EJANZH: Russell Macgregor reviews Barbara Henson's Biography of F.W. Albrecht

A Straight-out Man: F.W. Albrecht and Central Australian Aborigines By Barbara Henson. Carlton: Melbourne University Press, (1992) paperback edn 1994. xvi + 313. $24.95.

Reviewed by Russell McGregor, James Cook University of North Queensland.

Biographies seem to be popular these days; and with good reason. They may, of course, be mere celebration – or denigration – of notable persons. But more than that, the narrative recounting of the life of an individual may reveal something of the complexity of life as it was lived, of the social, cultural, political, economic circumstances which obtained in times past, and which fostered or constrained the options of thought and action available to the individual. Moreover, biography may elucidate the complexity of historical settings without the heavy overburden of theorising which appears to be considered necessary in much recent academic historiography. In terms of illuminating not only the individual subject but also the circumstances which rendered his life-work meaningful, Henson’s biography of Albrecht is largely – though not entirely – successful. Hopefully, it may act as an antidote to the facile interpretation which would have it that missionaries were no more than the agents of colonialism.

A Polish-born German, Friedrich Wilhelm Albrecht arrived in Australia in late 1925, to take up the position of missionary at Hermannsburg in Central Australia, a position which had been vacant since Carl Strehlow’s death in October 1922. By early 1926, Albrecht and his wife Minna were out at Hermannsburg, where the normally dry country was in the grip of severe drought. So began a missionary career which lasted officially – until the end of 1951 when Albrecht retired; but continued unofficially until his death in 1984. aged 89.

This long life of ministering to what he considered to be the spiritual and physical needs of Aborigines receives sensitive and sympathetic treatment at the hands of Henson. Without special pleading on Albrecht’s behalf, Henson projects a positive image of the missionary: battling against local white indifference or antagonism toward the Aborigines; against the sluggishness and parsimony of bureaucracies; against the harsh conditions of the central desert; against the problems of disease, malnutrition and shortage of water; and, not least, against heathenism.

It is probably on the last of these points that many readers would find it difficult to appreciate Albrecht’s efforts. Yet Albrecht himself presumably considered the battle against heathenism to be his central task. And unfortunately, the weakest part of Henson’s biography is her rather thin analysis of the religious motivations of the missionary. In the Preface, she explains that despite a strong interest in Albert Namatjira, she decided not to focus on this well-known Aboriginal artist as she “came to feel that the cultural gap was too great to be bridged by someone who could not spend considerable time in Central Australia”. That may well be so. But there is also an enormous cultural gap between the majority of Australians and a German Pole, born in the latter years of the nineteenth century, whose devotion to the Lutheran faith and obedience to the Christian dictate to spread the Word of God led him and his family to spend their lives in the heat, dust, frustration and discomforts of an Aboriginal community in the central deserts. It is a cultural gap that Henson does not quite bridge.

The biography would have benefited from a more comprehensive exposition of the Lutheran faith; or more specifically, of the Lutheran faith of Albrecht and his missionary colleagues. The first chapter gives a bit of background on Albrecht’s family and early life, and a very little on the missionary institute at Hermannsburg in northern Germany where he received his training. Thereafter, the reader is given glimpses of the nature of Albrecht’s faith. But it is never developed to the point where his life-long vocation becomes truly meaningful or comprehensible. Without an elucidation of his religious faith. his motivations – and to some extent his actions – appear sometimes incomprehensible.

Henson also pays inadequate attention to missionary policy at the nation-wide Australian level. Albrecht endeavoured to maintain a sense of community by permitting, or encouraging, the continuity of those aspects of Aboriginal society and culture which he considered secular, while at the same time endeavouring to persuade people to totally abandon the old religious beliefs and practices – although he did become a little more moderate on this latter point late in life.

This policy could be considered a kind of middle course among the various options that had credibility among Protestant missionaries to Aborigines in the 1930s,1940s and 1950s. On the one hand there were the conservatives who believed that the totality of Aboriginal society, culture, belief and so forth had to be extirpated and replaced by a received version of the Christian faith and conformity to European (usually British) ways; at the time, this approach was perhaps best represented by fundamentalists like the United Aborigines Mission.

On the other hand there were those who held that just as traditional Aboriginal society provided a foundation on which a new progressive society could be built, so traditional spirituality provided a basis upon which the Christian faith would flourish; this line was advocated by the Anglican priest and professor of anthropology, A.P. Elkin, and practised by the Presbyterian missionary, J.R.B. Love. Henson alludes to these differences; both Love and Elkin receive a few mentions. But the reader’s understanding of Albrecht would have benefited from a closer contextualisation of his ideas and actions within the various missionary approaches and disputes of the day. While the biographer may run the risk of losing focus on her subject if too much context is included, Henson tends to err on the side of too little.

Nonetheless, Henson’s achievement is her portrayal of a person who devoted his life to the well-being of Aborigines, regardless of the personal cost to himself. And, it might be added, almost regardless of the cost to his own family. His wife Minna remains a somewhat shadowy figure, but the indications are that she did not cope with life at Hermannsburg as well as her husband did. From the 1940s her health began to falter, and she suffered severe and debilitating bouts of depression. Yet it seems that she and her husband were deeply devoted, not only to each other but also to their self-imposed task of spreading the Word of God. Their children may have enjoyed their unconventional surroundings, but they too had to suffer the problems of isolation. In a typically under-stated but nonetheless moving passage, Henson describes how Albrecht’s eight year old son Paul almost died of blood-poisoning and other complications after his father had extracted a troublesome tooth.

The other major cast of characters is, of course, the Aborigines, mainly Aranda (now Arrernte), who lived in and around Hermannsburg. The most famous of these, Albert Namatjira, figures quite prominently; but Henson also devotes considerable attention to the older converts from Carl Strehlow’s day and to the Aboriginal evangelists who were sent out – or who went out – to spread the Word beyond Hermannsburg. Necessarily, the personalities and beliefs of these Aboriginal converts and evangelists remain somewhat obscure; but Henson convincingly evokes Albrecht’s attitudes toward them, compounded out of appreciation, apprehension, concern and trust.

Perhaps the least successful aspect of Henson’s representation of Aborigines is her practice of interpolating throughout the book short passages of transcripts of interviews with Aboriginal people. These are indicated by a change of font to italics and little pictures of Aboriginal children in the left-hand margin; individual informants and the year of interview are specified in the endnotes, but not in the text. The effect is to render the Aboriginal commentary as almost superfluous interjections. In her Acknowledgments, Henson states that the technique was intended to “constitute a collective Aboriginal presence within the book”; but the quoted passages themselves suggest that the notion of “a collective Aboriginal presence” is fictitious. It would have been better to simply introduce the Aboriginal commentators in the usual way, along the lines of: “Such-and-such a person, reflecting on whatever-the-incident-may-have-been, stated …”

Despite these shortcomings, Albrecht does emerge from the pages of Henson’s book as “a straight-out man” – a description taken from an interview with Pastor Nahasson Ungkwanaka (as I found by turning to the endnotes). And this is the sort of straight-out biography that befits him.

Russell McGregor teaches Australian cultural history at the James Cook University of North Queensland