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Hermannsburg Mission: questions of survival

Above: Frieda and Carl Strehlow’s Silver Wedding Anniversary, 1920, Hermannsburg. Photo courtesy John Strehlow.


Volume II of The Tale of Frieda Keysser by John Strehlow was launched at The Residency on 17 December. A feature of the memorable evening was TED EGAN AO‘s launch speech which the Alice Springs News is pleased to reproduce below. The book explores the questions of why the Lutherans were at Hermannsburg and the consequences of their presence, drawing in particular on the invaluable journals of  Frieda Keysser.


I feel very privileged this evening, to be asked to perform the official  launch of Volume II of The Tale of Frieda Keysser, presented in two Parts, written by Frieda’s grandson, John Strehlow.  Yes I’m privileged, but also awed by the enormity of the role I have been given. It happens to me often.  I agree to write a Foreword, or to launch a book and then I discover that I am totally out of my depth.


This massive work, printed after twenty seven years of John’s research and writing – and with an outlay of hundreds of thousands of both hours and dollars – can truly be referred to as a classic; it will undoubtedly provoke many other people to check its contents and debate it.  It is bound to be labelled contentious, but there is no doubting its quality and value.


To appreciate Volume II, it is necessary first to read Volume I, which covers Frieda’s life from her birth in 1875 to the year 1910. We meet Frieda as a beautiful young girl, reared in Germany as a staunch Lutheran, in a family with very mixed fortunes. To condense the story, in 1892 Frieda meets a young student named Carl Strehlow, who is training in Germany to be a missionary in Australia. It is love at first sight for each of them.


Carl goes to Australia and after a few years in service among the Dieri people, he writes to Frieda’s family seeking her hand in marriage. He is sternly put in his place by Frieda’s guardians at first, but true love prevails and finally in 1895, at age 20, she journeys to Australia. She and Carl are married in Adelaide and she then accompanies him to Hermannsburg, the Lutheran mission established on the Finke River north west of Alice Springs.


To get there they travelled by train, then by horse drawn buggy. Imagine the shock for the new bride. The route covers hundreds of miles of dirt roads and sandy creekbeds, sleeping under the stars, eating meals cooked on open fires, surrounded by many aggressive, wild white men, Afghan cameleers and naked Stone Age Aboriginals, all of them speaking incomprehensible languages, all of them disdainful,  suspicious of one another.


At Hermannsburg Frieda is more at ease, for the principal language there is German. Many Aranda are competent German speakers.  Her principal strength is her abiding love of her husband; he is a good man, obviously trusted and respected by the Aranda Aboriginals, whose language Carl is studying, in the process of writing his mammoth work “Die Aranda und Luritja Saemmes”.


Fortunately for us, Frieda follows the advice of her uncle August, back in Bavaria, who suggested she keep comprehensive diaries, written in very legible German. Of necessity she quickly learns to speak Aranda at an admirable level and to the delight of Carl, she often writes him affectionate notes in both German and Aranda.


Over the next fifteen years she has six children, a daughter Martha and five sons. Then, to her delight, it is organised that Carl’s extensive literary work is to be published in Germany and they return to Europe, to their respective families. They intend to remain in Germany. That is year 1910, and Volume I of John Strehlow’s eventual work pauses at that point.


And so to Volume II, Parts One and Two, 1218 pages herewith, the subject of today’s gathering.  After two years in Germany, an immense decision is reached. Carl and Frieda will leave their five older children in the care of relatives, in order to receive a “better education” in Germany. Carl has had letters from Aranda elders, begging him to return. He and Frieda will return to Hermannsburg, with their small son Theodore.


It was a monumental decision and again, Frieda complied because she loved her husband dearly and felt that a wife must be supportive and faithful.  Her Christian principles were her point of strength for her entire life and the adjective “saintly” can certainly be affixed to her name.


The big question asked in Volume II is “why do the Lutherans need to be at Hermannsburg?”. The station had a chequered history from Day One and indeed, in 1912, it appeared doomed. So much adversity since its inception.


To this day, Hermannsburg, like the NT, is assessed around the personalities of its leaders.  Government Secretary Reg Leydin introduced the practice of considering the “times” of the various NT Administrators:  Gilruth’s Time, Driver’s Time, Johnston’s Time: at present we are in O’Halloran’s Time.


As far as  Hermannsburg goes, we first have the “Time” of Kempe, Schultze and Schwarz, the pioneer missionaries. Then we go to Bognor and Strehlow’s Time, later to Albrecht’s Time, ending in the 1970s, whereafter control was handed back to the Aranda. There were many other people involved in the establishment and running of that remarkable place, nowadays known as Ntaria, but the three different periods of administration are strikingly different and the names of those remarkable six Lutheran men will forever create the framework for the various periods of Hermannsburg history.


The principal aim of the Lutheran Mission bodies was to convert the heathen Aranda to Christianity.  There was often debate as to why other objectives should be pursued. Some missionaries wanted to run cattle and sheep and turn the Aboriginals into peasant farmers. Most wanted to help convince the Aranda to move away from pagan practices like dancing, although there always seemed to be acceptance that important practices like initiation of both boys and girls and the traditional kinship laws should be retained, perhaps modified. 


Fortunately, from Day One, it was recognised that the missionaries should learn to speak the Aranda language and so the admirable practice was established that religious instruction was conducted both in German and Aranda; hence today the world is still grateful that those wonderful Aranda, Luritja and Pitjantjara women are still singing the old hymns, guided by the  bilingual skills they attained during the mission years.


Above: Melded traditions, the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir. Photo from our archive, 2018 Desert Song.


Yes English was also in existence and needed to be understood, for it was the language of the new owners, the white settlers, the law makers, the police, the cattle men, the teamsters, the self-proclaimed new owners of Australia.


Within that framework, the German Lutheran missionaries knew their place. They were foreigners, driven by their evangelical aims, supported – sometimes – by their South Australian mission boards, but always distrusted by the English speakers of Central Australia. And these were tough opponents. Many white settlers were convinced that Aboriginals were a sub species, likely to become extinct, especially orchestrated via the bullet and miscegenation. The sooner the better, it was held. And yet here were these square headed missionaries, teaching heathen blacks that God loved them on an equal basis! And here were women like Frieda Keysser Strehlow, teaching people about healthy diet and bringing about better statistics in child survival!


At all times during its existence as a Christian mission, Hermannsburg was under some pressure or another.  There was regular clamour to close it down, so that the white settlers could acquire its pastoral potential. And over the years various other reasons were advanced by white authorities to run the place differently. 


Kempe had continual issues with the infamous Native Police, led by the notorious Constables Willshire and Wurmbrand. These were sinister men who influenced their Aboriginal employees to perform devious slayings of their fellow Aranda, being rewarded often by sexual congress with captured women. They wanted to be rid of the German missionaries so they could get on with the job.  Aided by Francis Gillen, Kempe was assisted in bringing Constable Willshire to trial at Port Augusta, charged with murder. Although Willshire was acquitted, his salacious attitudes were exposed and he was removed from service in Central Australia.


In the time of Bognor and Carl Strehlow, the principal problem was the enigmatic Baldwin Spencer. It must be acknowledged that Spencer wielded incredible influence in Melbourne, then the seat of federal government. When the Commonwealth government took over the Northern Territory from South Australia in 1911, Spencer orchestrated the appointment of John Gilruth as Administrator and himself as Chief Protector of Aboriginals. Spencer disliked Germans intensely and Lutherans particularly. He was jealous of the knowledge of Carl Strehlow and commenced an academic rivalry that persists to this day.


Spencer cleverly aligned himself with Francis Gillen, a man with many years of experience in the NT from his employment with the Overland Telegraph people. Gillen enjoyed good relations with most whites and some blacks of the region and undoubtedly had good general knowledge of Aboriginal customs.


Gillen was no match for Carl Strehlow as far as the customs and language of the Aranda people were concerned and certainly could not speak Aranda. But he enjoyed the influential patronage of Spencer and, following a much-publicised and cleverly organised trip through the Territory, the various Spencer and Gillen works – principally “The Arunta: a study of a Stone Age People”– were published to great acclaim, which continues to this day.


At the same time, Spencer actively sought to diminish the considerable international reputation that Carl Strehlow was enjoying, following the publication in Europe of Carl’s impressive work among the Aranda and Luritja at Hermannsburg. In historic and anthropological terms, there is no doubt that Strehlow was the greater authority, the better scholar, but the anti-Strehlow seeds were sown and the comparisons are still made to this day.


Probably the most deleterious thing that can be said of Spencer is that he was the man, in the Northern Territory, who set up the institutions and practices that became the basis of what we now call “The Stolen Generations”.  In Central Australia, where miscegenation by white men with Aboriginal girls and women was particularly despicable and totally exploitative, hundreds of mixed race children became an embarrassment to “white society”.


The Bungalow was established, first in the town of Stuart and then at the Old Telegraph Station, but that seemed to  make things worse, as young girls in particular were being groomed for prostitution as a consequence. Spencer was not motivated by anything other than annoyance; in the name of “protection” he set out to establish the “out of sight, out of mind” Institutions, where girls of mixed race could be trained for domestic service and thereby become partners for white men. Eventually, all those undesirable Aboriginal genes would (hopefully) disappear.


Nobody ever formulated a future plan for mixed race boys, although it was generally assumed that they would be available for stockwork and would – as indeed so many did in fact – become very competent in that field.


So the conflict between Carl Strehlow and Baldwin Spencer, at first academic, began additionally to centre around Spencer’s call to cancel the government-sponsored Lutheran mandate to work among the tribal Aranda, to close down the mission in its present form and convert Hermannsburg into a Home for Half Castes. 


Bognor and Strehlow opposed that move vigorously and were pleased when they secured the support of Administrator Gilruth and later Administrator Urquhart, along with Sergeant Stott, the very aggressive, very influential police officer unofficially known as “The King of Alice Springs” ( As an aside,  I wonder how Sergeant Stott would handle today’s crime wave in Alice?) 


Fortunately, sanity of a sort prevailed and Carl Strehlow continued his research, aided at all times by the magnificent support of his loyal and loving wife Frieda. By now, their son Theo is calling himself Ted, is a competent speaker of Aranda, German and English and is already a competent writer and recorder of acquired knowledge.


And so John Strehlow takes us to the year 1922 and the tragic death of his grandfather at Horseshoe Bend, in the presence of Frieda, who had undergone absolute agony, physical and mental, as she sees her beloved man, grotesquely swollen as a consequence of accumulated fluids in his system and totally incapacitated, yet required to travel hundreds of miles by buggy to seek to catch the train at Oodnadatta.  So much has been written – especially in Ted Strehlow’s book, “Journey to Horseshoe Bend” – around the various issues therein; and John discusses in comprehensive detail the role of the mission authorities in the death of this wonderful scholar, his grandfather. Carl is buried at Horseshoe Bend;  Frieda and young Ted resume their (to them) diminished  lives in Adelaide. So ends Volume II.


What has John Strehlow achieved? (He is pictured at left, photo from our archive, 2011.) Well he has contributed monumentally to the historic records of the NT. He has been motivated, principally, by accessing the crucially important diaries of his grandmother in Germany.  At that point, John had to learn German, whereas his father, Ted, had “picked it up”. As a consequence his competence in that language is admirable and allows him to write this magnificent work.


We now have first hand reminiscences of the pioneering days at Hermannsburg, through the eyes of a totally convinced Christian woman, a point of view previously unknown. There is so much in John’s work, based on his grandmother’s diaries, that will be of benefit to all scholars. On that point – ongoing scholarship – there is obviously so much more that needs to be known and understood by all of us here today concerning OUR history.


On a daily basis I am reminded that I, somebody who enjoys privileged status in our society, am a bit like Manuel from Barcelona, for in reality “I know nothing”. Among us in Alice we are fortunate to have the descendants of the Aranda, also the descendants of the many mission staff members with names like Hart, Auricht, Latz, Johannsen, Stolle, Strehlow, Albrecht. Let’s listen to them, even though we may not agree with differing family interpretations of events.


As I read John Strehlow’s work, something I found hard to come to terms with was the practice among the missionaries at Hermannsburg to write long, detailed letters outlining the shortcomings of their fellow workers, letters that invariably became “common knowledge” and led to fiery personality clashes, usually around the question: “ Why are we here?” Was the principal aim (1) to bring Christianity to the heathens? (2) to create a western work ethic among the Aranda? Or – and particularly with reference to Carl and later Ted Strehlow – (3) to have a unique opportunity to study the languages and customs of Stone Age people? I guess it can be argued that the Lutheran Missionaries achieved some level of success in each of those three fields.


I submit that henceforth it is crucial that all relevant archival material is available for all scholars. The Strehlow Centre in Alice Springs was inaugurated in an atmosphere of mystery and disbelief, but seems nowadays to be more supportive of scholarship. Who is going to write the history of Hermannsburg from 1922 onwards? John, is it you? Somebody must. 


Let’s hope some Aranda scholars of consequence emerge. Can that happen? It’s hard to see how it will happen, because there is a need for scholars to read, write and speak English, German and Aranda, for there is still a substantial connection to Aranda culture in Europe, especially Germany, in the form of scholarly works and priceless collections of artefacts in various museums.


One fortunate benefit exists. Famous local musician Warren H Williams, the beneficiary of being born at Hermannsburg as a Western Aranda, was given a sound secondary education at a Lutheran College in Adelaide. Only a month ago, I asked him: “What’s your opinion of the missionaries who came to Hermannsburg?”


He summed it up in one word: survival. He said: “If the missionaries had not come to Hermannsburg, there wouldn’t be any blackfellas in Central Australia”.


The Welsh have a magnificent song “We are Still Here”. Despite 1500 years of adversity Yma o hyd. Over to you Ntjalka. The magnificent Women’s Choirs taking Aranda Lutheranism to the world via the ancient hymns sung in Aranda and German may be the best conveyors of the Word.


John Strehlow’s work covers the ground from Martin Luther in 1512, to 1922. John discusses, at length, all relevant matters affecting subsequent world history as they occurred, as he allows us to access the wisdom and superb oversight of his grandmother. In particular, the Silesian/ German settlers, who have made such a substantial contribution to the multi-cultural diversity that prevails in Australia, have had to suffer intolerable persecution and discrimination over the years. Understandable, yes, but often deplorably unfair.


John Strehlow deserves our congratulations for devoting the majority of his life to this important task. The result is a very impressive book in two parts. I stress that it is important first to read and seek to understand Volume I. The financial outlay of this total work is undoubtedly awesome, but the quality of the printed work cannot be denied. Here we have a superb publication, magnificent photographs, maps and charts and John Strehlow expresses his gratitude to the many people who assisted and encouraged him. Let us hope that the book sells appropriately and features prominently in all centres of learning.



  1. Although it is true that the missionaries, to their credit, spoke out about the prevalent practice on cattle stations of shooting Aboriginal people on sight, it is a wild exaggeration to claim that they prevented the population being wiped out in Central Australia.
    There was no Lutheran acceptance of important practices like initiation. Rather they found it difficult to stop them.
    One reason was the link between initiation and marriage. The unititiated “boys” could not marry although the odd Christian devotee did.
    The Lutherans bought the scared boards (tjuringas), encouraged women to go to men’s places, such as the sacred cave.
    They systematically worked to destroy Aranda traditional culture. But there were just a few of them and they were not completely successful.
    Initiation continued but not because the Lutherans condoned it or valued it.

  2. @ Jack: In 2010 I was fortunate to catch up with Gus Williams after many years.
    Gus was an old friend, a fellow Feddy and a regular organiser of the Hermannsburg team to the Yuendumu Sports Weekend.
    Gus talked about the school education troubles in the community. At length.
    Gus held a particular view that would surprise white urban activists.
    Gus reinforced for me that there were great benefits brought into the Ntaria community by the Strehlow family and the Lutheran missionaries.
    To coin a saying, it is not all black and white when two different cultures inevitably come together and interact.

  3. One would have to say that in general the Lutheran missionaries who first came to Hermannsburg in 1877, given the era, were enlightened.
    There were things done to suppress Aranda culture, which were perceived to some extent to be contrary to Christian teaching rightly or wrongly.
    However, the Lutherans appreciated many aspects of traditional Aboriginal culture, especially the language.
    Language is often said to be the core of any culture.
    It was this attention to language by the Lutherans that contributed to the Aranda language not being lost.
    In fact in the 1950s T G H Strehlow with the assistance of Aboriginal elders translated the Bible into Aranda.
    As well the Lutherans encouraged the preservation of traditional crafts which has lasted.
    When pastoralists wanted to acquire Hermannsburg land they were opposed by Pastor F W Albrect who saw such a presence as damaging to the mission and to Aboriginal culture.

  4. Read the article with great interest. I have Vol 1 but can’t find out where to purchase the new book. Can anyone help? Would be very much appreciated.

  5. I am mounting a photographic installation that includes photos linked to John Strehlow’s family.
    I would like to contact him by email to show him some of this work.
    If anyone knows his e-address, please sen me an email at
    (Professor) Philip Bell

  6. I wish to purchase Vol II of John’s opus. Could someone send me his email address, or ask him to send it to me? I bought Vol I from him in Alice Springs a few years ago, and have been wanting to purchase Vol II.


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