H. Berghoff u.a. (Hrsg.): Explorations and Entanglements

Explorations and Entanglements. Germans in Pacific Worlds from the Early Modern Period to World War I

Berghoff, Hartmut; Biss, Frank; Strasser, Ulrike
Studies in German History 22
Oxford 2019: Berghahn Books
VIII, 324 S.
€ 70,13
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Hilke Thode-Arora, Museum Fünf Kontinente, München

This volume takes a different approach than many other anthologies: instead of focusing on the relatively late and short-lived period of German formal colonial rule in the Pacific - the „normative power of the imperial framework“ (p. 13) -, it seeks to tease out the specific „German element“ of precolonial, but also colonial Pacific entanglements. For a long time, Germans came to the Pacific alongside or in the service of other European powers. Since the 1850s, when establishing themselves as planters and merchants, they relied on informal ways of influence, not yet backed by their home country. All research on which the thirteen chapters of the book are based is actor-centered. Focusing on the historical agency of German, European and Pacific protagonists allows for the identification of migrant, information, religious and imperial networks, but also for taking into view the microcosm of intercultural encounters. Although sharing a language and certain cultural points of reference, till 1871, Germany was not a nation-state but had a strongly decentralized political structure of independent kingdoms and princedoms: arguably, Germans were more used to similarly decentralized social systems in the Pacific than citizens of other European nations.
The Pacific is understood here more geographically than culturally, as the book includes articles on the area of today’s Indonesia, the Philippines, Japan, China, India, the Arctic North Pacific, as well as the ‚Souths Seas‘. The time studied ranges from the 17th century to roughly WW I (two chapters even including WW II and the present).

The first six chapters focus on knowledge production and transfer combined with academic standards and intertwined networks, but also intercultural interaction. Ulrike Strasser, for example, points out the global Jesuit transnational information and communication structure. 17th-century Jesuits had expert geographical knowledge, ran training centres of cartography and recruited the best mathematicians and geographers, many of them from Germany. Other networks, entangled with the Jesuit ones, like the colonial structures of military, finance and transportation, but also editors, publishers and readers, facilitated travel and the spread of knowledge gained with it, e. g. maps. Although intertwined with these networks, indigenous actors’ cultural worldviews could be misunderstood and accordingly ‘mis-translated’: Paul Klein, the maker of the first published map of the Caroline Islands, received his information from Pacific castaways on Samar in the Philippines who lined out their map on the beach, their explanations being translated into Visayan by earlier castaway women living on Samar. Inherently different cultural conceptions of space led to a distortion in Klein’s depiction: while his informants described the position of their home archipelago according to their mental map of star constellations and sea currents as seen from a boat, Klein and others interpreted this as the European rendering of a map, taking a bird’s eye view.

Raquel Reyes (“German Apocetharies and Botanists in Early Modern Indonesia, the Philippines and Japan”) unfurls the formal and informal networks as well as the standards in spreading medicinal plants on a global base in the 17th century. Andreas W. Daum shows that in spite of the lack of a common national structure like, for example, the British navy or Royal Society, German „naturalists“ distinguished themselves by scholarly expertise gained in a number of academic centres in the different German king- and princedoms. Due to their rigorous zoological, botanical and linguistic training, their command of skills, technology and analytical qualities, they were in international demand – so much so that they accounted for about 25 % of Pacific explorers between the late 1700s and the mid-1800s, as the author depicts in a comprehensive list of Russian, British, French and Spanish voyages and their protagonists. The „Germanness“ of these naturalists perceived by themselves but probably also by others, lay in adhering to high-level scholarly skills and practices. Kristina Künzel-Witt comes to the same conclusion when discussing Georg Wilhelm Steller’s and Carl Heinrich Merck’s groundbreaking, but – since 200 years – undervalued works on flora and fauna in the North Pacific region. They, too, defined themselves first of all as scientists, then as Germans.
Anne Mariss analyses the way knowledge production was structurally shaped through different actors and spaces on board the ship and ashore, national diversity and different social ranks being one factor among others. She does not only highlight the learned naturalists‘ approaches, but, often neglected, also the role of seamen, informing the naturalists with their knowledge gained through many travels, their multiethnicity and their special skills. She also acknowledges the Pacific counterparts who exerted their agency by protecting certain artefacts and plants from being collected and some knowledge from being shared; sometimes feigning ignorance or lack of understanding. She rightly points to the complex Polynesian concepts of hospitality and reciprocal gift giving which makes it difficult to the present day to pin down object transfers as barter or culturally appropriate gifts.1

The following chapters take a look at formal colonial settings and German government agendas, focusing again on informal local and transnational networks, however.
Uwe Spiekermann epitomizes German private and entrepreneurial initiative and the power of informal business practices in the Pacific by looking at the influential German-American Spreckels family, creating a sugar imperium in Hawai’i. He shows the transformative role of such non-state actors in creating change in the region. Jürgen Schmidt looks at the „German work ethic“ as applied to different ethnic groups in colonial Samoa. The Deutsche Handels- und Plantagengesellschaft (DHPG) and the colonial government as the most important players skillfully used formal and informal strategies to balance economic gain while having only a weak power base on the islands: indentured laborers from Asia and other parts of the Pacific were much more restricted in their freedom than Samoans who were under indirect rule and were not forced to work on plantations. Samoan land could not be alienated, and German migration was purposefully limited so that interaction could mainly take place between the DHPG, the colonial administration and Samoan producers.

Chapter 9 – 11 focus on self-chosen or externally ascribed female life scripts. Livia Rigotti analyses the role of European women as connected to the German approach to mixed marriages in the Pacific colonies in terms of social status, although racial hierarchy attitudes towards Polynesians versus Africans no doubt played into this, too. Of 166 interethnic marriages in all German colonies, 90 took place in Samoa. With few Europeans in Samoa, and only a small number of aristocrats or military staff among them, class consciousness was low as compared to Germany or the African colonies. Furthermore, many German women had to come to the Pacific on their own expense. In contrast, the Deutscher Frauenbund organised and paid for women to migrate to the African colonies and marry Germans there. As a consequence, it was rather women of lower socio-economic strata who went to the African colonies. Vehemently opposing mixed marriages and African competitors on the marriage market helped them defend their own social status and possible upward social mobility. In Samoa, however, the attitude was much more relaxed.

Katharina Stornig shows how life as a Catholic Sister in the Pacific enabled German women to choose a meaningful life script different from that of wife and mother, deeply embedded in religious culture and the German network of a transnational Catholic community. In stark contrast is Emma Thomas’ study of court cases concerning Melanesian women’s accusations of rape committed by German men. Not a single alleged perpetrator was convicted by colonial courts. She argues that this was due to a wide-spread racial attitude towards female Melanesian indentured laborers which classified them as lascivious, promiscuous or outright prostitutes, giving German men the benefit of doubt in the legal procedures.

German secret politics are the focus of chapter 6 and 12. Shellen Wu reveals how German engineers were purposefully sent to China to demonstrate and spread technical procedures using German machinery in order to create a demand for it, disadvantaging other European competitors. Douglas T. McGetchin unwraps the way in which German support and German networks informed and shaped the Indian revolutionary profile and ideology in and between the World Wars to weaken the British adversary. Reinhard Wendt focuses on networks of German chain-migrants to Tonga, and on the community of respective descendants.

The aim of defining a „German element“ in the precolonial and colonial Pacific, as announced in the introduction, seems most convincing when looking at the 18th and early 19th century explorers and their academic approach and rigor. For the time span from the mid-19th century to WW I, the idea of Germans being especially apt in forming and using informal networks due to their long history of politically decentralized structures is an interesting one, which might be further evolved in future analyses, being only a sort of background echo in most articles. Having said that, the book contains a wealth of detailed microstudies in defined social and spatial Pacific settings which in my opinion is even more fruitful than identifying an all-encompassing German „handwriting“ in intercultural encounters, colonial administration or informal power structures. The strength of the book lies in each and every author‘s meticulous analysis of sources along a strong actor-centered approach. This allows to show local and intercultural, but also global network entanglements which make a strong base for historical reasoning. Although the ultimate aim of isolating the „German element“ in the Pacific might (still?) be found tentative, and in spite of minor factual errors or typos 2, this is an excellent, well-researched book which can be unreservedly recommended.

1 This is one of the frequent problems when doing provenance research on Pacific objects in museum collections and trying to identify historical contexts of torts, for example.
2 James Cook was killed in Hawai’i and not in Tahiti as stated on page 8.

Editors Information
Published on
Regional Classification
Book Services
Contents and Reviews
Additional Informations
Language of publication
Language of review