Amalie Dietrich: A Singular Botanical and Natural History Collector in Nineteenth Century Australia

By Moyal, Ann | M A R G I N: life & letters in early Australia, November 2009 | Go to article overview

Amalie Dietrich: A Singular Botanical and Natural History Collector in Nineteenth Century Australia


Moyal, Ann, M A R G I N: life & letters in early Australia


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The Australian Colonies attracted their fair share of foreign naturalists and the presence of German botanical collectors and scientists tended to form a recurring theme in nineteenth century scientific investigation. Baron von Hugel and Ludwig Preiss had botanised in the Swan River Colony in the 1830s and early 1840s and these early flora prospectors carried unique collections back to Europe. In the 1840's Ludwig Leichhardt, a proficient student of botany and natural science, collected through a sweep of country from Sydney to Moreton Bay and on his expedition overland to Port Essington before he and his party disappeared without a trace on his third overland journey to look for an inland sea. Some of Leichhardt's specimens found their way to cabinets in France and Germany though he himself felt a strong patriotic desire to keep his collections in his adopted country

Ferdinand von Mueller's presence as Government Botanist in Victoria was another reminder of the teutonic presence in Australian botany, a situation which at times raised hackles and provoked xenophobia. Yet as New South Wales's pre-eminent geologist, the Rev. W.B. Clarke wisely observed in 1844, 'If foreign naturalists come amongst us to carry away the spoils of nature, Englishmen did the same in Germany and France and Russia, and anyhow the bounds of knowledge are increased'.

One of the most unusual German 'intruders' was a woman, Konkordie Amalie Dietrich (1821-1891) and it fell to the Godeffroy Museum of Natural History in Hamburg to enjoy the unique distinction of employing a woman collector to explore, amass, and consign to them botanical and natural history materials from Eastern Australia. Born at Siebenlehn, Saxony, the daughter of a leather-maker, and educated at the village school, Amalie Nelle developed her passionate interest in botany when in 1847 she met and married Wilhelm Dietrich, a member of a family long associated with botany and botanical taxonomy, who made a living by collecting botanical and natural history objects and selling them to institutions, scholars and apothecaries. An eager disciple of her husband's craft, Amalie rapidly became the key member of the collecting team. She travelled on foot across Germany, Belgium and Holland at first with her husband, but when amorous diversions lured him to other flowers, then alone with her daughter, Charitas.

In 1863 she made contact with the Pacific trader, G. J. Godeffroy, who, while at first reluctant, was persuaded by Amalie's scientific clients to engage her as a collector in Australia. 'Frau Dietrich', wrote one botanical expert on her behalf, 'has exceptional talent for her profession, a well-tried eye for all that Nature presents, and a great certainty in the classification of collected material.' She was also a willing work-horse. 'On her long and remarkable journeys', he added, 'she has invariably shown remarkable perseverance and fortitude'.

Surprisingly Godeffroy offered her a ten year contract, but before entrusting her to her career, he taught how to handle firearms, to skin and eviscerate birds and mammals, and--eager for Aboriginal relics--how to pack human skulls and skeletons. He also fitted her out with a workmanlike 'trousseau' including a pocket lens, a microscope, 6 insect cages, rags for packing, 6 tins of spirits, 20 pounds of tow, 5 quires of tissue paper, some bottles for live snakes, gunpowder and small shot, percussion caps, 100 jars and stoppers, and 2 boxes of poison. With her she carried David Dietrich's Plant Lexicon, an English Dictionary and some English lesson books though Amalie's command of English remained rudimentary.

This small, stockily-built explorer arrived in Brisbane aboard La Rochelle in August 1863. She had left her daughter, Charitas in the care of friends but kept in touch with her by letters, which, published by her daughter, form the basis of our knowledge. 'With truly festive feeling', she wrote Charitas on arrival, 'I slung over my shoulder my case filled with flour, salt, tea, and matches, put on my large straw hat, and set off on my wanderings'. …

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