In this interview, Dr Mai Lin Tjoa-Bonatz shares some of her research on Eduard Fries’ life and activities and also on early Christian missionary work in Nias. Dr Tjoa-Bonatz was born in Frankfurt, Germany, obtained her MA degree in Art History, Archaeology and Southeast Asian Studies in Frankfurt in 1994 and Ph.D. with the research titled: “Shophouses in Penang, Malaysia” at the Technical University of Darmstadt in 2001. On Eduard Fries, she contributed the Chapter: “Idols and Art: Missionary Attitudes toward Indigenous Worship and the Material Culture on Nias” to the forthcoming Book: “Casting Faiths: Imperialism, Technology and the Transformation of Religion in East and Southeast Asia, edited by Thomas David Dubois. (eh)

Can you tell us who Eduard Fries was?

Eduard Fries was born in 1877 in Barmen, northwest Germany. From 1895-1899, he studied theology at four different German universities. In 1902, he then became a member of the Rhenish Missionary Society. In 1904, he arrived on Nias, where he would remained for the next sixteen years, during which time he also got married and became father of eight children. After starting the first mission station in the interior of Nias in Sifaoro’asi, Fries then moved east in 1913 to Ombölata where he started educating local priests. Elected as the head of the Protestant mission on Nias he coordinated the missionary work on the island. In 1920, Fries returned to Germany for the first time after seventeen years. He accepted an appointment to become the director of the Rhenish Missionary Society in Barmen. Fries passed away two years later in 1923.

What are the distinctive features or quality of Eduard Fries Christian missionary work in Nias?

Fries engaged in teaching new skills, educating illiterates, providing medical treatment, recording ethnographic observations, and conducting translations. He developed an apreciation for the local culture. He was a prolific author.

The arrival of Christian mission in Nias has brought about two opposing long term “outcomes”: enlightenment (such as the introduction of education and monotheistic religion to the Nias people) on one hand, and distancing Nias people from their own cultural roots on the other. Was this an inevitability or were there alternative routes available to early Christian missionaries?

This cannot be answered because the historical conditions and mind-set mainly shaped the missionaries conceptions. In some ways the missionaries also reinvented the cultural roots of the Nias people by creating a new but island-wide concept.

In the abstract of your contribution entitled: “Idols and Art: Missionary Attitudes toward Indigenous Worship and the Material Culture on Nias” to the forthcoming book: “Casting Faiths: Imperialism, Technology and the Transformation of Religion in East and Southeast Asia (edited by Thomas David Dubois), you mentioned about “unpublished sources of the German missionary Eduard Fries”. Could you elaborate on this?

Fries has written more than five hundred private letters and 65 articles which were published as circulars from 1903 to 1914 for a limited audience. He also left 140 drawings and twenty maps of Nias, private notes, and diaries which are owned by the family.

What do these “unpublished sources” tell us about early Christian mission in Nias?

This will be elaborated in the forthcoming publication.

You mentioned the destruction of some material culture and preservation of others. How did these early Christian missionaries classify or sort the “rich world of artefacts on Nias” into those that were deemed a threat to Christian faith and therefore need to be destroyed and violated, and those that were deemed “benign” (kind, not dangerous, not imposing hazard, etc.) and therefore preserved?

They used criteria which they knew from their home country (see the forthcoming publication). Art criteria for instance were separated from religious values. Wooden objects were regarded as idols whereas stone artefacts were said to represent political statements and were seen as art. Therefore the wooden objects in the more private realm of the Nias people were mainly destroyed whereas the stone statues which were (and still are) ubiquitous in the villages – though placed in the communal space – were not touched.

When did the above cultural “destruction” occur ?

Late 19th century and early 20th century until the 1930s.

As you may know, some Nias wooden artefacts are now in museums in Europe. Do you think that the “migration” of these artefacts to Europe occur during the “destruction” period ?

Yes, these artefacts which were brought to European museums are included in this ‘destruction’ period.

What does your research on early Christian missionary works mean for Christian Mission and for Nias people and culture?

It is written to explain the background of the missionaries’ attitudes and their behaviour.

Thank you for the interview. Yaahowu.

Thank you. Yaahowu.

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