The Early Exploration of the Ramu River
The Early Exploration of the Ramu River
Materials, Techniques and Artists
By Bettina Von Lintig
The words “Ottilien Fluss” appear in faint and faded script on the back of a mask recently owned by Michael Hamson. This tells a great deal about the piece because, as will be seen, it indicates that it was acquired at an early time of the Western exploration of this part of the world and most probably before 1900 since this river’s name changed at that time to become the Ramu River. The Ottilien River was so named in 1886 after a German steamer.
“Natives from the Ramu District” from Birger Mörner, Aráfis tropiska år (Stockholm: P. A. Norstedt & Söners Förlag, 1914), p. 219
In his opus magnum about the Kaiserin-Augusta-Fluss (the Sepik River as of 1919), O. Reche mentions the “Ottilien Fluss” in an introduction about exploration voyages on the north coast of Papua New Guinea. He describes it as the other navigable yet smaller river that empties into the sea along the former German colony’s north coast. Rivers were the way to get into the unknown land and were crucial both to research and to the development of colonial exploitation. Streams, localities and mountains were often given European names at this time. Moreover, those who discovered important new waterways would also become celebrities in the Western world. It shouldn’t be forgotten that rivers also represented the foundation for the food supply, transportation and fascinating culture of the indigenous peoples who had lived along them for thousands of years. Researchers found out about their complex lives much later.
Otto Reche expresses in his work on the Kaiserin-Augusta-Fluss the opinion that Otto Finsch, the “discoverer” of that river, had actually sailed through the delta of the Ottilien River in 1885 and also suggests that other voyagers might have seen its estuary even earlier. Finsch had explored the South Seas with the support of the Humboldt Foundation. He was, however, also an agent for the private Hamburger Neuguinea-Konsortium, which was later renamed the Neuguinea-Kompagnie, and, accompanied by his friend Captain Eduard Dallmann, he visited nearly all of Papua New Guinea’s north coast in 1884 and 1885, using the company’s trading station at Mioka on Duke of York Island as his home base. He was able to conclude many agreements concerning land rights, and in 1885 the northern part of what is now Papua New Guinea officially became the Kaiser-Wilhelms-Land protectorate under the supervision of the Neuguinea-Kompagnie with the town of Finschhafen as its administrative capital. Ethnologist and researcher Otto Finsch remained an advisor to the Neuguinea-Kompagnie for two more years.
Missionary Wilhelm Diehl on the Ramu River on 17 July, 1911:
“The forest approaches the shore, in the background the foothills of the Bismarck Mountains. In the extremely wide riverbed of the Ramu you can march well."
Photo courtesy of Dieter Klein
Vice-Admiral Georg Freiherr von Schleinitz was appointed the first “Landeshauptmann” (the equivalent of governor) of the protectorate in 1886. In his brief time in this position, he undertook a number of voyages along the north coast. One of his objectives was to disprove the idea that there were many reefs and dangers in the bays lurking beneath the often turgid and opaque estuary waters. Two visits to the Sepik River (Kaiserin-Augusta-Fluss) took place that year. In April, Finsch’s Captain Dallmann continued upstream for several miles in a launch to explore areas his steamer, the Samoa, could not reach. From July 29th through August 10th, von Schleinitz and the steamer Ottilie nearly reached the area where the river breaks through the Hunstein Mountains. The ship, with its 3.4-meter draft, ran aground. He continued in his launch the next day. They reached the uppermost point on the river they would get to on August 4th, about 150 nautical miles as the crow flies from the river’s mouth.
The discovery of the Ottilien River, that is to say the Ramu River, which also took place in 1886, is another story. A reconnaissance mission by the steamer Ottilie to the Sepik estuary under von Schleinitz’s command was undertaken to verify and complement findings and measurements made earlier. On November 8th, in Broken Water Bay near Venus Point, where there are many lagoons and myriad streams run into the sea, they found the estuary of an important waterway. It was about 400 meters wide, although sealed by a sandbank, and the water was yellowish-brown and green. They finally found an entrance at the edge of the estuary and moved upstream for several nautical miles. When darkness fell, they laid anchor and resumed at dawn the next morning. The river was still 400 meters wide six miles from the estuary, and then widened further at eight miles. The steamer’s draft then became too deep to continue. As the commander began to take his ship downstream, shy “dark-skinned natives, their hair shorn at the back of the forehead and with elaborate hairdos (which give them a striking appearance),” approached them in “very nicely carved canoes.” Von Schleinitz adds that “… their plaited ornaments were tasteful and attractive. They were armed with spears.”
Due to heavy thunderstorms and sea swells on the sandbar, von Schleinitz dropped anchor before he reached the estuary and waited until 11:30 a.m. the next day to continue along the coast and to the Purdy Islands. The newly discovered waterway, obviously a significant new route to the interior, seemed very promising and was promptly named. The commander wrote: “Since this river was discovered and first navigated by the Ottilie, I named it the Ottilien River.”
Another apparent estuary along the coast of Broken Water Bay and not far from the Sepik estuary was investigated, and von Schleinitz believed it might be a closed-off arm of the Sepik. When he compared Finsch’s drawings with his own map, it became apparent that Finsch had actually made note of this lagoon, but not of the Ottilien River, and that he thus had not actually found the Ottilien River estuary. During the rainy season, the waters of the Ramu and Sepik estuaries run together as they flood the plains near and along them.
Missionary Wilhelm Diehl on the Ramu River on 23 July, 1911:
"In the Ramu plain. In the hut the missionary had spent the night... A society that did not exactly inspire confidence had gathered around the campfire and watched the white stranger man."
Photo courtesy of Dieter Klein
There were villages between the lagoon and the ocean, and von Schleinitz visited one. He wrote: “The good-looking and strong natives gave us a friendly reception and were a bit shy. Canoes, large drums, bowls, idols, weapons, etc., gave us to understand that they are skilled woodcarvers. Many of the huts have carved wooden posts and palm bast walls with tasteful designs on them.” The visitors also found that some of the huts had bundles of skulls hanging in them. They collected some of them. Although there is no mention of it in the journals for this trip, it can thus be assumed that this “reconnaissance” trip was not just a mapping expedition and that ethnographic material was collected when the opportunity arose.
During the entire time of German rule, commercial ventures and settlements run by a variety of companies and individuals operated side by side with many scientific expeditions sponsored by museums, research associations and private researchers, supported by the colonial administration or the German navy.
On the other side of the planet, in Germany and in other European countries, a growing middle class was becoming increasingly interested in natural history and ethnology, and collecting material in those fields was consequently also becoming fashionable. Associations were being formed in which people could share their common interest and which generated further curiosity. Objects from the material cultures of faraway places were very much a part of this phenomenon, as they were accessible and tangible manifestations of those cultures. There were plenty of takers at home for the ethnographic objects obtained and collected on New Guinea expeditions, and that was but one reason for which they were avidly swept up.
The subject cannot be thoroughly discussed here, but one in situ collector should be mentioned, and that is German judge Dr. Albert Hahl, who arrived in Herbertshöhe (Kokopo) in 1895, and at the age of twenty-seven, began his service in the vast area that had by then become an established German colony. He had legal authority as a judge, and his job in that respect was far from simple:
“Hahl attempted to bring some order to a very chaotic situation. Clan feuds involving blood vengeance and sometimes cannibalism were common, but he was initially able to pacify the area immediately around Herbertshöhe. The few white settlers under his jurisdiction themselves had no understanding of European law, and vigilante justice was common. Hahl was aware of this and put a stop to it from the start.”
In the summer of 1897, he served as Landeshauptmann of the Neuguinea-Kompagnie for a month. He became governor of German New Guinea in 1902 and remained in that office until 1919. He founded Rabaul, which became the colony’s capital.
Hahl, originally from the small town of Gern in Bavaria, demonstrated an interest in the lives and cultures of New Guinea’s indigenous peoples that was unusual for his time. He attempted to learn local languages, got along well with some of the native clan chiefs (“bigmen”) and also sought their advice at the same time that he tried to introduce them to Western ways of thinking. He traveled extensively around the colony, moving around tirelessly in his governor’s ship, the Seestern, and that afforded him the opportunity to collect many ethnographic objects.
“Hahl recognized early on that old ethnographic artifacts were continually getting scarcer, and he encouraged museum directors to send ethnologists to collect while it would still be possible to do so. It was obvious to Hahl that European influence, in combination with the indentured labor system and imported diseases, had already caused some cultures to disappear and that those remaining were changing at a rapid pace. He sought to counter some of these changes with the establishment of a viable legal system.” And Hahl was also active as a broker between museums in Germany and Europeans in the colonies who had assembled collections.
The Ramu-Ottilien River
It would not be until 1896, ten years after the first explorations of the lower Ottilien River, that an expedition that originally had had a completely different focus produced a surprising result. Ernst Tappenbeck had convinced Dr. Carl Lauterbach and physician Dr. Hermann Kersting in Germany to join him on a research expedition he wanted to undertake and had also found sponsors to cover “the considerable costs that such an undertaking involves, even when very frugally equipped.” Accompanied by many porters and co-workers from different places, they set out from Astrolabe Bay and moved up along the Gogol River toward the Bismarck Mountains in search of the headwaters of the Markham River. Entering the Dutch or British parts of the island was to be avoided. On August 14th the expedition reached a 200- to 300-meter-wide meandering river, which the natives of the Bismarck Range called Jagéi in its lower reaches and Ramu further up. There was no indication that this was a confluent of the Sepik River. Lauterbach surmised that this was “the Ottilien River whose estuary was visited in 1886.” On September 4th through 6th, he and Kersting climbed a 1,000-meter-high foothill of the Bismarck Range from the top of which they had unobstructed views. They observed that “the Ramu was still visible 100 kilometers upstream to the southeast and was just as wide there.”
The botanical and ethnographic collections that were made on this trip to unknown territory were not as abundant as had been hoped, primarily because transport was tedious and difficult. The expedition’s reports also state that it was attacked by local indigenous people in several places. The anonymous author of those reports nonetheless expresses great optimism about the possibilities for the future exploitation of the promising inland areas, which it had now been established a second navigable river could reach deep into. The second Ramu expedition in 1898, undertaken on a lighter ship, got further up the Ottilien River and proved definitively that it was indeed the same waterway that Lauterbach had identified as the Ramu.
1 The steamship had just arrived from Hamburg. It belonged to the Neuguinea-Kompagnie. The wife of this company’s founder was named Ottilie von Hansemann. There is no hard evidence that the ship was named after her, but it does seem very likely. She was a famous campaigner for women’s rights.
2 Reche (1913): Otto Reche, Der Kaiserin-Augusta-Fluss, Hamburg, 1913, p. 8.
3 Reche (1913), p. 8. In an appendix to his book about the Kaiserin-Augusta-Fluss, Reche expressed his opinion that Captain Benjamin Morrell had been through the area where the Ottilien River runs into the ocean in the course of his travels along the north coast of Kaiser-Wilhelms-Land: “The next day we saw colored water ahead, and at first supposed it to be a shoal, but it proved to be the water from a large river that here emptied into the ocean, and colored it for fifteen or twenty miles to seaward. We anchored at the mouth of the river, and the next day we explored it twenty miles in the squadron,” Reche (1913), p. 484.
4 The natural harbor was discovered by O. Finsch in 1884. By the end of 1885, the place had been named after him and was a station for the Neuguinea-Kompagnie. Finschhafen was the company’s headquarters from 1886 through 1891.
5 Reche (1913), p. 8.
6 Personnel on board included Dr. Knappe, ornithologist and botanist Carl Hunstein, and members of the scientific expedition Drs. Schrader and Hollrung. The steamer Ottilie was under the command of Captain W. Rasch (according to Reche (1913), p. 8).
7 Schleinitz (1887): Georg Freiherr von Schleinitz, in Aus dem Schutzgebiet (Bericht über eine Rekognoszierungsfahrt mit dem Dampfer ‘Ottilie,’ in Nachrichten über Kaiser Wilhelmsland und den Bismarck Archipel, published by the Neu-Guinea-Kompagnie. Berlin, 1887 (pages 32–66).
8 Schleinitz (1887), p. 54/55.
9 Schleinitz (1887), p. 55/56.
10 Schleinitz (1887), p. 56.
11 No information is given on the members of the Ottilie’s crew, with the exception of a Lieutenant Dreger, who was also a cartographer; Schleinitz (1887), p. 66.
12 They also brought recruited workers back to Finschhafen.
13 Krüger (2013): Krüger, Klaus-Jochen, “Settlers, administrators, researchers, and explorers: the history of collecting in the Bismarck Archipelago,” in Conru, Kevin, Bismarck Archipelago Art, Milan, 2013, p. 31.
14 Krüger (2013), p. 32.
15 Anonymous (1896): Anonymous (C. Lauterbach ?), Ergebnisse der Kaiser Wilhelmsland Expedition, in: Nachrichten über Kaiser Wilhelmsland und den Bismarck Archipel, published by the Neu-Guinea-Kompagnie, Berlin, 1896, p. 36.
16 Anonymous (1896), p. 41.