Photo album from 1908 to 1915 revealed

Three years ago, on the other side of the world in Holland, Gessa Akkerman-Ohle was moving house when she stumbled upon an album of her late grandfather’s photographs from Samoa and Tonga in the early 20th century.

She contacted the Museum of Samoa, and sent photo archivist and volunteer Tony Brunt a few photograph’s of them from her phone.

Mr Brunt was surprised to see they were not photographs from known German photographers of that time, but actually they had never been seen before. 

Ms Akkerman-Ohle’s grandfather was Karl Hanssen, the late general manager of Samoa’s largest colonial era commercial enterprise, Deutsche Handels und Plantagen Gesellschaft (DH & PG).

“It’s probably the best single volume compilation of photos from the turn of the century Samoa, that anyone has ever done,” Mr Brunt said of the album.

“Even in the public archives and museums in Germany, I don’t think there is an album to match it.”

His album contains 491 well preserved photographs that have never been published before, detailing life in the islands before the war. About three quarters are from Samoa and one quarter is from Tonga.

Mr Hanssen was only the owner, not the photographer, however.

Mr Brunt believes two DH & PG staff Walter Laurssen and Karl Bunge most likely took the photographs, at parties and picnics, scenic landscapes and of Apia, building up a detailed treasure trove of life over 100 years ago.

Mr Hanssen’s granddaughters, Ms Akkerman-Ohle and Marianne Klemm said their grandfather lived in Samoa between 1894 and 1915, after which he was sent to wartime internment. 

He was from a modestly wealthy family in Lubeck, Germany, and played the piano, they told Mr Brunt. He was posted to Samoa in 1984 and then to Tonga for three years.  

After returning to Apia, he was made general manager in 1906, and was in charge of the operations until he was sent away, and the company was liquidated by New Zealand.

“Personally I believe he was probably the most successful of their managers ever,” Mr Brunt said.

The company had started in 1857 as Godeffroys and became DH & PG in 1889, and went on to own the three largest plantations of Vaitele, Vailele and Mulifanua.

He married Klara Hanssen and had two daughters, Charlotte and Ida Songi – named after her birthplace of Sogi, who returned to Germany after his internment in 1915 and never visited Samoa again.

During his time in Samoa, he financed the 60 acre purchase of Apia Park for the purpose of horse racing, Mr Brunt said, and was never repaid when the land was confiscated by the New Zealand government. 

Mr Brunt is told the album was put together immediately before Mr Hanssen’s death in 1942.

Ms Akkerman-Ohle had the album professionally digitised and sent copies to Mr Brunt in Samoa and an archivist in Tonga She has lent the physical album to the Hamburg Museum, the city where Mr Hanssen died.

By the end of the year, Mr Brunt will be publishing his second book, which is devoted to Mr Hanssen’s album. His previous book, To Walk Under Palm Trees; Germans in Samoa, was a pictorial book on the German colonial period, and his second will be a natural follow thanks to Ms Akkerman-Ohle’s find.

“It is a passionate hobby of mine,” Mr Brunt said.

“It’s a very time consuming hobby.”

Mr Brunt will be presenting the photographs and talking about them in a talk at the Centre for Samoan Studies in the National University of Samoa at 12pm on Wednesday 24 July.

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