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Friedrich Gerstäcker, Australia: A German traveller in the Age of Gold (Review)

January 20, 2017

Friedrich Gerstacker, AustraliaFriedrich Gerstäcker’s Australia: A German traveller in the Age of Gold was first published in its original German, as Australien, in 1854. Gerstäcker did prepare, at that time, an English language version of his travels, but the section on Australia, at least, was much shorter than his German edition, and is all English readers have been able to access – until now. Amazing really.

You may remember that I mentioned this book back in November, because it inspired a Monday Musings on 19th century travellers. It is a beautifully conceived book. It has a brief note on the text at the beginning, and an afterword at the end. There is also a decent index, and extensive end notes sharing editor Monteath’s in-depth research. These notes added significantly to my enjoyment and understanding of Gerstäcker’s writing.

So, who was this Friedrich Gerstäcker? A German, he travelled around the world from 1849 to 1852, partly funded by a German publisher. Australien was the fourth of five volumes. His writings were loved in Germany and he was, apparently, a household name there for many years – starting when his mother, unbeknownst to him, gave the diaries he was sending home during his 1837-1843 American travels to a publisher!

Now, as I said in my Monday Musings, historical travel writing can provide valuable “primary” insight into different times and places. But the best travel writers are those who, in addition to that, use language well and give us themselves. Gerstäcker is such a writer.  He provides revealing insights into mid-nineteenth century Australia. But, in addition, his writing is engaging: it has touches of humour mixed with deeper reflection, it includes some gorgeous descriptions, and we get a sense of who he is.

“the truly astonishing number of public houses” (p.21)

Gerstäcker arrived in Sydney in March 1851, and left it at the very end of September in the same year. He provides a fascinating picture of Sydney life at the time, commenting on the plethora of drinking establishments (or “public houses”), but also expressing some astonishment that his prejudices regarding visiting a “criminal colony” were ill-founded. It was not, as expected, full of “an indefinite number of murderers, thieves, burglars and other dreadful, horrible, characters”. He then travels, by the Royal Mail, canoe and foot, from Sydney, via Albury and the Murray River, to Adelaide. The chapters describing this trip (Chs. 2-5) are probably the most interesting in the book.

In South Australia, his focus is on visiting some of the German communities there, particularly in Tanunda, in the Barossa wine region. He sees his role partly as providing “real” information about places for would-be German emigrants, and reflects thoughtfully on what emigration means. He notes that Germans had made themselves a living, one that many “would never have been able to establish in Germany in that time and with those means” but he also sees the cost. He writes:

Now the question still remains of course, how much the heart is still attached not only to old habits but also to old friends and loved ones and perhaps even the old homeland itself, and whether it really was so impossible to secure a living back there that one really had to tear oneself away from everything one held dear and transplant oneself in cold foreign soil. Sometimes – and how often! – a slightly better living is too dearly bought through emigration …

He also writes about the practice of religion by the Australian Germans, particularly the tensions between different groups, and he describes in some detail how government-supported education works in South Australia, pointing out some of its illogicalities. This would have been of interest to prospective immigrants, and is now to current readers and researchers. The material most relevant to contemporary Australians, though, was his navigation of the Murray. How navigable was it was the question on administrators’ lips and Gerstäcker was able to provide first-hand knowledge.

He returns to Sydney by boat, in August, and notices a dramatic change there, providing an on-the-ground insight into the impact of the beginning of the gold rush. In his “short absence” Sydney had changed from “a busy city, but otherwise calm, to all appearances perfectly reasonable” to a city in which everyone was “dizzily, yet tirelessly dancing around the glistening false God of the newly found gold”. His departure being delayed for boat repair reasons, he decides to visit some of the goldfields and the picture he draws is one of frenzy, excitement, and loss. He overlays this with common-sense advice, based on his Californian goldfields observations, that it is generally more profitable to work one claim systematically than to be forever upping stakes to chase another chance to strike it rich.

Interestingly, he castigates the media – the newspapers, in other words – on several occasions. He writes, for example, of people’s failure to make their fortunes, and comments:

All of this is not reported in the Australian newspapers: they only highlight the positive elements of the picture and their purpose and goal is easily recognisable. They want people to come to Australia, workers …

Ah, the media … but that’s another whole story.

“indestructible, unavoidable, unbearable gum trees everywhere” (p. 43)

Gum trees

A boring forest of gum trees (Southern NSW)

You have probably realised by now that while Gerstäcker’s writing is generally informative, it is also limited by the perspective of his times, and by his own cultural biases. For example, imagine my horror at his ongoing disparagement of our gum trees! They are “sorry specimens”, “dull, green” or “dun-coloured”.

Soon after his arrival in Sydney he writes that “strangely enough, all the beauty of the scenery is restricted to the sea and to the nearby coast of Port Jackson”. He shows his cultural hand, most obviously, when he heads into the, admittedly beautiful, Blue Mountains region near the end of his trip, and writes of Mount Victoria that

this was the first place in Australia where I have seen real scenery of a quite impressive nature. Mount Victoria is itself a fairly significant mountain, rugged and picturesque, sloping down into a depression that surrounds it on three sides, forming a wide, deep, densely wooded valley. The vegetation is, however [oh dear, here it comes], the same as in all other parts of Australia that I have seen so far. Gum trees, nothing but gum trees, which makes the remaining countryside so terribly monotonous …

He does admit, a couple of sentences on, however, that seen in the distance “decorated … with the sunlight and … draped … in colourful, misty veils” they have a “mysterious aura”. But then he continues that “in reality they are also just plain, dun-coloured gum trees, all with the same leaves”. I could retort that any single-tree-species forest can be monotonous, but it’s not worth it. He won’t hear me!

There’s a lot more to share and enjoy, but I can’t finish this lengthening post without mentioning his descriptions of Australia’s “Indians” as he calls indigenous Australians. Strangely, Monteath only discusses, in his Afterword, the sources Gerstäcker uses for the extensive information he provides about indigenous life and culture in chapters 8 and 9. He doesn’t comment on Gerstäcker’s attitudes to the “Indians” in his travels, attitudes which are mostly derogatory and fearful, often based more on hearsay than on experience. For example, Gerstäcker repeats the stories he’d heard of the “Indians” killing people for their “kidney fat”, a widely-held belief at the time that Monteath explains in his very useful end-notes.

On his first sighting of “Indians”, near Albury, Gerstäcker writes of finding himself

in amongst the eternal dreary gum trees and amongst the black, dirty, treacherous, murderous people of these forests.

Funny how, despite this, he manages to survive his long trip from Albury to Adelaide, with minimal incident even though he did much of it alone and was carrying items of great interest to the “blacks” he met! Most of the time he repeats stories of “their” treachery, and he regularly describes them as dirty and ugly, but he also says that he does not agree with “acts of cruelty against Indian tribes”. It is “right and proper to apply restraint”, he says, but

we can hardly expect that they should immediately conform to rules and practices which, after all, have been imposed on them by the whites.

And right at the end of his trip, while visiting islands in northern Australia, he comments that he is

firmly convinced that the primary cause of all hostility, indeed of all acts of cruelty toward the savage tribes, is the white man himself.

This is an engrossing book that I took some time to read. It’s certainly not a page turner, but it is full of information, observations and reflections that would appeal to diverse interests. For this reason, it’s probably difficult to market. How lucky we are to have publishers like Wakefield Press willing to take a risk on books like this.

Friedrich Gerstäcker
Australia: A German traveller in the Age of Gold
(Ed. Peter Monteath; Trans. Peter Monteath and his team)
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2016
303pp.
ISBN: 9781743054192

(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. January 20, 2017 2:52 am

    Sounds as though he had the prejudices of the time

    • January 20, 2017 7:52 am

      He did, Guy, but tempered at times with some common sense. However, the language he uses throughout to describe the “Indians” is terrible – ” black rascals”, “black scoundrels”, etc.

      • January 20, 2017 11:53 am

        That’s off putting

        • January 20, 2017 3:55 pm

          It was very, actually Guy. I found it offensive but had to keep reminding myself of who he was, when he was writing, and what he’d been told.

  2. January 20, 2017 6:02 am

    This is one meaty book. Sounds very interesting. Laughing at his description of the dreary old gum trees. When we immigrated here the gum trees were something we found to be very beautiful with their colours and designs and how they change their nature when dry or wet become something else. Funny old guy.

    • January 20, 2017 7:55 am

      Thank you Pam! I agree! And there’s such variety. We saw the movie The Legend of Ben Hall last night and there were many scenes of them rising through the bush, may gum trees, and I thought how Beautiful! Filmed mostly in Victoria.

  3. Meg permalink
    January 20, 2017 8:12 am

    Hi Sue, you have made me want to read this book. I like reading about how early travellers saw and described Australia. Obviously Gerstacker never took the time to bite into a gum leaf or look at some of them individually.

    • January 20, 2017 8:57 am

      Oh that’s great that my review inspired you to read it, Meg. That interest is why I wanted to read it, too, of course. And no, you’re right, he clearly didn’t.

  4. January 20, 2017 3:38 pm

    Ha ha, he wouldn’t like the way I find European forests so uniformly dull! All those boring straight trunks! Our trees have *personality*!

    • January 20, 2017 3:58 pm

      Agree Lisa. In my reference, I was nearly going to mention conifer forests for example – dense, dark, oppressive – and much more monotonous I would have thought than our independent (personality-ful as you say) gums!

      • January 20, 2017 7:07 pm

        Just keep posting those lovely photos, Sue, and eventually the world will realise just how beautiful they are:)

        • January 20, 2017 7:16 pm

          Don’t encourage me Lisa! But yes, thanks, I’ll find every excuse I can – and I do have quite a few photos of gums from various parts of the country.

  5. buriedinprint permalink
    January 21, 2017 4:16 am

    I stopped reading after the blatant disparagement of gum trees: how could he?! (Kidding. Thoroughly enjoyed your review!)

    • January 21, 2017 9:18 am

      Haha Buried! I appreciate your symbolic fellow feeling but am glad you pushed on and read the post.

  6. January 24, 2017 4:26 am

    Why did it take so long to get the whole ting translated? Sounds like some fun reading in spite of the cultural/time differences. Still, I am offended on your behalf regarding is disparagement of gum trees!

    • January 24, 2017 7:46 am

      Yes, that’s a good question Stefanie given the uniqueness of its content. I’ve been wondering too. It was clearly a big job but still.

    • January 24, 2017 7:46 am

      And thanks for your support re the trees!

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