Painting of Woermann Steamship

The Woermann Steamship Line of Hamburg

Portrait of Carl Woermann The history of the Woermann shipping line begins with the founding of the trading company “C. Woermann”, Hamburg, Germany, by Carl Woermann on October 1, 1837. Woermann, born in Bielefeld on March 11, 1813, as the son of an owner of a linen company, had already gained a wide knowledge of trading business in his father’s firm when he decided to launch his own company for the import of overseas products. After a few years of trade with South America – where his family had traditionally sold linen since two and a half centuries – but also the West Indies and Australia, Woermann turned to Africa to explore the possibilities that were opening up in Liberia, where a new upper class of locals had begun to establish. In 1849, Woermann’s own brig “Therese Henriette” made her first journey to Liberia, delivering European industrial goods in exchange for local products. Since his first Africa adventure turned out to be successful, another ship, the new schooner “Liberia” specifically designed for the Africa trade, was bought in 1852 and sent to Liberia in 1854 to return loaded with ivory and palm oil. Later in the same year the first branch office in Monrovia was opened. By 1855 the trade with Germany had reached such a level that the Republic of Liberia signed her first trade agreement with the Hanseatic cities of Hamburg, Bremen and Lübeck. Woerman’s Africa trade had been developing well when his business was hit by the trade recession of the year 1857 following the end of the Crimean War. To bring his company back on course, Carl Woermann decided to more or less abandon his worldwide activities in favour of the Africa trade. Expanding along the West African coast, new branch offices were founded in Gabon (1862) and in Cameroon (1868). When Carl Woermann died on June 25, 1880, his company had become an epitome of Africa trade, with a fleet of twelve sailing ships and the brand-new steamship “Aline Woermann”. After Carl’s death he was succeeded by his second son Adolph, born on December 10, 1847 in Hamburg, and part owner of the company since 1874. Not only did Adolph follow in his father’s footsteps; separating the shipping business from the trading company he was also setting out to become head of the world’s largest privately owned shipping line.

Business flag of the trading company Flag of the Woermann Line until 1916, known to represent “Cognac & Whiskey”.

When Adolph Woermann took the lead, C. Woermann was still mainly a trading company. Although they had entered the market as a shipping company as early as 1853 with the bark “Carl”, shipping foreign freight only made up a small fraction of their business. The advent of modern steamships with their much larger cargo space allowed them to intensify the shipping activities. Consequently, Woermann soon began selling their sailing ships to replace them with steamships. Unlike sailing ships, steamships were also fairly independent of weather conditions, making the length of the journeys much more predictable. In 1882, C. Woermann was able to establish a scheduled service to Nigeria, and in 1884 to Cameroon. One year later, Adolph Woermann finally decided that the shipping interests would be served best by founding a dedicated shipping company: the African Steamship Inc., better known as Woermann Line (“Afrikanische Dampfschiffs-Aktiengesellschaft, Woermann-Linie”). Adolph Woermann also intensified a special kind of barter trade his father had begun: delivering brandy, weapons and gunpowder to Africa in exchange for palmoil and caoutchouc. The export of spirits and its implications were not without controversy. When critized for it in the Reichstag in May 1889, Woermann defended himself arguing that it had been exactly the brandy that had enabled Germany to get a foothold in Africa and stay competitive.
In 1888, Adolph Woermann was approached by the government to develop plans for a shipping line for East Africa, and in 1890 the Reichstag granted 900000 marks of subsidies per year for establishing an East African shipping line for the next 10 years. A consortium was formed by several German banks and traders, leading to the foundation of the German East Africa Line (“Deutsche Ost-Afrika Linie, DOAL”) on April 19, 1890. Although Woermann only had a 2.5 percent share in the seed money of six million marks, management was handed over to the Woermann family due to their experience in Africa trade. Eventually, with Adolph Woermann as chairman and his brother Eduard and brother-in-law J.F.E. Bohlen forming the executive board the West and East African shipping lines were practically placed under the same corporate lead.
One of the requirements for receiving the subsidies from the government was the establishment of a mail service. An official postal “clerk” was appointed for each ship and issued with an offical postal cancelation for all mail posted on board, following U.P.U. regulations. It is not exactly known when this mail service commenced operations, but the earliest recorded date so far is 1894.
In 1895, the newly renamed “Woermann Linie GmbH” (Woemann Line Ltd.) formed the “Société Maritime du Congo” in Antwerp for opening up services to the Congo. After merging with the British operated “Compagnie Maritime Belge du Congo” into the now completely Belgian owned “Compagnie Maritime Belge”, Antwerp became the main point of departure and return in Europe of the Woermann Line.
Meanwhile, the expansion of regular services to the south had continued reaching German South-West Africa (today Namibia) in 1891. In 1898, the Woermann Line officially extended its schedule to Swakopmund, where a railroad from Windhoek was nearing completion. Being the only shipping line with a regular service to South-West Africa, the Woermann Line played a keyrole in defeating the Herero uprising in 1904 - and in the campaign of destruction, that followed. To deal with an ever increasing transport volume during the war, Woermann began investing in new ships and in the development of on-site cargo facilities. Within the next three years, the Woermann fleet doubled its capacity from 65000 gross tons to 130000 gross tons. By the end of the war the Woermann Line would be almost solely responsible for the transport of 15000 troops and 11000 horses into the region. Providing a constant supply for the men abroad and transporting that many horses with a loss rate far below what was usual was a logistical masterpiece – and without a serious competitor, Woermann could dictate the price. During a debate in the Reichstag in March 1906 the Woermann Line was accused of having overcharged its services by six million Reichsmark. Although Woermann’s position was supported by Albert Ballin, director of the HAPAG, who stated that the high charges had been justified by extraordinary costs, the Woermann Line was regarded as war profiteer, and Emperor Wilhelm II refused to have any further contact with Adolph Woermann.
After the war was over, the Woermann Line soon found itself struggling with an oversized fleet; the situation got even worse when Menzell & Co., a company mainly serving the Chinese coast in the past, decided to refocus its activities towards West Africa. Although the newly founded Hamburg-Bremer Africa Line (HBAL) was quickly defeated, the threat became real when the HBAL was taken over by one of the most influential German shipping lines, the North German Lloyd of Bremen (“Norddeutscher Lloyd, NDL”). To keep the NDL at arm’s length, Woermann accepted an offer from Albert Ballin: in exchange for taking over eight steam ships from Woermann, the HAPAG would receive 25% of the German liner services to West Africa, to be managed by the Woermann Line. The agreement between the HAPAG, Woermann and the DOAL was signed in 1907. Only one year later the HBAL also entered the joint venture, eliminating any competition between Woermann and the NDL. Once again the German West Africa trade was entirely in the hands of the Woermann Line.

In 1911, Adolph Woermann died at the age of 64. The Woermann Line as well as the trading company kept expanding until 1914. With the outbreak of the First World War all sea routes to West Africa were blocked off. Trading posts and other assets in Cameroon, Liberia and Gaboon were lost and had to be written off. Ships were either stuck in neutral ports, confiscated or even sunk at sea by the allies. In 1916, Adolph Woermann’s successor Eduard Woermann decided that it was unlikely the shipping line would ever be built up again. Concentrating on the trading company, he sold all shares in the Woermann Line and the DOAL to a syndicate company of HAPAG, NDL, Hugo Stinnes and others (HAPAG and NDL became majority shareholders with 37.5% each when they bought Stinnes’ shares in 1921). Although the shipping line had lost any connection with the Woermann family, the new owners decided to keep the name due to its popularity along the African coast, only replacing the initials of the founder on the shipping flag with those of the shipping line, i.e. “W L”.
Two years after the end of the hostilities, the steamer “Pallas” was sent out to reestablish the old links the Germans had in West Africa before the war. The mission was a success, allowing the German shipping lines of HAPAG and NDL, now operating under the name “Deutscher Afrika-Dienst” (German Africa Service) to resume business by regularly calling at West African ports again. In the same year, the trading company C. Woermann returned to Africa when Adolph Woermann’s son Kurt was able to reopen the trading station at Monrovia.
By 1923 the Woermann Line owned nine ships, including a new ship built the year before, the “Adolph Woermann (IV)”. In addition to the branch office in Las Palmas – the only one that had survived the war – new offices were opened in Lagos (Nigeria, 1922), Beira (Mozambique, 1922) and Accra (Ghana, 1923). In 1924 the German Africa Service was strong enough to convince British shipping lines into reviving old agreements that had regulated the Africa service until 1914. Like before, this allowed the shipping lines of both countries to thrive without having to compete with each other. By the time the worldwide economy was hit during the “Great Depression” of the 1930s, the German Africa fleet had grown to a total of eleven passenger steamers and thirteen freighters (Woermann Line, DOAL and HBAL), with fourteen branch offices around the African continent.
After Adolf Hitler seized power in Germany, he decreed a complete reorganization of the German navigation, breaking up the agreements and joint ventures that had been formed during the past decades, and forcing HAPAG and NDL to sell their shares in the German Africa Service to the German Reich. Although the three shipping lines serving Africa would act together as “Deutsche Afrika-Linien”, Woermann Line, DOAL and HBAL basically became independent again, which almost restored the situation from before 1907.
The Woermann Line had just been back on track for a few years, when the outbreak of the Second World War put an end to its success story – again – and this time it would be final. In 1941, the Reich sold its shares in the Woermann Line and DOAL to cigarette producer Philipp F. Reemtsma. Only one year later Reemtsma passed them on to shipping company owner John T. Essberger. After the war Essberger decided to give up the Woermann Line in favor of continuing the DOAL alone under the name Deutsche Afrika-Linien (DAL).

Today, the Woermann Line is history, but the trading company C. Woermann still exists with branch offices in Angola, Ghana and Nigeria, looking back at more than one and a half century of trade in Africa.

  • Literature:
    • Cockrill, Philip: The Woermann Steamship Line of Hamburg. Series Booklet No. 11. Published by House of Antiquity.
    • Brackmann, Karl: Geschichte der Woermann- und Deutschostafrika-Linie. Hamburg, 1935.
    • Bavendamm, Dirk, Günther Jantzen, Gerhard Sendler, Heinrich Woermann & Jürgen Zwernemann: Wagnis Westafrika. Verlag Hanseatischer Merkur, 1987.

Harbor Fee Stamps of the German Steamship Lines Serving West Africa

  • Literature:
    • Erler, Martin & John A. Norton: Catalogue of the Adhesive Revenues of Germany. Published by ORA–Verlag, Icking, Germany.
      1. German Colonies and Overseas Steamship Lines. 37pp.
  • Woermann Linie - DOAL

    Kaigeld=wharfage, Theilschein=charter-party

  • Afrika Linien GmbH

    wharfage stamps of the operating consortium comprising the Woermann Line, DOAL, HAPAG and the Hamburg–Bremen Africa Line.

    • Kaimarken 1910/1921

    • Kaimarken 1919/1922

    • Kaimarken 1919/1922 surcharged

      • 2 M on 60 Pf.
      • 1919/1922
      • 1919/1922
      • 1919/1922
      • 1919/1922
    • additional values 1923

      • 1923
      • 1923
      • 1923
      • 1923
      • 1923

Woermann Line and Trading Company Seals

  • Paper Seals

    envelope seals made from paper came into use around 1850; replacing the usual wax seals at public authorities, they reached the height of their popularity in the first two decades of the 20th century, when it became customary for private businesses as well to have their own seals printed for representative purposes; the typical paper seal was round with a diameter less than two inches, pre-gummed like a stamp and had an embossed imprint showing a crest and the sender’s identification; after 1920, they became less and less common until there were only a few offices left using them in the 1930s.

    • Woermann trading company seals

      • C. Woermann Hamburgca. 1900–1920
      • A. Woermann Monroviaca. 1900–1920
      • A. Woermann Sinoeca. 1900–1920
    • Woermann Line main and branch office seals

      • Woermann-Linie Hamburgca. 1900–1920
      • Woermann-Linie Las Palmasca. 1906–1920
      • Woermann-Linie Lüderitzbuchtca. 1905–WWI

German Seepost Cancelations on Liberian Stamps


Besides stamps being canceled with any of the internal postmarks collectors of Liberian stamps often come across specimens with cancels reading DEUTSCHE SEEPOST or, much less frequently, DEUTSCHE SCHIFFSPOST. Most of these stamps come from mailings sent through the “ship mail services” provided by the Woermann Steamship Line from 1894 to 1939. Instead of relying on the local postal service the sender would hand over his letter or postcard to a ship’s personnel just before the vessel left port. On the West African route, lacking an onboard post office led by government postal personnel, this kind of mail was handled and canceled by the ship’s purser.
By far the most frequent SEEPOST cancels encountered are oval postmarks with LINIE HAMBURG-WESTAFRIKA in the center and Roman numerals at the bottom indicating the ship and ranging from I to LXIII (Cockrill types WA.1 and WA.2). Whether all 63 actually exist on Liberian stamps, is not known.

  • Literature:
    Cockrill, Philip: Handbook series. Published by House of Antiquity.
    1. German Maritime Cancellations on Liberian Stamps. 32pp.
    1. The Woermann Steamship Line of Hamburg. 34pp.
    1. German “Seepost” Cancellations 1886-1939 Part I: The European, North & South Atlantic Routes. 116pp.
    1. German “Seepost” Cancellations 1886-1939 Part II: The African, Asian & Australasian Routes. 116pp.
  • Early Boxed Types

    boxed type 1 boxed type 2
    type 1
    type 2
    • 1882 - 1889 Numerals

      • stamp 32 - type - 2
    • 1892 - 1905 Pictorials

      • stamp 34 - type - 1
      • stamp 35 - type - 2
  • Type WA.1 and WA.2

    WA.1 WA.2
    (without stop)
    (with stop)
    • 1880 Allegory of Liberty

      • stamp 19 - (17.1.96)
      • stamp 20 - XXIII. - (16/9 2)
    • 1881 - 1903 Inland Postage

      • stamp 21 - XXXII
      • stamp 21_red
      • stamp 64
      • stamp 94 - (30.1.09)
      • stamp 128 - XLV.
    • 1892 - 1905 Pictorials

      • stamp 34 - XII. - (4/7.01)
      • stamp 38 - XIX - (11.3.99)
      • stamp 40
      • stamp 42
      • stamp 44
      • stamp 45 - XIX - (21.3.02)
      • stamp 50 - XIX - (10.12.06)
      • stamp 54
      • stamp 54a
      • stamp 55
      • stamp 56 - XXVIII - (9.6.07)
      • stamp 57
      • stamp 58 - (20.6.04)
      • stamp 59 - XXIII.
      • stamp 60
      • stamp 61 - XXIV.
      • stamp 62 - XVII. - (11.9.11)
      • stamp 62_light_blue - XXVII.
      • stamp 91
      • stamp 95
      • stamp 97 - (x/5.12)
      • stamp 98
      • stamp 99 - XX
      • stamp O1
      • stamp O2 - XLII.
      • stamp O15 - XXXII.
      • stamp O22
      • stamp O29
      • stamp O30
      • stamp O32
      • stamp O35 - (15.5.03)
      • stamp O36_light_blue
      • stamp O37 - I.
      • stamp O38
      • stamp O40
      • stamp O42
      • stamp O45
    • 1903 Gibson Registered

      • stamp F13b
      • stamp F14 - XXXX. - (1.10.04)
    • 1906 Pictorials

      • stamp 101 - [LVII - (11.4.13)]
      • stamp 102 - LVI - (29.4.12)
      • stamp 103 - (x.x.07)
      • stamp 104 - [XIX - (3.5.09)]
      • stamp 105 - XIX - (x.x.09)
      • stamp 107
      • stamp 109
      • stamp 111
      • stamp 114
      • stamp O46 - XX. - (29.4.09)
      • stamp O47
      • stamp O48
      • stamp O49 - XXXII.
      • stamp O50 - XX - (12.5.06)
      • stamp O53 - XIX - (31.1.09)
      • stamp O54 - XXXII. - (23.7.09)
    • 1906 Revenues

      • stamp PC16
      • stamp PC18 - XIII. - (31.x.07)
      • stamp PC24 - XXVII. - (14/0x.x6)
    • 1909 - 1912 Pictorials

      • stamp 115 - LVI - (29.4.12)
      • stamp 116
      • stamp 117 - XLV. - (17.9.13)
      • stamp 118
      • stamp 121
      • stamp 122 - XXXIV - (01.12.11)
      • stamp O59 - XV. - (10.11.12)
      • stamp O60 - XLV.
      • stamp O61 - (28.2.11)
      • stamp O67
      • stamp O69
      • stamp O70 - VII - (x.1.12)
    • 1918 Pictorials

      • stamp 163 - XXXI.
      • stamp 165 - XX. - (4.3.27)
      • stamp 167 - LIX - (22.4.26)
      • stamp O100
      • stamp O103 - XXI - (1.3.24)
      • stamp O111 - XXXI.
    • 1921 Pictorials

      • stamp 184 - LXIII. - (11/11.26)
      • stamp 185 - (x.12.24)
    • 1923 Landing of First Settlers at Cape Mesurado

      • stamp 211
    • 1923 Pictorials

      • stamp 214 - XXIX - (7.7.25)
      • stamp 217 - LXIII. - (x.6.24)
      • stamp 224 - XXXI. - (1.11.25)
      • stamp O144 - XXI - (1.3.24)
    • 1928 Pictorials

      • stamp 231
      • stamp 232 - (20/2.31)
      • stamp 233 - (25.11.34)
      • stamp 234 - XXXI. - (28.2.29)
      • stamp O158
      • stamp O159 - (21.8.29)
      • stamp O161
  • Type WA.3

    • 1921 Pictorials

      • stamp 184 - (17.3.27)
    • 1923 Pictorials

      • stamp 217 - (x.12.25)
  • Type WA.4

    • 1918 Pictorials

      • stamp 164
  • Type WA.5

    • 1921 Pictorials

      • stamp 194
      • stamp 201
    • 1923 Pictorials

      • stamp 223
    • 1936 First Air Mail Service

      • stamp C3A - (15.6.37)
      • stamp C3B - (15.6.37)
      • stamp C3D_C3F - (15.6.37)
    • 1936 Overprinted Pictorials

      • stamp 248 - (15.6.37)