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The 1849/50 Voyage to Australia by The Pribislaw

by Robert Wuchatsch

The Pribislaw brought almost fifty Upper Lusatian Wends to Australia, most of whom settled in Victoria. These Wends included the Graff, Hempel, Hoehne, Kaiser, Pannach, Rosel, Schuster, Seiler, Stephan, Wuchatsch, Ziesche, Zimmer, Zschech and Zwar families.

Although the Pribislaw’s Wends emigrated from Saxony with the intention of establishing a Wendish farming settlement in Australia, their plans were disrupted when Andreas Pench, whom they had engaged to be their Lutheran pastor, died on his way to Hamburg.

The 350 tonne barque Pribislaw, built in Ribnitz in 1847, left Hamburg on 23 August 1849 with 229 passengers. As a result of the deaths of two adults and ten children during September and October, the passengers forced Captain P. W. Niemann to make an unscheduled stop at Rio de Janeiro on 27 October 1849. While in Brazil, some of the passengers signed a petition about the quality of the food and sent it to the Hamburg Consul there, Arthur Guiguer.

The passengers complained that there was a shortage of food and that the food, except for the meat, was so rotten the passengers were in danger if the vessel was permitted to continue. They also claimed that the deaths were caused by the poor state of the food.

They wrote:

Our ship bread consists mainly of pea flour and is of the worst quality, that is, hard as stone, totally mouldy and decayed and interspersed with worms…only a small portion of it was consumable…the peas and pearl barley were mainly stale and mouldy…The drinking water, being the main part of the provisions, would have stayed fresh, if it had not partly been filled into barrels which had formerly been used for fish oil and other things and therefore added an unbearable taste to the water and made it undrinkable…The butter is of the worst quality and hardly worthy of the name butter. About this we only remark so much that the people on board collected it in kegs in order to use it as wagon grease in Australia…But to show what importance butter and bread have for us, we give our daily meals here: for breakfast, coffee with bread and butter; for lunch, meat and vegetables; and for dinner, tea with bread and butter. Thus we are dependent on bread and butter for the majority of our meals. The existing flour is mouldy and part had to be given to the pigs and part thrown over board…Brazilian civil servants came on board our ship, investigated the existing leftovers of our provisions, and had them thrown overboard because they were rotten. Worms were even found in the vegetables and maggots in the butter.

As the Pribislaw was registered at Rostock in Mecklenburg, the Hamburg Consul in Rio de Janeiro passed on the petition to the Mecklenburg Consul, but the latter declined to take any action, stating that the captain was not responsible for the provisioning of the ship, since that had been undertaken by contractors in Hamburg under the supervision of the Hamburg authorities. The Mecklenburg Consul also stated he had no authority to order the captain to take fresh food on board or to prevent the ship from sailing.

Faced with this situation, the Hamburg Consul turned to the Brazilian Government, requesting that a committee investigate the ship’s provisions before it departed. The Ministry of Justice sent a commission on board the ship on 7 November 1849 which inspected the food and declared that though the meat was good there was insufficient and all the other food was not fit for animal feed and was to be thrown overboard. The captain was not permitted to continue until new supplies had been obtained. The resultant cost of reprovisioning the ship was substantial.

While in Rio de Janeiro, the Pribislaw emigrants sent a long letter of complaint back to Hamburg, signed by 57 of the passengers. In March 1850 the letter was published in the Hamburg newspaper Der Freischuetz under the title of Auswanderer-Leiden (Emigrants Sufferings). The letter also received publicity in several other newspapers, including the Rudolstadt emigration weekly Allgemeine Auswanderungs-Zeitung. This journal also published a long extract from a letter about the matter from one of the passengers, dated Rio de Janeiro 29 October 1849. A reply letter by Knorr and Janssen, the Hamburg shipping agents responsible for the Pribislaw, appeared in the newspapers a few weeks later, along with a support letter from the Hamburg official ship surveyors. The passengers received no compensation.

The sufferings of the Pribislaw’s emigrants, however, were not in vain. When the matter became widely known, the German Federal Government at Frankfurt-on-Main imposed a bond of 12,000 Marks (6,000 Thalers) on each of the principal emigration agents in Hamburg and the other German maritime cities to avoid the repetition of such inhuman conduct. Later the Senate in Hamburg enacted a regulation on emigration affairs in which emigrants to all parts of the world received security from violation or neglect of the shipping agents in respect to maintenance, permitted number of passengers of the ships etc. The Senate also established an official department for emigration affairs, combined with an information bureau, which was to administer the enacted law, assist emigrants with good advice and obtain justice in well founded complaints.

The Pribislaw finally arrived in Melbourne on 2 February 1850, having left Rio de Janeiro on 2 December. Two further unnamed adults died soon after arrival in Melbourne and were buried at Williamstown. There were also several births during the voyage.

In March 1850, the Graff, Rosel, Wuchatsch and Zimmer families, along with several other non-Wendish families who arrived aboard the Pribislaw, settled at Westgarthtown (Thomastown) sixteen kilometres north of Melbourne. Today, several old timbers from the Pribislaw, retrieved in 2005 from the Shetland Islands, form part of a Pribislaw display at Ziebell’s farmhouse, 100 Gardenia Road, Thomastown. For information about Ziebell’s farmhouse, see

A full account of the emigration of the Pribislaw Wends, along with the voyage and copies of the letters referred to above and other reports, including Carl Hoehne’s 1852 book about his emigration experiences aboard the Pribislaw are reproduced in From Hamburg to Hobsons Bay: German Emigration to Port Phillip (Australia Felix) 1848–51 by Thomas A. Darragh and Robert N. Wuchatsch (1999). This book is available for $A45 plus $A10 packing and postage, from Robert Wuchatsch, 2020 Princes Highway, Pirron Yallock, Victoria 3249.

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