Bach Dang Wharf near Saigon Port, where German traders engaged in vibrant regional trade in Ho Chi Minh City before French protests at the beginning of World War 1 forced them all to leave. Photo courtesy of Thoi bao Kinh te Saigon Online
F. W. Speidel was a famous German in Ho Chi Minh City during the early 1900s.
His company, Speidel et Cie, was one of the biggest German businesses in the city – trading oil lamps, oil, and providing services ranging from rice milling, to imports, exports, shipping and marine insurance.
But when World War I broke out on August 1914 it ignited a spate of anti-Germans protests in French-controlled Vietnam.
The nationalist hatred spared no German including many engineers, artisans, and traders.
Speidel and his fellow-Germans, who'd been building up international industry in the city since the 1860s, were forced to leave empty-handed, Thoi bao Kinh te reported, based on archived from German refugees in Indonesia.
A lot built
Speidel et Cie’s shipping business was closely connected with Jebsen & Co., a German shipper in the Far East and had it's headquarters at 44 Quai de Belgique, (now Ben Chuong Duong) in downtown Saigon.
His office shared a street with German maritime insurer Engler et Cie at No.8 and insurance firm Diethelm et Cie at No.23.
Beverage import companies belonging to Mr. Bierdermann and Mr. Waespé occupied No. 30 and 37.
The company also ran the two of the biggest rice mills in southern Vietnam at the time, Orient et Progres and Union, along Tau Hu Canal, a waterway link between the city and provinces south.
Though it was competing with Chinese mills in the city’s Chinatown, Singapore, Malacca and Penang, the company established healthy cooperation with Chinese shippers at ports in Saigon, Hai Phong, Singapore and Hong Kong.
German shippers in Saigon formed a critical part of a prosperous international trade network linking Singapore, Saigon, Phnom Penh, Hai Phong, Hong Kong and Chinese ports such as Beihai, Xiamen, Shanghai, and ports in Japan like Yokohoma and Nagasaki.
Wang-Tai, a big Chinese trader in Saigon, rented a Triumph boat from Speidel in 1891 for a voyage between Hai Phong and Beihai in Guangxi.
A long history
Speidel et Cie was founded by German investor Theodore Speidel in 1868, just a few years after the French established control over Saigon and nearby provinces. It was one of the first foreign companies opened in Vietnam.
Among his employees was Jan George Mulder, a Dutch man who worked at a company’s branch selling oil lamps and oil in Hai Phong.
Mulder taught himself stereoscopic photography in his spare time created a huge collection of photos capturing daily life in Hai Phong between 1904 and 1908.
Theodore Speidel became a member of Saigon Commerce Department in 1882. He died in 1909, leaving the CEO position to F.W. Speidel.
In his new role, F.W. Speidel served as the consular representative of Germany, Belgium and Denmark in Saigon.
He had first come to Saigon in 1871 to work for insurance company Engler et Cie of Albert Engler, another famous German trader in town.
F.W Speidel earned a great deal of respect within the commercial community of Saigon, thanks to his support of Vietnamese traders as well as migrants from the UK, Netherlands, Denmark, the US and China.
He helped the US warship Palas and many other damaged foreign ships broker repairs in Saigon.
Grey Sewel, US Consul in Singapore at the time, described Speidel as a gentleman and a well-loved German among the US community in Saigon.
Sewell once asked him to be the US consular representative in the city.
F.W.Speidel’s relation with Chinese traders in Cho Lon also went beyond commerce. He joined in many social services and was a member of the management board of the southern medical association based in Cho Lon known as Association Hospitalière laïque de Cochinchine.
It all ended for Speidel when Germany declared war with France on August 3, 1914 and attacked France via Belgium; The UK declared war on Germany the next day.
News travelled fast to Saigon and the French began organizing demonstrations against Germany on the streets starting on August 6.
That morning, French people marched to the German consulate and pulled the down its flag. In the evening, they gathered again around the Saigon Post Office, according to a report carried by the Straits Times on August 19.
A Frenchman named Carpentier delivered a speech opposing the presence of Germans in the city and demanded their immediate deportation.
The speech was followed by a parade leading back to the German consulate, powered with yells, whistles and French patriotic songs.
There were sounds of gun shots outside the consulate, amid loud French promises for revenge.
The mob proceeded to the Belgian and Russian consulates with compliments and applause, the report said.
Then, the crowds ransacked Speidel’s company office.
But the worst destruction was reported at a German club, where all tables, chairs, decorations, paintings and books were reduced to rubble in 15 minutes.
A Singaporean correspondent from the Straits Times on Java island, where the deported Germans arrived, said Saigon police ordered all Germans to close their shops on August 6 as demonstrations could break out anytime.
The Germans were forced to leave the city on the Norwegian ship Solveig early on the next day without time to make arrangements for their businesses. Their Vietnamese home helpers and employees also suffered threats and even physical abuse.
At 3am, 33 German men and women, carrying no personal luggage, boarded the Solveig to leave the city.
The boat left Saigon port between 6-7am, but a French government boat chased after it and forced it to return.
Following a long wait, the boat was allowed to leave for then Dutch-controlled Indonesia.
The Germans then said they would stay in Java at least until the war ended.
F. W. Speidel settled in Sukabumi in West Java.
No documents are available about his life after that.
His rice mills were seized by the government and auctioned on August 20, 1915.
Two Chinese from the then Straits Settlements, including Singapore, Penang, Malacca, placed the winning bid and continued to dominate the rice trading and milling market in southern Vietnam.
Speidel’s oil lamps and oil ships were replaced by ships belonging to US Standard Oil.
Almost all German business in the Far East was lost to allied powers as the war was wrapped up by the Treaty of Versailles.
Germany also relinquished colonies in China and the Pacific to Japan, and in Papua New Guinea to Australia.
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