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When German families in Fiji were imprisoned in Australia

Matilda Simmons
Sunday, October 29, 2017

PERCHED on the famous Mission Hill in Levuka is a house called Lomaloma. The home is well known among locals, mainly because of its long-time resident Suliana Sandays. Born and raised in Levuka, Suliana was a teacher and lived on the island for many years.

Her home is one of 81 buildings in Levuka that are listed under UNESCO'S world heritage list. It was built in 1876 by her great grandfather Frederick Vollmer (1852-1918), who later became mayor of Levuka in 1912.

"I am the fourth generation owner of this house," said Suliana as we walked around the 141-year-old colonial home. "My great grandad (Fredrick) became one of the local partners for Hedemann & Co. a German based company that traded in early Levuka. He married my great grandma from Vanuabalavu, Adi Pasemaca Yalikiwai, she is from the Yavusa Qalo. They had only one son, Rudolph — my grandfather. Rudolph married a Tongan lady by the name of Suliana Latu. They had nine children, of whom my mother is the second youngest."

Mr Vollmer was one of many Germans and naturalised British of German descendant who married i Taukei women and operated businesses in early Levuka and around Fiji. They were actively involved in Fijian affairs.

Some of the German descended families include the Hoerder and Henning families.

The Henning's family consisted of five brothers; Friederich Wilhelm ('William'), Frederick, Gustav, Charles and Christian. The firm of F&W Hennings was among the first for cotton planters. They were the creators of Fijian commerce. The firm however lost money from the collapse of the cotton trade and was dissolved.

The brothers separately turned to copra in the 1870s, traded and became involved with local inter-cultural politics. Friederich Wilhelm was also Imperial German Consul to Fiji and William married a daughter of a chiefly family, Adi Mere Tuisalala. He later moved to Levuka in 1878 as a copra trader. The house on Hennings St in Levuka today is still owned by a member of the family.

However when WWI broke out in 1914, it was a dangerous time to be German.

"Because Germany was at war with Britain and the US and her allies, and because my great grandad was being very German, he was declared an enemy alien," said Suliana.

"He was among the many German families that were sent to Australian camps during the war."

Many of these families suffered socially.

However German children who had i Taukei mothers were allowed to stay in Fiji.

"My grandfather Rudolph, whose mother was from Vanuabalavu, was allowed to stay," said Suliana.

"However he had to report to the police station every day at 2pm."


Stories of WWI (1914-1918) are really something from the (distant) past for many Fijians today.

For those whose ancestors fought in the war, they may remember the stories passed down from their grandfathers or great grandfathers. It was a global war which had its tentacles reaching right to the Pacific as young Europeans who lived in Fiji took up arms to join the contingents that left for Europe.

According to historical accounts, the first contingent left Fiji on December 31, 1914. These men were thrown into the war, from Mesopotamia to the North Sea and Africa. Although small in number, they performed heroically earning more than 100 commissions and 34 decorations.

The British Government then did not allow i Taukei men to take part, with the thought it "exploited the native people". This did not deter the late statesman, Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna, who enlisted in the French Foreign Legion. He fought bravely and was wounded towards the end of 1915 and forced to return to Fiji.

As war erupted on a global scale, a separate one was being waged against Germans who lived in the allied countries which were fighting Germany. It was one that reached right to Fiji and threatened the fabric of normality for many families of German descent who had made Fiji their home.

Local historian Brij Lal in his book Broken Waves: A History of the Fiji Islands in the Twentieth Century said German nationals and naturalised British subjects of German descent faced cold reception from Fijians and Europeans alike.

"Local European planters from the Nadi area were indignant that Germans there were going about their business, planting with Fijian labour and enjoying British protection while England was fighting Germany," wrote Lal.

"They urged the government to intern German nationals and German-born naturalised British subjects. Though unsuccessful in that endeavour, they did force the governor to pass a bill that limited the movement of 'aliens' in Fiji, restricted their residence and curtailed certain of their freedoms, including the freedom to carry arms. Twenty-six of the aliens were sent for internment to Australia or New Zealand and in the aftermath had their properties confiscated and their businesses dissolved. Such, for example was the fate of the firm of Hederman and Evers."

When the naturalised Germans returned to Fiji after the war, they were greeted with abuse. Hate slogans such as "No Huns Wanted," "No Squareheads in Fiji," were hurled at them.

"Many local Europeans supported forced repatriation of all Germans who had been deported and others thought the German returnees should be denied the right of naturalisation and be prohibited from acquiring property and the right to vote. Most of the Germans therefore went elsewhere to Argentina, Java or Switzerland, a few remained quietly."

The war was described as one of the deadliest conflicts in history involving over 20 countries. Over nine million combatants and seven million civilians died.

On the island of Levuka, the first capital of Fiji, a war memorial stands silently on a small hill called Niukaba just past the town. The memorial bears the names of those who fought in WWI.

Lomaloma home

Fredrick Vollmer died shortly after his premature release on March 13, 1918. According to Suliana, he was allowed to come back to Fiji but was too sick to travel.

Mr Vollmer had joined many German families who were deported from the Straits Settlements (now Singapore and Malaysia), Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and Hong Kong to live in camps around Australia. Some of the internees from Fiji stayed in Bourke in far western New South Wales.

The house he built up at Mission Hill still stands well preserved today given its 141-year history. According to building historian Bart van Aller, who inspected the house ahead of the world heritage listing, the Lomaloma Home has had very few alterations since the hurricane of January 1895 when the veranda of the house was blown away. The original open veranda has since been closed off. The Category 5 Severe Tropical Cyclone Winston in February last year left minor damage.

"There's quite a few changes in the buildings around Levuka," shared Suliana who once held the position of CEO of Levuka Town Council. "People come in to buy the building do business, make their money, sell and move on and they don't care about the structure they leave behind," she laments.

"The buildings here were already crumbling when the government came to repair it (but it was) like a paint job, not much attention was given to the details of the buildings. So when STC Winston came around last year, it was just easy to rip everything off. Whereas if they had done a very good job, we wouldn't have had so much to repair now especially the government schools. When they let things to deteriorate to the extent like what they do to the buildings where it's beyond repair or it's going to be a bigger repair and a bigger cost at the end of the day, then something is just not right."

For now, Suliana enjoys her retirement. She enjoys the odd meetings at the Levuka Town Hall with concerned residents on how to improve their historical town as well as retell many of their rich history to any who will listen. Many of the descendants of the German families who decided to come back after the war internment have contributed a lot to Fiji's development.

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