'Sometimes, the silence screams': Bruce Munro on New Zealand's slaving history
I've been delighted with the response to The Stolen Island over the last couple of months. Beachcombers in New Zealand, Tonga, Australia and New Caledonia have unbottled my message, and discussed it in print, on the internet, and over the radio.
I'm particularly pleased about two articles that Bruce Munro published in last weekend's Otago Daily Times. Munro wrote about The Stolen Island a month or so ago, and noticed the book's call for more research into New Zealand's role in the nineteenth century Pacific slave trade. He has been busy researching.
In an article called 'Document Confirms a Slaver's Character' Munro introduces readers to Edith Cromie, from Waihao Downs in South Canterbury. Cromie is the custodian of a fragile letter, handed down through her family, that was composed by Phillis Seal, who in the 1860s was the widow of one of Hobart's wealthiest shipowners.
Phillis Seal had entrusted a brig called the Grecian to Thomas McGrath, a veteran Tasmanian whaler, but instead of cruising the Pacific for a year and returning to Hobart with barrels of whale oil McGrath had dumped most of the ship's crew, recruited new hands, and raided the Tongan islands of 'Ata and Niuafo'ou in search of slaves. After selling Tongan captives to a slave ship bound for Peru, McGrath used his cash to buy large quantities of liquor and food. He took the Grecian down the western side of New Zealand, avoiding busy ports, and landed quietly on remote Stewart Island, which had only recently been annexed by New Zealand.
When she wrote her letter, Phillis Seal did not know about Thomas McGrath's slave raids; she only knew that he had vanished with her property. A rage at the whaler's impudence can be detected behind the epistle's circuitous, lawyerly sentences.
McGrath eventually visited Campbelltown, the port that is nowadays known as Bluff, where he was arrested and charged with customs offences and with appropriating the Grecian. The ship was returned to Tasmania, and to the Seal family; McGrath was found guilty of stealing the Grecian and breaches of customs law, and spent time in prison, but he was never brought to justice for his slave trading.
In a longer article called 'Chained to a Sorry Trade', Munro reports on his research into Otago's connections with the Pacific slave trade of the late 1860s and early 1870s. He refers to a couple of texts listed in the bibliography of The Stolen Island, but he has made new discoveries in the vast online Papers Past archive.
Munro describes how the Dunedin steamship the Wainui would ram and destroy smaller, Melanesian vessels then pull the survivors of its attacks from the water and into captivity. He names Charles Clark, a Dunedin businessman, as the owner of the Wainui, and like me he links the ship's raids with the slaying of John Coleridge Patteson, the first Anglican Bishop of Melanesia, in 1871. Munro introduces two other Otago-based ships, the Lismore and the Queen of the Isles, that also carried slaves.
In his article's eloquent conclusion, Munro describes the eeriness of encountering history in old newspapers: