Gustaf Öberg, a master mariner and merchant, was arrested in 1885 by the authorities in French Indochina, on the charge of having sold weapons to Tonkin pirates and others. He was sentenced to be executed by firing squad, and all his assets were confiscated.
Öberg had been born in 1850, the son of a wine merchant in Stockholm. He went to sea and gained his master’s ticket. When the captain of the Hedvig was swept overboard during a typhoon en route for Shanghai, Öberg had to assume command. He then spent several years as skipper of the vessel, sailing along the Chinese coast and to Japan, and setting himself up as a trader.
Previously, in Stockholm, Öberg had met Theodolinda, the sister of a fellow junior mariner. He wrote to her and proposed: would she like to travel to Shanghai? Although they had not seen each other for several years, she accepted, and sailed to Shanghai to marry him. All went well for the family until Öberg was arrested and sentenced to death.
ESCAPED FROM PRISON
However, some time elapsed before the execution could take place, and Öberg managed to escape from prison. But he vanished without trace, and it was believed he had been murdered, so Theodolinda finally returned to Sweden with their two children.
In December 1892, she received a laconic telegram: “merry christmas, Gustaf”. This was the first sign of life in three-and-a-half years. A few months later, Öberg sent money and tickets for the family to travel to Shanghai, where once again he had become a successful businessman and built himself a large house.
Öberg described how he had managed to get out of Indochina disguised as a Chinese coolie with his hair in a queue. He was eventually acquitted by the French court after a pirate chieftain admitted he had lied about Öberg’s involvement in piracy.
In Shanghai, Öberg began to sell telephones for Ericsson. He was energetic and forward-thinking, a respected member of many of the city’s clubs. One problem, however, was that the British Oriental Telephone Company, an Ericsson customer elsewhere, owned the telephone concession in Shanghai through a subsidiary and showed no interest in using Ericsson’s products there.
The British company did not, however, manage its concession well. When it was about to expire in 1900, Öberg campaigned aggressively for it to be transferred, including writing newspaper articles comparing the telephone service with those in Sweden. When the British Oriental Telephone Company saw the way the wind was blowing, it demanded that Ericsson in Stockholm stop him. Ericsson’s response was that Öberg was free to do as he wished.
FORMED A COMPANY
Öberg succeeded. He won the new concession and formed a company, the Shanghai Mutual Telephone Company, with himself as managing director. He then turned to Ericsson for expert help in constructing Shanghai’s new telephone network.
The problem for Ericsson was that it had never previously built a telephone network, merely supplying the necessary equipment and constructing a few exchanges. It now recruited an engineer, Fridolf Langton, who was sent to Shanghai for the project. Everything went to plan: Shanghai ended up with a network that worked well, and Ericsson had its first network construction project as a customer reference.
What became of the British Oriental Telephone Company’s threats? Far from boycotting Ericsson’s products, the British company bought them for many of its subsidiaries. Hemming Johansson recalled: “We became firm friends with their top men in London as well as in Calcutta [now Kolkata] and Singapore, but we never said a word to them about Shanghai or Captain Öberg.”
When Öberg died in 1920, as a very wealthy man, he was buried in Shanghai.
His widow Theodolinda once said of her husband: “Gustaf? Oh, he was a ruthless devil for his work”.
Adapted from an account by Thea Oljelund, Theodolinda’s granddaughter.
Author: Svenolof Karlsson & Anders Lugn