The Stolen Island: Searching for `Ata by Scott Hamilton (BWB Texts/Bridget Williams Books, 2016), 112 pp., $14.99
The term ‘blackbirding’ has usually been associated with the capture and enslavement of people in Africa to be transported to the United States for enforced labour and abuse in the southern states. However, The Oxford English Reference Dictionary defines it as ‘Blackbird: a kidnapped black or Polynesian on a slave ship’, and it is the history of Polynesian blackbirding that Scott Hamilton’s new book deals with. Previous publications have documented slavery of the nineteenth century in the Pacific, for example, Edward W. Docker’s 1970 book, The Blackbirders: A brutual story of the Kanaka slave-trade, which dealt with the ‘recruiting’ of South Seas labour for Queensland between 1863 and 1907. Also, in his 2007 book, The White Pacific, Gerald Horne reconstructs the history of blackbirding (slave trading) in the Pacific region. He examines the role of US citizens (many of them ex-slaveholders and ex-confederates) in the trade, and its roots in Civil War dislocations after emancipation of slaves. The origins of a White Australian policy and the rise of Japan as a Pacific power are also discussed. New Zealand played an active, if somewhat incidental, part in this human trafficking, with cutters, ketches, schooners and, later, larger ships leaving New Zealand ports for the New Hebrides and the Solomon Islands, forcing or conning Islanders onto their vessels, then delivering them to planters in Queensland or Fiji.
Scott Hamilton’s book, The Stolen Island, deals with this larger issue by focusing on a particular incident pertaining to the story of a small island called `Ata, part of the larger Tongan group. Hamilton describes how an Australian whaler, the Grecian, anchored offshore in June 1863. The Grecian, a 27-metre whaling ship painted a martial black and white, is captained by Tasmanian whaler Thomas McGrath, who yells an invitation to the assembled Islanders to come on board to trade pigs, chickens, sugar cane, yams and potatoes for rum, tobacco, pipes, knives, hooks and hoes. Almost 150 men, women and children paddle or swim out to the ship. Once on board they are invited to share a feast below deck, but as soon as they descend the stairs, the trapdoors are slammed shut and the ship sails away with about half the population of `Ata locked in its hold. This is a truly shocking part of the book, akin to the images we see daily on the news about present-day trafficking of people from Syria and other war-torn regions of the world.
Once the exits were locked McGrath then delivered the people to a waiting slave ship, the General Prim, bound for Peru. Somewhere between the Kermadec Islands 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 and they were dumped on the Samoan island of Tutuila, leaving a crew of only 16. After their `Ata raid, the remaining crew tried the same tactics at Niuafo`ou, where 30 more Islanders were enticed into the Grecian’s hold. McGrath set sail for the Peruvian slave market at Callao, nicknamed ‘the jaws of hell’.
By the time McGrath arrived the Peruvian government had abolished the law allowing the enslavement of Pacific people. The `Ata Islanders, along with hundreds of other captives, were locked in a warehouse where many of them succumbed to the smallpox epidemic ravaging the city at the time. 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’. The prisoners were then labelled a medical threat by the captain of the returning vessel and dumped on the remote Cocos Island, where all but 38 perished. The island of `Ata remains a rocky isle, now uninhabited, with its 19th-century ruins. And New Zealand’s long-forgotten role as a stocking-up port of call in the Pacific Islands slave trade has now been revealed in Hamilton’s book The Stolen Island: Searching for `Ata.
One hundred and fifty years after the events at `Ata, Scott Hamilton was teaching at Tonga’s `Atenisi Institute in Nuku`alofa. He took a group of students to `Eua Island, to which the remaining `Atans had been evacuated more than a century earlier, and where they had established their own settlement named Kolomaile after the village they’d left behind. Intrigued by this strange chapter of Tonga’s history, Hamilton rifled through obscure texts in the `Atenisi library’s uncatalogued shelves, and searched ‘Tongans stolen by Thomas McGrath’ on the internet. Hamilton scoured 19th-century newspaper articles, shipping reports, genealogical records and missionaries’ diaries in a bid to unravel the mystery of the stolen Islanders. He also listened to local stories on the subject shared over family meals and around the kava bowl.
Hamilton explains his approach to history as it developed during the writing of The Stolen Island: ‘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.’ In fact, as if to prove to himself that the ‘kava’ healing process worked (like a North American Indian peace pipe, or the reconciliation favoured by Nelson Mandela), Hamilton tracked down McGrath’s great-great-grandson in Tasmania, who gave him an undated photo of his 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 at that point.
In The Stolen Island the author shows how New Zealand also served as a destination for the slaves. Hamilton describes a 19th-century photograph showing a group of black-skinned men standing apparently at a flax mill in the Hokianga. Records show that in 1870, 27 men from the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) 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?’
Scott has presented a view of a long-forgotten part of Pacific and New Zealand history that is often intriguing and disturbing, but above all offers a very readable human story of how greed and inhumanity of one generation can be understood and forgiven by the application of aroha in its full meaning of the term. Like many New Zealanders, Hamilton subconsciously thought New Zealand was morally better than Australia or America in not having had a slaving colonial history, so his is a work of historical revisionism. Scott Hamilton has a PhD in sociology and has published books and essays about British socialism, Tongan art, kava drinking, and New Zealand history. The Stolen Island sits well in the new series of BWB Texts, which are short books on big subjects by New Zealand writers. Commissioned as digital-first works, a wide array of these ‘texts’ are unlocking diverse stories, insights and analysis, and include, notably, works by Albert Wendt, Prue Hyman and Veronika Meduna.
MICHAEL O’LEARY is a novelist, poet, writer and small-press publisher based on the Kapiti Coast. He has a PhD from Victoria University of Wellington. His Collected Poems 1981–2016 has just been published by HeadworX Publishing.