It took two men, father and son, and the passing of almost eighty years to write it: ‘Songs of Central Australia’, one the greatest non-fiction books ever written and a precursor to the revolution in attitudes towards the original inhabitants of Australia.
The story behind the writing of Songs in Central Australia is no less remarkable than the book itself…….
In 1895 a handsome young German missionary named Carl Strehlow was sent to Australia to bring the word of God to the Australian Aborigines. He was posted to Central Australia by the Lutheran Church to take control of an abandoned mission station near todays´s Alice Springs. The name of the mission station was ´Hermansburg´ and it was one step from being reclaimed by the desert. The situation Strehlow confronted demanded more than exceptional organisational skills.
The arrival of white settlers in Central Australia in the late 19th century spelt disaster for the indigenous inhabitants, most of whom belonged to the Aranda and Loritja people. An all too wretched scenario unfolded: the pastoralists took the land and used it to graze cattle and horses and used the Aborigines’ vital water holes and billabongs for their stock; the Aborigines, denied their usual food sources, speared the cattle. The farmers then hunted the them down like vermin, shooting them on sight. They were backed by the police, some of whom were notorious murderers.
The Aborigines of Central Australia who had lived in this country for tens of thousands of years were left as a refugees in their own land. Traumatised people drifted into the mission station where Strehlow offered them rations and safety. The remnants of the Aranda and Loritja people were crowded into what was by their traditional standards, a tiny area. The Hermansburg mission station became an Ark in Central Australia – and in more ways than one. It was an island of safety for the indigenous refugees and also an Ark for the spirit of scientific enquiry – and in turn, an Ark for the birth of an idea well before its time: indigenous rights.
The Lutherans believed that the best way to spread the word of God and win converts amongst foreign peoples was to learn their language and become familiar with their culture. This was a very different approach to the other missionaries working amongst the Aborigines in Australia, who believed that their job was teach English and to ‘civilise’ and ‘educate’ the natives. Carl Strehlow proved to be an exceptional example of the Lutheran approach. An astounding linguist, he became fluent in Aranda and Loritja and compiled dictionaries and comparative grammatical studies of these languages. It was an enormous undertaking especially considering his numerous other responsibilities in running Hermansburg. His vocabularies of these languages remains the largest collection of Aboriginal words ever assembled. Strehlow was one of the few people in Australia at the time who had any interest in indigenous languages. The British trained anthropologists, imbued with racist ideas of social Darwinian superiority, did not bother learning indigenous languages preferring to use aboriginal interpreters instead.
Strehlow was the first white man to understand the importance of what today is called ‘The Dreaming’ (although he never used this term). He recorded the spiritual beliefs of the Aranda and Loritja people in immense detail. To credit indigenous people with a religion and emphasizing the crucial role which it played in their way of life, represented an enormous break with the reigning convention which held that they were incapable of embracing a religion; their beliefs instead qualified as ‘superstition’, ‘magic’ and this went together with the conviction of indigenous people being ‘savages’ and ‘uncivilised’.
Strehlow realised that the vast arid expanses of central Australia, so indiscriminate, so daunting to the British colonists, were viewed very differently by Aborigines, who knew its every geographic feature and knew where to find water and food and were never lost. Their land was their ‘church’; it was the creation of supernatural beings and was criss-cross by Dreaming Trails.
How Carl Strehlow found the time to undertake such an extensive study of indigenous culture and beliefs is a mystery. Most of his life was consumed with running the mission station, tending to the flocks of sheep and cattle, providing meals for over a hundred indigenous people, preparing services and music for the Sunday services – and battling against those who lobbied to have the mission station closed down. .
Carl was supported by his wife Frieda, a woman who was not only as dynamic and hard working as her husband but also one of the first feminist pioneers in Australia. She was 19 years old when she travelled to Central Australia to join Carl. She was as remarkable as the man she married. Frieda became a fluent speaker of Aranda and exercised great influence on the young indigenous women and girls, opposing the widespread practice of infanticide (especially the killing of twins), teaching them basic skills like sewing and mending and emphasizing the need for hygiene – daily washing, clean clothes, and so on – as well has how to raise their children using nappies. In this way she overcame the high infant mortality which had led many to assume that the Aborigines were a ‘doomed race’; convenient for the pastoralists and the racist mentality of white society in general. In the meantime, during the following years, Frieda gave birth to six children.
It’s hard for us to imagine how tough life in remote area of Central Australia must have been at a time when there was no electricity, no fans, fridges or electric lights; no roads and no motor vehicles. Besides all the hardships, there was the heat; summers were long and temperatures were consistently 40 degrees Centrigrade or above. Often working until late at night fashioning his notes into coherent text, Carl Strehow succeeded against insurmountable odds. He recorded the spiritual beliefs of the Aranda and Loritja people in immense detail. There was no room in a British colony for his ideas because challenged the entire fabric of the social Darwinian mentality. As a scientist keen to share his work with other scientists, Strehlow took the only option open to him: he began communicating with museums and anthropologists in his native land, where immediate interest in his work was shown. He sent academic articles together with ethnographic specimens to Germany; these specimens were widely distributed to museums and reputable scientists in Germany for research, classification and display. He wrote an immense work which was published in 7 separate volumes by the Ethnological Museum in Frankfurt, Germany:
‘Die Aranda- und Loritja-Stämme in ZentralAustralien’ – ‘The Aranda and Loritja tribes of Central Australia’.
It remains to this day one of the most extensive analyses of the mythology and spiritual beliefs of an indigenous people ever written. And it was completely lost to the Australians until the late 20th century when it was translated from German and had an immediate impact amongst contemporary anthropologists.
Only one person had access to this knowledge and this was Carl and Frieda’s youngest son Theodore or as he was commonly known ‘Ted’.
Despite being naturalized Australian citizens, it was never the Strehlows intention to stay at Hermansburg indefinitely. After serving the Lutheran church, they were planning to eventually retire to their homeland: to a wet, green land, replete with rivers and lakes and forests and villages. In 1911 they returned for a visit and took their children with them, five of which were left with relatives so that they could get a good schooling – something well-nigh impossible in Central Australia (most farmers in outback Australia sent their children to schools in Adelaide and Melbourne). Ted Strehlow, the youngest of the six children, was three years old and too young to be left behind with the other children. He accompanied his parents back to Hermannsburg. Had their wishes been realised, Carl and Frieda’s youngest son would have been raised as a German citizen and Songs of Central Australia would not have seen the light of day.
But the turning of the great wheel of history determined otherwise.
The First World War erupted and the Strehlows found themselves marooned, cut off from their homeland and all information about their children – and having to battle the anti-German hysteria. Theirs was a lonely and harsh existence and it was only their God and their sense of duty which got them through these hard times.
In the meantime Ted Strehlow grew up under a set of circumstances which can only be described as utterly extraordinary. Separated from his five siblings and with no white playmates, all his friends were Aranda kids. Ted’s life with his Aranda friends was steeped in Aranda stories, myths, and beliefs. He grew up as a dual citizen, with a foot in two very different cultures and fluent in Aranda and German. Subjected to the stern discipline of his domineering father he was introduced to the classical European culture, anchored in ancient Greece and Rome and the music of Bach and Handel. Even as a boy, he was well aware of his father’s scientific work which in later years would mean that he had access to one the most profound investigations of indigenous languages and culture ever undertaken – decades before anyone else was even aware of them.
In 1921, Carl fell ill with dropsy. The Great Titan, a stern man imbued with the will of God and of indomitable strength, became a helpless invalid. His legs filled with liquid and became grotesquely swollen. Dropsy was a treatable complaint but he needed immediate hospitalisation. He needed to be transported as quickly as possible to Adelaide.
There were no roads.
The nearest road head was at the small town of Oodnadatta in the north of South Australia – 800 kilometres away from Hermansburg. As he became increasingly incapacitated, a doomed attempt was made to transport him to Oodnadatta on a horse drawn dray – with iron wheels and no suspension – through the deserts of Central Australia in searing summer temperatures; over rocks, through narrow canyons and across interminable stretches of sand.
After weeks of suffering, Carl Strehlow died in a galvanised iron hotel at a place called Horseshoe Bend. He was committed to the rock hard ground in a coffin made from old whisky cases. The fourteen year old Ted Strehlow had accompanied his father and mother on that terrible journey and it left him with a deep emotional scar for the rest of his life.
And what bitter sweet life that turned out to be, its crowning achievement being the publication in 1973 of ‘Songs of Central Australia’. But that is another story altogether….
The Strehlow family with the youngest child Theodore on the left directly in front of his mother. This photo was taken in Germany in 1911. Afterwards the other 5 children remained in Germany to be educated. Later when Carl and Frieda found themselves marooned in Central Australia because of the war, they regretted leaving their children behind. None of those 5 chidren ever saw their father again – and were only reunited with their mother in 1933. Ted Strehlow had very little contact with his siblings.
Carl and Frieda in the early days at Hermansburg.
Carl and Frieda celebrating their silver wedding anniversary at Hermansburg in 1920. In another two years Carl was dead.
Alice Springs at the turn of the century
The remains of the Hermansburg Mission Station today.