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Friedrich Gerstaecker (1816–1872)

by Leslie Bodi

This article was published:

Friedrich Gerstaecker (1816-1872), writer and traveller, was born on 10 May 1816 in Hamburg, son of Friedrich Gerstaecker (1790-1825), opera singer. At an early age he entered an office but later went on the land. In 1837 he migrated to America where he led 'a wild and adventurous life'. On his return to Germany in 1843 he established himself as a writer of travel books. Factual accounts of his own experiences and guides for intending migrants were followed by novels on American life that made him famous in Germany. In 1849 he went from South America to the goldfields of California and thence to Australia by way of the South Sea islands. He arrived in Sydney in March 1851, took a coach to Albury and attempted to paddle down the Murray River in a self-made canoe. When it was wrecked he tramped 700 miles (1127 km) to Adelaide, 'the wildest and most dangerous march' of his life. He visited the German settlements in South Australia but in August the first news of the gold strike hurried him back to Sydney and the Bathurst diggings. He next went to the Dutch East Indies but in 1852 was back in Germany as an author and journalist, living in turn in Leipzig, Gotha, Coburg, Dresden and Braunschweig. In 1860-61 he was in South America, observing the German colonists there. Next year he visited Egypt and Abyssinia, and a fourth voyage in 1867-68 took him to the United States, Mexico, Ecuador and the West Indies. In 1870 he was war correspondent for a popular journal. He died on 31 May 1872.

Gerstaecker was a prolific writer; the first edition of Gesammelte Schriften (Jena, 1872-79) in forty-three volumes is incomplete. His novels and stories, based on experience and an extensive reading of travel books, are unsophisticated narratives of exciting adventures in far-away countries, but contain much ethnographical and geographical detail. The characterization is sketchy and the descriptions of exotic nature lack polish. The great success of his books in Germany was largely due to the sharp contrast they presented between the wide world and its freedom and the narrow parochialism of German life.

The increasing flow of German migrants to Australia probably first aroused Gerstaecker's interest in the continent. In 1849 he compiled a handbook on Australia, Nord- und Süd-Australien. Ein Handbuch für Auswanderer, for intending German migrants. His Narrative of a Journey Round the World … (Stuttgart, 1853-54: English translation, London, 1853), vividly describes his adventures in Australia. His most popular Australian novels are Die beiden Sträflinge (1856; translated as The Two Convicts, 1857), an adventurous story of a noble bushranger which was serialized in the Examiner and Melbourne Weekly News from October 1859 to March 1860, and Im Busch (1864), set in gold diggings near Sydney. Both deal with problems that he found specially interesting in the Australian scene: the complex relation between convicts, bushrangers, natives and free settlers, the fate of German migrants in Australia and the exciting life of the goldfields. Many of his other works such as Blau Wasser (1858), Inselwelt (1860) and Unter Palmen und Buchen (1865) have an Australian background; in 1853 he translated Charles Rowcroft's Tales of the Colonies (Bilder aus Australien). His books were translated into several languages and, in modernized editions, some of his novels are still favoured reading of young people in German-speaking countries.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Seyfarth, Friedrich Gerstaecker (Freiburg, 1930), and for bibliography
  • A. J. Prahl, Gerstaecker und die Problems Seiner Zzeit (Mainz, 1938).

Citation details

Leslie Bodi, 'Gerstaecker, Friedrich (1816–1872)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


10 May, 1816
Hamburg, Germany


31 May, 1872 (aged 56)

Cultural Heritage

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