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Aboriginal History Volume 36, 2012

The Tale of Frieda Keysser: Frieda Keysser and Carl Strehlow: An Historical Biography. Volume I: 1875-1910 by John Strehlow, 1198 pp, Wild Cat Press, London, 2011, ISBN 9780956755803 (hbk), $89.95.

The Strehlows have had more than their share of postcolonial critique, because in the postcolonial revolution of Australian Aboriginal politics old-school historians were lined up along with protectors and missionaries for all being part of the problem, not part of the solution. Once complex issues are reduced to simple slogans suitable for banners we know there is a problem, and it is therefore apposite to turn our historical attention to the generations of activists before our own, who were as committed as ours to a set of ideas, though the ideas have indeed changed. A quick glance at missionary salary-scales and retirement provisions signals that they were not in it for the money. The mortality and morbidity rates of missionaries ring out self-sacrifice, not self-aggrandisement. ‘Labourers in the vineyard of God’, they called themselves, and humility was a valued discursive currency: what a different world they inhabited.

So much has been written about Rev Carl Strehlow and the Hermannsburg mission in Central Australia that placing his wife Frieda at the centre of a history seems a refreshing change in perspective. Frieda is an interesting historical subject, but she is only the canvas on which this family saga unfolds, and the book sweeps well beyond a biography of a missionary wife who pointedly goes by her maiden name in this book. It is an exhaustive history of Hermannsburg mission and its Arrernte and Loritja residents, and a well-researched and interesting recovery of the histories of the Keysser and Strehlow families in Germany from the interior view of the family by a direct descendant: John Strehlow (JS) is a son of Ted Strehlow and grandson of Carl and Frieda Strehlow.

It was never going to be a small book, with a 19-page timeline beginning with Charlemagne’s formation of the Holy Roman Empire in the year 800, and the directory of persons including 47 Indigenous people, the ones usually absent from missionary histories. JS, for whom the most direct way to Germany is via Alice Springs, Cairns and Port Moresby, explains German history to Australians, and Australian history to Germans. So that we do not get lost in the ‘cast of characters’, he provides every possible finding aid: an index, a genealogy trailing back to 1314, 11 maps, three appendices and close to 300 illustrations, including unpublished photos, and close-ups on Frieda’s freckled Backfisch1 face. That JS became consumed with this project of recovery speaks from the list of archives and repositories he visited since 1976 when he met his Tante Martha in Gunzenhausen near Munich and found her a complete stranger: he burrowed in the United States, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom and Australia, and in 41 German institutions.

With scalpel precision JS peels back brittle skins of intergenerational pain in this Buddenbrooks-style family saga of the Keysser/Strehlow family, and in places his storytelling craft holds its own to Thomas Mann with its deft caricature of good intentions.

Frieda and her brother Christian (missionary in Papua New Guinea) were the last of the grand Keysser dynasty of the mighty Keysserhammer (iron forge) in tiny Geroldgrün, and the first in 300 years who inherited nothing of the once grand family fortunes. Their grandfather Rev Johann Erhard Fischer wrote a 696-page history in 1863 about the introduction of Christianity to Bavaria, and was closely allied with the founding of the Bavarian Neuendettelsau mission society, which trained many of the Lutheran missionaries destined for Australia. Frieda lost her doting father at age four, and never got on with her mother, who re-married and died ten years later. Like Emily Brontë, Frieda became something like ‘a Baptist chapel on top of a volcano’. She was bundled off to a finishing school in the Lutheran institution at Neuendettelsau, which her grandfather helped to establish, an entire village, as Strehlow observes, that is organised around the uplifting of women. Here she met Carl Strehlow, who had been barred from a decent education by a well-meaning, anti-intellectual, tyrannical father who had served time in prison rather than bend to doctrinal reform. Two injured children now meet as workers in the vineyard of God, and much more injury to come, because, too busy being parents to the Arrente people, they could not parent their own: the three eldest were sent to Germany in 1910. When Frieda re-joined them 20 years later, widowed and retired, her children harboured a deep resentment of her. This is reminiscent of the busy German Goddeffroy collector in Queensland, Amalie Dietrich, whose abandoned daughter destroyed all evidence of her mother’s life and work and invented her own published version of it. One such second-generation version is Ted Strehlow’s Journey to Horseshoe Bend, an account of the Strehlow’s time at Hermannsburg mission and Carl Strehlow’s death at remote Horseshoe Bend in 1922 when nobody could come and fetch the sick man who had served the Aranda mission for 28 years. JS calls his famous father’s book about the equally famous grandfather ‘mostly fiction’.

Three generations of pain speak from this book: ‘in our family everyone competed and nobody helped each other’. Carl and Frieda’s children scattered in Germany – Rudolf in Hamburg, Karl in Berlin, Martha near Munich – as if they were neglected and abandoned by their busy parents, and only JS’s father Ted (or Theo) remained with his parents in Australia. Ted became a noted anthropologist in his own right, though JS thinks his father never properly acknowledged his intellectual debt to the work of grandfather Carl: to deny or ignore his achievements was a revenge in which all Carl’s children conspired. JS claims that none of the Indigenous people in Alice Springs remembered Carl Strehlow’s name, and his abandoned grave halfway between the mission and Adelaide radiates the idea that ‘Carl’s life and work had been a failure’ and presumably, that the price of success was too high, at the expense of a decent family life. Carl Strehlow was a man whose children did not know him. Ted, too, in turn abandoned his children by leaving his wife and remarrying, and even omitted them from his Who’s Who entry: generations of pain and inadequate parenting. Indigenous people who have their own traumas of institutionalisation and removal should find this perspective eye-opening.

Despite this hard look at the family, JS seeks to recover his grandparents’ professional contribution to science and to the welfare of Indigenous people at Hermannsburg. Missionary women are notoriously difficult to recover from the records, but Frieda has left a resumé, a diary covering 20 years and two travel accounts, all held by family in Berlin. The author also has a copy of the mission chronicle kept by Carl Strehlow. JS understands well that women, who have been played to the margin of mission histories, are the key to understanding their success and failure. Strategic marriages formed bonds of kinship between the Lutherans involved, and in great-uncle August’s sitting room three such matches were made, including Frieda’s. Frieda is shown here as the key in turning around infant mortality at Hermannsburg, where there were few Indigenous children. During three long excursions along the Birdsville Track, and all around the Coopers Creek in 1883 and 1884, missionary Johann Flierl encountered about 250 Aborigines, most of whom he already knew, and only about six children. ‘Something must have gone wrong in the inner world of the women’ argues JS, to have so few children, (p. 264) adamant that flippant references to cultural genocide are not a satisfactory answer. He offers a few alternative explanations. Inter-group violence from pay back increased to a furious rate as Indigenous people were shunted off their land, where previously dispersion and distance ensured that pay-back was slow. Wrong marriages caused many of these, and JS is at pains to point out that it was not the missionaries who introduced wrong marriages, these had always been a feature of Indigenous society. JS argues that the missionaries were practically the only people who stopped the shooting, opposed blood-feuds, eliminated venereal disease, and ensured the birth rate did not fall away – for this special credit to Frieda at Hermannsburg. They acted as whistleblowers about outrages from native police and sometimes sheltered refugees from the law because they did not trust in the integrity of the police.

Three worlds collided in a place like this: avowedly anti-German people – such as the emerging anthropologist Baldwin Spencer and the local police constable Cowle – suspected the missionaries of undermining the British empire, and the pious Lutherans had a deep distrust of the intentions of settlers towards Aborigines. JS thinks it is no accident that elsewhere in the world regimes which later overthrew British rule were often set up by people who had been introduced to Western ideas through a mission school, because the missionaries had shown them how to crack the system (p. 559).

Carl Strehlow arrived at Hermannsburg in 1894 during a serious drought that up-ended many stations and white colonisation was in retreat. The mission-cum-station had been abandoned by an earlier group of Lutherans, and dubious men had meanwhile been left in charge of the cattle station: cattle rustlers, ferals who ignored the colour bar, riff raff in the contemporary opinion – this was precisely when the Horn scientific expedition came through and Baldwin Spencer formed an indelibly negative impression of the place and was to become an influential adversary of Carl Strehlow. Young Strehlow arrived as a greenhorn and was treated like one, his English was poor, he travelled without water, and he could not boil an egg, until his betrothed arrived from Germany with 627 kilograms of luggage to set up house. It was a journey forever, no visits home. JS captures the enormity of what these young people asked of themselves.

They had no suitable training, but young Carl completely understood the absolute centrality of food. He personally doled out the food three times a day every day to everyone on the mission, to be consumed within his view in the Esshaus, so that no traditional obligations could be brought into play.

JS vents much scorn throughout the book on the ‘self-appointed experts’ like Francis Gillen and on the whole profession of anthropology that gorged itself on information supplied by missionaries, all the while criticising them, with its career professionals too busy to spend time with Indigenous people. They ignored conflict like inter-tribal conflict, payback, violence, and infanticide, so that anthropology was bankrupt before it ever opened for business, JS writes. The book seeks to rectify every mistake that has ever been made in judging Carl Strehlow and Hermannsburg: nobody was forced to enter the mission, and Indigenous people were not stripped of their culture by the mission. Only about a quarter of the mission residents were Christians, and only Christians were barred from corroborees, simply because Lutherans did not dance.

While the argument might be predictable from someone whose family has been so picked over by critics, this is original scholarship with original insights, ideas and reflections, not gleaned from well-ploughed publications. JS is scornful of the errors of the published work on Hermannsburg, and only a few have slipped in here – confusing Bloomfield with Cape Bedford on p. 262, overlooking that Easter egg painting is alive and well throughout (Catholic) Germany, referring to Kalbensteinberg as Kalbensteinbach, and in some instances one can either believe it or not, because the sources are sparsely annotated. The doctrinal sectarianism of the South Australian Lutherans who supported the mission, too, gets short shrift: it was the ‘Lutheran theocracy of the country’, ‘indulging in their favourite pastime, religious schism based on irrelevant doctrinal disputes’ (p. 300). The book is a vindication of the Strehlows, but it is eminently readable and interesting, and the language is often deft, the work and its conclusions entirely original.

In his effort to give due credit to Carl Strehlow, JS is a little too light on acknowledging the Indigenous informants like Johannes Pingilina who assisted in the linguistic project at Coopers Creek, and to Georg Reuther whose voluminous recording of Indigenous lifeworlds, customs, beliefs and language show a man who was completely immersed and knew how to respect the material. But it is a good read with many surprises, and ample material for a movie and the author’s background in theatre shines through.

Regina Ganter

Griffith University

1 Backfisch– small fry, a term usually describing private school teenage girls in nineteenth century Germany. Similar to giovinetta in Italian, or midinette in French.


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