Aboriginal stone and grass houses

The Good the Bad and the Ugly

Life on the mission was a struggle, characterised by the heat, droughts and hard work; add to this mix jealousies and hostile neighbours and one can expect outbreaks of dissatisfaction, arguments and even violence. Not all of the characters at Hermannsburg were heroes or their actions heroic. Different missionaries and lay workers brought with them their own personalities, prejudices and beliefs and there are elements of history that have been obscured by time, but which hint at dark events.

Missions can rarely be shown to be wholly good or bad; different missionaries brought with them their own personalities, prejudices and beliefs. There were often power plays and jealousies between missionaries and mission employees as can be seen in the relationship between Wettengel and Strehlow. The former made claims that his translations were more accurate that Strehlow’s and made accusations, later interpreted as a failed bid for the leadership of the mission. The two parted on not-so cordial terms.

Enquiry into the conduct of the Finke River Mission 

In 1890, while Kempe was in charge of the mission there was an enquiry into the mission and its activities held at Hermannsburg and the activities of the neighbouring pastoralists. The accusations and counter-accusations had made dramatic newspaper reading in Adelaide with Kempe and Schulze reporting:

We cannot believe that natives in their original state will kill cattle for other purpose than meat; therefore, if they do so, we think it is an act of revenge on the whites for robbing them of their wives and girls. We know how indignant they are over these acts. 1

Henry Swan and Charles Eaton Taplin were appointed to hear the enquiry, Heidenreich was to represent the missionaries and Besley the police. This enquiry arose due to an accusation by the missionaries that local station managers were exterminating local Aboriginal population and a counter-accusation made by William Willshire that the Hermannsburg was a ‘flogging mission’. On Saturday 19 July, the party that was to hear testimony in the hearing comprising Henry Swan, Charles Eaton Taplin, pastor Georg Heidenreich, Mounted Constable Tom Daer and an Aboriginal man Eriakura or ‘Charlie Cooper’ all arrived at the Finke River Mission by camel train. Inspector Bryan Besley arrived a day later by camel having stopped ay Boggy Waterhole. One account records that it was so dusty that Besley was blinded by the dust and had to be led inside to a bowl of water to wash his eyes out.2

William Willshire and other police, James McDonald manager of Glen Helen Station and Frederick Thornton of Tempe Downs Station all arrived and camped in the riverbed. No Aboriginal evidence was heard in this enquiry and the records that remain present a very murky view of the facts. Certainly, there was evidence of violence on the part of the pastoralists, but Vallee presents a strong case that the missionaries were also tainted with violence suggesting that Kempe may have been complicit in the targeting of senior Arrarnta men (who he saw as agents opposing Christianity) at Glen Helen Gorge, itself a ceremonial site by Wurmbrand.

The results of the enquiry were widely reported in the newspapers down south3 and as can be seen the accusations made by both sides, were whitewashed in an attempt to defuse the debate in the cities.

Commenting upon the documents which accompany their return, they first refer to the statement made by the Pastor WF Schwarz at a meeting in Adelaide in January 1890, and reported in the Register at the time, and they stated that all the evidence obtainable did not support the charges therein made that

"the desire of the whites was to exterminate the natives, especially the men"

and then he went on further to say,

"It was a question of cattle versus blacks, and if the squatter wanted the country the blacks had to go"

that owing to the absence of any large number of waterholes in the interior it became a matter of importance, in many cases to the leaseholders that the blacks should be kept away from them, as cattle would not approach water beside which blacks were camped, and for this reason the natives were ordered off their hunting grounds, but there was no evidence to lead them to suppose that any violence was practiced on such occasions…

We find in regard to the reports of M.C. Willshire, in which he makes certain charges of cruelty to the blacks against the missionaries, whilst there is evidence that on one or two occasions they adopted measures showing a lack of judgment on their part. Chains being used to detain the native prisoners on the station, and thrashing was resorted to as a punishment, still in no case did their action towards the blacks amount to cruelty, and we believe them to have been prompted by the kindest motives. There is some truth in the statement that the blacks do not like staying on the mission station, but we are strongly of opinion that it is not from any cruelty practiced upon them, but for the want of tact displayed by the missionaries in dealing with them.

Missionary Liebler

In 1910, Strehlow and his wife - who had been ill - took a year’s leave, taking their children with them to Germany. This coincided with the schoolteacher, Mr. Hillier, also leaving. A replacement missionary was supplied to continue the work in Strehlow’s absence. However, missionary Liebler was young and inexperienced, arriving fresh out of seminary training. Faced with the need to do Strehlow’s work and teach at the school, he was advised to take the advice and assistance of Arrarnta Christians on the mission, in particular Nathanael - however, he declined to do so.

Two new teachers arrived and departed in quick succession due to disagreements with Liebler. Under his stewardship, Hermannsburg received a scathing review in the Barclay report commissioned by the Federal Government to investigate the treatment of Aborigines. This was followed by another independent review of the mission by the local police officer, Constable Stott, at Alice Springs. Both reports mentioned a litany of issues, one of which was the revelation that Liebler was selling native artefacts to German institutions without the knowledge of the mission authorities. Leibler left Hermannsburg ostensibly temporarily, soon after the Strehlow’s arrived home, and he did not return.