Hey, Nikolaus (1862-1951)

Prepared by: 
Regina Ganter

From an impoverished background Hey rose to become an influential and often controversial figure in Aboriginal policy in North Queensland, earning the enmity of those who vied with the missions in recruiting Aboriginal labour. He pursued a morally rigid pietist style of governance, along the Moravian model of socially segregated spaces on the mission. As a Moravian, Hey is a somewhat unusual figure, because he did not come from a Moravian community, but rather asked for admission to the Unity of Brethren when he was already past his youth. Without the benefit of a fine Moravian school education, he was thrust into a position of responsibility when the leader of the mission died after a short period at Mapoon.



Family background

Johann Nikolaus Hey was born on 7 March 1862 in Dörrenbach near Bergzabern in the Palatine as the third of eight children of the farmers Jakob and Philippine Hey. His father died in 1874, when Nikolaus was 12. He had seven years of public school education (Volksschule) from 1868 to 1875. In a class of ten pupils he usually came third or fourth, although his school leaving results at age 13, show excellent results.
He then had to work the family farm and continued to attend Sunday school for three years. He was able to avoid military service due to ill health. His mother died in 1886, when he was 24, and this caused him to think of abandoning the farm where he struggled along with his sister. He and his brother both applied for admission to Basle, but while his brother was accepted there, Nikolaus was rejected for being too old.[1]
When he asked for admission to the Moravian mission college at Niesky he was already 26 years old. He recommended himself as apt at carpentry, gardening and other skills, frankly admitting a lack of academic talents. He also emphasised very strongly that he was a sinner returning to the fold.


I have been very irresponsible because early on a tendency towards sin manifested itself in me. I ran with the pack, perhaps not visibly but internally with thoughts and plans and an appetite for sin and the rejection of everything Godly. But I know that the Lord’s spirit worked itself in me since my sixth year, how I sometimes shed tears because of my sins, and that I could never sin with a clean conscience. My mother was very strict in this regard because she knew the dangers of the world especially for young people, but on the other hand she was also full of love. …  

Up to my 20th year I was deep in the terrible darkness of sin. Twice I left home to vent my lust for the devil and the world. I had drifted far away from God. I am ashamed of this period. …. The prayers of my mother followed me everywhere … she spent whole nights praying for me … but she was only granted to witness the conversion of our oldest brother. …… The sin became more and more of a burden to me and I wholeheartedly longed to be freed from it. But the devil worked against it. At first he covered up my sin to me, and when God uncovered it to me the devil returned to say it was too late for me, I had overdone it. But where the sin has become mighty, grace becomes even mightier.[2]

The intensity of this plea for admission, and the stark realism with which Hey referred to the devil, imprinted his countenance as a missionary among heathen, who wandered, as he himself had once done, in darkness.


Link to the full text of Hey’s application letter in German. 


Missionary preparation

Hey attended the Niesky college from Easter 1889 to March 1891. He was called into service in North Queensland, and just before his departure, in February 1891 he was admitted to the Unity of Brethren. His examiners wrote the following report about Hey:
With an introvert countenance, and great spiritual earnestness. Hard on himself, but truly humble and therefore big-hearted and mild in his judgement of others. Friendly, extremely obliging and ready to serve. Raised in strictness by pious parents. Practical and very proficient, can put his hand to anything although he hasn’t learned a trade. Very industrious. His intellectual talent appears not to be outstanding, but one must take into consideration his deficient prior education and resultant deficit in knowledge and lack of practice in retention. His progress is clearly evident and the capacity for clear thought - which is at any rate something that can be variously interpreted - will develop as a result of his indefatigable industry. Altogether a very promising student in view of future serviceability.[3]
The Hey family at Mapoon
Hey family
Source: Lutheran Archives Australia
Hey spent three months in Ireland to improve his English. There he was ordained as deacon (Diaconus) at Gracehill on 13 May 1891 and introduced to his allocated wife, Mary-Ann Barnes, the sister of Mrs Ward who had also been designated with her husband for the Mapoon mission. The Barnes sisters were raised in a Moravian community (they were referred to as Gemeinekinder – community children). Mary-Ann (Minnie) was born in Balinderry on 24 December 1869, and called into missionary service in North Queensland on 4 June 1891, age 22, the day before her sister, brother-in-law and future spouse departed for Melbourne. The Wards and Hey arrived in Melbourne on 15 July 1891 where they met the sponsors of the mission, and reached Mapoon on 28 November 1891.
A year later Hey took three months leave from the mission, during which time he visited German communities to initiate collections for the new mission, and at the end of the year he married Minnie at Thursday Island, on 5 December 1892. The government resident at Thursday Island, former Queensland Premier John Douglas acted in loco parentis at the wedding – he made the wedding arrangements, carried the costs, and gave the bride away. Douglas maintained a strong interest in the mission and was very supportive of its missionaries. [4]

Leading Mapoon

Hey acted as assistant missionary at Mapoon until the death of Ward in January 1895. This bereavement shook the missionary family, and they took five months furlough to recover their own health, before re-building the mission.
Hey struggled to find the right ways of exerting discipline and authority, unable to accept indigenous people as fully human.
There have been cases when I was unable to proceed adequately with certain persons if they allowed themselves to be gripped by anger and attacked my own person. That’s when my love was at an end and I would have liked to punish them. In that frame of mind I was unable to achieve anything positive. Premeditated action would only have caused damage and so often days passed before I could love again. For example, we have a man called Charlie, or Lazy Charlie. If I responded only with love to all his infringements he would get worse all the time. The saying goes that you give two pieces of bread to a bad dog. If I did this with Charlie the result would be the same as rewarding a pet that has stolen something, it would surely do the same thing again. Only fear can tame such natures. But let’s not forget, these are only ten percent. I really did give one of our young men who had stolen some nails a double portion of flour, saying ‘that’s for the pilfering’. He looked at me and I said, ‘Your stealing caused me more pain than something worse from anyone else, because I did not expect this from you. The extra flour is your punishment.’ He walked away downcast and I haven’t seen him again. He was ashamed for a whole week. The biggest punishment could not have achieved what half a pound of flour did.[5]
In mid-1896 assistant missionary Rev. Brown arrived with his wife Frieda, so that Hey was able to take eight months’ furlough in 1897, which he used to garner support for a second station at Weipa. At this time he already had two children.
Minnie bore four children at Thursday Island, the first Matilda Evelyn Jane on 25 December 1893 (Jane), the second Phillipina Elizabeth on 17 June 1896 (Ina), the third Frederick James on 4 August 1899 (Fred), and her last confinement at age 36 was with John Ward on 15 May 1905 (John). By now the girls were already attending Claremon College in Sydney. In February 1909 Fred was also sent there to attend Scot's College , whith the children's school fees covered by Herrnhut. The separation of children from their parents was the lot of missionary couples. [6]
During a furlough of twelve months in 1903 the Heys took the girls to Sydney. They also used this period to return to Europe, and travelled in Australia to gain support for the opening of a third mission station at Aurukun in 1904. Months before the girls were to start school, Hey mentioned in his letter to Herrnhut how difficult it was for Minnie to part with her children. The director at Herrnhut tried to offer his sympathy:
I am touched by what you write about Sr Hey’s difficulty in getting over the impending parting with her children. It is one of the hardest trials of missionary life, but not a monopoly of that service. Tell Sr. Hey she must not impair rest and health by brooding. The same afflictions are accomplished in her sisters, who are in the flesh. Sr Townley at Makkovik is sadly missing her girl and boy, left behind in England. I was over at Kleinwelka [the Herrnhut school] the other day, and saw the children there, over whom many a heartache has been dissolved in prayer from parents’ lips. So pass on to your good wife the very human comfort that others have felt the same, along with the Divine comfort that the Heavenly Father knows what it is to part with a beloved and only begotten son on our behalf, and so to speak for the sake of Missions. May the Angel of the Covenant bless your lassies! [7]
Whether or not it was much comfort for Minnie that ‘others have felt the same’, it was deemed to be practically unavoidable that one parted with one’s children for the sake of their education. Many missionary children were raised in the Kleinwelka school near Herrnhut. Although receiving much praise, the schools conducted on the missions were clearly not of a standard adequate for the children of the missionaries themselves (Schwarz at Cape Bedford being a notable exception).
Hey had little education and was from a lower class background. His teachers found him practical, industrious, obliging and ‘serviceable’. He was thrust into the leadership of Mapoon by default and became an advisor for policy makers and ethnographers as an expert eye-witness at the frontier. Struggling with English, he occasionally copied the passages of others to relate his observations.
For example, in a letter to the Colonial Secretary where Hey was ‘speaking from his observation and experience gained by living almost 6 years amongst the natives’ he explained the absconding from luggers as follows:
The natives are recruited often willingly enough. They have heard strange tales of the sea from their friends and they are willing to go on a cruise for time. ……. They are anxious to return to their own country. They talk of this amongst themselves, seize the first favourable opportunity and make a dash for freedom. (Hey, 1 July 1897)
Douglas had already written to the Colonial Secretary on this matter four years earlier:
They are recruited often willingly enough. They have heard strange tales of the sea from their friends, and they are willing to go on a cruise for a time. …. there comes over them …. an irrepressible desire to return to their own country ….. They talk of this among themselves. …. Then they agree to seize the first favourable opportunity, and they make a dash for freedom. (Douglas, 16 February 1893)
On the question of polygamy and its effects Hey wrote:
The old men become the possessors of a plurality of wives and do not hesitate to lend their superfluous spouses to unprincipled men of various nationalities for a small compensation. Such dealings are not only detrimental to the women, but has a demoralizing effect, on all, to the lowest degree. (Hey, 1 July 1897);


Archibald Meston, who wanted to prohibit Aboriginal participation in the marine industry, had already made strikingly similar observations the year before:
These undesirable marine visitors sometimes leave a legacy of disease, and always a certain demoralisation against which the missionaries have to wage perpetual warfare. The chief trouble is with the old men who have a plurality of wives. (Meston, 1896)
Hey reached the conclusion that Aboriginal participation in the marine industry should be more closely controlled by the mission rather than prohibited. He argued that marine work need not necessarily be detrimental,
if worked under proper supervision, possessing as it does such relation to their native occupation of fishing as to be congenial to their habits and harmonizing with the idiosyncrasies of the blacks on the coast. … [If part of their wages were controlled] for the general amelioration of the blacks the recruiting of natives would be somewhat justified. (Hey, 1 July 1897)
Police Commissioner William Parry-Okeden’s report in 1897 contained the same solution:
I think that bêche-de-mer and turtle fishing, if worked under proper supervision for the benefit of the aborigines, would prove a most suitable outlet for their labour, possessing as it does such relation to their native occupation of hunting as to be congenial to their nature and habits, and harmonising perfectly with the idiosyncrasies of the coast black; and if successfully carried on it would turn out to be of valuable financial assistance in carrying out any scheme for the general amelioration of the blacks. (Parry-Okeden, Report, 1897)
It appears that Hey took the advice of experts surrounding him rather than providing expert advice based on his own observations. Before a royal commission into the marine industry in 1908, he relied on an observation made by Walter Roth in 1900 to estimate the wages the young men were bringing back from their marine work.[8]
Hey found the demands made on him as an expert taxing. In 1896 he wrote ‘not a month passes where we don’t send 30 to 40 letters, often [answering] requests for beetles, plants, and so on’.[9] He was more comfortable with paternalistic governance, supported by the two women in his family, his wife and sister-in-law, and considered the missionaries at Weipa and Aurukun as his assistants. His style was described even by friendly observers as a ‘limited monarchy’.[10] He believed in a beneficient style of discipline that relied on shaming, which could only work if his authority was unquestioned. But his authority at the mission was based on undermining the authority of tradition, and was therefore constantly questioned.
Nobody should think that our blacks are very grateful for everything we have done for them. My relationship with our people shows many similarities with that between Moses and the people of Israel.[11]
A personal setback came in 1907 when an incident involving physical punishment made media headlines and led to a public inquiry, exposing Hey’s style of governance to public scrutiny (see Mapoon entry). He had to suffer chastisement from the Queensland government, against which he also sought to assert his authority. Earlier that year he had reported to Herrnhut how authoritatively he was able to deal with the local protector:

In late November [1906] I unexpectedly received a request from the protector at Thursday Island … to place our grown half-caste girls at his disposal to hire them into service at Thursday Island. This (Protector Costin) is the third official within three years, and each change brings new conditions. In order to clear up any misunderstandings from the start (Mr Costin had only been in his job for a month) I immediately travelled to Thursday Island myself and had a three-hour conversation with my new superior. At first he assumed a threatening countenance but I soon realized that I was dealing with a young inexperienced man who was conscientious but as a newcomer influenced by Mr Howard [the Chief Protector, and former protector at Thursday Island].
Suffice it to comment here that at the end he was satisfied that I would only rent out such girls who in my opinion are capable and have received a sufficient education. I also need to first know into which family each one of them is to be assigned, and without my permission no steps can be undertaken. When I took leave from Mr Costin he surprised me with the request that he would be most obliged if in future I was to subject all his actions to the utmost criticism[12]
It must have been difficult for Hey to be subjected to the utmost criticism himself so soon afterwards.
During World War I the anti-German sentiment deeply traumatized Hey. Although his naturalisation in 1898 spared him from internment as an enemy alien, he was still exposed to hostile and suspicious attitudes, and to several house-searches.[13] He understood clearly that the days of German empire, and of building up networks of German missions, were over.


The Heys retired from missionary service in Oct 1919 and moved to Sydney on a pension of £88, topped up in the following year by the Presbyterian Church to £120. During his retirement Hey performed voluntary work in Sunday Schools, gave bible lessons in state schools, and conducted hospital visitations and funeral services and other preaching functions. He became an honorary member of the Presbyterian church council, and also gave expert witness advice to the Queensland government on the treatment of people of mixed descent, which became a topical issue in the 1930s. In 1936 he was asked to comment on the population statistics reflected in the records of the North Queensland Moravian missions, which suggested a reduction by 5,000 people within a year. Should the indigenous population not have increased as a result of mission work? Hey responded that such figures were always wrong, because the difficulty was whether and to what extent persons of mixed descent were included in them.[15]
Whether or not the figures were wrong, the missions could not halt the decimation of indigenous people resulting from introduced sickness, settler violence, and the erosion of traditional systems resulting from displacement, the destruction of the natural environment, and contact with settler society.  
Hey died in Sydney at age 89 on 28 October 1951.
[1] Hey’s results in the Volksschule were (on a scale from the highest mark at 1 and the lowest at 6):  Religion 1, Reading 1, German 2, Calligraphy 2, Spelling 1, Writing 2, Verbal mathematics 2, Written mathematics 1, General Knowledge 2, Drawing 1. Missionsdirektion, Personalakten Mission, Nicolaus Hey, MD825, Herrnhut Archives.
[2] Missionsdirektion, Personalakten Mission, Hey, Nicolaus: Lebenslauf, MD825, Herrnhut Archives.
[3]Report on Student Nicolaus Hey (farmer), born 7 March 1862, Berichte über die Missionsschule Niesky, S.405, 2. Kolonne. R15.A.b.7, Herrnhut Archives.
[4] Hey, Rev. J. N., A Brief History of the Presbyterian Church’s Mission Enterprise among the Australian Aborgines, Sydney, New Press, 1931, p. 10.
[5]Hey to Roemig, 3 April 1896, Mf 186 AIATSIS.
[6]Missionsdirektion, Personalakten Mission, Nicolaus Hey, MD825, Herrnhut Archives. Hey gives the date of his second daughter as 17 June in his letter to Roemig on 6 August 1896, whereas the Herrnhut file gives the date as 17 July.
[7] Th. Bauer, Head of Unitätsdirektion, Berthelsdorf to Hey, 24 December 1903, Missionsdirektion, Personalakten Mission, Nicolaus Hey, MD825, Herrnhut Archives.
[8] Hey evidence in ‘Report of the Royal Commission Appointed to Enquire into the Working of the Pearl-shell and Bêche-de-Mer Industries’ Queensland Votes and Proceedings, vol. 3, 1908, p.218. The above excerpts are from John Douglas, ‘Report of the Government Resident at Thursday Island for 1892-93), QVP, vol. 2, 1894, pp.14-15, Archibald Meston, ‘Report on the Aboriginals of Queensland’, QVP, vol. 2, 1896, pp.723-40; William Parry-Okeden, ‘Report on the North Queensland Aborigines and the Native Police’, QVP, vol. 2, 1897. Hey’s reports are in Mf 186, AIATSIS.
[9] Hey to Roemig, 3 April 1896, Mf 186, AIATSIS.
[10] Harris, John, One Blood - 200 years of Aboriginal encounter with Christianity: a story of hope, Sutherland, NSW, 1990, p. 491
[11] Hey, Annual Report for Mapoon for 1907, Mf 186 AIATSIS.
[12] Hey, Annual Report for Mapoon for 1907, Mf 186 AIATSIS.
[13] Hey to Hennig, 7 October 1920,Missionsdirektion, Personalakten Mission, Nicolaus Hey, MD825, Herrnhut Archives.
[14]  Missionsdirektion, Personalakten Mission, Nicolaus Hey, MD825, Herrnhut Archives.
[15]7 April 1936, anon. to Hey, Missionsdirektion, Personalakten Mission, Nicolaus Hey, MD825, Herrnhut Archives.