[I 'm grateful to be one of the first two recipients of the D'Arcy Residency, which has been established encourage the writing of long essays about New Zealand's cultural history. Beginning next September, I'll be hunkering down for three months in the D'Arcy cottage on Waiheke Island, and turning out a ten thousand word essay - the core of a book - on New Zealand's role in the nineteenth century Pacific slave trade. I've chosen to head to Waiheke towards the end of next year because I want to get back to the tropical Pacific, and listen again to the kava circles and archives there, before beginning my book.
Here are a couple of excerpts from the synopsis I sent to the committee that awarded the D'Arcy Residencies for 2015, along with some hyperlinks to posts on this blog that have discussed my research into New Zealand's slaving history.]
One day in the winter of 1863, a strange boat
anchored off ‘Ata, a tiny, reefless, rocky island at the southern end of the
Kingdom of Tonga. Although it had spent most of its career hunting whales
in the cold waters around southern New Zealand, the Grecian had recently been painted black
and white, so that it looked like a man ‘o war.
captain, Thomas McGrath, shouted that he wished to trade with the inhabitants
of ‘Ata, and invited them aboard his vessel. McGrath was an Australian who had
settled in New Zealand, and his crew, a mixture of Pakeha and Maori, had been
recruited in the Chatham Islands.
One hundred and thirty-three 'Atans - almost half
of the population of the island - took up McGrath’s offer, sliding expertly
down cliffs, pushing through the surf, and climbing the side of
the Grecian. They would never see
their homeland again. McGrath and his crew locked the 'Atans in the hold of
the Grecian and sailed to the
northern Cook Islands, where they sold their cargo to slavers bound for Peru.
Last year, when I
was teaching in Tonga, I visited Kolomaile in the company of Taniela Vao, a lay
minister in the Free Wesleyan church and long-time scholar of his country’s
history. As Taniela and I drank kava, the inhabitants of Kolomaile told stories
about the tragedy of 1863, and described their longing to visit the island
where their ancestors are buried.
The raid on 'Ata was only one episode in a
decades-long slave trade. Peru had banned the
importing of slaves by the middle of the 1860s, but before the end of the
nineteenth century hundreds of vessels carried captives from scores of
Pacific islands to places like Fiji, Queensland, Samoa, and Tahiti. The
traffickers were often called 'blackbirders' or, more euphemistically, 'labour
traders'. Huge and profitable sugar, tobacco, coffee, and cotton plantations were made from their labours.
The similarities between the vanquished American
Confederacy and the colonial plantations of the South Pacific were not
coincidental. After the defeat of the Confederate army and the emancipation of
southern slaves in 1865, plantation owners in the south were ruined. Thousands
of them fled to Mexico, South America, and the Pacific and sought to recreate
the society they had lost. By the end of the 1860s more than two hundred
Americans, many of them former Confederates, were living in Fiji, where they
formed a branch of the Ku Klux Klan and put new slaves to work on new
plantations. Other ex-Confederates became blackbirders, and worked closely with
their New Zealand peers.
'Bully' Hayes, the most famous of all the
blackbirders, was born in America but frequently used New Zealand as his base.
Hayes boasted of his 'adventures' cruising the tropics seizing slaves and
raping women and girls, but he was never molested by New Zealand authorities,
even after he sailed out of Lyttleton in 1869 and kidnapped one hundred and
fifty Niueans to sell to cotton farmers on Fiji...
In May 1870 the slave trade reached the shores
of New Zealand, as the schooner Lulu arrived
in Auckland with a cargo of twenty-seven men from the New Hebridean island of
The slave raids of the nineteenth century are
remembered by storytellers and singers in Kolomaile, and in many other Pacific
villages, but they have been forgotten in New Zealand. No statue or plaque
memorialises the tragedies of islands like 'Ata, or the sufferings of the
slaves who landed on the Lulu.
Many Australian historians have written about the importance of blackbirding to
Queensland's economic development, but few Kiwi
scholars have discussed our country's slaving history.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries, though, New Zealand's popular culture was full of references to men
like Bully Hayes. The raids that Hayes and his peers made on tropical islands
and the battles they sometime fought with islanders were romanticised and
celebrated in songs, poems, and popular histories. Louis Becke wrote
bestselling accounts of the life of Hayes; WB Churchward's Blackbirding in the South Pacific appalled
and titillated Victorian audiences with its gore.
By putting the stories told by the people of
Kolomaile and other Pacific communities alongside the forgotten texts produced in nineteenth
century New Zealand, I want to view this sad and salutary chapter in our
history from two sides. After describing the most important events in the
blackbirding era and introducing some of the actors in the drama, I want to
explain the ways that both the storytellers of villages like Kolomaile and the
palangi writers of the Victorian era perceived and presented events like the
raid on 'Ata...
The slave trade of
the nineteenth century finds eerie echoes in the twenty-first century. The
Recognised Seasonal Employment Scheme, which has in recent years seen thousands
of Tongans and other Pacific Islanders come to New Zealand and Australia to
work for low wages without offering them any chance of permanent residency, has
been condemned by some Polynesian leaders as racist and exploitative. In a
television debate held during New Zealand’s 2014 election campaign, Hone
Harawira characterised the scheme as a form of ‘slavery’.
In a series of
articles that were published in the Sunday
Star Times in 2011 and eventually prompted a government investigation and
legislation, journalist and historian Michael Field revealed that the Asian and
Pacific Island crews of some ships fishing in New Zealand’s territorial waters
were being beaten, denied adequate food, and paid derisory wages. Field likened
the workers on these ships to slaves.
When we realise that
New Zealand was deeply involved in a nineteenth century slave trade, then the
abuses documented by Simon Field and the restrictions placed on contemporary
migrant labourers can be seen in a new perspective.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]