Australia A German traveller in the age of gold


A German traveller in the age of gold

A German traveller in the age of gold

by Friedrich Gerstäcker
Ed Peter Monteath.


Author Friedrich Gerstäcker, born in Germany on 10 May 1816, was the son of two opera singers. His father died when he was only nine years old. Having read Robinson Crusoe he developed a passion for travelling and seeing the world. At 21 he visited America where he stayed for some six years. He kept a diary of his adventures and also wrote many letters to his mother, who without his knowledge had the material published. When he returned to Germany he was already an established writer.

He continued writing, and using the vast amount of notes and diary entries made during his travels, he was able to complete several successful novels. He did well financially and in 1845 married Anna Aurora Sauer. However marrying and starting a family did not stop him from wanting to see yet more of the world. On 18 March 1849 he sailed for Rio de Janeiro, visited several countries, crossed the Andes on foot, and finished up in California. Naturally he had a good look at the recently discovered goldfields there.

By the end of 1850 he sailed across the Pacific, with short stops at Hawaii and Tahiti and arrived in Sydney in March 1851. It was the extensive material he collected while in Australia which gave rise to yet another book, Australien (Australia) in 1854. Written and published in Germany, this work of the now illustrious and prolific travel writer has only recently, 200 years after he was born, become available in English through the efforts of Peter Monteath and his team of translators. The original text of Australien has been complemented by notes and an afterword to familiarise the modern Australian reader with the circumstances in which Gerstäcker lived, travelled and wrote.

Gerstäcker’s literary output was substantial and his Australian notes led to multiple publications, both fictional and non-fictional. Rarely has Australia’s colonial past been presented with such insight, honesty, humour, and entertainment. After publishing his book in 1854 countless Germans came to know Australia and who knows how many may have decided to migrate to that lovely place down under, even if it had those awful and unsightly gum trees.

While in Sydney he visited the sites as far away as Newcastle with its excellent mines and got to know some of the locals as well, including several Germans. His real aim though was to get to Adelaide and the Barossa Valley to meet his countrymen and see how they were doing. In the end he decided to travel down the Murray. His account of travelling to Albury by the Australian Royal Mail Coach is hilariously funny and one of the best ever.

Not being able to find a suitable craft to row down the Murray he made his own canoe in Albury out of the one tree he disliked the most; a gum tree! He finally set off, with a temporary companion down the Hume River on 5 April. Eventually the canoe was wrecked, most of his belongings lost, but he continued barefoot and alone walking the remaining distance to Adelaide. In his diaries he made notes of the hospitality of the bush people, which according to him could not be observed more conscientiously by an Arab.

He gave excellent descriptions of the Australian vegetation and its uses. Aborigines, often called blacks, savages, Indians or worse were also noted, particularly their customs and weapons. On 17 June he left the Murray, its Aborigines, wild life and food resources and headed for the Adelaide Hills and a change of clothes. When a finally reached them at Angas Park, he found that the land had been exclusively leased to Germans. He soon felt as though he was at home except for ‘those damned gum trees’.

Most of the Germans had leased the land for 14 years with the option to purchase at £4 per acre. (well above the average rate charged by other landowners or the government). Angas added 15% interest on the outstanding money and was not shy in confiscating property when payments had fallen in arrears. No wonder Mr GF Angas, the great benefactor, did exceedingly well for himself.

Wherever Gerstäcker looked he saw German wagons, German harnesses, German farm houses, German grandmothers, German hymn books, German dung-forks and even German door handles. His impressions of Tanunda were also faithfully recorded. From here he took the mail coach via Gawler, rattling over break-neck and nutcracker roads, to Adelaide.

There is also another account of a trip from Adelaide to Tanunda. This time it was on a mail coach owned by Chambers. It reveals a completely different Chambers from the one we have been reading about so far. Gerstäcker concludes his account with ‘Chambers naturally amasses a pile of money in this way and is therefore one of the most respected citizens of Adelaide…The Devil takes such scoundrels!’

Tanunda he reported as above all a little farming community with good land and hardworking people. Hundreds of the Lutheran farmers came out with next to nothing but already had small properties and had repaid Angas their ship debts, including the interest. From Tanunda he wandered to Buchfelde where the Schomburg brothers had settled and named it after Leopold von Buch. On his way back he was able to see Port Adelaide which he thought was one of the most miserable ports he had seen anywhere in the world.

His portrayal of South Australia’s capital is well worth reading, as is that of the Burra and Glen Osmond mines. The Government support for schools and churches he found most unusual but interesting. The Aboriginal School was also inspected and commented on. Having met Kavel and Lutherans he includes a discourse on religion. His weeks spent in the Barossa Valley proved to be the climax of his Australian tour. The knowledge gained here and in other parts of Australia would be of great interest to many Germans thinking about migrating to South Australia.

After his return to Sydney the gold rushes were in full swing and he was somewhat confused by the new language he now heard everywhere. Words like nuggets, cradles, licences, claims or expressions such as ‘a bloody fine day or a bloody bad road’ were used in every conversation. Gold mining was the only thing talked about. Once again he risked his life and booked a ‘seat’ on the Australian Royal Mail Coach for a trip to the fields and see it all for himself. This time his reporting was much more serious and he made several comparisons between California and Australia.

After a few days it was back to Sydney where he now had to wait a few weeks before his ship could leave for Indonesia via Torres Strait as most of the crew had bolted for the goldfields. During his enforced stay in Sydney Gerstäcker was able to enjoy himself but also used his time to sort his notes and start writing. On 4 October he reached Java and from there eventually returned to Germany.

Back home he continued his writing and had both articles and books published. As he wrote for a living he not only had to inform and educate his readers, he also had to entertain them. In 1860 he was off again for South America, followed in 1862 by a trip to Egypt. In 1867 he again visited America. From there he continued to Mexico, the West Indies and Venezuela. Being now in his mid-fifties he still travelled, but closer to home. His travel stories kept coming and were devoured by a legion of devoted readers, making Gerstäcker a household name for many years. He died in 1872 of a heart attack while organising his next trip.

As Peter Monteath points out; Gerstäcker's Australien offers drama, humour, suspense, excitement and a heightened sense of the exotic. Yet amid the exotic-and perhaps this feature lay at the core of Gerstäcker's genius-there was also and always the reassuringly familiar. Whether he was describing the Australian bush or the jungle of Brazil, a small piece of Germany was never far away. No other author united the familiar and the exotic as successfully as Gerstäcker did.

Review by Nic Klaassen

Australia by Peter Monteath, PB 306 pp, with index and end notes is available at $34.95, from
Wakefield Press
Telephone 08 8352 4455


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