Thursday, 31 May 2007

Shipping news

One of the best sources of information on migrant ships arriving in Queensland is the Brisbane Courier. This newspaper carried reports of arrivals from the moment of their sighting at Cape Moreton to the unloading of passengers and a tally of cargo. Any business arising from the voyage such as passenger complaints that were officially investigated were also reported.

A lot of this information has been collated by the Queensland Family History Society and bound in books organised by year of arrival which makes it very easy for a researcher.

As a media historian it confirms for me the importance of contemporary reports. In general, in newspaper reports you don’t get in-depth analysis which requires the passage of time and assessment of importance. The aspect of raw information aside, it is fascinating to see what was considered important. The content, the way of telling the story and the language chosen by the writer, are all vital to building up a picture of the time.

What I want to do now is build up a picture in my mind of ship voyages: what was encountered, the weather, typical dangers and experiences.

Wednesday, 30 May 2007

In defence of fiction

Fairly regularly I meet people who inform me that they do not read fiction. Usually this is pronounced smugly as if conferring virtue. After reading David Brook’s review in the New York Times of Al Gore’s new book (The Assault on Reason, which apparently is not fiction), I now have a good internal response – “hey, nobody ever died from contact with pomposity.”

Many things I have learnt in life have come from reading fiction. Things about relationships, about feelings, about experiences that I haven’t had and about experiences that I have had. I have learnt geography, history, culture, bits of science, maths, music -- scraps of knowledge from around the world. Reading fiction has at times been an escape for me: an escape from situations about which I felt unsure, or where my emotions were overwhelming, where I felt sad or lonely or inadequate. In turning the pages of a novel, I am transported out of my personal quagmire into somewhere else. Even if it is another quagmire, at least it isn’t my own.

One of the things I appreciate most about novels is that you learn in a non-threatening, informal environment. Reading Tamora Pierce’s Magic Circle fantasy series has led my quick-tempered child to the realisation that self-control is a vital part of life and taught her a technique (simple meditation) for relaxation and self-control. A thousand lectures from me would not have taught her this and I would not even have thought of it.

In writing fiction myself, I am not trying to be didatic. I do hope though that my readers will learn about the world and people as they were in this specific historical instance. And I do hope that my delight in and love of words will be contagious.

Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Travelling infections

Reading about ship voyages and looking at early death certificates, I have been having a crash course in infectious diseases. Last week I learnt about Bright’s disease. Today, it is the turn of “colonial fever.” Colonial fever is listed on many death certificates and has left some genealogists puzzled. People contracted this disease on board ship and also after arrival. It was common on the early goldfields and anywhere where there were large groups of people.

I have seen it defined as malaria, typhoid and typhus. I am sure too, that some doctors listed colonial fever when they were themselves not quite sure of the cause.

Typhoid is caused by a bacteria, Salmonella typhi, that is present in contaminated food or water. Symptoms include high fever, headache, weakness and fatigue, sore throat, abdominal pain, diarrhoea (in children) or constipation (in adults). In the second week, you get a rash. In the third week, you enter a state of delirium and exhaustion. In the fourth week, if you haven’t died from complications, improvement slowly starts although you may relapse up to two weeks later. Treatment includes antibiotics and intravenous fluids.

Typhus is an infectious disease spread by the bacteria, Rickettsia typhi and Rickettsia prowazekii. It is spread by lice or fleas and exposure to rat and other faeces. The first bacterium causes murine typhus which is rarely deadly. The second causes epidemic typhus which can be deadly. Symptoms include: severe headache, high fever, cough, muscle pain, low blood pressure, stupor, delirium, aversion to light and a spreading red rash. Modern treatment includes antibiotics, intravenous fluids and oxygen.

You can see that the two diseases could be easily confused. You can also see that without modern treatment methods, death would be a common end to infection. Most sources I have found online, state that colonial fever is typhus, probably the epidemic kind, that was spread by head and other lice and common on board ship. It would have been common too, where groups of new migrants congregated together, or where there was a continual inflow of migrants and their possessions off ships.

Monday, 28 May 2007

New world dangers

We cut down a tree this weekend. I hate cutting down trees as I spend a great deal of energy lugging water to trees and nurturing them. It was a beautiful tree too – a white cedar, also called a Persian lilac (Melia azedarach). Gorgeous pale purple flowers, attractive shape, luscious yellow berries. This one was quite old judging by the rings on the trunk. The flying foxes used to cluster on it when it was in fruit, squabbling over the tastiest morsel and terrifying the children with their shrieks.

We didn’t cut it down because of the flying foxes. Last week when I was checking the scientific name of our snowflake bush, I found my way to the Queensland Poisons Information Centre site. The snowflake bush is listed as a category 3 poison with its irritating oozing sap. I already knew of this, and the children know not to break off branches and to wash immediately if they get sap on them.

White cedar is listed as a category one poison complete with a dramatic skull and cross-bones. Recommendation for category one plants is: “extremely toxic, has been known to cause injury, permanent disability, and in some cases, death. Do not plant. Removal and disposal of existing plants is strongly recommended.”

All parts of the plant are poisonous with symptoms of poisoning including nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, lethargy, confusion, coma, seizures, and death. Apparently the leaves and seeds are natural insecticides and the bark is used in Mexico as a fish poison. I have since found out that it is officially listed as an exotic or “garden escapee” weed so I feel a bit better about its removal.

Sentence was pronounced and the tree sent to tree heaven. I still have to rake the yard to get all the fruit scattered by the flying foxes. Fortunately we have been nurturing a macadamia tree under its shadow for a few years now, so we have a head start on its replacement (if we can manage not to kill the macadamia.)

It set me to thinking though about how you would know what to eat if you were new to this area. The native lilly pilly has similarly attractive fruit which are safe to eat and quite tasty. They taste like tiny Asian wax apples. White cedar fruit are larger, shinier, much more fruitlike. Both fruits are eaten by birds and flying foxes without harm. Unless you had access to native knowledge, life in the colonies would have been dangerous in this and so many other ways.

Friday, 25 May 2007

Food, not-so-glorious food

Food is a subject in which I am very interested – cooking it, eating it and occasionally growing it. I wouldn’t describe myself as a “foodie.” There is something inherent in the practicalities of feeding a family that preclude such pretension (although I do have a subscription to a food magazine). On the other hand, I have my own food pretensions. I have never baked a “packet cake” nor do I own a microwave. I have a leaning towards food that remembers where it comes from.

Thus I found fascinating the fact that the Queensland government regulated the provisions for migrants under assisted passage. A list existed of both the exact provisions and quantity to be supplied to each adult and acceptable substitutions. The list included bread or biscuit, wheaten flour, oatmeal, rice, peas, potatoes, beef, pork, tea, sugar, salt, mustard, ground black or white pepper, vinegar, lime juice, preserved meat, suet, raisins and butter. Each adult was to receive three quarts (about 3.4 litres) of water “inclusive of what is necessary for cooking.”

Examples of acceptable substitutions included 1 pound of flour or bread or biscuits or ½ pound beef or pork for 1 ¼ pound of oatmeal. Or ¾ pound of treacle for ½ pound of sugar. Or 3 ½ ounces of cocoa or coffee roasted or ground for 2 ounces of tea. The list goes on in exhaustive detail.

I assume, though I need to find this out for certain, that passengers did not cook for themselves and that rations were managed by the cook and the galley. Much like at boarding school, I imagine that there would be much jockeying for position at mealtimes and careful observations of each person’s servings – the old “the quick or the hungry.”

Not much chance of indulging foodie fantasies on board, but it does seem as if the government was keen to get healthy, migrant workers and able to enforce their will on these private vessels.

Thursday, 24 May 2007


The only kind of snowflake that you are likely to see in Queensland -- the Snowflake bush (Euphorbia leucocephala) which is also known as Snows of Kilimanjaro and Pascuita. Currently in magnificent flower in my garden in spite of drought and historical tragedy.


A grim topic to be thinking about on a glorious day in May. The Beausite’s 1866 voyage was considered to be a good trip. According to The Brisbane Courier of August 21, 1866 “although she has made a long passage, reports ‘all well.’” Later the same newspaper reports:

"On the passage there was a good deal of mortality among the passengers, not less than sixteen deaths having occurred. They included five adults and two infants, who died immediately after birth. The others were children of various ages, and of these two died in the bay. There were six births, one of which occurred after the vessel had arrived in the bay."

A later report stated that all of the children who died were under two years of age. A steerage passenger also severely fractured his leg when thrown to deck when the ship was “scudding before a heavy sea.”

On an earlier voyage of the Beausite in 1863, deaths were caused by bronchitis (3), diarrhoea (2), pulmonary disease, pneumonia, meningitis, Bright’s disease (nephritis i.e. kidney disease) and laryngitis. Dysentery was also common.

It’s all a little different from boarding a jetliner and circling the globe. If you were young, old or sick, you were vulnerable. I used to be able to read such reports without a pang. Now, as a parent, my heart clenches to read of the deaths of small children. Is it better to be able to be aloof from emotional complications of history or to be able to empathise and feel the pain? It’s certainly easier to be aloof.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Literary conceits and ship’s kit

One of the things that has been repeatedly mentioned to me is that settlers in this area were mainly Prussian, not from Marburg, Germany. I had thought that perhaps choosing to make the Jaeckels from Marburg was a bit of a literary conceit. I have however been reading through the family history that I borrowed from the historical society on Sunday and have discovered that one of the prominent antecedent families in this area, the Raabe family, was from Münchhausen, Hessen which is twenty kilometres north of Marburg. I love these kinds of little discoveries – I think it is the historian in me rather than the writer.

The Raabe story is a fascinating family history because it lists many details of the trip to Australia (on the Beausite) and of conditions on arrival. Of particular interest to me was that families on assisted passages had to pay £8 per adult and child over twelve and £4 per child under 12. In addition they had to pay a pound each for “ship’s kit” which would become their property on arrival.

Ship’s kit consisted of:
A bed and a pillow
1 pair of blankets, 1 pair of sheets and a counterpane
1 water bottle
1 wash basin
1 plate
1 pint drinking mug
1 quart drinking mug
Knife, fork and two spoons
1 pail
3 pounds marine soap.

Assisted migrants had to pay the cost of their passage within twelve months of arrival. In return, they would then receive entitlement to select 40 acres of agricultural land per adult and 20 acres per child in the one to twelve years age bracket. 80 acres of agricultural or 160 acres of pastoral land could also be rented for five years at 6 pence an acre (for scrubby land, 9 pence for good land with water). If conditions (such as land clearing and building a residence) were met, this land would become freehold.

Details like these are manna to writing. I can begin to visualise the things that will flesh out the Jaeckels’ journey. Even better, I have found many accounts of the actual sea journeys.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

747s, blue skies and sailing ships

The standard passenger load of a Boeing 747 is 374 people. The standard passenger load of a migrant ship sailing from Hamburg to Australia in the 1800s was 350 plus about 40 crew members. Think of it. An entire airliner’s worth of people unloading in Moreton Bay, ready to settle into a new country. At that time, proportionate to the population, this would have been a significant increase. Most of the passengers were able to start working straight away. You can see why the colony of Queensland was so eager to recruit migrants and willing to invest in having agents in Germany.

I’ve been reading about different ships and trying to decide how the Jaeckels will travel. The options are:
1. An actual ship on an actual journey.
2. An actual ship on a fictional journey.
3. A fictional ship on a fictional journey.

Why the dilemma? Well, as far as I can see there was a ship in 1866 (the Beausite), then the Reichstag arrived in 1870/1871 and again in 1872. 1872 -1877 there weren’t any ships making the trip to Queensland. Most went to Adelaide or Sydney in this period. If I want to use an actual ship, I would probably need to put the Jaeckels on the Beausite. However, she left Hamburg in May 1866. Had the Prussians taken over Marburg by that time or did it happen later in 1866? Clearly I have decisions to make.

In reading about the Beausite, I noticed that she left Hamburg on May 18, 1866 and arrived in Moreton Bay on August 20 of that year. I know that conditions in Germany are hot and dry this year but I imagine that May in Germany did not have the same clarity and intensity of light as Queensland. I’ve included a photo taken this morning (May 22) of the high, blue skies above the Rosewood Scrub.

Monday, 21 May 2007

Where do all the books go?

Marburg township is not a raging metropolis. Early morning sees the showground populated with training trotters, the footpaths by dedicated walking groups of older ladies and the streets by bleary eyed commuters setting off for points east. The corner shop is busy doing a brisk trade in milk, bread and papers during commuting hours and the school run. The pub hums in the late afternoon and early evening, but calm usually reigns during the day. By nightfall, most people are inside their houses, living their lives away from view.

I was surprised yesterday to have to compete for a parking spot when I went to do my first job as a paid-up member of the historical society – being on duty for the bi-monthly open house. The older gentleman in the ute who nicked my spot right in front of the hall turned out to be the only customer for the day so I had to rein in my chagrin at having to walk all of a few extra metres. It turns out that he is writing a book on the history of the local Catholic church.

All these books, where do they end up? Do people read them? Are people going to read mine?

There were several nice things about the quiet afternoon. Apparently I missed about an hour of trail bike riding next door. I learnt a lot about what the historical society has in its archives and the services they offer. I had a good talk with some of the other members. I discovered a perk of membership – being able to borrow the books and also to photocopy material. And I found an interesting family history that has a detailed account of one of the migrant ship journeys.

Friday, 18 May 2007

Blithing it

As a media historian and as a writer, I am very aware of the conscious act of telling stories; that the telling itself has a function and that most narratives are not simply recounting of “she did this and then that happened.”

Stories have a beginning and an end, even if they are only a slice of life. Stories tell us whose concerns are important and relevant and whose are not. That is, they identify who is included and who is to be excluded. Most stories have a narrative coherence that ties ideas together.

I spent a good part of my dissertation examining different ideas about narrative and the differences between narrative and discourse. I remember that it came down to a simple equation:

Narrative=story (what happened or the plot) + discourse (connecting events + closure)

I dusted down my dissertation today and had a nostalgic roam through its pages. I appreciate the skills and intellectual rigour given to me by my formal training but I am choosing to “blithe it” here. I am choosing to use my academic knowledge and research training to write about history in a way more accessible to my family and others. To be honest, I don’t think more than a handful of people have ever read my dissertation. So with a nod of thanks to my graduate teachers and training and a clear awareness of the ideological underpinnings of my task, I am off to narrate the Jaeckels’ story.

Thursday, 17 May 2007

The young ones

Emilie is eight and old enough to have an idea of the turmoil in her life. She doesn’t understand the causes of the tension that has gripped her family in the last year in Marburg but she recognises that their life is not the same busy, cheerful round of work, church and fun that it once was. Like many children she has reacted by creating her own storms in the house. Normally sunny-tempered, she has been irritable, clingy and arguing fiercely with her brothers and sisters. She doesn’t see why she should have to leave her friends, the shop that she has known all her life and go to somewhere that sounds very far away and dangerous.

Carl is pretending to be brave. He has told all his friends about the adventures that he is going to have and he has given away most of his things to his friends. He has spent a lot of time pointing out to Emilie how irritating she is being and telling her tales of pirates and storms at sea. His two extra years of life allow him to lord it over Emilie and this drives her wild. Papa has told Carl that he doesn’t know whether there will be any schools where they are going and that he might not have to go back to school. He can’t decide if he is thrilled by this or if, it will just mean a lot of hard work for him.

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

A question of focus

People love to talk about the past. Gossip about the past is even more fun and much safer when the people concerned are long gone. Yet I have run into an unexpected problem. Now that more people know about my research and book, they all want to tell me their stories about growing up in this area. People are interested and they want to be helpful

It’s all fascinating but makes it hard to focus on the task. I’ve picked an era that is beyond the living memory of people so the stories I hear are of parents being born at the Marburg Hospital, experiences on farms in the area and people who worked on the railway.

I’ve learnt more about the area in the last few months than I have learnt in the previous four years. Even my parents are on the job. Just back from a camping trip out beyond the Blue Mountains in New South Wales, they visited the old mining town of Newnes. One day an elderly man wandered into the campsite. My parents wondered from where he had turned up, as the place is surrounded by cliffs and national park. Apparently he has seventy acres bordering the park and lives in splendid isolation without electricity. A wander down to the campsite to chat suffices for company and a weekly trip to Mudgee deals with groceries.

It turns out that this bloke grew up on a dairy farm four miles out of Ipswich. More surprisingly, he was a train driver on the coal trains from Marburg to Rosewood and Ipswich. The trains ran on this spur line from 1911 to 1964. Another lady camping at the site was originally from a Dutch migrant family dairy farming in the Lowood area. Both she and the elderly man had left Queensland rather than stay on the family farm.

Today, an old teacher and his wife from my primary school dropped in for a visit from Adelaide. His wife’s mother was born in Marburg at the hospital. Not so surprising you ask? Well, my primary school was in Malaysia and to be honest, primary school was some time ago for me.

Great stories all of them, but I need to delve a little further back. I need to get into the diaries and contemporaneous accounts like newspaper articles. I need to focus on getting answers to the questions with which I started my project. And I need to write.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

A few bits and bobs

I forgot to mention in my list yesterday of current non-human animals of the area, a few hundred cows and at least that many again horses. In the early years this was dairy country, well after the realisation sank in that sugar cane was never really going to do well here. Now, horses rule the territory. There are breeders and racers of pacers, endurance horses, Shetland ponies and others. Many families have a pony or elderly horse grazing their back paddock. Others have a pacer or two in stables. Some even keep horses in their front yards.

I’m continuing through the book on German history. I found out that of the 4.5 million migrants who left Germany between 1847 and the First World War, about 4 million went to the United States. Surprising to me was that the second most popular destination was Brazil with about 86,000 migrants. Australia would have been quite low down on the list.

As I was reading, I remembered that when I was studying in Minnesota, a friend told me that he had grown up calling his German migrant neighbours “Dutch” or “Dutchmen.” This was how southern Minnesotans interpreted “Deutsch.” Geographically confusing but fairly benign compared to other names German migrants have been called. I wonder what they were called in Brazil?

Monday, 14 May 2007

Non-human history of the scrub

Driving home from dropping my children off at school, I had to detour gently around a tortoise making its way slowly across our road. Having no idea what the approach of this roaring monster meant, it rapidly drew itself into its shell and sat in the middle of the road ignoring entirely my need to progress down the road.

It spurred me to think more about the non-human inhabitants of this area. I had been thinking about describing some of the wildlife in the Rosewood Scrub, but I realised that when the Jaeckels arrived here, it was actually scrub, that is, densely treed, while the ecology is now that of open grasslands with occasional remnant patch of scrub. I suspect what they might have seen and heard or even been frightened of, would have been quite different to today.

It’s one of the pitfalls of writing place-specific histories. You think that you know the area and its history, but you have to be aware of changes in environment and ecology. The early settlers were the tools of change, the engine was government policy. Land grants were predicated on successful land clearing – they had five years to build a house and cultivate one-tenth of the land.

Today we have grassland and pasture populated by field birds (crested pigeons, babblers, honeyeaters, masked lapwings, ibis, crows, wagtails, kookaburras, falcons, owls), small rodents such as mice and field rats, reptiles such as bearded dragons, snakes (brown, black, green tree and other), the rarer kangaroo, echidna and tortoise and still the occasional dingo sighting (though this may be local myth as much as anything else).

Inhabitants of the actual scrub would have tended more to native forest birds, some of which can still be seen here like the shrike-thrush, pheasant coucal, cuckoos and others. Snakes would have been plentiful as would more of the smaller forest mammals (wallabies and others) as well as dingoes. I will have to research the ecology of the scrub a little more closely and not depend solely on personal experience and description.

Friday, 11 May 2007

The benefits of sitting quietly

Today has so far been one of those days in which you can’t imagine that you will ever have a moment to think or the ability to do so if you had the time. My children had a school fun run today and desperately wanted me to be there and my youngest was running a high fever. I decided to go but with the proviso that I might have to leave.

I ended up sitting quietly in the tent while waiting for the races. Somehow a person sitting with a small child on their lap becomes part of the scenery, absolved from the requirement to make small talk. Freed of responsibility, I shamelessly eavesdropped.

Two ladies were discussing growing up in the area, pointing out the hills on which they lived. They talked about how they would get the cows in before school, trekking down the back paddock wearing high gumboots in their fear of snakes. They swapped tales of riding bikes several miles to school “great going there downhill, but no fun coming back.” After school, it would be back to rounding up the cows again for the evening milking. They talked about how tired they were all the time and how they would fall asleep over homework. How they never went to sports days, because they didn’t need the exercise.

Their stories illustrate the sheer physical effort of farming these dry hills. Even today, these women work hard to keep their livestock fed and watered. They truck water in daily for their cows and the whole family is out on weekends cutting grass beside the road. I look at my children and find it hard to imagine them living this hard physical life. But this is how people lived and I need to listen to these stories in order to write about the early settlers in this area.

By the way, my children came second last and last, respectively in their races.

Thursday, 10 May 2007

Dusty memories

I’ve been writing about Sophie and Michael packing up their lives in Marburg when I remembered that I do have some photographs of the town from that long ago trip. Digging out the photo albums and my travel diary, I am very grateful for having recorded some details.

I had totally forgotten that the guesthouse (Haus Müller) in which we stayed was on the same street as Elizabethkirke. In fact, the Jaeckels could have walked past it every day. Apparently, in our one day in Marburg we visited the Elizabethkirke, climbed the hill to the Schloss, went to the university museum in the castle and then walked along the river past the university. No wonder my main memory of that time is aching feet.

How green Marburg looks in these photographs. I have forgotten what green looks like. I remember being astonished by the trees and flowers everywhere. Even last year, watching the Tour de France on television, I spent much of the time exclaiming over the trees instead of the riders. When we first moved to Minnesota, my eyes ached from the multitude of shades of green. I longed for the soft tones of gum trees, dusty grass and faded denim hills. Then I learnt about how many shades of grey snow and ice can be. And my yearning redoubled.

The Jaeckels would have experienced all this in reverse. The hills surrounding each town are the only things that would look familiar. Perhaps the shape of them against the horizon comforts them. Will they learn to appreciate the beauty of our dry and dusty hills or will they yearn for emerald and mist? I came home after seven years, but I was a visitor, officially an alien, not a migrant. I had the luxury of nostalgia.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Blame it on broadband

Until we signed up for broadband a few months ago, I had never read a blog. It’s not very exciting to browse the web using dial-up over an elderly modem. It’s more a case of having to find information and “please, let it not take too long.”

Now I have a couple of blogs that I read regularly, one of an American friend in Europe and one of a writer in England. Others, I browse as the spirit takes me and as time allows.

The English blog Wife in the North has smart writing about a woman’s everyday life, but has aroused some controversy. Its author recently signed a deal to turn this account of a London family trying a lifestyle change in Northumberland into a book. Naturally, jealousy bubbled freely in the world of blogdom.

I flicked through a couple of articles on the deal last night and one slightly bitter comment caught my eye. A writer discussing how few blogs can successfully be turned into books, highlighted the fact that many writers get distracted by their blogs and end up not writing much at all in the “real world.” I’ll save debates of realit(ies) for another time.

Motivated to not be one of these blog bludgers, I sat down and wrote the first couple of pages of my book. There’s a lot of material I can’t write about until I research it more fully, but it’s exciting to be on my way.

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Comfort me with questions

I finished the long weekend a little subdued after three afternoons of neighbours riding trailbikes around and around the back paddock until my head was buzzing in tandem. It didn’t help to read David Malouf’s statement in the Weekend Review that until you have a body of work, “the second novel rather than the first,” that “your being a writer is more an aspiration than a fact.”

I regained some equanimity making comfort food. Comfort food tends to be that of your childhood. Mine is ma po tofu and jasmine rice; my partner likes the simplicity of risotto. While I was chopping vegetables and heating the wok, I wondered to what comfort food migrants in the Rosewood Scrub turned. After all, arriving here was a time of great stress, everything was unfamiliar, even the food.

Many areas with concentrations of migrants have strong ethnic food traditions. Almost every city in Australia has a Chinatown. There’s Sydney’s Cabramatta and Fairfield for almost any kind of Asian food. South Australia has Hahndorf and the Adelaide Hills. Stanthorpe still has its Italian food and produce shops. Marburg has …?

Aside from Schulte’s Meat Tavern at Plainlands, which specialises in wurst, there don’t appear to be visible culinary signs of the area’s Germanic roots. Why are areas of South Australia so visibly German today and not this area? Even the recently concluded show doesn’t have any distinct German influence in its competition and display classes (although this year there was a German-themed quilting contest with a fine quilt complete with three-dimensional wurst and pretzels!).

What factors influence continuing cultural identity? Does it have to do with the kind of migrant attracted to Queensland or perhaps the area from which the migrants came? What about the agents in Germany? Did different agents use different methods of recruitment which resulted in cultural differences among migrants in Australia? Does it have something to do with intolerance of difference in rural Queensland? Or something else entirely?

All these unanswered questions make me feel right at home again. Here’s to research, to aspiration and to writing.

Monday, 7 May 2007

Historical and other justifications

I really enjoy going to meetings of the Rosewood Scrub Historical Society, not the least because many of its members know much more than I do about the area and its original settlers. An interesting trend is emerging though, that whenever I go to the meeting I get asked tough questions about what I am doing.

After one of the meetings, I was asked what my qualifications were for writing a historical novel. Yesterday, someone pointed out that most settlers in the Rosewood Scrub were Prussian and mainly from the area right on the Polish border. They wondered why I was making my characters come from Marburg. These are good questions and certainly not ones that I haven’t asked myself.

My migrant family, the Jaeckels, are going to come from Marburg for several reasons. First it makes for a nice narrative balance, moving the story from one Marburg to the other. Second, I’ve been to Marburg, Germany and have a mental picture of the area that I can draw on in my writing. The Jaeckels are going to be free settlers so they need to come from a more prosperous area than many of the other migrants. They will arrive with enough capital to start a bakery here. Finally, I want to draw on local experiences but not faithfully replicate them. This is a story, not an academic history.

As for my qualifications, I am a historian and writer by trade with experience in academia, journalism and business. Whether that translates to the writing of fiction, I will have to leave it to the judgement of my readers, but I will give it a good go.

I’ll also keep going to the meetings with interest and caution, making sure that I am well prepared to answer questions. I discovered yesterday as well that there are several aspiring writers in the area – maybe we should set up a historical writers club.

Friday, 4 May 2007

There's no season like show season...

Here in the Rosewood Scrub, show season is upon us. Almost every little town has its own show and flavour. We even have a day off school on Thursday for the Ipswich Show Holiday. Most of all though, it is a time for neighbours and community to get together, show off their produce and handicrafts and support local organisations.

The Marburg Show combines its agricultural origins with more recent innovations. Cattle showing, baking, jam and handicraft competitions, produce displays and hay stacking races vie with ute parades, motorcycle jumping, bush poetry and dance displays. There is always a large schoolwork display with several local schools competing hotly for “best overall school display” and individual writing and artwork prizes. And being Marburg, there are the trotting/pacing races and general admiration of horseflesh.

As members of three community groups, we are always busy at the show. The school takes precedence with its food stall serving megaburgers and hot dogs from dawn onwards. The Historical Society has a stall and members of the Residents’ Association are involved in most aspects of the show. In addition to helping out on the day, a good portion of time is devoted to talking to people whom we may only see on these occasions (aside from driving past and waving at each other during the week) and also checking out all the displays and rides. The grand conclusion for us is watching the fireworks from our hillside with sleepy children in their pyjamas staring at the sky and wanting to go back to the show.

Marburg is running its 86th annual show, in spite of the fact that in 2012, it will celebrate its 125th anniversary. The discrepancy is due to the fact that no shows were held during the world wars. The first show in the area was held in 1887. With its pacing club, cricket club and weekly dance at the showground, Marburg has hung onto the traditions that once tied a rural, migrant population together and is stronger for it.

Thursday, 3 May 2007

Thursdays and the kindness of strangers

I always find Thursdays hard work. It is something about the conjunction of being almost the end of the week, doing the weekly grocery shopping and so many things still undone on the ever expanding “to do” list. Late yesterday I finally got to last weekend’s paper and there was a feature on Sebastian Faulks. He has an office in which he writes – a top floor flat ten minutes walk from his house. The thought of being able to stand up and walk away from household things in order to write is very appealing on Thursdays.

I was very cheered however by the help of a stranger. Someone wandered by my blog one day who lives in Marburg and I enlisted him to help. I want the Jaeckels to have a bakery in the old part of Marburg, right by the Elizabethkirke. I needed to make sure that there were shops in this area and that it could have been a place for a bakery. I don’t want someone announcing to me “Oh, you couldn’t possibly have a bakery in that part of town.” Even though I always have the response that I am a) writing fiction and b) writing historical fiction, a double “might-have-been”, I try to avoid these little potential hiccups.

Greenhaddock (visit his blog) was able to confirm for me that there are shops directly opposite the church and also that the main cobbled street into the old part of town is very close to the church.

I spent a brief day in Marburg, twelve years ago, and my memory is clear of the church but not the surrounding area. I would love to return one day and properly explore the town. For now, I am going to dig out my photographs and diary to supplement the tourist maps and other information that I have gathered.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

The Jaeckel Family

Michael, 43, baker by trade
Sophie, 36, wife of Michael
Anders, 15, apprentice baker
Anna, 12
Carl, 10
Emilie, 8

Six simple lines of names and ages and yet it has taken some time to get to this point. You will remember my difficulties with the surname. In contrast, first names were quite easy. I have a list of migrants from one of the Lammershagen’s trips to Australia (6 October 1872) and I simply picked names that I liked. It is one of the joys of writing fiction.

Ages were a bit trickier. I looked in the records in a couple of family histories for the range of ages of families who had migrated. Generally the parents were older than I expected. There were a few young couples, but many of the families had adult children. Children over the age of 15 were listed in records as adults. Those with very young children were mainly listed in the free passage section. The older families seemed to come as “full payers.” This fits with my idea of the Jaeckels as established small business people cum artisans.

This book is aimed at young readers, so it is essential to have some characters in the target age range (9-12). Anders needs to be old enough to do the baking in the family bakery while his dad is serving in the army. Sophie runs the shop, helped by Anna. Carl delivers bread when he is not at school. Emilie also helps out in the shop when she’s not at school.

It’s exciting to see my family taking form. It feels as if we are at the start of an adventure together.

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Night thoughts

I like to look out my windows at night. Late at night the dark hills are speckled with lights and you can see the distant ribbon of light in the valley that is the highway. Out our back windows, if you stand in the right place you can’t see any lights, just the darkness stretching to the horizon and a wash of stars. On moonlit nights, every tree and bump is outlined and you look for mysterious strangers slinking through your garden.

I am comforted by the silence and darkness, but now as I stand there I find myself wondering if the Jaeckels would have been frightened.

I can name many of the lights (a combination of gregariousness and curiosity) and anyone living here in the 1870s would have been able to do the same. That would have been a comfort, but also a reminder of their isolation – those tiny points of light in the distance. No wonder every small town is centred on a pub (or two or three.)