Friday, February 17, 2017

Snatching and killing

 [I wrote this article for a magazine editor who wanted something based on my book about the nineteenth century slave raids in Tonga. When I sent it through the editor in question demurred, complaining that my text didn't, in fact, relate very obviously to The Stolen Island. My excuse is that my mind is drifting this year away from Tonga and towards Melanesia, where most of the Pacific slave trade took place, and where a vast amount of research remains to be done.]

Snatching and killing

Few histories of New Zealand rugby mention the first international fixture played in this country. The game in question took place in June 1870, on an uneven, muddy paddock that is now central Auckland’s Albert Park. A group of locals took on a team picked from the crew of the British warship HMS Rosario. The British brought the ball, and also the goalposts. We don’t know whether they won the game.

The Rosario had stopped in Auckland to stuff its hold with hard biscuits and potatoes. By the winter of 1870 the ship was a year and a half into an impossible commission. The faraway British government had instructed the Rosario to end the Pacific slave trade.

In 1870 the law abolishing slavery in Britain was more than three and a half decades old, and the blacks of America’s south had been free for five years. But scores of ships were crossing the Pacific with shackled islanders in their holds. 

The Pacific slave trade had begun in 1862, when the Peruvian government had invited ships to collect ‘colonists’ from the Pacific Islands, and to sell these captives at the port of Callao. 

Opportunistic captains soon raided almost every island society from Rapa Nui in the east to Kiribati in the west of the Pacific. In the middle of 1863 the Peruvians responded to international condemnation and rescinded their law; by that time more than three thousand islanders had vanished into Callao, a place they nicknamed ‘the jaws of hell’. Only a couple of hundred islanders returned, but they carried, to their already decimated homelands, the gifts of civilisation: smallpox, dysentery, and tuberculosis.

Lincoln’s war on the Confederate States of America may have emancipated the slaves of that nation, but it invigorated the Pacific labour trade. As Lincoln’s army burned the crops and mansions of southern plantation owners, it made cotton a scarce and valuable commodity, and also made inevitable a diaspora of ruined and unrepentantly racist Confederates.

Confederate refugees landed in the South Seas, where they bought or stole land, planted cotton, sugar, and tobacco, and sought a new supply of slaves. The men who gave Peru its slaves had provoked European powers by raiding islands under colonial control. The slavers of the late 1860s were cannier: they targeted Melanesia, a region not yet digested by empires.

The planters paid well for slaves. An adult male could fetch nine pounds; women and children could change hands for six pounds. Slaving became popularly known as blackbirding; slavers were blackbirders. Soon Queensland was being nicknamed ‘the second Louisiana’, because of its sugar plantations where blacks toiled, and Confederate planters on Fiji were founding a branch of the Ku Klux Klan to terrorise locals unwilling to pick cotton for free. 
The Rosario was a fast, modern vessel. A steam engine complemented its sails, and its mechanised cannons were efficiently deadly. But the Rosario was working alone, against an industry.

Even when the British intercepted a ship, unsympathetic colonial governments and courts could undo their work.

In June 1869 the Rosario’s Captain George Palmer boarded a Queensland schooner called Daphne, and found more than one hundred ni-Vanuatu men in its small hold. Palmer freed these slaves, and brought Daphne’s captain to Sydney for trial; the chief justice of New South Wales threw the case out, explaining that Britain’s anti-slavery laws did not apply in the Pacific.


Slavers may not have had much to fear from the British navy, but they soon began to dread the warriors of Melanesia. The young men of the New Hebrides and the Solomons learned to withdraw from the beach when tall ships appeared. They hid in trees or behind stones beside the steep and muddy paths that led to the interiors of their islands, and waited with bows and spears and darts for exhausted white men.

Sometimes Melanesians pretended to be eager to sail away from their islands. Smiling, they climbed aboard the small boats that slavers sent through reefs and estuaries. On the decks of the big ships they pulled tomahawks from under their skirts and blankets.

Some stretches of coast, like the eastern edge of the large island of Malaita, became notorious. It was off eastern Malaita that several canoeloads of islanders stormed Kenneth McKenzie’s slave ship the Borealis. McKenzie was one of several sailors from the Scottish settlement of Waipu who had profited by shipping Melanesians to Queensland and Fiji in the 1860s and ‘70s. He was on a small boat, headed for the coast of Malaita, when warriors began to leap from their canoes and climb the steep sides of the Borealis. McKenzie fled from his ship, leaving half a dozen members of his crew, including his son Willie, to face the attackers.

After reaching a group of other slave ships a few miles up the coast and holding a ‘council of war’, Kenneth McKenzie returned to the Borealis with reinforcements. He found the ship deserted. There was ‘blood all over the deck’ and brain fluid was ‘scattered on the windlass’; there were ‘axe marks all over the bulwarks’. The Malaitans had withdrawn to their island, and taken the bodies of Willie and his fellow sailors with them.

Melanesian resistance forced slavers to improvise new tactics. Some ships, like the Dunedin-based screw steamer Wainui, began to hunt in open seas, away from the lagoons and jungles that had become so dangerous. The Anglican mariner John Jacob described the Wainui ploughing into a group of small canoes in deep water off the island of Savo. The canoes spilt their paddlers and passengers; the Wainui’s crew pulled the islanders to safety, then made them into slaves. 

Other slavers began to outsource the most dangerous parts of their jobs. Melanesia was a region of small-scale, decentralised societies, whose language groups and clans and lineages made and broke alliances with one another as their circumstances and interests changed. Some blackbirders learned to play one group of Melanesians off against another.

In certain parts of Melanesia, like New Georgia and Makira, chiefs collected the heads of their enemies, and built special houses where, arranged one after another along rafters and on shelves, these trophies could be admired and mocked. Soon white men were also becoming enthusiastic headhunters. 

In 1870 two Anglican missionaries in the Nggela Islands saw a group of local men go out in a canoe to trade with a vessel that had anchored offshore. The ship was called the Water Lily; its crew were, at first, friendly towards the islanders, and seemed keen to trade. Suddenly, though, one of the white men jumped into the canoe, and others reached down with long oars and began to beat its riders. One of the five islanders leapt overboard and swam to safety. Before he had reached shore, though, he had seen his four friends beheaded with tomahawks in the bloody hollow of their canoe.

Melanesians began to talk about ‘kill kill’ as well as ‘snatch snatch’ ships. Blackbirders had discovered that the chiefs of New Georgia and other regions would supply labour parties for Queensland, in return for the heads of their traditional enemies.


Some slavers fearful of showers of arrows began to impersonate the only white man who was widely liked in Melanesia. They would anchor off islands that had been visited by John Coleridge Patteson, the first Anglican Bishop of Melanesia, don black garments, hold Bibles aloft on the decks of their ships, and wait for locals to paddle or swim towards them. 

For sixteen years Patteson landed on Pacific beaches. By 1871, the great-nephew of Samuel Taylor Coleridge could preach in twenty-three of Melanesia's thousand languages. On island after island, the bishop left Bibles and medicines and sailed away with young men, who learned to read and pray at Anglican schools on Norfolk Island and in Auckland.

After hearing about his imitators, the Bishop of Melanesia became a meticulous opponent of the slave trade. He collected stories of raids, chains, and whippings, and wrote long memoranda to the governments of Australasia and Britain.

In September 1871 Bishop Patteson landed on Nukapu, one of the Reef Islands in the northern Solomons. Nukapu covers nearly three quarters of a square kilometre, and is surrounded by a teardrop-shaped lagoon and a reef. In the months before the Southern Cross' visit, the island had been repeatedly raided by blackbirders. Nukapuans were not happy to see another exotic ship. 

Patteson crossed Nukapu’s reef in a Melanesian canoe given to him by some of his students. Hours later he drifted back towards the Southern Cross on the same vessel. There were arrows and axe marks in his torso, and the right side of his face had collapsed. The bishop had become Nukapu's message to the white world.

Patteson became the first Pacific martyr of the Anglican church. Today his certificate of ordination is displayed as a sacred relic at Auckland's Anglican cathedral. On a window in a church in a Surrey village called Kingswood there is a portrait of the martyr serenely contemplating his Bible while two copper-coloured savages carrying clubs approach him. 

In a letter published in many Australasian newspapers Captain Jacobs, who had brought Patteson to Nukapu, blamed the bishop’s death on blackbirding. Memorial meetings in the towns of New Zealand and the Australian colonies agreed. A gathering in Auckland’s Choral Hall unanimously urged the British and Australasian governments to place ‘the so-called labour trade…under effective control’. But after the slaying of Patteson, the Rosario’s mission changed. The ship had first been charged with stopping the Pacific slave trade: now it was ordered to take vengeance on the victims of that trade.

On November the 29th, 1871, nearly three months after the slaying of Bishop Patteson, the Rosario anchored outside Nukapu’s lagoon, and sent four small boats through its reef wall. Scores of men began what George Palmer described as a ‘war dance’ on the distant beach, then fired arrows in the direction of the small boats. The Rosario’s canons opened up, and the men in the small boats added ‘hundreds of rounds’ of rifle and pistol fire, until the Nukapuans retreated into the coconut groves beyond their beach. The invaders followed them, and found, in a clearing near the centre of the island, a village whose wooden huts had been fortified with slabs of beachrock. They shot their way through the village, set each of its dwellings ablaze, and withdrew over the lagoon and through the reef to the Rosario, where they continued to snipe at the islanders.

A corporal surnamed Marcus was one of several men wounded on Nukapu; he had been crossing the island’s beach when an arrow had grazed his arm. Back on the Rosario Marcus seemed to have recovered from his injury. His captain remembered him doing ‘some capital shooting’ at the remnants of the Nukapuan force. When Marcus noticed five natives gathering ‘on a point of their land with their canoes’ he ‘lodged a shell in the midst of them’, causing ‘most terrible havoc’. But Marcus’ recovery was illusory. The arrow that had cut him was tipped with poison. The corporal would die three and a half weeks after the raid on Nukapu. 
As the Rosario steamed away from Nukapu, the ‘natives were seen at work trying to extinguish the fire that covered their island. Despite their efforts, Palmer reported, the shadows of flames ‘could be seen for three hours’ as the Rosario travelled south.  George Palmer estimated that ‘twenty to thirty natives’ had been killed by his men. A ship that had been charged with protecting Pacific islanders had devastated the island of Nukapu.


In the tropical Pacific the days of slavery have not been forgotten. When I was researching my book The Stolen Island, which describes the slave raids on two Tongan islands and their aftermath, I sat around kava bowls and heard men talk about the nineteenth century as though it were our own. 

When I visited Vanuatu last year I noticed how closely that nation’s identity is connected to blackbirding. Vanuatu’s national language is Bislama, a creole brought back from the sugar fields of Queensland; the government organises ceremonies to remember the theft of so many ni-Vanuatu, and demands an apology from Australia.

Australia is yet to apologise to Vanuatu, but it has recognised the South Sea Islander community, whose twelve thousand members are the descendants of ‘sugar slaves’ who never returned to their homelands, as a distinct ethnic community, and some New South Wales and Queensland schools now teach the history of blackbirding.

In New Zealand, though, the memory of the Pacific slave trade has been almost successfully repressed.

Our government has belatedly created an annual day of remembrance for the Land Wars of the nineteenth century. Perhaps we also need a day to remember the Pacific slave trade, and the warfare that the trade brought to islands like Nukapu.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


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Anonymous Cat Railey said...

Hi there,
I really enjoyed your post. My Great great Grandmother had the misfortune of meeting Captain McKenzie and ended up in NZ. Her early years and background are a complete mystery but it is great to put some context to her story and those who suffered the same fate.
I would be interested in knowing more about blackbirding esp in relation to NZ if you can point me in the right direction?
Many thanks
Cat Railey

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