Saturday, June 27, 2015

'Savage garbage gatherers': the New Zealand Herald on our local slaves

When he shot nine African Americans in a South Carolina church, the baby-faced white supremacist Dylann Roof was hoping to incite a race war; instead, he has prompted a loud discussion about the meaning and legacy of the Confederate States of America, the ramshackle and short-lived slaveholders' republic whose battle flag still adorns many public places in the American south. 
New Zealanders tend to see the American south, with its history of slavery and secession and its ongoing racial agonies, as a distant and alien part of the world. As I've argued in the past, though, there are surprising and troubling connections between the Confederate creed of slavery and the South Pacific. In the second half of the nineteenth century slavery flourished in the Pacific, as thousands of islanders were abducted and sailed to plantations in Queensland, Fiji, and even New Zealand. After their defeat and ruin at the hands of the north, a number of Confederates fled to the Pacific, and tried to create a new pigmentopia in the region. The Ku Klux Klan had a branch in Fiji. 


Next month I'll be travelling to Tonga, to share some of my research into the slave raid on the island of 'Ata; when I return from the Friendly Islands I'll be taking up a residency on Waiheke and writing a short book about New Zealand's contribution to the Pacific slave trade. 
Here's one of the fascinating but disturbing documents I've been recovering from New Zealand's nineteenth century newspapers, as I pursue my research into slavery. It is an editorial published in the New Zealand Herald on the 21st of September, 1870, nearly four months after a schooner named the Lulu landed at Auckland carrying twenty-seven men from the island of Efate. As the captain of the Lulu admitted in an article for the Auckland press, the men had been recruited with the help of bribes paid to Efatean chiefs. They were bound by 'contracts' that promised them ten pounds in exchange for three years of hard labour, and were soon put to work in flax mills. 
The Efateans were by no means the only indentured labourers to arrive in New Zealand in the nineteenth century. I've found evidence that significant numbers of bonded domestic servants were being brought from Fiji and the New Hebrides to toil in the homes of Auckland's elite during the 1870s. 
Like many other New Zealand papers and a number of prominent politicians, the New Zealand Herald opposed the bringing of indentured labourers to these islands. As the editorial reproduced below shows, though, this opposition was motivated less by anti-racism than by a fear that Melanesians would contaminate the 'Britain of the south' that colonists were constructing in New Zealand. 
During the 1860s and '70s Pakeha were preoccupied with recruiting new colonists from the old country. Only by attracting huge numbers of new settlers could they occupy the land they had taken from Maori after the Waikato War, and create a viable market for the industries that struggled in little cities like Auckland. But new settlers would not be attracted to a country where plantations took up most of the good farmland, where slave labour drove down wages, and where the 'abominable fetishes' of Melanesian 'niggers' were visible. 

I have broken the Herald's article into smaller paragraphs. You can (just) read the original text here.
DISGUSTING RESULTS OF IMPORTED SOUTH SEA LABOUR.
We have had occasion some time since to direct public attention to the fact that certain enterprising persons have imported to this colony a number of South Sea Islanders. The ostensible object of the enterprise was declared to be the progress and development of the flax industry and the supply of needful labour. 
The aspect of the whole affair bad a very equivocal signification, which is borne out by the alarm suggested to some English writers that the importation of slave labour has commenced in a colony which proudly calls itself the Britain of the South. We are told with complacent scorn that slavery as an institution, though bruised and trodden out in America, has found a place in New Zealand. This talk is no doubt the exaggeration which insufficient information allows, but we should not forget that the allegation upon which it is raised is a substantial fact and no a priori reasoning can disturb it. 
We assume that the "niggers" brought here by the Lulu were induced to leave their own country by offers of advantage, perhaps of freedom. It is extremely probable that their chiefs have received the wages for which they are to toil. They may or  may not have been kidnapped. It is possible that the engagement to which they are held bound will take the form, if it have none of the spirit, of an equitable contract. 
What concerns us now is, if the traffic should continue, the introduction of a new social element. British subjects, for the most part, pride themselves upon their sense of justice no less than their love of liberty, and it becomes important to consider not merely the limit of authority to which these bondsmen have subjected themselves, but the position they are to occupy in relation to the white or civilized population, and to the brown-skinned, but free Maoris, who are as jealous of their national prejudices as any people in the world. It was a fortunate circumstance that through the New Zealand Press, the English Parliament was informed of the inceptive progress of this importation of black labour, and that the Colonial Legislature lost no time before conferring upon the Governor in Council the necessary powers to enforce the practice and treatment of humanity towards these blacks. 
But there is one bearing of the question which we do not see provided for in the Act. These islanders are savages of the lowest type. Their customs are not regulated by an apprehension of the vicissitudes of war and a warlike spirit, as is the way with the Maori people. Their habits are the product of an abominable fetishism. They are foul to the farthest extent of indecency, and their appetites are unclean to the most scandalous and shocking forms of cannibalism. 
As a proof that we in no way magnify the features of this unpleasant subject, we may inform our readers of the foundations upon which our assertions rest. We have received letters from several correspondents complaining with considerable bitterness of the odious sights to which their families are exposed by the manners and habits of these woolly barbarians. In one case we hear that they have exhumed the bodies of animals which have died of disease, and devoured them greedily. In another we hear that they have scoured the creeks and landed putrid carrion on which they feasted exultingly. Dead animals of all kinds arc dainty bits to these insular epicures. Their behaviour in other respects is described as extremely disgusting. 
The precise point which we desire to impress upon those interested is, that these savage proclivities may be tolerable in the South Sea Islands, or be readable in a book of travels, but if exhibited in New Zealand in the midst of white people of all ages and both sexes cannot be endured. Our own people hare reproached the law that it has punished them for offences which, committed by the Maori, were not noticed. Whatever toleration of the Maori may have been justified it cannot be pleaded for those who have placed the naked and depressed savage in our midst. If the law has very properly declared that the employer of compulsory servitude shall not be inhuman, it should take guarantees that he shall not be the means of outraging common sense and I decency. If he must have "slaves," let him be compelled to provide accommodation for them so that they may not become a public nuisance. A tradesman in Queen Street is liable to prosecution if he allows offal to be offensive to his neighbours. Such manners as we have described cannot be very elevating to those who witness them. It is obvious that while natural horror may preserve from the imitation of them, familiarity with them may sow the seeds of an unseen demoralization. The worst forms of grossness are communicable and co-existent with an outward refinement.  
There is little doubt that His Excellency will give give effect to the intention of the Legislature and stand between these wretched islanders and unfair treatment. But it is equally necessary that he should insist upon the observance on the part of their employers, of conditions that shall deprive the presence of these men of offensiveness. We say nothing at present of the moral or political bearings of this new question; but we can assure those most interested that they are serious. What we insist upon is that the eves of men shall not be offended by the sight of savage garbage gatherers gorging at our threshold the offal which our pigs refuse. 
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

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