The South Sea Colony German New Guinea

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Part IV – German New Guinea

At the beginning of the 1880s, the German government was still skeptical about some businessmen around Adolph von Hansemann, a Berlin business counselor and director of the Disconto Bank, to found a German colony in the South Sea. At best, the Berlin Foreign Office promised consular protection. Undaunted, Hansemann founded the New Guinea Company (NGC) in May 1884 with the ambitious goal of establishing a territory in the South Sea with its own sovereign rights territory under the protection of the German Empire. He commissioned the German Trade and Plantation Company, headed by the Bremen naturalist Dr. Otto Finsch, to carry out the project. In the meantime, election tactical reasons had led the Reich Chancellor to a cautious rethinking of colonial issues. Also, Great Britain did not seem to have any claim to the territories in question. Therefore, the German consul in Sydney was informed by the foreign office informed the German consul in Sydney by telegraph on August 19, 1884. The intention was to raise the imperial flag on the still independent territories in the northeast of New Guinea. However, by the time the Finsch expedition actually raised the German flag on the island of Matapui and at other points in November 1884, the British government had changed its mind. In the meantime, the ‘World Empire also claimed the islands lying to the north of Australia, so that a conference in London had to settle the differences at the beginning of March 1885. The German Empire finally received the northeastern part of New Guinea (Kaiser-Wilhelms-Land) and the “Bismarck Archipelago” north of New Pomerania, New Hanover, Neu Mecklenburg, and the Admiralty Islands. The Solomon Islands Bougainville and Buka were added a year later. Colony German New Guinea

The South Sea was not a paradise

The German letter of protection of May 17, 1885, had given Hansemann’s company possession of a territory of no less than 240.000 square kilometers. The first main town was Finschhafen, later Herbertshoehe on New Pomerania, since 1910, finally Rabaul. Berlin promised the investors military protection, but the development and administration of the huge area were to be and administration of the huge area at the NGC’s own expense. Their initial hopes of quickly finding enough settlers for the planned plantations were dashed by the climate, which was unsuitable for climate dashed their hopes. Above all, malaria was a stubborn threat that also affected officials, business people, and missionaries who were often forced to cut short their stay in the colony prematurely. In this climate, the stomach remained eternally spoiled by disease and quinine”, noted Stefan von Kotze, a relative of Bismarck. Bismarck wrote in his diary in 1905. And so, even after 30 years of existence on the eve of the First World War – a total population of 480,000 people – there were no more than 1,000 Europeans in the whole of German New Guinea. The real South sea world hardly corresponded to the ideas circulating in Europe of a paradisiacal Southland. Problematic was the relationship between the new colonial rulers and the natives. The letter of protection of 1885 had still spoken hopefully of a “civilization” of the indigenous population. Whose pronounced cannibalism was part of their animistic was part of their animistic death cult. Colony German New Guinea

Colony German New Guinea
German Empire protection letter for New Guinea 1885
Colony German New Guinea
Detail of the protection letter

Missioning with limited success

Colony German New Guinea
Military report of a commander of the ship CONDOR on the Kaiserin Augusta River 1913

A total of seven missions, including even a French order, tried to reach them with various missions, to pave the way for a European mentality through Christianity. Especially the orphans, whose parents were victims of the countless tribal conflicts, concentrated on the education and conversion efforts of a European style. The missions often bought them from the tribes and hoped that children would become multipliers of the white way of life one day. Some of them were even sent to Germany for this purpose. In the long term, the missionary efforts of the Europeans were indeed successful. After all, in 1914, there were already in New Guinea around 30,000 regular churchgoers. Rather to the clumsiness and the anger of the mission leader Matthias Rascher was to thank for the fact that on August 13, 1904, in the mission station of St. Paul on the island of New Pomerania came to a massacre, when all ten mission members, including the head of the mission, were brutally killed by their own followers. In general, the efforts of the customs and habits of the natives, at least, to some extent, we’re limited to the coastal regions. The interior of the islands belonged only theoretically to the protected area. At most, in the course of isolated expeditions, which were carried out to map or mapping or finding archaeological of the archipelago, people came to these remote areas of the protected area. December 1912 saw the last major undertaking of this kind with the steamer “Kolonialgesellschaft” on the “Kaiserin-Augusta River” (Sepik). With some disappointing findings concerning the economic findings on the area’s economic viability. Colony German New Guinea

Unsuccessful plantation economy

The concept of the New Guinea Company was based primarily on the exploitation of the labor force of the natives. But their willingness to work on the new coconut plantations remained rather low. The pay was meager and usually only at the end of the three-year commitment period. Cash was rarely paid out. In disciplinary action, prisoners were threatened, and the neighboring villages were obliged to send out to deliver workers who were – as usual – killing and eating them. During the recruitment, which was mostly carried out from the ship, the agents of the NGC had to expect armed resistance regularly.

The physician Wilhelm Wendtland described a typical recruitment trip in 1897: “While we landed with the first boat, the second boat stayed 20 to 30 meters from the beach, to cover our retreat in the event of an attack. When the group was entering the interior of the island, spears and arrows flew without killing anyone. The ‘Whites then began the retreat.” Better off than the plantation workers were the volunteer native police soldiers, who since the beginning of the 1890s have been trained by a German police master. They also came as expeditions and received better pay and good rations. Before the First World War I outbreak, the native force numbered 650 men, commanded by barely two dozen police masters. If there were actually major riots, such as the one that occurred in 1910 on the eastern island of Ponape, German naval forces intervened. In addition to Chinese and Javanese, there were also native servants in German households and expert hunting companions with experience. Colony German New Guinea

With the acquisition of the Spanish Islands in 1899, the Reichskolonialamt organized the conditions in the South Sea colony. The NGC and its frustrated financiers were glad that the imperial government gave them the vested rights in exchange for a payment of four million Reichsmarks and put the island kingdom under a unified administration with a governor at the head. The protagonists of a new world policy like Kaiser Wilhelm II and his then State Secretary Bernhard von Buelow were disturbed by their Pacific straddle holdings’ miserable economic balance sheet. In any case, the colony was not defensible.

When, on September 12, 1914, 3,000 Australian Australian soldiers marched into Rabaul, the German dream of the South Sea was finally over. Out of about 700 Germans were interned in Australia for several months. From there, they returned to Germany via the United United States. Colony German New Guinea

Passports of German New Guinea

The two documents are extremely rare and are real treasures of German (passport) history. Colony German New Guinea

Colony German New Guinea
Issued at Herbertshoehe 1907 to government official Dr. Seibert
Colony German New Guinea
Issued to Adele Stuermer in 1907


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1. What are the earliest known examples of passports, and how have they evolved?

The word "passport" came up only in the mid 15th Century. Before that, such documents were safe conducts, recommendations or protection letters. On a practical aspect, the earliest passport I have seen was from the mid 16th Century. Read more...

2. Are there any notable historical figures or personalities whose passports are highly sought after by collectors?

Every collector is doing well to define his collection focus, and yes, there are collectors looking for Celebrity passports and travel documents of historical figures like Winston Churchill, Brothers Grimm, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Read more...

3. How did passport designs and security features change throughout different periods in history, and what impact did these changes have on forgery prevention?

"Passports" before the 18th Century had a pure functional character. Security features were, in the best case, a watermark and a wax seal. Forgery, back then, was not an issue like it is nowadays. Only from the 1980s on, security features became a thing. A state-of-the-art passport nowadays has dozens of security features - visible and invisible. Some are known only by the security document printer itself. Read more...

4. What are some of the rarest and most valuable historical passports that have ever been sold or auctioned?

Lou Gehrig, Victor Tsoi, Marilyn Monroe, James Joyce, and Albert Einstein when it comes to the most expensive ones. Read more...

5. How do diplomatic passports differ from regular passports, and what makes them significant to collectors?

Such documents were often held by officials in high ranks, like ambassadors, consuls or special envoys. Furthermore, these travel documents are often frequently traveled. Hence, they hold a tapestry of stamps or visas. Partly from unusual places.

6. Can you provide insights into the stories behind specific historical passports that offer unique insights into past travel and migration trends?

A passport tells the story of its bearer and these stories can be everything - surprising, sad, vivid. Isabella Bird and her travels (1831-1904) or Mary Kingsley, a fearless Lady explorer.

7. What role did passports play during significant historical events, such as wartime travel restrictions or international treaties?

During war, a passport could have been a matter of life or death. Especially, when we are looking into WWII and the Holocaust. And yes, during that time, passports and similar documents were often forged to escape and save lives. Example...

8. How has the emergence of digital passports and biometric identification impacted the world of passport collecting?

Current modern passports having now often a sparkling, flashy design. This has mainly two reasons. 1. Improved security and 2. Displaying a countries' heritage, icons, and important figures or achievements. I can fully understand that those modern documents are wanted, especially by younger collectors.

9. Are there any specialized collections of passports, such as those from a specific country, era, or distinguished individuals?

Yes, the University of Western Sidney Library has e.g. a passport collection of the former prime minister Hon Edward Gough Whitlam and his wife Margaret. They are all diplomatic passports and I had the pleasure to apprise them. I hold e.g. a collection of almost all types of the German Empire passports (only 2 types are still missing). Also, my East German passport collection is quite extensive with pretty rare passport types.

10. Where can passport collectors find reliable resources and reputable sellers to expand their collection and learn more about passport history?

A good start is eBay, Delcampe, flea markets, garage or estate sales. The more significant travel documents you probably find at the classic auction houses. Sometimes I also offer documents from my archive/collection. See offers... As you are already here, you surely found a great source on the topic 😉

Other great sources are: Scottish Passports, The Nansen passport, The secret lives of diplomatic couriers

11. Is vintage passport collecting legal? What are the regulations and considerations collectors should know when acquiring historical passports?

First, it's important to stress that each country has its own laws when it comes to passports. Collecting old vintage passports for historical or educational reasons is safe and legal, or at least tolerated. More details on the legal aspects are here...

Does this article spark your curiosity about passport collecting and the history of passports? With this valuable information, you have a good basis to start your own passport collection.

Question? Contact me...