In the Wake of Colonialism

Pacific pioneers

Pacific pioneers: Early Norwegian settlers and traders in the Solomon Islands

This project is founded in long-term anthropological field research in the Western Pacific archipelago of Solomon Islands, supplemented by extensive studies of British and Australian colonial documents and miscellaneous materials in Norwegian archives.

Edvard Hviding

The aim is to produce a book and a documentary film (the latter in collaboration with film-maker and anthropologist Rolf Scott) about a little-known but historically significant multitude of Norwegians who settled (and mostly lived until their death by natural causes) in Solomon Islands in the period ca. 1870-1930.

Unlike major scenes of imperial colonialism in Africa, Asia and South America, the islands of the tropical Pacific never saw any organized Norwegian economic enterprise in the colonial era. However, many Norwegian sailing vessels plied the ocean routes between Australia and the Americas from the 1850s and well into the 20th century. A number of Norwegian ships were wrecked in this risky maritime region of uncharted reefs, which resulted in known examples of castaway seamen on remote Pacific islands. Towards the turn of the century other Norwegians, lured by the romantic, typical Pacific Islands attractions of climate and women – and also by often utopian rumours of money to be made in local trade and plantation development centred on coconuts and copra – left their ships in Australian or island ports and embarked on a new life as island traders. The presence of Norwegian sailors on the ships of other seafaring nations added to the number of Norwegians who settled in the Pacific Islands in the period up until about 1930, when global economic decline caused the collapse of the trade in copra from the Pacific.

Little is documented, or indeed generally known, about Norwegian settlers and traders in colonial Oceania. Scattered reports may be found in archived collections of family papers, and more accessible indicators of Norwegian presence are available for example in the early issues of the periodical Pacific Islands Monthly, which prior to World War II ran columns about trader personalities and published obituaries. The only well-known Norwegian actor in the colonial Pacific is Captain Reinert Jonassen of Farsund, who after shipwreck in 1897 settled permanently in the Cook Islands and married a chiefly woman. His descendants, the Jonassen family of present-day Cook Islands, are prominent and influential both in this tiny Polynesian nation and in the wider region, and include among them distinguished parliamentarians, government ministers and academics. The Jonassen history has also been the subject of features on Norwegian national TV.

Less well known, but remarkably rich and diverse, is the history of Norwegian castaways, settlers and traders in the large archipelago of Solomon Islands, part of the Pacific region known as Melanesia. Well into the 20th century, the Solomon Islands was the scene of widespread tribal warfare including headhunting raids, and was regarded as a particularly challenging and dangerous place for European traders. Trading vessels were captured and their crews killed by coastal warrior tribes, and individual traders ran the twin risks of assault and tropical disease and generally stood a slim chance of surviving for very many years. Yet for many adventurous Europeans the potentials for fortunes to be made in this resource-rich archipelago from the planting of coconuts and trading of copra (as well as pearl shell and other marine products collected by Solomon Islanders) outweighed the risks posed by endemic violence and disease.

In 1893, the British Solomon Islands Protectorate was established to quell tribal warfare, to regulate unscrupulous recruitment of Solomon Islanders to sugar plantations in Australia and Fiji, and to promote safe trade. The first colonial census was carried out in 1897 and showed a total European population of about fifty, most of whom were traders. Of these, the majority were (quite predictably) British subjects.

More remarkably, the second largest group of European settlers in the British Solomon Islands as of 1897 consisted of no less than seven Norwegians, listed in the 1897 Report on the British Solomon Islands as Charles Olsen, Oscar Svensen, JGB Nerdrum; Solfren B. Nerdrum, Lars Nielsen, Julius Andersen and Alec. Ellingsen. All operated as traders in different parts of the archipelago. Later years saw the arrival and settlement of an additional number of Norwegians, making the total number of Norwegians recorded as long-term inhabitants of colonial Solomon Islands about a dozen.

It was very common for the Norwegian settlers in the Solomons to marry local women. During field research in Solomon Islands (a total of three years since 1986), many descendants of the early Norwegian settlers have been encountered (at first quite fortuitously), and fragments of family histories recorded. Simultaneously, interesting materials have been found and examined in various archives. Gradually, some intriguing trends have been identified. Quite notably, in a historical context in which a good proportion of European traders met with violent deaths, no Norwegian was ever killed in the Solomons, neither by local warriors nor by competing traders. Those Norwegians whose lives did expire in the Solomons died from disease (or even old age). Others survived many years of trading and plantation development subsequently to lead retirement lives in Australia.

Most of the Norwegians were not among the elite of European traders in the Solomons, but on the other hand many of them appear to have been able to relate remarkably well to local tribal people who were regarded with fear and distrust by most other traders.

This intriguing story is addressed through the particular history of a few selected Norwegian settlers and, where applicable, their descendants. Each of these persons represents a distinct historical period and a distinct career pattern.

Julius Walter Andersen is on record in the Solomons from 1897, but nothing has been documented about his Norwegian background nor about his arrival in the Solomon Islands. His diverse career in the Solomons as copra trader, diesel engine mechanic and master of trading vessels (in some of the most violent parts of the islands) spanned forty years (he is said to have died of malaria about 1937), and in 1987 a tentative count of his descendants (all in the Western parts of the archipelago) came to about 80.

Victor Olaf Paulsen (c. 1890 – c. 1940) arrived in the Solomons in about 1925 on a Swedish steamer and left his ship there, never to return home. He worked for British trading companies, as a plantation manager and as master of trading vessels, and died from pneumonia around 1940, leaving his wife with three small sons.

The Andersen and Paulsen descendants remain visible in today’s Solomon Islands. Many grandchildren, those of Julius Andersen in particular, have married into the emerging political and economic elites of Solomon Islands after national independence in 1978. In the documentary film, surviving children of Julius Andersen and Victor Paulsen (now all in their seventies and eighties) will figure prominently, as will representatives of the young urban elite who trace their physical and mental uniqueness to the non-Melanesian ancestors from Norway.

Oscar Svensen (1862-1941) is the third and last of Norwegian settlers in the Solomon Islands whose career is examined in detail in the present study. Svensen’s life and career before, during and after his 25 years in Solomon Islands (1888-1912) are more well-documented than for any other Norwegian settler in the Pacific Islands. Svensen married a Norwegian woman and left no evident offspring in the Solomons; yet the scale of his commercial operations and his influence locally (mainly on the island of Guadalcanal) and in colonial circles are still remembered in the archipelago. For example, in 1978, the people of Marau Sound on East Guadalcanal, named their brand new wharf Kapitan Marau in honour of Oscar Svensen who 70 years ago had a trading station there and used to go under that name.

During archival work it has been possible to access a substantial collection of Svensen’s personal papers and recollections, and his case contrasts in interesting ways with the more usual career of Norwegians in the Solomons, as exemplified by Andersen and Paulsen. A certified master mariner, Svensen left a declining family-owned shipping business in the port town of Larvik in southeast Norway and headed for Australia where for a while he worked in the coal trade between Queensland and various islands in the Pacific. He arrived in the Solomons in 1888 and with his brother Theodor (who had previously visited the Solomons as a labour recruiter) and their Norwegian associates J.G.B. and S. Nerdrum soon operated a thriving plantation and trading company. T. Svensen and S. Nerdrum succumbed after a while to tropical diseases, and after some more years the surviving Nerdrum brother returned to Norway.

Oscar Svensen remained to build what became the largest commercial operation in the Solomon Islands of the early 20th century, comprising a fleet of trading vessels and a number of plantations where also new crops like coffee, cocoa and cotton were tried out. He interacted shrewdly and strategically with the agents of tribal warfare and of British colonial administration alike. Svensen finally sold his successful company to British commercial interests and left the Solomons in 1912, to settle in Australia. He died in 1941 as a well-respected and wealthy citizen of Brisbane.

This brief introduction to the subject matter of the forthcoming book and documentary film cannot do justice to the unique set of characters figuring in this vibrant story of interactions among Solomon Islanders, Norwegians and British at one of the farthest peripheries of the Empire. Let it just be mentioned, by way of a brief anecdote, that Norwegians also met one another in the Pacific: In 1904, the young seaman Anton Olsen (1885-1952) of Tønsberg, Norway, found himself adrift in a small boat in the middle of the South Pacific after the big US sailing ship on which he was a crewman had hit a reef and sunk. When all was hopeless, he sighted a trading schooner on the ocean. He waved to attract the attention of the vessel, and was rescued – by none other than Captain Oscar Svensen. Anton (subsequently Tony) Olsen went into Svensen’s employment and remained in the Solomons for the rest of his 67-year long life.