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Western Australia

Hahndorf, South Australia

Text and photographs by Andrys Onsman,
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, ©2010

We decided to drive from Melbourne to Adelaide to cast a critical eye over our first grandson, Ruben. Luckily for us, he turned out to be the best grandson ever in the entire world history of grandchildren, a completely unbiased assessment. However, this story isn’t about him but about a small town in the Adelaide hills, called Hahndorf. I mean in the context of this site, how could we not stop and pay homage?

My Australian wife tends to roll her eyes when I explain that Frisians are unquestionably God’s chosen people, and Fryslân the cradle of civilisation. She simply turns away when I point out yet another obscure connection to us heitelân when looking at something completely unrelated. Occasionally I turn away myself …

So, it took some convincing to get her to look at the descriptive plaque, which plainly stated that the Hahn who bequeathed his name to this antipodean outpost, was born on the island of Sylt. Although in those days a geo-political part of Denmark and nowadays a geo-political part of Germany, Sylt is a North Frisian island and therefore this Hahn was irrefutably a Frisian! Triumphantly I turned to my wife, or at least to where my wife had been before she wandered off mid exultation.

With her away looking at flowers and small furry animals, I will have to share my suspicions that our omniscient list leader has more than one Australian connection with a more receptive audience. Surely Ron must be related to him. I mean, how common is the name Hahn? Well, yes, very common, but still… Time to find out who this man was.

The plaque doesn’t actually name him except as Captain Hahn, a spooky similarity to our beloved list leader who we all consider as our “captain, my captain”. But the most wonderful thing is that he so loved his wife that when she passed away he drank himself to death. I know it’s politically, medically and socially inappropriate but, darn, it’s so Wuthering Heights meets Romeo and Juliet via Charles Bukowski, with a dash of Kurt Cobain. And we’re talking early nineteenth century and sea voyages. I’m going for Leonardo Dicaprio in the title role.

I am also impressed by a ship that is called The Zebra. Imagine a group of Silesian refugees asking the name of the ship that will take them literally to the other end of the world. Would “The Zebra” fill you with confidence? How well can zebras swim or sail a big boat? On the other hand, embarking onto the Titanic would have filled you with a great deal of extremely unwarranted confidence and look where that would have got you. In any event, by avoiding ice-bergs and caring for his human cargo, Captain Hahn proved to be a winner by all accounts: no mid-journey deaths and passengers so grateful that they named their new town after him. What a mensch!

However, when we look at the actual details as recorded by functional historians rather than excitable frisophiles, we see that on the 28th of December 1838, Captain Dirk Meinhertz Hahn arrived in South Australia with 16 crewmen and 188 passengers in his three masted, 350 tons ship. As it had left with 199 passengers, simple maths tells me that in fact 11 passengers didn’t make it. Still, that was exceptionally good for those days.

Most impressive was the list of provisions on board: 100 barrels of pork, 100 barrels of flour, 65 barrels of fresh water, 17 hogsheads of beer and vinegar, 14 barrels of herrings, two boxes of boots and shoes, and 40,924 bricks. Assuming the bricks were mainly for ballast, and the herrings and pork were a given, and water and flour a necessity, my curiosity was aroused by the beer and vinegar. Were they in separate hogsheads? Maybe not – maybe you could get tipsy and prevent scurvy at the same time. Most importantly, were the hogsheads those of the pigs that were stored in the barrels? We may never know but at least we know the Captain’s name was Dirk. See, I told you he was Frisian.

Meinhertz is a wonderful name, isn’t it? Mein hertz: it should be a bumper sticker - I lost mein hertz in the Adelaide Hills. It is a name that predestined the veneration that his passengers had for him. Half a century later, when Australia changed the name of all of its Germanic sounding placenames in a fit of misguided patriotism, Hahndorf was temporarily called Ambleside but no one took to the new name and after the hostilities of the WW1 ceased, it was changed back. Around the country it is one of the few German words every Australian pronounces more or less correctly: Hahndorf, mate, bloody Hahndorf!

So, Captain Dirk, I will toast your humanity not with vinegar flavoured beer but a glass of beautiful Adelaide Hills pinot noir as I sit in one of the wine bars and try to imagine the Silesians trekking from the coast to here, wondering where on Earth they were going, when they would get there and hoping that everything would work out in the end. They had travelled as far from their homes as it was possible before you started going back. No wonder they were so grateful to their captain. He’d kept them alive and helped to organise the purchase of property.

When the passengers were dropped off at Point Adelaide (known cheerily by the locals as Port Misery) on the South Australian coast, they had to walk up into the Adelaide Hills for days until they found their chosen spot, the place where they had collectively bought acreage. Or if they were lucky, they got a ride in cart like this one. Not this actual one, but you get the drift. The amazing thing is that because they couldn’t afford bullocks, they pulled the carts up and down the hills by hand.

Those Lutherans must have been a plucky lot and Hell-bent on being free to worship as they wanted because they made it to the spot where I am enjoying the sunshine as much as the pinot, and founded their new home here. As a picturesque village, Hahndorf has grown very nicely into its name. Nestled in the Hills, with lush native bush and the odd vineyard down dusty country laneways, it is a huge tourist attraction. And when Adelaide gets hot (and when the summer wind blows down from the deserts up north it gets bloody hot) the locals wend their way up here to get some relief from the hot red dust. The place can get crowded.

The settlers kept in contact with Dirk Hahn. Every year until he died in 1860, the settlers wrote to the Captain informing him of their progress. A few years before his demise, presumably when he was fully pre-occupied with trying to sluice the loss of his wife from his thoughts with alcohol, he must have been pleased to read that they had built a wonderful new structure called the Hahndorf Academy, a building that still stands today, as evidenced by the snap below.

It was, I suppose, inevitable that the town would change and it has, but despite its increasing tackiness and slow creep towards becoming an outer suburb for Adelaide’s rich folk, you can still see the Lutheran church with its graveyard of tombstones bearing Germanic names and dates from that first group. Photos of the gravestones are up on the web if you are interested. The local hall still has a sign up for free German lessons and when there is a knees-up the locals will still do the polonaise to the sound of an oompah pah band and piano accordions.

So hats off to you, Dirk Hahn, famous son of Sylt and father of Hahndorf. Even now you are far from forgotten by the founding families: a hundred and seventy years later after you brought them here, their descendants unveiled a statue of you. Fair enough, too. Thanks to you a small groups of people who were persecuted for their religious beliefs in their own land, got a chance to start again in the Antipodes. And they grabbed it with both hands and made a raging success of it. I don’t see much of Reinhard in your features — although I have never met either of you and I base my judgement entirely on a tiny Facebook photo and a stolen photo of a sculpture – but I reckon that there must be some connection.

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