The German presence in South Australia, by the Hon John von Doussa, QC

Tuesday, 4 October 2005


Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences

The German Presence in South Australia

Conference: September 30 - October 1, 2005

Opening remarks: The Hon John von Doussa, QC

I acknowledge the Kaurna people on whose traditional lands we meet today.

I am honoured to have been invited today to open this conference. I have a surname and ancestors with German origins, and I am the Chancellor of this august institution. I guess this explains the invitation, but I have to confess that I feel a bit of an outsider here amongst a distinguished audience steeped in knowledge about the topic of the Conference.

I shall mention a little about my German heritage in a moment, but it is a matter of regret that I am reaching the wrong end of life, and still have done next to nothing to explore the lives of my ancestors, the gossip of the time that surrounded them (and I know there was some which will still excite intrigue and mirth), and to think about the influences they had on the communities in which they lived.

I have continually put that off to be one of the things I do when I retire. My children say that is a risky attitude. Unfortunately it is the risk that the older members of so many families run. All too often senility or death unexpectedly intervenes, and a wealth of interesting history is gone. This has happened repeatedly in my family. I have snippets of stories told to me here and there by those whose knowledge should have been recorded, but was not.

But what I have done over the last 50 years is keep as many of the papers of the dying and dead as I could get my hands on. They remain unsorted, but there are some real gems there, - a diary or two, letters in a language and old German script, which I cannot read, photos and assorted memorabilia. Beware, one of these days I will get to them, and will need the assistance of some of you to appreciate them.

For today, I have to draw largely on the writings of others. I shall assume it is correct. I once tried gently to suggest to one researcher of local German history, Reg Butler, that a detail in one of his books was inconsistent with family papers I held. Those of you who know Reg will understand that I shall not again try to question his work!

My great-great grandfather, Alfred Louis Emil von Doussa, arrived in South Australia in 1846, and settled in Hahndorf. He met his future wife Dorethea Schach on the voyage from Germany, and they were the first couple to marry in St James Church at Blakiston, in May 1847. He had two sons - Alfred and Louis, both of whom were brought up in Hahndorf - brought up mainly by their mother as Alfred senior spent most of time overseas, or elsewhere in Australia chasing gold rushes and for some years diamonds in South Africa. Both sons later became Ministers of the Crown in this State, but now they are probably only remembered as two of the founders of the Onkaparinga (now Oakbank) Racing Club. Louis is my great-grandfather. After education as a foundation student at Mr Boehm's Hahndorf College, he became a lawyer, establishing a practice in Mt Barker on 1 January 1872, and later Attorney-General. He and our present shadow Attorney-General, Robert Lawson, hold the record as the South Australian Attorneys who have served the shortest terms in that office!

Hahndorf was, as you know, a settlement that attracted many German emigrants of the Lutheran faith who were fleeing the dictates of the Prussian Union Church, dictates which we would now identify as constituting religious and political persecution. They were in the first instance attracted by the condition attaching to the establishment of the colony of South Australia that there was to be religious freedom. The first contingent of emigrants was welcomed by the philanthropy and religious good spirit of George Fife Angus and others who enabled them to settle on lands at Klemzig. News of their welcome and of the potential for prosperity in this new land attracted many others seeking to escape the beliefs and disciplines expected of them in their Fatherland. Those that came with Captain Hahn in the "Zebra" soon afterwards, and settled in Hahndorf, were also the beneficiaries of kindness and support in gaining lands from the established landowners of the district.

My ancestor could lay no claim to worthy ideals for his flight to Australia, and to the benefaction of the Lord. He had been an officer in the Prussian Army who, after a late evening (and I suspect intoxicated) misadventure with a firearm found it most desirable to make a hasty departure to a far away place.

So successful was life in the mid 1800s in the emerging German settlements that it is recorded in The Cyclopedia of South Australia, that "shipload after shipload followed". Journeys now to the north, east and south of Adelaide bear witness to the cultural, religious and agricultural successes of their presence, and to their acceptance into the life of the colony, even though they chose to congregate in their own villages and to continue to speak their own language.

That history is a marvellous and revealing benchmark against which to identify and analyse influences that can fundamentally change human community behaviour. Come forward in time from the arrival of these early German emigrants by 75 - 80 years to the outbreak of the First World War, and then another 75 - 80 years to the latter half of the 1990s. Consider how attitudes have been changed by communal fear of the uncertain, by perceptions of religious, ethnic or cultural difference, and by base human self-interest in preserving the majority's patch.

You well know of the suspicions voiced, and actions taken against long established citizens of this State who were perceived to be German "Aliens" at the outbreak of the First World War - from small things such as place name changes like the Hundred of von Doussa to the Hundred of Allenby, to big things like the raid by the Defence Force on the office of the Attorney- General, Mr Homburg, and the internment of others. We look back now in horror at the violation of fundamental human rights and injustice that was perpetrated in the more serious of these responses.

Now look at Australia's response to the next wave of "shipload after shipload" of people fleeing religious, political or cultural persecution who arrived on our shores from the north.

At first we merely criticised their habit of congregating together in particular suburbs and for maintaining their own cultures and language - for establishing ghettos as some of our media suggested. Again, looking back we can see the unfairness of many of these attitudes, and I think we all enjoy the Asian foods that came with these new arrivals.

Then by the mid 1990s the pitiful cargoes of "shipload after shipload", those who were fortunate enough to survive shipwreck and drowning on the way, were immediately taken into captivity, deprived of access to their family and friends, and held in mandatory detention in conditions that we now know to have been grossly inhumane. With the benefit of Mr Palmer's recent report on the detention of Cornelia Rau and others, most of the community is once again appalled at the way Australians has treated our fellow human beings.

But are we learning anything from these pieces of our history? And more importantly, what are the lessons that we should have learned from these events?

These are matters that I hope exercise your collective and academic minds, for they are very important issues. If you embark on this here or later in your work, I ask you to contemplate this: what is the effect of some of the counter-terrorism measures our leaders are presently proposing on the two percent of our population, around 400 000 people, who are of Arab or Muslim descent. And remember more than 40 per cent of these people have been born in Australia, and over 80 per cent are Australian citizens.

On that sombre note let me return to my task. The organisers of this conference are to be congratulated. The conference has a wealth of fascinating, and I have no doubt very high-class papers on a wide breadth of subjects. Hopefully they will be available in due course at least on the Internet, so that they become a valuable research source. Certainly there are papers that I will be putting aside to study as part my retirement therapy.

It is with much pleasure that I now declare open "The German Presence in South Australia" Conference 2005, and wish you a most rewarding two days of enjoyment.


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