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The Helene 1851

by Kevin Zwar


One hundred and forty years ago the barque Helene sailed to Australia with 92 Sorbs/Wends on board from Lusatia. It was probably the most significant group of Wends to ever come out to Australia.

The leader of the largest group of Wends to come to Australia was Johann Zwar. His younger brother Michael had come out in the Prubislav, which landed in Melbourne Feb. 3rd 1850. Johann had asked Michael to write and tell Johann what it was like in Australia because he might come out too. Michael’s experiences were so bad that he did not write for several years after leaving home. He could not bear to write home until he had bought some land to show that he was not a failure and it was not a mistake to go out to Australia.

I used to ask migrants who came out to Australia in the 1950’s why they worked so hard. Some would try and hold down two jobs at once if they could! And one day one of them said, “When you leave your home and relatives and friends in Europe they say: Why are you going? What is wrong with living here? So you had to prove to them that you were not making a mistake, and that you were in fact doing better in Australia than they were at home. As soon as you could earn some money you put a deposit on a car, and sent home a photo of yourself and your car. After several years you could put down a deposit on a piece of land. Then a few years later you paid the deposit on your own home, and you sent a photo home to show people how quickly you were advancing in life more quickly than if you had stayed at home. The Wends who came to Australia last century did the same. Johann Mirtschin came out on the Helene and he waited three years before he wrote his first letter home and mentioned that he had bought some land.

By the time Michael Zwar wrote home to tell his brother Johann what it was like in Australia, Johann had already left home. Somewhere out in the oceans two ships passed one going to Europe with Michael’s letter, and the Helene bringing Johann and his wife and daughter and about 90 other Wends to Australia. In his letter Michael Zwar had written, saying in effect, “If you can manage at home in Lusatia, then stay there. If things are really bad then come to Australia, but be prepared to … work very hard … Make up your own mind.”
The Helene was a 3 masted sailing vessel (and therefore called a barque) of 410 tons. She belonged to the Johan Cesar Godeffroy line, originally a French name and soon the largest shipowner. In 1849 some of their ships first came to Adelaide and Melbourne. In 1850 their company took 80,000 German emigrants overseas, mainly to the Americas. In 1852 they took 150,000, including 8 loads to Australia. In 1854 they took 230,000, including 42 shiploads to Australia.
I sometimes wonder why people came to Australia before the gold rushes started in 1851. It cost twice as much to come to Australia compare to the journey to America.

The Helene was to make her maiden voyage and it was planned for her to sail on August 20th, 1851. There would be some delays.

Ninety two Wendish citizens left Bautzen at about 2 o’clock on Saturday 16th August by train and hoped to arrive in Hamburg on the following day. The first evening they missed their train at Dresden. There had been a mix up over tickets. A special arrangement had been made so that the poor who had certification of their poverty from the Government would travel for free. While trying to sort this out their train left. They spent the night in Dresden, spending the evening singing Wendish hymns. They left at 5 am the next morning and traveled to Leipzig, singing most of the way. At midday they left for Halle. This was actually not the shortest or quickest route to Hamburg.

They chose the longer route because they were deeply religious people. Halle was the home of outstanding pietists who had inspired a religious movement where people took their faith very seriously and met in groups for Bible Study and prayer. Halle was also the home of a Seminary which trained pastors for mission work overseas. One of the students, Carl Jentsch, was a Wend at the Seminary from their own area and they had been trying to convince him to go to Australia and minister to them. I have a note written in Wendish by Johann Zwar to Carl Jentsch to say that he had called on Carl but he could not wait till Carl arrived home as Johann had to catch the train to Hamburg. Carl Jentsch did not go to Australia. As a student he was already an important personality in the Wendish national movement. Later he became a pastor and wrote a lot of famous works about Wendish history and literature. The note is also interesting for me because it is the only hand written Wendish that 1 have seen from last century. The note is also important for us because it passes on greetings to Jentsch from Jan Smoler, who was also a friend of Johann Zwar. Smoler was a publisher, academic and organiser, and the leading figure in the Sorbish national movement of the 19th century. Johann Zwar sent Smoler letters describing the journey of the Helene. These were printed in the Wendish newspaper and copies are in the archives in the Wendish Institute in Bautzen and give us a good picture of the journey of the Helene to Australia. The close connection with Jentsch and Smoler are important because they show that the travellers to Australia were very conscious of their Wendish heritage. They would later be the only group to establish a Wendish school in Australia.

From Halle the travellers went to Magdeburg and Wittenberg, both important places for them because of the connection with their religious reformer Martin Luther. They stayed overnight at Wittenberg and travelled to Hamburg on August 18th. They booked into the “Stadt Neuyork” guest house where they enjoyed the spacious rooms and the good meals in the next days. They were particularly pleased with the landlord because they had heard that you could not trust anyone further than you could see them in Hamburg!

Originally they were not to travel on the Helena, but on a larger ship. However a group of 40 emigrants from Silesia did not arrive and sent word that they would only be coming to Hamburg in October, so a smaller ship was prepared, and this was the Helene. The travellers had sent a lot of luggage ahead and this had already been loaded. This caused problems because it was loaded in the hold of the ship and included some luggage they needed on the journey. and there was also no room left for a lot more luggage they had brought with them. Some was left behind to be brought in October. The rest had to be unloaded. This so annoyed the wharfies that they deliberately loaded some personal luggage in the bottom of the hold out of spite. So the whole lot had to be unloaded again and reloaded a third time, and by now the atmosphere was not too good, to say the least! Then there was a problem with the price charged for their goods. It was far more than they had been led to expect. Only when Johann Zwar sat down to write a letter to the police did the supervisor come and make amicable arrangements. As well as the usual provisions for the journey they loaded 60 sheep, several pigs and some poultry, and feed for all the animals. The anchor was raised on Saturday 23rd and they moved to Glueckstadt.

On the Sunday they tried out the arrangements for Sunday services which worked well for the whole journey. The Germans had their service in the morning and the Wends in the afternoon. Then bad weather held them up and they did not travel from Glueckstadt to Cuxhaven until September 3rd. “Today, on September 4 we are sailing on the high seas” Johann Zwar wrote to Smoler, and signed off his first letter, “On the high seas near Cuxhaven, September 4, 1851. Johann Zwar”

The Helene sailed with 128 passengers, including 92 Wends. At first the adults were seasick, and then the children. Three years later when Johann Mirtschin wrote his first letter home the sad events were still vivid in his mind. He wrote:
19th September 1854

“Soon after we boarded our ship with our two children Andreas and Marga became ill with diarrhoea. I immediately called the doctor. As soon as we were afloat, we met with very stormy weather and most of us became seasick. At first our children were less affected than we older ones. We soon recovered but the two children became weaker every day and, in spite of the doctor’s efforts, Marga died at five in the morning of October 14th.”

Because of the warm weather the burial took place without delay. She was wrapped in white linen and tied to a board. All on board Germans as well as Sorbs attended and were much moved. First we sang the hymn: ‘Now calmly in the grave we lay’. Then the captain came forward, removed his cap and offered a prayer. Two sailors slowly lowered the body into the ocean.
My wife and I now nursed Andreas with special care and prayed that God would grant us the joy of his recovery. However his condition deteriorated and on October 26th, at 7 in the evening he died. All the Sorbs held a memorial evening, sang songs and hymns and closed the evening with prayer. On the next day we buried him, like his sister, with German and Sorbish address, and the singing of a hymn.”
Several weeks later Andreas Ponich’s three month old son died and was buried at sea on the following day, November 10th.

Once when they were close to the African coast and there were no winds there were 16 ships moving around so close to each other that the captains could speak to each other through speaking tubes. Another day they caught an albatross, attached a little board with the message
‘The ship “Helene” OF HAMBURG 1851′
and let it go. This is an interesting variation on the message in a bottle!

Normally the German ships would go to Rio de Janiero in Brazil to take on fresh water and provisions. It would also be the first time the Germans and Wends would see and taste oranges! 1 have recently become aware that a number of English shipping lines also called at Rio. Then they would sail directly south until they were nearing the Antartic icebergs and there they would catch the powerful westerlies which would take them quickly to Australia. The Helene did not call in at Rio because it left late from Cuxhaven.

On November 21st they caught the strong winds and Zwar reports: “the waves played with our ship as though it were a ball. ….We had to tie down the kitchen utensils and if we wished to eat out of a dish or bowl we had to hold it firmly, otherwise things would fly everywhere.’ Two days later they struck an even worse storm. To get an idea of how far south they had sailed, they passed south of the Edward Islands, way below Africa, and on November 27th it began to snow and those who did not have warm clothes suffered terribly from the cold. The same evening a fierce gale struck and they believed everything would be smashed to pieces and they cried to God for mercy. Days later the gale still blew.

Zwar’s wife was due to give birth. A huge wave suddenly hurled itself over the ship, covered the deck and water rushed between decks. Boxes, cups and boots and other items were floating round everywhere. Beds and pillows were soaked. In the afternoon a son was born. Johann reports: “All went well and our new little son was baptized on December 14th. He was a healthy child which caused us to be very happy. However our joy was soon taken according to God’s will, for he passed away after several days and was buried at sea on December 21st, not far from the first Australian island.” (near Kangaroo Island).

On Christmas Eve they reached Port Adelaide, and on Christmas day they set foot on land. Zwar reported that their journey had been very pleasant particularly due to the love the travellers showed towards each other. He gives a brief description of the daily routine:
“We had daily divine services. Soon after breakfast we mostly assembled on deck where the men for the greater part smoked a pipe, others tailored men’s garments with the women sewing or mending dresses. The men engaged in discussions concerning Christian doctrine or mundane affairs …. Concerning the meals, everyone regarded them according to their taste, the one sweet and the other sour, the third thin, the fourth thick. You can not please everyone.”

On their arrival at Port Adelaide they sent Ponich off quickly to Rosedale (near the Barossa Valley) to let their friends and fellow Wends there know to come and visit them before the Helene left for Melbourne.
In Adelaide they learned that the Rosedale people had sold their land and after
harvest they intended to go to Portland Bay in Victoria. The suggestion was made for the Helene Wends to unload, help with the harvest, and then to go to Vivtoria together. The Helene people wondered if it was worth unloading in Adelaide only to have to load again in a few months. They rented a house in Port Adelaide to store their goods and travelled to Rosedale where they helped with the harvest.

Only a few of the Helene Wends moved on to Victoria the next year. The majority settled in the Barossa Valley and their settlement became known as Ebenezer. It was one of the two key Wendish settlements in South Australia last century. The other was Peter’s Hill.
At Ebenezer they had devotions in their homes in Wendish, and lay reading services. For a few years they had a Wendish school. It is the only Wendish school that 1 know of in Australia. This gave way to the German school. Many of the Wends also spoke and were fluent in German, although some of the women and children could only speak Wendish. In time they all went to school or church where the German language was used. The parents would speak to the children at home in Wendish and the children would reply in German. A generation or two later and the parents would speak to the children at home in German and the children or grandchildren would reply in English.
Ebenezer never became a town. The Lutheran church was the centre of the community and it is still interesting to visit the church and cemetery today. When the Lutheran Church celebrated it’s 50th anniversary in Australia in 1888, Johann Zwar gave an elderly layman’s recollection in a paper at the celebrations. He recalled how they could not simply join the Lutheran congregation when they arrived. They were first subject to a lengthy public examination on their teachings, with great details about the Second Coming of Christ. When they passed the examination Zwar announced that his group was not prepared to join up with just anyone, so he conducted a public examination of the congregation they intended to join! His history of the first fifty years is mainly taken up with strife among the Lutheran congregations in the Barossa Valley.

In 1852 nine families travelled to Portland in Victoria. This included three families from the Helene, Mirtschin, Hundrak and Burger. The Mirtschin family travelled by ship to watch over the furniture and goods the group sent this way. Unfortunately some of the furniture and goods had to be thrown overboard in a storm when it was feared the ship might founder. The other families joined together in an overland trek with oxen and carts and cattle. Andreas Albert records:
“On 26th April we left on our journey to Portland Bay, going overland with carts and all the cattle. Our journey went very well. In the evening we rested and the cattle were left out on the the grazing ground. We each lit a big fire as required, mostly with several families together. Then we cooked and also baked bread bread ….. In the evening each rested with his own family in the wagon. However the large families erected a tent or a tent cover. Each could sleep in peace and quiet because there are no wild beasts here except kangaroos and dingoes. Those who went overland (as well as Albert, the letter writer) were Michael Deutscher, A. Deutscher, G. Petschel, J. Rentsch, J. Hundrak, P. BURGER, J. HUF from Hoffnungsthal. … On 26th May we came to Portland Bay, with everyone healthy and in good spirits.
We all obtained accomodation there because at the time there were many empty houses there as many people had gone seeking gold.” All the families were Vends except the Huf family. A detailed account of the journey has been written up in the excellent Deutscher Family History Book.
One of the Burger girls worked as a maid in the Henty home. Her brothers worked for a land surveyor. Andreas Albert earnt money carting firewood. He describes Portland as appearing to be bigger than Adelaide.

The Portland Wends had hoped to buy farming land immediately but it was either too expensive or the land had not been surveyed off, so they had to wait. Land became available at Hamilton but it was too expensive for most of them at about four pounds per acre. The surveying of land was a problem in South Australia and Victoria in the early years. The governments could not get the land surveyed off as quickly as people wanted to buy it. So they often surveyed it off in areas of a square mile, which was far more than most people could afford, so groups of families clubbed together and bought a square mile (640 acres) and then divided it up between themselves. When land became available near Mount Rouse the families Albert, Burger, Mirtschin, Urban, Stephan and Schmidt clubbed together and bought 1200 acres. It is near the present town of Penshurst. They were the founding members of the Tabor congregation which was the main Wendish congregation in the Western part of Victoria. Even before leaving South Australia the families had sent a call to Pastor Schurmann who was in South Australia working among the aborigines. He accepted their call and arrived in Portland before the families had even bought land. This caused some difficulties. He spent the rest of his life in the Hamilton area. One congregation called their settlement and later a town ‘Hochkirch’ after the Wendish town and church centre near Bautzen in Lusatia. During the first world war the name was changed to Tarrington.

When land became available in the Wimmera area in the 1870’s a number of families from the Hamilton District moved north and settled there permanently. The Hamilton and Wimmera districts became the main areas of strength for the Lutheran Church in Victoria.

Another group of families made a trek from Ebenezer in South Australia in 1868. Fifty six people in 14 covered wagons and 2 spring carts left Ebenezer on 13th October for the Albury district in New South Wales. They included 3 families who had come out on the Helene, Michael Wenke and his wife and now their six children, Andreas Mickan and his wife and 7 children and Andreas Lieschke and his wife and 5 children. The other families were: Klemke (9 altogether another Klemke family (of 6), Fischer (7), Terlich (5), Hennersdorf (3) and two single men in Ferdinand Schmidt and Wilhelm Luhrs.
Johann Zwar travelled with the group for several days until they reached the River Murray and then made a farewell speech.

The trek generally followed the Murray. Each morning and evening Father Klemke, their spiritual leader, led them for a devotion. About 19th November they reached Albury where they created quite a deal of excitement and interest. After a few hours they moved off for Dight’s Forest (now Jindera) and the next day moved on again and set* up a camp while they looked for suitable land to buy. They found and bought land nearby and called their settlement Ebenezer., after their home in South Australia. There was already a town by that name in New South Wales so they had to change it and they called the District and Town Walla Walla”, the name of the adjoining sheep station.

Walla Walla became the key Wendish area in New South Wales. It also became the strongest area by far for the Lutheran Church in New South Wales as many more families moved into the area. Andreas Mickan, who had also come out to Australia in the Helene moved with his family to Walla Walla in 1875. Today there is a Lutheran Secondary College at Walla, the the only one in New South Wales.


There are five main reasons why 1 consider the Helenegroup of Wends to be the most significant to come to Australia.

  1.  It was the largest group of Wends to come on a ship to Australia.
  2. They made the most effort of any group of Wends to establish the Wendish language and culture in Australia. For a brief time of about 5 years they ran a Wendish school at Ebenezer in South Australia. Their efforts to establish the Wendish culture failed. They didn’t have a Wendish speaking pastor. Only one ever came out to Australia, Pastor Kappler, (1848) and he ministered to Wendish families, mainly in South Australia. But the Wends would scatter in different directions as land became available in different areas, like the mid north of South Australia, the Hamilton and Wimmera Districts in Victoria and the Walla Walla district in New South Wales. Pastor Kappler travelled to Melbourne several times but the Wends there moved on too, particularly during the gold rushes, and he even followed them there too, but they were always too scattered to form a Wendish settlement and congregation.
  3. The Helene group established one of the two main Wendish centres in South Australia, Ebenezer, in the Barossa Valley.
  4. Families from the Helene joined in the trek to the Western District of Victoria, where they were foundation members for the Tabor community and church, the strongest Wendish area in Victoria.
  5. Families from the Helene joined in the trek from Ebenezer in South Australia to Walla Walla in New South Wales, where they were foundation members of the strongest Wendish community and the Lutheran Church in New South Wales.