When Frieda Keysser set off in August 1895 to marry the man of her dreams in Australia, she had no idea just how difficult the life she had opted for was going to be. For Hermannsburg was the back of beyond, a two week buggy ride from the railhead at Oodnadatta and the nearest doctor almost a thousand miles away; supplies came up twice a year from Adelaide, potatoes and onions were an unheard of luxury, and even finding a reliable supply of clean water was a constant difficulty.
Frieda was born into an ancient Frankish family in Geroldsgruen (a village near Hof in the far north of Bavaria) on 31 August 1875. She was passionate and emotional. Her father’s troubled business affairs and early death, plus conflict with her step-father after her mother Marianna remarried, resulted in Frieda being orphaned, disinherited and homeless at the age of 14, going into service in a clergyman’s family at 15. Her sole support in this period was her mother’s younger sister, Augusta.
It might have been expected that Frieda would become embittered and cynical from her experiences, yet she became increasingly idealistic and religious during this period. Her mother’s side of the family were heavily involved with the revival of Lutheranism at Neuendettelsau known as the Loehe movement which trained clergy for Lutheran congregations in America and Australia and also for missions in Australia, Africa and New Guinea. Frieda entertained thoughts of serving in East Africa, while Augusta wanted her to marry well and so regain the social level of her background. But then on Maundy Thursday 1892, while Frieda was still only 16, a young man on his way to Australia came and stayed briefly in the house where she was working. The two hit it off immediately and fell in love, though neither said anything to the other at the time. Subsequently the young man sent a letter proposing marriage to Frieda, which arrived on New Year 1893. Frieda was delighted, and though her aunt (who adored her, and couldn’t bear to think of her going away to Australia, never to return) tried everything to dissuade her, eventually the two became engaged, with the courtship conducted through letters.
The young man of course was Carl Strehlow, and so on 5 August 1895, just before her 20th birthday, off Frieda went to distant South Australia to marry a man she barely knew. Despite initial doubts as the enormity of what she had done sank in, she and Carl were married at Point Pass in the Barossa Valley and then set off for Hermannsburg, more than a thousand miles north of Adelaide. It was a rough journey. They ran out of water twice in parched desert country, Frieda got ill with diarrhoea from the dirty water, and when they arrived at the Station there was almost no furniture until her luggage arrived some months later.
However love between the young couple flourished and as she got to grips with her situation, Frieda set about addressing the problem of infant mortality, the main reason for the aboriginal population ‘dying out’, for as the older generation died it was not being replaced by children. Her work with the women was the focal point. From the young girls who worked with her she learned to speak Aranda fluently. She also wrote about her life in her diary, and though she found the isolation and the distance from her loved ones (especially Aunt Augusta) very taxing, she managed to achieve great things as well as raising six healthy chidren of her own. This first volume ends with the family’s return to Germany for a holiday in 1910, with the matter of their returning to Australia at all, an open question.
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