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Herman Koeler (1813-?)
Sketchbooks

MSS 0185

Biographical Note

Herman Koeler, one of the first Germans to visit South Australia and to document the conditions prevailing in the colony between 1837 and 1838, is believed to have been born on 3rd August 1813 in Celle, Germany.  Of his family, education and employment relatively little is known, except that he was the first of ten children from his father’s second marriage and that he was a medical doctor, engaged as a ship’s surgeon, aboard the Solway which departed Hamburg, via England, in June 1837 bound for Kingscote on Kangaroo Island.

Under charter to the South Australian Company, the Solway brought with it supplies for the company’s whaling station at Encounter Bay and fifty-two German migrants, mainly young single men, agricultural labourers, carpenters and bakers. The German migrants remained on Kangaroo Island to work out their contracts; the other passengers, presumably including Koeler, crossed over to Glenelg aboard the cutter William on 21st October 1837.

At the time of Koeler’s arrival, Adelaide was home to approximately two thousand settlers, most of whom lived in tents, timber huts and shanties thatched with reeds, located around the parklands and the banks of the River Torrens.  It is thought that Koeler occupied a reed hut himself at Glenelg for the six months following his arrival but what, exactly, he did during his stay remains somewhat of a mystery.  There is no evidence to suggest that he undertook any medical work while he was here and yet the first of his three known publications, initially submitted to Professor Carl Ritter (founding member of the Gesellschaft für Erdkunde zu Berlin) would suggest that he was certainly taking in his surroundings.  Einige Notizen über die Eingeborenen an der Ostküste des St. Vincent-Golfs, Süd-Australien; 1837 und 1838 or “Some Notes on the Aborigines on the East Coast of the St Vincent Gulf, South Australia; 1837 and 1838”, published in two parts in 1842 and 1844, provides an interesting insight into early colonial life.

Koeler’s contribution to our understanding of the relations between Aboriginal people and white settlers in the first years of the colony is significant.  Unlike Protector William Wyatt, who painted a picture of relative racial harmony, Koeler, who did not represent an official body, reported incidents of friction and threats between the two groups which had not been reported elsewhere.  He commented on the antipathy of the lower-class colonists towards the Aborigines and indicated that the colonists kept loaded rifles in their rooms, taking them on short journeys as well.  Koeler also described how the spread of white settler’s animals had had a most detrimental effect on the local wildlife, significantly depleting their huntable stock levels and how the white sailors had spread disease throughout the Aboriginal community.

Through his publications Koeler also provided important information about the living conditions of the two thousand white settlers in Adelaide during the early years.  Conditions were harsh; basic needs such as milk and meat were both expensive and rare and reliable drinking water was difficult to source.  He also offered extensive and astonishingly perceptive details about the physical conditions of the colony, including its sparse vegetation, its seasons and its geology.

One of the most substantial contributions Koeler made, however, to our understanding of life in Adelaide at the time was through his notes on the Kaurna language, which predated Teichelmann’s and Schürmann’s 1840 account.  Koeler was by no means a linguist and what he recorded was not the Kaurna language, spoken in the Kaurna community, but a deliberately simplified contact jargon which was used to communicate with Europeans.  In fact, his wordlist of 140 Kaurna terms, most of which described body parts or body functions and movements, failed to distinguish between Kaurna and Pidgin English words, the latter of which had spread from New South Wales to South Australia.  Despite this, perhaps even because of it, Koeler’s linguistic notes remain significant.  His wordlist is one of the earliest ever compiled on the Kaurna language, it is a totally independent source and it provides a number of early examples of South Australian Pidgin English which would later develop into “cattle station English” in the state’s north.

Hermann Koeler’s three sketch books were acquired by Rare Books & Special Collections in September 2014 with the assistance of the University’s General Linguistics Professor, Peter Mühlhäusler.  They include representations of Aboriginal weapons and artefacts, drawings of boats (potentially those used by Koeler to travel to and from South Australia) and possibly even a representation of an Aboriginal man wearing a possum skin.

Adapted from Hermann Koeler’s Adelaide: Observations on the language and culture of South Australia by the first German visitor, edited by Peter Mühlhäusler, 2006 and Germans: Travellers, settlers and their descendants in South Australia, edited by Peter Monteath, 2011

Contents Listing

Three unpublished sketch books comprising approximately 150 drawings, some in pencil, others in pen and ink and many watercolours, of Koeler’s worldwide travels between 1837 and 1849.  The books contain seascapes, landscapes and ethnography from Australia, Haiti, Spain, Nigeria, New York, Malta, Portugal, Armenia and elsewhere, with most drawings dated and described with locations. Many incriptions are in old German script and are difficult to decipher.

An itinerary of Koeler's travels has been derived from the sketchbooks.

Sketch book 1: Bound in dark brown cloth, 14 cm. x 12 cm.

Sketches as they appear on each page include:

  • Two unidentified sailing ships, pen and ink
  • One unidentified sailing ship, pen and ink
  • A Liverpool pilot-boat, pen and ink
  • [Riverboat], Bonny [Nigeria], 1840, pen and ink
  • Large, unidentified sailing ship, pen and ink
  • Two unidentified sailing ships, pen and ink
  • Large sailing ship, pen and ink and watercolour
  • Large unidentified sailing ship in rough seas, pencil, pen and ink
  • Eleven small drawings of various sailing boats and ships, pen and ink
  • Unidentified sailing ship;  “Winser Dampfschiff Delphin, 1840” [steamship Delphin, Zurich/Walensee], both pen and ink
  • Hannoverian sailboat, pen and ink and watercolour
  • Four men rowing in a canoe [Nigeria?], 1840, pen and ink
  • Unidentified sailboat, pen and ink and watercolour
  • Releasing the sail on a boat in rough seas, “Portugiesisches Schifferboot bei Cap. St. Vincent” [Portugal], pen and ink and watercolour
  • Small boat at mooring of military outpost [Austro-Hungarian empire?], pen and ink
  • Same as above, pencil, pen and ink
  • Two long boats with shelters, Trebizond [Trabzond, Turkey], pen and ink
  • Two people with ruins in background, pen and ink
  • “Kru-Neger" Kru [people from Liberia]  men rowing canoe on Bonny River, pen and ink
  • Water shrine? on clifftop, Turkish? soldier in fez with gun, two figures praying on mats, pen and ink
  • Two longboats in rough seas, pen and ink
  • Large ship, “Der Englische Dampfschiff ‘Great Liverpool’. Malta. 26th Jany(?) 1843”, pen and ink and watercolour
  • Indigenous man (initiate?) with red ochre/emu fat or red possom fur cap, kangaroo teeth necklace and spear and shield, pen and ink and watercolour
  • Three drawings: war canoe, canoe with square sail and shelter, two natives launching canoe, pen and ink
  • Four men (?) rowing in canoe with square sail, pen and ink and watercolour
  • Steering sailboat near Lasistan [Black Sea] pen and ink
  • View from his room in house of Paroni [Baron?] in Trebisond [=Trebizond, Turkey?], 1842, pen and ink
  • Sailboat and two smaller boats near Manhattanville, pen and ink
  • Hudson River near Manhattanville, pen and ink
  • Long war canoe with two sails, larger sailing ships in background, pen and ink
  • Five people sitting/leaning on a wall in Santo Domingo, Haiti, pen and ink
  • Three people releasing a sail in a fishing boat in Cadiz, pen and ink and watercolour
  • Lady sitting at a window and two men with a donkey in Andalusia, pen and ink and watercolour
  • Terrace house in New York, “bei Mrs Burford, Greenwich Str. no. 634. New York. 1847”, pen and ink and watercolour
  • Large house in New York, “in Harlem bei New York”, pen and ink and watercolour
  • Soldier and three people at the front of a hut, two sleeping inside in hammocks, fort in background, tropical landscape, pencil and watercolour
  • Person sitting in ruins on clifftop, Trebisond, 1842, pen and ink and watercolour
  • Large rowboat loaded with supplies in Armenia, 1842, pen and ink
  • Shipwreck in rough seas near cliffs, pen and ink and watercolour
  • Men hauling rope on board a ship, pen and ink
  • Thee sailors loading a canon, pen and ink and watercolour
  • Head only sketch of bearded, indigenous man with nose piercing, South Australia, pen and ink
  • Landscape sketch of Seville, pen and ink
  • Two people sitting amongst ruins near Trebizond, 1843, pen and ink and watercolour
  • People relaxing on board a ship, “Steerage-passengers & Galley auf dem Washington Irving”, pen and ink and watercolour
  • Crew unfurling ship’s sails, pen and ink and watercolour
  • Lady looking out of a window in Santo Domingo, “Mein Zimmer in St Domingo”, pen and ink and watercolour
  • Small house, “Boarding house des Mrs. Lewis…in Adelaide, South Australia”, pen and ink and watercolour.
  • Two Aboriginal wooden bowls carved from the bolls of gum trees, Adelaide Plains, watercolour
  • Ruined castle at Rudelsburg on the bank of the River Saale, Saaleck, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, 21st May 1849, pen and ink and watercolour
  • Entrance to castle at Rudelsburg, as above, 21 May 1849, pen and ink.
  • Saaleck, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, twin towers of Saaleck Castle in distance, 21 May 1849, pen and ink
  • Three people on board a small sailboat, pen and ink
  • Twin mast steam-ship with covered launch boat, mountains and houses in background, described by Koeler as “Syra” [= Syros, Greece?], pen and ink

Sketch book 2: Bound in dark brown cloth, 15 cm. x 24.5 cm.

  • Six small drawings of indigenous tools and equipment, including spears, 1840, watercolour
  • Two houses: “casa de la virccina(?) in Barcelona, 28th July 1843” and Boston, Mass., January 1848, pencil and watercolour
  • House and ship in Messina, Sicily, 6th July 1843, pen and ink
  • Diego Ramirez Islands, Chile, 1838, pen and ink
  • Island “Zaccheo”(?) near the Island of Mona, Santo Domingo, Puerto Rico, 21 December 1847. Pen and ink.
  • Island “Zaccheo”(?). 1847. Appears to be same location as previous drawing. Pen and ink.
  • Island “Monica” near the Island of Mona, Santo Domingo, Puerto Rico, 1847. Pen and ink.
  • Island “Monica”. 1847. Appears to be same location as previous drawing. Pen and ink.
  • Three cliff profiles of or near the Island of Mona, Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo, 1847. Pen and ink and watercolour.
  • Musical instrument “Ogúmmogo” or sanza, Bonny, Nigeria, 1840, pen and ink
  • Three sketches: boomerang at “Port Philip, New Holland” and two “Midla” or spearthrowers from South Australia. 1838, pen and ink
  • Spear head and ornate handle, Bonny, Nigeria, 1840. Description illegible. Pen and ink.
  • “Manilla” [Ojonma or Igbo Money, bonny, Guinea [Biafra], 1840, pen and ink
  • Large sailing ship, pen and ink
  • Feluka [= feluuca] boat, pen and ink and watercolour, 1844
  • Rowing a boat with five passengers, La Valetta, Malta, 1848, pen and ink and watercolour
  • Front and side drawing of shield (mollabakka) and waddi from Adelaide, South Australia, and clubfrom “Port Philipp, New Holland”, 1838. Pen and ink.
  • Barbed spearhead, spear and enlarged sketch of spearhead, Bonny (Nigeria), 1840, pen and ink
  • Ink and watercolour sketch of view from Koeler’s room near Messina; pen and ink sketch  people rowing a small boat, 1843.
  • Coastal township “Belgrad” [= Belgrade, Serbia?], 1842, pen and ink
  • Torre [villa] in Sarria, Barcelona, Catalonia, 1843, pen and ink and watercolour
  • Agave plants near Fort Montjuic, Barcelona, 4th August 1843, pen and ink and watercolour
  • Outlook from Koeler’s room near San Giovanni, Messina, 1843, pen and ink and watercolour
  • View from Montjuic, Barcelona, August 1843, pen and ink and watercolour
  • Watercolour sketch of woman seated at a table/stall at or near “Rambla de San José August 1843; Pen and ink sketch of buildings in Constantinople April 1843
  • Longboat near Trebisond [Trebizond, Turkey] 1843, pen and ink and watercolour
  • Three people, plus baby, in King Peppel’s room. “Konig Peppel’s zimmer. Bonny” [Nigeria], 1840, pen and watercolour
  • Ruins near Santo Domingo, 1847, pen and ink and watercolour
  • Four people collecting water in the mountains near Trebisond [Trebizond, Turkey], 1842, pen and ink and watercolour

Sketch book 3: Bound in brown cloth, 18.7 cm. x 27 cm.

Sketch book includes inscriptions to front pastedown, potentially indicating its ownership, as well as an undated loose-leaf drawing of a castle/cathedral in pen and ink and watercolour.  Sketches, mostly portraits, appear upside down on most opposing pages, and are probably by a different artist.

  • Pulling a net aboard a sailboat, undated, pen and ink and watercolour
  • Easterly view of Trapesunt [Trebizond(?), Turkey], 1843, pen and ink and watercolour
  • On veso, pencil sketch of scene from a legend?
  • Sketch of valley with Kaymaklı Monastery at top of Boztepe Hill near Trabzon, Turkey, 11 May 1843, pen and ink.
  • On verso: unfinished pencil sketch of female nude
  • Another easterly view of Trebizond, Turkey, April 1843, pen and ink and watercolour
  • View of San Miguel, near Vilafranca del Penedès(?), Catalonia, September 1843, pencil and watercolour
  • View of valley, San Gervasio near Barcelona, San Geronimo named in description, 14 November 1843. Pen and ink
  • On verso, pencil sketch of men in tavern
  • [Armenian monastery of Agion Panton, known as Kaimakli, on the eastern side of Boztepe in Trabzon], 20 April 1843, pen and ink and watercolour
  • On verso, pencil sketch of dancer?
  • [Another drawing Armenian monastery of Agion Panton, known as Kaimakli], 1843, pen and ink and watercolour
  • On verso, pencil sketch of two children
  • View over the mountains towards the sea near Sarria, Barcelona, including hernitage of San Pedro Martyr, 6 October 1843, pen and ink and watercolour
  • On verso, another pencil sketch of dancer?
  • Fonda de vista alegre near Montjuic, Barcelona, 6 December 1843, pen and ink and watercolour
  • On verso, pencil sketch of woman
  • Fountain in San Vicente, Sarria, Barcelona, “Fuente de S. Vincente”, 8 October 1843, pen and ink and watercolour
  • On verso, pencil sketch of young girl
  • Building in  San Vicente, Sarria, Barcelona, 6 October 1843, pen and ink and watercolour
  • Torre [castle?] near Montjuic, Barcelona, 30 August 1843, pen and ink and watercolour
  • Church in Sarria, Barcelona, 13 October 1843, pencil and watercolour
  • On verso, pencil sketch of young woman playing mandolin
  • “Pedralves” = Pedralbes Monastery, Sarria, Barcelona, 11 November 1843, pen and ink and watercolour
  • A different view Pedrables Monastery, Sarria, 24 October 1843, pen and ink and watercolour
  • On verso, unfinished pencil sketch of mother and infant
  • Another drawing of Pedrables Monastery with sea in the background, Sarria, 12 November 1843, pen and ink and watercolour
  • On verso, unfinished pencil sketch of naked woman
  • Hospital de la Sangre, near Sevilla [now Parliament of Andelusia], 9 March 1842, pencil, pen and ink and watercolour
  • On verso, unfinished pencil sketch of naked woman
  • Seascape of Portugalete to the west of Bilbao, showing Santurce valley, 15 January 1847, pen and ink
  • On verso, pencil sketch of woman doing hair
  • Ruins of Santo Domingo Church associated with the Virgin Begona, Bilbao, 18 February 1847, pen and ink and watercolour
  • On verso, pencil sketch of woman
  • Mountains/monastery? near Arreguriaga, northern Spain, pencil and pen and ink, 19 February 1847
  • Moorish ruins on Quadalquivir River near Cordoba, 8 November 1846, pen and ink and watercolour
  • On verso, pencil sketch 2 women's heads and female figure
  • View of Lac du Bourget, bordered by Mont de l’Epine, France, 17 September 1846, pen and ink and watercolour
  • On verso, pencil sketch of 'romantic' couple
  • Ruins of Puerta de la Barqueta, old city walls, Seville, Spain, 13 March 1846, pen and ink and watercolour
  • On verso, pencil sketch young dancer
  • Landscape of/near Mont de Corbellet(?) near the hamlet of les Charmettes, Chambéry in the Savoie region of France, 17 September 1846, pen and ink
  • On verso and inside cover, 2 pencil sketches of young women
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