Hermannsburg Aboriginal mission on the Finke River Northern Territory

Hermannsburg Aboriginal Mission

It has often been said that missions and missionaries, of whatever religion, have done more harm than good among the Aboriginal population of Australia. There is much evidence to support that statement. They obstructed their native culture and dreamtime practices, brought different tribes together and were against their nomadic practices. In the end they created a group of people who lost their roots and did not belong, nor were accepted, by either white or black societies.

On the other hand there is the opinion that without these missionaries the future of these Aborigines would have been even worst. They were already dispossessed, detribalised, raped and murdered by white settlers, farmers, pastoralists, police and governments, whose occupation of their lands made it impossible for the Aborigines to continue their way of living and adhere to their dreamtime culture.

Although the establishment of missions does in no way justify what happened, it should be kept in mind that it is also unfair to judge, by today's standards and knowledge, some well meaning practices of 150 years ago. A good example of this well meaning practice is provided by Pastor J.F. Meischel, who in 1862 wrote; I share the clear conviction that it is the first vocation of the Lutheran Church in Australia to carry on mission work among those heathen in whose lands she dwells, for they are our neighbours, and if we do not have pity on them and endeavour to help them to life through the Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ, they must without the means of grace be irretrievably lost.

By this time several missions had already been established in South Australia. In 1866, it was decided that with the assistance of the Hermannsburg Missionary Society in Germany, a mission would be started in South Australia's far north at Killalpaninna among the Dieri Aborigines. After a number of problems were encountered such as drought, shortage of money and the general unfriendly attitude of the Dieri members, it was decided to leave it for the time being. Like many of the other missions in Australia, Hermannsburg was conceived and started by people who were far removed from the Centre with little or no knowledge about Aboriginal culture or conditions in the Centre. Few had any idea about inland Australia or of operating a mission in such an isolated place.

WC Gosse (SLSA)

After reports about the Aborigines of Central Australia, made by John McDouall Stuart, W.C. Gosse and Ernest Giles became available Pastor G.J. Rechner and Carl Schmidt approached G.W. Goyder in 1874 about the possibility of acquiring land for a new mission in Central Australia. On the advice from Gosse and Giles a mission was established on the Finke River about 130 kilometres west of Alice Springs on an area of some 900 square miles.

In Germany Pastors A.H. Kempe and W.F. Schwartz were selected to start the mission. They left Hamburg on 21 July and arrived at Glenelg on 16 September 1875. On 20 October both were commissioned for service at St Michael's Church Hahndorf. Two days later they were on their way to the Finke River, finally arriving on 8 June 1877 to establish the first Aboriginal settlement in the Northern Territory. George Mirus of Bethany and J.C. Baehr were already on their way droving sheep from Killalpaninna to the Finke River. Additional staff arrived from Germany in April 1878. They travelled via Port Augusta and Farina by train and walked from there to Dalhousie Springs where Pastor Kempe and Miss Queckenstedt were married. It took more than another month before they arrived at Hermannsburg.

Slowly a small number of Aborigines came to the mission making it possible for the missionaries to learn their language. Tjita Malbunka was one of the main teachers of Aranda for the first missionaries. Finally on 30 May 1887 it was possible for the first seven Aboriginal teenagers to be baptised. In 1880 it was possible to open a church and school and by 1888 Pastor Kempe was able to produce a book in the Aranda language. Although there were now twenty-one white personnel, the mission had little or no influence on the attitude of neighbouring stockholders. Being able to speak or at least understand a few words in the Aranda language did little to improve relations between the Aborigines and the neighbouring station owners. Many Aborigines were shot either by them or the police.

Some of the Mounted Constables at Stuart, later named Alice Springs, were well known for their mistreatment of Aborigines. Constable Willshire's behaviour towards Aborigines, and Aboriginal prisoners in particular, was a great concern to the missionaries. When he shot two Aborigines in February 1891 he was arrested and charged with murder but acquitted. Mounted Constable Erwein Wurmbrand arrested three Aborigines at Hermannsburg for cattle spearing and attacking the manager of Glen Helen Station. After leaving the mission he shot all three plus another four he met on his way to Stuart.

During the 1880s the missionaries had been busy planting date palms to give some shade and fruit whereas others were involved with the production of several booklets. In 1880 a 21 page primer was produced for use in their school. A year later Pastor Kempe produced a dictionary of 1750 Aranda words. 1890 saw the production of a 54 page Grammar and Vocabulary of the Language spoken by the Aborigines of the MacDonnell Ranges by the Royal Society of South Australia whereas Pastor Schulze published 'The Aborigines of the Upper and Middle Finke River'.

Although a lot of hard work was put in by the missionaries and their helpers, the mission experienced major problems for many years. Among them were the heat, drought, frost, floods, loneliness, isolation, lack of medical facilities and money and last but not least doctrinal differences among the Lutherans themselves. Pastor Schwarz left in September 1889 followed by Schultze on 2 November 1891 and Kempe a few weeks later after his wife death on 13 November 1891. However he still was active in the north of South Australia. During 1897 he was sent to the West Coast to serve the German Lutheran Community at Denial Bay.

When missionary after missionary left it was decided to sell the Finke mission by auction. However the Lutheran Church had a change of heart and in 1894 the Finke River Mission was taken over by the Lutheran Immanuel Synod.

One of the first missionaries to arrive at Hermannsburg was C.F.T. Strehlow in October 1894. In 1897, Strehlow, with the help of J.G. Reuter, published the New Testament in the Dieri language. A truly remarkable effort. Strehlow, in addition to teaching, preaching and administration did also research work into the language, culture and social structure of the Aranda people. Strehlow and his wife remained at Hermannsburg for 28 years guiding the mission through all its problems, droughts, floods, war and sickness. In July 1897 a start was made with a new church building which was completed just in time for Christmas. As a result of the drought at the turn of the century, Strehlow and missionary J.M. Bogner had many problems to cope with. Among them were an increase in the Aboriginal population at the mission, the stealing of mission cattle or sheep, fights between mission Aborigines and newcomers and last but not least venereal deceases among the Aborigines.

If all this was not bad enough, more than thirty people died in 1899 as a result of the measles. Even so, Mrs Meyers of Stuart still found it saver to give birth to her second child, Herman John, at the mission than in Stuart where there were no white women to assist her. By 1900 average attendance at church services had increased to about hundred. In June 1901 Pastor Kaibel arrived at Hermannsburg and wrote several articles for the Advertiser and Observer newspapers in South Australia drawing attention to what the mission was trying to achieve and the havoc white man was creating among the Aborigines. During that year teacher H. Hillier from Killalpaninna arrived and did an excellent job for the next ten years teaching an average of forty children. In 1907 Strehlow began the publication of his seven volumed work about the Aranda and Loritja tribes.

Having survived many years of drought the mission faced a completely new challenge during the First World War. Many Australians saw Hermannsburg as a German Institution and wanted it closed. J. Verran, a South Australian Member of Parliament very strongly campaigned against anything which could be linked with Germans. There were also several neighbouring landholders who were very interested in the mission site which now comprised 1200 square miles. A government subsidy which was previously paid to the mission was withdrawn from 1917 to 1923. Even during WWII, Noel Loutit, commander at Alice Springs wanted the mission closed. However it was decided to place Rex Battarbee, a retired soldier and artist at Hermannsburg to make sure nothing would happen there to put Australia in danger.

Another milestone was reached in 1919 when Strehlow finished his translation of the New Testament into the Aranda language which he had begun in 1913. When he died on 20 October 1922 it was H.A. Heinrich who took over as there was no replacement for Strehlow until 1926 when Pastor F.W. Albrecht arrived. Pastor Albrecht was awarded a MBE in 1958 for his work among the Aborigines. In 1926 John Flynn and Alf Traeger came to Hermannsburg to install a pedal radio. Unfortunately it was not regularly used until 1930 when finally the isolation of the mission was broken.

When a pipeline was built for fresh water to the mission, Jeannie Gunn donated autographed copies of her book We of the Never Never in an effort to raise the funds.

During the late 1920s Hermannsburg suffered again from a severe and long lasting drought. Because of the lack of fresh vegetables or fruit many Aborigines began to develop scurvy. When the drought finally broke in 1929 about 85% of the children had died. It was not until 1935 that the mission got a permanent water supply through the assistance of Una and Viola Teaque and a lot of hard work by W.F. Wurst of Laura in South Australia. When the railway from South Australia finally reached Alice Springs in 1929, it was possible to supply the mission with fresh citrus fruit.

Since that time several new developments have occurred at the Mission, which included the establishment of reserves away from Hermannsburg, an attempt at providing employment at the mission and a very successful Art movement. This movement resulted in Albert Namatjira becoming one of the best known Aboriginal artists of Australia.

Namatjira was born on 28 July 1902 at Hermannsburg. He received some elementary tuition from Rex Battarbee and immediately displayed an outstanding natural talent. At the age of thirty-four he sold his first painting. His success led to the emergence of a whole school of Aboriginal artists. Albert Namatjira died in August 1959.

For more information about Namatjira and his work
See Ochre and Rust.

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