Friday, July 26, 2024

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HomeIssue 47'Soul of the whole past time'

'Soul of the whole past time'


It’s as if she knew that one day this photograph would speak to us across more than a
century: there is an intensity gathered into that face, its deep gaze – we see just the eyes on the book cover – piercing through the composure, as if to say, “Here, this is me.”
We can gather too that she could be eloquent on the subject, with the closely written script of her diary presented as the backdrop to the photo – we can discern a date, 1895. Her name was Frieda Keysser.
She was the wife of a famous man, mother of another, yet this 1000 plus page book (a Volume 1) will be more particularly her tale and, we are promised, a widely encompassing one – it is sub-headed “Investigations into a Forgotten Past”.
I’m not usually quite so arrested by the book as an object but this one, The Tale of Frieda Keysser by John Strehlow, asserts itself beyond its obvious imposing size. The care that has gone into crafting it signals a particular approach – the story will be unfolded, taking the time it needs. Turn to the title page and the promise of the sub-heading is amplified: the author quotes Thomas Carlisle on books as holding “the soul of the whole past time … when the body and material substance of it has altogether vanished like a dream”.
Turn a few more pages: there’s a photograph of a grave in the desert, that of Carl Strehlow, Lutheran missionary at Hermannsburg for 28 years. For 27 of them Frieda was at his side.
Maps follow, hand-drawn – the Second German Empire of 1871 to 1918, and Australia, Central Australia, right down to a sketch map of the Hermannsburg Mission Block. Then four genealogies, all of them for Frieda Keysser, none for the Strehlows – the Keysser family history is obviously significant for the story that will be told. Then it’s as if the curtain goes up and the scene is set. In the place of music, a poem by the 14th century Persian poet, Hafiz, translated by Gertrude Bell. Its beautiful archaic language, speaking of a love that endures beyond death, transports us to another time and place. On the opposite page, the backdrop – the large space  and sky of Central Australia, darkened by a pall of smoke on the horizon. What will be possible here, what will finish here?
Turn again: there are those eyes, this time the whole photograph, a double portrait of Frieda with Carl. She is in youthful white, a dress with lace, a brooch at the collar, a jewel also in her hair, done up in the German style, plaits wound around her head. She leans into her husband, he is slightly in front, there is a strong sense of their closeness. She is the dominant presence in this photo even if Carl is far from insipid: his is an intelligent, thoughtful, handsome face. They are a handsome couple. There is an air of determination about them. This is the dedication page of the book: it has been written for them – turn the page – and for “the ‘good ship’ Hermannsburg” – turn  – “and all who sailed in her”. This double page spread is made up of two photographs of the Aboriginal people of the mission, men and boys in one, women and girls in another, and across the page their names, perhaps in some kind of order of importance, and if so, the list starts with Aboriginal names and scattered in amongst them, the familiar and less familiar European names of the era. Turn again – another photo of Frieda, this one taken by Carl whose gaze through the lens she meets with great affection. It is  captioned by John Strehlow, “Frieda in love, 1895”.
Part One commences – “In Search of Frieda”. Turn the page and another clue is given about why this search has been undertaken and what its scope will be – a quote from Sheik Zayed bin Sultan: “He who does not know his past will not understand the present, nor be able to prepare himself for the future.” Glancing down you see the text is written in the first person, the voice is contemporary, a traveller, arriving in Germany for the first time.
I am really only this far with the book – it’s  going to be a holiday reading treat, not the sort you do stretched out on a towel at the beach, but the sort that some free time is needed for. But I have read forward enough to see that the author’s personal approach to his material continues and his spirit of inquiry seems almost inexhaustible. We are going to discover in quite some detail the social and historical context of the Keyssers and the Strehlows in Germany as well as a wealth of material about the mission and its people.
I ask John Strehlow, grandson of Frieda, about his use of the first person.
“It is my story, when I got going on it properly I thought either I had to tell it completely in an objective fashion as if I’m not really part of it or I had to make it really clear that it is my story. I couldn’t do both.
“It could have been told the other way but it would, for me, ring false. Obviously I wanted to know the story. To some extent these events have really, I wouldn’t say totally dominated my life, but they’ve certainly been a very powerful shaping force.
“In the case of my father [TGH Strehlow, the famed linguist], he hoped I would make some sort of impact. Really I don’t think I have in terms of what I’ve done up till now. That expectation he got from his mother. What is significant is that he does not realise it. He thinks it comes from his father. Perhaps it does as well, but of the whole Strehlow family, he [Carl] is the only one who ever did anything at all. He had more brains than the rest of us put together but he was a one off. Whereas Frieda came from a family that had always been somehow or other significant.”
It was discovering this about his grandmother’s family that was the key that unlocked the story for John.
He credits Central Australian historian Dick Kimber with being the first, back in the 1970s, to prod him to write about his family. John’s assumption then was that the story of interest would be about Carl. It was Helene Burns (daughter of Hermannsburg missionary Friedrich Albrecht) who said his focus ought to be his grandmother, her godmother.
At that point John did not even know his grandmother’s maiden name. It took quite some digging into German archives to ultimately get a sense of her people – they were not aristocrats, but people of property and means, and drive. This was where Frieda’s self-belief came from, her conviction, like that of her forebears, that her life would be purposeful. This had nothing to do with the ‘search for self’, upon which so much time has been lavished by his own “wastrel generation”, says John. She found purpose through her marriage to Carl and her work at the mission, in particular with the women and children and combatting infant mortality.
All this became clear when John read her extensive diaries – not at all the confessional sort, but a very close record of what happened, the data of daily life, “an amazing documentation” of the period that had lain “forgotten in a cellar in Berlin for over 50 years”. To read them he had to teach himself to read the German script in which they were written. It was a labour, but for someone who knew the story pretty well, they opened up a treasure trove of detail – “all sorts of things that you won’t find anywhere else, all sorts of people, not just white people, not just Aboriginal people, everybody”.
In addition to the diaries, Frieda had also written an overview of her life and John used it to structure his own account. I ask John about the Hafiz poem, its expression of enduring love – is that about Frieda, about the desert and their mission, about himself?
“All of them really, but more Frieda than anything. She was an extremely emotional and passionate person.”
And its juxtaposition with the photograph by Peter Latz, showing the smoke on the horizon, coming after all the maps – does he see their love as deeply connected to their being here, in The Centre, and doing the work they did? Yes, says John.
“For me, the love is obviously for her husband but also for God. She thought her love would survive the grave, which is quite something to believe – she expected to be united with him after death. They were a team. It’s always been written as Carl Strehlow’s story. That’s my great criticism of Journey to Horseshoe Bend [by TGH Strehlow]. It wasn’t like that. When Carl died it was a cataclysmic event for her, not a detail. That’s where Dad completely failed.”
But it is more than the personal story that John wants to set straight. His hope is that the story he tells will lead to “a major reappraisal of the era”. I ask him where he sees that going and I’m not quite ready for the sweep of his response.

“The role of Christianity in Central Australia has been enormous, an enormous positive thing and it is constantly misrepresented, especially in anthropological writings, which has been a disaster. I’d like to see that reappraised.
“Perhaps I’d like to go so far as to say I’d like to see the end of Australian anthropology as we know it. It is a major barrier to white Australia’s understanding of the Aboriginal population. It’s a kind of escape, a magic wand – ‘as long as you have men’s ceremonies, it’s OK’.
“This story is about people who really lived a very long time with Aboriginal people, spoke their language really fluently, worked very closely with them and made a major impact … It was more Kempe, Schulze, and Schwarz than Carl and Frieda. Certainly they [the earlier missionaries] have been massively written out, very successfully – they have been completely ignored.
“I don’t know that there’d be too many black faces in Alice Springs if that mission hadn’t been there, it would be like most parts of Australia. If you like the idea of Aboriginal people being around … then you can’t be opposed to Hermannsburg. You absolutely cannot. If you [are], then you just don’t know what you are talking about.
“The reappraisal I would like, I suppose, is for people to actually get to grips with the facts, read the book and all of the information in it, not just say ‘yes, yes, we know that’, becaues we don’t actually, that’s the big problem. People seize on this or that personality and that then becomes the whole story in a way that is completely counter-productive.
“The important thing about Hermannsburg is that they [the missionaries] had a real relationship with those people which was not based on making a name in anthropology for yourself or making a lot of money by running a cattle station. These two very different groups somehow or other managing to work together, which is rare.”
But there was an agenda, wasn’t there – they were seeking to convert the Arrernte?
“Absolutely. But most people are saying that Christianity destroyed their culture which is a complete nonsense. You could argue that it actually preserved their culture … If you preach against, say, ceremonies, it keeps interest in ceremonies going.
“In the modern era you tell the boys to get out there and kick a football and that destroys the culture like that (he snaps his fingers), there’s nothing left afterwards. They focus on something else entirely and the customs of their elders are [seen as] ridiculous.
“Most people’s idea of tradition is a fiction. People don’t seem to realise that tradition also involves these endless blood feuds – or ‘payback’ if you like but I don’t like this pidgin English.
“Payback is still very alive, it’s a very ruthless, brutal system. Once you start putting tradition in that context and stop looking only at the attractive things, but looking at it as a whole, you realise that there is a great deal that needs to be changed.”
Pictured from top: Author John Strehlow. • Frieda and Carl Strehlow. • Hermannsburg Mission. Historic photos courtesy the Strehlow Research Centre.
The Tale of Frieda Keysser can be ordered direct from
It is also being sold at Central SecondHand Shop in Gap Road.


  1. I will be very interested to read this book as I agree with the author that the impact of Christianity needs drastic redress. I am not Christian, nor a believer at all, but I am a realist. Christianity, which is one method we humans have devised to address our innate strengths and weaknesses (common to ALL humans), can serve a purpose in contemporary indigenous Australia where so many people are so dysfunctional and violent. The historical connection with contemporary indigenous society needs to be revised – and this will take some bravery.

  2. I’ve seen it, and been deterred by the size of it. I don’t have any spare time. But you’ve got me wanting to read it (and you haven’t even read it yourself).

  3. Thanks, Kieran, for a brilliantly written article (as always), and congratulations to John for completing his long-awaited book. First impressions of this book are indeed intimidating, but its conversational style and well thought out development makes easy reading of this fascinating story. In short, a book for everyone.


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