Hero or Villain

ON JULY 5, 1918 a sitting was held at the Fiji Supreme Court to deal with the the contents of a life boat Cecilie, which was caught off Wakaya Island in 1917. The case was heard before the Chief Justice, Sir Charles Davson. It was a tense occasion as Fijians eagerly awaited the hearing.

A Mr Young represented the Crown. He asked that the ship be condemned as good and lawful prize together with the money and fittings. “It will be within your Honour’s recollection,” said Young, that an order was made granting extension of time for bringing in the ship’s papers and an affidavit that was made by Mr H. Hills, the inspector of the Fiji Constabulary. The contents of the boat included a sum of 489 pounds in Bank of England notes and gold.”

At a time when WWI started by Germany was raging half a world away, the colonial authorities in Fiji were on high alert. They had just caught a boat and even more so a famous prisoner, none other than Felix Graf von Luckner — a German nobleman, naval officer, author, and sailor who earned the name Der Seeteufel (the Sea Devil), while his crew were known as the Die Piraten des Kaisers or the Emperor’s Pirates.

The affidavit of Inspector Hills read as follows: “On the 21st September, 1917, I, together with Inspector Howard and other members of the Fiji Constabulary, proceeded in the SS Amra to Wakaya Island within the Colonial waters.

“On arriving at the island, we sighted a motor launch and ran alongside her in the Amra’s lifeboat. There were six men in the launch talking very excitedly in German; I called upon them to surrender. “The commander, who gave his name as Count von Luckner, speaking in English, said ‘We surrender, we are done, I am in command. We are of the German Navy’.”

“The name of the launch captured proved to be the Cecilie. She carried one machine gun, with a large quantity of ammunition, hand shells with detonators complete, revolvers and ammunition.

“On searching I found a box made of stout tin, unpainted, similar to those for the contents of ship’s papers.

I took it from a locker or tank compartment aft, on the starboard side of the Cecilie. The key was found in the binnacle. In the box I found 489 pounds made up of Bank of England notes and gold. I also found on board a German ship of war’s flag, a large quantity of clothing, including uniforms respective of the rank of the prisoners of war in the German navy, provisions, including wines and champagne, a medicine chest, compass, two ship chronometers (one of which was stated to have been taken from a French sailing vessel), rockets and signal rocket, binoculars, several log books, signal lamps and other articles of general use.

“I was informed by Count von Luckner where I should find the box, containing the money and the key.

“He stated that it contained both ship’s and private money. But did not distinguish between the sum or specify the amount. I did not discover any money upon any of the prisoners of war or any further sum, either in notes or in coin than the sum mentioned in paragraph there hereof, nor did Count von Luckner inform me there was any more.”

The prisoner

Count von Luckner was reviled by the British and French for he laid scourge to their merchant ships that sailed across the seas. He had commanded the commerce raider SMS Seeadler (Sea Eagle) between 1916 and 1917 and was known to have taken 300 prisoners and sank 14 allied merchant ships. History recorded him as treating his prisoners quite fairly and during his exploits, there was only one casualty.

He was able to do this by disguising himself as a Norwegian captain (Luckner chose a crew of six officers and 57 men who spoke Norwegian). Merchant ships were fooled into surrendering and were not able to put up a fight once the Germans had them lock and barrel.

His fame and exploits had spread throughout the world and the British and French were out to capture him but it was a “knee-pants army” (as described by Luckner in his diary) from Fiji that captured him.

The count was on his way to Fiji to capture a ship to take back with him to the Society Islands of Polynesia where his prisoners and crew were marooned. His 1571-ton clipper, Seeadler had been shipwrecked in a tidal wave on the coral reef of Mopelia.

“Most people on Wakaya had accepted the Germans’ story of being shipwrecked Norwegians, but one sceptic called a party of police from the old Fijian capital of Levuka,” described a news article. “On 21 September, the police threatened that a non-existent gun on the inter-island ferry Amra would blow Luckner out of the water. Not wishing to cause bloodshed, and not realising the police were unarmed, Luckner and his party surrendered and were confined in a prisoner-of-war camp on Motuihe Island, off Auckland, New Zealand.”

But his journey did not end here. According to the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, he escaped in December, 1917 using the ruse of a Christmas play to get provisions and capture the island’s launch. He was recaptured in the Kermadecs, and after spending time at Quail Island (Lyttelton Harbour), he was taken back to Motuihe.


It was on his journey to Fiji that von Luckner found himself at Katafaga Island in Lau, then owned by the Hennings family. Appearing in a Seeadler lifeboat named Kronprinzessin Cecilie and finding the island empty except for a Fijian caretaker, von Luckner and his half-dozen crew refreshed themselves and left this note addressed to Hennings:

“Dear Sir,

We are sorry that we have not met you here. Although we had a good time in your island I and my mate slept in your house, we had a good wash and are now quite fit to proceed on our sporting trip. The wonderful stroll around your little island we shall never forget. Perhaps we shall call at your island again and hope to meet you the next time. All the things we took are paid for – a turkey, bananas. Me and my men are thankful to you and your family.”

The letter was last recorded to be hanging at the Ovalau Club in Levuka. The club has been closed since 2012 for repairs. But upon further enquiries, we find the letter is in the care of the former CEO of Levuka Town Council, Suliana Sandys who confirmed it. “This is Levuka’s heritage and the document should be kept safe here,” she said. She added that she traced the document at the National Archives and have since had it returned.

However experts say the document is of national significance for Fiji and needs preservation, if not in Fiji, then overseas. “When the Ovalau Club is to reopen in the future a replica can be hung there or when climate control condition will be sufficient, the original may return to Levuka,” remarked Norwegian historian Bart van Aller who worked briefly with the Unit Trust of Fiji.

It’s been 100 years since that famous incident here in Fiji. After the war, Count von Luckner became quite a celebrity, travelling the world and gave great accounts of his feats. He became a prolific autograph signer, and his original autographs turn up frequently at auctions and estate sales.

After the Second World War, he moved to Sweden, where he lived in Malmö with his Swedish second wife Ingeborg Engeström until his death at the age of 84 in 1966. However, his body was returned to Germany and was buried in the Main Cemetery Ohlsdorf, Hamburg.

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