Monday, January 23, 2017

'Sometimes, the silence screams': Bruce Munro on New Zealand's slaving history

Publishing a book is like putting a message into a bottle and throwing the bottle into the sea. One is never sure whether or where the bottle will wash up; one is grateful if anyone finds it, and reads the text it has been carrying. 

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:


[T]he digitisation of newspaper archives means the link [with the past] is restored. The reports of ships' crews kidnapping people, the talk of buying niggers, the clamour for the trade to be stopped is now all continually available, soundlessly waiting, bending the important, horrific events of 1871 towards the present day for anyone who cares to seek them.
Sometimes, the silence screams.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton] 

Sunday, January 22, 2017

My top five

I've been telling the Fairfax papers and Stuff about my favourite books.

Friday, January 20, 2017

L'Ile Volee

Bernard Laussauce has written about The Stolen Island for OutreMer1re, a radio and television service and website aimed at France's dependencies in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

'We are not customers': Denys Trussell's Fairburnian rebuke to Auckland council

Denys Trussell is a living link to what we might call the heroic age of New Zealand poetry. In the decades after World War Two New Zealand was, as Allen Curnow said, a 'hard homeland' for poets. Instead of the grants and residencies that are today up for grabs, the state offered poets and artists of all kinds discouragement, and sometimes persecution.

Poets like James K Baxter and ARD Fairburn responded to the strictures of their society with satire and polemic. They became public figures, as they lambasted the philistinism of their age.

As a young man Denys Trussell befriended many of the important poets of the postwar era, and wrote a biography of ARD Fairburn. In his poems and his essays he channels the anger and energy of Fairburn and Baxter, and as the head of the Auckland branch of the New Zealand Society of Authors he does battle with the philistines of our era, who tend to use neo-liberal economics rather than religious dogma to justify their assaults on the arts.

Today's New Zealand Herald quotes a polemic that Trussell has directed at Auckland Council, which is considering sacking fifty of the city's librarians. Trussell objects not just to the prospect of redundancies but to the way that Auckland's councillors think about libraries, books, and readers:

Libraries are not supermarkets, but complex social institutions...We are not customers. We are readers and citizens in question of knowledge, information and the pleasure of books

You can find more of Trussell's polemic here.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Same name, different islands

Last night I put Tonga TV's news item about The Stolen Island on this blog; an hour or so later I got an e mail from Pacific genealogist and historian Christine Liava'a, who was bewildered by what she had seen.

Christine wanted to know where Tonga TV had gotten the still pictures that accompanied its piece. Most of the pictures were, she pointed out, 'utterly irrelevant' to the story The Stolen Island tells. My book describes the raids on the Tongan islands of 'Ata and Niuafo'ou by Tasmanian and New Zealand slavers in 1863. Both 'Ata and Niuafo'ou are high, rugged islands, but Tonga TV featured a series of shots of a coral atoll.

It seems to me that a confusion of names can be blamed for the presence of the coral island in Tonga TV's report. While the 'Ata of my book lies about one hundred and fifty kilometres south of the Tongan capital of Nuku'alofa, another 'Ata sits just a couple of kilometres offshore in Nuku'alofa harbour, inside a coral reef. Whereas the second vowel in the southern 'Ata has a short 'a' sound, the coral 'Ata ends with a long 'a' sound.

Although it is tiny and uninhabited, 'Ata the atoll has an important place in Tongan mythology. According to many oral traditions, the island was one of the first pieces of Tonga to emerge from the sea. Soon after 'Ata had emerged from the water, the skybound god Tangaloa 'Atulongolongo turned himself into a bird and dropped a seed onto it. After a small plant grew from the seed, Tangaloa 'Atulongolongo pecked at the plant's root. When a worm oozed out of the broken root, the god pecked at the worm. The worm broke into three pieces, from which three men emerged. Tangaloa 'Atulongolongo brought these men wives from the spirit island of Pulotu; the men and the spirit women together created the Tongan people.

I suspect that the staff at Tonga TV ran a google search for images to go with their report on The Stolen Island, and then confused the 'Ata of my book with the geographically proximate and mythologically potent 'Ata of Nuku'alofa harbour.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

On telly in Tonga

The news team at Tonga's national television station has put together this piece about The Stolen Island.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Drinking the darkness

Angus Gillies has just done a facebook post about The Stolen Island. Here's his post along with my reply to it. 

Have just finished reading Scott Hamilton's new book The Stolen Island, Searching for 'Ata. And it's a bloody great read! It's a true story about slave-trading in the Pacific Islands in the 1860s and particularly what happened to 144 men, women and children kidnapped from the island of 'Ata in Tonga. I love the way Scott takes us along as he skillfully uncovers the old story and finds and talks to the descendants, all while modestly painting himself as an Inspector Clouseau-like character. Kiwis might be surprised to discover that some of Auckland's wealthy families had Pacific Island slaves in the 1800s. My favourite line from the book is from Scott's Acknowledgements: Friends, we drank the darkness, and became visible.


My reply: 


Malo for your kind words Angus. The phrase 'Friends, we drank the darkness, and became visible' comes from the great Swedish poet and Nobel laureate Tomas Transtromer. 


I use the phrase while paying tribute to my friends Sio Siasau and Serene Tay, who helped me explore some of the ancient, pagan, and perhaps haunted sites - ruined forts, sacred groves, godhouse platforms - of Tongatapu back in 2013, when we were all living on the island. Since then Sio has become internationally famous for sculpting and painting Tonga's old gods and powers. He drnk from the forbidden culture of his pre-Christian ancestors, and by doing so created himself as an artist.