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  • Missionary Wives and the Sexual Narratives of German Lutheran Missions among Australian Aborigines
  • Lisa Curtis-Wendlandt (bio)

The lives and letters of Christian missionary wives provide a unique vantage point on the intersections of gender, race, and sexuality in the colonial and mission context. This article explores these intersections by studying the erotic voice of one such missionary wife-or, rather, missionary bride-in her letters to her overseas fiancé. The German Lutheran mission couple Frieda and Carl Strehlow worked at Hermannsburg Mission in Central Australia for almost three decades of their lives in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Correspondence from their three-year courtship, written between 1892 and 1895, defies a simple reading that takes their personal narratives of desire as expressions of a purely private erotic voice. Because of the missions' interest in wifely sexuality and its functional role within the institution, Frieda and Carl Strehlow's letters become the site of complex and conflicting narratives of sexual desire and regulation, which this article aims to trace. First, there is the "personal erotics" of the Lutheran couple as lovers and their sexual relationship within marriage. Second, there are Frieda and Carl's professional roles as missionary and missionary wife and their sexual identities within the institutional setting of the mission. Third, there is the sexuality of the Aboriginal "others" and Frieda and Carl's identity as moral reformers of the indigenous peoples of Australia at their mission station and beyond. Exploring the interrelationships between these various levels of analysis, this article outlines a number of significant tensions immanent in the dynamics between Frieda and Carl Strehlow's personal erotics, on the one hand, and their institutional roles within the mission, on the other.

Lutheran Erotics and Frieda Strehlow's Private Voice

The love letters between Frieda and Carl Strehlow are an extraordinary example of a common trend in nineteenth-century Europe wherein women [End Page 498] from Germany and many other countries were shipped as "mission brides" to overseas missions and missionaries. Freshly graduated from the Lutheran Mission Seminary at Neuendettelsau, Bavaria, Carl Strehlow briefly met the sixteen-year-old Frieda during Easter of 1892 as he was preparing his departure for Australia. 1 Six months later, Frieda received his proposal of marriage by means of a letter: Carl was at the mission, and he needed a wife. Would she like to take his hand in marriage and follow him to serve God among the "heathens" in this distant land? 2 After Frieda's family had negotiated the terms of Carl's proposal, she accepted his offer, and the newly engaged couple wrote to each other for three years, until Frieda was old enough to follow her fiancé to Australia in 1895.

From a German perspective, nineteenth-century Australia was a small mission field, and both Protestant and Catholic mission societies sent many more personnel to Africa, North America, India, China, and elsewhere than they did to Australia. What was called "mission success" was also far more pronounced in other regions than it was in Australia, where missions proved particularly difficult to run and where conversion numbers remained relatively small. 3 From an Australian perspective, too, mission history is often not remembered for its early German period, although significant, because it happened before most of the Australian-run (rather than foreign-run) mission societies started working among indigenous Australians; these developed only in the twentieth century. As Anne O'Brien points out, "Most nineteenth-century missionaries to Aborigines were rare and tenacious individuals," but prominent among them were the German Lutherans at Killalpaninna and Hermannsburg in Central Australia. 4

In archival terms, the survival of Frieda and Carl Strehlow's courtship correspondence represents an exciting exception to the usual dearth of extant [End Page 499] writings by German Lutheran missionary wives, especially within the Australian context. 5 Their letters thus offer a unique starting point for analyzing the discursive construction of Frieda and Carl Strehlow's love and of their roles as husband and wife within the mission context. Frieda's voice can be especially shown to reflect the intimate link between the couple's personal erotics and wider social and institutional debates on marriage and...


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pp. 498-519
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