Rabaul’s beginnings: Neville Threlfall

The town of Rabaul is this year celebrating the centenary of its becoming the capital of German New Guinea under its present name: it was originally begun as Simpsonhafen. The following information about its beginnings and its history is extracted from the [as yet unpublished] book Mangroves to Frangipani: The Story of Rabaul by Neville Threlfall.

The credit for establishing the town of Rabaul, and making it the capital of German New Guinea, belongs principally to Dr Albert Hahl, who became Acting-Governor of the colony in 1901 and Governor in 1902. At that time the seat of government was Herbertshohe (now Kokopo), but there was no safe anchorage for shipping there. Private companies such as Hernsheim & Co. had established themselves on Matupit Island, which had a small sheltered anchorage, but there was no room there for expansion. Hahl saw the larger sheltered anchorage of Simpsonhafen (Simpson Harbour), and the flat land along its shores, as the logical place in which to develop a port and a town which could become the capital.

The German Government would not provide any funds for creating a new port or town. In late 1902 Hahl therefore approached the General Manager of the Norddeutscher Lloyd shipping company, which was operating services to German New Guinea via Singapore, with the bold proposal that NDL should, at its own expense, create a port on Simpsonhafen. This would require a wharf for overseas shipping, storage sheds and one or more tugs.

In return, Hahl promised that a town would be built there, which would attract more shipping business, and NDL would be granted a valuable land concession in the town. There were also hints of shipping concessions in the colony. The company agreed to his proposal, and in 1903 Hahl met with the elders of the Matupit, Nodup and Malaguna villages to discuss the purchase of land for a town. The deal was completed in August 1903, with the payment of 750 marks for 150 hectares of land. (More land was purchased later, taking the total area to the top of Namanula Ridge and the spurs of the North Daughter—Tovanumbatir—and along to the waterfront area later known as Ah Tam.) Payment was made in large silver five-mark coins, which pleased the recipients as these were suitable for a display of wealth.

The shores of the harbour were lined with mangroves, for which the Tolai name is “ra baul”. Tolai informants have said that the area was known as Rababaul—the reduplication of the syllable making it mean “Many Mangroves”—but the Germans wrote it down as Rabaul. The merchant Eduard Hernsheim had already used the name Rabaul Plantation for the coconut plantation he had established just south of Hahl’s purchase, in the area later known as Matupit Farm. The NDL company was given 68 hectares of land in the townsite as it was surveyed, while the colonial Treasury kept the rest of the land on the coastal flat and also the land on Namanula Ridge.

Work began on the wharf, at the foot of what became Namanula Street, in 1904, and at the same time Hahl instituted work on the foreshore and the townsite. Mangroves were cleared away and an embankment was built. Government Surveyor Schmitt began to lay out the streets of the town and sites for Government buildings. The work on the foreshore was done by Melanesian labourers, but much of the work on the wharf and port installations was done by Chinese artisans who had been brought into the colony as skilled workers.

The port of Simpsonhafen was officially opened on 1 October 1905, with a timber wharf 270 metres long and wide enough for ships to be worked on both sides at once. There were cargo storage sheds, a tramway, and freshwater tanks for supplying the ships. (The water came by pipeline from a spring on the north end of the townsite.) Houses and offices for the NDL officials had also been built within the town. At the same time NDL took over all internal and overseas shipping services within the colony, freezing out their rival Burns, Philp & Co. This was the company’s  reward for creating the port at its own expense.

Simpsonhafen was named a Government Station in 1905, with Herr Vahlkampf the officer in charge. He would have had customs duties to collect as well as keeping law and order. A Post Office was opened in a small weatherboard building near the wharf and several other Government buildings were erected. Private services began to develop: in 1906 Lee Tam Tuck (“Ah Tam”) opened a licensed public eating house. In his report to the German Government for the year 1905/06 Hahl told of the opening of the wharf and the creation of a Government Station at Simpsonhafen, and of his intention to transfer the seat of Government there. This was the first the German Government had heard of his intention, and the response was negative. No money was allocated for such a transfer in the budget for 1906/07. However, the budget did allow for the building of a school for boys and for a botanic garden with an experimental plant nursery. Hahl went ahead and had the school built on the Namanula Ridge (1907), and the botanic garden laid out in the Simpsonhafen town area (where the Rabaul market, or “Bung”, was located prior to 1994). Hahl had other buildings erected in the new town, using the money allocated in the budget for repairs, extensions and maintenance to the existing buildings at Herbertshohe. A Government Printery was established on Namanula Ridge in 1908, and the Government Pay Office was transferred to Simpsonhafen in that year. Other offices followed in 1909 and more official residences were built on Namanula Ridge, along with a school for European children and a hospital for Europeans. Work began on a Residency for the Governor near the end of the year, high up with splendid views. With the transfer of the District Office from Herbertshohe in October 1909, officials began to call the town Rabaul “on advice from the local settlers”; this may have been because Hernsheim & Co.’s adjoining plantation was already called by that name.

When Hahl let the Government in Berlin know that, without official permission, he had created a town which was now ready to become the colony’s capital, there was a strong initial reaction of disapproval. But Hahl justified his actions with sound arguments: the capital needed a good all-weather harbour, which Herbertshohe certainly did not have; and it would have been wrong to spend any more money on buildings at Herbertshohe when a move from there was inevitable in the long run.

An auditor was sent out from Germany to see if there had been any fraudulent misuse of Government funds, but his report cleared Hahl, and the German Government agreed to the transfer of the seat of government. In January 1910 the transfer was officially made, and the town, with its new name of Rabaul, became the capital of German New Guinea. But nobody present could have guessed what a colourful and sometimes violent future lay ahead.


Hahl, Albert: Gouverneursjahre in Neuguinea, 1937, Frundesberg Verlag, Berlin. Translated into English by D. Clark and P. Sack as Governor in New Guinea, 1981, ANU Press, Canberra.

D. Clark and P. Sack: German New Guinea: The Annual Reports (translated from German and edited) 1979, ANU Press, Canberra.

Tolai Informants: Oral Interviews.


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