Claus Gossler. Die Société commerciale de l'Océanie (1876-1914): Aufstieg und Untergang der Hamburger Godeffroys in Ost-Polynesien. Bremen: MontAurum Verlag, 2006. 592 S. EUR 44.90 (paper), ISBN 978-3-937729-20-6.
Reviewed by Elaine Glovka Spencer (Department of History, Northern Illinois University)
Published on H-German (October, 2007)
German Merchants in French Polynesia
In 1876, when the Société commerciale de l'Océanie (SCO) was founded, it took months to move the necessary goods, personnel, and information between the company's operating center in Papeete, Tahiti, and its home office in Hamburg. The SCO represented the corporate reorganization of an earlier partnership, Wilkens & Co. Carl J. C. Wilkens, the most important merchant and German consul in Papeete before the creation of the SCO, was partnered with Hamburg merchant venturer Johann Cesar Godeffroy VI, the so-called King of the South Seas, whose primary interests lay farther west in Samoa. When Wilkens retired from Papeete to San Francisco in 1875, Wilkens & Co. was absorbed by the newly created SCO. One consequence of Wilkens's move to California was that about half of prewar SCO shares ended up in American hands. On the eve of World War I, reports from Tahiti still took almost a month to reach Germany. Before the war, no cable connected Papeete with the outside world. Given the difficulty of transporting adequate supplies of coal to remote ports in the South Pacific, steamships (for commercial rather than naval use) were slow to displace sailing vessels in the waters of eastern Polynesia. The SCO's customers, living on sparsely populated islands, were difficult to reach and often short of ready cash. Over the years of the company's existence, disastrous cyclones, shipwrecks, swings in prices, demand, and supply, and misjudgments by thinly stretched, isolated, and at times demoralized personnel repeatedly clouded the SCO's prospects. In addition to such recurring misfortunes, the company faced the challenge of operating on islands controlled by a potentially hostile great power. Gossler's detailed account of nearly forty years of SCO operations in the South Pacific contains much information of interest not only to business historians but also to historians sharing the current enthusiasm for global and transnational topics.
In his history of the SCO, Claus Gossler, a retired businessman turned historian, details the company's bumpy fortunes from its founding to the outbreak of World War I. His intention is to provide a wide-ranging account of the company as an economic entity, as a social organization, and as part of the political, social, and economic environment in which it functioned. To this end, he sets out to examine the diverse individuals who owned, worked for, bought from, supplied, or in any other way interacted with the SCO: the list of individuals described includes the supervisory board in Hamburg; its managers, agents, and clerks in Tahiti and on other islands; the customers, suppliers, and competitors of the SCO; indigenous elites; members of Tahiti's multi-ethnic business community; French colonial administrators; the mariners who linked the islands with each other and the outside world; and the men who built the ships in which they sailed.
Gossler presents his findings topically in highly compartmentalized chapters. Unfortunately, he provides little in the way of integrating introductions and conclusions. Readers are too often left to find their own way through the factual detail. For primary sources, the author relies first and foremost on SCO archival records. He takes up, one by one, the wide variety of subjects touched upon in four decades of company correspondence between Papeete and Hamburg. He quotes most extensively from reports penned by Heinrich Friedrich Joerss, who joined the SCO in Papeete in 1880, serving as co-director from 1884 and as director from 1888 until his death in 1894. In a mixture of German and English (and with a smattering of French), Joerss provided his employers detailed accounts not only of business transactions but also of his observations of daily life in the islands. Tahiti as seen by Joerss and his associates was no tropical paradise. Alcohol dependence, indebtedness, homesickness, boredom, loneliness, and health problems are recurring themes in Joerss's reports, as well as in the numerous capsule biographies Gossler presents.
The SCO imported manufactured goods and foodstuffs and exported island products. Among these exports were copra, cotton, mother-of-pearl shells, and vanilla. Gossler describes how each of these products was cultivated or collected, processed, and marketed. Given the great distances involved, Germany (France, too, for that matter) was neither a major supplier nor importer of the goods handled by the SCO. San Francisco and other Pacific ports were much closer.
For most of the SCO's existence, importing proved more profitable than exporting. The company bought local products at least in part so that its customers could afford to buy imported goods. Much of what the company sold was not for cash but rather on credit, granted against assurances of future delivery of goods for export. The SCO's own investments in plantations proved unprofitable. Beginning in 1878, the company was unable for two decades to pay dividends to its shareholders. In 1880, its very existence was in question. During the lean years that followed, the company had to retrench and write off unwise investments and uncollectible debts. From 1898, the company could at last again pay dividends. Profits on both imports and exports, especially a boom in demand for copra, soared in the last prewar years. In 1914, the war brought an abrupt end to SCO activity in French Oceania.
In the day-to-day world of the SCO, national identity seems to have played a comparatively minor role, except when great power navies appeared on the horizon or when colonial administrators attempted to change the rules governing commercial activity. The company operated as part of trading networks linking Europe, North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, and approximately a hundred Pacific islands, conducting business in multiple currencies. Its representatives mediated between British, American, Chinese, Australian, New Zealand, and Polynesian producers and consumers. A fuller, more focused discussion of what the multifaceted experience of the SCO can tell us about the pre-World War I global context in which it operated would have been welcome. The book would also have benefited from a clearer integrating thesis and a more explicit analytical framework to highlight the significance of Gossler's research.
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Elaine Glovka Spencer. Review of Gossler, Claus, Die Société commerciale de l'Océanie (1876-1914): Aufstieg und Untergang der Hamburger Godeffroys in Ost-Polynesien.
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Copyright © 2007 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.