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Melita Rowston_The Unfortunate White Wom

The Unfortunate White Woman



‘The helpless misery of her’ is just one of the many phrases used to describe The White Woman who was believed to be shipwrecked in 1839 on Victoria’s coast then held captive by local Gunai/Kurnai in Gippsland. 


During the ten years her myth circulated, she was thought to be Ann MacPherson, Mrs Capel, Miss Lord, Mary Willis, Sarah of Sydney, Ellen McPherson, Annie Weddon, Miss Searganston, and to the local Gunai/Kurnai – a ghost. 


The many failed rescue attempts of this ‘virtuous’ Scottish/Irish/English woman dominated newspaper headlines and our white population’s imagination. After years of searching, some believed she died by drowning, most surmised she never existed. 


In a foreign land, The White Woman was a manifestation of male settler’s memories. A blank slate on which they wrote their own narratives. As long as white men pursued this phantom, they ceased to think of their own fears and desires – they were worthy. She legitimised the project of colonisation. She was proof of the power of nostalgia. She took them home.


In an era of sea travel where European items often washed ashore from shipwrecks, The White Woman myth plugged directly into colonial fear. She represented the tragedy of people striving for a new life drowned at sea or even worse – a European gone ‘savage.’ 


Always a just-glimpsed figure retreating into the bush, she is absent from the active narrative. White male settlers searching for The White Woman spoke of seeing her name or love hearts carved on trees. They reported discovering the blood stained remains of a child’s dress, women’s shoes, bonnets, prayer books, and thimbles at Aboriginal campsites. Her discarded items construct an orderly world and are ‘proof’ of her existence. Was she ever there? Or was she a narrative designed to justify their horrific actions against the local Gunai/Kurnai in order to claim their land?


The colonial gaze dominates and sanitises, it wants the female body, but also repels it.
Through a contemporary feminist lens, Rowston explores the colonial gaze, the power of nostalgia, cultural dislocation, anxiety about place, and the conflation of woman and landscape.


The White Woman legitimised frontier violence. Her myth reveals the true history of this country - brutal, traumatic, and murderous.

Heartfelt thanks to Jo Jewitt for posing for this series of images. 

The Unfortunate White Woman


As part of the group show: Modern Nostalgia

Tortuga Studios

31 Princes Hwy, St Peters Sydney

2-16 November, 2018

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