Peopling Early Queensland: the Archive of Brisbane’s Zion Hill Missionaries, 1838-1848
Dr Annemarie McLaren, Harry Gentle Visiting Fellow 2018

Archival Legacy of Zion Hill

There is far more to these pious missionaries than their legacy as pioneer settlers. They were present during the formative years of the new Brisbane colony: the penal colony was begun in 1824, and they were present from 1838 to 1848. Their large archive is a treasure trove of historical details, not only of settler and religious history and intercultural engagement, but details about Indigenous individuals, kinship, regional politics, songs, ceremony, language and ecology. This is particularly so as these German missionaries were unique among the kinds of Europeans Aboriginal individuals and communities in the region had encountered previously – different from the convicts, certainly, but also quite unlike the military and early settlers.

One of the key objectives of my Harry Gentle Resource Centre Fellowship has been to transcribe some of these records to make them more accessible for scholars, researchers and Indigenous and non-Indigenous descendants.[4] While J. G. Steele drew on some of these records in writing his authoritative Aboriginal Pathways in Southeast Queensland and the Richmond River, the archive remains, for the most part, underutilised.[5]

Many of the missionaries’ manuscripts are kept in the John D. Lang Papers at the Mitchell Library (within the State Library of New South Wales). There are roughly three continuous years of daily journal entries or extracts, and more than nine accounts of their itinerancies – that is, travels these missionaries undertook with Aboriginal people in South East Queensland to build relationships, learn local languages, and proselytise. A smaller number of these travelling journals exist solely in the pages of the Colonial Observer, where they were published by Presbyterian minister John D Lang; other records are in the German missionary journal Die Biene auf dem Missionsfelde (the Bee on the Mission Field, or more literally ‘The Bees on the Mission Field’).[6]

While the travelling accounts presented no difficulty in transcription, the missionaries’ daily journal proved more problematic – happily, because of the sheer volume of material involved, which only came to light as the project progressed. When completed, these transcriptions will comprise some 50,000 words, excluding the records in German. Conversations with other researchers and descendants have begun and the intention is to pursue a project in which these will be fully transcribed and annotated.

[4] In doing so, building upon the example of Neil Gunson. “A missionary expedition from Zion Hill (Nundah) to Toorbul, Moreton Bay District, in 1842–43: The journal of the Reverend K. W. E. Schmidt,” Aboriginal History 2 (1978): 114–21.

[5] J. G. Steele, Aboriginal Pathways in Southeast Queensland and the Richmond River, St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1984; Pioneering historian Ysola Best has written of her disappointment with some aspects of this book. See Best, Ysola 1995. ‘Aboriginal and early settler relations on the Logan and Albert Rivers: an Aboriginal view. Royal Historical Society of Queensland journal vol XV(1), Feb 1995, 460.

[6] Regina Ganter, “Gossner (1836) and the Berlin Mission Societies, German Missionaries in Australia”, viewed 21 June 2020,; Ford, God’s Harvest, 13.