The Missing Fifth Dimension: The Writing of Australian History in Germany

By Holleuffer, Henriette V. | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, September 2008 | Go to article overview

The Missing Fifth Dimension: The Writing of Australian History in Germany


Holleuffer, Henriette V., The Australian Journal of Politics and History


For the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, the world of 1753 had a perfectly symmetrical design. It was well balanced between the four points of the compass and easy to depict on four walls of a castle's hall. For Tiepolo, the winds in the age of discovery blew from four directions: Europe, Asia, Africa and America. Hired by the Dukes of Wurzburg, Tiepolo had been summoned to decorate the huge Wurzburg Residenz. Between 1750 and 1753 the Venetian painted a famous ceiling fresco in the main entrance hall of Wurzburg Castle. The fresco shows an allegory of the then known four continents. Australian visitors to the castle will notice that Australia is not represented. Of course Tiepolo and his contemporaries had no knowledge of Australia. Had Australia's existence been known it would have muddled the symmetry of the fresco and disrupted the then contemporary view of the world. One could say that Tiepolo's fresco symbolizes the late intellectual discovery of Australia by most Europeans.

The Historical Background of German Overseas Studies

The view of the southern world has undergone change since 1606 when Willem Jansz sailed in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Statesmen, merchants, travellers and settlers from Europe, Asia and America added new chapters to an old Australian history that was as rich as the histories of their own continents. The main interests of statesmen and entrepreneurs who travelled overseas had been colonization and commerce. In these ventures they presented their own definitions of history (and future) to the local scene. Moreover, those who recorded local events clearly depicted the colonial theatre in European terms. Telling the Australian story from Europe's perspective meant to compare what was not comparable, to work with one-sided historical interpretation, to describe local developments without attempted adjustments to native perspectives, and to analyse a continent without being aware of the complex Australian culture which had no archival tradition itself, but which instead traced the history of her people in the signs of nature, in stone carvings and oral history. Few recognized the prologue: the mythical history of the Terra incognita. In the end, foreign historians focussed on the epilogue: they viewed Australian history as beginning with European settlement. A first permanent settlement was established at Port Jackson in 1788. Thereafter the first reporters' of history were eyewitnesses among the pioneers, settlers, convicts or soldiers. Historians started their work on Australia as second in line because historiography reflects on the history of human society but does not teach how to build a city in the outback. As the Commonwealth historian Robin W. Winks writes, that historiography "is in this sense an adventure in the history of ideas, the study of how a subject has been written about, how trends and interests in research have changed, [...]". (1) When did German-language scholarship put Australia's history on the agenda of research? (2)

Scientific research has often been shaped by political influence, financial power, national pride or imperial potency. This is also true for the humanities and historical writing. However the explorers who first wrote about Australia were not necessarily historians by profession. They travelled as surveyors, geographers, botanists, anthropologists, missionaries, artists or journalists. Explorers reported on their expeditions. They collected plants, skulls and artefacts which they distributed to museums and described in the scientific journals of the Old World. For them, Australia was part of the New World, a continent of tomorrow, a subject of future considerations. The naturalist Georg Forster illustrated this approach to the discovery of the Australian continent in a remarkable way when he sailed with James Cook on the second voyage to the South Pacific. During his stay on board the Resolution, Forster kept a diary. In May 1773 he wrote about Australia:

   There is perhaps no part of the world which so well deserves future
   investigation as the great continent of New Holland, of which we do
   not yet know the whole outline, and of whose productions we are in
   a manner entirely ignorant. … 

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