Otto Honigmann: An Introduction

by Dr Michaela Appel

Otto Honigmann (1879-1959) was from a renowned Aachen family of mine-owners. He was born the third son of Moritz and Marie Honigmann on September 7, 1879 in Grevenberg, now known as Würselen. Moritz Honigmann (1844-1918) was a chemist and industrialist who improved sodium carbonate production and developed the ammonia soda process named after him. He first put the process into practice at his father’s mine in Grevenberg, near Aachen, and in 1876 built the first German ammonia soda plant which, under his leadership, grew to become a large business concern. He sold the plant in 1912, probably to Solvay, a company with its own soda process which had, by then, replaced others.

Otto Honigmann and his friends in a houseboat in Dal Lake Srinagar in 1911. Photograph from the book

Although Otto Honigmann had studied chemistry, he did not want to go into his father’s business in 1912. He fought in the First World War 1914-1918 and afterwards settled down in the Bavarian town of Bad Tölz where the family probably initially only spent their summer holidays. After the sale of the soda plant in 1912, Moritz Honigmann bought several properties there and made them over to his children.

Otto Honigmann married in 1920, but his first wife, Gerda Schulte, died in childbirth just one year later. The remaining family coal mines seem to have been sold during the economic crises of the nineteen twenties and thirties. It is likely that the inflation brought about by the financial crisis may well have led Otto Honigmann to take over the Alpenhotel Kogel, a Bad Tölz hotel owned by his family since 1913 but initially leased out to tenants. He ran this hotel with the help of his second wife, Gina Franz, my grandmother, until his death on January 28, 1959.

Otto Honigmann’s comfortable background enabled him to undertake three major overseas expeditions in the years preceding the First World War. The first took place in 1907 in the company of his friend, August Ferber, to Ceylon, Singapore, Siam and Burma. In 1910 he travelled alone to British Columbia and Alberta, Canada.

The third and longest expedition, which had been planned as a hunting trip, like the one to Canada, took him in May 1911 to Kashmir, Ladakh and Baltistan with his younger brother Friedrich and Rudolf Haniel. The three travellers went their separate ways in October 1911, and Otto Honigmann decided to spend the winter of 1911/1912 alone in Ladakh and Baltistan, not returning to Europe until May 1912. He may have been inspired to make this journey by his friend, August Ferber, a cloth manufacturer and mountaineer from Aachen, and his cousin Eduard Honigmann. These two had climbed the Mustagh Pass in Karakoram together in 1903. Alongside the hunting trophies, a number of acquisitions made on these trips have remained in the family, as well as about 200 photographs from Kashmir, Ladakh and Baltistan. Otto Honigmann had most of these photographs mounted in a bound album and the captions have been preserved in their original state for this exhibition and accompanying book.

Otto Honigmann and his companions must have used several cameras, such as a wooden camera and tripod, with 24×30 format glass plates, some of which still exist, a Gaumont brand stereo camera which can be seen in its bag in the book, (page 91, Plate 42) as well as a roll film camera. It is hard for us to grasp the logistical complexity of transporting sensitive photography equipment, never letting it get wet, not to mention carrying hundreds of heavy glass plates across these mountains in winter.

Otto Honigmann followed in the tracks of a number of famous European travellers and researchers. The first of these was Frenchman, François Bernier, who, as personal physician to the Mughal Emperor Auranzgeb during 1664 and 1665, travelled in his entourage throughout Kashmir. British explorers Alexander Cunningham, Henry Strachey and Thomas Thomson were commissioned in 1847 to research Ladakh, and the Schlagintweit brothers from Munich were commissioned from 1854 to 1857 by the British East India Company to investigate India and Central Asia, including Kashmir and Ladakh.

Traveller and writer Edward Frederick Knight toured Kashmir, Ladakh and Baltistan in 1891, and Moravian Church missionary, August Hermann Francke, arrived in 1896. Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria visited Kashmir in 1898 and in 1906 Sven Hedin started his trip to Kashmir and Ladakh. Arthur Neves’ 1899 publication entitled Tourist’s Guide to Kashmir, Ladakh and Skardo went into its eighth edition in 1911.

Kashmir Ladakh Baltistan 1911-1912 Photographs by Otto Honigmann

Otto Honigmann’s personal collection of books includes: A Summer in High Asia by FES. Adair (1899), Sport and Life in the Further Himalaya by RL Kennion (1910), A History of Western Tibet by AH. Francke (1907), A Seidel’s Praktische Grammatik der Hindustani-Sprache, a guide to the grammar of the Hindustani language (publication date unknown), and John Murray’s Guide to India, Burma and Ceylon, published in 1907. The latter was probably purchased early on by Honigmann for his first Asian journey. These and other publications supplement Otto Honigmann’s own observations on the first part of the journey which can be found in two letters to his parents, written in May and June 1911, as well as in a four page, undated document typed up later. The second part of the journey, when Otto Honigmann travelled alone, is verified by twenty-one letters to his mother, written between October 1911 and May 1912.

Dr Michaela Appel, the granddaughter of Otto Honigmann, who authored the book and brought the exhibition to Ladakh. She heads the Department of South Asia, Southeast Asia and Australia at the Museum Fünf Kontinente, Munich, Germany

Otto Honigmann’s photographs are now part of the collection of the Five Continents Museum in Munich, Germany. My thanks to my colleagues Jürgen Wasim Frembgen, Bruno J. Richtsfeld and Wolfgang Stein for allowing me to work on Otto Honigmann’s photographs and letters myself, and for being at my side with their knowledge, support and advice, all of which has helped inform the photograph captions. I would like also to thank Max Klimburg of Vienna for helping identify a number of photographs of Baltistan. And finally, I would like to thank Dr Leah Bohle and Prof Dr Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin of Basel in Switzerland who had the initial idea for this project. I grew up with these photographs of my grandfather and it means a lot to me that through their initiative I have the opportunity to bring them back to Leh.

(The author is head of the Department of South Asia, Southeast Asia and Australia at the Museum Fünf Kontinente, Munich, Germany)

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