The Outrigger Boat from the Island of Luf – Historical Context and Provenance Issues

The outrigger boat in the Oceania collection of the Ethnologisches Museum comes from the island of Luf, which from 1884 to 1914 was controlled by the German Empire, and today belongs to Papua New Guinea. These kinds of boats used to sail on the open seas and could carry up to 50 people for travel, and to carry out trade and warfare.

A significant portion of the population of Luf perished due to diseases brought in by Europeans, and as a result of flooding and starvation. In 1881, the merchant company Hernsheim & Co established a trading station on the island. During this time, the local population resisted the Europeans settlers. On the initiative of Hernsheim, a “punitive expedition” of German forces attacked the island of Luf in 1882–83. The soldiers of the imperial navy destroyed a large number of houses and boats and killed some of the indigenous inhabitants. At least three people died as a direct result of the attack. The occupying forces also plundered the villages and gave the objects they gathered to Berlin’s Museum für Völkerkunde (the predecessor to today’s Ethnologisches Museum). In the years that followed this expedition, more people died, presumably both through a lack of food and shelter, and through introduced diseases. The decrease in population was dramatic, with only some 70 people left living on Luf by the early 20th century.

The Boat’s Production and the Circumstances Surrounding its Acquisition

Eight years after the assault by the German navy, the men on Luf began to build a large outrigger boat. The merchant Franz Emil Hellwig reports that the boatbuilders decided in 1895, five years into the build, to use the boat for the sea burial of their leader Labenan, who had passed away a short time earlier. However, their numbers were too few to launch the massive boat. In the ensuing period, the boat remained in the boathouse.

In 1903, Max Thiel from Hernsheim & Co purchased the boat and sold it to the Museum für Völkerkunde in Berlin. There is no documentation about how Hernsheim & Co acquired the boat. According to the European sources, the bow and stern decorations were sold to a navy officer in Bremen beforehand – a man named Gygas, who was later made an admiral – and here, too, the circumstances of the sale are not documented. Before Thiel shipped the boat to Europe, he wanted to give it back its original ornamentation, and the men of Luf carved new bow and stern decorations. When, on a ten-day stay on Luf in 1906, August Krämer asked the local men about the boat and showed them photos of it, he was able to find three of the original boatbuilders, including the chief, Sini. It would seem that the men volunteered information about the construction process and the painted motifs. According to their accounts, at the time that Thiel acquired the boat, it belonged to the chief, Sini. Krämer does not mention Sini expressing any objections to the purchase of the boat. Unfortunately, though, we do not have decisive information about the the precise circumstances of the purchase. As such, investigations into this matter are by no means concluded. The Ethnologisches Museum has made contact with the National Museum in Port Moresby in order to supplement the Eurocentric investigations and findings of numerous previous research efforts, and in order to incorporate the views of stakeholders in Papua New Guinea through further research work and dialogue.


Film by Martin Maden

Provenance research may start from objects and documentation, but this research is meant to lead us directly to the people behind a work. In search of local stories that still recall what happened over a century ago, Martin Maden, a filmmaker from Papua New Guinea, set out on a journey accompanied by photos of Berlin’s large outrigger boat. He found descendants of the boat builders who gave him a message for us.


  • Aly, Götz, 2021: Das Prachtboot: Wie Deutsche die Kunstschätze der Südsee raubten. Frankfurt a. M.
  • Anderhandt, Jakob 2011: Eduard Hernsheim, die Südsee und viel Geld. Münster
  • Anderhandt, Jakob (ed.) 2014: Eduard Hernsheim: Südseekaufmann, Gesammelte Schriften. Münster
  • Dempwolff, Otto 1904: “Über aussterbende Völker”. Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 36/3: pp. 384–415
  • Krämer, Augustin 1909: Beiträge zu einer Monographie der Hermit-Inseln (Luf-Archipel): Forschungsreise S.M.S. Planet 1906/07, V. Band: pp. 57–122. Berlin
  • Krug, Alexander 2005: “Der Hauptzweck ist die Tötung von Kanaken”: Die deutschen Strafexpeditionen in den Kolonien der Südsee 1872–1914. Lübeck und Marburg.
  • Nevermann, Hans 1954: “Das Agomes-Boot des Museums für Völkerkunde”, Berliner Museen, vol. 4, issue 3/4: pp. 35-38
  • Parkinson, Richard 1907: Dreißig Jahre in der Südsee: Land und Leute, Sitten und Gebräuche im Bismarckarchipel und auf den deutschen Salomoinseln. Stuttgart
  • Thilenius, Georg 1902–03: Ethnographische Ergebnisse aus Melanesien. Halle u. a.