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Today's quote:

Monday, November 4, 2013

German Harry

 

Iwas in Thursday Island and I wanted very much to go to New Guinea. Now the only way in which I could do this was by getting a pearling lugger to take me across the Arafura Sea. The pearl fishery at that time was in a bad way and a flock of neat little craft lay anchored in the harbour. I found a skipper with nothing much to do (the journey to Merauke and back could hardly take him less than a month) and with him I made the necessary arrangements. He engaged four Torres Straits islanders as crew (the boat was but nineteen tons) and we ransacked the local store for canned goods. A day or two before I sailed a man who owned a number of pearlers came to me and asked whether on my way I would stop at the island of Trebucket and leave a sack of flour, another of rice, and some magazines for the hermit who lived there.

I pricked up my ears. It appeared that the hermit had lived by himself on this remote and tiny island for thirty years, and when opportunity occurred provisions were sent to him by kindly souls. He said that he was a Dane, but in the Torres Straits he was known as German Harry."   read more

So begins W. Somerset Maugham's story German Harry contained in Volume Four of his Collected Short Stories. I have been a fan of Maugham's writing, and especially his short stories, ever since my days in Burma and Singapore and later Malaysia which are some of the countries of which he wrote.

However, as Maugham writes in his Preface to Volume Four, "Most of these stories are on the tragic side. But the reader must not suppose that the incidents I have narrated were of common occurrence. The vast majority of these people, government servants, planters, and traders, who spent their working lives in Malaya were ordinary people ordinarily satisfied with their station in life. They did the jobs they were paid to do more or less competently,. They were as happy with their wives as are most married couples. They led humdrum lives and did very much the same things every day. Sometimes by way of a change they got a little shooting; but at a rule, after they had done their day's work, they played tennis if there were people to play with, went to the club at sundown if there was a club in the vicinity, drank in moderation, and played bridge. They had their little tiffs, their little jealousies, their little flirtations, their little celebrations. They were good, decent, normal people.

I respect, and even admire, such people, but they are not the sort of people I can write stories about. I write stories about people who have some singularity of character which suggests to me that they may be capable of behaving in such a way as to give me an idea that I can make use of, or about people who by some accident or another, accident of temperament, accident of environment, have been involved in unusual contingencies. But, I repeat, they are the exception.”

And there are few people more singular in character than German Harry who lived on a tiny island in the Torres Strait. I became interested in him after I had lived and worked on Thursday Island in 1977 and published a website on him in which I suggested that the real "German Harry", a Danish fellow by the name of Henry Evolt, had died on Deliverance Island in January 1928, aged 79.

A reader from Sweden has just sent me this email in reply:

"Hi, you have on your website a page written by Somerset Maugham about a man called German Harry. That man did exist and lived a life that was almost incredible.

He was born in Denmark in 1850 and died in Sydney in 1914. His real name was Jeppe Sören Christensen. Numerous people have told stories about him, Somerset Maugham, the Australian author Albert F. Ellis, captain C. A. W. Mockton and O. M. Sörensen, the latter a Dane who lived with him for 4 years and wrote a book about his life. It's this book that I have, published in 1941. It's in Swedish so I have to translate small parts for you.

He ran away from home when he was 13, learned German (that's why he was later nicknamed German Harry), came to England, got married, started a pub, sold the pub and went with his family to Cooktown in Australia, abandoned the family and settled in Samarai, New Guinea, made fortunes and lost them just as quickly.

He became an excellent skipper, often sailing alone around Australia and New Guinea. He saved sailors wrecked at Sydney's South Head with such skills that he was appointed Chief Pilot by the Board of Trade, presented by the mayor in Sydney.

Well, there is a whole book about German Harry, but this will do for now!

Kind Regards,
Patrick Lindahl,
Västra Frölunda, Sweden"

Danish title The last South Sea Trader
Swedish title A Man from the North in the South Sea

How fascinating, Patrick! Does an English translation exist? If not, could you translate a larger part of it so I could add it to the webpage?

Well, I didn't have to wait long for Patrick's next email:

"Hello Peter,

The book is in Swedish and has 210 pages so it will take a while :) I will see what I can do. Not retired yet so I have to find some time.

The Swede Ron Brandt that you are writing about I know nothing about but there was another Swede in the 1920s who moved to a little island, guess it was Tabar Island, and married the daughter of the king. He later became king of this island and descendants are still living in Kokopo in Papua New Guinea. His name was Kalle Pettersson. My father Ragnar Lindahl met him when he was a plantation owner in the Baining in East New Britain in Papua New Guinea.

My father was in New Guinea (I write 'New Guinea' because 'Papua New Guinea' didn't exist at that time) for two periods of 7 years each. First sometime around 1913 to 1920 and then again from 1924 to 1932. At first, he was captain on a schooner shipping copra one way and labour the other. He went home and got his father Anders Lindahl (my grandfather) to put some money into a plantation project and in 1925 founded the Stockholm Plantation on the west coast of the Gazelle Peninsula. He also had a house at Valaur, on the road between Rabaul and Kokopo (long gone due in the volcanic eruption of 1992).

He went home in 1932; shortly afterwards my grandfather died and the funding stopped. He never went back but another Swede, Pelle Kyllert, was the manager during WW2, but he and my father did not get along so Pelle moved to Lihir to take over Londolovit Plantation. Today the Lihir goldmine is one of the most profitable gold mines in the world and my father used to half own it!!!

My father eventually sold the plantation but it took 20 years to sell.

I went there in 1997 to see what was left of the plantation and spent some nice days out there, taking pictures of the same places that my father had taken in 1927.

Regards, Patrick"

 

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