Thursday, November 29, 2012

'Ah Nathanael' - another note on The Tale of Frieda Keysser

I have already noted (Victory over death and despair in a bygone age, 5 November 2012) that John Strehlow's epic, The Tale of Frieda Keysser ranges from 16th century Germany to present-day Australia and covers a wide swathe of Central Australian history. I am most affected, though, by its juxtaposition of the 'epic' with the 'personal'. Much of the book seems like John's personal exploration. And there are aspects of the story that touch me too. Another of my favourite passages reads:

"Not long after Carl's trip to Palm Valley with Gillen, he took Frieda there. Nathanael drove them.

Livistona mariae palms (also known as Red Cabbage Palms), Palm Valley, NT, Photo: C Goodwin 2004
Nathanael - Naemi's son - was a most charming man and even (I suspect) something of a lady-killer. He was at that stage about 23 and had been among the first boys to be baptised on 20 May 1887 by Kempe, who estimated his age then as about 14. Like many young aboriginal men he was dashing, well-spoken, carried himself well, was always well-mannered, witty, pleasant to get on with - and gallant with the ladies. Carl and Frieda were both very taken with him - and despite some ups and downs in their relationship, remained so for the rest of their lives. 'Ah Nathanael,' Frieda wrote to my father in the 1950s when sent a photograph of him in old age, 'and he was so young when I first set eyes on him. Now he looks so old'."

I really love that second-last sentence, finding it possibly the most moving sentence in the whole book. The paragraph itself sums up the book's epic sweep perfectly. It reaches back across the 1880s to the 1950s to me now (I'll say how in a minute), but consider also the backgrounds of the dramatis personae packed into this brief paragraph:

Carl - Pastor Carl Strehlow: missionary at Hermannsburg in Western Aranda country from 1894-1922, he also managed the mission as a working cattle station; author of Die Aranda-und-Loritja Staemme (five volumes); co-author of the Dieri New Testament;
Frieda - wife of Carl Strehlow, but effectively mistress of the Hermannsburg mission community. She married Carl and moved to remote Central Australia from Germany, having only met him once. Through her diligence and observation infant mortality was reversed at Hermannsburg just as everyone else in Australia assumed that aboriginal people were dying out; 
Gillen - telegraph master and Justice of the Peace at Alice Springs, he issued the warrant for the arrest of Mounted Constable Willshire on a charge of murdering aborigines; he was Baldwin Spencer's collaborator (supplier of the raw information) on their seminal books of Australian anthropology, The Native Tribes of Central Australia and The Northern Tribes of Central Australia. He and Spencer's focus was on the Eastern and Central Aranda. The trip to Palm Valley was an infrequent foray into Western Aranda country.
Kempe - Hermann Kempe was one of the three founding missionaries of Hermannsburg (1877). He played a key role in ending police persecution of the aboriginal population and reconciling traditional clan enmities. He supplied plants to Baron von Mueller (founder of Melbourne's Botanic Gardens), who named several plants after him. He also wrote the first Aranda grammar and prepared a wordlist which Gillen used in his researches. Descendants of Kempe find themselves respected at Hermannsburg to this day.
Naemi -Nathanael's mother; widowed young, she became the partner of Eraminta who was shot by Mounted Constable Willshire. She was also Willshire's lover, and John suspects sexual jealousy among Willshire's motives for shooting Eraminta. She was brought down to Port Augusta for Willshire's murder trial but not called to give evidence on the grounds that she couldn't speak English. (I lived in Willshire Street, Alice Springs in 1981!) 
Palm Valley - a narrow valley in the Krichauff Range 123 km southwest of Alice Springs. It is noted for its population of Livistona mariae (Red Cabbage Palms), unique survivors of central Australia’s tropical past.

You see, this paragraph is packed with significance. Then you have John's personal touch - not T.G.H. Strehlow, the great transcriber of Aranda myths, but 'my father'.

And 'Nathanael'? And this is where Frieda's recognition really grabbed me. Because I had a recognition moment too. In 2007 I was driving from Alice Springs with a couple of Aranda friends out to Ipolera, west of Hermannsburg. We were going to do the big circuit, leave Ipolera, go past Gosse's Bluff (Tnorula)

Gosse's Bluff, the meteorite crater, from Tyler Pass
over Tyler Pass and back to Alice via Glen Helen Gorge (Mangama). As we approached Ntaria (Hermannsburg) on the way out, B. pointed out to me the Ellery floodplain. "Over there," he said, "is a place called 'Mirrulantharrakala' [as I transcribed it]." It meant "where the woomeras were exchanged". "All this", he said, "was Rauriwaka's country."

Rauriwaka! I had read about him in T.G.H. Strehlow's books. He was the Honey Ant Chief of Ljaba, who provided T.G.H. Strehlow "with no fewer than 33 myths and traditions, and 569 song verses'" (Songs of Central Australia, page xxxvi). I had experienced a moment of recognition with my previous reading.

But recently I read the above passage in John's book. I knew also that Rauriwaka had been one of the assistants on T.G.H.'s translation of the New Testament into Aranda. His Christian name? Nathanael. 

If you liked this blog, others of mine on Central Australia are:

Victory over death and despair in a bygone age (thoughts on John Strehlow's The Tale of Frieda Keysser), 5 Nov 2012
Considering the aboriginal land of Altjira, 20 May 2012
Opera in a land of Song, 29 July 2012
Drowned Man in a Dry Creekbed - Happy New Year 1993, 6 August 2012
Virginia in the Desert, 10 Sep 2012

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