Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Looking for Isilei Latu

I'm grateful to New Zealand Kaniva Pacific for this review of my tohi fo'ou The Stolen Island. Kaniva Pacific's reviewer focuses on the mystery of Isilei Latu. 

We know about Isilei Latu thanks to Frederick Goedicke, a wealthy German businessman who divided his time between Tonga and Nu'u Sila. In a letter written in 1945, near the end of his life, Geodicke remembered attending some horse races* held on a beach near Auckland on Christmas day in 1894, and meeting a man who introduced himself as Isilei Latu.** 

The man told Goedicke that he had been stolen in the 1863 slave raid on 'Ata island, and then put to work as a slave in South America. A Catholic priest had helped him escape on a ship that went to Auckland, and he had married a local Maori woman and started a family. Latu said he was very happy in Auckland, and was content to remain there.

Kaniva Pacific also notes that descendants of a Tongan who escaped slavery may inhabit Rapa Iti, a very isolated island in the extreme south of French Polynesia. There's strong but circumstantial evidence that a Niuafo'ouan was dumped on the island by a ship returning from South America, and that this man settled and had a family in his new home. An expedition to Rapa Iti is needed to confirm the island's Tongan connection.

Is Frederick Goedicke's letter accurate, given that it was written fifty-one years after the event it describes? Are there New Zealanders with 'Atan blood flowing through their veins who are unaware of their ancestors' remarkable and tragic history? Can we identify Isilei Latu's descendants today? Do some of the people of Rapa Iti have Tongan ancestors? I hope all these questions eventually will be answered.

*Christine Liava'a and I have been trying to factcheck Goedicke's letter, and we think he attended one of the racing meets held every Christmas for years on the beach at Orakei by local Maori. See the advert at the top of this post. 

**Frederick Theodore Goedicke was an interesting chap in his own right. He was a friend of both Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tonga's Tupou II, and he is one of the very few recipients of the little-known Order of the Crown of Tonga

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


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