Sokehs Rebellion was an uprising of the Sokehs tribe against local German rule that started on Sokehs Island off the main island of Pohnpei in the Eastern Caroline Islands in 1910/1911. The German district commissioner, Gustav Boeder, three other German officials and five islanders were killed by the rebels before German naval units arrived and restored order.
History of the rebellion
Land ownership on Pohnpei was the exclusive domain of chiefs who would assign parcels of land to their indigenous tribal subjects in sharecropping fashion. Beginning in 1907 the German colonial administration began land reforms and required newly created owners to perform 15 days of labor per year for public works in lieu of taxes.
A group of Sokehs was detailed to roadwork on Sokehs Island on 17 October 1910. One young laborer refused work instructions of his overseer and was ordered flogged for his transgression, the punishment being carried out by a Melanesian policeman. That same evening, Samuel, a lower ranking section chief (Sou Madau en Sokehs [master of the ocean]), persuaded all in this work gang to refuse further labor. The next morning, 18 October 1910, when work was to commence, the Sokehs group threatened the two German overseers on the island, Otto Hollborn and Johann Häfner, who then fled to the Capuchin mission compound on Sokehs Island.
District commissioner Gustav Boeder was informed of the incident and together with his assistant Rudolf Brauckmann and two translators had his group rowed to the island by six Mortlock Islands boatmen to 'reason' with the laborers. As Boeder approached the Sokehs workers, he was shot and killed by rifle fire from a concealed position. In short order the rebels then killed Brauckmann, Häfner, Hollborn and 5 oarsmen; only the 2 translators and one oarsman escaped. After the news of the massacre reached the main settlement Kolonia on Pohnpei, Max Girschner, the colony's medical doctor and now senior official, requested the chiefs of the other 4 tribes on Pohnpei to provide men for defending Kolonia. The chiefs offered 600 warriors of whom several were then armed with rifles and bayonets in addition to their own weapons -- but no attack on Kolonia occurred; the rebellious Sokehs merely barricaded themselves at a defensive mountain hideout.
It was clear to the remaining German officials that the murderers and rebels had to be apprehended and punished. However, Kolonia had no cable or radio to request assistance. It was not until 26 November 1910 when the mail steamer Germania arrived, that a report could be made to the colony's headquarters at Rabaul. The Colonial Office in Berlin received the message on 26 December 1910.
Governor Albert Hahl at Rabaul dispatched the gunboat SMS Cormoran and the survey ship Planet with 163 newly hired Melanesian police recruits aboard. The ships arrived by mid-December 1910. Initial skirmishing by the police recruits had little success and their commander, police lieutenant Karl Kammerich was harshly critical of their performance.
The new light cruiser SMS Emden had docked at Tsingtao at Kiautschou Bay on 17 September 1910 after a journey from Germany and was the latest addition to the Imperial Navy‘s East Asian Station. The ship then made several show-the-flag cruises to Japan, Hong Kong and patrolled north Pacific island possessions of the German Empire. She was then scheduled for her first annual maintenance at Tsingtao. In response to the news from Pohnpei, the Berlin Admiralty ordered her commander to abandon the overhaul and proceed to the Caroline Islands. At the same time the light cruiser SMS Nürnberg, anchored at Hong Kong, was to link up with Emden and both ships then arrived at Pohnpei on 10 January 1911. As the senior officer at the scene, Emden's captain, Lieutenant Commander Waldemar Vollerthun on 13 January 1911 ordered the main batteries of the cruisers to fire on the rebel fortification. An assault team of sailors armed with rifles and 30 Melanesian police under the command of the civilian official Hermann Kersting and junior officers from Emden captured the hideout and forced the Sokehs to flee and many escaped to mainland Pohnpei. The rebels fought on guerilla-style and offered bitter and stubborn resistance, but lack of food, non-cooperation by the other Pohnpei chiefs and tribes, and continual movement and flight exhausted the Sokehs warriors and on 13 February 1911 Samuel and 5 followers gave up; the remaining rebels surrendering on 22 February 1911. The cruisers departed the area on 1 March 1911 and arrived at their Tsingtao home base on 14 March 1911.
During the mountain assault and island campaign the German side suffered 1 junior officer, 2 ratings and 2 Melanesian policemen killed and 1 officer, 5 sailors and 9 Melanesian policemen wounded. Sokehs losses are given at 6 killed, an unknown number wounded and missing, suggesting that the warriors gave as good as they got.
Trial and punishment
Immediately after cessation of fighting, a summary trial was convened for 36 rebels. The court convicted 17 for two main offenses: (a) the murder of 4 German officials and 5 island boatmen, and (b) for insurrection, and condemned them to death; 12 received multi-year sentences at hard labor, 7 were set free. On 24 February 1911, 15 rebels, including Samuel, were executed by a Melanesian police firing squad, 2 of the condemned men through fortunate circumstances managed to avoid the death penalty.
The land reforms started by the German colonial officials were completed during the remaining years of German colonization, with compensation and continued superior status for the chiefs. Property borders were set by local tribal leaders and the scheme was accepted by the population.
In the early months of World War I, the empire of Japan occupied all German islands north of the equator. The Japanese began in 1917 a limited return of the Sokehs to Pohnpei, well aware of their belligerent opposition to foreign occupation. The Treaty of Versailles assigned to Japan as mandatory power the administration of Pohnpei and all German islands that Japan had occupied. The Japanese concluded the return of the remaining Sokehs by 1927.
In the late 1980s, after independence, the government of the Federated States of Micronesia elevated the rebel leader, Samuel, to the status of a national hero. The anniversary of his execution, February 24th, is now a holiday; the mass grave of the fifteen insurgents in Kolonia is a national shrine.
- Morlang, Thomas. Rebellion in der Südsee. Der Aufstand auf Ponape gegen die deutschen Kolonialherren 1910/1911 [Rebellion in the South Seas. The Uprising on Ponape against German Colonial Rule 1910/1911], 200 p. Berlin: Christoph Links Verlag, 2010. ISBN 978-3-86153-604-8
- ranked in the lower half of the second tier of chiefs, see Riesenberg, S.H. The Native Polity of Ponape. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1968 (Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology, Volume 10), p. 13
- the foregoing paragraphs are a summary of Morlang, Thomas, "Grausame Räuber, die wir waren," in Die Zeit, No. 39, September 23, 2010. Morlang's headline is taken from a self-critical, rueful 1912 account made by a junior naval officer at the scene "Und grausame Räuber, die wir waren," and translates roughly as, "And cruel thieves, which we were" or "And we behaved like cruel thieves".
- Schultz-Naumann, Joachim. Unter Kaisers Flagge, Deutschlands Schutzgebiete im Pazifik und in China, einst und heute [Under the Kaiser's Flag, Germany's Protectorates in the Pacific and in China, then and today]. Munich: Universitas Verlag. 1985, p. 139
- Morlang, Thomas: http://www.traditionsverband.de/download/pdf/polizeitruppe.pdf [The police force of German New Guinea 1887-1914]
- Van der Vat, Dan. Gentlemen of War, The Amazing Story of Captain Karl von Müller and the SMS Emden. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc. 1984, p. 19
- Schultz-Naumann, p. 140
- Van der Vat, p. 20
- Morlang, 23 Sep 2010
- Micronesian Seminar: The Sokehs Rebellion