Historic Hermannsburg in Central Australia

By:Miguel Scaccialupo

The Hermannsburg mission was established in 1877 by German Lutheran missionaries about 125 km west of Alice Springs in the majestic Western MacDonnell Ranges in Central Australia. The missionaries settled at permanent waterhole known to the local Western Arrernte people as Koprilya, and named the settlement Hermannsburg after their town of origin in northern Germany. They had trekked for 18 months overland from the Barossa Valley region of South Australia, bringing with them a sizeable herd of cattle and sheep.

The Lutherans built a church and commenced preaching Christianity to the Western Arrernte people. Within two years a school was built and by 1881 seven boys and one girl had been baptised. By 1891 the missionaries had created a dictionary of the Western Arrernte language, and eventually succeeded in translating the bible into that language. Hermannsburg was the first settlement in Central Australia, predating both the towns of Arltunga and Alice Springs, and at one stage had a population of 700 mainly Western Arrernte inhabitants. Despite being discouraged by the early missionaries, traditional Western Arrernte culture has remained strong in Hermannsburg to this day.

The first phase of settlement at Hermannsburg lasted from 1877-1891. During this time the mission became a refuge for the Western Arrernte from the excesses of local pastoralists and police who regularly massacred the indigenous people in reprisal for petty theft and cattle stealing. Despite this, few Western Arrernte gave up their traditional ways to fully embrace Christianity, and in 1891 the missionaries abandoned Hermannsburg for the following three years.

Pastor Carl Strehlow took charge of Hermannsburg mission in 1894, and remain there for the next 28 years. His son, T.G.H. Strehlow, became a noted anthropologist and was one of very few Europeans to be fully initiated into the Western Arrernte tradition. Pastor Strehlow found the original mission buildings in bad repair, and from 1896 began the construction of the buildings which still stand in the settlement today. The buildings, now classified by the National Trust, were built using galvanised iron, stones from the nearby Finke River, mulga logs and lime made in an onsite kiln. These buildings include a school, manse, mess house, and missionary quarters. Strehlow also planted two White Gums in front of the church, now a museum, and erected the church bell between them.

Strehlow eventually died in 1922 at Horseshoe Bend on the Finke River while en route to hospital in South Australia. During his time, Hermannsburg grew and became a relatively progressive centre for the Western Arrernte and other indigenous inhabitants of the region, and went on achieved a number of historic firsts. In 1925 Strehlow's successor, Pastor F. W. Albrecht began a program to train the local people in various skills and trades, which led to the establishment of a tannery in 1936. In 1930 Hermannsburg became the first location in the Northern Territory to use a pedal wireless.

In recent years, many Western Arrernte residents have left the old mission to establish around 35 outstations in their traditional country around Hermannsburg. The family of Hermannsburg's most famous son, the famous watercolour artist Albert Namatjira, still lives in Hermannsburg and a collection of his paintings can be viewed in the old mission building. Born at Hermannsburg in 1902 and baptised by Strehlow, Namatjira met the artist Rex Battarbee in 1934 and the result was a series of paintings of Central Australia which, while drawing on the European watercolour tradition, are inspired by the landscape of the area and evoke the beauty of the Western MacDonnell Ranges from the perspective of one who knew and loved this magnificent country.

The Lutheran Church ceded control of Hermannsburg to the traditional Western Arrernte owners in 1982, when authority for the settlement (now known as Ntaria) passed to a community council. The original mission buildings at Hermannsburg have been restored and visitors are now welcome to explore the historic settlement which is of great importance in Central Australian history. Both the old church and the old mission building still standing and in good condition.

About the author:
Miguel Scaccialupo writes regularly on Australian tour topics such as Uluru Tours and Kakadu Tours.