Historian to migrate to study explorer diaries
AN amateur German historian of Ludwig Leichhardt has won the right to migrate to Australia so he can work on a landmark edition of the Prussian explorer’s diaries, which have been largely lost to the English-speaking world.SAM MOOY
Hans Finger, 82, little known here but acclaimed as Germany’s leading historian of Leichhardt, has won a two-year battle with immigration authorities who had refused him a ‘‘distinguished talent’’ visa.
Mr Finger will arrive in time for Leichhardt’s 200th birthday celebrations next year if he and his wife pass medical tests.
For the anniversary year, Mr Finger’s biography, Ludwig Leichhardt: Lost in the Outback, will appear in English, and the Queensland Museum is to bring out a first instalment of Leichhardt’s unpublished diaries painstakingly transcribed from old German script.
As well, the NSW State Library, home to 1.2 linear metres of Leichhardt’s papers, hopes to finish digitising his notebooks, diaries and field books before the October anniversary.
The fascination with Leichhardt, who disappeared from inland Queensland in 1848, has spread overseas, partly because of his melodramatic portrayal in the 1957 novel Voss by the Nobel prize-winner Patrick White.
Yet an enormous trove of Leichhardt’s diaries and other writings in German had been left untranslated and neglected by most English-speaking scholars since they were handed over to Sydney’s Mitchell Library in 1910.
These cover his early years in Europe, arrival in Australia and preparations for his 1844 expedition to Port Essington in the Northern Territory, when Leichhardt began to keep his journals in English.
Mr Finger, a retired economic consultant in Munich, first encountered Leichhardt during a 1992 visit to the State Library in Sydney’s Macquarie Street.
‘‘There I read some of Leichhardt’s diary and I was fascinated by this man — the deeper I went into it, the more I was fascinated,’’ he said.
The value to Leichhardt scholars of transcribing this material, translating it and putting it in its German context, was a key issue in Mr Finger’s conflict with immigration authorities.
Intertwined with this was the question of Mr Finger’s reputation, which was a closed book to researchers unable to read German.
‘‘I think part of the problem was that he’s not well known in Australia and he’s not attached to a university,’’ said Tom Darragh, an emeritus curator at Museum Victoria who laboured for two years on sections of Leichhardt’s German diaries.
Distinguished talent visas are reserved for artists, sportspeople or researchers ‘‘who have an internationally recognised record of exceptional and outstanding achievement’’.
Mr Finger lacks formal training as a historian but when he challenged the immigration authorities in a federal tribunal last year, he had no trouble finding academics willing to testify to his achievements.
Angus Nicholls, a lecturer in German and expert on 19thcentury natural science at Queen Mary University of London, said there was ‘‘probably no living scholar — and certainly no nonAustralian living scholar — who has contributed more to our knowledge of Ludwig Leichhardt’s life and deeds’’.
Dr Nicholls said publication of Mr Finger’s proposed GermanEnglish bilingual edition of Leichhardt’s diaries ‘‘will be a landmark event not only in the field of Leichhardt studies but also more generally in the discipline of 19th-century Australian history’’.