Over the last few years I've been trying to learn more about New Zealand's role in the nineteenth century Pacific slave trade. I've lectured in Tonga about the slave raids on that country in 1863, and Bridget Williams will be publishing my book on the subject in December.
I've also been trying to learn about the Melanesians who were brought to New Zealand as indentured labourers in the later decades of the nineteenth century.
About sixty thousand Melanesians, almost all of them from Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, were brought to Queensland to toil in that state's sugarfields in the nineteenth century. Today, the descendants of some of these 'blackbirded' labourers make up Australia's South Sea Islander community. In Vanuatu and in the Solomons many families remember ancestors who suffered in Queensland. Historians have told the story of Queensland's bonded labourers in essays and books and documentary films.
But the stories of the Melanesians who were brought to New Zealand have seldom been told. Only a relatively small number of Melanesians came to this country, and few of them stayed here permanently. But their presence prompted debates in the media and in parliament, and led to the creation of an historic set of photographs.
Next month I'll be travelling to Vanuatu. I'm hoping to place a set of papers relating to New Zealand's Melanesian labourers in the archives of the famous Vanuatu Cultural Centre.
The largest group of Melanesian labourers arrived in New Zealand in 1870 from the island of Efate. Reproduced below is a timeline that tries to explain how and why the Efateans came to New Zealand, and what they experienced here. The timeline is still very incomplete, and I've sprinkled it with research questions.
I've shown the timeline to my friend Christine Liava'a, who has been researching the same subject, to a few members of New Zealand's ni-Van community, and to Clive Moore, the Australian academic who has spent his career studying the indentured labourers of Queensland. If anyone else would like to discuss or to see some of the material I've gathered on Melanesian labourers in New Zealand and on blackbirding in general, then they can e mail me at email@example.com
The Lulu labourers and New Zealand: an unfinished timeline
12 July 1869
Southern Cross reports that a ‘large scale’ flax mill will soon be built by
‘Messrs Walker and Reid’ in the Hokianga. The mill will stand at Waiarohia, a
place halfway between Opononi and Omapere near the southern head of Hokianga
harbor. Many mills are being built around the country, as prices for flax rise
6 December 1869
The New Zealand
Herald reports that Walker and Reid have held a large party to celebrate the
opening of their mill at Waiarohia, and notes that the two men already have
access to eight hundred acres of flax plants.
20 December 1869
A schooner named Lulu
is launched at Onehunga’s port, in a ceremony attended by some of Auckland’s
wealthiest businessmen. The daughter of Thomas Russel, a key proponent of the
Waikato War and the founder of the Bank of New Zealand and the legal firm
Russel McVeigh, has the honour of breaking a champagne bottle against the
boat’s hull. Francis Cadell, an early explorer of Australia’s rivers who
commanded a ship during the Waikato War, is named as the owner of the Lulu, though it is unlikely he would
have been able to pay for the ship’s construction. Cadell will soon return to
Australia, and in 1876 he will be arrested and removed from Western Australia
for enslaving Aboriginals.
The Auckland businessman Edward Brissenden leases
nearly four hundred acres beside the Waitakere River in the Te Henga area of
West Auckland. Brissenden will spend eight months building and running a mill
on the land, before a legal challenge to his right to lease the land forces him
to end operations.
13 March 1870
After making a few voyages along the New Zealand
coast, the Lulu leaves Picton bound
for the New Hebrides. The schooner carries a man named Young, who is charged
with recruiting workers for Edward Brissenden’s flax mill at Waitakere. The Lulu stops at Norfolk Island on the 22nd
of March, and reaches Noumea two days later.
The Governor of New Zealand, Sir George Bowen, tours
Northland, and takes a cruise down the Hokianga harbour. Reports of Bowen’s
cruise mention that the other passengers in the boat recognised the flax mill
of Waiarohia as they moved towards the heads of the harbor.
The Lulu reaches
Aneityum, in the far south of the New Hebrides. The locals refuse contact, and
so the vessel continues to Tanna, which
it reaches on the 9th of April. Large numbers of Tannese board the ship to
trade, but they refuse offers of recruitment, so the Lulu pushes on to Efate, which it reaches on the 13th.
But the Efateans, too, refuse recruitment, telling the Lulu’s crew that they have been mistreated after journeying to Australia
Two Tannese and one Efatean do join the ship as interpreters, and
chiefs at Efate agree to produce recruits in exchange for rewards. The Lulu encounters a schooner from Sydney
called the Zephyr, which has been
trying unsuccessfully to recruit labour for Fiji’s canefields, then moves
north, through the small islands near Efate to Ambrym, Malekula, and Pentecost.
At Pentecost crew
members land to try to recruit, but have to retreat when arrows are fired at them. They escape without injury, and the Lulu
returns to Efate. On the 27th of April, at Havannah harbour,
nine men board the ship. Twelve men join the boat at Mele Bay, and two at
Pango peninsula. The Lulu sails south
with twenty-seven recruits, stops at Tanna to pick up a European passenger named
Miss Chapman, then leaves the New Hebrides.
25 April 1870
John Coleridge Patteson, the Anglican Bishop of
Melanesia and a loud opponent of blackbirding, arrives in Auckland to recover
from an illness. Patteson is soon living with Governor George Bowen in central
Auckland’s Government House. At least one of Patteson’s biographers has suggested that he was aware of the controversy around the Lulu’s voyage that
began after the ship arrived in Auckland in May 1870.
Question: did Patteson influence
Bowen’s attitude to blackbirding? And do documents that show him intervening in
the arguments about the Lulu and its passengers survive in the massive archive
at the Kinder Library of St Johns theological college in East Auckland?
20 May 1870
arrives at Auckland’s Waitemata port. According to a report in the Daily
Southern Cross, it carries ‘twenty-seven South Sea Islanders’ who ‘are to be
employed at a flax mill in Waitakere’ for a ‘period of three years’ after which
‘they must be returned to their homes’.
21 May 1870
Southern Cross publishes a very long and detailed account of the journey of
the Lulu, which it says is based upon
a diary kept by ‘Captain Ponsonby’ whom it describes as the ship’s ‘navigator’. Ponsonby
admits that the Lulu’s crew used ‘douceurs’, or bribes, to secure labourers
from Efate and Nguna, after visiting all of the major islands of the New
Hebrides and failing to recruit workers.
Question: how far can we trust this text,
when we remember that other New Zealand mariners involved in blackbirding, like
the notorious Thomas McGrath, who took slaves at two Tongan islands in 1863,
offered false details of their voyages to the media? On the other hand, does
Ponsonby’s apparently incriminating admission of bribery suggest that he was
24 May 1870
Southern Cross editorialises against ‘the introduction of contract
labourers from the South Sea Islands to New Zealand’, claiming that it is
‘impossible to suppose’ the men on the Lulu came here ‘voluntarily’, and
predicting that these ‘Pagan and Debased’ visitors ‘will toil at their masters’
mills’ and be ‘scantily fed and clothed’.
24 May 1870
Southern Cross publishes, under the headline ‘Polynesian Labour for Auckland’, a letter condemning imported South Sea Island workers as a threat to
the economy of New Zealand. According to the correspondent, who signs himself
Operarius, which is Latin for ‘Worker’ or ‘Working’, South Sea Islanders are
not paid enough and do not spend enough time in their host countries to
stimulate the economy there. New Zealand can only become prosperous if it
imports white workers, lets them stay permanently, and pays them reasonable
Question: was Operarius
expressing the views of New Zealand’s embryonic trade union movement? We know
that, during the early decades of the twentieth century, New Zealand’s unions
frequently took an anti-immigrant line, supporting the White Defence League and
at one point warning of the danger of indentured labourers from Niue.
10 June 1870
Post editorialises against the importation of South Sea Island
labourers to New Zealand. The Post compares
the labourers imported by the Lulu to
slaves, and calls for legislation, so that the importation of more labourers
can ‘be nipped in the bud’.
30 June 1870
Sir George Bowen, the Governor of New Zealand, sends a
dispatch to London describing the arrival of the Lulu and expressing opposition to the ship’s mission. Bowen
attaches a memorandum from New Zealand Premier William Fox promising an
investigation into the Lulu and into
the issue of imported labour.
c. July 1870
After the closure of the mill at Waitakere, eleven of
the ni-Vanuatu are sent to the flax mill Walker and Reid are running in the
Hokianga, while twelve are despatched to Puriri, a settlement near Thames,
where Edward Brissenden has another mill.
Southern Cross published a letter that claims ‘a certain schooner’ is about
to leave New Zealand for the islands on a blackbirding mission. The
correspondent, who signs himself ‘Old Colonist’, threatens to publish the names
of the ‘parties’ to this venture.
21 September 1870
The New Zealand Herald publishes a long article called
‘Disgusting Results of Imported South Sea Labour’. The Herald suggests that the ‘niggers’ brought to Auckland on the Lulu
may have been kidnapped. Instead of showing sympathy for the ni-Vanuatu,
though, the Herald condemns them as ‘woolly barbarians’ whose ‘manners and
faults’ are an ‘outrage’ to New Zealand. The Herald claims it has received
letters that describe the South Sea Islanders exhuming the bodies of animals
that have died from disease, and devouring these animals ‘greedily’. It also
repeats claims that the islanders have ‘scoured the creeks and landed putrid
carrion’ on which ‘they have feasted exaltingly’. The Herald suggests that the
islanders’ employers have not looked after them, and that they have become
‘naked and depressed’ and a ‘public nuisance’.
Question: is the Herald’s disturbing article evidence that the
ni-Vanuatu had been neglected, or even abandoned, in the middle months of 1870,
when the flax mill where they were supposed to work at Waitakere was closing
26 September 1870
A fire so bright that it can be seen from Auckland
destroys Edward Brissenden’s flax mill at Puriri. The Thames Star reports that the gutted building ‘was of large extent’ and employed ‘about thirty
men, besides boys’. The Star says that ‘one man was severely burnt on the
hand while trying to save some property’. An article in the Daily Southern
Cross says that ‘employees of the mill…rendered valuable assistance’ during
the struggle against the fire.
The ni-Vanuatu who had been labouring at Puriri
are relocated to Auckland, where they are put to work on the Kohimarama estate
of businessman JS McFarlane, who was a guest at the launch of the Lulu, and at the Epsom residence of
Edward Brissenden. Three of the men – ‘One o’clock’, ‘Charley’, and ‘Monday’ –
were eventually moved north to the mill at Waiarohia.
Question: was it a ni-Vanuatu
labourer who was badly burned?
A roundup of news from the Hokianga published in the Daily Southern Cross mentions that
‘Walker and Reid’s mill continues to turn out a few tons occasionally’, and
suggests that ‘if this establishment, with its South Sea Islanders as labourers
cannot be made profitable’ then the flax industry has little future.
c. June 1871
Daniel Louis Mundy, one of New Zealand’s few
professional photographers, makes a tour of Northland in search of images, and
stops at Waiarohia long enough to take a number of photographs at the flax
mill. The mill’s ni-Vanuatu workers appear in a number of Mundy’s photographs.
Mundy does not mention the ni-Vanuatu in the titles to his photographs, and
they often seem present simply to give his portraits of flax plants and
machinery a sense of scale.
10 June 1871
which had been busy moving labourers to and from Fiji, hits a reef off Espiritu
Santo and is wrecked. No labourers are aboard the ship when it founders.
crew boards a lifeboat, which is soon approached by canoes filled with
hostile islanders. After avoiding arrows, the crew of the Lulu puts ashore at Lisbon Point
mission station and are rescued by the Presbyterian ship Dayspring, which is anchored there.
21 September 1871
Coleridge Patteson is killed on the small island of
Nukapu by locals taking revenge for a recent blackbirding raid. Patteson’s
death prompts an outcry against blackbirding in Australasia and in Britain, and
new laws are soon passed to try to end the practice. Often, though, these laws
will be poorly enforced.
A ni-Vanuatu labourer identified as ‘Kuri’ dies of
consumption at Waiarohia. Local coroner and magistrate Spencer von Sturmer had
been giving Kuri medicine, and records his death.
17 April 1872
John Thomson, head of Auckland’s armed constabulary,
submits a report to the New Zealand government after visiting the ni-Vanuatu
working in Auckland and in the Hokianga. Thomson describes the huts the
labourers have built in the Hokianga as an alternative to the accommodation
their employers offered, and explains how they supplement their rations by
gardening and fishing. Thomson considers that the ni-Vanuatu are ‘comfortable’,
but relays their complaint that they have been made to work too long in New Zealand.
They seem to have believed they were obliged to work for one year, but their
employers insist they signed up for three years. Thomson does not consider that
he has the authority to remove the men from their employers. His report is
forwarded to Governor Bowen.
10 May 1873
Southern Cross carries an account of a visit to the Hokianga. The anonymous
traveller visited the flax mill at Waiarohia, and was given a tour by its
manager, ‘Mr Charles Clark’, who explained that he had been using ‘South Sea
Islands labour’. These workers had been ‘very comfortable’ in the
Hokianga: they are ‘going on a trip’,
but some ‘want to come back…bringing their wives with them’. Before they left,
the South Sea Islanders ‘favoured the locals with some of their dances’.
how can this report be reconciled with the complains the ni-Vanuatu made to Jon
Thomson about the length of time they had been made to work in the Hokianga?
Which dances would the ni-Vanuatu have performed, and what would their meaning
have been? Can we get a sense of the dances they would have performed by
reading the accounts of Efatean culture produced late in the nineteenth century
by missionaries like Daniel McDonald?
6 June 1873
The New Zealand Herald reports that ‘about a dozen
South Sea Islanders left a few days ago in the schooner Colonist’ after having ‘served periods from one to three years in
this province – principally in the flaxmills at Hokianga and Waikato’. The
Herald claims that the men are ‘satisfied’ with their lot, and says that some
of them plan to return to New Zealand. It reports that before leaving on the
Colonist they ‘laid out what money they had’ to buy goods that would be
valuable in the islands. The Herald,
which only a couple of years earlier condemned the South Sea Islanders as
‘woolly barbarians’ concludes its article with the sanguine sentence ‘they came
here penniless, but go back traders on a small scale’.
Question: what goods did the
honeward bound South Sea Islanders buy? Often labourers returning from the
plantations of Queensland would send their precious wages on guns, which were
scarce and very valuable in Melanesia.
The photographs that Daniel Mundy took at Waiarohia
are included in New Zealand’s contribution to the Vienna International
Festival, a huge event modelled on the Great Exhibition held at London’s
Crystal Palace in 1851.
returns to New Zealand, putting in at the Port of Russell because of ‘stress of
Question: did the Colonist
succeed in dropping the men of Efate and Nguna home? Efate was enjoying a
period of peace in the 1870s, and in the area around Port Havannah, where many
of the labourers had embarked, palangi newcomers had established relatively
good relations with locals. It may well be, then, that the Colonist was able to complete its mission.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]