Carl was born in the tiny village of Fredersdorf (near Angermuende in the Uckermark) north of Berlin on 23 December 1871, son of the local teacher of the Old Lutheran Church. Despite being academically gifted, Carl was prevented from achieving his dream of a university education by his father, whose reasons for this extraordinary behaviour remain unclear. However Carl had an ally in his local clergyman, Rev. Seidel, who gave him private tuition in the subjects needed to matriculate, and eventually his father relented, permitting Carl to train at the seminary set up by Wilhelm Loehe at Neuendettelsau (near Nuremberg) in Bavaria in order to become a clergyman in North America.
Because of his extreme youth, Carl did not sit for all his exams at the same time as his classmates, so was at home revising when a telegram came asking if he would give up the American dream and accept a call to Bethesda Mission 90 miles north-east of Marree in the far north of South Australia. After consulting Seidel, Carl accepted, completely changing the course of his life. Before setting off he went to collect some presents from the fiancée of fellow classmate Friedrich Leidig, who had also accepted a call from Australia, and so it happened that on Maundy Thursday, just five days before he set off for Australia, Carl turned up in the vicarage where Frieda was working.
His first posting was as teacher for the Dieri people on the Coopers Creek and being a gifted linguist, shortly after arriving he set to work with fellow missionary J.G. Reuther on a translation of the New Testament into Dieri – the first ever complete translation into an aboriginal language. This was published in 1897. During this period Carl fell in love with the Dieri language - and the people themselves - consulting them about all aspects of their language, which he thought showed all the signs of a culture in long-term decline. However problems at the rival Lutheran synod’s mission Hermannsburg ended in that station being acquired by the Immanuel Synod which ran Bethesda, and in October 1894 Carl, accompanied by Reuther and a member of the Mission Board, arrived to take Hermannsburg over. Left on his own for six months because his fellow missionary John Bogner had to make the trip from north Queeensland with his wife and young baby in the Wet Season, Carl made rapid strides in learning the language before coming south to meet Frieda at Semaphore, then Adelaide’s main port for larger vessels arriving from Europe.
While Bogner assembled a capable team to rebuild the station buildings and revive the enterprise as a cattle and horse breeding station, Carl ran the school, and gradually became drawn into anthropological studies alongside, and partly as an extension of, his study of language. He provided detailed information for Spencer’s co-worker Francis Gillen, at that time stationmaster at Alice Springs on the Overland Telegraph Line and already deep in research for The Native Tribes of Central Australia, published under their joint names in 1899. Then in 1901 Carl was contacted by Baron Moritz von Leonhardi asking him to verify certain claims made in Native Tribes,and so began a collaboration which was to lead to the publication of his own researches. Printed in sections, among other things the work challenged Spencer and Gillen’s central idea that aboriginal people were doomed to die out in a process of Darwinian evolution based on inferior and superior races, so all attempts to change them would only hasten this process. Carl thought this was nonsense, insisting instead that the chief problem for aboriginal people apart from the unprecedented rate of change and loss which accompanied white settlement, was their millennia–long isolation from the rest of the human race, coupled to the harshness of their environment. This had led to a decline from a former higher level of intellectual (though not material) culture. Christianity, he believed, would reverse this decline, not least by bringing them into contact with a better type of white person.
After Bogner left because his wife’s health required the services of a doctor, Carl took over the running of the station, but still continued with his researches, also compiling a comprehensive dictionary of both Aranda and Loritja, the first serious attempt by a European to record aboriginal languages. By the end of the period covered in this first volume, thanks to Frieda’s work with the women, infant mortality levels had been stabilised and the population was increasing, while Carl’s researches were starting to attract attention, gaining acceptance in Germany, Austria, France and England.
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