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Otto Finsch (1839–1917)

by P. G. Sack

This article was published:

Otto Finsch (1839-1917), ornithologist, ethnologist and pioneer of German colonialism, was born on 8 August 1839 in Warmbrunn, Germany, son of Moritz Finsch and his wife Mathilde, née Leder; his parents were connected with the glass trade. Finsch was trained as a merchant but, with little love for the profession, gladly travelled in the Balkans in 1858-59. He became interested in ornithology and in 1861 was appointed an assistant at the Museum of Natural History in Leiden, Holland, so that he could pursue his studies. He joined the Museum of Natural History and Ethnography in Bremen as a curator in 1864 and became director in 1876. Although his achievements as an ornithologist won him an honorary doctorate from the University of Bonn in 1868, Finsch developed an equally strong interest in ethnology. The offer of the Humboldt Foundation to finance an expedition to the Pacific was made on his repute as an ornithologist, but the expedition in 1879-82 was dominated by his ethnological interests. Finsch also became interested in creating German colonies in the Pacific; after his return he joined the 'South Sea Plotters', a small group of influential men led by the banker, von Hansemann, who pursued similar plans. Finsch supplied them with optimistic information about the local conditions, including the estimated costs of opening a colony on the north-east coast of New Guinea and the New Britain (Bismarck) Archipelago. This plan had to be postponed, partly because Bismarck was reluctant to acquire colonies and partly because the Queensland government attempted to annex the eastern half of New Guinea in 1883. After the Foreign Office disallowed this annexation and Bismarck granted imperial protection to Luederitz for his plans to establish a German colony in south-west Africa, the way was open for the 'South Sea Plotters'. Finsch was made leader of the expedition sent out to look for harbours, to make friendly contacts with the natives and to acquire land for a colony under German protection. Finsch and his team left Berlin for Sydney on 16 June 1884. They fitted out the small steamer Samoa and sailed on 11 September for the Duke of York Islands. Between October 1884 and May 1885 Finsch made five explorations between East Cape and Humboldt Bay on the north coast of New Guinea. He had an exaggerated view of his role and expected a leading post in the administration of the new colony, but failed in negotiations with the New Guinea Kompagnie founded by the 'South Sea Plotters'. Despite such honours as the Prussian medal, Finsch became disappointed. In 1886 he married Elisabeth Hoffmann but his disappointment grew as he realized how quickly he was forgotten and how difficult it was to find a suitable post in Germany. At Leipzig in 1888 he published an account of the cruise of the Samoa. In 1897-1904 he had charge of a division at the Museum of Natural History in Leiden, Holland, and then at the Municipal Museum in Braunschweig, building up the ethnological collection and working especially on primitive money in the Pacific. Not until he was granted the title 'Professor' by the Duke of Braunschweig and honoured at his seventieth birthday by the 'medal for distinguished services for art and science' in silver, did his embitterment lose some of its sharpness. He died at Braunschweig on 31 January 1917.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Wichmann, Nova Guinea, vol 2 (Leiden, 1910)
  • Neue Deutsche Biographie, vol 5 (Berlin, 1961)
  • Singelmann, ‘Prof. Dr. Finschs Anteil an der Erwerbung des deutschen Suedseeschutzgebietes’, Deutsche Kolonialzeitung, Oct 1909.

Citation details

P. G. Sack, 'Finsch, Otto (1839–1917)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 18 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


8 August, 1839
Warmbrunn, Germany


31 January, 1917 (aged 77)
Braunschweig, Germany

Cultural Heritage

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