Wednesday, 21 May 2008

J.C. Heussler: Entrepreneur, Go-getter, Survivor

Johann Christian Heussler was an interesting man. He was born in Bockenheim, Germany (near Frankfurt-am-Main) in 1820 and he died in Brisbane, Queensland in 1907. In between, he reinvented himself over and over: as a wine merchant, an importer-exporter, a labour bureau, a diplomat, a migration agent, a bankrupt (several times), a successful businessman, a new migrant, a respectable citizen, sugar planter, a member of parliament, an agitator for pastoralists and farmers…the list goes on.

I’ve been reading the self-published story of Heussler written by his great grandson, Robert. As an academic it makes me cringe with much interpretation and reading between the lines – of the “he must have been thinking this” or “intending that” style. As a writer and historian, even one interested in the subject, it makes for heavy reading. As a person subject to my own biases and interpretations, I don’t think I would have got on very well with the historical Mr. Heussler.

He reminds me very much of people I have met, whom I might kindly label as “entrepreneurs.” That is, those indefatigably energetic people who have a thousand ideas, of which two or three work some of the time. But they have so many ideas and so much chutzpah that they make an impression on the world. Take his campaign to be appointed as an immigration officer. Writing to the Colonial Secretary in 1861, he graciously stated that: “if the Government think well of it and resolve to create the office I shall have much honour in accepting the same.” It is of the “build it and people will come” model of behaviour.

Heussler is credited with bringing 2000 German migrants to Queensland, many from Hesse. The port of Hamburg was convenient for these migrants and shipping firms in Hamburg were not already tied up in lucrative shipping contracts elsewhere. One of his achievements was spending time in Germany refuting the articles circulating in the press about the semi-slavery endured by bonded migrants travelling to Australia. As a businessman, he saw it as a simple exchange of commodities – migrants who didn’t have the passage money could simply contract to work for a certain period on arrival for an employer who would advance the money for passage. In fact he campaigned actively for land orders to be transferable so that migrants could use these to pay for passage. One of his earlier businesses had been as a labour bureau placing newly arrived migrants with employers.

He seemed to like conspicuous consumption. While he was based in Brisbane, he moved his business as soon as possible to Queen Street. He had several business incarnations at various points along this prominent street. After returning to Queensland from his stint in Germany, he had a magnificent house built, Fernberg, which is now the official residence of Queensland’s governor. He lost the house to creditors in 1872. This did not seem to impede him politically as he became a member of the Legislative Assembly in 1866 and continued until 1905. Above all things Heussler was a survivor.

I still don’t think I would have liked him, but like many survivors, he left a wealth of historical information, personal records and photographs. Conspicuous consumers are often kind to the historian especially those with an idea of their own significance. So I can’t really cavil at such things.

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