[Here's the text of the public lecture that I gave, with considerable help from Maikolo Horowitz and from Nadia Fifita, last Monday night at the 'Atenisi Institute in Nukua'lofa.
I was preparing to give the lecture when my oldest son's temperature rose suddenly, and he began coughing uncontrollably. While Cerian and I rushed Aneirin to Vaiola Hospital, Maikolo, who is the Dean of 'Atenisi and MCs at its public lectures, began to read the text of my talk to the fifty or so people who had gathered to hear me. Our perpetually generous friend Nadia Fifita drove to the hospital, picked me up, and brought me back in time to witness Maikolo reading the concluding paragraph of my lecture. Maikolo looked and sounded younger and healthier and altogether more convincing than me, and I wondered whether I should consider allowing him to impersonate me on a more regular basis.
After the formal part of the talk, an often emotional discussion began, as audience members shared stories, asked questions about the material that I'd found in New Zealand archives, and pondered the possibility that some of the Tongans taken by the raiders in 1863 returned to the South Pacific. Later Nadia drove me back to the hospital, where I spent the night with Aneirin, who had been diagnosed with pneumonia but soon recovered with the help of antibiotics. I was very grateful to Nadia, to Maikolo, and to the audience: their patience and generosity made what could have been a shambles into a fascinating and moving evening.]
The slave raids on Tonga: discussing five documents
I am a palangi scholar who usually studies and writes about palangi culture and history. I love Tonga and have tried to learn a little about the country, but I don’t speak Tongan, and don’t consider myself an initiate of Tongan culture. I’m not here, then, to offer Tongans a lesson in their history and its interpretation, but to share information I have discovered in the archives and libraries of New Zealand.
I taught at the ‘Atenisi Institute in 2013, and took my students on a field trip to ‘Eua Island. On ‘Eua we listened to stories at kava circles, and one story we heard concerned the tiny and rugged island of ‘Ata, which sits eighty nautical miles south of Tongatapu at the southern end of the Kingdom of Tonga. We were told that ‘Ata had been uninhabited for a century and a half, ever since a ship stole many of its people and took them to South America, where they were enslaved. King Tupou I had moved the survivors of the raid to the larger and safer island of ‘Eua, where their descendants still lived in the village of Kolomaile.
I read Henry Maude’s excellent book Slavers in Paradise, which describes the kidnappings of thousands of Pacific Islanders from dozens of islands by slave ships bound for Peru in the early 1860s. I was fascinated to learn from Maude that the ship which depopulated ‘Ata sailed from New Zealand, and included a largely New Zealand crew as well as an Australian captain. Maude explained that the ship also visted Niuafo’ou, and took thirty men from that island.
There were different stories on ‘Eua about the fate of the ‘Atans who had been taken to Peru. Some locals suggested they had all died; others claimed they had not only survived but flourished, establishing a Tongan society somewhere in South America. One storyteller told me that South American ‘Atans sometimes returned secretly to ‘Eua, where they distributed money to their relations.
When I returned to New Zealand in 2014 I decided to look through the archives there – through old newspapers, shipping records, missionary letters, diplomatic papers, and so on – to see what they had to say about the raid on ‘Ata. I wanted to know about the fate of the kidnapped ‘Atans, and I also wanted to know more about the men who did the kidnapping.
I was assisted in my research by Kenneth Tuai, a descendant of the survivors of the ‘Atan slave raid who lives in Auckland, by Christine Liava’a, the head of the Pacific section of the New Zealand Genealogical Society, by ‘Atenisi’s Lose Jenner-Helu, and by the senior New Zealand historian Mark Derby, who spent time in Tonga in the late ‘70s and remains fascinated by the kingdom.
Earlier this year a panel of New Zealand journalists, scholars, and publishers gave me the D’Arcy Residency, an award that will allow me to live on Auckland’s Waiheke Island and write a short book about New Zealand’s involvement in the nineteenth century Pacific slave trade. I’ll be heading to Waiheke in a few weeks, and the book will be published next year.
I have just sent a week on ‘Eua sharing some of the documents I’ve collected during my research with descendants of ‘Ata. In Kolomaile my wife and I had lunch with the Masalu Halahala, who is regarded as a direct descendant of the first settlers of ‘Ata; near Ohonua, at the other end of the island, I talked with Paula Vehi, who is recognised as the Tupouata, or chief of ‘Ata.
I have brought back many stories from ‘Eua.
Tonight I wanted to share a few documents that together tell some of the story of the slave raids on Tonga and their aftermath. I’ll hand out five documents, one at a time, and comment on each of them.
Here is an advertisement that appeared in El Comercio, a Peruvian newspaper, in 1863. The ad asks for help tracking down a young slave who has escaped from his owners into the streets of Lima, Peru’s capital city. Let me recite it:
LOST POLYNESIAN - Wednesday at 5 o'clock in the morning a boy of 12 years of age, called Carlos and one of those recently arrived on the ELIZE MASON, left the house of his patron on Marcelo Street, No. 60. He is dressed in blue coloured cotton trousers and a light shirt. Will the person in whose custody he may be found please be so kind as to advise the occupant of the store at Number 75 Arvohia Street, where a reward will be given.
Why were Polynesians being bought and sold and hunted through South American streets a century and a half ago? Nineteenth century Peru was ruled by a tiny group of whites, the descendants of Spanish colonists. The ruling class owned plantations and mines, and needed cheap labour for them. Peru’s indigenous people lived largely outside the direct control of the white elite, and couldn’t be persuaded to toil in mines and on farms for meagre wages. The country had for a while imported African slaves, but this trade was outlawed in 1856.
In 1862, after a campaign by business owners, Peru’s parliament voted to allow the ‘recruitment’ of labourers from the Pacific Islands. Islanders would supposedly be invited to sign ‘contracts’ that promised them freedom and a lives as ‘colonists’ in Peru in return for three years of almost unpaid labour there. The contracts of islanders could be bought and sold.
A fleet of ships soon sailed from Callao, the port of Lima. Instead of convincing Pacific Islanders to sign contracts freely, the crews of these ships usually kidnapped whomever they could find. More than three thousand men, women, and children were taken from eastern and western Polynesia and from Micronesia. More than fifteen hundred came from Rapa Nui alone.
After they were unloaded at Callao, captive islanders were bought by businessmen and put to work on plantations and as domestic servants. The first shipment of slaves arrived on a vessel named the Adelante in 1862. The men from the Adelante were sold for two hundred pesos; the women fetched one hundred and fifty pesos; children changed hands for one hundred pesos.
The Pacific Island slaves soon began to die of diseases associated with poor housing and hygiene – diseases like tuberculosis and dysentery. Others seemed to die from despair. Slaveholders began to complain that they had wasted their money on the islanders.
Here is an entry that the whaler WB Rhodes made in his logbook on December 5th, 1836, the day he visited ‘Ata in search of fresh food and water. Rhodes describes the difficulty of landing at ‘Ata, which is virtually unprotected by reefs and almost surrounded by high cliffs, and notes the steepness of the trail up to the island’s only village.
Rhodes visited a pagan godhouse, talked with ‘Ata’s chief, and traded with the islanders. He claims that ‘Ata has only been settled twenty years, but oral histories talk of the arrival of a founding group in the eighteenth century, and archaeologists have discovered that Lapita pottery was being made two thousand years ago on the island.
Rhodes’ logbook entry shows that ‘Ata was a thriving community in 1836, and that its people commonly and confidently traded with outsiders, and even sometimes welcomed outsiders permanently into their midst. ‘Ata was still a pagan island when Rhodes visited, but its people had become Christians before 1863. They raised a Wesleyan church and a school, and were visited by several clergymen, including John Thomas, who gives a description of the island in his History of Tonga.
On 'Eua many stories are told about the supposed immorality of the inhabitants of 'Ata. Descendants of 'Ata are informed that their forebears were happy to let whalers carry away the island's women, in return for a few nails or the odd axe. But Rhodes' words contradict these stories. He writes that:
What few girls there are [on 'Ata] are very good-looking. They are not to be procured except by those masters who have often visited the island. Indeed there are only two that have been allowed; and they are considered as wives and kept taboo'd. Captain Brin is the person who first succeeded, and has to pay pretty handsomely to support his lady. She is a fine girl and daughter of the chief. One white man has resided on the island five years and is married to a young native girl.
Rhodes claims that ‘Ata had only about seventy-five inhabitants in 1836, but by the time of the raid in 1863 the island’s population had reached about three hundred.
For me, reading WB Rhodes’ account of ‘Ata is like looking at one of the rediscovered wall paintings that depict life in ancient Pompeii in the years before that city was buried by a volcanic eruption. Rhodes shows us a world that will soon be destroyed.
I don’t like this face, but I have spent hours staring at it. I look at it for the same reason that I might study the faces of Hitler or Stalin. I want to discover, in the face’s details, some insight into its owner’s crimes – some explanation for what he did, and some clue as to how he felt about what he did.
The photograph I’ve given you shows the face of Thomas James McGrath, master of the ship that took away so many ‘Atans and Niuans in 1863. It was shared by Arthur Brown, McGrath’s great-great-great grandson. In an e mail to me, Brown called his ancestor ‘a particularly bad and nasty man’.
Thomas McGrath’s father Michael was an Irishman who reputedly took part in an armed uprising against Britain’s colonial rule over his homeland. In 1809 Michael McGrath was deported to New South Wales, where he was soon in trouble.
When he was still a baby Thomas McGrath was placed in an orphanage. At the age of sixteen, Thomas was caught burgling a warehouse, and deported to Tasmania. After serving his term of imprisonment there he married and began working on the whaling and trading ships that sailed out of Hobart. McGrath became a master of ships, and went on long voyages across the Pacific, but he did not always avoid disaster. In 1859 and 1860 he wrecked two different ships off the same piece of coast on New Zealand’s Chatham Islands.
At the end of 1861 McGrath took a ship called the Grecian out of Hobart on a search for whales. The Grecian was owned by a wealthy Hobart family, and McGrath and his crew of twenty-seven were expected to return within a year.
McGrath spent 1862 sailing around New Zealand and into the tropical Pacific, and at the end of the year brought the Grecian to Wellington, where he sold the oil he had taken from several whales. McGrath should have returned to Hobart with the Grecian and the money he had acquired. Instead, he painted the Grecian black and white, so that it resembled a warship, and sailed back to the Chatham Islands, where he recruited a new crew.
I want to hand out an excerpt from a statement by John Turner, one of eight men who refused to help Thomas McGrath raid ‘Ata for slaves. Turner’s statement was published in a number of Australian and New Zealand newspapers at the end of 1863.
Turner had joined the Grecian in the Chatham Islands expecting to help McGrath hunt for whales in the cold waters around New Zealand. Soon, though, McGrath took the ship north, toward the tropics. On the 17th of May 1863, when the Grecian was floating somewhere between the Kermadec Islands and ‘Ata, McGrath told the crew that they should help him catch slaves rather than whales, because slaves were more profitable.
After Turner and his colleagues refused to help McGrath they were dumped in Samoa, where they eventually received shelter and help from British diplomatic representatives. Turner and the other rebels were soon joined in Samoa by John Bryan, who seems to have been the cook on the Grecian. Bryan had asked to leave the ship after witnessing the raid on ‘Ata, and had been dumped in the Fijian port of Levuka.
Turner uses Bryan’s first-hand account of the raid on ‘Ata in his statement. Bryan described how McGrath invited the ‘Atans aboard the Grecian to trade, encouraged the islanders to go below deck, then pulled hatches closed over them.
Bryan’s is one of six published accounts of the raid on ‘Ata that I have collected. The other five were all based on stories told by the survivors of the raid, and were collected and published many years after the event. Many of these stories, and many stories told on ‘Eua today, blame Paula Vehi, the chief of ‘Ata, for helping McGrath enslave his people.
Vehi, who apparently knew some English and acted as an interpreter when whaling ships called at ‘Ata, is supposed to have persuaded his fellow islanders to board the vessel, knowing that they would be taken away, in return for money. But neither Bryan’s account of the raid nor Turner’s article as a whole makes any mention of an ‘Atan traitor. The ‘Atans were accustomed to paddling and swimming out to trade with visiting ships, and would not have suspected what McGrath was about to do. There was no need for one of their own to deceive them; McGrath and his crew did a good enough job.
Turner said that most of fifteen or so men who stayed aboard the Grecian and helped him raid ‘Ata were Maori recruited in the Chatham Islands. These Maori may well have belonged to Ngati Mutunga, an iwi from the Taranaki region of New Zealand that in 1835 invaded the Chathams and enslaved its indigenous Moriori people (Ngati Mutunga invaded alongside another northern Taranaki iwi, Ngati Tama, but most of the members of Ngati Tama had left the Chathams by 1863). Slavery was not abolished on the Chathams until 1862, the year before McGrath attacked ‘Ata.
In a two-part article about ‘Ata and its history published in the New Zealand Herald in 1903, Walter Parker, a palangi who ran a sheep station on ‘Eua for many years, said that the men who came to ‘Ata in 1863 were short and dark-skinned. Parker may have heard stories about the events of 1863 from the ‘Atan refugees who settled in ‘Eua.
After his raid on ‘Ata McGrath took the Grecian west into the southern Lau group, where he seems to have tried unsuccessfully to lure some locals aboard, then stopped at Levuka, where he got rid of Bryan, then headed north to Niuafo’ou, where he persuaded thirty men to board his vessel by promising to find them work in Fiji. McGrath soon headed east, toward South America.
The kidnapped Tongans would have been kept in the hold of the Grecian. They probably slept either on the floor or on wooden shelves attached to the walls of the ship. Slavers often fed their captives rice cooked with the help of a large boiler.
Somewhere on the way to South America McGrath met the Peruvian ship the General Prim, which was hunting for slaves. He sold his captives to the master of the General Prim. On the 19th of July, 1863, the General Prim arrived at Callao with one hundred and one male and seventy-three female passengers.
McGrath’s raids on Tonga have to be put in some historical context. In 1863 the American Civil War was in its second year, as Confederate troops fought for their sacred right to keep slaves. In New Zealand, thousands of British and colonial troops had invaded Maori territory in the Waikato and Taranaki regions of the North Island. On the continent of Australia, colonists were fighting with Aboriginal peoples and kidnapping Melanesians to work on their new sugar plantations.
In Confederate America, New Zealand, and Australia, newspapers and politicians could argue enthusiastically that darker-skinned people were inferior to whites, and therefore deserved to be conquered and dominated. Alfred Domett, who was the Prime Minister of New Zealand in 1863, considered Maori a backward race that 'must be ruled with a rod of iron' until they had learned the necessity of white 'domination'.
By the time the Tongans arrived in Callao, the Peruvian government had already abolished the law allowing the enslavement of Pacific Islanders. Several powerful foreign governments had condemned the Peruvian slave trade and, as we noted earlier, slave owners had found the Pacific Islanders disappointing.
Instead of being sold and put to work, the Tongans were placed in a warehouse near the Callao waterfront where hundreds of other Pacific Islanders were already held. The Peruvian government had promised to return the islanders to their homes, and had sent them to the warehouse to wait. In the crowded building diseases spread quickly.
On the 2nd of October 1863 a group of four hundred and twenty-nine Pacific Islanders, including an unknown number of Tongans who had survived two and a half months in the warehouse at Callao, left Peru on the Adelante, the same ship that had brought the first Pacific slaves to Peru in 1862. The Adelante’s captain had been ordered to return his sick passengers to their homelands, but he sailed north and dumped them all on Cocos, an uninhabited island near Costa Rica. A Peruvian warship came to Cocos to retrieve the islanders a few weeks later, but only thirty-eight of them were left alive. These survivors were left by the warship in Paita, a port in the far north of Peru. We do not how many, if any, of the thirty-eight survivors were Tongan.
The letter I’ve handed out appeared seventy years ago in the Pacific Islands Monthly, a journal published in Sydney and aimed at palangi residents of the tropical Pacific. It was written by Frederick Goedicke, an elderly and very wealthy German who had long ago set up a plantation on the island of Foa and married into the Helu family there.
In his letter Goedicke remembers meeting a Tongan man at a horse race held by Maori on an Auckland beach in 1894. The man had identified himself as Isileli Latu, and had explained that he was an ‘Atan who had been kidnapped, taken to South America, and made to work there for fifteen years. Latu said he had escaped to Auckland, where he had married and settled. Goedicke’s letter was found by an Auckland researcher named Lois Webster, who showed it to my friend Christine Liava’a.
There are three details in Goedicke’s letter that make me believe the story it tells.
Horse races were held on the beach near the Auckland Maori settlement of Orakei every Christmas day in the 1890s, so it is quite possible that Goedicke encountered Latu in the way he claims.
Goedicke reports Latu as saying that, during the raid in 1863, the hatches of the slave ship were pulled over the ‘Atans after they had gone below deck. John Bryan gave the same detail in his first-hand account of the raid.
Latu is of course a common Tongan name, but it was perhaps especially common on ‘Ata. In an ‘Atan genealogy produced by the anthropologist Edward Gifford in the 1920s the name is ubiquitous. ‘Atan descendants have told me that they think Isileli Latu sounds like a credible name for one of their ancestors.
There are, admittedly, some confusing details in Goedicke’s letter – he talks, for instance, about Isileli Latu working in Chile, rather than Peru – but these details can perhaps be blamed on the fact that Goedicke was remembering a conversation he had held more than half a century ago.
Since Isileli Latu married and had children in Auckland, it is possible that there are dozens or even hundreds of New Zealanders who have, even if they do not know it, ‘Atan blood flowing through their veins.
There is some evidence that another Tongan returned from ‘Ata. A former slave ship named the Barbara Gomez was given the job of returning a load of Pacific Islanders to their homes. Many of the passengers on the ship were sick, and the captain of the Barbara Gomez disobeyed his orders and dumped them on the islands of Rapa Nui and Rapa Iti.
According to JL Green, a missionary who arrived on Rapa Iti in 1864, one of fourteen skeletal men who was landed by the Barbara Gomez on Rapa ‘Iti was from Niuafo’ou. Almost half of Rapa Iti’s population was killed by diseases that the freed slaves brought, and by 1865 there were only twenty adult males alive on the island. But nine of the fourteen former slaves survived, and they have descendants on Rapa Iti today.
In 1936 a French yachtsman named Alain Gerbault visited Rapa Iti and met a woman called Tupou, who said that she was descended from a former slave who had been taken from Niuatoputapu to South America. Rapa Iti is a very remote island, whose six hundred or so inhabitants are rarely visited by anyone except French civil servants. If a Tongan visited the island, though, he or she might encounter some long-lost relations.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]