Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the tag “caesar”

Arriving in Sydney 1855

The Fischer family, migrants from Germany, arrived in Sydney on board the sailing ship Caesar in March 1855. It was a different sort of arrival to ours in Sydney Harbour in 1973, having sailed on the Ellinis from Southampton. We had been at sea for four and a half weeks, but they had left Hamburg some four months previously. We had been buffeted by high winds and huge waves across the Roaring Forties, but the passengers of the Caesar, including the Fischer family, had been decimated by disease off the west African coast with over 60 dead from cholera. We sailed up a harbour lined with luxury residences, past the spectacular Opera House and under the iconic Harbour Bridge, landmarks that have become symbols of Australia over the last 50 years, but in 1855 none of this was there to wow the Fischer family. We were returning home, but for the German speaking Fischers a strange new land lay before them with a new language to contend with.

Despite all this it was a relief to arrive finally at this longed for destination. The stop at Twofold Bay on the south coast was the first taste of Australia, their first sight of Australian beaches and the bush clad hinterland. Sydney, a raw young British colony barely 67 years old, and infamous for its convict roots, was the place that they would call home. It is hard to imagine what thoughts went through the minds of Gottfried and Viktoria Fischer and their three children, as they leaned on the railing of the sailing ship and stared out at what was to be their new home. However, Dr Middendorf’s recollections give some idea of what they saw:

On the morning of Monday the 26th (March) we saw the lighthouses and pyramids of Port Jackson. Towards midday we were in the entry between the cliffs – “the heads” – which form the entrance. Shortly after, the pilot came without coming on board, only giving the direction to cast anchor. We couldn’t see the town from there. We remained there a couple of hours and saw several ships going in and out. Many boats came alongside, making offers to the Captain in regard to provisioning, and the indefatigable newspaper reporters also put in an appearance.

Then came the inspecting doctor. He was more reasonable than his colleague in Twofold Bay. His main question was whether everything had been washed. After this was answered in the affirmative, he let us go. A steamer that had taken a ship out to sea towed us in. In the dusk we moved through the harbour, which has very many inlets. It is like an inland sea, the water is so calm; the rush of waves is restrained by the projecting rocks. The banks are occupied by villas, as by a river. At half past seven in the evening the anchor dropped and the lights of the town gleamed across to us.

Sydney Heads around 1850 (dictionaryofsydney.org)

Sydney Heads around 1850 (dictionaryofsydney.org)

The family, with the other immigrants, disembarked and collected the few possessions they had taken with them and with which they would start their new life. Rural Germany seemed very distant, very foreign, in the glare of the southern sun. They had come out on the German Vinedressers Scheme and there was an agent to meet them and to assist them in finding a place to stay in those first confusing days. Although I have no record of the Fischers’ first impressions of Sydney, the doctor’s description gives some clues as to their experience. He begins his recollections by relating how glad he was to be rid of the passengers:

Since the passengers went, which happened at long last a few days ago, one feels like a new man. The ship is clean and the only reminder of our cargo consists of a host of fleas and bugs that have united themselves against us like the French and the English against the Russians. Add another small contingent of lice, and with that the Turks have to be content.

I must say that I feel more sympathy for the migrants who had to endure the fleas and lice and other bugs, than I do for the doctor who only had to put up with the passengers from the comfort of his own cabin. I suspect that the irritation that young Middendorf felt toward the passengers came mainly from the daily reminder of his medical impotence in the face of a cholera epidemic at sea. He was glad to be rid of them, to be free of the sad, or in some cases accusing stares of the many bereaved and grieving families. But they were the ones who had suffered: Dr Middendorf’s struggles seem trivial by comparison. He is unimpressed by Sydney, and I wonder how much of that was from memories of a tough voyage which he would rather leave behind. His only concession to Sydney is the climate, which he has to admit, is pleasant.

It is a town like other large towns, of considerable dimensions. The main part lies on a narrow hilly tongue of land that stretches out into the harbour; around this lie the ships… Convivial life does not exist here. Nobody wants to do anything but make money. People go to the public houses not to have a pleasant time, but only to drink, or rather get drunk. On Saturday evening half of Sydney is drunk, though that is supposed to be also the case in other English places. There are no beautiful surroundings here. Everything around the town is sand. I took a walk to Botany Bay; the land is worse than round Berlin. There is supposed to be more fertility up in Parramatta; I haven’t been there as yet…

There is something good here, it seems to me, and that is the climate. The whole time we have had weather like our lovely summer days, except for the period when rain fell; the air is always clean and warm. Since we’ve been here we’ve seen three English immigrant ships and one American arrive; two were here when we came. As a worker I would not emigrate to Australia, i.e. go there in order to stay there. The country may be good for earning money, but not for living in…

Ernst Middendorf, it seems, had entertained the possibility of remaining in Australia but these first impressions made him decide otherwise. He sailed away with the Caesar and never returned to Australia, though he did make a name for himself elsewhere in the world. The Fischer family, on the other hand, made Sydney their home. They had come out with the Vinedressers Scheme, but whether Gottfried had any experience or knowledge of wine growing is quite uncertain. It would seem that a significant proportion of the migrants who took advantage of this scheme were city dwellers and had no competence in viticulture (there is a discussion of the scheme in Jürgen Tampke’s book, The Germans in Australia, p.78, available online on Google Books).

According to other records the family settled, at least initially, in the city. They lived in Kent Street,  which today is in the city centre. Viktoria was pregnant when they arrived and 5 months later in August had another son, Joseph. Three more Australian sons would follow. Caroline, my grandfather’s grandmother, remained the only daughter in a family of boys. Some time after settling in Sydney the Fishers (they changed the spelling of their name) relocated to Forbes for reasons which are at present unknown to me. But they returned to Sydney eventually and Gottfried worked as a carpenter until Viktoria died in 1886 when he moved to Goulburn where he lived with his daughter Caroline and her husband John Holdorf (Johann Holtorf). Gottfried died in 1896 after 41 years in his new homeland. Neither he nor Viktoria ever saw Germany again.

Eden: oysters and chickens

NSW Coast. Hard not to like...

NSW Coast. Hard not to like…

The Caesar made its first landfall in Australia at Twofold Bay, near Eden on the south coast of NSW. Ernst Middendorf’s relief is palpable, and understandable in light of the length of the voyage that preceded it. Like generations of Europeans since then, he is enchanted by the wonderful beach. Here is his description:

Straightaway on the following day we made use of the permission to visit the coast. Our boats came and went unceasingly. It is a singularly joyful feeling when, after so long a journey, one feels for the first time solid ground underfoot once more. To the voyager, even a barren worthless rock seems a welcome resting place after the unchanging sameness of sky and water. I observed with great interest all the small details while we sprang over the rocks onto the sand, the various small shells which were almost all washed to pieces by the tide, the marine growths on the bottom, and the rock, which exuded a characteristic smell because it was low tide when we first landed.

His euphoria is tempered by his first encounter with the Australian bush, and the gum trees that are beloved by so may of us who have grown up in Australia. Middendorf seems quite unimpressed:

Then we climbed up the steep incline which enclosed the whole bay and came to the woods. I roamed around in the woodland for a couple of hours. Everything was new to me, everything was interesting, but there was nothing that was agreeable or beautiful. In the case of Australia’s forest, you must not imagine the charming gloom and high vault of a mixed beech grove, or even less the interwoven chaos of a primeval American forest. There is no shadow and no cool. High whitish trunks of very hard wood stand at considerable distance from one another. Above, they divide into a few spare boughs and these in turn put forth meagre branches of the same nature, on which finally the foliage grows in thin clumps. The leaves are mostly lancet-shaped and hang vertically. They are thick, stiff and dry. I don’t remember even once seeing a beautiful grouping of foliage. The undergrowth in the forests is scanty. Mostly it is veritable bare sand between the trunks, as the sun’s rays falling between the strange thin leafage dries everything and doesn’t even allow grass to grow. The appearance becomes a little better if you get to a somewhat watered depression, but just when does that happen?

Leaving the disappointing hinterland behind he returns to the enchanting coastline, and its unexpected culinary delights (and medical wonders)…

When I had returned from the woods to the shore after my excursion, I discovered some oysters and brought a few to the Captain… the fishing was extraordinarily productive and delivered some exemplary kinds. Between the rocks on the beach there were lobsters and crabs, and in addition we later found great banks of oysters of a particular type that was finer by far than the English natives, with the result that I soon forgot my former antipathy to these poor animals and did full justice to them. On one expedition the Captain and I gobbled about 300 of them. The whole world ate oysters, down to the smallest child; I gave an appetite back the convalescents with oysters. In addition to this, some very good mutton and beef was delivered to us from the land, and so the Captain kept our passengers busy on shore felling trees, as he wanted to use them for ballast because of their great hardness and weight.

Dr Middendorf was moderately positive about the locals and their living conditions, and gives a good picture of life in rural Australia in the 1850s which sounds rather primitive now, but was probably not worse than the situations that most migrants had come from.

… we went ashore at once to inspect the town. It is mostly small cottages built from planks with the cracks plastered over, smaller than our Thuringian farm houses, but clean and tidy to the highest degree, I have to say, with much more comfort than in those cottages at home. I went into several and was received in a very friendly fashion. A main room serves for kitchen, living room and receiving visitors. In the background is the huge fireplace, neatly painted and decorated with shells; around it like a frame hang the cleanly polished utensils. From the chimney hang iron pots and hooks, and on one of these the steaming tea kettle sways over the glowing coals. The chickens have the freedom to wander through the room, but they are very well-mannered and respectable; I didn’t see anything that would have been an offence against cleanliness.

In the town of Eden there is also an inn, very fine and distinguished, where we drank good London porter. Apart from this, Eden is no paradise…

A lasting impression of Australia: well mannered and respectable chickens!

Australian landfall, March 1855

The Caesar sailed south to Cape Town and then east across the Roaring Forties (latitude 40 degrees south), which seemed not to be roaring much that particular year, according to Middendorf’s description. Unlike the 10 day storm that we experienced crossing the Southern Ocean in the 1970s, the passengers of the Caesar apparently had a very pleasant crossing. Also unlike us so many years later on the Ellinis, the little German sailing ship appears not to have stopped in Western Australia: Perth was just a tiny colonial outpost in the 1850s. The Caesar sailed on across the Great Australian Bight and headed for Bass Strait, the stretch of sea between Tasmania and the Australian mainland. Ernst Middendorf’s description of the first sightings of Australia convey the excitement of landfall after months at sea:

Finally we reached the longitude of the mainland and steered for Bass Strait. As we neared the entrance, however, the wind was blowing from the strait and the Captain decided to go around Van Diemen’s Land. That was a further long journey; we had either east winds or calm the whole time. The air coming from the land carried a whiff of vegetation to us, and I often stood for hours at a time on the deck, just to catch this wonderful peat-like smell that suggested the nearness of land, because I was getting dreadfully weary of this story at the end. On Friday the 2nd of March, after it had been misty for several days, heavy rain fell. Towards evening it ceased and I stood on the deck. The curtain of cloud seemed to slowly lift, and far off on the horizon the steep high mountains of the Island of Van Diemen’s Land climbed in a blue line out of the sea. The air was very clear and everyone could see land. Nonetheless, it took a long time before the people believed it. It seemed to many just not possible that they now really had before their eyes what they had for so many days longed for. In the meantime the news went from mouth to mouth and the deck was soon full of people who wanted to establish for themselves the comforting conviction that “the whole world has not actually been turned into water”. The sick came crawling out, or had themselves carried, and on all the convalescents it worked better, of course, than all the half-mouldy pills in my poor pharmacy.

The land that we had seen was the south coast of the island. Towards evening it was out of sight again and we traversed back and forth with unfavourable winds for several more days without making any substantial headway, as the ship was in very bad shape. Finally, on the morning of the 9th, with good winds, we approached the mainland of Australia. The air was very dense and when we saw the high coast, we were already very near it. A long, high mountain range, which stretched out in the south into flat running foothills, lay in view of the eager immigrant. Everyone was on deck. They put on their Sunday clothes and mutually congratulated each other. Gradually the contours of the heights stood out more clearly, one could distinguish the trees that decked the peaks, and in the background one could see a high mountain whose sharp apex was shrouded in haze. We sailed by some low green foothills only a small distance away.

Sailing south

The voyage of the Caesar wasn’t all misery. Ernst Middendorf does capture some of the wonder and romance of a long sea voyage in his descriptions. His favourite pastime was to climb into the crows nest and observe the world from high up. I think I would have enjoyed this too, despite my hesitancy about heights. I suspect passengers were not permitted to climb the rigging. There are advantages to being a ship’s doctor, though it would take much to compensate for carrying the burden (and in the minds of some, the responsibility) of the recent cholera epidemic. Here is an excerpt from Dr Middendorf’s journal, dated 6th January 1855.

If I really want to feel free and happy and shake off all ill-humour, I climb up the main mast, high into the top… Our whole little world lies under me, and from wholly objective observation, much in it seems more bearable to me, even engaging. But first I draw free breaths and with deep gulps enjoy the fresh air that cools me and moves my high seat in a gentle swing, back and forth. The sea affords its full magnificent impression, the waves flatten themselves in the distance and the broad expanse seems to curve towards the horizon. A glance downwards shows the slim form of the ship. It effortlessly cuts through the blue deep and with every rising and sinking, the white foamy waves rush round its bow. Behind the ship the backwash circles, a row of eddies left behind by the rudder, and beside it, the log rope that governs the sea clock that records the miles…

Gottfried Fischer leaned on the railing enjoying the same vista from deck level as that in which Middendorf revelled high in the rigging. He felt a vague envy as he glanced up at the young doctor, who he had noticed a while before swinging himself into the shrouds and clambering toward the sky. What a relief it must be, Gottfried thought, to sit in the crow’s nest, away from the crowds, with just the wind and the sea and the wide, wide world. The doctor was a decent enough fellow, obviously inexperienced, a bit full of himself, but he was not uncaring, and Gottfried had seen the toll the recent epidemic had taken on the man. Middendorf had borne the brunt of the passenger’s complaints and criticisms without trying to defend himself, getting on with his job, though It was clear there was little he could do. Once the disease had gained a hold, Dr Middendorf had not much more in his doctor’s bag than the passengers themselves had to stop it. He had stood anxiously by with the rest, wondering if his turn would come soon too. But he had not been idle or resigned himself to hopelessness and depression. He had moved from sick bed to sick bed, administering his medicines with compassion and patience, speaking words of comfort, though he knew that there was little hope. Middendorf was young, only 23 or 24, at the start of his career. To lose so many patients so soon was hardly a good way to start life as a doctor.

Gottfried’s thoughts wandered away from the doctor as his eyes drifted down to the sea racing alongside the ship. He saw dolphins at the bow, their grace and beauty filling him with fascination, even joy, despite the sadness that had engulfed him and Viktoria over recent weeks. The sea had taken Heironimys, lowered over the side in his weighted canvas shroud, his little dehydrated body released to sink into the dark waters of the Atlantic. He had been so young, just three, his life snuffed out almost before it had begun. The future that Gottfried had imagined for his children when he and Vicki had decided to emigrate was one that Heironimys would never know. Viktoria’s grief had been hard to bear, but so many were grieving. Whole families had died, and there were some children who were now parentless. How would they survive in the distant colony, he wondered?

Gottfried thought of their home in Harheim, where he and Vicki had lived their first years together, expanding their young family. They had moved back there shortly after Caroline was born. Their years in Harheim, close to his family, had been good ones but hard ones, years in which the conviction slowly grew that they should start a new life in the New World. They had thought first of America, the land that had caught the imagination of so many of his compatriots. He had seen many leave, and he had become convinced it was the best chance of a good life for his young family. Then he had heard about the Vinedressers Scheme, an opportunity for an assisted passage, not to America but to Australia, a land mysterious but exciting on the far side of the world. Viktoria had not been enthusiastic at first. How could they leave home and family for a land they had never seen?

But he had won her over, little by little, and by the time they left she was as excited as him. But the leaving had not been easy. He thought of his ageing parents, his brothers and sisters, remembered their sadness as they had boarded the Hamburg train. He felt the pain of parting again. Could it be just a month back? Already that seemed like another world, and Gottfried knew it was a world that he would never see again. It was a big thing to emigrate, to turn your back on home and family, on the country of your birth. It was a big thing to start again. He had no idea how things would turn out, but he had felt certain of his decision to leave. The death of his little boy was not something he had reckoned with and he felt the pain threatening again to drag him into regret and self reproach. He looked across the deck and saw Vicki staring out to sea, lost in her own anger and grief, little William cradled in her arms. He wondered how they would recover from their loss. They must focus on life, not death, or they would never survive.

Of course they had known there would be risks with moving, but they had not imagined that tragedy would strike them so soon after their departure. He went over everything again his mind, the nights they had laid awake arguing about this emigration, weighing up all the factors, trying to come to unity over their future. Despite everything, he was sure it had been the right thing to leave. There was no future in Harheim and Australia was a land of promise. They both knew it would be hard, but eventually life would settle down and they would know that they had made the right decision.

Gottfried’s gaze moved to the bow of the ship and the expanse of ocean that lay before them. The ship listed slightly, he heard the hum of the wind through the rigging, the crack of the full bellied sails as the ship sped southwards, up and down in the long swell. The sea was a deep blue, the air warm. It was mid-winter in Harheim, and the world familiar to him would be covered in snow. He shook thoughts of home and sadness from his head and focussed his eyes forward. Tropical breezes blew through his hair, an equatorial sun warmed his back. With so much death behind him was extra thankful to be alive. Alive and sailing south.

Cholera deaths on the Caesar. 1854.

The Sydney Morning Herald of Tuesday 27 March 1855 carried the final death toll for the emigrant ship Caesar, from Hamburg. A scan of the original can be seen online here.

Mar 26 – ….The Caesar has had a long passage of 116 days from Hamburg to this port.  She has on board 184 German immigrants, who are all in good health.  About 11 days after leaving Hamburg the cholera broke out on board this vessel, and carried off 66 persons, the greater portion of who were children.  There were no fresh cases after crossing the Equator. Four births have occurred during the passage (one still-born).  The immigrants are principally vine dressers and farm labourers.  The Caesar put into Twofold Bay on 10th instant, landed 63 of her passengers, and sailed from this port on the 24th instant.

Another website gives a list of crew on board the ship on her arrival in Sydney; they numbered 14 including the captain. There was also the good doctor, Ernst Middendorf. So on arrival there were 199 people on the Caesar. Three of these were babies born on the voyage. At departure from Hamburg there were 261. 66 of the 261 had died en route, a fatality rate of a little over 25%.

The MSF figures quoted in my last blog entry indicated that 5% of infected persons get severe disease, 20% of people mild to moderate diarrhoea, while the other 75% have few symptoms. The death rate on the Caesar would indicate that everyone who developed even mild to moderate symptoms died, and this may be a reflection of the generally weakened state of the people on board when the epidemic hit. The 75% who did not die were almost certainly infected too, but never developed any clinical illness.

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