Pastor Ian Shelton
Toowoomba City Church, Queensland
|The fleet consisted of three sailing ships
carrying approximately 500 Lutherans from Prussia, fleeing persecution
and seeking freedom in a new land.
The ships, separated by a few weeks, arrived over the period from November 18, 1838 until January 25, 1839. 1988 marks the 150th anniversary of this event.
These first German settlers were an amazing people who deserve to be honoured as Pilgrim Fathers. Their story is not one whit less impressive than that of the American Pilgrims who sailed in the Mayflower.
In Prussia, King Friedrich Wilhelm III issued his 1830 decree attempting to create a State Church with a new liturgy. Many Lutherans refused this move and sought to maintain the right to worship as they saw fit.
Years of persecution followed as the king attempted to enforce the decree. Pastors lost their pulpits, goods were confiscated and people imprisoned.
Congregations were barred from their own churches by soldiers. They then met in homes, cellars, barns, forests and quarries.
In one place soldiers drove the people from their church with sword and bayonet. It was Christmas Eve and the people had stood guard in the snow all night. As the soldiers charged, beating the Lutherans down, the only resistance was the singing of a hymn.
They were publicly decreed as rebels, separatists, dissenters, seducers, stiff necked Lutherans and so on.
Through it all faith was strengthened and even revival broke out. One who experienced it wrote, "It was a glorious religious awakening in which God's Spirit breathed. Young and old, great and small, youths and maidens, husbands and wives began to pray. School boys held prayer meetings. We assembled together for evening devotions and the Word of God moved our hearts."1
In a secret synod of 1835 God spoke to them from scripture. "When they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another."2
While 1,000 did emigrate to America, the Australian connection was yet to develop under Pastor Kavel.
Kavel also had seen revival in his Klenzig congregation. However, after being put out of the State Church on the grounds of his own non-compliance he was forced into conducting services in private homes and forests.
The government brought pressure to bear on these good people and thus they found themselves in a desperate plight. Emigration seemed the only solution.
While considering America as a destination, Pastor Kavel heard of the wealthy British businessman, George Fife Angas. He journeyed to London to meet him.
Angas was a director of the South Australia Company plus having extensive shipping and land interests. He was also a man of faith and vision who saw the new colony as a haven for those seeking religious freedom.
He wrote, "My great object was, in the first instance, to provide a place of refuge for pious Dissenters of Great Britain, who could in their new home discharge their consciences before God in civil and religious duties without any disabilities."3
Angas was deeply moved by the plight of the Germans and at considerable financial risk to himself eventually financed all three ships to the new colony.
He wanted honest, industrious and pious colonists and these characteristics were evident in the faithful Lutherans. Angas had written in his diary, "For the success of the colony I look only to God... If only I succeed in securing God-fearing people, God will bless that land."
So in 1836 deliverance seemed imminent and the joyous Germans sold properties and made ready. But it was not to be. The Prussian government extended its domination declaring, "No emigration and no toleration."4
Finally the King relented after two years of struggle and June 1818 saw the first contingent make ready to sail on the Prince George.
As the pilgrims departed their village for the port city of Hamburg it was not only joy that was evident but also many tears as they made last embraces with remaining loved ones. Thousands saw them off. The scene was indescribable.
These people were following their God into the unknown. Laugher and tears mingled together.
The presence of the immigrants waiting on river barges in Hamburg made quite an impact on the city.
Their hymn singing floated across the harbour and attracted many. One city senator on hearing the singing rowed out to investigate and was greatly impressed and amazed over all he saw. Everything about them reflected a good and orderly people. He was amazed that they had been forced out of their homeland by persecution.
Captain Hahn of the second ship, Zebra, mentioned in his diary that this beautiful singing attracted so many on board that there was no room to move about.5
The Prince George sailed first of all to Plymouth to pick up their beloved pastor who for those two years had remained with Angas in London.
A moving scene unfolded as Angas came aboard to meet the immigrants. They flooded around him all wanting to express gratitude to the man who had made their deliverance possible.
They kissed his hands (and even the big rugged men among them could not hold back the tears) as they thanked him. He fled off to inspect the ship in order to hide his own emotion.
Later he addressed the gathering, reminding them that from this very port the American Pilgrim Fathers had set sail many years previous.
Commending them to the care and blessing of God the whole company knelt down on the deck and prayed.
The three ships, sailing several weeks apart, set their bows towards the southern seas with its promise of a new land and a new life.
The journey was long and tedious. In the case of the Zebra 4 and 1/2 months.
Captain Hahn for one was deeply moved by his passengers and wrote in his diary: "I could not sufficiently admire the steadfastness with which these people had remained true to their faith after years of daily persecution, during which time they travelled for miles, hiding in the woods, to receive the Lord's Supper from Lutheran pastors who wandered about as fugitives. In the absence of pastors, those who considered themselves capable gave addresses to the others. This they did also on the ship... Seldom have I witnessed so touching a scene as when I saw in the evening the whole deck full of people on their knees beseeching God's blessing and protection for their undertaking. Every evening they made intercession for the king who had persecuted them."6
To add to the struggles and sufferings already borne, a number died on the journey. Unknown diseases struck them down. Especially tragic was the death of so many children.
A fourth ship, the Skjold which sailed in 1841 averaged three funerals a week. A total of 46 deaths.
"And yet, mid their tears, the brave survivors of the Skjold lift up their voices in praise and thanksgiving to Him who through much tribulation had brought them to the haven of hope and peace."7
Initially the "Promised Land" did not open its arms to the new settlers. They arrived in the heat of summer. The Port was one of misery with no housing, and even the drinking water had to be brought from some miles distance.
The English colonists displaying racial prejudice were wary of the Germans at first. They feared they would add to the employment difficulties in Adelaide.
However, it was a misplaced fear. The Lutherans made it clear that they had come to Australia to establish a Christian community and thus desired to remain together as much as possible.
The Prince George settlers established and built their village of Klemzig while the Zebra group built the village of Hahndorf naming it after their captain who had done so much to assist them. These beautiful villages were on the German model, with the church taking centre place.
The industrious Germans set to work on their new land and soon won the admiration of the English.
Governor Gawler said they were model colonists and would like to see 100,000 of them settle in South Australia.
Their faith had been stiffened and strengthened by years of hardship. The many inconveniences in the pioneer colony were often the subject of grumbling to the English, but not so to the pious and contented Germans. They had already suffered so much and besides they now breathed the precious air of freedom.
An English visitor of 1842 had this to say,
"I take for my picture the little village of Hahndorf... To those who have not seen that truly rural and pretty spot, I may just mention that it is distant from Adelaide about 18 miles, and is watered by a little stream which falls into the Onkaparinga. It occupies about 240 acres, mostly good land... It contains about 300 inhabitants. The appearance of the cottages, which are all of a very foreign air, and the neat and sprightly gardens adjoining, when contrasted with the dark and sombre masses of foliage of the neighbouring woods, have an extremely picturesque effect. Though the people are of a very sedate aspect, still there is around everything a certain air of lightness, cleanliness and neatness, that at once catches the attention."
The general feeling is summed up in a letter from a settler to a friend in Prussia.
"Come to South Australia, where you will enjoy the freedom still denied you in Prussia. There is any amount of good land still available. If you come, you will rejoice when you see the conditions prevailing in this wonderful land... You know I had exactly one shilling when I landed here. Now after but one year in Australia, I own cows and pigs and poultry and above all a fine vegetable garden, etc, etc. Once more I say: Come to this free land and share God's blessings with us."9