Books & Literature

Book Review: Australia: A German Traveller in the Age of Gold, by Friedrich Gerstäcker

The first complete translation of Friedrich Gerstäcker’s travel journal since its original German publication in 1854, edited by Professor Peter Monteath.

Australia is the first complete translation of Friedrich Gerstäcker’s travel journal since its original German publication in 1854. Editor, Professor Peter Monteath, has produced a very readable translation which provides an eye witness view of Australia in 1851.

It seems Gerstäcker caught the travel bug at an early age after reading Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. In 1837, at the age of 21, he abandoned his apprenticeship and emigrated to America to become a farmer. Although his agricultural career did not flourish, when he returned to Germany in 1843 he discovered he had made a name for himself as a writer. Gerstäcker made enough money from writing up his travels, from novels and translations to marry and start a family but by 1849 he was on the move again.

australia-wakefieldpress200Travelling via South America, San Francisco and Tahiti he arrived in Sydney in 1851 and found all the terrible tales he had heard about the ‘criminal colony’ were not true; the convicts having merged with the general population to the extent that it was difficult to single them out. Somewhat presciently, Gerstäcker remarks, ‘Who knows…this kind of deportation could lead to a mark of distinction, a type of nobility of the colony’. The author also made a trip to the latest gold discovery at Ophir, near Orange, to compare the Australian gold rush with that in California. The drier climate and lack of running streams made the work even more arduous in New South Wales and Gerstäcker expresses his relief at not being, or wanting to be as so many did, part of the madness of the gold rush.

Gerstäcker particularly wanted to visit Adelaide and surrounding districts as there were already a considerable number of German immigrants in the Barossa Valley and Adelaide Hills. After such a long sea voyage he was reluctant to sail there and the idea of 3 months in the saddle held little appeal so he decided to walk there. Warnings poured in from every quarter: the ‘Indians’ were dangerous; because of the drought there would be little food to hunt; river levels were low and finding water would be hard; and on and on. Thoroughly disheartened, he was reminiscing about a trip by canoe down the Red River (in Canada) when it suddenly occurred to him he could do the same down the Murray, little being known at the time about its navigability.

The trek began at the Murray River in Albury and we are treated to a detailed and very amusing description of the journey from Sydney by mail coach: ‘if I may stoop to such crude flattery in calling such a vehicle a coach… [it] resembled a common hearse’. Finding no canoes for sale, Gerstäcker, makes one and sets off. Long before his journey was complete the canoe capsized with most of the supplies lost and Gerstäcker is content to walk the rest of the way. When he does meet the ‘dangerous natives’ he has been warned about he finds them friendly and helpful – showing him how a boomerang works and sharing food with him.

In the Barossa, many of the settlers had left Prussia for religious reasons and Gerstäcker found settlements that were almost wholly German, maintaining the religion and culture of their homeland. The German settlers in South Australia were not just farmers but also craftspeople, professionals and business people. He noted that viticulture was already becoming established and pronounced the wine he tasted ‘really excellent’ and predicted that ‘[w]ine-growing will eventually become a very significant industry’.

The chapter on ‘The Manners and Customs of the South Australian Tribes’ makes disturbing reading for a 21st century reader as it repeats many prevailing 19th century attitudes and prejudices as facts. However, while the author sympathises with German missionaries who work hard to ‘civilise’ the ‘natives’ when, even after 2 or 3 years of schooling and being trained in domestic service, the girls abandon their clothes and return to the bush, he also recognises that ‘compulsion cannot exercise a good influence in the long run…making the Indians much more miserable than they were with their old manners and customs in the wilderness’.

The book concludes with Gerstäcker’s voyage through the Torres Strait to Java on his way back to Europe.

Reviewed by: Jan Kershaw

Rating out of 10:  7

Published by: Wakefield Press
Release Date: May 2016
RRP: $34.95 paperback, $21.95 ebook

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