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Carl Emil Pettersson – the Swedish sailor who became king of Tabar Island in Papua New Guinea

At the beginning of the 20th century, newspapers were filled with stories about the Swedish man who became the king of Tabar Island. Each day the stories about his life varied from the realistic to fairy-tales.

Carl Petterson was a Swedish man who sailed the open seas since he was the age of 17. After a six-year-long career at sea, in 1898 he ended up working for the German trading house Neuguinea-Compagnie that owned headquarters in Kokopo, Papua New Guinea. So his job required him to travel to the other side of the world. On Christmas day, in 1904, his ship sank in the Pacific Ocean, close to the Tabar Island.

Pettersson with Singdo and their children

The natives of the island were cannibals, and as seen from their perspective, food arrived for them on the shore. Landing in a hibiscus hedge, Petterson was immediately surrounded by the curious islanders. They might have been prepared to kill him or eat him, but were amazed by the colour of his eyes when he opened them. Unlike any they’d ever seen before, Petterson’s eyes were blue.

So the Islanders let Petterson live. He was strong, charming, and good-looking, and soon the old king’s daughter fell in love with him. After three years, in 1907 he got married to Princess Singdo, the daughter of King Lamy. He became involved in the copra trade and later established his own coconut plantation which he called Teripax.

After the death of King Lamy, Petterson became king of the island. Among his people he was known as “Strong Charley” and he was indeed in a great physical condition.

King Carl E Pettersson in 1907

Petterson was successful in his business and happy in his marriage. He had eight children with Singdo, developed his plantations, and treated his workers well. People from the island liked him and respected him. Unfortunately, his wife died in 1921 of puerperal fever and all his decisions slowly led him to his downfall.

He went back to Sweden in 1922 and met Jessie Louisa Simpson, with whom he returned to Tabar Island and married in 1923. During his absence, the plantation declined, he almost went bankrupt, and both he and his wife suffered from malaria. It was hard for him to get back on his feet, but somehow he did manage to find a gold deposit on Simberi Island. His wife tried to find treatment first in Australia and then in Sweden, but she died of malaria and cancer in Stockholm in 1935. The same year Petterson left Tabar, but he died in Sydney two years later of a heart attack.

Petterson is regarded as Astrid Lindgren’s inspiration for Ephraim Longstocking in her children’s’ books about Pippi Longstocking.

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