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Blackbirding: New Zealand's shameful role in the Pacific Islands slave trade


This country’s shameful and long-forgotten role in the Pacific Islands slave trade has been revealed in the new book The Stolen Island: Searching for ‘Ata.

June, 1863. The Grecian, a 27m whaling ship painted a martial black and white, anchors off the western coast of ‘Ata, a small, rocky island in the far south of the Tonga archipelago. The captain, Tasmanian whaler Thomas McGrath, yells an invitation to the assembled islanders to come on board to trade.

Nothing unusual here. The ‘Atan population of about 300 are used to trading with passing vessels – pigs, chickens, sugar cane, yams and potatoes for rum, tobacco, pipes, knives, hooks and hoes. Almost 150 men, women and children paddle out to the ship. Some swim. On board they are invited to share a feast (or, some say, view the wares) below deck. But as soon as they descend the stairs, the trapdoors slam shut and the ship sails away with about half the population of ‘Ata locked in its hold.

Jump forward 150 years. New Zealand poet and historian Scott Hamilton was teaching at Tonga’s ‘Atenisi Institute in Nuku‘alofa. He took a group of students to ‘Eua Island, where the remaining ‘Atans had been evacuated to more than a century earlier, establishing their own settlement, named Kolomaile after the village they’d left behind.

Intrigued by this strange chapter of Tonga’s history, he rifled through obscure texts in the ‘Atenisi library’s uncatalogued shelves, searching “Tongans stolen by Thomas McGrath” using dial-up connections in internet cafes. Back in New Zealand, he scoured 19th-century newspaper articles, shipping reports, genealogical records and missionaries’ diaries in a bid to unravel the mystery of the stolen islanders. “I was becoming obsessed with ‘Ata,” he says.

Island labourers loading sugar cane in Queensland.

Hamilton returned to Tonga in 2015 with his wife and two sons, hoping to augment his academic approach to the research – in 2009, he completed his PhD, on British ­historian, politician, peace activist and writer EP Thompson – with local stories shared over family meals and around the kava bowl.

“There are two different types of history – there is history on paper and there is history in people’s mouths. I didn’t know how to reconcile them. I bounced from one to the other, but I try really hard in the book to not pretend to be something I’m not. I’m a palagi through and through, not an insider but an outsider.”

The book, The Stolen Island, tracks the Grecian’s journey from its departure from Hobart in December 1861 to a stop­over in Wellington in early 1863, where most of the crew promptly deserted. Using profits from the sale of whale oil, McGrath stocked up on food and liquor before sailing east to the Chatham Islands, where he recruited a score of new hands, including two Portuguese and a group of Maori, to hunt for whales along the New Zealand coast.

But instead, he sailed north into tropical waters. Somewhere between the Kermadecs and ‘Ata , he told his crew the whaling trade was unprofitable because whales were becoming harder and harder to find. There was more money in selling slaves into the plantations and estates of Peru than in “hunting fish”.

Eight of his crew refused to be part of a slave-trading operation – they were dumped on the Samoan island of Tutuila, leaving a crew of only 16. After their ‘Ata raid, the crew tried the same tactics at Niuafo‘ou, where 30 more islanders were enticed into the Grecian’s hold.

From there, McGrath set sail for the Peruvian slave market at Callao, nicknamed “the jaws of hell”. On the way, he sold his captives to the Peruvian slave ship General Prim. According to a diplomatic report, 174 “colonists” arrived from the “island of Frinately” (presumably, a Peruvian mispronunciation of Friendly) on July 9, 1863.

By then, however, the Peruvian Government had abolished the law allowing the enslavement of Pacific people. The ‘Atans, along with hundreds of other captives, were locked in a warehouse, where many succumbed to the smallpox epidemic ravaging the city. Others, writes Hamilton, may have died from sheer despair: “In the storerooms of plantations and the attics of grand homes, the islanders lay down and waited for death. Neither whips nor bread would make them work.”

 Conflicting memories

In October that year, 429 islanders were put on to the Adelante, but rather than returning his ailing passengers to their homelands as promised, the captain abandoned them on the island of Cocos near Costa Rica. Some weeks later, a Peruvian warship picked up the 38 who had not succumbed to smallpox and left them in Paita in the far north of Peru.

From here, the trail peters out, obscured by conflicting memories, rumours and superstition. Some say the stolen ‘Atans were taken to the US. According to one source, they “lived in Amelika … Their descendants still live in Amelika. They have their own society there.” There is a bizarre report of a man on the banks of the Panama Canal telling a passing seaman, “I am Tongan. I am from ‘Ata, from the island of ‘Ata.”

 1892 engraving of traders invelging Islanders to go to Queensland.

There are clues that some returned to the South Pacific, perhaps hitching a ride with US soldiers during the World War II, secretly returning to Kolomaile to give money to their relatives (South American coins have been found in Polynesia). How were they recognised if they returned secretly? “The ‘Atans have six fingers on their hands,” he was told, “six toes on each foot.”

In 1936, a French yachtsman met a woman on the island of Rapa Iti who said she was descended from a former slave taken from the Tongan island of Niuatoputapu to South America (in 1863, the former slave ship Barbara Gomez returned a small number of indentured or kidnapped slaves to the islands of Rapa Nui and Rapa Iti).

In 1945, an elderly German recalled meeting a Tongan man in Auckland in 1894. The man explained he was an ‘Atan who had been kidnapped, taken to Chile (not Peru) and made to work there for 15 years before escaping to Auckland.

And McGrath? After he sold his slaves to the General Prim, reports place him chasing whales in Fiji, sailing down the South Island’s west coast, anchoring at Rakiura (Stewart Island) then sailing to Campbelltown (later Bluff), where he was arrested and found guilty not of slave trading but of customs breaches. In 1881, a Hobart newspaper reported a whaler, John McGrath, travelling to Tahiti, where his father, Thomas, was ill. A certificate records that Thomas James McGrath died in Papeete the following year.

Captain Thomas McGrath.

Hamilton tracked down McGrath’s great-great-grandson in Tasmania, who gave him an undated photo of his “bad and nasty” ancestor.

“I suggested that he might like to come to Tonga with me,” writes Hamilton, “and drink kava with the descendants of the survivors of the raid on ‘Ata.” But McGrath’s great-great-grandson stopped replying to his emails.

Hard labour

The Stolen Island is a gripping and appalling story, an ethnographic mystery told with all the urgency of Coleridge’s aged mariner. But the ripples from these events extend far beyond the red teardrop in a screen of blue that marks ‘Ata on Google maps.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, thousands of islanders were transported from their homes to plantations and towns in Queensland, Fiji, Tahiti and New Cale­donia. Some went willingly, to escape war or social disgrace. Others were kidnapped or tricked into signing contracts that committed them to years of hard labour for little reward.

By the end of the 1870s, Queensland’s extensive cotton and sugar plantations had earned the name “the second Louisiana” – following the emancipation of southern slaves in the US, some plantation owners fled to South America and the Pacific, trying to recreate the society they had lost. In his book The White Pacific, Gerald Horne describes ex-Confederates establishing a branch of the Ku Klux Klan in Fiji.

It was called blackbirding, this Pacific trade in slaves, after the Australian word for the abduction of Aboriginals. And New Zealand played an active part.

Cutters, ketches, schooners and, later, larger ships left New Zealand ports for archipelagos such as the New Hebrides and the Solomons, forcing or conning islanders onto their vessels, then delivering them to planters in Queensland or Fiji. In 1868, John Thurston, the British Consul in Fiji, reported that nine New Zealand ships had recently called there with human cargoes. A year later, his successor listed another seven New Zealand-owned blackbirding vessels active in Fiji.

New Zealand also served as a destination. Hamilton describes a 19th-century photograph showing a group of men, black-skinned, standing apparently at a flax mill in the Hokianga. Records show that, in 1870, 27 men from the New Hebridean (now Vanuatuan) island of Efate had arrived on the Lulu – a schooner owned by explorer Francis Cadell, who later commanded a ship during the Waikato War – supposedly agreeing to work for three years in exchange for £10 worth of trade goods. When work at the flax mills dried up, the Efateans were sent to the estates of wealthy Auckland businessmen.

“I was beginning to look at Auckland differently,” writes Hamilton. “How many of the city’s grand 19th-century buildings – the places that are now art galleries, museums or five-star sanatoriums – had been the prisons of imported labourers? How many wharves and boatyards had been laid out with profits from blackbirding? And where were the plaques, museum exhibits and accounts of this history?”

There was outrage at the time. The New Zealand Herald insisted that “no one can pretend these niggers are here of their free will”, but the writer’s main concern was not exploitation but the “manners and habits of these woolly barbarians”.

“I suppose I always unconsciously bought into that notion of New Zealand being better than Australia or America in not having that slaving history,” says Hamilton. “It was further depressing to discover a lot of opposition to the slavery was motivated by feelings of racial repugnance.”

A black cloud

On his readingthemaps blog, Hamilton quotes poet Kendrick Smithyman: “The map says the road ends there. Not true.”

There is more research to do on the Pacific slave trade and the plight of the ‘Atans, tantalising hints, says Hamilton, “that could be dead ends or could be something more – you really have to run down the alley to find out if it is a blind alley.”

But in unravelling at least part of the story of the missing ‘Atans, Hamilton hopes to alleviate the burden of shame borne by many descendants.

“There are people who have been carrying the weight of this around on their backs for almost 154 years and it continues to be a black cloud over whole families.”

In his book, he repeats the stories told to him in ‘Eua, that palagi slavers paid Paula Vehi, the ‘Atan chief or Tupouata, to help them steal ‘Ata’s people, that he was “‘Ata’s Judas”. That mantle of blame, he found, still lies with Vehi’s descendants.

“Tongans have a word called laukovi, meaning bad gossip. I hoped that by using the archives I could produce some evidence to take some of the laukovi away, to take the burden from some of the people that have been blamed for the tragedy. It is absurd to think [Vehi] was liaising with these whalers, but I think he became a scapegoat for the disaster.”

Similarly, women of ‘Atan descent are teased about their ancestors selling their women to whalers. But in a whaler’s journal, Hamilton found evidence to the contrary. “He visited ‘Ata in the 1840s and he said it is very hard to get a woman here – you have to basically marry them.”

The book will also, he hopes, address the “complex process of forgetting” that has previously buried New Zealand’s role in the Pacific slave trade. This might  pave the way for a public acknowledgement of our involvement, not necessarily by way of an apology, but perhaps a memorial to the raid on ‘Ata and “the other degradations New Zealanders were involved in in the blackbirding trade”.

He likens it to historian Dick Scott’s 1975 work on Parihaka (Ask That Mountain), which was once an obscure piece of history, and is now a recognised chapter in our story.

Such an acknowledgement, he believes, would also encourage a review of how New Zealand treats Pacific people today. He describes the experiences of the several thousand Ni-Vanuatu who come to New Zealand to work in vineyards and kiwifruit orchards through the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme (RSE).

“In Vanuatu, I became very aware of how important the RSE scheme is to their economy – it is everyone’s dream to get on this scheme, yet many people are exploited and have unhappy experiences.

“If we can change our view of the Pacific, and see Pacific peoples as part of our neighbourhood – not ‘other’ – [we would] welcome them here when they come to work in the RSE scheme, rather than what we do at present, such as denying them public healthcare, making them take out private health insurance and paying them just under the minimum wage.

“It sounds pompous, but I feel I have been on a bit of a journey. I used to imagine New Zealand was floating in the ocean somewhere between Britain and America. Now I strongly feel we are part of the Pacific, we are a Pacific nation.”

THE STOLEN ISLAND: SEARCHING FOR ‘ATA, by Scott Hamilton (Bridget Williams Books, $14.99)

This article was first published in the December 17, 2016 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.