Friday, 30 March 2007

Aqua Vitae

I drove to the river today. I have been reading about how in very dry times, farmers in Minden, Marburg and Tallegalla would go to the Bremer River to get water. Farmers on the other side of the scrub in Lowood and surrounding areas could easily get to the Brisbane River which at that point is narrow but deep and constant even in spite of having been comprehensively dammed at Wivenhoe and subsequently had a great deal of irrigation water pumped out of it. None of this would have existed in earlier times but the supply is there.

On the other hand, the Bremer River is not impressive in these dry times. I will have to find out the exact dates for droughts in the late 1800s. There are certainly many accounts of people getting water from the river. I settled into my air-conditioned car, drove along a dirt road then onto the main sealed road to Rosewood, climbed the Tallegalla hills in third gear then cruised into Rosewood township. Crossing the railway, I turned west then south and a kilometre or so along the road came to the river. All in all, about a 20 minute drive at between 60 and 80 kilometres an hour.

I find it hard to imagine driving a horse cart (what was called a “German wagon”) all that distance especially over the hills. Obviously this was a last resort. Most properties would have a gully or a waterhole that would collect water if it rained. Some of the properties down in the valleys may have had bores. Black Snake Creek winds through the Marburg valley but rarely has water. When it rained, people may have diverted its flow to fill their dams. Drought leads to great resourcefulness (and also crime but that is for another post). I have not investigated the creek closely – I find the name discouraging although apparently it is the brown snakes that you have to watch out for.

The elderly friend whom I was taking to visit another friend grew up in this area. She said that they had always had water tanks but that she does remember her father taking the wagon to One Mile Bridge in Ipswich (today a twenty kilometre drive at 100 kilometres/hour) to gather water hyacinth to feed the cattle in hard times. Another friend tells the story of a more recent German immigrant moving to a rural property and using up their entire water supply in one day to bring the place up to her cultural standards of cleanliness. The place was clean but they did not bathe for a long time afterwards. In Queensland today, we complain about water restrictions but we cannot imagine how hard it was for the early settlers. Water is such a vital and scarce part of life here that you will hear about it again and again.

Thursday, 29 March 2007

Asking questions

My graduate advisor used to tell me that writing is a muscle like any other. It needs to be exercised and nourished. Just like any other kind of exercise, motivation and the actual process of doing it can be difficult. Part of the purpose of writing this is to get myself into the rhythms of writing again, to get my writing muscle fit and ready for action.

One of the hardest things about doing historical research, or any kind of research, is the long lead up to writing. Actually getting to the point of crafting a narrative and putting words on the paper takes a very long time. Before this time, there is the moment of having an idea, or more usually for me, having questions that I want answered. I then start trying to work out how to answer these questions.

Usually my path leads through archives and libraries, which are fortunately some of my favourite places in the world. If I had to name the one, single favourite part of the arduous process of getting my Ph.D. it would be the fortnight I spent at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. Most of my work was done in dry, air-conditioned underground rooms but occasionally I emerged into the main reading room with its wooden bookshelves, balcony and that amazing cupola soaring above the books. To be honest, I got as much pleasure out of the modern reading rooms as I did in the architecturally more magnificent areas. I loved rummaging through boxes containing original letters from presidents or their wives or holding something like the early drafts of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with pungent margin comments by public servants engaged in the task of hammering out an international agreement.

After I start finding some answers to my questions, I often find that I have to modify the original questions or even move in another direction entirely. It is only after months and years of research that you get to the point of sitting down explain what you have found and to start the story that you want to tell.

Here are the questions with which I am starting this project:

1. What did my protagonists know about Queensland when they set out from Hamburg?
2. If they had been recruited by an agent, did they have descriptions of what to expect?
3. What did they bring with them?
4. What was the journey by sea like?
5. What did they see on arrival and in transit via Ipswich?
6. How did they select a claim?
7. What did they see when they arrived at their claim?
8. What was everyday life like?
9. If they were tempted to give up, what were their options?

I intend to find answers to these questions through the use of maps, shipping records, diaries, newspaper reports, photographs and political records regarding agents, information distributed by them and the type of promises and assurances made. I also anticipate discovering better questions to ask and the unplanned directions in which this research may go.

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Local hierarchies

I’ve been reading family histories to try to get a sense of what life was like “in the old days.” I admit to some disappointment because the goals of the family histories tend more to genealogies than description and critical thinking. Perhaps it is unfair to have this expectation. Most of these family histories are self-published works put together on an important anniversary. One commemorates the 125th anniversary of the arrival in Queensland of three families. Apparently what these families did after arriving in Australia was to marry each other and produce an amazingly complicated family line. I have learnt that the very nice man who fixes our fences and does some of the more complicated rural stuff for us, is married to a descendant in this line.

Reading another, I have learnt that the colony of Queensland kept very comprehensive death certificates. One I saw for 1883 was neatly typed and I suspect that records must have been transferred and updated. The man in question, August, died 30th October 1883 in the same hospital where my son was born a few years ago. The death certificate lists his last illness as having a duration of “about eight years.” Born in Brandenburg, Prussia, he had been in Queensland for ten years. His time here must not have been very comfortable. Hanna, his widow outlived him by 31 years after living in Queensland for forty years. He was buried in Ipswich cemetery while she was buried at the Marburg cemetery. According to the records, their property was on Two Tree Hill overlooking Minden which would have made them practically neighbours. I will have to go look for her grave.

When we moved here four years ago, we were told that to belong, one had to at least have relatives buried in said cemetery. One of our neighbours pointed out that while officially he was a local with his grandparents in the cemetery, unofficially he was not as he had moved away for about twenty years. A mother at the school said that she doesn’t bother talking to newcomers as they’re “just going to move on anyway.”

From my research and observations, the rules that govern community membership are as follows:

1. Having a road named after your family.
2. Having at a minimum, grandparents buried in the cemetery, preferably, greats or great-greats.
3. Being able to identify your family’s original land selection.
4. Direct recollection of elderly relatives who spoke only German.
5. Remembering walking or riding a horse to school.
6. Generally living in a new house because real locals don’t like old houses and will build themselves a “nice brick house” as soon as they are able.

The most important thing I have learnt is what is meant by certain people during P & C meetings when they say “but we’ve always done it this way.” Looking at the map in one of the family histories of original land claims, I see several familiar names. That should shut me up.

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

A Brief History of Getting Started

One day in my travels amongst the wilds of the web, I crossed the path of an announcement. It was a very small announcement on a site of which I don’t have membership, but which allows some viewing to whet the appetite (Artshub). I was almost scared off the site by its header proclaiming it to be for “Australian arts workers” which sounds very serious and perhaps as if I need an armband and union membership at the very least. It was an announcement of a library grant, or more precisely, a grant to allow you to use a library, in this case, the John Oxley Library (JOL). JOL is part of the State Library of Queensland and its mission is to promote Queensland history. As part of this, they have set up a fellowship to enable selected people to undertake a year-long project on some aspect of Queensland’s history.

This announcement set me thinking about a project that had been germinating in the back of my mind for a long time – of writing a novel for young readers about the history of this area. Two things have held me back. One is practical, that is, having several small children who have diverted me away from avenues of the mind. The other thing is psychological and perhaps somewhat absurd, which is my mother’s conviction that I should write a novel one day “but a nice one dear.” It is amazing how much of a disincentive the word “nice” can be.

However, between stumbling across this announcement, my children’s inevitable growing up and to an extent, a level of growing up of my own, I decided that I need to make a start on this project. And of course, I will apply for this grant. I will write the book with or without a grant, but the financial and institutional support would be of great moral and psychological assistance in the absence of my armband.

Monday, 26 March 2007

Living with insignificant ghosts

"Even among locals few today have heard of the Rosewood Scrub. Geographically and demographically it is an insignificant part of Australia. Like the rosewood scrub itself the name has all but disappeared." German Settlement in the Rosewood Scrub: A Pictorial History

Living with ghosts sounds interesting -- living with insignificant ghosts is simply deflating. As far as I know, there isn't much that you can do about changing the social status of your ghosts. What I am doing instead is to write about the past in order to try and understand what it was like to live and work in this area nearly 140 years ago. To motivate myself to delve deeply into the "squalid mess of history" and to write about it, I've decided to blog the process.

The Rosewood Scrub is a tiny part of the state of Queensland, Australia. About fifty kilometres due west of the state capital of Brisbane, it was an area of impenetrable, well scrub, in the late nineteenth century. Allan Cunningham of Cunningham's Gap fame, called it "impervious brushes." English and Irish settlers sensibly avoided the hilly, forested areas and settled on the floodplains near to the towns of Walloon and Rosewood. In 1868 the area was opened to selection and European migrants, especially Germans, began taking up claims. The scrub encompassed the settlements of Kirchheim, Marburg Valley, Back Plains and Lowood. Ironically the town of Rosewood was never part of the Rosewood Scrub. Modern names that may be more familiar are those of Haigslea, Marburg, Tallegalla, Minden, Prenzlau, Lowood and Glamorgan Vale.

In reality, none of these names may be familiar even to residents of Queensland. Yet I am interested in how and why migrants would embark on ships at Hamburg, Germany, sail for three to five months via Tristan d'Acunha Island and the Cape of Good Hope, across the Indian Ocean, around the bottom of Tasmania and up the eastern coast of Australia to land at the port of Brisbane, transfer to a barge upriver to Ipswich, then embark on foot and end up in Tallegalla or on Back Plain. What drove them away from Germany? What drew them here? How much did they know about what was waiting for them? What kept them in this area to the point where there are direct descendants of the original settlers living on the same land 140 years later?

Will my reading and writing about these people increase their ghostly status? Perhaps not, but it will answer some questions for me.