Captain Öberg – prisoner of war and businessman

Captain Gustaf Öberg dressed in Chinese clothing

During the years of 1884 and 1885, war prevailed between France and China. Participants on the Chinese side were the Black Flags, which fought in what was then French Indochina. Although peace was proclaimed in 1885, several guerilla groups continued the insurrection in Indochina.

The Swedish marine captain and businessman Gustaf Öberg was arrested by the French, charged with selling weapons to Tonkin Chinese pirates, among others.

Öberg was sentenced to death by a firing squad, and all of his assets were impounded. Execution was delayed, however, and Öberg managed to escape from prison in June 1889. He was reported missing and disappeared without a trace. He was believed to have been murdered.

His wife Theodolinda and the couple's two children returned home to Sweden.

In December 1892, Öberg's wife received a telegram with the greeting "Merry Christmas, Gustaf." This was the first sign of her husband in three and a half years.

"I was shocked," said Theodolina. "But it was just like Gustaf to take everything for granted. A few months later, he sent money and tickets so that the children and I could travel via America to Shanghai, where he had once again established himself as a successful businessman and built a new house for us."

Disguised as a Chinese coolie with a ponytail, Gustaf Öberg had escaped from Indochina. A French court subsequently acquitted him after a pirate captain was eventually forced to admit that he had lied about Öberg's involvment in order to save his own life. Despite his innocence, the French government would not release his impounded property, and Öberg's attempts to get the Swedish Foreign Ministry to act were fruitless.

Gustaf Öberg was born in 1850 as the son of a Stockholm wine merchant. He went to sea at the age of 15 and received his captain's certificate in Stockholm. He was first mate on the barque Hedvig when he sailed to Shanghai the first time. The captain drowned in a typhoon, forcing Öberg to assume command of the ship.

For several years thereafter, Gustaf Öberg worked as a captain, sailing along the Chinese coast and to Japan for the Nils Möller Shipping Company in Shanghai. At the same time, he established himself as a businessman.

During his time in Stockholm, he had met Theodolinda, who was the sister of one of his fellow maritime students, and fallen in love with her. He wrote her a letter and proposed - was she willing to come to Shanghai. Although they had not seen each other for several years, she accepted and traveled with her brother Bernhard to Shanghai to marry Gustaf. The marriage took place in the Anglican Church in Shanghai. A daughter was born, and the family moved to Haiphong.

Gustaf Öberg had already amassed considerable wealth through his business. In his new home city, he proceeded to build several dry docks, which he leased to the French navy and to shipping companies. A second daughter was born to the family in 1885.

After his dramatic escape through Indochina and the re-establishment of his business operations in Shanghai, Gustaf Öberg began to sell telephones for Ericsson. He was an energetic and foresighted businessman, a respected man and a member of many of the city's clubs. He died a very wealthy man on August 4, 1920 and was buried in Shanghai.

Teodolinda Öberg, who was my grandmother, once described her husband as follows.

"Gustaf? Oh, he was totally obsessed with his work."

Author: Thea Oljelund

Öberg, Gustaf (with family, China 1885)

Captain Gustaf Öberg, his wife, daughter and a servant at Tonkin.


Captain Gustaf Öberg and his wife Theodolinda with her brother Bernhard Lundholm. The official wedding photo, taken one year after the ceremony.

© Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson and Centre for Business History

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