Chained to a sorry trade

The busy ship chandlery of Messrs Clark & Co is now a deserted, scrub-covered patch of ground...
The busy ship chandlery of Messrs Clark & Co is now a deserted, scrub-covered patch of ground next to the railway tunnel on Beach St, Port Chalmers. Photos: Bruce Munro.
Last month, the Otago Daily Times publicised a new book highlighting New Zealand's link to the shameful 19th-century Pacific Island slave trade. At the time, historian and author Scott Hamilton suggested Dunedin had played a significant role. Bruce Munro has taken a look.

Sometimes, the gap between a terrible long-ago event and contemporary ignorance of it is not an absence of connection. It is a bowstring pulled ever tighter with the passage of time.

Charles Clark's grave in Dunedin's Southern Cemetery lacks paving, rail or even a headstone to...
Charles Clark's grave in Dunedin's Southern Cemetery lacks paving, rail or even a headstone to mark where the owner of the ship that took Pacific Island slave trading to new depths is buried.

• Document confirms a slaver’s character

In about the second week of September 1871, the inhabitants of the tiny Pacific island of Nukapu, saw a black cloud on the horizon. As the 100-odd inhabitants of the diminutive atoll - a dazzling topaz and emerald speck in the Pacific Ocean - watched, the dark cloud grew larger and a ship travelling in its shadow became visible.

It was the SS Wainui, an 87-tonne three-masted schooner fitted with two 12.5hp coal-fired steam engines. Here at the eastern extreme of the Solomon Islands, she was a long way from her home port of Dunedin, New Zealand.

The island residents hurriedly loaded a few canoes with vegetables, fish, woven mats and other tradeable goods. Probably more than a dozen people paddled out across the lagoon, over the barely submerged reef towards the approaching steamer.

But as the two parties converged, the Wainui did not slow. Cries and screams went up as the schooner ran down the canoes.

Then, she reduced speed. Amid the splintered hulls and floating debris, the desperate islanders heard the ship's captain direct the crew to hoist some of their number aboard.

Less than 20 minutes later, with the clanking of pistons and rods, the vessel began to gain speed again. It steamed away from Nukapu, leaving several of the unfortunate islanders to swim back to shore or drown. Perhaps even more unfortunate were those who were ''rescued''; now captives bound for the labour market in Fiji, which many considered no different from a slave market.

Recreated from reports by sailors and officials of the day, the kidnapping of Nukapu islanders, probably by the crew of the Wainui, became a defining moment in the Pacific Island slave labour trade.

More than 3000km south and more than 140 years later, a bush-covered patch of ground on Beach St next to the Port Chalmers rail tunnel is all that remains of the store owned by Charles Clark, ships' chandler, sometime ship's captain and, in 1871, the owner of the SS Wainui. Flax, pittosporum and banana passionfruit veil the scene, leaving not a trace.

A Pacific Island slave trade supplying Peruvian plantations flourished briefly in the early 1860s, devouring thousands of Polynesian men, women and children. New Zealand had a small but infamous role to play. (See page 8.)

Then, in the late 1860s, with the demand for labour in Australia and Fiji growing as quickly as the Melanesians' reluctance to be recruited for one year let alone three-year stints of hard labour on foreign soils, the rewards and incidences of kidnapping increased too.

University of Otago historian Prof Angus Ross, writing in the 1960s, stated ''Prices, for good-looking women were the highest, around £13 per head, for men, from £9 to £12, for boys and girls, from £5 to £7''.

New Zealand newspapers of the 1870s revealed the variety of public opinion, some readers decrying the mistreatment as ''cold-blooded'', others casually betraying their ''chattel'' mentality. Since 2001, the full range of historic views has been accessible at the click of computer mouse through the National Library of New Zealand's comprehensive digital newspaper archive, Papers Past.

On February 22, 1872, the Otago Daily Times published private letters by a European plantation owner in Fiji.

After obtaining land, the planter wrote, ''. . . the first thing to be done was to see what niggers were for sale, and hearing that a cutter had come in from Tanna [Vanuatu] with 25 men, also the Wainui, from Solomon Islands, with 80, we started off to have a look of them.

''I did not fancy them, as they were a lot of old men, and some very thin small boys.

''We next went on board the cutter to have a look at the Tanna men, and a fine lot of young fellows they were, with the exception of one man who had been very ill with the dysentery . . . We also bought the dysentery nig. for a fiver, with the proviso that if the beggar died he was to give us a sound man on our next trip, on our paying another five pounds.''

Australian and Pacific Island-based ships dominated the trade. New Zealand businessmen got in on the act too. Those in Dunedin were not the first, but they were well represented in the late 1860s and early 1870s.

In October 1870, a W.B. Yaldwyn, of Maori Hill, wrote to the editor of the Otago Daily Times outlining his plan.

''I beg to address you on an undertaking which is now being got up in this town for the purpose of purchasing a share in a steamer and dispatching her to the Fiji Islands to supply a want which is much wanted there, viz., labour for the plantations, and also to carry passengers and cargo among the islands or to the New Zealand ports, making Dunedin the head quarters, and with the ultimate object of getting land, either as a speculation or to settle on.''

His plan failed to launch, but others' stayed afloat, at least for a while.

The schooner Danzig, which had been carrying passengers and cargo between Dunedin and Invercargill, left for Fiji at the end of March 1869. Eighteen months later, she was reported in port at the then-Fijian capital Levuka with a payload of ''26 Line [Islands] natives''.

A report about the wreck of the Port Chalmers schooner, the Queen of the Isles, in Samoa, was published in the ODT during October 1870. In August, the schooner had been returning to Fiji with 99 islanders taken from the Fatuna, Tanna, and Sandwich [Hawaiian] Islands when it was wrecked on a reef south of Apia. The captain of a boat sent to the rescue found the European crew on the beach, defended by 22 labourers (the rest having fled into the bush) who in turn were encircled by 500 armed Samoans.

The schooner Lismore sailed from Dunedin for Fiji in May, 1871. It was less than a year before she was making headlines. In December, the ODT reported that 40 Solomon Islanders being taken from Levuka to a plantation aboard the cutter Mewa murdered the crew and sailed off in the cutter. In January, 1872, it was reported that the Solomon Islanders had been caught and would stand trial for murder. But, stated the article, the trial had been deferred because it was alleged the trouble began when the islanders were ''kidnapped by the Lismore, which took them to Fiji'' to sell them.

It was the Wainui that took the nasty end of the labour trade to new depths. Built in Akaroa Harbour in 1869, she had been plying New Zealand's coastal waters as well as servicing the Chatham Islands for less than a year when she was bought for £1450 by Charles Clark, of Port Chalmers.

On January 9, 1871, at the behest of its new owner, the Wainui sailed for Fiji under the command of Captain Gay.

The steamer was bigger than the vessels previously used by New Zealanders in the Pacific Island labour trade. As well as promising larger profits through economy of scale, she took a brutal approach to ''harvesting'' labourers.

The 1937 history Pageant of the Pacific records a naval officer saying the ''steamer Whynui [sic] ran down the canoes of natives, and picked up such of the late occupants as suited her requirements''.

Her movements in the Pacific during 1871 are not clear. She lost a mizzen boom while steaming to anchor at Levuka during a powerful hurricane in April. It is not known when the plantation owner quoted above boarded the Wainui to view the 80 ''old men, and some very thin small boys'' from the Solomon Islands. On September 1, Captain Jacob of the missionary schooner the  Southern Cross recorded that on Savo, in the Solomon Islands, he had encountered a European trader ''who told us the Wainui, steamer, of Dunedin, was here, and had a great row with the natives, taking some of them away, also two women, wife and daughter of the chief, Saro''.

''He (the white man) had to barricade himself in his house for more than twenty-four hours, until their rage cooled, as the natives thought he had something to do with the people of the Wainui.''

The Southern Cross was visiting the Solomon Islands as part of what would be Bishop John Coleridge Patteson's final trip. Bishop Patteson was the Anglican Church's first Bishop of Melanesia and had become a popular and outspoken critic of the labour trade.

On September 20, 1871, the Southern Cross approached Nukapu Island.

The report of what happened next, recounted by Capt Jacob, was published in the ODT on November 4.

''At 11 a.m. we observed some canoes lying about two miles from us, and the Bishop went in a boat to them. The boat could not cross the reef, so he got into one of the canoes and went ashore. About the time he would reach the shore, the natives in the remaining canoes attacked the boat's crew, wounding Mr Atkin and three others, with arrows. The boat immediately pulled back to the vessel . . . While waiting, those in the boat observed a canoe drifting towards them. They pulled to it, and found in it the Bishop's corpse, divested of all clothing, with the skull frightfully broken, and several wounds about the body.''

The newspaper report continued, ''Captain Jacobs [sic] attributes the murder to a desire for revenge for a vessel going there and taking away some of the natives, and otherwise abusing them . . . Captain Jacob also reports that he was informed a steamer was taking away the people by force. This is supposed to be the Wainui, of Dunedin. The island of Nukupa [sic] is about three miles round. The population is about 100, all told''.

The public outcry throughout New Zealand was immediate. A letter to the editor of the ODT, published on November 6, conveyed the sentiment of many.

''I trust this deplorable event which has brought to a premature and bloody close the life of one of the most honourable and devoted missionaries, will have the effect of stirring up our Government to urge the immediate adoption by the Imperial Government of strong measures to repress a traffic which is no less iniquitous and destructive than the hated slave trade of the last generation.''

Prof Angus records that public meetings were held in all the main towns and that the New Zealand Parliament petitioned Queen Victoria to ''put a stop to the recurrence of such nefarious practices'' that ''can only be characterised as a slave trade''.

Pressure also came from Australia and within the United Kingdom. Almost exactly 145 years ago, on February 15, 1872, a Bill was introduced to the British Parliament targeting those who tricked Pacific Islanders or took them against their will. This law was beefed up in 1875 and the new measures came into effect two years later. The number of Pacific Island labourers brought to Fiji in 1877 was 110; only a tenth of what was needed to work the islands' plantations. 

The Wainui had brought an industrial-grade inhumanity to the labour trade. Just as quickly, it had probably precipitated the tragic events that brought the same to a grinding halt.

It was not a proud moment, but a significant one, in the history of the Pacific Islands and New Zealand's relationship with its Pacific neighbours. Dunedin apparently played a leading role. But that, it seems, is entirely forgotten.

Professor Judy Bennett, who is a University of Otago historian, says Dunedin did play a role in supplying ships that took men from Melanesia to Polynesia and Australia for three years of indentured labour.

''But New Zealand has always considered itself morally superior to other white settler societies'', Prof Bennett says.

So, it is no surprise New Zealanders know little about the labour trade, she adds. Who was Mr Clark? Who was Captain Gay? What motivated them? What part did each play in the atrocities and the tragedy of September 1871?

Both men seem to have been allowed to slip out of the pages of history without having to give an account.

In February 1873 the ODT reported that Capt Gay had been committed for trial in Sydney for the alleged kidnappings in the Solomon Islands. At the end of August, it was reported the case had been dismissed.

Mr Clark was not extravagantly rich but was well connected in Port Chalmers and Dunedin. As well as a supplier of ships' stores and an occasional ship's captain, he was a Port Chalmers town councillor. He was also on the committee to establish the Dunedin to Port Chalmers railway, whose members included Superintendent of Otago James Macandrew, Dunedin Mayor Thomas Birch, Port Chalmers Mayor Daniel Rolfe, and national politician William Hunter Reynolds.

Among records of the public outrage at the death of Bishop Patteson, there is no mention of Mr Clark by name.

His steamer, the Wainui, was listed for sale in Sydney at the end of 1871. It then disappeared from the records. In 1874, Mr Clark purchased another ship with a slaving history, the Don Juan. In the early 1860s, then named the Rosalia, she had transported Chinese and Easter Islanders to the slave market in Peru. Mr Clark, with his eyes evidently still on the Pacific Islands, bought her with the intention of getting into the cattle trade between the islands. But the authorities declared her unseaworthy and she ended her days in Deborah Bay, Port Chalmers.

At some point, Mr Clark's Beach St store was demolished but not replaced. He died in October 1888, aged 66, and was buried in Dunedin's Southern Cemetery.

Today, Mr Clark's cemetery plot is a bare, leaf-strewn patch of soil. It is bereft of paving, rail or even a headstone to show where the owner of the ship that took Pacific Island slave trading to new depths is buried. Mr Clark's fall into oblivion parallels the fate of rammed and unwanted islanders left behind by the Wainui, struggling in Pacific Ocean waters until they slipped for the last time beneath the waves; the memory of them, the import of the change their deaths wrought, and their connection to Dunedin, all lost forever.

Or so it seemed for decades. But the digitisation of newspaper archives means the link 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.

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