Germans in Tonga 1855-1960

Germans in Tonga – the Historical Background

James Bade

The Kingdom of Tonga covers 150 islands, about 30 of which are inhabited, in the south-west Pacific Ocean. The three main areas of settlement are the largest island, Tongatapu, which has the capital Nuku’alofa, the Ha’apai group of islands, and the northern group Vava’u, 200 kilometres north of Tongatapu. Its closest neighbours are Fiji to the north-west and Samoa to the north-east. The first contact with Europeans came when a Dutch expedition under Willem Schouten and Jacob Lemaire sighted the northern islands in 1916. They were followed by Tasman (1643) and Cook (1773, 1774, 1777), who named the Ha’apai Islands the “Friendly Isles” after the hospitality extended to him and his crew by the inhabitants; later the name “Friendly Islands” was used by Europeans to cover the whole of the Tongan Group. In 1781, the Spanish frigate Nuestra Señora del Rosario under the command of Captain Francisico Antonio Mourelle visited Vava’u. A number of British and French expeditions followed between 1787 and 1793. Tonga continued to exert a fascination over Europeans well into the nineteenth century. Visitors to Tonga were impressed not just by the friendliness of the Tongans but also by their fine stature. George Angas’s comments on the Tongans in his 1866 study of the Polynesian islands are typical: “They are a fine-looking race, tall, well made, with fully-developed muscles; and the women as well as the men are equally remarkable for their personal beauty.”

The earliest sustained contact with Europeans was with missionaries. The Wesleyan missionaries John Thomas and John Hutchinson, who arrived in 1826, were particularly successful. The baptism of Taufa’ahau, the ruler of Ha’apai, in 1831, started a new chapter of Tongan history. Taufa’ahau, who named himself King George Tupou after King George of England and Hanover, about whom he had heard so much from the missionaries, established his authority over Vava’u in 1833, and, after a series of wars, added Tongatapu to his conquests in 1852. Everywhere that King George Tupou went, the people converted to Christianity and were baptized. The unity that resulted helped Tonga to retain its independence during the period of European colonisation of the Pacific. Another factor that helped in this regard was the promulgation, with the help of the missionaries, of the first written code of law for Tonga in 1839. The code limited the power of the chiefs and consolidated the King’s position.

In the 1850s and the 1860s, European settlers began to establish themselves in Tonga. King George Tupou became closely associated with them. One of the Wesleyan missionaries, Shirley Waldemar Baker, who arrived in Tonga in 1860, assisted him in drawing up a new Code of Laws, which came into force in1862. This Code changed Tongan life radically. It meant an end to serfdom, by abolishing forced labour and compulsory contributions to the Chiefs, made all Tongans, including the Chiefs, subject to the law, and set up a parliament, consisting of Chiefs and representatives of the people. The Code also made it possible for the first time for foreigners to lease land. Such arrangements were confirmed in the Constitution of 1875, which provided for equality between Tongans and Europeans, permitted 21-year leases of town allotments to Europeans and, with the prior approval of Cabinet, the lease to Europeans of bush or plantation lands. The laws of 1862 and 1875 attracted European traders. With the high prices for coconut oil which prevailed at the time, traders came from Great Britain, Germany, Sweden, France, Russia and the United States to set up coconut plantations and establish trading stations. In 1867 the German firm J. C. Godeffroy & Sohn set up business in Tonga, trading in copra, and within a few years it had 24 stations on the Tongan islands. Because of the Godeffroy interest, German private traders set up businesses throughout Tonga, but particularly in Vava’u. In 1875 Captain Schleinitz of the German frigate Gazelle reported that in all three ports of Tonga the ships he met were almost without exception German, and that of seven or eight business houses in Vava’u six were German. Shirley Baker noted in 1875 that “more than three-fourths of the commerce of these islands is in the hands, directly or indirectly, of the German merchants, and especially that of the world-wide-known firm of J. C. Godeffroy & Son.” At the turn of the twentieth century, half the European population in Tonga was German. In Vava’u there was a large German population.

One of the German pioneers in Tonga was August Sanft, from Pyritz in Pomerania, who, in 1848, at the age of 28, left his homeland for the New World, arriving first in Boston. Hearing of the gold rush in California, he spent some time in California prospecting and panning for gold, before trying his luck at the gold fields in Queensland, Australia. It was while he was in Australia that he heard of the Pacific Islands and the lucrative coconut oil trade. He arrived in Nuki’alofa in 1855, and, after a few years there, leased some land fronting the harbour in Neiafu, Vava’u, where he established a business importing goods from Germany and exporting copra, bananas, vanilla and cotton to Hamburg. His most important partner in this enterprise was Godeffroy & Sohn. He invited Sophie Dörner, from Freiburg im Breisgau, to come to Vava’u, and they were married on her arrival in 1864. They had six children. In the early 1870s they were joined by eight of his nephews: four Sanfts and four Wolfgramms, and their second cousin Hermann Guttenbeil. Together, they continued the business that August Sanft had set up and branched out into their own businesses, many of them marrying Tongans. Sanft, Wolfgramm and Guttenbeil are some of the best known European surnames in Tonga today, with many descendants also in Samoa, New Zealand, Australia and the United States. Other names of early German settlers in Tonga which are well known throughout the region are Brähne, Hansen, Hoeft, Riechelmann, Schober, and Schulz.

There was no doubt also that Germans were highly regarded by Tongan royalty. The British Consul in Tonga wrote to the High Commissioner in Suva at the end of 1916, more than two years into World War I, of his concern for the “German sympathies” of the Tongan King. He commented that the King wore ceremonial decorations supplied by the Germans, and bemoaned the fact that in the King’s Palace there were large portraits of the German Emperor, Bismarck, and von Moltke, but no portrait of the British King. One could add to this list the fact that the Royal Palace was built in 1867 by the German firm Godeffroy. As far as the Tongan royal family was concerned, however, the most indelible memory concerning the Germans would have been the fact that the body of King George Tupou’s son, the Tongan Crown Prince Tevita ‘Unga, had been brought back from New Zealand in May 1880 on the German navy frigate Nautilus, and that the ship had stayed for the funeral, adding greatly to the pomp and ceremony of the occasion, including a gun salute fired once a minute and ceremonial marching by forty-five German marines who acted as pallbearers.

Colonial expansion had had drastic effects on the very existence of a number of Pacific nations in the nineteenth century. Fiji was annexed by Britain in 1874; Germany took large portions of New Guinea and New Britain in the 1880s, and administered Samoa from 1900; France had New Caledonia and parts of the New Hebrides. The reason for intervention seemed to be divided government or little government to speak of. The Tongan Code of Law, however, protected Tonga in this respect because it meant that an orderly form of government had been established quite early on. The Constitution of 1875 meant that by that year Tonga had effective codes of law, a constitutional monarch, a functioning parliament, and a free and united people. As Charles St Julian told the King in 1855: “With your Kingdom thus governed there can be no pretext whatever for any other power to attack its independence.” Because of this unity, suggestions that Spain should annex Vava’u or that Prussia should annex Tongatapu came to nothing.

The main thrust of King George Tupou’s foreign policy was to maintain Tonga’s independence by endeavouring to gain its recognition by the major European powers. With the continued advice and assistance of Shirley Baker, who became Prime Minister in 1880 (after the death of his predecessor, the King’s son, Tevita ‘Unga), King George Tupou gained treaties of friendship with the three main Pacific powers, starting with Germany in1876. The German treaty was regarded by Baker as the pivotal one: “Should the German Empire make such a treaty with Tonga,” he wrote, “it will be a stepping stone of the acknowledgement of Tonga by other great Powers.” The King’s words at the 1877 ratification ceremony for the German treaty showed just how much importance he attached to it: “in consequence of the ratification of the Treaty Tonga has become a nation amongst the family of nations […] So it is a full country today and later on we will discuss the many good things that Germany has done for Tonga, of which the most important is that it has lifted up Tonga to the standard of the other countries.”

The treaty with Germany led, as had been hoped, to a treaty of friendship with Great Britain (1879). Great Britain had been reluctant to recognise Tonga as this would severely restrict plans for a Western Pacific High Commissioner’s jurisdiction over “uncivilised” territories. The German treaty forced Britain to recognise Tonga as a “civilised” state, and had another beneficial effect as far as Tonga was concerned, as it led to Bismarck’s seeking an assurance that Britain will guarantee the independence of Tonga so long as Germany does so. A treaty of friendship with the United States followed in 1886, which also served to protect Tonga’s independence, as it led to American insistence on a neutral zone for Tonga.

While Tonga became, under an agreement with Britain, Germany, and the United States, officially a British protectorate from 1900, King George Tupou II, who succeeded King George Tupou in 1893, refused to sign the clause which gave Britain the power to determine Tongan foreign policy. Tonga remained a self-governing state. Tonga regarded herself as technically “neutral” during World War I, but in 1916, under pressure from the British, declared all German citizens in Tonga as “enemy aliens”, and some were interned in New Zealand. During World War II, German “evacuees” from Tonga were similarly interned in New Zealand, but only from 1942 onwards. The treaty of Friendship with Britain was revised in 1958, after which the British Consul’s approval of Tongan revenue and expenditure was no longer necessary, and in 1970, after which the British purview of Tongan external relations ceased. Tonga was now once again free to pursue its own political alliances, and, while remaining a member of the Commonwealth, resumed friendly relations with Germany, and was happy to accept the offer from the German government of the lease of a German container ship to help trade and communications among the Tongan islands. Great festivities accompanied the commemoration of the one hundredth anniversary of the ratification of the German Treaty of Friendship with Tonga in 1977, and a new treaty of friendship was signed. When the King of Tonga made an official visit to Germany in 1979, the German government donated two vessels to Tonga: the Olovaha, for inter-island travel, and the Fua Kavenga, for Pacific trade. Tonga also ratified the Treaty of Friendship with the United States at its centenary in 1986.

The European presence is still strong in Tonga. Quite apart from the many descendants with European surnames, a considerable number of recent immigrants from Europe are to be found mixing with the local population. Immigrants from Austria, Britain, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain, many of them involved in education, tourism, or the hospitality industry, have discovered in Tonga, the Friendly Isles, the South Seas paradise that they were seeking.


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  • Cummins, H.G.: Sources of Tongan History. Nuku’alofa, 1972.
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  • Latukefu, Sione: “The Treaty of Friendship and Tongan Sovereignty”, in: Renwick, Sovereignty and Indigenous Rights, Wellington, New Zealand, Victoria University Press, 1991.
  • Rutherford, Noel: Shirley Baker and the King of Tonga. Auckland, 1996.
  • Voigt, Johannes H: “Tonga und die Deutschen oder: Imperialistische Geburtshilfe für eine Nation im Pazifik”, in: Hiery, Die deutsche Südsee 1884-1914: ein Handbuch. Paderborn, 2001.
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I would also like to acknowledge my gratitude to Lord Vaea of His Majesty the King’s Department, Tonga, Carl Sanft, Honorary Consul of the Federal Republic of Germany, Nuku’alofa, Fred Wolfgramm, Nuku’alofa, and Dr Michael McBryde of the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Wellington, former High Commissioner to Tonga, for their assistance and support in my research on the German connection with Tonga.

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