Colonial Australia through German eyes

19th century German travel writer Friedrich Gerstäcker

The Hunter Valley’s wines were excellent, but Adelaide’s footpaths were terrible: with the publication of a 19th century German travelogue, a Flinders University historian has revealed a vivid ‘new’ portrait of colonial Australia.

Professor Peter Monteath, from Flinders’ School of History and International Relations, says the newly translated text captures authentic details of life in Australia at the mid-point of the 19th century, including the striking resemblance to rural Germany achieved in the houses of the Barossa Valley’s German settlers.

Australia (A German Traveller in the Age of Gold) was the work of one of Germany’s most famous travel writers, Friedrich Gerstäcker. The book, based on of his first-hand impressions of Australian landscape, flora and fauna, also recounts his experiences of colonial life and society in Sydney, Adelaide and the Barossa Valley, as well as a remarkable solo trip down the River Murray in a DIY canoe.

Professor Monteath, who has edited and annotated the text as well as doing some of the translation, said Gerstäcker travelled widely and wrote prolifically.

While Gerstäcker was not afraid to dramatise his exploits to excite his German readership, Professor Monteath says he was part of a small but lucrative industry dedicated to providing prospective European emigrants with factual information about their potential new homes.

His travels included South America, Java and the United States, and he was best known in Germany for his descriptions of California and Arkansas.

“He was partly responsible for Germany’s love affair with the United States,” Professor Monteath said.

“He was a great observer and very sophisticated, and also very adventurous; he wasn’t going to stay in comfort everywhere he went – he was ready to rough it, and did a lot of it.”

Gerstäcker did not romanticise his foreign destinations – indeed Professor Monteath says the author saw it as an obligation to offset the rosy view of settling overseas presented by emigration agents.

“South Australia was in his sights because he knew that’s where lots of the early German emigrants were headed, so he wanted to see what it was like through his own eyes.”

Like many of his countrymen, Gerstäcker took a keen interest in Australia’s Aboriginal people. His two chapters on the Indigenous people combine his own direct encounters with material from other sources, including the journal of Matthew Moorhouse, South Australia’s first protector of Aborigines.

“It reflects the prejudices of the day to some extent – that it is dangerous to travel through open country because there are treacherous ‘Indians’ everywhere – but often the stereotypes are punctured by the reality,” Professor Monteath says.

“His experiences are that they are human beings, that Europeans can communicate with them and that they are often hard done by, with genuine grievances.”

Gerstäcker had witnessed the goldrush in California, and in Australia he sounds a warning note to his German readers about the prospects of instant prosperity held out by the discovery of gold.

“He is sceptical about the promise of riches, having seen the exploitation on the goldfields in America.”

The book is effective in capturing a young country in transition, Professor Monteath said.

“It’s a snapshot of Australia on the brink of massive change.”

Australia by Friedrich Gerstäcker, edited by Peter Monteath, is published by Wakefield Press, and will be officially launched by Adelaide journalist Ron Kandelaars at the German Club on July 13.

Professor Monteath is a fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. His recent books include POW: Australian Prisoners of War in Hitler’s Reich, Red Professor: The Cold War Life of Fred Rose (with Valerie Munt), Interned: Torrens Island 1914-1915 (with Mandy Paul and Rebecca Martin), and the edited collection Germans: Travellers, Settlers and their Descendants in South Australia.


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