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Theodor George (Ted) Strehlow (1908–1978)

by Philip Jones

This article was published:

Theodor George Henry Strehlow (1908-1978), by unknown photographer

Theodor George Henry Strehlow (1908-1978), by unknown photographer

Herald & Weekly Times Portrait Collection, State Library of Victoria, H38849/4419

Theodor George Henry (Ted) Strehlow (1908-1978), linguist, was born on 6 June 1908 at Hermannsburg, Northern Territory, sixth and youngest child of German-born parents Carl Friedrich Theodor Strehlow, Lutheran missionary, and his wife Friedericke Johanna Henriette, née Keysser. In 1910-11 the family visited Germany where the five elder children were left with relations for formal schooling. Back at Hermannsburg, Theodor made friends with the Western Arrernte children. Their language became his, together with English and German.

Theodor received tuition on the mission, supplemented by his father's strictly administered instruction in Greek, Latin, music and Scripture. During World War I the boy was privy to his parents' anxious discussions about the fate of the mission, which perhaps contributed to his later propensity to locate blame beyond his immediate surroundings. In 1922 the close world of the mission collapsed as Carl succumbed to dropsy. Without ready access to medical attention, he was carried south in an improvised, horse-drawn vehicle via the Finke River to the Oodnadatta railhead. Theodor accompanied his parents and Arrernte helpers on the fateful journey which ended with his father's final torment at Horseshoe Bend.

Frieda took her son to Adelaide. Ted attended Immanuel College until 1927, then studied classics and English literature at the University of Adelaide (B.A. Hons, 1931; M.A., 1938; D.Litt., 1975). He excelled in Greek and Latin, winning the Barr Smith and Andrew Scott prizes. After transferring to the English honours school, he won the John Howard Clark prize. In 1931 his mother returned to Germany. With few prospects of employment at the height of the Depression, Strehlow was skilfully guided by his academic mentor, J. A. FitzHerbert, professor of classics. Familiar with Carl Strehlow's publications and aware of Theodor's unique qualifications as an Arrernte-speaking classicist, FitzHerbert trained him in phonetics and encouraged him to apply for an Australian National Research Council grant to study the Arrernte language.

Strehlow returned to Central Australia in March 1932. He began an intensive survey of the Arrernte dialects, travelling by camel with an Aboriginal guide. FitzHerbert recognized that Strehlow's project of 'salvage linguistics' had widened to include Aboriginal 'literature, history and antiquities, religion & philosophy', but continued to encourage his student and advocated an extension of his funding. Strehlow became accepted by Arrernte elders as a worthy recipient of spiritual knowledge. He filled his journals with transcriptions of sacred verses and maps of totemic centres, and began to receive ceremonial objects from ritual leaders who were facing the consequences of dispossession and acculturation.

By the end of 1933 Strehlow had completed a survey of the Northern, Western, Central and Southern Arrernte dialects. Within twelve months he had travelled almost three thousand miles (4828 km), collected more than thirty Arrernte and Loritja myths and a thousand song verses, and deciphered the arcane ceremonial language in which they were sung. FitzHerbert arranged for Strehlow to obtain a junior lecturer's post in the English department during 1934, enabling him to write up his results. The ensuing publications—'Ankotarinja, An Aranda Myth' (Oceania, 1935), Aranda Phonetics and Grammar (Sydney, 1944) and Aranda Traditions (Melbourne, 1947)—were to establish Strehlow as a scholar for the next twenty-five years. If not the first of their kind, these publications amounted to a pioneering study of Aboriginal language and an incisive analysis of the connection between religious belief and Aboriginal landscape.

In 1935 Strehlow entered the field again, this time with a two-year fellowship from the A.N.R.C., on Adolphus Elkin's recommendation. The fellowship was extended to cover his participation that year in a Federal board of inquiry into the maltreatment of Aborigines in Central Australia. Strehlow returned briefly to Adelaide where, on 21 December 1935 at St Cuthbert's Church of England, Prospect, he married Bertha Gwendoline Alexandra James, a teacher. During their honeymoon, a research trip by camel to Macumba in the Northern Territory in mid-1936, she suffered a miscarriage. Later that year, through Elkin's influence, Strehlow was appointed patrol officer in Central Australia, the first full-time Commonwealth public servant dedicated to Aboriginal affairs. For the next six years he attended to Aboriginal social, political and material needs from the base which he and Bertha established at Jay Creek, west of Alice Springs.

Responding to reports of mistreatment, Strehlow continued to travel widely in Central Australia. Often in opposition to higher-ranking officials, he was responsible for increasing the rations distributed to needy Aboriginal people and the range of recipients. His recommendations and advocacy (in conjunction with his father's successor at Hermannsburg, Pastor Friedrich Albrecht) contributed to the gazettal of Aboriginal reserves at Jay Creek and Haasts Bluff. Strehlow recommended that a number of European employers of Aboriginal labour be prosecuted for exploitation and physical abuse; despite his position as deputy-director of native affairs and his appointment as a justice of the peace, neither these nor other recommended reforms were pursued. He intervened in several cases to prevent the removal of 'half-caste' children from their mothers, terming the practice 'child robbery'.

Largely ostracized by White society, Strehlow became, as he put it, 'the most hated man in Central Australia'. He had little time for research, which resulted in additional frustration. FitzHerbert counselled patience: 'it is to be expected that you will gradually acquire authority, like moss or barnacles'. The outbreak of war with Germany placed additional pressure on Strehlow. With his commitment to Aboriginal literature and his own upbringing, he regarded himself as an Australian, but soon had to defend himself against charges of Nazism. On 26 May 1942 he was called up for full-time duty in the Militia; he regarded his abrupt release for military service as a betrayal by his superiors. After performing clerical work in a number of units, he was commissioned lieutenant on 8 February 1945 and posted to the Land Headquarters School of Civil Affairs, Canberra, where he trained servicemen to be colonial administrators.

Following his transfer to the Reserve of Officers on 20 March 1946, Strehlow was appointed research fellow in Australian linguistics and lecturer in English literature at the University of Adelaide. Conscious of the need to strengthen his academic base, he began writing a substantial work on Arrernte 'chants'. In 1949 he took up a two-year postgraduate fellowship at the Australian National University, Canberra, which enabled him to undertake further field-work: he made unique colour films of complete Arrernte ceremonial cycles, together with sound recordings, outstanding colour photographs and meticulously composed genealogies.

As president of the anthropology section at the conference of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science, held in Perth in 1947, Strehlow had criticized the lack of linguistic training of anthropologists. In response, Elkin advised him to increase his own formal anthropological skills, suggesting that he study at the London School of Economics under Professor (Sir) Raymond Firth, an anthropologist. Strehlow regarded his time in Britain from mid-1950 to early 1952 as wasted. Baulking at theoretical anthropology, he received little of the recognition he craved. He screened his four best ceremonial films and lectured at sixteen universities and scientific institutions across Europe, but the response was lukewarm until he crossed the English Channel. In Germany he met his elderly mother; she expressed disappointment at his failure to maintain contact with his sister and brothers.

Strehlow returned to Adelaide with a bitter sense of personal and professional alienation, convinced that he alone could interpret his data. The A.N.U.'s determination that he deposit research records and film—produced under its grant—led him to attempt to obtain support for a research department under his sole control. This action soured his long-standing friendship with FitzHerbert. Although Strehlow was appointed (1954) reader in Australian linguistics at the University of Adelaide, tensions developed in his relationship with the university hierarchy. His data-gathering continued unabated, and he became one of the country's most richly funded field-researchers during the 1950s and 1960s, but his publications in this period were mostly non-academic. A foreword to Rex Battarbee's Modern Australian Aboriginal Art (Sydney, 1952), introductions to books on the work of the sculptor William Ricketts, and several published addresses endorsing a community obligation towards Aboriginal people and the value and social relevance of Aboriginal cosmology were all well received by a wider public.

Less popular was Strehlow's advocacy of the innocence of an Arrernte man, Rupert Max Stuart, who had been sentenced to death for brutal murder in 1959. He maintained, on linguistic grounds, that Stuart could not have furnished police with the confession which led to his conviction. His concern with such issues and with the fate of his research and artefact collection were major distractions. None the less, he completed three substantial, contrasting works in this period. Each contained his father's ghost, largely unacknowledged. The first, begun in 1939, was a meticulous revision (Sydney, 1956) of Carl Strehlow's translation of the New Testament into Arrernte. The second was his autobiographical narrative, Journey to Horseshoe Bend (Adelaide, 1969), which expressed the anguish of his father's death and his own revelation of the Arrernte landscape's sacred quality, while controversially sheeting home the blame for the tragedy to the Adelaide Lutheran hierarchy. The third was Songs of Central Australia (Sydney, 1971), his magnum opus. A dense, often bewilderingly literary work, with Greek and Norse mythological analogies, it seamlessly merged his own and his father's research into Arrernte sacred verse and totemic geography. Songs received mixed reviews. Subsequently, it has helped to elevate Aboriginal verse as literature, and to establish the Dreaming and the Aboriginal world-view as key concepts in an emerging Australian cultural identity.

During the 1960s the University of Adelaide continued to fund Strehlow's field-trips to Arrernte country. There he collaborated with failing elders to record their totemic ceremonies on film and tape. His poignant journal entries, describing the completion of those final, choreographed performances, increasingly evoked his own approaching nemesis. A lone field-worker, he operated as driver, mechanic and cook, as well as filming, photographing and constructing genealogies of his informants, and documenting the artefacts sold and given to him. His most successful field-trips placed an even greater burden on his abilities to process the information. Appointed to a personal chair at the university in 1970, he retired four years later. In 1978 he was awarded an honorary doctorate of philosophy by the University of Uppsala, Sweden.

Even as he became a more substantial and authoritative figure during the 1950s and 1960s, Strehlow was driven into an oppressive cycle of alienation by personal insecurity and by his growing suspicion of influential academics and policy advisers (such as Elkin, W. E. H. Stanner and H. C. Coombs). In 1973 he resigned from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Affairs, of which he had been a founding member (1964). The wry sense of humour evident in his early correspondence and journals had left him. His personal life reflected this turmoil. Strehlow's relationship with two colleagues was destroyed when he accused them of theft of intellectual property. Finally, during the mid-1960s, his family life disintegrated. In 1968 he left Bertha and began living with his new secretary and research assistant, Kathleen Stuart, née Anderson, a 36-year-old divorcee. His marriage was dissolved on 6 September 1972. At the office of the principal registrar, Adelaide, on 25 September that year he married Kathleen, who had changed her surname by deed poll to Strehlow two months earlier. Strehlow's closest relationships had always been with those who accepted his views unquestioningly. Kathleen proved a fierce and dogged supporter. Their official correspondence was increasingly barbed with venom and directed at phantom conspiracies.

Strehlow's attempts to establish a viable research base at the university eventually foundered on one main sticking-point: his insistence that Kathleen be accorded full academic status. Unable to gain the university's agreement, he and Kathleen established the Strehlow Research Foundation at their home at Prospect in 1978. By this time the collection comprised 4500 Aboriginal song verses and more than 100 myths (all written in Arrernte and Loritja dialects and languages in his notebooks), 800 ceremonial acts captured on tape and 26 hours of film, maps of several hundred ceremonial and mythical sites, 8000 photographs, 150 detailed genealogies and, most controversially, a collection of 1200 sacred artefacts. Strehlow's public statements defending his proprietary right to pass this research collection and its intellectual property to his new wife breached undertakings made to Arrernte elders that their legacy would be protected according to Aboriginal custom. His sale in 1977 of restricted ceremonial photographs to the German magazine Stern led to unexpected syndicated publication in Australia during 1978, which incensed his critics and alienated old Arrernte friends. Strehlow's defence was unconvincing: he continued to assert his own historic relationship with his data and collections, a claim founded upon an incorrect assumption of cultural extinction.

Acutely ill in 1966, Strehlow suffered heart attacks in 1975 and 1976. The portentous rhetoric of his field journals, formerly focused on the final ceremonial acts of Arrernte ritual, turned in on his own dilemma. He died suddenly of hypertensive coronary artery disease on 3 October 1978 in Adelaide and was cremated. His wife and their son survived him, as did the daughter and two sons of his first marriage. The controversy over Strehlow's collection continued unabated. A decade later, negotiations between his widow and the Northern Territory government led to the purchase of most of the collection and the establishment of the Strehlow Research Centre at Alice Springs. Through that initiative, a part of Strehlow's vision for the preservation and use of his record of Arrernte culture was realized.

Select Bibliography

  • Aboriginal History, vol 3, no 1, 1979, p 85
  • Oceania, vol 49, no 3, 1979, p 230
  • Strehlow papers (Strehlow Research Centre, Alice Springs, Northern Territory)
  • Stranks papers (University of Adelaide Library)
  • University of Adelaide Archives
  • Anthropology Archives, South Australian Museum, Adelaide.

Citation details

Philip Jones, 'Strehlow, Theodor George (Ted) (1908–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 25 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Theodor George Henry Strehlow (1908-1978), by unknown photographer

Theodor George Henry Strehlow (1908-1978), by unknown photographer

Herald & Weekly Times Portrait Collection, State Library of Victoria, H38849/4419

Life Summary [details]


6 June, 1908
Ntaria, Northern Territory, Australia


3 October, 1978 (aged 70)
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

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