Biographical entry: Svensen, Karl Oscar ( - 1893)



Captain Karl Oscar Svensen (1862-1943), a Norwegian, was a pioneer trader and planter in the Solomon Islands from 1890 until 1912. In the Solomons he was usually known as 'Captain Marau' after the site of his first trading station, Marau Sound. He had migrated to Australia and worked on coastal shipping and as a ships' chandler in Melbourne. He first passed through the Solomons in 1889 on his way back from a voyage to the Ellice Islands (Tuvalu). His brother Theodore, who made a voyage to the Solomons as a labour recruiter, joined Karl in Australia. Both men recognized the islands' potential for selling trade goods and marketing local produce. Realising that most of the established traders were in the Western Solomons, along with a partner-Alex Monrad, who had also worked in the labour trade-Oscar decided to set up as a trader in the central Solomons around Guadalcanal and Makira. Their first base was at Tavanipupu in Marau Sound on land purchased from Sokai and other owners. Monrad left the islands due to poor health and Theodore Svensen joined his brother in partnership, along with another pair of Norwegian brothers, Solfren and J.G.B. Nerdrum. Their company was named the Norwegian Solomon Islands Trading and Planting Co. Ltd.

The Marau people (actually an 'Are'are-speaking colony from Malaita) and the nearby Longgu people resented the incursion, and early labour had to be obtained from Ulawa and Makira. However, the 'Are'are connection enabled Svensen and his partners to make inroads onto southwest Malaita. Between 1890 and 1907, the company operated as traders, pearlers and planters, and purchased fifty-one thousand acres of land all over the Solomons from indigenous owners and other European settlers. They financed much of their early business by selling guns and ammunition under the ruse that Norway had given them permission to trade in these items. Once the British Protectorate was established, Svensen resorted to smuggling the contraband in from Australia. Theodore Svensen died at Tavanipupu in 1893, leaving Oscar as the major partner, still with the Nerdrums, and the company was renamed as the Marau Company. Then Solfren B. Nerdrum died at Tavanipupu in 1896, and soon after, Karl Svensen, Theodore's youngest son, took ill at Marau and died in Brisbane. In the mid-1890s, under the direction of Solfren Nerdrum, the company had begun experimenting with tropical agriculture and started several coconut plantations at Marau Sound. With Britain providing stability through the declaration of the Protectorate, the company expanded the scope and nature of its trading operation to Sikaiana Atoll and Santa Cruz. It also moved into pearl shelling, and in 1899 negotiated exclusive diving rights on all newly discovered pearl beds. The period covered was eventually reduced to just one year, but in the interim the agreement gave the company a large advantage and huge profit. Oscar Svensen brought in a new partner, Charles Wilson, to run the pearling operations, which were extended to Mboli in Nggela and rich beds in the Manning Straits off Isabel Island.

Svensen soon ingratiated himself with Resident Commissioner Woodford, assisting him by providing coffee and rubber plants for agricultural experiments on Tulagi. He also befriended the missionaries in the Solomons by generously donating equipment to them. In 1899, Oscar Svensen married Henriette Schroder, known to him through his time as a ships' chandler in Melbourne, although she never lived permanently in the islands. He had been married previously to Minnie Anderson, with whom he had one son in 1894, but nothing is known of Minnie. Also at this time the company began to develop its land purchases as coconut plantations.

In the early 1900s, Svensen claimed to be earning between £2,000 and £6,000 a year and collecting almost half of the local produce sold in the Solomon Islands. He offered to sell a large part of his land to Burns Philp & Co. (q.v.) in 1903 for £10,000, but the company wanted to concentrate on the merchant and shipping business, and refused. Svensen's last major property move was to buy Gavutu Island opposite Tulagi from ailing Lars Nielsen for £3,000, a deal negotiated between 1904 and 1906. Although Marau Sound had served well as a base, the new focus on Tulagi meant that he needed to have his commercial centre closer to the major port. He built a slipway at Gavutu and began to build boats there. Svensen continued to purchase land throughout the Protectorate during the early 1900s. Between 1905 and 1907, with his eye always on retirement in Australia, he arranged to sell out to Lever Brothers for £40,000, around 15 shillings an acre. One of Svensen's last major commercial deals in the Solomon Islands was to arrange for Burns Philip to get the contract to transport Solomon Islanders deported from Australia during 1906-1908, from which he earned about £9,000. In 1905, he arranged another deal, with the Anglican Melanesian Mission (q.v.) to harvest and prepare all coconuts from its land.

Judith Bennett, who completed a major study on Oscar Svensen, has traced his land holdings: on Nggela, 40 acres at Gavutu, Tanambogo, and Ghaomi; on Guadalcanal, 17,500 acres at Lungga, a small acreage at Tasimboko (Tathimboko), 160 acres at Aola, 25,000 acres at Kaoka and 110 acres on islands near Marau; in and around Makira, 2,000 acres at Ugi, 1,200 acres on the Three Sisters, about 30 acres at Santa Ana, 1,000 acres at Maro'u Bay, and the entire island of Monagai near Anuta Island; 1,000 acres at Graciosa Bay on Santa Cruz; 2,500 acres at West Bay in the Russell Islands; and a trading station at Savo. Only two hundred acres were planted and two thousand to three thousand were cleared. Svensen had paid £4,000 for the entire holding. (Bennett 1987, 143, 144)

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Published resources


  • Bennett, Judith A., Wealth of the Solomons: A History of a Pacific Archipelago, 1800-1978, University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, 1987. Details