The Last of Silesia: Barossa Settlers

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Another oldie but goodie – an article published by ACNE magazine to tie in with their work with Penfolds.

Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Solus Christus… Lutherans believe that God made the world, and Barossans believe that Lutherans made them. The Lutheran churches in the Barossa’s towns and villages are conspicuous examples of the region’s Silesian heritage, with four Lutheran churches in Tanunda alone.

The eldest son of Friedrich Wilhelm II, and nephew of “Friedrich der Große”, who captured Silesia in 1740, Friedrich Wilhelm III (1770–1840) came to the Prussian throne in 1797. Wilhelm was a member of the Reformed (that is, Calvinist) church, a different but essentially no less rigid version of Lutheranism. A year after becoming King, Wilhelm issued a decree for a new, common liturgical Agende book to be published, for use in both the Lutheran and Reformed congregations. This was not an unusual practice, and had been done before: Elizabeth I had similarly provided equally for Catholic and Protestant with her 1559 Book of Common Prayer. On October 31, 1817, Friedrich Wilhelm decreed that the Lutheran and Reformed Churches were to unite under the one Church (the “Union”), to be administered as a department of the State. Pertinently, on the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession of 25 June 1530, Wilhelm introduced another new Agende that was made compulsory for all Protestant churches in Prussia.

August Ludwig Christian Kavel (1798–1860) was ordained as Pastor at the fourteenth century church of Klemzig in 1826. Klemzig was a small Silesian town in what is now the Lubuskie province of western Poland, closer to Berlin than to Warsaw. Today, Klępsk, as it now called, is a town of some 600 people, and the wooden Lutheran church that Kavel preached at is still standing. In the 1830s, Silesia was a mix of Lutherans and Calvinists, with Catholic Poland to the east. Kavel was not one of the religious hotheads of Barossa myth; indeed, he used (albeit reluctantly) the 1830 Agende when it was introduced. However, influenced by the writings of the dissenting (and hot-headed) Lutheran Johann Gottfried Schiebel, he became increasingly troubled by the seeming incompatibility of obedience to the King and obedience to his faith. Kavel wrote to the King in January 1835 informing him that he would no longer use the Agende and on Easter Monday, Kavel was removed from the ministry and prohibited from practicing as a pastor. His congregation was also prohibited from using the church premises, and participating in any worship services presided by suspended pastors. All of this planted in Kavel’s mind the seeds of a plan to migrate to a place where he and his flock could practice their faith unharassed.

During his visit to Hamburg, Kavel learned of opportunities to migrate to South Australia, which had been declared a colony by the British government in 1834. The city of Adelaide was named after the German Prinzessin Adelheid Amalie Luise Therese Carolin, wife of King William IV. Kavel travelled to London in 1836 to meet George Fife Angas (1789–1879), a strongly religious Scottish Congregationalist and sympathetic to the cause of the Lutheran dissenters. Angas himself migrated in 1851; Angaston was named after him. Unlike the eastern Australian convict colonies of New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania, South Australia was a planned free settlement, founded in a spirit of idealism rather than as a sociological or political creation, and designed as an opportunity for honest, hardworking men and women to establish a new life. The philanthropic Angas was enthralled by this vision and formed the South Australia Company to purchase land from the South Australian Association.

It took two years for the Old Lutherans to gain permission to move to Australia. The Deutscher Bund government’s official stance was that it was fearful of Germans emigrating to a far away and unknown continent. The British Government also had strict conditions for immigrants from countries other than Britain, but Europeans with winemaking skills were allowed because there was at that time no wine industry to speak of in Britain. In the meantime, Kavel spent some time in London, working in the docks and improving his English. In 1837 the Barossa Ranges were discovered and named by South Australia’s first Surveyor-General Colonel William Light, who named the region after the site of an English victory over the French during the Spanish Peninsular War. Cartographers misspelled La Barrossa, which, according to Noris Iannou, means “hill of red soil/mud,” not the more romantic “hill of roses,” as is commonly believed.

Finally, in 1838, Angas chartered four ships on behalf of Kavel’s people, the three-masted, 350-ton barques Prince George, Bengalee, Zebra and Catharina. On 20 November 1838, the first wave of German settlers, including Pastor Kavel, arrived in South Australia on the Prince George. One month later a second group of Lutherans arrived on the Zebra, which was captained by Dirk Hahn, who gave his name to Hahndorf in the Adelaide Hills. Captain Hahn kept a notebook that gives a remarkable insight into the long voyages endured by emigrants – the Zebra departed Hamburg in August 1838 and arrived in Adelaide on 2 February 1839, a sea journey of six months. “They had to emigrate from Prussia because of their faith”, wrote Hahn, “but I could not sufficiently admire their steadfastness in remaining true to their faith after eight years of daily persecution, even when they couldn’t meet together as a congregation, after their preachers had been driven away from them.”

Failed harvests (especially the Great Irish Famine from 1845–1849), revolutions, riots… The 1840s were lean times throughout Europe and these events certainly led to more migration from Silesia and elsewhere, but not every arrival in South Australia from Germany was a persecuted saint. Most were probably men, women and children from humble backgrounds whose hungry hands – unlike those in the eastern colonies – had not been caught in the till. In 1840, the South Australia Company’s Mine and Quarry Agent Johann Menge told Angas, “I am satisfied that New Silesia will furnish the province with such a quantity of wine that we shall drink it as cheap as in Cape Town, and we shall see vineyards and orchards which are matchless in this colony.” Menge, a German geologist and linguist, had met Angas while he was teaching in England in the 1830s. Encouraged to emigrate south by Angas, he arrived in South Australia (with the colonists who established Adelaide) aboard the Coromandel in 1836, arriving in Adelaide on 17 January 1837, a full year before the arrival of Kavel’s flock. He initially named the Barossa region Neu Schlesien, or “New Silesia”, and was ascetic to the point of eccentricity, for a while living in a cave at Jacob’s Creek. Despite such behaviour, which led to his dismissal from the South Australia Company in 1838, Menge was the first person to recognize the potential of the Barossa for wine and assisted the resettlement of Lutherans from the Adelaide Hills to Neu Schlesien. His geological exploration of the Barossa anticipated Dr John Gladstone’s work in Margaret River by 130 years.

Farmers, tradesmen and miners were the largest groups to migrate, all of which led to the settlements becoming entirely self-sufficient communities. Viticulture was part of the mixed agricultural practice hufendorf, a traditional German type of mixed, self-sufficient farming in “strips.” These hufendorf settlements had cottages lining a main street, with a common pasture next to a creek. Each family had a strip of land that ended at the common pasture, permitting access to water and to the main road. The “strips” could be up to a kilometre long, ensuring that farmers had an equal share of fertile and less fertile land. Tenants gradually became landowners and, within a few years, many settlers had taken up British nationality, though naturalisation was a requirement for land ownership. The Real Property Act in 1858, initiated by Robert Torrens, legislated for the transfer of property when bought and sold and replaced the English Deeds system. “The Torrens System” used a central state register of land holdings, so that those included in the register had indefeasible title to their land. The system is still used today in Australia.

Grapes were initially grown for sustenance rather than profit, and wine was produced for both domestic and liturgical use. Viticulture was part of the Silesian economy and in South Australia this rural activity gradually became an industry. The Empire – or at least Britain – needed wine, and South Australia was able to provide it. The commercial wine industry developed from the 1850s onwards, with a ready market in England via the English settlers, who also needed a domestic supply of wine, though South Australia’s domestic market was much smaller, then as now, than the other colonies at Sydney or Melbourne. Château Tanunda, built 1888–1890 with a blend of English and German money, was the first large-scale winemaking concern in the region and established the tradition of wineries as an outlet for growers’ grapes: By the time of Tanunda’s construction, there were well over 500 growers in the Barossa. The Lutherans were mostly poor rural folk, but the British migrants were mainly middle-class and so had the means to establish and underpin the region’s wine industry, and in doing so brought together the German and the English communities

Early Barossa vignerons cultivated extensively but used relatively poor varietals such as Doradillo, Sweetwater and Mataro. (There are still some Mataro vines in Henschke’s Hill of Grace vineyard). In 1859 the Register reported a lecture by Frederik Wood, manager for local wine producer Henry Evans: “Pewsey Vale is noted for its superior Hock and Verdeilho (sic), Morphett Vale for Frontignac and Rousillon (sic); Gawler Park for Carbernet (sic), Constantia and Pineau (sic)… White Burgundy, Frontignac, Hock and finer Clarets are produced at Tanunda and neighbourhood.” Shiraz and Cabernet were not planted extensively until the 1890s, though their quality was recognized early: Joseph Gillard Jr of Penfolds advised in the Register of 16 July 1875, “Plant Shiraz and Carbernet (sic) for quality and Mataro for quantity, if you mean to grow for red winemaking”.

In 1892 prices for grapes ranged from £3 to £7 a tonne, with higher prices for better varieties like Cabernet and Shiraz. White grapes were generally lower in price. By the turn of the century Shiraz on the Valley floor’s fertile red loam soil could yield 7.5 tonnes to the acre, producing a return of £18 per acre, which was the best return for any variety. According to the Phylloxera and Grape Industry Board of South Australia’s 2006 Utilisation and Pricing Survey, the highest price paid during the 2006 vintage for Shiraz grown in the Barossa was $10,000 per tonne – it is rumoured that only Penfolds has the means to pay such prices and that these grapes would go into Grange. The Barossa’s store of old vineyards was irreparably damaged during the government sponsored Vine Pull Scheme of the 1980s. The Growers Liaison Officer declared in 1985, “Shiraz is the Sultana of the Barossa”, believing it was fit only for dried fruit and table grapes, though some producers used old vine Shiraz as a base for their sparkling wines. But far-sighted producers such as Peter Lehmann, Robert O’Callaghan and Charlie Melton reassessed the Barossa’s viticultural resources and inspired a new devotion to old vine Shiraz.

The English and German settlers became a literal embodiment of Anglo-Saxon culture, together establishing the foundations for much of modern Barossan winemaking: The destemming, cask fermentation, wild yeast fermentation and racking practices described above are all used by many small-scale Barossa winemakers today, as well as oak barrels, basket presses, open top fermentation and de facto organic viticulture, all of which are more or less in the image of nineteenth century Barossan wine production. The delimited Barossa GI established in December 1996 is very similar in its geographical boundaries to Angas’s original “Seven Surveys”, which covered the 28,000 acres that he had purchased for £1 an acre.

It was, of course, Martin Luther that declared, “Who loves not women, wine and song remains a fool his whole life long.” Perhaps the final irony is that Germany, as a nation, is younger than Australia – but a little bit of Silesia lives on forever in the Barossa Valley.


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