Franz Henkel was born in Austria in 1801, the son of the infamous Johann Henkel who is widely recognised as the world’s first musical anthropologist. Johann was a very successful court composer who travelled throughout Africa and parts of Asia transcribing the music he found and adapting it to European compositions.
Little is known of his son Franz who it appears was dismissed from court in his late teens under some disgrace. Remarkably he reappears however in the early 1830s travelling the Pacific Ocean with an ad-hoc group of musicians whom he claimed were trained in the art of music anthropology. They are reported to have played in parts of Tonga, Tahiti and lastly in New Zealand. Here he travelled with his musical troupe playing to whalers, traders and most remarkably local Maori tribes. It appears that he was a master of disguise who was able to adapt his musical charlatanism to local folklore and European tradition alike.
It seems very likely that Henkel and his rowdy band were in fact escapees from Hobart Penal Colony with a modicum of naïve talent who managed to somehow acquire a shipment of Tasmanian-bound musical instruments.
This aside, Henkel’s troupe brought a true sense of the European travelling tradition to our shores, complete with their specially adapted wagon (much like the Medicine men of the Americas) and reportedly dancers and singers. The fact that he existed at all at those most unstable times is both a mystery and a remarkable feat.
Die Henkel Spur (The Henkel Highway – an illusion to his band of Highwaymen) was first plotted as a journey around the Pacific by a Tasmanian Music Academic who recently (2004) acquired a diary with sketches and most importantly musical transcriptions, written by the late Henkel.
In New Zealand he was reported to have travelled through parts of the Lower North Island, and up the East coast to the Coromandel Peninsular. Finally he is reported to have boarded the HM Pandora, a surveying ship that was to be instrumental in the mapping of much of New Zealand. This is the last known sighting of Henkel and his travelling troupe and their true fate is unknown.