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SOPHIA KEYSSER'S WILL
On the 14th of February 1867, Mr Pinkas Skutsch, Royal Notary at Naila, left his office early and set off in his carriage to receive the last will and testament of Frieda's grandmother, Mrs Sophia Keysser, David Keysser's widow living with her youngest son Carl at House Number 46, the Lower Hammer, Geroldsgruen.
It was a standard matter, this business of receiving wills from ageing, monied widows like Mrs Keysser - in fact some thirty six years previous Mr Skutsch's predecessor in office had travelled this very road to Erlaburg, a small property situated in the fields just outside Geroldsgruen to receive the will of Sophia's aunt, Carl Christoph Keysser's widow, after her son died unexpectedly in 1830. So there was nothing at all unusual about Mr Skutsch coming here today.
This part of Upper Franconia is highland country; forest alternates with meadow, and at one time it was honey-combed with mines. In its heyday in the 1700s, the Wild Man at Naila alone produced a thousand tons of iron ore a week, coming up from a great depth pulled by ponies. And there were other big mines too: the King Solomon's Mine producing copper was one, and lots of smaller finds scattered through the forest, most yielding iron ore, but sometimes silver, copper, slate, lead and even gold. Once, Naila was a prosperous city, administrative headquarters for all this activity, but that was before Napoleon, who ruined everything. The mines shut down, the mining population emigrated, lots of them to America, and the forest, the dark green Frankish Forest where in the Middle Ages outlaws ambushed gold convoys, grew back as if the mines had never been. It was picturesque decline.
The road from Naila to Geroldsgruen rises gently as it comes up the hill past Erlaburg, reaching a slight crest where all the forest has long since been cleared away to give a comprehensive view of the town. It then descends quite sharply to the Oelsnitz River which flows through Geroldsgruen. This river - if you can call it a river, for it is really no more than a stream - has a reliable flow of water which can be dammed and used to drive water wheels. Since at least 1554, and possibly for fifty years before that, a hammer mill, owned by members of the Keysser family and called the Keysser Hammer, used this water to manufacture iron. A blast furnace fired with charcoal provided the molten metal which was then either refined to low-grade steel or worked into various types of iron goods by a process of heating and hammering, the hammers being driven by the waterwheel.
So successful was their business that the Keyssers built another hammer mill, the New Hammer, near the first (the Old Hammer) with a separate branch of the family running each, while another Keysser relative ran the village mill which ground the corn. Later they built the hammer mills back to back, replacing the New Hammer with the Upper Hammer slightly upstream of the Old Hammer, which became the Lower Hammer while they worked the iron from one big blast furnace in the middle, and that's how it stayed for several hundred years. They were a dynastic family, and Geroldsgruen their dynastic heartland – or at least it had been, before Napoleon handed Franconia over to the Bavarians, who finished off what was left of the mining industry. Mad King Ludwig II especially, preceded by his grandfather Ludwig I with his dancer mistress Lola Montez and their expensive building schemes in Munich, were generally held to blame.
There were legends about the Keysser family, almost as many as about the Golden Stag, whose footprints seen on the side of a hill indicated a mining find - or so they said - and the Keyssers, who had come from Graslitz across the border in Bohemia around 1550, had once made so much money from their business they moved it round in wagons - or so they said. They said a lot of other things as well of course, too much in fact, for there were rumours about Sophia Keysser's mother, Christiana von Doberneck of the old aristocratic family who owned just about everything in that part of the world, and what they said about her...well!
It was her relationship with Sophia's father, Georg Wilhelm Keysser, which was the problem, and whether Christiana had been faithful to him. You see back in 1789 some drunk called Johannes Herpich said to his friend Hans Hornfischer in the local pub (possibly The Golden Stag opposite St James Church, still standing today) that all he had to do was go outside and whistle and Keysser's wife would...... but we won't go into all that here. Well, Hornfischer was with the mayor, and the mayor told Georg and when Georg heard about it he decided it would be best if he and Christiana got divorced. Of course the vicar, Johann Gross (father of Sophia Keysser's aunt at Erlaburg) got called in, Hornfischer was given a proper going over in the vicarage and later there was a full hearing where Christiana - a spirited young lady of twenty-four - came and gave good account of herself and convinced the vicar she was the innocent victim of malicious rumours spread by enemies to wind her husband up because they knew he was a proud and jealous man and in any case Christiana had been pregnant when the couple got married (which the vicar knew) and…… what more is there to say? The couple were reconciled.
Of course it was all hushed up - these things always are - but I dare say Mr Skutsch had heard the rumours and not known what to think of them; just as he had not known what to think about Carl Theodor Keysser, Sophia's youngest son, always borrowing money secured against the property in Geroldsgruen.
On more than ten occasions in the previous fifteen years, Carl Theodor had been in Mr Skutsch's office raising enormous loans against the Lower Hammer Estate to re-open a disused mine in the hills behind Geroldsgruen which he called, of all things, the Blue Heavens Mine. Predictably the scheme went wrong, but he just sold a piece of land or two to Lothar Faber the slate manufacturer from Nuremberg, paid off his debts and carried on as if nothing had happened.
The Blue Heavens Mine! He was a dreamer, Carl Theodor, a good-looking man with far-away eyes who had never married, living with his mother in the old House Number 46 beside the Lower Hammer. Not a drifter, just a man who would never do well, a visionary who wanted to revive the iron industry. He was a fool. He must have wondered how much money the Keyssers still had left, this Mr Skutsch, sitting in his carriage as his horses made the long slow haul up the hill past Erlaburg and reached the crest where, on a clear day, you could see the whole town spread out before you, just a high street really, with houses on either side following the course of the Oelsnitz down the hill to Duerrenweid.
Straight ahead lay the graphics firm of Lothar Faber, built on the land Carl Theodor sold to Faber around 1865 (today its tall chimney dominates the skyline rising a hundred feet above the factory buildings and workers accommocation); next, looking down the Oelsnitz valley, the church of St James, still with the remains of heavy fortifications (wall and slitted towers from the lawless Middle Ages when it was a pilgrimage chapel in the forest, though the church itself was rebuilt by Georg Keysser the Elder in 1621 who donated the font in 1622 with his brothers Wilhelm and Erhart); then still further down the valley right at the bottom in the distance, the chimney of the steam engine at the Lower Hammer, where Carl Keysser's saga all began. It was that steam engine which did it, the first steam engine in Upper Franconia bought from Vorholzer's in Hof back in 1854, for when Carl didn't keep up the payments and the matter almost went to court, Mr Skutch got called in. It was the first occasion the two had met and though that time it was settled out of court, Carl had lived on the brink of court action ever since.
Of course there were other rumours about the Keyssers, too - not all that prepossessing perhaps, but certainly interesting: that Carl's brother Friedrich - a barrister in Hof - married a beautiful seamstress Katharina Krauss because she was very beautiful……and because she was five months pregnant with his child - and had been shunned by the other members of the family when they found out her father was a common labourer and very poor. And it didn't stop there, for when Friedrich died tragically young in December1858 leaving his pregnant widow in utter penury, some years later his two surviving children Wilhelm and Lina were put in a home on the orders of his sister Henrika because they played some harmless, childish prank. People said she only did it to spite her beautiful sister-in-law Katharina - Henrika was no beauty - and because her only son died at the age of three, and her only daughter was in a lunatic asylum somewhere to the south after being operated on for a hare lip and developing epilepsy. In fact if it hadn't been for some watchful teacher who intervened, Wilhelm and Lina might have been in that home to this day, instead of being - as they were - with their beautiful mother, now in the last stages of consumption.
Scandals, family schisms, children conceived out of wedlock, the property mortgaged up to the hilt: it was all over for the Keyssers, their day was done.
Still, I am sure Mr Skutsch had seen far worse in his time: as a lawyer he surely knew when not to ask too much, and as his carriage rumbled down the hill to the bridge across the River Oelsnitz, turned right into the high street at Faber's factory and slowly passed the church of St James, he could - had he been so minded - have ordered his driver to stop, got out, met the vicar Georg Herold and his wife Henrika Keysser herself - admired the silver chalice donated by Georg Keysser the Younger in 1666, and in idle curiosity run his eye down the parish registers containing the names of more than a hundred Keysser forebears baptised, married or buried in the churchyard outside the door.
But Mr Skutsch was not so minded, and after his carriage had negotiated the dog-leg in the road just below the church, he proceeded on down the last quarter of a mile to the Lower Hammer, now silent and enveloped in the gloom, for it was winter; darkness had fallen and there may have been snow.
Mrs Sophia Keysser, Keysser by birth as well as marriage, lived where her forefathers had lived for some three hundred years in House Number 46 beside the Lower Hammer, the pounding of the hammers in the workshop - great iron hammers weighing 315 Nuremberg pounds - unchanged from when the factory was built, some time before 1620. Pictures of the Lower Hammer taken in 1899, show a massive, timber-framed building several stories high, not looking the 290 years that had passed since Johannes Keysser, Sophia Keysser's distant forebear from Graslitz in Bohemia, dug a cellar out of stone there with his friend Martinus Jackisch in 1622.
Yet the house - House Number 46 - looked ramshackle unless the camera lied (they seldom do), a ruin of a place, walls canting everywhere, and cracked, the roof of slate, and buckled, gnarled and twisted by the centuries: a building battered by the weight of many lives and loves and hates played out within its walls. It seems a strange seat for a hammer master dynasty, impossibly humble. It can't be where the story all began. Yet it is, and at least nine generations of Keysser Hammer Masters - owners of the Lower or the Upper Hammer, are known to have lived on this site down to the time of Frieda's father. We have their names. Let me run through them for you:
Generation I: Wilhelm I (c. 1530-c.1600) who seems to have inherited from his father the Lower and Upper Hammers as well as the Duerrenweider Hammer, where gold and silver were found in 1477 leading to the establishment of the Naila Mining District under the Hohenzollern margraves. When he died, these three Hammers were in the hands of three of his sons.
Generation II: Wilhelm II (c.1565-1634), son of William I, who died of ‘the Swedish drink’ at the hands of Gustavus Adolphus' Protestant troops extorting money in the Thirty Years War. His brother Georg of the Upper Hammer who built the church was tortured but escaped death at the hands of the Catholic Croats, who burnt his house and the Upper Hammer to the ground later in 1634.
Generation III: Wilhelm III (1622-1682), Wilhelm II's son.
Generation IV: Martin (1652- post1702), William III's son.
Generation V: Johann Martin (1686-1759), Martin's son. He went bankrupt, sold out to von Feilitzsch who sold the mill to Johann Georg Keysser the Elder (1687-1769) of the Upper Hammer line, who built the double blast furnace in 1734, laying the basis of the Keysser fortunes in the eighteenth century.
Generation VI: Georg Christian (1721-1785), Johann Georg's son, who lived a quiet life as far as we know.
Generation VII: Georg Wilhelm (1747-1799), Georg Christian's son and Sophia's father, married Christiana von Doberneck and was succeeded in 1799 by Johann Christian (1761- c.1826, father of Sophia's husband David of the Upper Hammer line, who lost the Upper Hammer to Ernst Abraham Loewel in bankruptcy in 1792. Johann and Christiana got married in 1801.
Generation VIII: Ernst Wilhelm (1798-1834) Georg Wilhelm's son. Went bankrupt in 1828 and was succeeded by his sister Sophia's husband Johann David (1787-1852) of the Upper Hammer line, who borrowed 6,000 guilders in 1834 to lift the bankruptcy order.
Generation IX: David and Sophia's son Carl Theodor (1831-1879) Frieda's father, paid off the 6,000 guilders, put in a steam engine to drive the hammers, and from 1857 tried to develop the Blue Heavens Mine and revive the iron industry in the Naila Mining District.
The Lower Hammer was the axis around which the Keysser fortunes revolved and when Mr Skutsch drew up outside the front door of House Number 46 in Geroldsgruen, his feet - had he but known it - were about to step on hallowed ground. The sense of dynasty (to one who knew the history) was overpowering. As Mr Skutch stood there waiting to be admitted to Sophia Keysser’s presence, what thoughts were running through his head? For her will was overdue. She was an old lady now, and she had several needy heirs.
No description of Sophia has come down to us - there are boxes and boxes of photos of everybody else - but not a single shot of her. Perhaps they were destroyed. Deliberately. Torn to pieces in a fit of pique. Eliminated. But by whom?
The portraits of the Keysser grandparents which Frieda says she saw in her Aunt Henrika's house - those oil paintings too have disappeared. It is very strange. And they were left to Frieda too. Odd that they should disappear like that. Frieda said they were taken to Saxony by Henrika's husband after her death. Perhaps they were. Perhaps they are hanging on some wall there still. But why did they not come to Frieda?
Rumour, hearsay and legend, the usual purveyors of information about the dead, have left no record of Sophia. Short or fat, slight or imposing - there is no image formed. Yet Mr Skutch's record of the handing over of her will, clipped and legalistic though it is, as well as something in her handwriting itself - that firm, tight hand, no trace of old-age shakiness even though the writing is so small you need a magnifying glass to read it - implies a little of the grande dame about her, a confident matriarch steeped in the traditions of the Keyssers, a grip of iron in a velvet glove; and Frieda said the house was full of portraits and memorabilia from the Keysser past: coats of arms (two distinct versions - don't ask me why, they both survived), the family tree (which didn't), the Keysser seals, still visible in wax on documents the teacher Johann Heinrich Keysser signed in the parish office of St James, various pieces of quality furniture, maybe a chance portrait of some Doberneck antecedent - who knows? General family detritus I suppose, to say nothing of old account books, records of anvils, ploughshares, iron goods of every kind sold to customers some three hundred years previous - the sense of dynasty must have been stifling, and all of it embodied in Sophia Keysser herself, seventy-four years old and every inch a Keysser.
For she was strong. Like many people who have grown up in the shadow of a family scandal - Sophia's parents married by special dispensation at Fischbach near Kronach to avoid marrying in Geroldsgruen itself, after the vicar of Naila wrote to the vicar of Geroldsgruen protesting that the bride was pregnant - Sophia was strong, perhaps too strong. Perhaps this was her weakness - to be too strong.
Her brother Ernst Wilhelm had inherited the Lower Hammer from his father Georg Wilhelm, but within a few years went bankrupt, and after a stint of working down the mine at the Blechschmiedenhammer at Lichtenberg - probably the first Keysser to work down a mine since Johannes was flooded out of the Wild Man at Naila on New Year 1623 - found it all too much when a shaft fell in on him. Still, he got out alive and uninjured: he was lucky.
Abandoning wife and children - another shotgun marriage, I regret to say - he enlisted as an officer in the army of the Wittelsbach King Otto of Greece to restore his fortunes, but here his luck ran out, for he died in the Liberation Wars at Mandra in 1834, leaving his family to sort out ownership of the Lower Hammer as best they could. Which they did - or rather Sophia and her husband David did - slowly unravelling the problems which were many.
At that stage the Hammer was owned by a consortium (two of whom were going bankrupt) and encumbered by a court order restricting its use; there was an action being brought by the local miller concerning changes made to the water level in the hammer pond, the iron business was in the doldrums and the Wittelsbachs were racking up the taxes on land as well as wood to pay for their building works in Munich; Sophia and her husband had been living all their married lives in Forchheim forty miles away, their two eldest sons had already begun their education at another grammar school - they had every reason on this earth to stay away - yet it seems the pull of the family inheritance - dynastic obsession, or maybe just the call of Heimat [homeland] - was sufficient for Sophia and David to raise that loan of six thousand guilders to wrest back the family seat for themselves and for their children, and returning from Forchheim where the children had been born, to rebuild the Keysser presence at the Lower Hammer.
Between then and the arrival of Mr Skutsch on her doorstep, thirty years had passed, and a great deal of water had run down the sluices of the waterwheel from the hammer pond. Sophia was now old, so Mr Skutsch had been summoned at her special request to receive her instructions as to its destiny after her death, for being nearly seventy five, it was more than time she made her will.
* * * *
Mr Skutsch's record of the meeting runs as follows:
Today, February the fourteenth, one thousand eight hundred and sixty seven, have I, Pinkas Skutsch, Royal Notary at Naila, repaired to Geroldsgruen, to take and bespeak a Last Will and Testament therefrom.
At six o'clock in the evening, in the house known as and situated at Number Forty Six, Geroldsgruen (Keysser Hammer) there appeared before me the Hammer Owner's widow Mrs Sophia Keysser, a Keysser by birth, known to me by name, status and residence, and of testamentary capacity.
At the same time there appeared before me the two witnesses to the Will, both likewise known to me by name, status and residence, and in full accordance with all legal formalities: Mr Christian Kadner, parish schoolmaster and organist at Geroldsgruen, and Mr Rudolph Michel, accountant of Faber's factory therefrom.
In the presence of these two witnesses, Mrs Sophia Keysser handed to me as Notary a document, folded in the shape of a letter and sealed with three seals bearing the Keysser coat of arms impressed in red wax, giving verbal assurance that within it was contained her Last Will and Testament, signed in her own hand; and that she had hitherto forbidden her estate to be got in and entailed.
The Notary took the sealed document handed to him and without letting it out of his hands, attested it with his own signature, that of the testatrix and the two witnesses, placing upon it his stamp of office, as proof that Mrs Sophia Keysser had declared it to contain her Last Will and Testament.
Herewith the document, which I myself as Notary have read out to Mrs Sophia Keysser, in the continuous presence of the witnesses, whereon Mrs Sophia Keysser, the two witnesses and the Notary have placed their signatures.
(signed) Sophia Keysser
Pinkas Skutsch, Public Notary.
The will itself - unopened, its contents known to nobody but Sophia herself - but endorsed and signed by all present was then taken, together with the affidavit, by Mr Skutsch to Naila, to be opened when Sophia died. And that was what was unusual in this whole affair: nobody knew what the will contained, apart from Sophia herself.
FRIEDA AND CARL MEET
FRIEDA AND CARL MEET
It is a story anchored in the customs of Central Europe, where Easter is celebrated by dyeing hard-boiled eggs bright colours with vegetable dyes. This operation is carried out by the adults, who are at some pains to make sure the children do not see the eggs being dyed. Blue, red, green, hot orange and a sumptuous purple are the common colours used, and early on Easter Sunday morning, the eggs are hidden in the garden. The children then take part in an Easter egg hunt and much fun is had by all, especially the adults, who give little hints and clues to make sure each child finds at least one nest of eggs, all the time pretending that the eggs have been left there by 'the Easter bunny'. After the hunt, the whole family sit down to a breakfast of hard-boiled eggs and soon the table is littered with brightly-coloured eggshells. It is great fun for everybody.
Now it so happened that on Maundy Thursday, 1892, in the vicarage at Obersulzbach, a small hamlet in the Frankish countryside south-west of Nuremberg, two young women were busy dyeing eggs those brilliant colours in preparation for Easter. The older of the two, Maria Eckardt, had been keeping house for the vicar of Obersulzbach - Rev. August Omeis - and his wife, Augusta Omeis - for several years, but then she became engaged to a young missionary from the Neuendettelsau Seminary by the name of Friedrich Leidig, who was sent to be stationed at Bethesda on the Coopers Creek in the Far North of South Australia.
Realising he would soon be without a housekeeper, the vicar decided to replace her with his great-niece - Frieda - who moved to Obersulzbach two weeks before Easter to get settled in before Maria left. Actually it was all a bit of a muddle. Maria shouldn’t have been in Obersulzbach at all. Months before she was supposed to have joined her fiancé in South Australia and, yes, she kept writing to him saying she really did want to marry him yet.... yet Leidig’s letters about Mission life were terribly discouraging. There were spiders in the outside toilets, and snakes under the bed - or so young Leidig feared - and the tribesmen were wild and intractable. So months went past and Maria hadn’t arrived, and still more time went past and still she hadn’t arrived and Leidig (by now nearly a nervous wreck what with the snakes and the spiders and the tribesmen) and despairing of his fiancée ever joining him, left Bethesda and took over the parish of Point Pass in the Barossa Valley close to Adelaide. However he also sent a friend and fellow graduate of Neuendettelsau, who was on his way to Australia to replace Leidig at Bethesda, to collect some presents from Maria as a guarantee that she really was going to honour her promise to marry him.
It was Easter when Leidig’s friend turned up at the vicarage, so he found Maria and Frieda surrounded by brightly coloured Easter eggs, their hands all stained with dye. Introductions were made and the vicar and his wife duly welcomed the stranger, who quickly found himself deep in conversation not with Maria, but with young Frieda.
Now Frieda was only sixteen, but she knew all about the Neuendettelsau seminary and the Society for Home Mission which underwrote its finances. Her grandfather, the Rev. Johann Erhard Fischer, had helped set the Society up in 1850, and her father Carl Keysser, who had died twelve years before, had been a member while he was alive and supported the Society’s activities with money, while her Great-Uncle August - the vicar of Obersulzbach - was chairman of one of the Society’s committees. In fact, if what we hear is to be believed, his house was always full of young men on their way to distant postings in Africa, Australia, North America, even New Guinea, and though most of these young men were destined to serve emigrant Lutheran communities and so not missionaries in our sense of the word at all, somehow Frieda had become caught up in the romance of it all and dreamt of going abroad to distant German East Africa, dangerous and fever-ridden though it was, to live among the Africans and serve the mission. Perhaps it was the artefacts adorning her great-uncle’s study walls which caught her fancy - boomerangs and spears from Australia, masks from Africa and New Guinea, for the vicar was a keen collector of such rareties, and some visitors came to his house just to see them.
Next day - Good Friday - Frieda and the stranger (who was leaving for Australia after his dedication on Easter Sunday) - went for a walk through the woods behind Obersulzbach up the hill to the old Hohenzollern fortification of Culmberg Castle. Then, as now, it was a museum, and after the couple had looked through the castle rooms and climbed its ramparts, they walked back together to the vicarage. Recalling that day many years later, Frieda mentioned how after the walk, they played the board game halma 'which he beat me at.' Next morning, the young man set off back to Neuendettelsau to receive his official send-off, afterwards catching the train to Genoa, where steamers departed for Australia.
'As we shook hands to say goodbye,' Frieda recalled, 'I realised I had fallen for him, at the same time thinking to myself how nice it would be to be able to make life's journey in his company!'
It had been a momentous meeting.
'I wanted to go to the Mission,' she said, 'oh so very badly but I didn't know how and what's more, I had no money to be able to get myself trained.'
The stranger - of course - was Carl, then only twenty, and Frieda’s feelings were certainly reciprocated, for on New Year’s Eve, 1892, a letter addressed to the vicar arrived bearing the postmark of Hergott Springs [Marree], the nearest post office to Bethesda. In it was a proposal of marriage. Frieda was ecstatic. 'I knew it was God's Will that I should go to Australia and was delighted.'
Not so Frieda's devoted Aunt Augusta, who 'burst into tears, for she loved me like a sister. I was only 13 years younger than she was, my mother being 14 years older than her little sister.'
Now despite his appetite for artefacts, and chairmanship within the Society, Great-Uncle August was a sensible man. He knew all about those spiders in the outside toilets and the snakes which sometimes made their way into the bedrooms, and if he had any say in the matter, his niece was not going to toil in the service of the Mission at Bethesda. Besides, she was an orphan. And she was too young. And all the other relatives (especially Aunt Augusta) agreed. It was an adolescent obsession, a bad idea, and would ruin her happiness. She should marry in Germany, and she should marry well, for although she was so well bred she could 'put a von in front of her name' as one aunt was in the habit of saying (meaning she could join the aristocracy) she lacked that all-important accoutrement so essential for young ladies in those days, a substantial dowry.
'So a letter was sent back,' Frieda records, 'saying I was still too young, only seventeen, and had to wait three years.' And although the vicar’s reply was perfectly polite, Carl was left in no doubt that his approaches were unwelcome. Frieda was not allowed to write to him herself; on the contrary, Great-Uncle August and Aunt Augusta (to whom Frieda really was extremely close) insisted that no further letters be sent in this connection until Frieda had attained the age of twenty. This would be at the end of August 1895. It was a total discouragement.
However Carl was a determined young man, not easily discouraged by opposition of any kind, and six months later, in the middle of 1893, at the urging of Maria Eckardt now Mrs Friedrich Leidig, he wrote again saying the Mission authorities in Tanunda were pressing him to marry and it was impossible for him to wait until August 1895 without some kind of answer. Frieda’s relatives debated their course of action and finally - though they remained inflexible that Frieda should not marry till she was twenty, in the hope she changed her mind - Carl was allowed to write to her personally, which he did, and won her hand in marriage. The upshot of it all was that on 5 August 1895, three weeks before her twentieth birthday, Frieda, accompanied by Maria Zahn, fiancée of Carl's friend Otto Siebert, and chaperoned as far as Naples by Aunt Augusta’s husband and Great-Uncle August (now nearly seventy, but indomitable as ever), set off on the long journey to Australia, to marry a man she barely knew except through letters, and live with him at the newly-acquired Mission Station of Hermannsburg, then one of the most remote and lonely settlements on this earth.
Frieda and Carl were married by Leidig at Point Pass in the Barossa Valley. After a short honeymoon in the south they made the long journey to Hermannsburg where they raised that family of six children and over the next 27 years re-established Hermannsburg Mission as the place we know today.
And it was - I am glad to say - a happy marriage.
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CHAPTER 58: MEASLES
‘no house and no hut spared’
Carl to Rechner
‘The 1st of January began really well, with rain,’ Frieda wrote in her diary for 1899. ‘It was misty for several days but we got only a quarter of an inch of rain. It rained more at Owen Springs and Illamurta. On the 15th we had a fairly violent thunderstorm during the night. After that we had very cold nights.’ The monsoon had arrived on time.
On 6 January ‘Tmala came in the evening and said he would like to go to religious instruction again. The next day a whole lot more other heathens came to my husband.’ Carl had been through all this before. He guessed they wanted food and clothing and saw baptism as a means to this end. He was not encouraging. ‘He said to them straight out that he was unable to give them work and food.’ He did not want any more ‘rice Christians’. There were far too many already. However Frieda was cautiously hopeful. ‘Perhaps this is the beginning of better times. May God make it so!’
A total of eight men presented themselves to Carl. They were: Nalka, Tmala, Toby, Alknarintja, Alknantjika, Jukuta, Loatjira and Leojika. Including those women and children already in the school, and several women who seem to have approached Carl at the same time (Lalitja, Labea, Ragapulja and Lagararintja), ‘the number of those coming for instruction in the following week totalled 44 to 50.’ Attendance was fairly regular. There was a fair spread of ages among these candidates: Nalka was about 32, Tmala about 37, Loatjira 43, Leojika was already an old man, so in his sixties or even seventies; Lalitja was about 20, Lagararintja about 38. A smaller age range applied to the six women already in the school: Ilbaltalaka was about 23, Alknakulpa about 19, and Tnimboka about 27. Ages have been taken from church records and are estimations, not exact.
Of these people, few were in the end baptised: in 1900 Tmala (Silas), Nalka (Tobias), Lalitja (Margaret), Alknakulpa (Mathilda) and Tnimboka (Beata); in 1903 Lagararintja (Charlotte). Loatjira dropped out of these classses but was eventually baptised at the age of about sixty-five some twenty-five years later, having again attended religious instruction under Carl in 1921. There were various reasons why people dropped out: sometimes they died, like Leojika and Iljerilaka, who was also in this class, sometimes they left the Mission, sometimes they decided that Christianity was not for them. On other occasions problems in their private lives intervened, as happened with Tmala, who first attended religious instruction in 1897 but left to get back his wife when she ran off with another man. Many were excluded as unsuitable for admission to the Christian community - they were not sincere; they just wanted food and clothing. In general life was easier for the Christians. Even though they had to work, their food was guaranteed. Staying a heathen was harder in terms of staying alive. But Christians were expected to set a good example. Rahel had been dismissed because she would not look after her child properly. In her place the non-Christian girl Nkurkna was taken on. Ruth and her husband Jukuta were both discharged from service on 13 September because he had been beating her. Pressure was being constantly applied.
The factor which does not seem to have counted at this point in time is age. People either wanted to be baptised and admitted to the Christian community, or they did not. The claim sometimes made that only young confused people became Christians while mature, non-confused people did not, is not supported by this data and looks like generalisation based on the fact that most of the first converts from the previous regime were teenagers. That was not true any more. Frieda's instincts were right. Something had changed. Tmala was a senior man. As we know, Loatjira and Leojika presided over the initiation ceremonies which took place near the Station. Judging by his name, Loatjira [‘sand goanna’] was the head of the lizard group who sent tjurungas to Spencer and Gillen's Engwura. It is possible he personally attended in 1896, though this cannot be proved.
Children born now were often baptised at birth. Carl was keen to do this; he believed it would stand them in good stead in the hereafter and in any case saw it as his duty. Their parents were equally keen. They seem to have realised that the world was changing. They might not want to give up the old ways themselves, but they realised that for their children, things would be different. This perfectly normal response to a changing world has been misrepresented by all manner of theories and phrases: ‘confused’ is one, Gillen's term ‘debauched’ is another. All these assessments have one thing in common: they are the opinions of white observers who proceed to put their personal views into the mouths of aborigines, representing themselves as ‘spokesmen’ for people deemed incapable of speaking for themselves. It is a false situation. These ‘spokesmen’ speak for no one but themselves.
In the preceding pages several scores of instances have been documented where observers such as Spencer, Winnecke, Eylmann, Gillen and Cowle were demonstrably wrong, their opinions based on generalisation, looking at things out of context, jumping to conclusions, unchecked information etc. Even when these observers were correct in their general grasp of trends - as they also sometimes were - mostly they erred in the detail. Investigated properly, their expertise usually amounts to nothing more than the fact that their opinions have appeared in print. Trusting to their integrity, later researchers have used these erroneous opinions as fact. It was on the basis of this kind of research that social scientists concluded that the Mission must fail and the aborigines were doomed. But as subsequent events have demonstrated, the research was worthless. Like much 19th century science, it was not science, but pseudo-science.
* * *
Frieda and Carl's second child was born on 8 February, 1899. It was a baby girl. They were overjoyed. But it was a very difficult birth. ‘Although we were expecting an easy delivery,’ Carl wrote to Rechner,
it was markedly more difficult than the first, since it lasted for two days as a consequence of weak contractions of the womb. In Holy Baptism on Sunday Estomihi we gave her the names Martha Maria Augusta. She is very quiet and causes little inconvenience, sleeps almost all day, which in this hot, humid weather we count a real blessing. I have just had a look at the thermometer and it shows 110 degrees in the shade. At the same time the sky is somewhat overcast so it doesn't cool down at nights either; one has to sweat a lot day and night and get this tiresome prickly heat which robs the children especially of their sleep. We are hoping to get rain soon, since the last on Tuesday amounted to not quite one inch.
Naturally everyone in Germany was informed of the happy event including Seidel, who in his role as eminence grise wrote back saying how delighted he was about the birth, encouraging Carl not to lose heart in the difficult conditions of heat, drought-stricken desert country and overall lack of interest in Christianity by the Aranda. In his view it was the long period of neglect which partly lay behind this. Asking Carl next time he wrote a report to send him a copy, he said he and his wife were well and ‘hoped all is well with the Strehlow four-leafed clover in the Australian desert.’
Frieda was characteristically understated where her own hardships were concerned. ‘Difficult hours,’ is how she described the birth. Martha's godparents were Maria Bogner, Great-Aunt Augusta in Aha and Carl's mother. Martha continued to be an easy baby. Apart from immediately getting a heat rash, there were no problems with her as there had been with Friedrich. Letters were quickly sent off to all the other relations including Ulrich Krodel and Jette. Frieda and Carl seem to have achieved perfect marital bliss by now. Life on the station was spartan but bearable. However this harmonious interlude was fated to be short, for at the end of February - just before Easter 1899 - the expected epidemic of measles arrived, apparently carried from Tempe Downs by a traveller. It followed hard on a period when everyone on the Station was suffering from ‘catarrh’, which started in February.
The results were rapid - and relentless. By 18 March, 12 had died. ‘No house and no hut spared,’ said Carl in his report of 18 March 1899 in the church paper. The white children too were affected. Friedrich Strehlow became ill, along with the Bogner boys Ernst and Theodor. Even Graetz fell victim to the disease. Martha escaped - slept right through it without even knowing it was happening. In total 24 aboriginal people died in the space of two weeks. Most appear to have been elderly and living in the Finke river bed. Some of their names are recorded by Carl in the Mission Chronicle, others are recorded by Frieda in her diary.
Tom and Lazarus were the first to fall ill, she says, followed rapidly by all the girls working in the kitchen. Frieda was still weak from Martha's birth, so Salome and Ragapulja washed the dishes. The first to die was Leojika (the old man attending religious instruction lessons) on 6 March, followed by Toby's father Tutjarinja (7th), Johannes' mother Multaoka (11th), Pilkijulta (13th), Salomo's mother Tjumbutja (15th), a constant procession of death. ‘The whole station looks more like a field hospital at the moment,’ Bogner wrote to Rechner. It was a bad time to have so many people ill, for the kitchen water was having to be carted from five miles away, due to lack of rain.
According to Carl people were not necessarily dying from the illness itself: they were falling victim to secondary illnesses. ‘The blacks are very careless in cases of illness and will not listen to good advice. Measles of course starts with a high fever. Instead of keeping themselves warm, many take off all their clothes, and then lie in a draught. They absolutely refuse to see that this is quite wrong.’ This applied to the Christians as well as the heathens. Their resistance was rooted in belief in magic. The above remarks seem based specifically on Salomo and his daughter Rahel. According to Carl's entries in the burial register, both actually survived the measles, but then succumbed to secondary diseases. He does not give Rahel's specific cause of death, but Salomo himself caught a bad cold and it was this which carried him off. Carl's frustration is especially evident in Salomo's instance, mentioning that he was ‘the first adult to receive Holy Baptism’ but that when he died ‘his powers of comprehension were already weak; we hope he will find a merciful judge. Four of his eight children have found their final resting place in the churchyard here.’ If he had sufficient courage to reject tradition and embrace Christianity in the first place, why was he clinging to tradition now when the outcome was almost inevitably death? It was Carl's most intense experience of the difficulty of introducing new ideas where people are indivisibly wedded to the old. Syphilis could not be properly cured by current western medicine, but measles? ….....to die from measles? It was preposterous.
Bogner agreed. The situation was made worse by the fact that ‘as soon as someone dies, the huts are moved to another place.’ The spirits of the dead were believed to haunt empty huts and from there attach themselves to the living, taking possession of them. ‘The sick then lie around in the sand and in the night it is already sometimes quite cold, so it's no wonder if some of them die.’ No amount of persuasion would convince them otherwise. ‘All talk is pointless.’
It was not just cold nights either. A steady, soaking rain fell on 22 March followed by a thunderstorm with rain on 1 April. People were lying around wet for days. Almost certainly it was this which led to Salomo catching his fatal cold. Pessimistically, Bogner concluded that ‘the number of blacks continues to decrease, more die than are born. The little children of the blacks now almost all die, while the wild ones in the bush manage to raise more to maturity than our blacks.’ He was starting to talk like the English-Australians - the aborigines were a doomed race and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
Carl would have none of this. They were dying because they could not be told anything. Anyone would die if they did the same. Why would they not listen? As their spiritual guide he was present at both the death and the burial. It was distressing. He could not understand why even the Christians would not listen to good advice, clinging to traditional beliefs and practices at precisely those moments when their only chance of survival was to go against them. He felt responsible, and he was failing - failing to discharge the sacred trust vested in him by God, who had placed their destiny in his hands.
Of the twenty-four Aranda who died, at least four had Christian funerals. The rest were all related to his Christian congregation. Carl had to officiate at the Christian funerals, perhaps the others as well. Getting some of the non-Christians buried was a problem - nobody wanted to bury the bodies of Multaoka or Tjumbutja, but eventually Ragapulja and others were persuaded to do so by Carl and Bogner. The corpses buried, he then had to comfort the grieving relatives - their grief even more distressing because the death was avoidable. Tatakarintja's mother Jomanaka died on March 19.
Genuinely tragic was the story of Salome. Carl: ‘Her husband (Salomo), her daughter (Rahel), her mother-in-law (Tjumbutja), her father and grand-daughter (Rahel's daughter Ruth) died one after another in quick succession. Early on Maundy Thursday her young son Jonas also died and was buried that afternoon.’ Maundy Thursday: the anniversary of Carl and Frieda's fateful first meeting in the vicarage at Obersulzbach seven years before. Celebrations were no doubt muted - if they occurred at all. Their life's work was falling apart before their eyes. Frieda was especially shaken by Rahel's death because of their falling out. Rahel had irritated her by being too lazy to look after her baby and now she, the girl who threw back her head and just roared with laughter when Frieda made mistakes in Aranda, was dead. ‘I still can't grasp that Rahel is now dead. It just happened so quickly,’ she wrote to Mrs Rechner.
Her diary gives a momentary glimpse into this tragedy: Rahel died ‘by [her father] Salomo's hut, where she had been carried out of the creek by a woman a few minutes before.’ She was buried next morning. Salomo himself died at midday on the 24th and was buried that evening. Salome was now no longer in full possession of her senses, seemingly the advanced stages of syphilis. Carl: ‘She herself is partly mentally disturbed too: her own illness, the excitement and grief have probably contributed to it and she is now in receipt of charity from me,’ adding: ‘The time of the Passion’ - he meant Easter - ‘was a time of real suffering for the inhabitants of the Station.’ He hoped they ‘might use this time of affliction for proper reflection.’ He was hoping for a change of heart.
‘The measles epidemic has now burned itself out. There are still some blacks lying in the creek; but they are suffering from syphilis. One boy is covered all over his body with ulcers, which the blacks - pointlessly - have rubbed with salt.’ Traditional ignorance at work again - rubbing salt into the ulcers covering this young boy's entire body.....! And all to no avail. Carl's constant prayer was that the people's hearts which had been hardened might be softened. He has been condemned by some people as a Christian bigot for this. They imagine they are more enlightened, more advanced in their thinking for saying this. But this is a posture: it has nothing to do with bigotry, Christian or otherwise. People were dying through ignorance, which could not be addressed until tradition was either modified, circumvented or discredited. It had to be neutralised. Those lives were being needlessly thrown away. In the context of the total population, it was a catastrophe. In February, according to Bogner's report, there had been 65 to 70 people on the station: 24 baptised, 17 school children (10 boys, 7 girls). Of these 24 - that is about 35% - had died largely due to culture-based ignorance. No doubt some would have died anyway, but most should have lived. These statistics are devastating. This was the cost of traditional values in 1899 - over a third of the population wiped out for no reason at all. Those who refuse to see this are simply confused.
And tradition had another nasty surprise in store, for as in Kempe's day, the witchdoctors were consulted about the measles epidemic. Someone had put a spell on the populace causing these deaths - and that someone must now pay with his life. Almost certainly someone did, though Carl gave no details of the outcome.
* * *
In some parts of the world (Africa and New Guinea for instance) the solution devised to cope with this situation has been to offer a western medical cure while at the same time calling in the witchdoctor who then does not feel that his social status is threatened and so gives the process his blessing. This appears to have worked well for a time, though by reinforcing the role of the witchdoctor it means that the root cause of the problem – belief in the magical origin of all disease - is reinforced, and eventually these beliefs take over completely again. No progress is made on this subject in the society concerned. It is also thought responsible for the degradation of many antibiotics by the practice of witchdoctors in their ignorance giving out one or two pills instead of a full course, so enabling life-threatening viruses to become immune to the antibiotic used.
The solution devised at Hermannsburg was to divide illnesses into two categories, known as ‘whitefellow diseases’ and ‘blackfellow diseases.’ Those who suffered from ‘whitefellow diseases’ – and the witchdoctors would carefully check to see if this really was the case – could only be cured by whitefellow medicine, while those with ‘blackfellow diseases’ would be treated with blackfellow cures. In this way, the two were kept separate, which seems sound practice. How far Carl himself was involved with this process he does not – predictably – tell us, yet since it involves a carefully thought-out compromise, he probably played a significant role. This was the last epidemic to cause widespread death and suffering at Hermannsburg during his time there.