Story of slave raid on Tongan island retold as evidence emerges of NZ role in blackbirding

Kuo toe talanoa’i ‘eni ‘a e talanoa ko ia ki hono kaiha’asi ‘o e kakai ‘o ‘Ata ‘i Tonga’. Ne ‘osi lipooti ‘eni ‘e he Kaniva’ ‘i he 2016 ka kuo tow ‘ohake ‘eni ‘e he uepi ‘a e Stuff tu’unga he pehē ne kaunga 'a Nu’u Sila ki he kaiha'a tangata ko 'eni' 'o 'ave 'o fakatau atu ki Pelū pea ni'ihi ne li'aki he ngaahi 'otu motu Pasifiki' ni'ihi.

The story of the slave raid on the Tongan island of ‘Ata has surfaced again.

A story in Stuff today reports on research by New Zealand academic Scott Hamilton into a raid on the island of ‘Ata by whaler turned slaver Thomas McGrath in the Grecian.

As Kaniva news reported in 2016, the Peruvian government sent ships into the Pacific in the mid 19th century to find labourers to collect guano. When they could not find enough willing workers they resorted to kidnapping.

McGrath decided to profit from the situation and in 1863 visited ‘Ata where he persuaded about 140 people to board his ship. Once on board they were locked in his hold.

After a less successful visit to Niuafo’ou and a failed attempt in the Lau group the Grecian headed for Peru. Before it reached South America it encountered the Peruvian slaver General Prim to which McGrath sold the Tongans.

In the meantime, the Peruvian government had cancelled all recruiting licenses under pressure from the European powers and ordered the Islanders to be released.

Some of them made it to Peru, others were dumped on remote islands; starvation and disease decimated the ranks of all the Islanders who had been taken. Some survived to be absorbed into the Peruvian population

In a paper delivered at the ‘Atenisi Institute in Nukua’lofa in 2015, Dr Hamilton said he had come across a letter from a German trader in Auckland who said he had met a man at a horse race in Auckland in 1894 who had been taken from ‘Ata.

“The man identified himself as Isileli Latu and explained that he was an ‘Atan who had been kidnapped, taken to South America, and made to work there for 15 years,” Dr Hamilton said.

“Latu said he had escaped to Auckland, where he had married and settled.

“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.”

Colonial governments cracked down on the Pacific labour trade, with the Germans in New Guinea banning recruitment for the Samoan plantations and the British importing labour from India, a form of kidnapping and virtual slavery developed.

McGrath appears to have returned to the whaling trade and died in Tahiti, but many New Zealand ships took part in the trade.

Ships left New Zealand ports for what are now Vanuatu and Solomon Islands, luring Islanders on board and taking them to plantations in Queensland or Fiji. In 1868, John Thurston, the British Consul in Fiji, reported that nine New Zealand ships had recently called there with human cargoes.

Some were also taken to New Zealand. According to the Stuff article 27 ni-Vanuatu  were  brought to work at a flax mill in the Hokianga for three years in return for £10 worth of trade goods.

The main points

  • The story of the slave raid on the Tongan island of ‘Ata has surfaced again.
  • A story in Stuff today reports on research by New Zealand academic Scott Hamilton into a raid on the island of ‘Ata by whaler turned slaver Thomas McGrath in the Grecian.
  • As Kaniva news reported in 2016, the Peruvian government sent ships into the Pacific in the mid 19th century to find labourers to collect guano. When they could not find enough willing workers they resorted to kidnapping.

For more information

New book tells story of slave raiders who took Tongans to South America

Blackbirding: New Zealand’s shameful role in the Pacific Islands slave trade

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