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The Stünzner family of Sāmoa

The Stünzner family of Sāmoa

by Tony Brunt - Wednesday, 9 July 2014

The Stünzner family has strong ties to Sāmoa dating back to the late 1800s when opportunities on the island nation’s plantations saw them emigrate from Germany. Despite the enduring connections, the birth of children in Sāmoa and the role in constructing major buildings in Apia, the outbreak of WWI saw Stünzner family members arrested, interned and later deported – events which would be repeated when WWII broke out.

This article is a companion to our exhibition, Entangled Islands: Sāmoa, New Zealand and the First World War. It is based on extracts from an interview between writer and researcher Tony Brunt and Sāmoan-born Albrecht ‘Albi’ Stünzner of Auckland, grandson of Friedrich Stünzner who first travelled to Western Sāmoa in 1896.

The Stünzner family at the Tuvao plantation, Sāmoa.

Stünzner Family Collection.'To Walk Under Palm Trees The Germans in Samoa: Snapshots from Albums' - germansinsamoa.net

My grandfather Friedrich Stünzner - Opa Fritz - was born as the second of three boys in Freiburg/Breisgau, Germany in 1873. He studied structural engineering and in 1896 travelled to Western Sāmoa where he worked for his uncle Captain Kurt Hufnagel who managed the DH & PG plantation at Vailele, on the edge of Apia.

In 1898 Opa married my grandmother Ellen Mary Betham - Oma Mary - and had seven children including my father Kurt and Albrecht (Albi), my namesake.

In 1902 Opa Fritz started his own construction business and completed a number of noteworthy buildings, including the large Casino Hotel, which stood until 1972; Apia Hospital, dismantled in 2013; and the Court House which still stands on Beach Road.

Fritz Stunzner’s greatest building was perhaps the Casino Hotel on the shoreline at Sogi, in Apia. The hotel stood on the site now occupied by the Kitano Tusitala Hotel.

Stünzner Family Collection.'To Walk Under Palm Trees The Germans in Samoa: Snapshots from Albums' - germansinsamoa.net

When the First World War broke out, Opa Fritz was arrested and in 1915 he was interned first on Somes Island, and then transferred to Motuihe Island because of health problems. It was perceived that the warmer climate in Auckland would be more suitable to his condition.

In 1916, as his stomach ailment worsened, my Oma and the five children left in Sāmoa – two daughters had been sent to Germany to further their education - were brought to New Zealand. They initially stayed with Oma’s aunty Louisa (de Silva), wife of another internee on Motuihe Island, Gustav Kronfeld. Oma and four of her children were later allowed to stay on the island for Oma to nurse Opa. They stayed in a two bedroom hut paid for and built by Opa with the help of other internees on Motuihe.

War’s end

At the end of the war, the family were not allowed to return to Sāmoa. They were held at Narrow Neck camp until their deportation back to Germany in 1919. The home at Moto’otua was confiscated by the New Zealand Administration as part of the war reparations.

At the end of the First World War, the Stunzners were barred from returning to Samoa, where all their property had been confiscated, and were deported to Germany.

Stünzner Family Collection.'To Walk Under Palm Trees The Germans in Samoa: Snapshots from Albums' - germansinsamoa.net

In Germany the family first settled in Zerbst and then Dortmund, where my father Kurt and his siblings attended school. Opa got a job as Rail Supervisor with the newly completed Dortmund Tram service. On passing his O Levels, my dad found a job at the Düsseldorf Zoo while Fritz got an apprenticeship at a local garage.

As the financial conditions worsened in Germany in the 1920s, the family decided to return to Western Sāmoa. Through my Oma’s brother Augustus Betham, a lease of a cocoa, coconut and banana plantation at Tuvao was obtained and the family left Germany at the end of August 1925.

The family worked the plantation with the help of Chinese and some Sāmoan workers. My uncle and namesake Albi was the first to leave the plantation. He was apprenticed to George Miedecke as an auto mechanic. He stayed with the Gebauer family in Apia and went home for the weekends. In 1930 he returned to Germany to further his studies. My father married my mother, Lily Jamieson, in 1931 and started his own plantation at Tapatapao on land leased from the New Zealand Reparations Estates.

Another of my father’s brothers, Fritz, married Sylvia Syddall in 1933, and they moved to and managed the government plantation at Vaipapa. Both sons made time available to help their parents whenever required.

Opa again had health issues and on doctor’s advice, he and Oma returned to Germany in 1939 where they settled in Eckernförde and Opa got a job as a building engineer with the Building Authority of the German Navy. Oma died in 1941 and Opa passed away in 1948, they are buried side by side in Dortmund.

Another war begins

At the outbreak of the Second World War, my father and my Uncle Fritz were arrested and held with other Sāmoans of German descent at Taumesina. They were then transported to New Zealand and interned on Somes Island on the 27 November 1939.

My brother Kurt was born in March 1940 and this left my mother with five children to look after while dad was interned. Aunty Sylvia was on her own with her daughter. Mum and Aunty had difficult times with the New Zealand Administration. They were not allowed to work because they were married to Germans. They struggled financially. Mum received only about 10 to 20 pounds a month. To supplement this she used to secretly do washing for the American Marines.

Luckily for mother and my aunt, they had the use of Aunty Sylvia’s mother’s home at Vaimea rent free and only paid for electricity. Through a relative married into the Betham family, Aunty Sylvia got employment managing a shop at Fasito’o, by having the shop registered to her mother who was married to an Englishman. They were also ostracised by many of the New Zealand expatriates and by some of the locals.

A story that mum told me that has stuck with me is of a New Zealand lady who on walking past mum, lifted her nose and sniffed and stated, “Hmm, it smells Nazi here.”

The aftermath of war

Afterwards, my dad was returned to Sāmoa but Uncle Fritz was not allowed to come back. Aunty Sylvia and their daughter were brought over to join him in New Zealand. He was made to work for the railways until he got a job with the New Zealand Dairy Co-Op, a job he held until his retirement. He died in 1987 and Aunty Sylvia died in 2001, they are both buried at Waikumete Cemetery.

Dad, on his return to Sāmoa, found it difficult to get employment. He had also lost the lease to the Tapatapao Plantation. To survive he made wooden toys and he and mum baked biscuits to sell. He later found work with the Gold Star Transport Company, worked as a labourer building the Marist Brothers School at Mulivai, then moved the family to Lotofaga Village (home of his great grandmother from the Fiame family), where he managed the Fonoti Brown trading station. He and the Roman Catholic priest at Lotofaga supervised the village men who built the road through the Mafa Pass to Falefa. It was while my parents were at Lotofaga that I was born in July 1947.

In 1950, my father found employment with the Health Department as a Food and Health Inspector, a position he held until his retirement in 1967. He also did veterinarian work using the skills he learnt at Düsseldorf Zoo and on courses he did whilst interned at Somes Island. Dad kept a menagerie of animals from farm animals to various species of local and exotic birds. Dad passed away on his 76th birthday on 7 February 1982. Mum passed away in 1999 and they are both buried at Magiagi Cemetery in Apia.

  • Post by: Tony Brunt and Albrecht Stünzner

    Tony Brunt is an Auckland writer and researcher who specialises in German Samoa and its photographic legacy. He set up the on-line exhibition To Walk Under Palm Trees for the Museum of Samoa. Albrecht Stünzner (pictured) is an Auckland resident.

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