On how the Germans saved Australia

Matt Busby Andrews describes the interactions between Aboriginal people and Lutheran missionaries.



Matt Busby Andrews describes the interactions between Aboriginal people and Lutheran missionaries.


The other great strain of mission, which I think is just a historic delight, is the way that we can see across the country how German people saved Australia. If we regard Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal traditions and Aboriginal languages as being the heart of what is precious to Australia, you are more likely to have that protected if you had a German missionary.

So down in Port Augusta, there was a mission that was run by Pastor Teichelmann and Pastor Schürmann, and they worked hard to preserve Barngarla over a number of years. The missionary organisation later regarded them as a failure – and there’s lots of other German-based Moravian or Lutheran missions across the country like that. And yet today, for those Indigenous people such as a friend of mine, Aunty Maureen, she is now discovering, with the University of South Australia’s help, that they are able to revive their language purely from the Bible translation notebooks that these German missionaries had. And if you’re living in Cape York amongst Noel Pearson’s people, or if you’re in Hermannsburg today, the reason why those languages still exist is because of German missionaries.

One of the reasons that German missionaries were so well-received by Indigenous people was, of course, at first, the sacrifice that they were making in dislocating themselves; but secondly, how Indigenous people could see that the German missionaries were suffering to be with them. In the First World War, they were all interned right up in Hermannsburg or right up in Cape York. And then the same thing happened in the Second World War, so that today, those communities won’t have a bad word said about German missionaries. And they proudly allow for the flourishing of, oddly enough, of a German Indigenous culture – so that the very famous Hermannsburg choirs sing Lutheran hymns in Pitjantjatjara.

Of course, Albert Namatjira comes from that place of flowering as well, with his art. The Hermannsburg potters come from there as well. So the missionaries didn’t just preserve, as a static, their language. Culture did change; let’s not pretend that it wasn’t dynamic. But something else emerged, something improbable and amazing.