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Carl Friedrich Strehlow (1871–1922)

by Walter F. Veit

This article was published:

Carl Friedrich Theodor Strehlow (1871-1922), by unknown photographer, 1894

Carl Friedrich Theodor Strehlow (1871-1922), by unknown photographer, 1894

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 42410

Carl Friedrich Theodor Strehlow (1871-1922), missionary, was born on 23 December 1871 at Fredersdorf, Uckermark, Germany, seventh child of Carl Strehlow, teacher, and his wife Friederike, née Schneider. Carl's education began at his father's Free Lutheran Church school. In 1888 he entered the seminary at Neuendettelsau and graduated in 1891. At the request of the Immanuel Synod in South Australia, he went there to serve the German migrants of his faith. He was ordained in 1892 and worked for the missionary J. G. Reuther of the Bethesda Mission at Killalpaninna among the Dieri Aborigines near Cooper's Creek, South Australia; he helped Reuther to translate the New Testament into the Dieri language.

In September 1894 the Immanuel Synod bought the dilapidated Finke River Mission at Hermannsburg (later Ntaria) and appointed Strehlow to head the mission to the Western Aranda and Loritja (Kukatja) of Central Australia. He took charge on 12 October. Except for his travels among the Aborigines as far as Alice Springs, Strehlow left Hermannsburg only four times during his twenty-eight years of service. He went to South Australia where he married his German fiancée Frieda Johanna Henrietta Keysser at Point Pass on 25 September 1895. They returned to the financially troubled mission and continued working, their meagre salary subsidized by the Strehlow family in Germany. In 1903-04 Strehlow, with his wife and their four children, spent leave in Adelaide. After two more sons were born, the family visited Germany in 1910-12. Although Strehlow had been naturalized shortly after arriving in Australia, he was investigated by the Federal government during World War I for allegedly 'lecturing to aborigines regarding the present crisis on the European Continent'. He was exonerated.

Some colleagues found Carl Strehlow strong-willed, with a high opinion of his own ability; his rigid self-discipline made him a stern pedagogue and a strict parent. He was a dedicated missionary who placed his obligations to God above all else. A handsome, full-bearded man, stocky and robust, Strehlow strained his health by a relentless schedule which included pastoral, teaching, accounting and administrative duties, tending the sick and management of the mission farm. He devoted his leisure to linguistic and ethnological field-work and to preparing the results for publication in Germany.

In addition to protecting them from squatters and policemen, he acknowledged the Aborigines' spiritual heritage. Despite his paternalism and refusal to attend traditional Aboriginal ceremonies, Strehlow recognized the need to understand the culture of those to whom he wished to bring his own, and grew to be a great philologist of Aboriginal languages, one of the most important anthropologists in the tradition of the continental European schools and an authority on Central Australian Aborigines. To them Strehlow became 'ingkata', a trusted leader and teacher. As he published mostly in German, his anthropological work was not fully recognized in Australia. He added to Dieri a fluency in the cognate Aranda and Loritja languages, and started to compile an Aranda dictionary. In 1904 he printed an Aranda school primer with translations of hymns by his assistant H. A. Heinrich; in 1919 he completed translating extracts from the Old Testament into Aranda which was published in 1928. His greatest achievement was his work on the myths, legends, material culture and customs of the Aranda and Loritja, in seven volumes, edited first by Moritz von Leonhardi and then by Bernhard Hagen (Städtisches Völker-Museum, Frankfurt, Germany, 1907-20). Two of Strehlow's letters to von Leonhardi were published and aroused interest among European anthropologists who were divided over the questions of spirituality in 'primitive' societies and whether a researcher should speak native languages.

In 1922 the desperately ill Strehlow left Hermannsburg for a fourth and final time. He set out for Adelaide to receive medical treatment; the trip was arduous and protracted, and his faith in God was sorely tried; completing less than 150 miles (241 km) of the journey, he died of dropsy on 20 October at Horseshoe Bend and was buried there. He was survived by his wife, five sons and a daughter.

Strehlow's findings on totemism were accepted by many contemporary European scholars, among them Durkheim, Malinowski, Freud and Roheim; more recently, Worms, Lommel and Petri have used his work; Lévi-Strauss's Les Structures Élémentaires de la Parenté (Paris, 1949) and Eliade's Australian Religions (Cornell, 1973) also drew substantially on his research. British social anthropologists, however, have placed more reliance on Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer and his collaborator Francis Gillen. Spencer considered Strehlow an unreliable scientist and persuaded Sir James Frazer to expunge references to him from the Golden Bough. The rivalry between Spencer and Strehlow—who never wrote to each other and never met—is dealt with in 'So Much That is New', a book which also recognizes Strehlow's 'significant studies of Aranda religion'. Otherwise, Australian anthropology has largely neglected one of its greatest scholars, although Strehlow's work remains one of the best nineteenth-century published sources for Aranda and Loritja legends and languages. Journey to Horseshoe Bend (Sydney, 1969) is a moving memorial by his son Theodor, professor of Australian linguistics at the University of Adelaide (1970-73). In 1960 the Carl Strehlow Memorial Hospital was opened at Hermannsburg.

Select Bibliography

  • C. T. Madigan, Central Australia (Lond, 1936)
  • E. Leske (ed), Hermannsburg (Adel, 1977)
  • W. McNally, Aborigines, Artefacts and Anguish (Adel, 1981)
  • D. J. Mulvaney and J. H. Calaby, ‘So Much That is New’ (Melb, 1985)
  • D. J. Mulvaney, Encounters in Place (Brisb, 1989)
  • Auricht's Book Almanac (Australian Lutheran Almanac) (Adelaide), 1924
  • Year Book of the Lutheran Church in Australia, 1974
  • Observer (Adelaide), 28 Oct 1922
  • Aborigines' Friends' Association, Annual Report, 1957 (State Library of South Australia)
  • CRS A3 item NT/15/2274 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Walter F. Veit, 'Strehlow, Carl Friedrich (1871–1922)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Carl Friedrich Theodor Strehlow (1871-1922), by unknown photographer, 1894

Carl Friedrich Theodor Strehlow (1871-1922), by unknown photographer, 1894

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 42410

Life Summary [details]


23 December, 1871
Uckermark, Brandenburg, Germany


20 October, 1922 (aged 50)
Horseshoe Bend, Northern Territory, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.