fraser, the person, is represented as a virtuous and morally pure middle class English woman: an icon of Britannia, the British Empire. In this way she transforms from an individual person into a social myth, deliberately constructed to represent the power and authority of Britain (conversely, negative portrayals of Aboriginal and working class women increase the symbolic value of colonial ‘settlement’, as well as the status of married, middle class white women and mothers).
Behrendt pays close attention to the construction of characters. One way of exploring this is through ‘appraisal’, a framework based on the interpersonal meta-function of systemic functional grammar. Appraisal is a powerful method of analysing how representations of people in texts position readers to adopt a particular attitude to a subject.
Distribute the guide to appraisal (PDF, 137KB) so that students can read more about how it works. For the next activity they will be using a simplified version of this framework, looking for:
- words that express positive OR negative emotions
- words that express positive OR negative judgments (i.e. social esteem OR social sanction)
- words that express positive OR negative evaluations of beauty or worth
- ways in which force is scaled up/down and focus is sharpened/softened
- how many ‘voices’ are involved in the representation
Direct students to Chapter 2 of Finding Eliza. They should read the extracts from Eliza’s account of her time with the Butchulla people (Narrative of the Capture, Sufferings, and Miraculous Escape of Mrs. Eliza Fraser), then use the simplified appraisal framework to unpack her representation of them. An example has been provided below.
|Dimension of attitude
|Examples from Eliza’s account
|Words that express positive OR negative emotions
|‘her fits of rage’ (p. 23)
|Words that express positive OR negative judgments
|‘Great was the abuse I received’ (p. 23)
|Words that express positive OR negative evaluations of beauty or worth
|‘filthy’ (p. 23)
|Ways in which force is scaled up/down and focus is sharpened/softened
|‘extremely filthy’ (p. 23)
‘greatly enraged’ (p. 25)
|How many ‘voices’ are involved in the representation
|Only Eliza’s account is heard
Behrendt also identifies three other writers who embellished Eliza’s story without knowing much about it: John Curtis, Charles Barrett and Michael Alexander. Once students have appraised Eliza’s language, they can re-use the simplified framework to unpack some of these other writers’ representations of the Butchulla people.
2. Binary opposites
According to a literary theory called structuralism, language does not reflect the world but rather creates its own reality. Structuralists argue that the world is constructed entirely by language and that this system predates humans even as they are born into the world. In other words, we do not use language to find out about the world; instead, language – which already exists – shapes how we see the world.
Structuralists also argue that meaning depends on difference. For example, the word ‘dog’ does not have meaning because it refers to a loveable furry animal, but because it is different from a ‘log’, a ‘hog’, a ‘bog’ and so on. Therefore, ‘dog’ derives its meaning from what it is not. The word may conjure up an image of a furry animal, but in reality there is no connection between the two; any association is completely arbitrary.
For structuralists, meaning is produced through differences called binary oppositions. Students will be familiar with the idea and can probably identify examples like male/female, day/night, light/dark and so on. ‘Binary’ means ‘two parts’ and ‘opposition’ means ‘a contrast’. Therefore, in a binary opposition, two things are considered the direct opposites of one another. Structuralists say that this is how human beings see and organise reality.
As Behrendt observes, however, language can be political. Where there is a binary opposition, one side is often privileged over the other, which can lead to an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality. This is certainly true of the way most white European writers viewed First Nations peoples at the time Eliza Fraser told her story.
Direct students to create a simple table with two columns:
|First Nations peoples
In the right-hand column, they are to record words and phrases that Behrendt says were used in colonial storytelling to describe First Nations peoples. Then, in the left-hand column, they can list the opposites of those words and phrases.
Discuss with students how, in this case, the use of binary oppositions creates a very positive image of colonial society.
A stereotype is a one-dimensional and often prejudiced belief about certain people or things. Stereotyping is one of the devices used by writers to construct a negative representation of ‘the Other’ for their own political purposes (e.g. portraying First Nations peoples as cannibals). As Behrendt points out, however, some ‘positive’ stereotypes (e.g. portraying First Nations peoples as ‘noble savages’, or telepathic) are just as false and damaging as the negative ones.
Discuss with students the meaning of the word ‘stereotype’ (e.g. an oversimplified representation of a certain group of people that purports to capture some essential characteristic). Ask if they have ever heard of any. You do not need to ask for specific examples, but if you do initiate a discussion, you may need to set some parameters to ensure a safe space for all.
Ask students to consider:
- the implications of representing First Nations peoples as noble savages and/or cannibals
- the problem with seemingly ‘positive’ representations of First Nations people as having a special relationship with nature or telepathic powers
Then revisit the way in which Eliza Fraser, and other writers who told her story, created a negative stereotype of the Butchulla people.
One obvious symbol of a nation is its flag; the Australian flag, for example, combines the stars of the Southern Cross with the Union Jack of Great Britain. Over time, people who have occupied significant roles in a nation’s history can also become symbols. Some examples include the Unknown Australian Soldier; Arrernte and Kalkadoon civil rights activist Charles Perkins; and of course that icon of virtuous, hard-working, middle class Christian women, Eliza Fraser.
Students should pay attention to any symbols Behrendt identifies, and extrapolate their meaning into the broader story of colonial Australia.
Eliza Fraser’s story is set against the backdrop of K’gari. Behrendt points out that colonial society saw First Nations peoples as nomads who had done little to develop or exploit the land on which they lived. It was this view that justified their dispossession of First Nations peoples.
An interesting example of the colonial view of the land comes from a pastoralist named Edward Palmer (1842–1899), who wrote Early Days in North Queensland. Chapters VI and VIII of Palmer’s work emphasise the financial benefits of pastoralism and mining, activities that formed part of the capitalist economic system imported from Britain and Europe.
Over time, Australians have become increasingly aware of the importance of Country in First Nations cultures. Australian historian Inga Clendinnen has explored this relationship in detail. The ideas from her 1999 Boyer Lectures (talks by prominent Australians broadcast on ABC Radio National) were later published as True Stories: On History, Truth, Aboriginality and Politics.
Direct students to the transcript of Inside the Contact Zone: Part 1 (Clendinnen’s fourth Boyer Lecture). Ask them to read the first three paragraphs, then respond to the following questions individually. You can then discuss Clendinnen’s ideas as a class.
- What made Clendinnen curious about how First Nations peoples developed their all-encompassing view of the physical landscape?
- What term does Clendinnen use to describe traditional Aboriginal paintings (para. 1)? How effective do you think this description is?
- Clendinnen describes these paintings as ‘vast maps’. According to her, how did First Nations peoples create these maps?
- Clendinnen suggests that these maps not only captured the physical world, but also contained ‘metaphysical meanings’ and ‘cosmic narratives’. What do you think she means by these phrases?
- Clendinnen uses two other metaphors to describe First Nations peoples (para. 2). Find them and explain what you think she means.
- Clendinnen uses the metaphor of a steeple to convey the scale and complexity of First Nations knowledge about the world. What sort of things are included in this knowledge (para. 2–3)? You can represent this as a mind map, or draw a simple steeple shape and label it with relevant words and phrases.
Hopefully students will see that the setting is far more than a simple background for the action of a story. It would be more accurate to think of it as another character, and its representation as reflective of the writer’s cultural practices. When the setting is a place like K’gari, it is also important to remember that it is someone’s Country, with close connections to community, history, identity and culture.
Point of view
Behrendt is a distinguished Aboriginal lawyer, writer and academic. Finding Eliza is an analysis of the many stories based on Eliza Fraser’s experiences following the shipwreck of the Stirling Castle in 1836. Behrendt analyses how the stories have depicted First Nations peoples in the interests of various colonial stakeholders, including farmers, pastoralists and Christian missionaries.
As Behrendt observes, colonial stories about First Nations peoples were shaped by the beliefs and values of a powerful British imperialist discourse. This discourse included a view of middle class women like Eliza Fraser as pure, genteel and moral: the perfect representatives of the British Empire. Naturally, these stories silenced the voices of the Butchulla people and of First Nations peoples in general.
In recent years these voices have finally started to come to the fore through literary works, plays, paintings, films and so on. Many of these works challenge what has come to be accepted as the orthodox (and predominantly white) history of Australia.
In Chapter 4 Behrendt introduces Olga Miller, an Aboriginal Elder who explains what happened to Eliza from the Butchulla people’s perspective (pp. 57–60). Then, in 2017, SBS released K’gari (with an accompanying teacher resource) to ‘erase the myth that influenced history’. This short interactive documentary – created in collaboration with Behrendt, Butchulla artist Fiona Foley and Torres Strait Islander artist Tori-Jay Mordey – invites viewers to reject Eliza’s story by clicking and deleting her words as they appear. Foley responds to Eliza (voiced by actor Miranda Otto) from the perspective of the Butchulla people.
Have students work through K’gari, then ask them to reflect on how the documentary positions them as the viewer. Do they think it provides a convincing alternative voice to that of Eliza Fraser?
Ask students to re-write a short section of Eliza’s story as though she had a different perspective on the events. For example:
The local people had to travel to another part of the island to try to catch fish. They expected me to accompany them, and I was happy to do so because I knew that they were doing their best to help me survive in difficult circumstances.
A powerful way of resisting colonial storytelling is to retell the story from a different perspective, particularly that of the ‘Other’ in the original text.
Have students re-read the extracts from Robinson Crusoe (Approach to Characterisation). Their task is to re-imagine one or both of these episodes from Friday’s point of view. They should focus not only on the action, but also on Friday’s thoughts and feelings towards the situation. They can also decide how closely Friday’s version of events aligns with Crusoe’s.
Students should consider the following questions when planning their retelling:
- Would Friday wonder why Crusoe is in this part of the world?
- Would he be submissive because he actually recognises Crusoe’s ‘superiority’, or because he has a gun?
- Would he be happy to be called ‘Friday’ or would he want to tell Crusoe his real name?
- How would he feel about being described as ‘European’?
Here are some additional tips and suggestions for this task:
- Have Friday tell his story in the first person, using the pronoun ‘I’
- Let Friday tell readers his real name (or allude to it, if students would prefer not to select one for him)
- Use verbs that realise both ‘doing’ and ‘thinking’ processes
- Let Friday rename Crusoe!
- Allow Friday to make some stereotypical assumptions about Crusoe as a British sailor (you may need to set some parameters to keep this appropriate)
Ways of reading the text
Hopefully, over the course of this unit, students have learnt that there is no such thing as a single ‘true’ version of history. As Inga Clendinnen argues, it would be better to tell Australia’s history through a cornucopia of ‘true stories’: some of them inspirational, some interesting, and some utterly appalling.
All storytelling takes place within specific social and cultural contexts. As students learned from examining One Thousand and One Nights, contemporary readers are likely to interpret stories differently to their original audiences.
Each storyteller (or history writer) will interpret the past through the lens of the discourses that constructed their own subjectivities. This will influence what they decide to write about; the purpose for which they write; and how they approach their readership (roles and relationships). Finally, they must decide whether to publish their story in a popular medium (like Peter FitzSimons’ military histories or Kate Grenville’s historical fiction) or in an academic format.
Students have also learnt that they themselves respond to stories according to the social and cultural contexts that have shaped their sense of self. This in turn influences the extent to which they are prepared to accept versions of Australian history that may be different to the ones they have grown up with.
Other contexts and titles
K’gari’s traditional name was formally adopted by the World Heritage Committee in 2021, and officially restored in 2023, in recognition of the Butchulla people’s ongoing connection to the island (illustrated in the interactive documentary K’gari). In that time, Melbourne’s Moreland City Council also changed its name following a request from Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung Elders and other community leaders, who pointed out that the name ‘Moreland’ was linked to a nineteenth century Jamaican slave estate. The new name, Merri-bek, was one of three put forward by Elders and voted on by the community, signalling a new chapter in the story of this part of Melbourne.
Every generation produces a new or revised story about its nation’s past. Today Henry Reynolds is celebrated as one of Australia’s leading historians, but when he first presented The Other Side of the Frontier to publishers in the early 1980s, it was rejected (James Cook University published the first edition in 1981). Reynold’s account of his own realisations, Why Weren’t We Told?, won the 1999 Australian Human Rights Award for the Arts. The title illuminates the fact that, until recently, generations of white Australians chose to ignore the truth about their national history, preferring to maintain what anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner called ‘the great Australian silence’.
Another historian who has explored the other side of Australia’s colonial narrative is James Boyce. In the preface to his book 1835, Boyce asserts that over a three-year period (1835–1838) the British government allowed white settlers/invaders to occupy twenty million hectares of the most fertile and productive land across four of our modern-day states. As Boyce argues, apart from the ineptitude of the British government, governors in the colonies could have prevented this invasion of land by simply refusing to issue ownership deeds.
Although both Reynolds and Boyce write in support of First Nations peoples, they are nevertheless white men who belong to the academic discipline of ‘history’. In Making Australian History, Anna Clark states that there are many other ways of telling a nation’s stories. She deals with (amongst other things) rock art; the story of the First Fleet’s arrival in 1788; a convict ballad; and a family history written – and then rewritten – by the celebrated poet Judith Wright (who initially portrayed her ancestors as constructive frontier pioneers, but later confronted the fact that they had carried out great violence and dispossession against First Nations peoples).
In recent years there has been a surge in the number of stories being told by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples themselves. These texts have enabled powerful new voices to contribute to our national story, including (but not limited to):
|Films and television series
There are many other texts by contemporary novelists, filmmakers, poets and so on that students might like to read or view.
First Nations filmmakers have been using popular genres to make work that challenges the orthodox narratives about Australia’s past. In 2021 Kaytetye director Warwick Thornton, best known for his debut feature film Samson and Delilah (2009), created the eight-episode action adventure/horror series Firebite. In the Firebite universe, vampires arrived with the First Fleet in 1788. Thornton reimagines the story of colonisation as a conflict between these creatures and Aboriginal vampire hunters, who defend their people against murder and dispossession.
Another filmmaker who has retold a colonial story from a First Nations perspective is Goa-Gunggari-Wakka Wakka Murri writer, actor and filmmaker Leah Purcell. Purcell re-wrote Henry Lawson’s classic short story, The Drover’s Wife, firstly as a feminist and post-colonial play; then as a novel; and finally a film. Whereas Lawson’s story includes a negative reference to a sinister Aboriginal character, Purcell’s text features an Aboriginal man, Yadaka, who reveals truths about the main character Molly Johnson’s life in the High Country of Victoria – as well as the history of colonial ‘settlers’ in her new land.
The Australian Wars (2022) is a three-part documentary by Arrente and Kalkadoon writer, director and producer Rachel Perkins. It repositioned the Frontier Wars in the public discourse so effectively that the Australian War Memorial has begun to seriously reconsider the policies and practices that excluded these campaigns against First Nations peoples (commencing with British occupation) from being properly recognised.
Finally, Gordon Hookey is a Waanyi artist whose paintings directly challenge the traditional stories of British occupation in 1788. His paintings and murals depict an alternative country to white Australia – ‘Murriland’ – and tell stories about Queensland’s history from a First Nations point of view.
Evaluation of the text
Finding Eliza is a timely challenge to stereotypical views of First Nations peoples in Australia, who still suffer the effects of racism on many levels. As readers come to understand how stories position them to adopt a certain worldview, and subsequently question or resist this, the country benefits from an enhanced reputation internationally.
Language, discourse and genre
Behrendt explores how, over a long period of time, writers have produced texts that reflect a singular view of First Nations peoples. She focuses a great deal on the purpose of these texts, drawing comparisons to a court of law in which narratives are constructed to serve different parties’ interests (pp. 9–10). She even analyses writing that appears to be sympathetic towards First Nations peoples, as much of it was composed within the prevailing colonial discourses of the nineteenth century (p. 81).
Behrendt understands that language is a key aspect of any discourse, reflecting the core attitudes, values and beliefs of a given group. Her analysis of different texts unveils discourses related to pioneering, Christianity, race and so on, typified by the use of stereotypes, binary oppositions and figurative language. The cumulative effect of these techniques is a recurrent image of First Nations peoples as subhuman, barbaric, violent, and unworthy of humane treatment.
There is also a connection between the language used in these accounts and the genre in which they were written. For example, Eliza Fraser told her own story in a highly dramatic personal recount, utilising many of the tropes of English society at the time. The same is true of John Curtis, Charles Barrett and Michael Alexander’s versions of events (see Chapter 2 of Finding Eliza). Despite being published as far apart as 1837 and 1971, these narratives all sit within the colonial storytelling genre, featuring highly dramatic language rather than the formal and objective language of history. They were written to serve the interests of the white colonists of the time, or else to maintain a particular version of Australian history in the twentieth century.
Other texts mentioned in Finding Eliza include a New Age fantasy (pp. 161–168) and a pastoral family history (pp. 150–155). These may not focus on Eliza Fraser, but they too use language that reflects the aims of their respective genres and discourses.
Rich assessment task (receptive and productive modes)
In Finding the Heart of the Nation, Kaurareg Aboriginal and Kalkalgal/Erubamle Torres Strait Islander man Thomas Mayo explains the quest, embodied in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, for a constitutionally-recognised Voice; for a treaty or Makarrata with the Commonwealth; and for a commitment to truth-telling about Australia’s colonial past.
Students will have learnt that most Australians have very little knowledge about the violent treatment of First Nations peoples because of what Stanner called ‘the great Australian silence’ – or, as revealed by Reynolds, Boyce and other historians, the false or untrue stories told by white writers of the time.
Students will first watch Mayo’s presentation on the Uluru Statement from the Heart. They will then write a 300–400-word book review on Finding Eliza as an example of truth-telling. They should focus on how Behrendt’s textual analysis makes truth-telling about Australia’s past more transparent and easier to understand, and discuss the importance of this in accordance with the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
Synthesising core ideas
Finding Eliza focuses on how stories construct worldviews that serve the interests of some social groups at the expense of less powerful groups. Students have learned how language works within discourses to represent characters and construct narrative perspectives. The following assessment tasks will allow students to demonstrate what they have learned during this unit.
Rich assessment tasks
Jack and the Beanstalk retold
Students have been exploring how stories can be told from various perspectives, depending on the discourses that have shaped the authors’ worldviews. Traditionally, the characters who get to tell these stories have represented more powerful discourses. In Robinson Crusoe, for example, author Daniel Defoe – a white man living in the capital city of the imperial power that was Great Britain – created a protagonist who represented all the values of that society.
Begin this task by reading the fairy tale Jack and the Beanstalk.
Even though the third-person narration is somewhat critical of Jack, the story is nevertheless told from his point of view, and the reader is positioned to support his actions. There are other characters in this tale, however, who are likely to see events from a different perspective (as may be the case for contemporary readers):
|the ogre’s wife
|the fairy harp
Students are to rewrite the story of Jack and the Beanstalk from another character’s point of view. This will involve putting them into the role of the protagonist and restructuring the story to present their perspective.
NOTE: It may be difficult to think of the ogre as a protagonist, but perhaps there is a reason for his behaviour (e.g. he could have been exploited by humans in the past). Is the ogre described negatively in order to position Jack as the hero of the story?
The following prompts may assist students in planning their stories:
- Which character do you want to make the protagonist?
- What attitudes, values and beliefs do you think this character represents?
- What will be this character’s perspective on the events of the story?
- What audience do you have in mind?
- What positive qualities will you give this character to earn your readers’ support (i.e. how will you build empathy for your protagonist)?
- How will you use language to position your readers?
- What does this character think about Jack and his behaviour?
Once students have written their first draft of Jack and the Beanstalk Retold, they should reflect on what they have learned about using language to intensify the power of storytelling. They will then continue to redraft their story (at least one more time) until they are satisfied that it poses a valid challenge to the values, attitudes and beliefs in the original fairy tale.
City of Gold
Students are to undertake a detailed analysis of Wyatt’s monologue (or another text like it) to come to an understanding of what constitutes a contemporary First Nations voice in Australia.