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Aboriginal History Volume 36, 2012

Germans: Travellers, Settlers and their Descendants in South Australia edited by Peter Monteath, xxi + 449 pp, Wakefield Press, Adelaide, 2011, ISBN 9781862549111 (pbk), $34.95.

As a South Australian of German origin this book promised to be of some interest to me, but it should be so well beyond the small subsection of us who meet these parochial criteria. Anybody interested in Australian Aboriginal history will find much of value in this volume. Not only did a significant number of early German colonists and visitors to Australia pay close attention to the Aboriginal population, but their perspectives at times also provided an interesting contrast to the prevailing attitudes and approaches of the Anglo settlers and bureaucracies.

This is a substantial volume of 21 essays, most of which focus on one or several Germanic individuals. Many chapters do not relate to Aboriginal history, but concentrate on other pertinent issues such as scientific and administrative contributions of German colonists or the position of Germans during the Second World War. There are also some fascinating forays into nineteenth century German history as the experiences of the migrants are traced back to their origins. I will not focus on those in this review.

The significant contribution of German missionaries to the recording of Aboriginal languages and cultures in South Australia has already received some attention, largely with a focus on the life and work of Johann-Georg Reuther and Otto Siebert at Killalpaninna, Carl Strehlow at Hermannsburg and Clamor Schürmann and Christian Teichelmann in Adelaide (eg Amery 2000, Hercus and McCaul 2004, Jones 2002, Kenny 2009). Germans provides a welcome addition to this field with chapters discussing the work of the Lutheran missionaries Meyer and Schürmann among the Ramindjeri of Encounter Bay and the Barngarla of Eyre Peninsula respectively, and an account of the brief Moravian mission attempts among Diyari people on Coopers Creek. All three chapters provide interesting insights into the passive resistance of Aboriginal people against the conversion attempts by the missionaries; the Moravians in particular also experienced more active resistance.

Meyer, who worked at Encounter Bay from 1840 to 1848 left there feeling his missionary activity had been in vain. One of his letters describes how a man who had assisted him for several days to learn the local language eventually had enough and withdrew, subsequently quickly excusing himself when Meyer came to his camp to seek further assistance. When this account is combined with comments by a local police officer, who claimed that ‘the Murray people’ did not come to Encounter Bay much anymore because Meyer asked them too many questions about their ancestors and beliefs, it is clear that Meyer was perceived, by some at least, as an intruder and a nuisance. Others seemed to have a different relationship to him, with Meyer also writing about the willing assistance he was given by some members of the Aboriginal community who appreciated the fact that he spoke their language.

Small passages say much about the issues grappled with during these early cross-cultural encounters on both sides. For example, the passing note that Ramindjeri people expressed their concern for Meyer’s welfare, because they believed that he worked too much speaks both of their empathy and their difficulty in understanding the German’s drive for incessant work while Meyer clearly struggled to adapt to Aboriginal interactional norms.

The historian Lockwood provides a general overview of the early Lutheran mission activities, with much attention paid to the work of Schürmann. Schürmann initially worked with Teichelmann in Adelaide and had actually intended to work with Meyer at Encounter Bay, but ended up at Port Lincoln instead where he remained until 1846 and then again from 1848–1853. His story is dominated by a lack of support and downright resistance to his work by the colonial authorities. In Port Lincoln, Schürmann was placed in the middle of violent conflicts between Aboriginal people and colonists and his attempts at seeking justice for the former were not appreciated by the latter. During his second stint he ran a school at Port Lincoln, encouraged by the Governor who was looking for ways to separate children from their parents and thereby their cultural ways. Eventually, however, an Anglican alternative was established just to the north at Poonindie and the Governor first withdrew his financial support and in the end shut down Schürmann’s school. Along the way, Schürmann had lamented the fact that the people simply would not stay with him (he blamed his inability to provide rations), and he was not able to pursue them through the bush to live alongside them. Schürmann too left without a record of converts among the Aboriginal community.

Despite their ‘failure’ as missionaries, both Meyer and Schürmann produced significant ethnographic and linguistic texts about the people they worked with at Encounter Bay and Port Lincoln. Gale, a linguist who contributed the chapter on Meyer, points out that it is this record rather than their attempts at conversion that is invaluable to the community today and Lockwood suggests that they would have provided Aboriginal people with a humanitarian experience of Europeans that was all too rare during this period.

Bill Edwards, himself a Uniting Church minister who worked for decades in Pitjantjatjara communities, writes about the attempt by Moravian missionaries to establish themselves at Kopperamanna on Coopers Creek. Their inspiration for this endeavour came from accounts about the humanity that the Aboriginal people from Coopers Creek showed King, the sole survivor of the Burke and Wills expedition. The Aboriginal people who the Moravians encountered at Kopperamanna were less hospitable though and repeatedly threatened to kill them. The missionaries arrived in the district in 1866 and abandoned it after only two years, having had to rely on police protection for much of this time. A minor shortcoming of this paper is that it uses the cover term Diyari for all the Aboriginal people of this north-eastern part of South Australia, despite the fact that King is much more likely to have been looked after by Yandruwandha speakers and the hundreds of people who gathered when threatening the missionaries were probably of various language groups.

Lally and Monteath provide quite a different perspective in a chapter on the artist Alexander Schramm who arrived in Adelaide in 1849 where he died in 1864. Apparently, he was only able to eke out a very humble existence through the sale of his art, which is of significant value today. Among the various subjects of his paintings were a number of depictions of Aboriginal life. These include scenes of Aboriginal camps in what is now suburban Adelaide, as well as images of encounters between Aboriginal people and colonists. Regarding a painting called An Aboriginal encampment, near the Adelaide foothills, the authors observe, ‘the closely observed detail offers evidence in an almost documentary scientific sense of accoutrements, clothing and activities indicative of the circumstances of daily life’ (p. 155). The authors point out that Schramm’s work is different from that of most British contemporaries in that he provides individualised details of his Aboriginal subjects who take central place rather than simple clichés at the margins of colonial imagery.

I was a little disappointed with the chapter about Erhard Eylmann, a pioneer ethnographer who travelled through South Australia and (mainly) the Northern Territory between 1896 and 1898 and published a significant volume on his journeys that remains untranslated to this day (Eylmann 1908). I had hoped for an insight into some of his key ethnographic findings, especially as the author, Schröder, emphasises that some of the details Eylmann recorded had previously been unknown and remain of ongoing anthropological interest. But there is little information about what these details may be, apart from a broad-brush outline of his general interests. On the other hand, it was interesting to learn that Eylmann’s last publication in 1922 concerned begging among Europeans in South Australia. The chapter focuses primarily on Eylmann’s life story, which shows him to have been a remarkable stoic and a man with great dedication to the scientific endeavour even during the many periods of personal hardship.

A final piece of early history centres on a somewhat enigmatic doctor by the name of Hermann Koeler who visited Adelaide between 1837 and 1838 and recorded numerous observations about local Aboriginal life in a subsequent publication. According to Mühlhäusler, the chapter’s author, both Koeler’s linguistic and historical observations have been long overlooked by English speaking researchers and he provides a brief outline of their relevance to our understanding of early Kaurna society. Koeler’s contribution essentially consists of a small number of words not recorded elsewhere and some detailed and insightful accounts of Aboriginal life on the fringes of the new European colonisers. His accounts are marred slightly by his belief that the South Australian Aboriginal people sat at the bottom of a racially designated hierarchy.

In conclusion, this volume provides valuable new information about the work and relationship of Germans with Aboriginal people in South Australia. It also highlights the combination of high scientific standard and self-abnegation that seemed to mark the work of many of these Germans. Given the significant role played by Germans in South Australia, however, it is unlikely that this will be the last contribution on this topic.


Amery, Rob 2000, Warrabarna Kaurna! Reclaiming an Australian Language, Swets & Zeitlinger, Lisse.

Eylmann, Erhard 1908, Die Eingeborenen der Kolonie Südaustralien, D Reimer, Berlin.

Hercus, Luise and Kim McCaul 2004, ‘Otto Siebert: a missionary-ethnographer’, in The Struggle for Souls and Science, Constructing the Fifth Continent: German Missionaries and Scientists in Australia, Walter Veit (ed), Occasional Papers 3, Strehlow Research Center.

Jones, Philip 2002, ‘Naming the Dead Heart: Hillier’s map and Reuther’s gazetteer of 2,468 placenames in north-eastern South Australia’, in The Land is a Map: Placenames of Indigenous Origins in Australia, Luise Hercus, Flavia Hodges, Jane Simpson (eds), Pandanus Books, Canberra: 187–200.

Kenny, Anna 2009, ‘Carl Strehlow’s mission’, in Migration and Cultural Contact: Germany and Australia, Andrea Bandhauer and Maria Veber (eds), University of Sydney Press, Sydney: 91–112.

Kim McCaul


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