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Book Review: T G H Strehlow: Journey to Horseshoe Bend

Journey to Horseshoe Bend is quite simply a classic of Australian literature. It tells the story of how in 1922, sick and dying, Pastor Carl Strehlow, missionary at the Lutheran Hermannsburg Mission in central Australia, travelled south with his wife and son and members of the community on the slim and ultimately futile hope of receiving medical treatment. 

This is not exactly a happy tale, but what elevates it is the telling. The book is written by his son Ted (Theo in the book, aged 14 at the time), the unsurpassed anthropologist of central Australia, decades later, and the narrative detours regularly from Carl’s journey into the history and legends of Indigenous central Australia. The focus broadens from one man’s story into that of a whole region, where every boulder and waterhole is a spiritually infused place. And despite a level of formality, there is a biblical grandeur to the writing, with its scale, its anger at injustice, its spiritual insight, its poignant comparisons of Carl’s suffering to Jesus’. 

The book had been out of print for years, possibly because its author is a controversial figure (due to issues regarding the custodianship of Indigenous artefacts), and also possibly because stories of missionaries are out of fashion in our secular culture. Christian missions had their good and bad. They had elements of paternalism, for sure, and they are therefore lumped in with colonialism. But there is some irony in this since missions themselves often battled the English colonial powers. Lutherans especially had a lingering suspicion of governments due to their experience of persecution in nineteenth century Prussia, and as outsiders in the English culture, identified with the marginalised Indigenous population. The Lutherans’ attitude was counter to the hard-heartedness of the English rulers (and many anthropologists) who often assumed the Aborigines would simply die out. 

Missions certainly suppressed Indigenous beliefs and ceremonies, some of which were brutal and fearful, others beautiful and sympathetic to the land. Carl Strehlow initially took a hard line but soon softened, realising that Indigenous people could accept the gospel while retaining aspects of Indigenous culture. 

Carl became deeply intrigued by and respectful of Indigenous culture, as we might expect from a scholar of biblical and classical literature, and he documented Indigenous mythology in a massive eight-volume work published in Germany. In contrast, many settlers around Hermannsburg saw the Aborigines as pests or at least in need of “civilising” (which often eventuated in them simply being exploited or underpaid workers) and the police took the liberty of administering a Wild West form of justice, which too often involved shooting first and asking questions later. Carl would be as much concerned with this as with intertribal violence and won respect from Indigenous and non-Indigenous for his fearless peacemaking. 

Journey to Horseshoe Bend documents the unforgiving nature of central Australia. We get a sense of the extraordinary, almost miraculous tasks expected of missionaries, and of the aftermath of the collision of two different worlds. But we also get a sense of the resilience of residents (native and imported), and of the mesmeric beauty of this “land of eternity.” And due to Ted’s unique perspective as a straddler of two worlds, we are also shown a contrast between the White love of money and power and the Indigenous respect for more important things, the latter a worldview at the core of the Bible the missionaries brought with them.    

T G H Strehlow, Journey to Horseshoe Bend, Giramondo Publishing, 2015.

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