The Origins of International Rivalry in Samoa: 1845–1884

The Godeffroy Firm

260px-Group_Wilhelm_Solf,_C_H_Mills,_Mata'afa_Iosefa_-_Samoa_1903The firm that sprang forward to seize the opportunity of supplying European markets with coconut oil was the Hamburg firm of Johann Cesar Godeffroy & Son. The only other trading concern of importance in the islands was also German, that of Ruge, Hedemann & Co., established in 1875, which was run on a very much smaller scale. Germans, consequently, were constantly bargaining with natives for copra, and buying their land, and later (after 1876) interfering in native affairs to secure peace and justice.

The Godeffroy agents were not by any means the first Germans to venture to the South Seas. From the beginning of the century Prussian whalers had hunted in Pacific waters, though it was the Hamburg merchants who built up in the Pacific interests of a real and weighty character. In 1837 Hamburg vessels called at Sydney. They were the forerunners of many more, who yearly increased in numbers, and who absorbed a large proportion of the Pacific islands’ trade. The first Hamburg merchant ship called at Apia in the Navigator Islands in 1847. Ten years later this port was chosen to be the centre for the trade of the Godeffroy firm.

The founders of the Godeffroy family were originally French refugees who settled in Hamburg, possibly at the end of the seventeenth century. Their first enterprises to the South Seas were about the year 1845, in the Sandwich Islands. Within the succeeding five years they had establishments in Valparaiso, Cochin China, and in Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide. It was from Valparaiso that the first agents came to Polynesia. Tahitian traders had voyaged to Valparaiso for flour, and the success of other traders in Tahiti (e.g. Hort Bros. and Brander) inspired the German firm to set up a rival establishment in the vicinity. The first station in the islands was in the Taumatu Archipelago, but the Navigator Islands offered so many more advantages that within a few years they moved thither. Apia became the centre of the firm’s trade, and the station on the Taumatu Islands was abandoned in 1867.

August Unshelm, the Godeffroy agent, first visited Samoa in May 1854. The advantageous position of the islands could not fail to impress him. In 1856 he came for a second time to Samoa, and strongly recommended it as a commercial centre. By 1857 the firm was established with an agency in Apia for trade amongst the islands. Small vessels were commissioned to collect oil, and later copra, from the surrounding island groups, while bigger ships carried the valuable cargo from Apia to Europe.

The suitability of Samoa for such a depôt need hardly be emphasized. Its position between the semi-civilized Polynesian and the unexploited Melanesian islands was admirable. The coral atolls of the Ellice and Gilbert Islands, the Marshalls and the Carolines were within easy sailing distance for small vessels. The group itself was normally within at most a fortnight’s sailing of Sydney or Auckland. It was about midway on the direct route between Valparaiso and Cochin China. Should the Central American Canal, then a much-discussed project, ever become a reality, it would facilitate direct communication with Europe. The natives were unusually docile. The islands were very fertile, and believed to be outside the hurricane track, though exceptional visits could be most devastating. There were two tolerable harbours on Upolu beside that of Apia, those of Saluafata and Falealili, and that of Pago-Pago was quite exceptionally good.

In 1864 August Unshelm was drowned at sea. By that time he had woven the outline threads of his web of Pacific trade. The firm was fortunate in having a remarkable man on the spot to consolidate and enlarge his work. In 1861, at the age of only eighteen, Theodore Weber was sent to Apia as his assistant, with a commission for Unshelm as Consul for Hamburg and the North German Confederation. Himself a man of unbounded energy and tact, of foresight, enterprise, and efficiency, he devoted his talents unceasingly to the work of building up Germany’s commercial power in the South Seas. It is impossible to say how far his plans at the outset were for political aggrandizement, how far the commercial needs of his firm involved first interference in native politics, and later to ensure the establishment of a stable government. Sterndale recounts that prior to 1870 Weber was preparing a scheme for the settlement and colonization of Germans in Samoa. Many more acres of the best land were bought than could immediately be planted. The higher plateau was to be colonized by Germans, the sea-coast by Chinese who were to become indentured labourers. The elder Godeffroy, who was a personal friend of Bismarck’s, was to enlist his sympathies. The Hertha was already commissioned to come out when the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War involved the recall of the Hertha and the blockade of Hamburg, and in the succeeding years the Godeffroy firm had too many encompassing difficulties to indulge in any far-reaching schemes. Certainly by 1872 there were rumours in Sydney that the Germans were planning annexation. In 1871 Weber suggested to the new Imperial Government the assumption of guardianship, control, or protection over the Samoan islands.

Webb states that it was with chagrin that Weber saw, in February 1872, Captain Meade of the U.S.S. Narrangansett make his unauthorized treaty with Mauga, chief of Tutuila, for the acquisition of Pago-Pago harbour as a U.S. naval station.2 Within a short time of this he returned to Germany. While he was at home, and we may certainly assume his influence in the affair, Steinberger drew up his agreement with the Godeffroys.3 This implies that the firm was seeking primarily the establishment of peace, and that only later, as the colonial movement in Germany became stronger, and there was hope of Government support, did Germans work for annexation.

To Weber is due the organization and efficiency of the firm’s branch in Samoa. All accounts show him to have been tactful, charming, but of dominating personality. R. L. Stevenson, although he never met him personally, says this of him4: “He was an artful and commanding character; in the smallest thing or in the greatest, without fear or scruple; equally able to affect, equally able to adopt, the most engaging politeness or the most imperious airs of domination. It was he who did most damage to rival traders; it was he who most harried the Samoans; and yet I have never met anyone, white or native, who did not respect his memory. All felt that it was a gallant battle, and the man a great fighter: and now when he is dead, and the war seems to have gone against him, many can scarce remember, without a kind of regret, how much devotion and audacity have been spent in vain. His name still lives in the songs of Samoa.” He died in 1889, the end in more ways than one of an epoch in Samoan history.

The monument to the man, indicative of himself and his methods, is the organization he built up, an organization of immense importance in Samoan affairs. The distinguishing feature of the Godeffroy Company in the South Seas was the large scale of their activities. From Apia trading vessels radiated to the surrounding islets. The consular report of 1883 (Appendix) shows the preponderance of German trade and shipping over that of other countries. Shipping alone increased from eight vessels in 1859 to one hundred and sixty-one in 1883.

The methods of running so far-reaching an enterprise are described by an employee of the firm in 1874.1 Men of all nationalities were engaged to serve as agents at the various depôts. Three questions were asked them: “Can you speak the language? Can you keep your mouth shut? Can you live among natives without quarrelling with them?” Among their instructions was the advice to steer clear of missionaries. “Give no assistance to missionaries by word or deed, beyond what is demanded by common humanity,” for the missionary taught that cloth or coin were better than beads and tobacco. Traders were further advised: “Have a woman of your own, no matter what island you take her from, for a trader without a wife is in continual hot water.” The firm supplied the trader with materials for his house, and the promise of a commission on his produce. It is hardly to be wondered at that tales should come back of the hard actions of the firm’s agents. Stationed on outlying islands among hostile natives, a bullying manner backed by the guns of a visiting man-of-war secured the position of the lonely white man. The men who engaged on such enterprises were such as wanted no questions asked.

1 Appendix to Journal of House of Representatives, New Zealand, 1874. South Sea Papers, pt. ii. Memo. by Sterndale.

The masters of the trading vessels were similarly remunerated. They were paid on the low scale of 25 dollars a month, and the ships were not insured, but each master secured a commission of 3 per cent on the profits of every successful voyage.

It has already been shown how the laziness of Samoans led to the new step of buying and planting land. In this the Germans were pioneers. Even as late as 1883 they were very nearly the only planters. The great importance of this was that the possession of land tied down German interests to the islands and that plantations were a proof of this. They further involved a staff of European agents—not by any means always German—but nevertheless in German pay. When the question of annexation by one of the Great Powers came up, the extensive German interests, quite apart from trade, were a deciding factor against British and United States claims. Finally, and perhaps most important, was the fact that native civil wars made planting hopelessly precarious. The constant depredations led to attempts to control the chaos, to insistence on the neutrality of plantations, and so to attempts to control the government. At any rate, until 1879 the evidence seems to show that the German firm wanted primarily peace in order to trade. In 1874 the Godeffroy firm made an agreement with the American adventurer, Colonel Steinberger, by which he agreed to establish peace and give the firm certain advantages over other traders in acquiring copra. Yet Steinberger hoped to see the United States establish a protectorate over Samoa. To this the Godeffroy agreement seemed no bar.

The methods by which the Germans obtained their land are for the most part wrapped in mystery. Occasiona allusions in dispatches throw light on their dealings. It is probable that the way in which Germans acquired plantations made them unpopular with natives. We hear, for instance, of land claims being enforced by H.I.M.S. Arcona in 1874, and of ammunition being supplied as payment in war time. Buying land from natives inevitably involved complications. Samoans, like the Maoris of New Zealand or the Bantu in Africa, held land communally. The chiefs had no right to sell land that belonged to a whole family or tribe. In practice, though, a chief would sell land sometimes without even the knowledge of his family, and the Germans had to resort to bullying methods to oust “the squatters” on the land they had purchased. In 1882 the British Consul speaks of “the native tenure of land so intricate and complicated” and “the inclination of the native to effect wrongful sales with a view to reclaiming the land subsequently.” Sometimes the Germans mortgaged the land to natives, obtaining from them a steady supply of copra.

However the Germans obtained their land, there can be no doubt that by 1879 they had acquired by far the greatest trading interests in the group. The German-Samoan treaty of that year stipulated that land sales down to the time of ratification of the treaty in Berlin should be recognized. As the treaty allowed two years for ratification, this gave Weber time to consolidate the firm’s plantations if he wished to do so. By the Berlin Act of 1889 the Powers stipulated that land sales prior to 1879 should be regarded as valid. Thus the validity of the greater part of the German land titles came to be established. The appropriation of land gave Germans a tangible proof of their interests, which was extremely important in succeeding negotiations for deciding the ultimate fate of the islands. Though Britishers in the South Seas, particularly in New Zealand, claimed as great an import as the German export trade, it was upon their plantations that the Germans considered that they had prior rights.

A medium of payment for lands and copra that was introduced by the German firm was Chilean and Bolivian silver. This specie, very much debased, was bought cheaply and circulated as though equivalent to United States currency. The unfortunate Samoans were thus defrauded into receiving only three-quarters of the price they bargained for. Incidentally, it also proved an obstacle to the development of American trade. “South American coins,” wrote Consul Dawson in 1880, “pass here [Apia] at par, and when a cargo is brought from San Francisco here and exchanged for this depreciated coin the prices must be exorbitantly high, such as cannot always be realized to cover the discount of eighteen cents on the dollar in the former market.” The British Consul also complains of this in 1879. Goods imported were paid for in this debased currency. The Germans issued drafts at ninety days’ notice and gained 5 per cent on the transaction.

1880 – It is only fair to say that the currency had always been somewhat mongrel. The Samoan token money was their mats, the missionaries used oil as a basis of exchange. By 1856 the following specie were in circulation:

Gold. Spanish doubloons = 16 Dollars
Eagle of the United States = 10 Dollars
Chilean piastre = 10 Dollars
English sovereign = 5 Dollars
French 20-franc piece = 4 Dollars
Silver. Spanish dollar = 1 Dollars
Mexican and Peruvian dollar = 1 Dollars
French 5-francs = 1 Dollars
English half-crown = 50 Cents
English shilling = 25 Cents

Incidentally, the introduction.and use of this currency enhanced the problem of a peaceful settlement within the islands in the years 1889–99.

Occasional hints show the methods by which the Godeffroys extended trade. Miss Gordon Cumming1 calls them the “grab-all’s of the Pacific”—a name which any enterprising firm might covet, if successfully achieved. Their methods of gaining ascendancy are, where traceable, illuminating. In Tonga, for instance, Layard describes the natives mortgaging their copra for ready money that they might outvie each other at the mission meeting contributions.2 It suited the missionaries to obtain ready money, it suited the natives to appear virtuous in their large contributions, and it suited the Godeffroy agents to obtain rights over copra picked or unpicked. Thus the natives fell into debt, the Wesleyans raised £15,000 in a year, and the Godeffroys ousted other traders.

To secure stability to native government and favourable treatment the firm tried to get into touch with, or even to assist in establishing the directors of native governments. In Samoa the Godeffroys made a contract3 with Steinberger by which he was not only to receive German support in his attempt to secure a stable government, but he was to raise taxes in copra which he would sell to the firm.4 Mr. Shirley Baker, the sometime Wesleyan missionary and Tongan Prime Minister, was believed to hold a similar agreement in that island. Consul Liardet of Samoa hints that Weber had the previous Consul Williams “under his thumb” and that he attempted to control any leading member of the community by bribery. He speaks of the U.S. Consul Colmesnil as “constantly in the pay of Mr. Weber.”

Besides enlisting the aid of white men of importance in furthering their ends, the firm endeavoured to set rules to fall in with their wishes by even less creditable methods. For example, Liardet describes Weber, in time of civil war, threatening one side (the Taimua and Faipule) that he would supply their enemies (the Puletua) with ammunition unless they complied with his demand for an agreement. The frequency of such reports, the variety of sources from which they spring, indicate that they are in essence true, even if the details are exaggerated. One fact comes out clearly, that Germany was unpopular with the natives. Great Britain, New Zealand, and the United States were all petitioned frequently to annex the islands between 1870–84, but there was not one such application to Germany. In his report in 1880 Maudslay, while stating the case for annexation to Germany, said frankly that there was not any desire for German rule. “Even the chiefs who feel most strongly the impossibility of a native government would be very reluctant to cede their country to Germany.” This unpopularity was due to the aggressive action of individual Germans, and to a distrust inspired by sharp practice and bullying methods. Much of the work of the firm was carried on secretly, e.g. ships left harbour with sealed orders, and this fermented the distrust of foreigner as well as native. Indicative of this is the letter from the Consul of the Duke of York Islands, who, though himself so remotely situated, writes to the Foreign Office of the fears of German domination in the Pacific.

In one other activity have the Germans been indicted by Stevenson and later writers, i.e. their treatment of imported labourers. This much-vexed question of the labour trade, the “kanaka” trade, or “blackbirding,” as it was variously called, which affected English planters in Queensland and Fiji, was in Samoa only the concern of the German firm. In 1882 there was only one British plantation on which imported labourers worked. The majority of labourers were in the employ of Germans. At first the kanakas were from the Gilbert and Ellice, or “Line” Islands, as all islands on the Equator were frequently called; later they were brought from the Marshalls, New Britain, Solomons, and the New Hebrides. The onus of importation rested partly on the British, as many contractors were British. At first their treatment seems to have been fairly good. Sterndale, who was employed for a time by the Godeffroy firm and had an intimate knowledge of their methods, speaks highly of their treatment of labourers. (1874) “Messrs. Godeffroy and Son deservedly rank among the most enlightened merchants of Europe”: the word “enlightened” seems misapplied in view of some of his comments on the organization quoted above.4 “In no respect,” continues Sterndale, “is this more apparent than in the wise regulations framed by them for the conduct of their plantations in Samoa.” The islanders are described as arriving “filthy, lazy, and ferocious.” “They are comfortably lodged, decently clothed, well fed and trained to honesty and peaceful industry. After six months’ plantation life, they do not resemble the same beings, and at the expiration of their agreements, they are so far improved as to be as unfit for communion with their brutal brethren in their native isles as they were previously for contact with civilized humanity.” The regulations provided that they should not be engaged without their own consent, backed by that of their chiefs and relatives. The overseers were their own countrymen. They were well housed, well fed, had only nine hours’ work daily, and were not allowed to be beaten by overseers. A properly qualified European surgeon supervised their health and supplied needed medicines. “It would be well,” Sterndale concludes, “for planters throughout the tropics if the system pursued by Messrs. Godeffroy were more generally known and adopted.”

Within the succeeding years, however, these pleasing conditions seem to have disappeared. As contractors used more brutal methods to obtain labourers, they became hostile and difficult to procure. This tempted planters to keep them longer than they had agreed until more arrived to take their places. Churchward states in 18841 that housing and food was insufficient, and that at times they were ill treated. They were kept beyond their contracts, paid in second-rate produce, and had no one to whom they could appeal. The mortality was high, and in one batch only eleven out of eighty were returned. Escaped labourers, an evil described graphically some six years later by Stevenson,2 were becoming a menace to Samoan native districts. Thurston forwarded Churchward’s dispatch with the note that he had no reason to doubt its substantial correctness.

The validity of Churchward’s report is supported by the evidence from the report of the U.S. Consul Dawson. In 1882 he describes similar conditions.3 Sewell, however, in 1888, though at the time in open antagonism to the German Consul, yet writes favourably of the German treatment of labourers—that they were well housed, well fed and tended.

“As a rule,” he says, “the labour trade is humanely conducted by the German labour vessels coming home.” This would seem to show that Stevenson’s hints imply worse conditions than actually existed.

By 1877 the firm had reached the point at which its activities had become of political importance. In 1876 the German warships sent to the Pacific concluded a trade treaty with Tonga. In 1877 Weber forced the Samoan Parliament, the Taimua and Faipule, to accept a similar agreement, which later was to develop into the treaty of 1879. Until the 1870’s the main purpose and aim had been commercial, to bring in profits to Hamburg. Gradually there emerged two contingencies that could not be disregarded. The one was that further development would be impossible without political action. The other3 was the growth of an interest in Germany in colonization which not merely shaped the action of German agents in the Pacific, but which was in itself directed to the South Seas as the most profitable field of German enterprise.

Within Samoa itself political interference arose directly from the need to control the disorders that were destroying the plantations and ruining the native crops. Immediately around Samoa events were pointing to the advantages of a policy of acquisition. Until 1870 there had been a strong feeling that while there was free trade, colonies were unnecessary responsibilities. By 1877 there were indications that this might not always be so. In 1875 the United States concluded a Reciprocity Treaty with Hawaii. German traders suffered by the annexation of Fiji to Great Britain (1874). So long as it had seemed likely that the islands would be autonomous and free trading, or at any rate in no sense monopolistic, there was no need for colonization schemes. In the early 1870’s schemes, very definitely monopolistic, were put forward by New Zealand, partly indeed directed in envy against the German merchants. Although they wilted under Foreign Office scrutiny, they none the less indicated to the Germans the possible antagonists that might arise in the fast-growing southern British Colonies. America, too, was becoming a Pacific Power, aware more and more of the potentialities in the islands of the Pacific.

During this time the body of opinion that favoured a colonial policy in Germany was small. The building up of German interests in the South Seas and in Africa was the work of a few individuals. When the Government began to adopt a policy favouring colonization, there was already an empire in embryo. It took time and a change in political and economic affairs before the German Government could or would back up the activities of Germans in the South Seas, with political interference or an assertion of rights. Theorists like List in 1840, and Treitschke in 1870, expounded the need for colonies into which Germany could pour her emigrants and upon which to build her future greatness. Other economists derided overseas possessions as anachronisms. Prior at any rate to 1877, Bismarck was opposed to the extension of territory overseas. “All colonial enterprise must be left to individuals…. Germany has no navy and conflicts with other Powers are inevitable” (1868). Or again: “For Germany to possess colonies would be like a poverty-stricken Polish nobleman acquiring a silken sable coat, when he needed shirts.” Weber in 1871 was counselled “to avoid scrupulously anything which might lead to a misunderstanding with the United States.”1 In November 1874 Odo Russell was commissioned to inquire into German aims with regard to Samoa—the outcome of some local indignation at the arbitrary treatment of some natives by a German man-of-war, H.I.M.S. Arcona. The reply was definite: “Herr von Bülow avails himself of the opportunity to say that his Government has no desire to acquire the Samoan islands, nor indeed any colonies for Germany.” “A similar assurance,” continues Russell, “was again lately given me by the Prince Chancellor, who said that all the insinuations of the Foreign Press respecting the desire of the German Government to acquire colonies were totally unfounded.”

Nevertheless, the years between 1870 and 1877 were critical ones in the growth of colonialism in Germany. Tingling with a new consciousness of triumph and unity after the Franco-Prussian War, she was suffering from abnormal economic conditions, over-production, an increase in industries needing raw materials, and a great flow of emigration resulting from the overstocked labour market. During these years the visits of warships to the Pacific became more frequent. After 1875 German interests were considered important enough to warrant the allocation of two warships there at a cost of 700,000 marks a year, and of two cruisers at 271,000 marks.3 The support of commercial interests by the warships was a real one. For example, in 1874, at the instance of Weber, the Arcona burned down a Samoan village. In 1875, a year after the annexation of Fiji, H.I.M.S. Gazelle went to the Pacific to report. In 1876 the Hertha was ordered off the Asian coast to Samoa and Tonga to negotiate trade treaties. With the negotiations for treaties began the era of political interference.

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