April 2012

Arts & Letters

On a Mission

By Peter Sutton
Frieda Keysser and Carl Strehlow, May 1986. Courtesy of John Strehlow
John Strehlow’s 'The Tale of Frieda Keysser'

Among a right-thinking crowd you can still get a laugh with a missionary joke. At the 2008 conference of the Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwealth in Keele, the doyenne of British anthropology, Professor Marilyn Strathern, brought the house down with one such joke during her keynote address. In the coffee queue afterwards I asked her how many people’s lives she thought had been saved by missionaries in the colonies and later. “Oh, millions,” she said, without hesitation.

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Christian missionaries and the missions they ran were among the most significant points of sustained contact between indigenous Australians and others. In scores of places they were the primary structure of the new economics; most operated as farms and stock stations, not just preaching and schooling platforms. Other points of interaction included the secular pastoral stations, the sealers’ and whalers’ camps, the ocean-going boats of the maritime trades and, less formally, the fringes of open towns. But for many, especially in the more remote parts of the country, the missions played a powerfully ambivalent role in the histories of their inmates and their descendants.

The missions were places of protection that suppressed violence between the indigenous inhabitants and gave sanctuary against the murderous raids of pastoralists and troopers. They provided medical care, and offered a more or less reliable food supply. But they were also places of control, of discipline (in some cases, in the form of flogging), of cultural crowding across tribal groups, of relative immobility and of official opposition to various ‘heathen practices’. The missionaries healed the sick, reduced infant mortality and halted the spread of infections such as syphilis where they could but, as in the devastating arrival of measles in the Hermannsburg area of Central Australia in 1899, mission residents sometimes suffered higher rates of infection during epidemics than their relatives in the bush. The missions also co-opted and displaced the ancient male gerontocracy. Not everyone was unhappy about that.

Few missions in Australia have survived in their old form since the self-determination policies of the 1970s replaced their administrations with locally elected councils. Unlike most administrators, however, the missionaries and their families often stayed for decades or even generations. In many cases the missionaries not only learned a local language but encouraged literacy in that language. I’ve recorded 15 such missions in the nineteenth century alone and 22 in the twentieth – and I’m still counting.

Often the children of mission staff grew up speaking, reading and writing the local lingua franca. While staff and residents also had lives hidden from each other, at the intersection of their days, during work, play, funerals, celebrations and worship, they often formed a hybrid community, albeit one with a power chasm at the top.

Today very few former missions have any non-local staff or children who can speak a local language, and few such staff stay beyond a few years or months. Their lives and those of the local indigenous people are often far more separate than they were 50 or 100 years ago. Relationships between black and white in today’s communities are more often monetarised and functional, less kin-like, and restricted to the daylight hours. Many remote settlement staff now retreat for the night behind locked gates where they keep large dogs. In these cases, an older integration has moved to segregation. This was not what we had in mind.

The missions are critical to understanding the founding dramaturgy of Aboriginal–settler relationships and its long and twisting, strongly unpredictable, set of sequels. For most people, knowledge of the missions might have come via a background chapter by an anthropologist who has worked in such a place, or via some retired missionary’s rather sunny account, one easily dismissed prima facie by secular sophisticates.

As a result, urban mythology has typecast the missions. In restaurant chat, in media commentary and in the speech of indigenous politics, flat-earth assessments of the mission stations abound: they were extensions of colonialist power, racist, and their main aim was conversion; missionaries extinguished indigenous languages by banning their use in schools and dormitories; missionaries committed cultural genocide. There is more, but you get the picture.

Correctives to this kind of part truth, part empirically gutless pastiche can only succeed on the basis of well-sourced factual detail. Yet the majority of sources are scattered through thousands of shelf metres of archival papers, sometimes in languages other than English and written in a pre-modern script, so the corrective business faces a long and toilsome path. John Strehlow, author of The Tale of Frieda Keysser: Frieda Keysser and Carl Strehlow, An Historical Biography, Volume I: 1875–1910 (Wild Cat Press, $125.00), a new tome of almost 1200 pages about his own Lutheran missionary antecedents in Central Australia, has risen to this challenge. Indeed, the book is just the first volume. His research has so far taken him to more than 50 archives in the UK, Germany and Australia.

The increasingly complex, varied and detailed picture emerging from unpublished or newly translated sources is fast making the post-1960s bourgeois intellectual dogma of dismissiveness towards the missionaries look like the creation of naïfs. The Tale of Frieda Keysser is one part of this picture, full of recognisable and nuanced individuals, rather than the cardboard cut-out cowboys and wooden Indians of ideology. The book, which rests very much on Frieda’s own diaries as well as many previously untapped published sources in German, joins others – including Barry Hill’s Broken Song, a major and penetrating biography of Ted Strehlow, John’s father – to help paint the epic story of the Strehlows.

Frieda Keysser was born in Bavaria in 1875. Following her father’s death and her mother’s subsequent remarriage, she was disinherited and orphaned at 14, and went to work for a clergyman’s family at 15. After a four-year courtship, largely by letter, she travelled to South Australia in 1895, to marry the Lutheran missionary Carl Strehlow, aged 22. They began their time together at the abandoned mission station at Hermannsburg in Central Australia, 130 kilometres west of Alice Springs. Carl had already been working in the desert Lutheran missions since 1892. The pair went on to fight a three-decade battle to save Hermannsburg, which had been condemned during an 1894 expedition by the British-born anthropologist, Professor Baldwin Spencer, who concluded that its resident Aranda people were doomed to extinction.

The book covers this period, as well as many other subjects, in astonishing detail. The author’s overtly central corrective, perhaps, is to bring missionary women out of the shadows of their husbands. Frieda, who died in 1957, is a significant character in her own right. Her work to reduce infant mortality at Hermannsburg was both effective and heroic. During her 27 years at the mission, she raised six children and endured gruelling conditions – summers of 40-plus-degree days, freezing winter nights, dust storms, poor food, brackish water, delayed supplies and so on. Remoteness nowadays is nothing like it was.

Frieda is also the pathway to an upper-class ancestry which her grandson has proudly exhumed in great detail, yielding a short but rich history of Central European life. This apparent diversion makes the point that Australian history has to be understood within the context of centuries of European history, including that of German-speaking regions. John Strehlow makes clear that he, for one, won’t submit to the Anglification of Australian history.

The author is angered by Frieda’s disenfranchisement from her rightful wealth when very young, and her loss of social standing. This comes up repeatedly. John and his siblings were later disinherited by their father Ted and the parallel is hard to ignore. The book can be read in part as a defence of the Keysser/Strehlow family’s right to a wrongfully lost or wilfully blocked high standing. Frieda’s lost dowry and the calumnies of British-descended anthropologists against her husband, though seemingly unrelated, are conjoined in goading the grandson’s fury at the lack of respect and honour accorded to his family.

Born and educated in Adelaide, but based in London for more than 30 years, John Strehlow is a theatre director and playwright partial to Shakespeare. His father – Theo in this book, Ted to his friends, Professor TGH in the literature – was a famous literary scholar, anthropologist and linguist. ‘TGH Strehlow’ gets only five index references in The Tale of Frieda Keysser – understandable given the account centres on Frieda and ends when Ted is five – but his spirit is always near, hovering. Ted spent a great deal of energy redeeming the name of his father, Carl Strehlow. John seems to be reliving this part of his father’s history.

There were various detractors of Carl’s work at Hermannsburg but the main villains in both Ted’s and John’s narratives are the anthropologists Baldwin Spencer and Francis Gillen. They made their names internationally by publishing on the Aranda people (The Native Tribes of Central Australia, 1899), the same people Carl subsequently concentrated on for his major eight-volume work, Die Aranda- und Loritja-Stämme in Zentral-Australien, 1907–1921. John Strehlow’s attacks on Spencer and Gillen’s scholarship and ethics are passionate. His grandfather had shown their “doomed race” theory to be pseudo-science. He describes Spencer as “that political animal” and emphasises Spencer’s dislike of Germans. Spencer was thus a double enemy. Triple, if you add his Oxbridge academic standing.

A number of anthropologists have followed in the footsteps of Spencer and Gillen, dismissing the Lutheran scholars. Strehlow gives these latter-day pretenders short shrift but, oddly, does not name them. Some may be drawn by Strehlow’s fire.

The Tale of Frieda Keysser is like a great tree whose branches are at times almost as long as the trunk. Every new character who crosses the track of the author’s narrative is a vamp enticing him to go off into a sub-account that in many cases could stand alone as an historical essay or mini-biography. In this way we are treated to a history of ideas, and a history of the personal intellectual networks of colonial-era Australia, Germany and metropolitan Britain, not just a family biography. And the visual is not neglected: the book is remarkable for its large and plentiful photographs.

Strehlow is very decidedly not an academic. He is a deeply cultured thinker, unslottable, willing to challenge so-called experts on their own ground. He spurns anthropology as an “escapist exercise” and accuses its practitioners of tending to “drown in irrelevant self-importance”. Here and there the shadow of the autodidact comes into play. Self-published and without the blessing of an editor, the book will seem prolix to some and prone to over-long diversions (not to mention typos). But this is part of what makes Strehlow’s writing so clearly his own. Unlike a lot of intellectual non-fiction, it is not an exercise in repeating and re-exemplifying the ideas of les philosophes. Strehlow does not ape his betters, nor, perhaps, believe in them. He writes what he likes. Strehlow is right, those who differ are wrong or confused. Der wille is steely, like that of his forebears.

The book concludes with a list of ‘Dramatis Personae’, a rubric borrowed from John’s world of theatre. Its structure says a lot. First are “persons of Aranda or Loritja backgrounds” – children of Aboriginal women but white genitors, including male staff of the Hermannsburg mission, are placed here, not later; next are listed “persons of German background”; and lastly “persons of British background”. These were key ethnic divisions in South and Central Australia in the time of John Strehlow’s parents and grandparents, and, to a degree, from his own birth in 1946 until his move to London in the 1980s. It is a three-cornered tension that permeates the book. Outsider ambivalence towards the dominant majority – proud of a distinct heritage, but resenting exclusion – is a raw leitmotiv here.

John Strehlow’s work is of such a factual and emotional scale that he may find it exposes a personal target, one that will draw ad hominem attack. He speaks to the reader sometimes as an intimate, sometimes as a director to a pupil actor. I prefer the intimate, but either way, it is his voice and no other.

For all its gritty attention to detail, the book has a heroic largeness of spirit, a kind of opulence of space and time and credible personalities that is so often missing from what is written by scholars of the past and of the bush. It is like the Red Centre itself.


To order The Tale of Frieda Keysser online, contact [email protected]

Peter Sutton
Peter Sutton is an anthropologist and linguist at the University of Adelaide and South Australian Museum, and a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia. His books include The Politics of Suffering.

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