Biography of Richard Deeken

Dr. Richard Deeken born on (* 16. Juni 1874 as son of the district court judge Leonard Deeken (died 1878); died on 28. August 1914 in Arracour/France, of the after-effects of injury in the Battle of Serres)

Second Lieutenant with the First Westphalian Field Artillery Regiment No 7 in Wesel, Founder of the Deutsche Samoa Gesellschaft (DSG) – German Samoa Company – in Berlin and its director of plantations on Samoa, writer, director of the Forst- und Kolonialschule (Forestry and Colonial School) in Miltenberg/Main, publisher of the “Weltkunde- und Weltwirtschaftsanzeiger“ (World Information and World Economics Advertiser)


After the matriculation [Abitur] Deeken started his career as an army officer in 1893, was appointed to the new Military Technical Academy in Berlin and, inter alia, trained there as interpreter for English, French and Italian with stays in America and Belgium. In collaboration with his professor, Dr Rothenbücher, he compiled the “Englischer Militärdolmetscher” ( English Military Interpreter) for the Academy (and the Boxer Rising in China).

In 1900 a life-threatening lung disease forced him to spend nine months in Italy and Portugal (sponsored by the regimental princess) followed by a year’s journey in the South Sea. To finance this he obtained commissions from German museums, in particular the Natural History Museum in Berlin, for the collection of specimen. He also wrote articles for German newspapers about the new German colonies in the South Sea and was appointed by the well-known Consul Kunst to oversee his plantations on Hawaii and Samoa. He travelled to Samoa by way of Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand and toured the Marshall Islands and the Caroline and Palau Islands.

1901 – Return to Germany. For health reasons retirement from active military service to position “à la suite” as reserve officer. Due to his asthma, among other reasons, doctors advised him strongly as a matter of survival to avoid the German climate. Lecture tours throughout Germany to promote the setting up of a limited company, the Deutsche Samoa Gesellschaft (DSG) and by this means create a new basis of existence for himself.

In 1902 Deeken founded the Deutsche Samoa Gesellschaft (DSG) in Berlin, a limited company with the object of cocoa cultivation, for which he served as director on Samoa from 1902 to 1910. Another director headed the DSG in Berlin. As the proud Samoans did not want to work regularly on other people’s plantations, and as the Melanesian contract workers were only allowed to work on the plantations of the Deutsche Handels-und Plantagengesellschaft (DHPG) – German Trade and Plantation Company -, Deeken brought in, with the consent of the Berlin government, a transport of 300 Chinese contract workers from China to Samoa, following the example of the British colonies and the building of the East-West railroad across North America. He passed on 200 workers to other planters. As the Chinese proved to be good workers, the colonial administration in Samoa took over the next round of recruitment and transport from China three years later.

1903 – Birth of his first child by his wife Elisabeth, nee Boese, whom he had married before leaving in 1902, the daughter of the prominent physician and Privy Medical Council Dr Eduard Boese from Cologne. The last king of Samoa, Mata’afa Josefo, stood as godfather of Else Josepha Moana.

In 1904 the German planters, under Deeken’s leadership, set up a co-operative planters’ association (new at this time was also the Chinese Health Insurance Fund) to represent the interests of the handful of small planters, who in any case had a hard time in the young colony, against the governor Dr Solf who favoured the large DHPG, which in contrast to the planter families was hardly confronted with difficulties. The Chinese workers were valuable for the planters, not only due to the high travel cost and fees, but also especially due to the tropical rate of growth of weeds in the plantations which threatened rapidly to throttle all cultivated plants. A hospital for the Chinese was built even before the one for the Germans. Later there was also a Chinese consul on Samoa.

When an individual Chinese proved his worth as a worker, he could extend his contract after three years on Samoa, marry a Samoan woman and stay on Samoa indefinitely. Today Samoa’s business life is almost exclusively controlled by descendants of the Chinese contract workers. By contrast, the descendants of the Melanesian workers, who worked, isolated from other groups, on the plantations of the large Deutsche Handels- und Plantagen Gesellschaft, today still form a very impoverished lower class on Samoa.

1904 – Conflict with governor Dr Solf over unjust treatment of the German planters, but in addition also due to the planters’ dissatisfaction over English as teaching language in the English Protestant Mission Schools in what was now a German colony. The French Catholic Marist Mission reorganized in order to promote the training of brothers for Samoa in its newly-founded Marist monastery in Meppen (Germany).

1904 – Trial for defamation of the “kaiserlicher” governor Dr Solf and a term in prison in the newly-built prison for whites on Samoa. Partial pardon by the Kaiser, transmutation into honourable confinement in the Fortress Ehrenbreitstein near Koblenz through the intervention of the Grand Duke of Oldenburg (whose decoration, among others, was worn by Deeken), with the help of Matthias Erzberger, the well-known leader of the “Zentrum” in the Reichstag, and of Trimborn, the leader of the Cologne Zentrumspartei, a cousin of Deeken’s wife, who fought like a lioness for her husband. To quote from a letter dated 2 August 1905 from the Colonial Department of the Foreign Office in Berlin, “…the transmutation by an act of grace of the prison sentence of two months pronounced in Apia on 3 August 1904 into confinement in a fortress for the same period of time”.

At the same time eve of the so-called “Hottentotten – Wahlen” (elections) to the Reichstag.

The post arrived about once a month in Apia and was then 50 days old, as were the newspapers, too!

Radio contact with Germany was made possible in June 1914 by a new large wireless station on a mountain near Apia.

Richard Deeken’s only brother, the later Major and doctor of law Matthias Deeken, arrived in Samoa in November 1904 to help the desperate family.

Background of the case:

“Deeken was the only man in the colony Samoa who was a match for Solf!” (interview with the Australian professor Dr Peter Hempenstall, only the second biographer of Dr Solf after decades). In order to force his strongest opponent, with his good contacts to the German press and the Reichstag, to leave Samoa, Solf organised via his Chinese cook a revolt of some of the Chinese DSG contract workers, who gathered to threaten Deeken and his young family in front of the management building, in the remotely-situated plantation area, at an altitude of 800m in the forested mountains. In this emergency Deeken used a horse whip to drive them off. This was treated as a serious assault, and he was brought to trial before the high court in Apia, which was controlled by the governor, as was the newspaper. As Deeken gave evidence about the background role of Solf’s Chinese cook, he was, in addition, charged with defamation of the governor!

Deeken got his information from a particularly reliable Chinese member of his domestic staff, who enjoyed the special trust of the family. He looked after the children of the family, who were particularly fond of him, as my father told me from his childhood memories from Samoa. He never forgot that he was allowed to ride piggy back on his shoulders, holding on to his long Chinese hair tail. The Samoan nanny was also important, but in the Samoan fashion only turned up from her village when she felt like it. Later a German governess was engaged. The faithful Chinese childminder received a special thank you present when the Deeken family took their leave in 1910, and it is on record that both sides were very sad.

Two months imprisonment in the newly-built prison for whites, with its corrugated-iron roof under the tropical sun (as in “The Bridge Over the River Kwai”), could have meant the death of Deeken, with his still weak lungs.

Among the events preceding the trial was one where the governor ordered the English midwife, who was attending to Deeken’s wife at the birth of her second child up in the mountains in isolated manager’s quarters two hours’ ride from Apia, back to Apia to sign a document. Luckily she was brave enough and could allow herself as an Englishwoman to resist this order, “because she wouldn’t desert a woman who had just given birth, a newborn and a one year old child”.

Another, previous example was the sudden great difficulties for Deeken in getting horse-drawn carts with the daily provisions for his 100 Chinese workers up to the plantations, as one day both access roads were blocked due to simultaneous road works ordered by the governor. As telephones did not yet exist, all messages were sent down to Apia on paper, taken out of a duplicating book. The carbon copies remained in the book, and these have been preserved until now, together with a second book, which provide valuable evidence. In addition, all messages to Deeken’s manager at the DSG store are contained therein. In this large store there was on offer foodstuffs, tools and opium (which was legal), all imported at great cost by ship from China – everything that the first 300 hard-working and reliable Chinese contract workers needed to work far from home.

Today the special cocoa which was developed by the German planters for the local climate and soil conditions is still being grown on the plantations that formerly belonged to the Germans and which are now owned by the Samoan state company, WESTEC. In the late eighties I got to know that this cocoa, together with that from Venezuela, was regarded as the best in the world. It was so precious that it was used only in flavouring the most expensive chocolates.

The Samoans owe to Dr Solf the existence of the formerly largest connected coconut palm plantation in the southern hemisphere, as every Samoan was obliged to plant a coconut every year. These plantations proved profitable for the Samoans over decades, and struck me in 1985 with their palm trees arranged in rows – they looked very German!

The total population of Samoa in 1914 was over 32.000 Samoans.

In 1905 Deeken, with his wife and his two small children, who had been born on Samoa, made the eight-week voyage from Samoa to Germany so that he could serve his two-month honourable custody sentence (the only obligation being that he had to be present overnight in the officers’ quarters.) During this time the family had a holiday at the grandparents Boese home near Cologne cathedral. Immediately afterwards the family travelled back to Apia to the plantations of the Deutsche Samoa Gesellschaft (DSG).

There were no problems for the German planters with the deputy governors Dr Schnee and Dr Schultz-Ewert during Dr Solf’s absence on travels.

In 1908 Deeken was elected to the Governing Council of Samoa. As a consequence of this, Dr Solf offered his resignation to the Kaiser due to lack of confidence in the German and English population.

In response, Deeken gave up his place in the Governing Council.

1910 – Return to Germany, taking up residence in Miltenberg/Main where there were appropriate schools for all of the five children. Construction of a large country house in an extensive former vineyard in a health inducing up-wind situation overlooking the river Main. This is still owned by the family and classified as a historical building. Here are kept about 1000 pages of colonial files in old aluminium trunks from Samoa. The Bundesarchiv – (Federal German Archives) in Koblenz has wishes to archive these files, which are invaluable for my dissertation.

1911 – 1914 – Study of Colonial Geography, Tropical Agriculture and Colonial Politics. Conferment of doctorate at the Maximilian University in Würzburg (“Land use in Samoa”, with Magna cum laude) It was Deeken’s aim to enter colonial politics.

Publisher of the “Weltkunde- und Weltwirtschaftsanzeiger“ (World Information and World Economics Advertiser)

1912 – Deeken became co-founder and one of the two directors of the Forst- und Kolonial-Schule (Forestry and Colonial School) in Miltenberg/Main, with teaching position. The school continued as a Forstschule (Forestry School) for decades after WW I.

Autumn 1913 to spring 1914 – Deeken’s fourth and final voyage around the world to Samoa as a member of the supervisory board of the Deutsche Samoa Gesellschaft to inspect the plantations there, in addition touring the Tonga and Fiji islands, the Bismarck Archipelago and the “New Guinea Mainland”.

1914 – Handwritten note at the end of Deeken’s dissertation: “The viva voce took place on 25 June 1914”.

1914 – Outbreak of the WW I and Deeken`s early death on 28 August 1914 on the Western Front. His wife Elisabeth (Else) Deeken brought up her six children by herself through the war and hunger years. The property on Samoa was lost. She carried on with her husband’s extensive writing activities. Despite the immense demands of practical work, especially on Samoa, he had managed to produce six books and 135 papers, essays and articles, dealing in particular with colonial geography, tropical agriculture and colonial politics. In addition he was invited throughout Germany to lecture tours with his extraordinary photographs from the new German South Sea colonies.

Author of this text:

Rosemarie Vespermann-Deeken, daughter of the District forester Bernhard Hermann Ernst Malietoa Deeken, born 1906 in Tapatapao near Apia/Samoa, granddaughter of Dr Richard Deeken.

Source material:

  • Supplement for the dissertation of Richard Deeken, 1914
  • Deeken-Privat-Archiv, soon in the Bundesarchiv Koblenz (Federal German Archives)
  • Reports of witnesses from Germany, Samoa , New Zealand and Australia 1984-88.
  • FAZ.NET from 3. Febr. 2010