The ongoing project Mapping the Sāmoa Collections aims to learn more about the measina Sāmoa at Te Papa and make them more accessible to communities. One of our largest collections was donated by the Auckland-based German-Sāmoan Kronfeld family. Here, Alexander Gordon shares some insight into their story.
In 1917, when Samuel Tonga Kronfeld offered to sell his family’s collection to the New Zealand government, the curator of Auckland Museum, Thomas Cheeseman, wasn’t overly impressed. “It contains a considerable number of good specimens, but it has the fault of including many duplicates,” he wrote.
Preoccupied by World War I, the government agreed with Thomas, and refused Samuel’s offer. But why did the Kronfeld family have such a large collection of clubs and spears from the Pacific Islands? And why did they want to sell it?
At Vava‘u in Tonga in August 1883, Louisa Silveira married Gustav Kronfeld. Born to a Sāmoan mother and Portuguese father, Louisa had been brought up in the Catholic convent at Savalalo, near Apia.
Gustav, on the other hand, was born in Thorn in East Prussia to a German Jewish family. He had immigrated to Australia when he was just 17 years old, and then to Sāmoa where he worked for a trading company.
The young couple settled in Tonga where Gustav had recently been promoted to a management role, and it was there their first five children were born.
In October 1890 they moved to Auckland and set up the G. Kronfeld trading company, which transported fruit, copra and cargo between New Zealand and Sāmoa. The warehouse they had built for the company is still visible today at 10 Customs Street.
In Auckland, the Kronfeld family continued to grow and another five children were born. They also became naturalised New Zealand citizens, which Gustav was especially proud of. His son Moe remembered that he often talked about the “glories of British freedom”.
Walking through the door at ‘Oli Ula, the Kronfeld home on Eden Crescent in Auckland, visitors were immediately surrounded by the Kronfeld collection on all sides; “from floor to ceiling”, remembers Moe. The family had acquired many treasures from a lifetime of living and travelling throughout the Pacific.
Today the Kronfeld Collection at Te Papa contains 270 items from many different countries, especially Papua New Guinea (90), the Solomon Islands (59), Sāmoa (39), New Zealand (30) and Fiji (27).
As Thomas Cheeseman pointed out, there are many weapons; other interesting measina include a tanoa fai ‘ava (kava bowl) that according to family tradition once belonged to Louisa’s cousin Matā‘afa Iosefo, a prominent high chief in Sāmoa, who became Ali’i Sili (Paramount Chief) during the German administration.
Interviewed many years later, the Kronfeld children reminisced about their childhood at ‘Oli Ula as a golden time. The house was often full of guests and goods from across the Pacific.
Louisa hosted girls from the islands who were staying in Auckland for their schooling, including the future Queen Sālote of Tonga. Louisa also sent gifts and food annually to a Sāmoan orphanage run by the nuns who had raised her.
This happy period was brought to an end by the onset of the First World War. The fear and worry created by the war bred suspicion of anything German in New Zealand.
Despite Gustav’s pride in his British citizenship, the Government worried that Kronfeld ships might sell important cargo from the Pacific to the enemy. In Auckland, rumours spread that his son Gus might have joined the German Army (see newspaper below).
The police intercepted correspondence, searched the business and interrogated Gustav. They found nothing incriminating but were suspicious that three letters had been torn from his copybook. Did they contain evidence of illegal activity? The recently formed Alien Enemies Commission concluded that there was not “sufficient justification for any action”.
Personal letters written by Gustav at the time suggest he was primarily concerned for the wellbeing of his family. His children considered themselves New Zealanders and they had no other home. To ensure their livelihood, he gifted all his shares in the company to them and renamed it the Pacific Trading Company Limited (see newspaper clipping above).
Tragically for the Kronfelds, the government remained suspicious. Early in 1916, Gustav was seen talking to the Austrian Consul in Victoria Park. They were both arrested for “meeting with Germans” and imprisoned without trial on Motuihe in Auckland harbour.
The rest of the family were allowed to retain their citizenship, perhaps thanks to Gustav’s repeated requests that “they should not be deprived of the many privileges of British nationality”.
Without Gustav, the business struggled. In 1917 the warehouse was sold. The same year the family tried to raise money by selling their collection of Pacific artefacts. Sadly, the government refused.
Gustav was released on parole in late 1919, long after the war had ended. He was able to spend his last years with his family, dying peacefully at ‘Oli Ula in 1924.
Despite the difficulties the family had suffered in World War I, in 1939 Louisa generously decided to donate the collection. It arrived in the Dominion Museum (Te Papa’s predecessor) at the outset of another world war.
During World War II the museum building was used as a defence headquarters and closed to the public. The collection sat in storage. Gustav and Louisa’s grandson Andrew flew a Spitfire in Europe, purchased for the R.A.F. by the residents of Western Sāmoa.
Staff finally began to register the Kronfeld’s treasures in 1957, and they now form an important part of our Pacific Cultures and Taonga Māori collections.
The Collections in Context
Louisa and Gustav Kronfeld’s lives tell a fascinating story of cross-cultural connections and misunderstandings across the Pacific. Even over 100 years ago, Sāmoa, New Zealand, other Pacific Islands, and Europe were closely linked by trade and migration. Sadly, suspicion and hostility were also still commonplace.
Research projects such as this one enable us to contextualise the objects in our collection by connecting them with the people who gave them meaning and their stories. This adds value to the items themselves and grows our understanding of connections and differences in the present day. We are privileged to be able to preserve some of that memory here.
Archives New Zealand Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga. “Report on case of G. Kronfeld, Auckland” (1915). Item Code: R22505836.
Archives New Zealand Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga. “Copies of Reports of Aliens Enemies Commission Report on Gustav Kronfeld” (1915). Item Code: R21370701.
Archives New Zealand Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga. “Date: 21 June 1916 Subject: Detention of Germans – Langguth, Duerkop and Kronfeld” (1916). Item Code: R24502574.
Articles from Auckland Star, New Zealand Truth, The Observer, accessed from National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa/Papers Past
Family Interviews from Kronfeld, Tony. Gustav and Louisa Kronfeld: Some Notes. Waikanae, NZ: Kronfeld, 1993.
Te Papa Archives. MU000001/004/0056; Kronfeld’s Māori and South Sea Island curios offered for sale to the Government for £600; 1917; Kronfeld, Sam.
Te Papa Archives. MU000014/002/0014; Museum, Dominion – Collection of Maori and South Sea Island Curios owned by Mr G Kronfeld – Offer to Sell for £600; 1917; Kronfeld, Sam.
Mercer, Harriet J. “Gender and the Myth of a White Zealand, 1866–1928”. New Zealand Journal of History 52:2 (2018): 23-41.