Friday, July 10, 2015

Chasing slavers through the archives

This is the abstract for a talk I'll be giving on the evening of Monday, the third of August at the 'Atenisi Institute in Nuku'alofa. Come along. 

Islands Sailing Away: what palangi archives say about the slave raids on ‘Ata and Niuafo’ou

Early in June 1863 a ship named the Grecian anchored off ‘Ata, the southernmost island in the Kingdom of Tonga. The captain of the Grecian, a veteran Tasmanian whaler named Thomas McGrath, invited the people of ‘Ata to come aboard his vessel and trade. Whaling ships had been calling at ‘Ata for decades, and islanders had become used to trading the crops they grew and the fish they caught for the exotic goods of the whalers.
After at least one hundred and forty-four men, women, and children – about half the population of ‘Ata – had boarded the Grecian, McGrath and his mostly New Zealand crew locked them in the hold of the ship and sailed away. The government of Peru was paying for shiploads of Pacific Islanders, and McGrath had decided that slaving would make him more money than whaling. After taking another thirty victims at Niuafo’ou, Tonga’s northernmost island, McGrath sailed east, where he encountered a Peruvian vessel and sold his captives.
When he learned about the raid on ‘Ata King Tupou I arranged for the resettlement of the island’s surviving population on the larger and less remote island of ‘Eua. Except for occasional visits by castaways, adventurers, and archaeologists, ‘Ata has been uninhabited since 1863.  
The raids on ‘Ata and Niuafo’ou are remembered around the kava bowls of Tonga, but they have been forgotten in New Zealand and in Australia. Even in Tonga, many questions remain about the raids and their aftermath. What happened to the ‘Atans and Niuafo’ouans stolen by the Grecian? Did any of them survive slavery, and do they have living descendants? What consequences did McGrath and his crew face for their actions? How many other Pacific Islanders were enslaved by New Zealanders and Australians in the nineteenth century?
In 2013, when he was living in Tonga and teaching at the ‘Atenisi Institute, Dr Scott Hamilton visited ‘Eua and, with the help of Tongan translators, listened to stories about the raids. He decided to find out whether the archives of New Zealand and Australia could provide more information about these tragedies and their legacy. His aim was not to replace but to complement the stories that Tongans already tell about the raids. 
Using newspapers, shipping reports, diplomatic despatches, and information provided by descendants of Thomas McGrath, Hamilton has been able to reconstruct the movements of the Grecian in the years and months before and after the raids on ‘Ata and Niuafo’ou. With the help of several senior scholars of Pacific history and an Auckland-based descendant of a survivor of the raid on ‘Ata, Hamilton has also been able to learn more about the fate of the Grecian’s victims, and identify two Tongans who may have succeeded in returning from Peru to Polynesia.
Hamilton has also learned that New Zealand’s involvement in the Pacific slave trade was far more serious than has previously been thought. In the 1870s and ‘80s Pacific Island slaves worked in New Zealand flax mills and on the estates of some of its wealthiest citizens, and New Zealand ships regularly raided tropical islands in search of new labourers.
During his talk at ‘Atenisi Hamilton will share the information he has gathered, and describe the book he is writing about New Zealand’s slaving history.