The missing photo

TEGAN DOLSTRA discovers the story of a mysterious ant collector  and two-time enemy alien.

Twenty years ago entomologist Dr Bob Taylor was searching for photos of some of the most important ant collectors in history. He had been asked to help compile a photo gallery for the room that housed the world's largest ant collection. But there was one picture he couldn't find.

"In my student days and beyond we often mentioned a Herr H Overbeck, who was cited in some very significant entomology papers published in the first half of last century," explains Taylor, a researcher in the Research School of Biology.

"We knew he must have been important because several ant species were named after him.
"But no one knew who he actually was. All we knew were his initials and that he had collected ants from an internment camp in Sydney during World War One."

Armed with this meagre information, Taylor headed to the National Archives of Australia to search for Overbeck in the prisoner of war records.

"I was very lucky," he says. "Within 20 minutes not only did I know that the H stood for Hans, but I had a picture of him holding his prison number.

"It was in this enormous photo album, about 30 centimetres thick. It was a singularly exciting moment when I turned that page."

Unaware that the picture was the only known image of Overbeck in existence, Taylor decided to delve further into this intriguing character.

He wrote to the mayor of the city where Overbeck was born - Bremen, in Germany - and soon discovered a whole group of people who were also interested in Overbeck's life, not as an entomologist but as an orientalist.

"We set up a meeting in Bremen; a little conference all about Overbeck. At that point I didn't know he'd written any books and they had no idea he'd been an entomologist," says Taylor.

"Even more amazing is that no one else knew what he looked like. When I put the photo I'd found up on the projector, it was the first one his nephew had ever seen."

Taylor learned that Overbeck had moved to Singapore in 1904 aged 22 to join a German-based mercantile company. He lived there and in the Dutch East Indies for most of his adult life and spent much of his time collecting insects to send back to the Dresden Museum and studying the indigenous cultures.

He was arrested as an 'enemy alien' in 1914 and sent to the Tanglin Barracks Prison Camp in Singapore. After a deadly mutiny a year later, Overbeck was transported to an internment camp near Sydney.

Six photographs of Overbeck, taken by a fellow detainee, were recently published in a book about the camp by Nadine Helmi.

"Nadine did some very clever sleuthing. She realised lots of photos of that period were attributed to the same photographer - Paul Debutsky. So she tracked down Debutsky's daughters in Germany and they happened to have a big collection of his photographs," says Taylor.

"One of them shows Overbeck as an actor on stage surrounded by harem 'girls'.

"You can see from the costumes that they were getting everything they needed to have a very vibrant life in the camp."

Before his release from the camp in 1919, Overbeck also had time to collect ant specimens, write a two-volume German translation of the great Malay epic Hikayat Hang Tuah, document 1,500 Javanese children's songs and study Australian Aboriginal languages.

Overbeck was again taken prisoner in World War Two, this time in Sumatra. He was killed in 1942 when a ship transporting him to India was sunk by the Japanese. When his parents' home in Bremen was bombed two years later, everyone assumed that no photographs of Overbeck existed.

"The whole story is quite remarkable," says Taylor. "Overbeck experienced lots of fascinating situations, places and characters. The Singapore mutiny was held a secret until well after the war. There are still documents with future dates for release."

Taylor's interest in Overbeck's story remains strong 20 years on.

"Once I got into Overbeck's life, it just went on and on and on. I've just found an account of the sinking," he says. "It's very exciting stuff."

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This article appeared in ANU Reporter magazine Autumn 2014. Subscribe for free now.