Sold into slavery

In 1863, 144 men, women and children were kidnapped from ’Ata, a tiny island in the wild seas...
In 1863, 144 men, women and children were kidnapped from ’Ata, a tiny island in the wild seas between Tonga and New Zealand, and sold into slavery. Photo: supplied.

A treacherous affair during the little-known 19th-century Pacific Island slave trade has a southern New Zealand link, historian Dr Scott Hamilton tells Bruce Munro.

Who it was who chose to publish the article about Captain Thomas McGrath on the front page of the December 14, 1863, edition of the Invercargill Times will probably never be known.

That individual’s decision, however, has had repercussions that are still being felt today.

"The profitable nature of the infamous practice of kidnapping the natives of the South Sea Islands, and carrying them as slaves to Peru, has at length proven sufficiently tempting to induce a British subject, an Irishman, sailing from an Australian colony — Tasmania — to dare the dangers associated with the traffic."

Australian-born whaler Thomas McGrath tried to hide out on Stewart Island after he and his New...
Australian-born whaler Thomas McGrath tried to hide out on Stewart Island after he and his New Zealand crew kidnapped and sold into slavery many of the inhabitants of tiny Tongan island ‘Ata. Photo: supplied

This was the dramatic first sentence of the front-page story printed in the Southland newspaper almost exactly 153 years ago.

"This we learn from a seaman, John Turner, now in this port, who, along with eight others, left the vessel in which he shipped on the understanding that she was going on a whaling voyage, as soon as they learned that it was the purpose of the captain to take part in the Peruvian slave trade ...

"Instead of directing his attention to whaling, the captain proceeded to the South Sea Islands. On the 17th of May he proposed to the crew they should enter upon the slave trade as being more profitable."

The story, which had first appeared in the Melbourne Age at the end of November, was a devastating blow to Capt McGrath, who had only recently been arrested in nearby Bluff on tax evasion charges, says historian Dr Scott Hamilton. And the article’s significance has endured, drawing attention to New Zealand’s oft-neglected involvement in the Pacific Islands slave trade, known as blackbirding, as well as setting the record straight for people who have carried a burden of shame for several generations.

Dr Hamilton has been chasing the story of the slavery raid on the tiny Polynesian island, ’Ata, in 1863, since first stumbling across it in a remote Tongan village three years ago. Now, he has published The Stolen Island: Searching for ’Ata, detailing his research into this terrible and tragic incident.

The pivotal figure is Capt McGrath, Dr Hamilton says.

"McGrath almost haunted me; a sort of satanic figure who in some ways took over the book," Dr Hamilton says.

Historian Dr Scott Hamilton has brought to light a dark incident in Pacific history, in which New...
Historian Dr Scott Hamilton has brought to light a dark incident in Pacific history, in which New Zealanders played a leading role. Photo: supplied

"What an extraordinary life. A son of a British deportee, and then McGrath himself was deported to Tasmania at the age of 16. So, he knows what it is like to suffer deportation, to be ripped away from his home. Yet he goes on to do it himself. How could he do that?

"And then, when he is confronted with clear evidence [in the newspaper article] of what he has done, he shamelessly paints himself in the most self-pitying terms. So, for me he was a grotesque character but also a completely compelling character ... a victim who becomes a victimiser."

Dr Hamilton got on the trail of Capt McGrath in 2013 after hearing tantalising details of what happened a century and a-half ago on forgotten ’Ata island, 150km south of Tonga’s main island, Tongatapu, and 2000km north of New Zealand. While leading a field trip to ’Eua Island, near Tongatapu, Dr Hamilton was approached by a young local woman who said her parents refused to talk about the island her people had come from but that schoolmates had teased her and claimed her ancestors had sold their own people to palangi, Europeans.

The allegation was that Paula Vehi, the Tupouata, or chief, of ’Ata, had colluded with McGrath to lure his people aboard the brig Grecian.

There were also whispers that some of the ’Atans, after being sold into slavery, had survived and flourished in South America.

Dr Hamilton says he became obsessed with ’Ata, McGrath and the challenge of finding out what really happened. The next couple of years were spent on repeated trips to Tongatapu and ’Eua, sitting in kava circles listening to people retelling oral histories, spending days leafing through old texts in New Zealand libraries and online mining the rich resource of digitised archives such as Papers Past.

What resulted — and was in no small part aided by the discovery of the December 14, 1863, newspaper article — was The Stolen Island; a clear evidence-based picture of the lead-up to, and aftermath of, a shameful moment in time.Drawing on his research, Dr Hamilton also reconstructed the events as they played out on ’Ata when Capt McGrath and his crew, mostly from the Chatham Islands, turned up intent on kidnapping for profit.


McGrath and his crewmates could see waves falling on the stones of ‘Ata’s little beach, and boulders stacked at either end of that beach, and cliffs that separated the beach from ’Ata’s plateau. Dozens of caves opened in the cliffs. They were long and narrow, like the mouths of whales.People appeared on the cliffs, and began to descend them. Men and women and children stepped through shrubs and slid over rocks on their way down to the beach.

An American whaler who had visited ‘Ata in 1840 had been impressed by the ease with which the locals navigated their cliffs. In the account of ‘Ata he published in the Massachusetts newspaper the Daily Mercury, he described how islanders would leap from rock to rock and slide down the loamy steeps, even while they carried loads on their shoulders. It was as though each had a pair of wings in reserve in case their foothold should fail.The American was also impressed by the riches the ‘Atans could wring from their island. The plateau where they kept their village and gardens seemed not much larger than the deck of a whaling ship, but it contained a field of sugarcane, a plantation of bananas, and a beautiful grove of waving coconut trees, along with many small patches of potatoes, yams, and melons ...‘Atans hurried through the water towards the Grecian. Some of them may have paddled canoes, but many would have swum. Even the island’s small children were strong swimmers. Their elders had taught them about the rhythm of the sea that broke against their beach. It would throw two or three big waves at the stones in quick succession, then level out for a few seconds, before offering a new series of waves. ‘Atans would climb onto the boulders at the edge of their beach, wait until the sea was briefly calm, then dive under the water and swim beyond the surf line before the big waves had returned ...Altogether at least 144 men, women and children boarded the Grecian to trade with Thomas McGrath. They would have outnumbered the ship’s crew by almost ten to one. Many probably arrived with trade goods — baskets of yams, or suckling pigs, or chickens — dripping under their arms.

McGrath told them that, before they traded with him, they should have something to eat. The Grecian’s cook, a man named John Bryan, had prepared a feast, and it waited for them below the deck. McGrath’s crew opened several heavy trapdoors, and the islanders descended steep and narrow staircases to the ship’s hold. The ‘Atans were soon busy with their meals, though we do not know what they ate ... With the ‘Atans below deck and distracted by their meals, McGrath and his crew went to work. They pulled down and locked the trapdoors on the deck.The ‘Atans heard the trapdoors slam down, then the locks slam shut. They leaped up from their meals. The daylight that had been falling through the hatches had gone, and the islanders stumbled and pushed against each other as they rushed the dark steps that ended at locked doors. They smashed their fists and their shoulders and their heads against the wood and iron of the doors, and against the walls and floor of the Grecian’s hold. They shouted. They cried. They prayed. They heard the anchor of the Grecian splash out of the sea and slide up the side of the ship.


McGrath then sailed west and north trying to kidnap more people. The ship’s cook, Mr Bryan, demanded to be allowed to leave. He then travelled to Samoa, where he gave Mr Turner his eyewitness account of the ’Ata slave raid, which was later relayed to the Melbourne Age reporter.

Still in the Tongan island group, Capt McGrath tricked 30 young men from Niuafo’ou Island into coming aboard, bringing the number of hostages crammed in the ship’s dark hold to at least 174.

The entire human cargo was sold to a more experienced slave trade ship, the General Prim, which set sail for Peru.

A few months later, Capt McGrath and the remaining crew of the Grecian turned up at Rakiura, Stewart Island. He probably hoped it was still  a lawless place, which would have been "the perfect place for him", Dr Hamilton says. But it was not long before Capt McGrath came to the notice of officials, and then was placed directly in the spotlight by the Invercargill Times article. That put paid to Capt McGrath’s plans, but there is no evidence he was ever tried for slave trading.

"We find records of him again in the newspaper shipping lists ... There is a death certificate from Tahiti which says he died there ... It is frustrating that he was never brought to justice for what he did."

The General Prim took its cargo of slaves to Peru. In the meantime, however, Abraham Lincoln and the French Government had pressured the Peruvians to outlaw slavery.


Hundreds of Polynesian slaves, including the ’Atans, were held in a dank warehouse at the port. There was an outbreak of smallpox. The Government gave slavers the job of returning the people to their homelands, "an appalling idea", Dr Hamilton says.

The slave traders took 429 Pacific Islanders north and dumped them on an island off the coast of Costa Rica. Many more died of disease and starvation before a Peruvian naval vessel took the 38 survivors to the northern port of Paita.

"That is where they disappear from history," Dr Hamilton says.

"One of the great mysteries of this story is what happened to these people. There are legends on ’Eua [where those not captured in the ’Ata raid were repatriated] that they founded a society in South America. It is possible that they intermarried and had descendants."

For some of those ’Ata descendants on ’Eua, Dr Hamilton’s research, and particularly the 1863 newspaper article, is having a profound effect. On visits to ‘Eua, he has distributed many copies of the article for people to read and keep.

"Traditionally it was a bad thing to come from this island [’Ata]," he says.

"The Vehi family, whose ancestor was the leader of the community, he was blamed for conspiring with the slavers. Using this article, and other texts, it’s possible to cast a lot of doubt on those accusations.

"So these old articles can actually have quite a radical, liberating effect on people today. It is already having that effect ... There is suddenly a sense of pride emerging in being ’Atan."

Dr Hamilton hopes his book, and the article that has been so foundational, will also transform minds in New Zealand.

"When you combine this incident with the evidence of blackbirding by boats like the [Dunedin-funded] Wainui, what we see is that New Zealand had a really significant role in the 19th-century slave trade."

In the late 1860s, at least 16 New Zealand ships were engaged in blackbirding in the Fiji islands alone. But New Zealanders often prefer to think their country has not been involved in large-scale slavery or gross mistreatment of others, an exception compared with historic practices in countries such as the United States and Australia, Dr Hamilton says.

"There are cryptic notes, but very little frontal treatment of it.

"It’s a dark chapter in New Zealand’s history that has not really been explored and discussed at length.

"I just hope other researchers will fill the breach and start doing some of this stuff."

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