Monday musings on Australian literature: 19th century travellers in Australia

I’m a bit of a sucker for 19th century travellers. The one who started it all was Flora Tristan with her Peregrinations of a pariah (1838). Yes, I know, she was a Frenchwoman travelling in South America, so she’s not actually relevant here. And yet, before I get to travellers in Australia I must mention other works I’ve dipped into: Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra (1832), Isabella Bird’s Unbeaten tracks in Japan (1880), and Lafcadio Hearn’s Glimpses of unfamiliar Japan (1894). Of these, Isabella Bird is the only one to have also visited Australia, of which more anon.


Public domain (via Wikipedia)

None of these, though, inspired this specific post. That honour goes to my current read, Freidrich Gerstäcker’s Australia: A German traveller in the age of gold which was first published in German in 1854, and has now been published in an English translation by Wakefield Press. It chronicles his travels in Australia in the early 1850s. As I started reading it, it occurred to me that while I’ve spoken before about 19th century explorers’ journals, I haven’t mentioned travel writing from the same period.

However, as I started doing a little research, I realised that, particularly given the period and how little the country had been “explored”, there is – or can be – a pretty fine line between explorers’ journals and those of travellers. The difference, I’d say, must be the intention, and here I’ll quote Gerstäcker:

Merely having set foot on a foreign part of the world has its own charm. No matter how passionately people are attached to their own country, they still want to see a different one, so that they can think longingly back to their own.

I’m not sure that the last bit is critical, but he does capture the traveller’s desire to see something different for his or her own reasons, as against the explorer’s goal which is more to travel to new places to gain geographical and/or scientific knowledge, usually for the benefit or use of others. For the person interested in history, though, both offer valuable “primary” insight into the life of another time.

So, I thought I’d share a few 19th century travellers (chronologically by their writings) who wrote about their travels in Australia:

Charles Darwin’s A naturalist’s voyage around the world (1860, text on PGA) describes his visit to Australia in 1836. He opens Chapter 19 with his arrival in Sydney Harbour:

Early in the morning a light air carried us towards the entrance of
Port Jackson. Instead of beholding a verdant country, interspersed
with fine houses, a straight line of yellowish cliff brought to our
minds the coast of Patagonia. A solitary lighthouse, built of white
stone, alone told us that we were near a great and populous city.

He tells of going out to Bathurst “to gain a general idea of the appearance of the country” and goes on to describe what he sees (including “the extreme uniformity of the vegetation”). He comments on his experience of indigenous Australians and also mentions convicts, but his main focus was the natural environment. After spending a couple of weeks in the area around Sydney, the Beagle went down to Hobart before heading to New Zealand.

Ellen Clacy’s A Lady’s Visit to the Gold Diggings of Australia in 1852–1853 (1853, text on PGA): Clacy visited the Australian goldfields with her brother, and was only in Australia for a year or so. Her book was one of many used by Clare Wright in her award-winning The forgotten rebels of Eureka (my review). Wright quotes Clacy’s advice to Englishwomen considering emigration:

Do so by all means … the worse risk you run is that of getting married and finding yourself treated with twenty times the respect and consideration you may meet in England.

The reason for this, Clacy argues, is that because there are so few women “we may be pretty sure of having our own way”. Hmm.

Here she is on Melbourne, or, one aspect anyhow:

The most thriving trade there, is keeping an hotel or public-house, which always have a lamp before their doors. These at night serve as a beacon to the stranger to keep as far from them as possible, they being, with few exceptions, the resort, after dark, of the most ruffianly characters.

Gerstäcker comments on “the truly astonishing number” of pubs in Sydney. Seems our drinking culture started early!

Friedrich Gerstäcker’s Australia: A German traveller in the age of gold (1854): it will be a while before I finish this, but I’ve read nearly a third and am loving his descriptions of mid-19th century Sydney and of his intrepid trip along the Murray. His observations on the people and the landscape, flora and fauna he meets and sees along the way add not only to my understanding of early white-settled Australia but also of mid-19th century European thought. I love that he keeps an eye out for the bunyip, though he’s aware that there’s a chance it doesn’t exist!

Anthony Trollope’s Australia and New Zealand (1873): Trollope visited Australia in 1871, when he was 56-years-old and having negotiated, writes Fullerton (see below), a contract to write a book about the trip. Fullerton writes that “few visitors to Australia have ever worked so hard at seeing everything, learning about Australian institutions and customs, observing locals at work and at play, and covering so much ground, as did Anthony Trollope”. The aim of the book was to be useful to potential English migrants to Australia.

Isabella Bird’s “Australia Felix: First impressions of Australia” (in Leisure Hour, Feb 10, 1877): I’ve enjoyed her writings on Japan but haven’t tracked down an e-version of this article. All I know is that she “disliked” Australia. It was the first exotic place she visited (besides a trip with cousins to the USA) and I wonder whether her attitude might partly be due to inexperience as a traveller – but that may just be me being defensive!

Five is probably enough for my purposes. It’s a subject I’ll return to when I review Gerstäcker’s book … and possibly again in future posts because there are many journals out there.


  • Susannah Fullerton, Brief encounters: Literary travellers in Australia 1836-1939, 2009 (includes more writers than I’ve mentioned here including Joseph Conrad and Robert Louis Stevenson)
  • Project Gutenberg Australia (PGA)
  • Clare Wright, The forgotten rebels of Eureka (2013)

20 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: 19th century travellers in Australia

  1. My favourite ‘foreigner’ in Australia book is Raffaello Carboni’s account of his experiences at Eureka, which I have lost or given away, but will review one day when I find another copy. And in my TBR amongst all the Australiana I bought last year as a job lot I have Diary of a New Chum by Paul Wenz, which I will read ‘soon’, Australian Adventure by Maria Wolkowsky, Watkin Tench, and an account of Cooks voyages published in the C19th.

    • I haven’t heard of those at all, Bill, except Watkin Tench which my reading group did early in our collective life – so thanks for contributing these.

      There are also published letters, of course. I think I’ll do them one Monday musings.

  2. 19th century travel writing about Australia must be a fascinating subject because it provides a very concentrated picture of this new society being built up. I would have loved a book about Australia by the wonderfully feisty Flora Tristan!

    • Yes, that’s the point isn’t it Ian, the fact that those 19th century writers/travellers/explorers were seeing something new in terms of white settlement and could also (if they thought to, which some did and some didn’t) comment on early interactions with the indigenous people. Of course, the perspective of those 19th century people tended to be imperialist!

      So, you’ve read Flora Tristan as well? I often think I’d like to read her again.

      • Virago did a paperback edition of her London journal and it was a fascinating read…but I think I must have given my copy away.

  3. I didn’t realize Darwin had stopped in Australia on his famous voyage! travel writing can be so interesting especially from the 19th century when travelling took so much more time and effort than it does now. Quite a different experience of the world.

      • Gerstacker has a reasonable entry in the Oxford Companion to Aus.Lit., incl. “The Two Convicts (1857) the romantic story of a bushranger which was serialised in the Examiner and Melbourne Weekly News (1859-60)” and mentions that he wrote several other novels drawing on his Australian experiences, and translated into German Rowcroft’s Tales of the Colonies (1843).

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