Martin Voigt - Imperial Postal Agent, Photographer, and Collector of Ethnographica in German New Guinea from 1902 to 1906 Martin Voigt Imperial Postal Agent, Photographer, and Collector of Ethnographica in German New Guinea from 1902 to 1906 By Dieter Klein Martin Voigt (1878–1952) decided at the age of 24 to accept the well-paid position of chief postmaster for the colony of Deutsch-Neuguinea. Before that, he had completed his compulsory service in the army. At the beginning of August 1902, he set out from Berlin on the long journey to the South Seas, and, after seven weeks at sea, reached the colony’s main town, Herbertshöhe (today: Kokopo), on September 20. Here resided the Imperial Governor, Dr. Albert Hahl, and here all the authorities were concentrated. These were housed in the stately governorate building. Governorate building in Herbertshöhe Voigt’s handwritten notes on the photo show how the building was used. The individual rooms contained the governor’s office, the office of the district bailiff, the clerk of the court, the secretary of the governorate, a library, and the post office. The latter can be recognized by the post office sign and the mailbox in front of the building. Incidentally, because of the vast amount of paper produced in this building by the German bureaucracy, the locals in Tok Pisin called it “House Paper.” After taking over the official duties from his predecessor, Voigt began his work as a postal agent. At first, he managed his work all by himself. But it soon became apparent that he was overburdened whenever a mail steamer appeared in Herbertshöhe. During these times he had to handle the incoming and outgoing mail and was crushed by the mass of material to be processed. To remedy this situation, he recruited additional employees. They were two Melanesians who became the first native postal subordinates in the German South Seas. Through these two assistants, Voigt now had direct contact with the native population. Apparently, he succeeded in understanding and also recognizing Melanesian mentality and ways of thinking. This will certainly have helped him later in the acquisition of ethnographica. No sooner did the postmaster have two assistants than he was assigned a new job. Herbertshöhe and the surrounding plantations were to receive a telephone network. Voigt was now not only head of the post office but was also promoted to telegraph assistant. The construction of the telephone line proved to be difficult, especially in the impenetrable jungle. Voigt (with pith helmet) in the jungle, building telephone lines Looking at the photo, one can very well imagine the hardships of line construction in such a terrain. In addition to the extremely dense forest, the heat, cloudbursts, storms, and earthquakes caused considerable difficulties—not to mention the plague of insects. Moreover, in this situation Voigt was completely dependent on his Melanesian workers, with whom he obviously got along well. For his part, there were never any complaints or criticisms; on the contrary, he always reported approvingly about his “natives.” On days off, the Europeans liked to get together for social gatherings on the various plantations. Or they went on excursions together in the surrounding area. Hospitality was very important among the colonists in German New Guinea. On Mount Varzin on June 28 1903 The Germans liked to hike to the top of the 600-meter-high Mount Varzin (now: Vunakokor) in the hinterland of Herbertshöhe to enjoy the beautiful view and the fresh air. Martin Voigt stands leaning, sucking on a pipe. His friend Sigwanz rests with a wine bottle in his hand and has placed three more bottles in front of him. Melanesian police soldiers accompany and protect the officials. Voigt’s service activities allowed him to get to know highly diverse landscapes and ethnic groups. In the course of his service, his interest in various ethnological phenomena grew, as his photos prove. Gradually, he had also built up a collection of ethnographica. This was common, even fashionable, in the colony. Almost all Europeans collected artifacts and utensils of the locals. The artifacts were not only attractive, decorative pieces for their own home or effective souvenirs, but they could also be sold as well, to collectors or museums in Europe. It is obvious that Voigt was offered many collector’s items by planters, officials, and missionaries. These people were in a certain dependence on him because he could serve them in postal matters quite preferentially—or not. One must also consider that the postmaster was in charge of all the postal agencies in the colony. Besides the main agency in Herbertshöhe, there were the postal agencies in Matupi, and, in the distant Kaiser Wilhelmsland, Berlinhafen (now Aitape), Stephansort (now Bom), and Friedrich-Wilhelmshafen (now Madang). This entailed Voigt making regular trips to various regions to conduct inspections of the four field agencies. In addition, three new postal agencies were established by him during his tenure, namely Finschhafen, Käwieng (now Kavieng), and Simpsonhafen (now Rabaul). Martin Voigt used the inspection trips to the widely scattered and highly diverse areas each time to acquire new ethnographic objects for his private collection. In addition, these trips offered him many opportunities to take photographs. At the end of January 1904, he traveled to Käwieng—a government station in the north of the island of Neu Mecklenburg (now New Ireland). Not only did he have to travel on the sea voyage with a severe bout of malaria, but he also wanted to take this opportunity to visit the new postal agency, as his help was apparently needed in setting it up. Voigt reports from this trip that he had also undertaken numerous tours in Neu Mecklenburg with Governor Hahl and had discovered many new things. Now this region is known to be one of the most productive South Sea regions, producing amazing cult and art objects: The malangan, uli figures, and tatuana masks, for example, are the most famous art products of this island. Voigt’s collection also contained some malangans, which he had obviously acquired locally. So he knew very well how to combine the pleasant with the useful during his business trip. He also kept photos of New Mecklenburg. Neu Mecklenburg (now New Ireland) North. A picture of His Majesty Kaiser Wilhelm II in the jungle with a native missionary teacher. Photographer Heinrich Fellmann, 1905 A native teacher of the Methodist mission (left) proudly presents a framed picture of His Majesty Kaiser Wilhelm II at his house. It is an art print of the kind that was very common at the time. However, the permanent humidity has affected the image so much that the base has taken on very wavy forms. Nevertheless, the emperor’s numerous medals are still clearly visible. After all, it is striking how the monarch himself reached the remote, primeval forests of a South Sea island. The next major journey took Voigt to the main island of New Guinea, the German part of which was called Kaiser Wilhelmsland. Here, he first undertook the revision of the Stephansort postal agencies. Bogadjim mission house. Missionary and postal agent Wilhelm Diehl sitting above the post house sign The Stephansort postal agency was located in the nearby mission house of the Protestant Rhenish Mission in Bogadjim, directly on the shore of Astrolabe Bay. It consisted of a single room. The official business was conducted by missionary Wilhelm Diehl, who sits immediately above the post house sign. Incidentally, the missionary was also an avid collector of ethnographica. One can well imagine that he wanted to please his postal boss and left him the occasional pieces. In any case, Voigt’s collection includes several pieces from Astrolabe Bay, such as a typical shield from the Karkar Island and numerous spears. Voigt then traveled on to Finschhafen on the Huon Peninsula. (By the way, the German name of the place has been kept until today.) Here a new postal agency was to be established, which was also to be run by a local missionary. Martin Voigt helped with the introduction to the official business, since the man of God was still completely inexperienced in these matters. Again, Voigt took the opportunity to look around the area to acquire a large collection of ethnographica. Martin Voigt in Finschhafen In addition, he traded many birds of paradise. They were not available at Herbertshöhe in New Britain but only in mainland New Guinea. He needed the magnificent feathers for his female relatives in Germany, because such feathers were the big fashion in women’s fashion, especially on hats, and accordingly in demand. Back in Herbertshöhe, he wrote to his mother about this trip: “[...] Just now [I] gave three packages to Otto’s [note: i.e., his brother’s] address to the post office, contain a lot of garbage, but will bring you joy. [...] Made rich booty in New Guinea. It was a splendid trip [...]” As an explanation, “garbage” is Voigt’s disrespectful term for ethnographica, which truly does not correspond to today’s conception of “political correctness.” However, this could well be meant ironically, or did he simply want to appear detached to his mother? “Rich pickings” refers to the birds of paradise and the numerous artifacts he acquired. For example, his collection includes two great bowls from the Tami Islands and a conch shell from the Triton snail. Martin Voigt also owned many artifacts from the Admiralty Islands. Unfortunately, there are no clues in his estate as to how he came by them. But as mentioned before: he had an excellent network with planters, officials, and missionaries in the colony. It is also quite possible that among his workers were people from the Admiralty Islands who helped him obtain a piece or two. In the middle of 1905, however, Martin Voigt’s decided not to prolong his service with the governorate and to leave New Guinea for good. He felt that he could no longer cope with the demands of the service. The service had overtaxed him. The tropical climate contributed to this decision as it took its toll on him with recurring attacks of malaria. He was often so weakened by the malaria that he was unable to carry out his official duties for weeks at a time. He will also have realized that malaria could eventually cost him his life. He was confronted daily with this cause of death in Herbertshöhe. Several acquaintances and friends had died from this treacherous disease. Voigt was once again lying ill when his successor (Joseph Mainka) finally arrived on April 16, 1906. He found Voigt “lying on a recliner in the post office room quite frail and miserable.” The induction into the postal business and the telephone business therefore dragged on for a full two months. It was not until the beginning of June that the sick man was able to board the ship for his journey home. He arrived in Germany in mid-July. However, he continued to suffer from the consequences of malaria for years so that he had to go to the spa again and again. He took his extensive photographic and ethnological collection home with him, where he carefully guarded it until his death. Thus, a rich treasure has been preserved for posterity.