When the ‘Sea Devil’ came calling

Tuesday February 06, 2018 Written by Published in Weekend
Landing on Aitutaki by boat on the morning of August 31, 1917, these two men identified themselves as Captain Van Houten (left) and navigator Mr Southard. Van Houten claimed they were Norwegian-Americans sailing the South Seas on a bet for US$25,000. In reality the man on the left was Felix Graf von Luckner, a renowned German naval officer. The photo was taken in New Zealand in late 1917 or early 1918. SOURCE: Auckland Institute and Museum Library. 18020205 Landing on Aitutaki by boat on the morning of August 31, 1917, these two men identified themselves as Captain Van Houten (left) and navigator Mr Southard. Van Houten claimed they were Norwegian-Americans sailing the South Seas on a bet for US$25,000. In reality the man on the left was Felix Graf von Luckner, a renowned German naval officer. The photo was taken in New Zealand in late 1917 or early 1918. SOURCE: Auckland Institute and Museum Library. 18020205

One of the most intriguing stories involving the Cook Islands began on Aitutaki on the morning of August 31, 1917, when six smartly-dressed and well-groomed men made an unexpected arrival

 

They were on board a 10-metre motor launch called the “Cecilie”. When this vessel berthed at Arutanga jetty, their arrival caught everyone on the island by surprise, as no ship was expected to call at the island for some time.

The skipper of the vessel introduced himself to the resident agent, Thomas Duncan, as Mr Van Houten. He said he and his colleagues on the Cecilie were Norwegian-Americans who had sailed to the South Seas from San Francisco via Honolulu.

Van Houten said they were on a sporting wager with friends in the United States to sail to the South Pacific and return for a bet of $25,000.

However, neither Van Houten nor his crew could produce any documentation to prove who they were or where they had actually come from.

They had no passports. They had no customs clearance from Honolulu. They did not even have an American flag on board their vessel to indicate their country of origin.

In addition to that, Van Houten and his crew did not ask for any food supplies. They did not ask for any medical assistance. They did not ask to be allowed to undertake any repairs to the Cecilie. They simply arrived and then asked for nothing.

So the questions were: Who were these men? Where did they come from? Why did they call in to Aitutaki? And what did they really want?

At this time, the resident agent of Aitutaki, in his capacity as the senior government official, had total control of just about everything that happened on the island.

He was therefore the chief magistrate, the local police commissioner, head of the post office, and the chief of customs and immigration. Effectively, he was in sole charge – a kind of ‘one-man band’ of government administration.

The next most senior public servant on the island was the headmaster of Aitutaki School, Geoffrey Henry.

After Van Houten and his crew left Aitutaki, it was later discovered that the strange visitors were not who they said they were. ‘Van Houten’ was in fact the famous German Commander, Count Felix von Luckner, whose exploits in command of the highly successful cargo ship raider SMS Seeadler (Sea Eagle) had earned him the nickname “Sea Devil”.

Luckner’s ability to wage war with few casualties had made him a hero and a legend on both sides of the conflict during World War One. The five other men in the party that arrived on Aitutaki were members of his crew, otherwise known as “the Emperor’s Pirates”.

They had all ended up on Atiu and then Aitutaki after the Sea Eagle had run aground on the small island of Mopelia, 450 kilometres from Tahiti. Luckner decided to sail with five of his men in one of the Sea Eagle’s 10-metre-long open boats, rigged as a sloop and named Kronprinzessin Cecilie.

The optimistic German naval officer had intended to sail to Fiji by way of the Cook Islands, capture a sailing ship, return to Mopelia for his crew and prisoners, and resume his raiding career.

The full details of this intriguing story can be found in Rarotonga author Howard Henry’s new book, The Sea Devil Came Calling.

Henry says the official reports of Thomas Duncan, Aitutaki resident agent at the time, and Frederick Platts, then resident commissioner of the Cook Islands on Rarotonga, were very helpful when piecing this story together.

He also cites correspondence from the then minister responsible for the Cook Islands, Maui (later Sir Maui) Pomare, and the then minister of defence, Sir James Allen.

“In addition to that, two eyewitnesses to the events surrounding these visitors gave me verbal accounts of what they saw at the time when I interviewed them in the late 1970s,” says Henry.

“At the time these events took place, they were young boys aged nine and 11 years respectively.

“While they had no knowledge of the actual details of what occurred between Thomas Duncan and the visitors, they were certainly helpful when describing the scene on the Aitutaki waterfront and the events that happened in open public display.”

Henry says The Sea Devil Came Calling records one of Cook Islands history’s most unusual stories.

This is because the unexpected arrival of Count von Luckner and his crew on Aitutaki brought the First World War directly to its shores.

Their landing brought the people of Aitutaki face-to-face with men who were enemies of the King of England.

Loyalists to the core, the Aitutakians were very much aware of what was happening with regard to the war that was raging in Europe and the Middle East.

So they took the view that the King’s enemies were also their enemies. They concluded that the German visitors had to be arrested and detained on Aitutaki in the name of the King of England, as prisoners of war.

However, resident agent Duncan would have nothing of this. He had other ideas, for reasons that had nothing to do with colonial duty, patriotism or loyalty to the British Empire and the King of England.

It’s an involved but exciting story, and for the details, Henry says you’ll have to read his book.

The Sea Devil Came Calling is on sale at the Bounty Bookshop in Avarua.            - Release/CS

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