J.C.Godefroy & Company, Hamburg
Merchants & Shippers

Operations and trade in the Pacific- a profile.

by Anthony G. Flude. © 2000.

One of the wealthiest merchants and shippers working in the South Pacific in the 1860's was the well known mercantile house of Messrs. Godefroy and Sons of Hamburg, Germany. During this period, the company successfully monopolized the trade in the central pacific, using small vessels to transport the kopra from the small islands to the main depots, where it was shipped overseas to Europe.

In 1855, on the outward passage from Hamburg, Germany,  where she had discharged a large quantity of kopra and shell from the islands, the company's barqueJohann Caesar left with 235 German emigrants aboard who were on their way to settle in Australia. The passengers were landed at Moreton Bay in February 1856, the vessel then heading into the Pacific Ocean to collect and load her cargo hold from the widely scattered island trading depots and posts.

In later years, 1862,  the firms immigrant ship, Caesar Godefroy left Hamburg for Cuxhaven on the 1st November, sailing via the Cape and rounding Van Diemen's Land before arriving off Moreton Bay Heads, Australia, after a 92 day passage.  She had on board 208 German immigrants. The Courier newspaper of the time, reported that seven deaths had occurred during the voyage, six of whom were infants. There were two births, the remaining immigrants landed and were taken on to Brisbane.
The ships cargo included 200 cases of red Geneva wine, 100 cases of candles, 125 casks of sugar, 50 barrels of cement, 10 cases of split peas, 10 live rams and 44,000 fire bricks, together with other cases of mixed merchandise consigned to G. Unmack.

Godefroy's main sailing fleet of trading barques,  operated during these years in the Indian Ocean under the control of an agent who was located at Cochin, where the company had a large coconut oil pressing and processing plant operating. Vessels of the fleet also made voyages to Valpariso on the Spanish Main, where they traded and shipped cargo's of  saltpetre, copper and cochineal.

It was well known among seafarers, that the firm had the reputation of offering low wages to their employees, who needed to compensate for this from the liberal commissions paid by the company for results achieved. Masters of ships belonging to them were paid US$25 a month on passages sometimes extending from 1 to 3 years. Over and above this, a generous payment was made by the company of 3% of the net profits from cargo collected during the the voyage, which was paid to the Master on return to the home port.

In 1855, Tahitian traders also sent their cargo's to Valpariso, returning to the Society Islands with cargo's of flour and other foodstuffs for the French garrison stationed there. This activity came to the  attention of Mr. Anselm, the agent for Messrs. Godeffroy, who went to the Society Islands where he found the agents for Messrs. Hort Brothers and the trader John Brander making large profits from the sale of kopra, coconut oil and pearl shell.


Anselm lost no time in establishing an agency in the Paumotus for his parent company, moving  there to set up the post for the Pacific region. Shortly after this time, he was unfortunately lost at sea. His successor, August Unshelm,  in 1857, expanded the company trading into the Navigator Islands, [the Samoa group of Islands] and almost forced the two other agents to relinquish their activities in the Society Islands.

After a short illness, Unshelm died and Theodore Weber was sent from Hamburg to take control of the Samoan Apia Depot. He was a young, astute German businessman, who had only three questions to put to a man seeking employment to act as an agent on one of the islands.
'Can you speak the language', 'Can you live among the natives without quarreling with them?', 'Can you keep your mouth shut?', referring to company business when meeting with white men and other traders. If the applicant answers correctly, he would then receive transport to his new place of employment, together with everything necessary to establish a trading post including the stock to fill it.

Weber made two other stipulations of the employee. 'You must get yourself a 'wife' of any colour, race or nationality'. A single man among the natives often spelt trouble from the husbands of pretty island wives. 'You must obstruct the establishment of any missionaries wishing to land or settle on the islands and give them no help whatsoever, other than that demanded by common humanity'. 
The reason for this was simply to protect their own and the traders interests, since the missionaries were seen by the trading company as undermining their business activities by trying to gain power over the natives with their teachings and also demanding from them contributions of money or kopra, to build a large church for them to worship their new God.
Working on trust, the trader was expected to buy replacement stock from the profits earned as well as purchase kopra from the natives for the company vessels to collect.

By 1873, the firm had abandoned their agencies in the Poumotus and other small group of islands which were now claimed as French dependencies. Shell and mother-of-pearl prices had also slumped. They decided to push their trading posts further into the pacific ocean, both north and south.
Agents, mostly of european extraction, were employed in Samoa, then sent to Tonga, Nieue[Savage Island] ,Niuafou, Fotuna and Wallis Islands and northwards to the Ellis & Gilbert Group, Kingsmills, Tokerau, Marshalls and Caroline Islands.

During the year 1872, the company made its offices in Apia, Samoa, the central agency for the Pacific region and hoisted the German colonial flag. 
German flagThe staff  then comprised of a superintendent [also consul for Germany], a cashier, eleven clerks, a harbour master, two engineers, ten carpenters, four plantation managers who were ex-ship captains, a surgeon and land surveyor, all German nationals. They employed some 400 local Samoan labourers to work the coconut plantations, assisted by contract islanders from Nieue and the Gilberts.

The Apia settlement  became a long straggling village along the waterfront.
It comprised of about 200 houses occupied by Europeans, mostly German; the large establishment belonging to the firm of Godefroy and company, the German, English and American Consulate buildings; a fraternity of French Roman Catholic priests, a school run by the Sisters of Mercy, five or six large retail shops; six public houses, a billiard saloon, a bakery, two blacksmiths and two buildings which housed steam cotton gins, machine's used for separating the seeds from cotton plants.

It was a time of unrest and civil strife in Samoa, with tribal fighting  on the middle island of Upolu. Land could be bought at rediculously low  prices, where a prime block of land, 320 acres in area at Salefata with coconut and breadfruit trees and a fresh water stream, was exchanged for a snider pistol and 100 rounds of ammunition.

The company did not miss this opportunity and  held title to extensive property on Upolu Island. From the Samoan chiefs, eager to engage in the hostilities with other tribes, the firm purchased large tracts of land which they traded for ammunition and arms. On the land obtained, they built a harbour and a small shipping yard. Three 400 acre plantations and approximately 25,000 acres was purchased or traded at the low price of  .75c an acre in this manner. It is worth mentioning that the firm of Godeffroy also owned a large arms manufacturing plant at Leige in Belgian, so this method of exchange enabled them to buy very cheaply.

Apia-1890Apia High Street-1890

All of the company land that they had acquired had easy access from the seashore by bridle tracks; pony's or donkey carts were used to collect the coconuts and transport them to the large central store shed. Seen from the decks of an approaching ship, the dense forest of Upolu island had areas of extensive clearance and cultivation, long straight rows of coconut trees stood like soldiers, while, between them, grew hedges of fragrant lime bushes. Cattle and horses grazed on the cleared ground, coffee and cocoa grew in nearby plantations and on one plantation which grew pineapples, it was found that they had produced a huge crop, most of which was shipped to the Sydney markets.
Other natives, brought from Kingsmill and Nieue, worked from 6am to 11 am and from noon to 4pm daily.  They were paid 2 dollars per month and given their food during the time of their contract of three years before being returned to their islands.

The company's operations in the Pacific expanded at an enormous rate during the year 1870. The sailing barques Johann Caesar, Peter Godefffroy, La Rochelle, Wandram, Suzanne, Iserbrook and theVictoria, loaded in Apia, Samoa and set sail for Europe with their cargo holds full of timber, coconut oil, copra and shell.

From the Friendly islands [Tonga] they loaded over 700 tons of kopra, which in the following year, 1871,  expanded to over 1400 tons; a cargo of Tui-tui or candle-nut  was also sent to Europe, the oil from this, producing a bright clear flame which sold well on the English market. These cargo's were all paid for by the company in silver dollars which in turn was paid out in wages.
Thus much of this money was recovered from the Samoans and Tongans in payment for European goods delivered to them, where the profits, usually 100% markup, were high.

The firm purchased coconut oil if it was offered for sale, but preferred the dried nut, which when transported to Bremen and Hamburg, was crushed by giant hydraulic presses to obtain the clear quality oil, so different from that produced in the islands by their more primitive methods. In addition, the husks of the nut, after crushing,  could be sold as cattle food. Other goods provided additional cargo. Cotton, fungus, ginger, arrowroot, pearlshell and beche-de-mer.
While establishing company trading posts in the Western and Northern Pacific, the firm purchased the island of Nukufetau from the natives as it had excellent fresh water facilities and a deep water berth for shipping.
On Yap, a great island near the entrance to the Luzon Sea in the Caroline Group, they purchased some 3000 acres of land to form a settlement and establish a large depot, developed cotton plantations and also a slip, which they used to repair any damage their vessels might sustain while in the Pacific region through storms. About a dozen or so Europeans lived there on a permanent basis, while local labour was employed to work the plantations and depots under their supervision.

Godefroy's agents now covered the Carolines, Tokerau Group, the Ellice Group, Gilbert Group, Marshall group of Mili, Jaluit, Ebon and Namorik and the Kingsmills with the exception of Apemana, Kuria and Aranuka, which all belonged to King Tem Baiteke, who would not allow any Europeans to live on his islands.

In the year 1872, the third island of Samoa, Tutuila, with its deep water port of Pago Pago,  became an American possession.

With the widespread interests of the German owned Godefroy shipping company throughout the Pacific region, the German government began to take an interest in annexing the islands of  Western Samoa and bringing them under German rule.
They had never concealed the fact that they would like to take possession of these islands; the native Samoans made it plain that they would not tolerate German rule over them at any cost.

The apparent reasons for the firm purchasing such vast areas in Samoa, most of it elevated and of cooler temperatures, was to make the land attractive to subdivide, buy or lease by German immigrants wishing to settle there in the event of Samoa becoming a German colony and under German rule.
The firm of Godefroy were to provide the ships from Germany to Samoa to bring the immigrants who were to cultivate corn, coffee, tobacco and other produce in the high country and grow coconut palms, sugar-cane and rice on the lowlands stretching to the seashore. The firm also intended to import a labour force of Chinese workers.

The whole scheme, proposed by the company and approved in principal by the German Government,  came to nothing at the outbreak of the Franco-German war.

In 1877, petitions signed by forty-eight of the chiefs had been sent  to the British Government, begging them to take Samoa under its protection. This was refused.

The firm of Godefroy continued to operate for a further seven years in the pacific regions, until the shipping company was forced into bankrupcy in the year 1879 over investments in Russian Paper and Westphalian iron.
The largest asset was found to be the company holdings in Western Samoa and the South Pacific. The company's remaining assets passed through the hands of Baring Brothers of London and then to the Deutsche Handels und Plantagen Gesellschaft fur Sud-See Inseln zu Hamburg, [shortened by all to DHPG or called the 'long handle German firm']. The founder of the shipping line, Johann Caesar Godeffroy, died in the year 1885.

A second petition, signed by all the Samoan chiefs, was sent to the British Government in 1884 which was again refused. Germany decided to step in at the end of 1888, encouraged by these refusals, when it intended to take possession of the remaining two islands. The German warship, Adler, already lying in Apia Harbour, was joined by the Eber, and Olga.
Dispatches swiftly reached the British and American Naval command and the British man-of-war Calliope arrived a few days later and anchored in the outer harbour, joined by the American warships, Nipsic, Vandalia and Trenton.

With the formal signing of the Anglo-American coalition and the show of military force, the German Government was prevented from adding Western Samoa to its colonies and island possessions.

Distaster struck the port of Apia on the 13th March, 1889, when six American and German warships foundered in a violent hurricane, causing the loss of 150 lives.
During the height of the storm, the British warship, HMS Calliope steamed out to sea in the teeth of the gale and so escaped the fate of the other vessels.

* Apia photo's courtesy of :- www.samoa.co.uk