[This post is a sort of successor to my discussion of the white headhunters
of the 1860s and '70s...]
Murray Deaker’s recent use of the phrase ‘working like a nigger’ on Sky Television won him many detractors and a few defenders. The Race Relations Conciliator and a slew of media commentators have damned Deaker for using the phrase; Michael Laws and a few other inveterate opponents of the nebulous but sinister phenomenon of ‘political correctness’ have presented the sports show host as a sort of martyr to homespun plainspeak.
It is interesting how both critics and defenders of Deaker have assumed that the phrase 'working like a nigger' is drawn from a context very foreign to New Zealand. They have associated the phrase with slavery in America, and have either insinuated or openly assert that slavery is something quite alien to New Zealand history. Deaker's critics charge him with importing an unsavoury saying that could damage race relations in this part of the world; Deaker's defenders ask why we should be offended by a phrase with no real relation to our society.
The fact is, though, that many New Zealanders were engaged in a Pacific slave trade years after the abolition of slavery in the United States. In the 1860s and 1870s, at least thirty-two New Zealand vessels carried slave labour from various Pacific islands to plantations and farms in places like Fiji, Queensland, Samoa, and Tahiti. New Zealand's involvement in slavery eventually prompted mass public protest meetings in our major towns and cities and legislation from our House of Representatives. Yet the memory of the Pacific slave trade and New Zealand's involvement with it has been almost erased from our national consciousness.
Even in the 1860s and '70s, when it was impossible to ignore slaving in the Pacific, Kiwis took a curiously schizophrenic attitude towards the trade, condemning it and simultaneously denying the seriousness of their nation's involvement with it. To understand this attitude we have to understand the ideology which white settlers brought to this country in the middle decades of the nineteenth century.
For the mass of ordinary settlers and for much of the colony's political and economic elite, New Zealand was a blessed country, where a benign climate and rich soils would enable the building of a nation of prosperous small farmers and tradesmen. New Zealand would become a farm for the world and a jewel of the British Empire, a place where even men and women of humble birth could achieve economic independence on plots of their own land. The country would be a sort of yeoman’s utopia.
The belief in New Zealand's glorious future was often tied up with an antipathy towards both European rivals to the British Empire and the indigenous peoples of the Pacific. As Angus Ross showed in his excellent book New Zealand Aspirations in the Pacific in the Nineteenth Century
, Kiwi newspapers and politicians liked to counterpose the British Empire's supposed love for liberty, fairness, and small farming with the superexploitative 'plantation capitalism' that the French and German Empires were allegedly introducing to the Pacific, and to the barbarous pre-capitalist societies of Polynesian and Melanesian peoples. New Zealand colonial governments frequently urged a reluctant Britain to annex nations like Samoa, Fiji, and Tonga, and thereby ‘save’ them from both native backwardness and the threat from oppressive continental European plantation owners.
From the start, the ideology of the settlers was out of tune with reality. The isolation of the new country, the lack of a decent transport infrastructure, and the awkward presence of an indigenous people made the dream of plenty hard to achieve. Even after the conquest of much Maori land the colony struggled economically. At first a series of gold rushes and the whaling and sealing industries swallowed up some of the thousands of frustrated men who had been unable to make a living, let alone a profit, from farming. By the 1860s, though, the gold rushes were over and whaling and sealing were in decline.
At the same that New Zealand was facing an economic crisis, other colonial projects in the South Pacific were suddenly looking very promising. In Queensland, which was a self-governing British colony, and in Fiji, which had no coherent government but did have an aggressive and steadily increasing white population, settlers were beginning to grow large quantities of cotton and sugar in response to the global shortage of those crops created by the American Civil War and its aftermath.
As prices for sugar and cotton went higher and higher and production expanded faster and faster, growers began to employ the services of so-called 'labour recruiters', popularly known as 'blackbirders', who unloaded cargoes of men, women, and children at ports like Levuka and Mackay and offered them for sale. Many of the blackbirders were former sealers and whalers; others were farmers or tradesmen who had fallen on hard times. A blackbirder could commonly sell a man or an attractive woman for between nine and thirteen pounds to a plantation owner; children generally fetched about five pounds.
Polynesia and Micronesia were initially favoured by the blackbirders, but the New Hebrides and Solomons had become more popular hunting grounds. The isolation and relative size of these islands and the disunity of their populations made them especially vulnerable.
The blackbirders used a variety of tactics to acquire their cargoes: sometimes they would lure islanders on board their vessels with the promise of trade, and then put them in chains; sometimes they would raid islands and take captives at the point of a gun; on other occasions they would use deceit, promising to ferry islanders to some destination, or to employ them for a brief period for good pay, or to take them to a missionary station. On larger Melanesian islands like Malaita in the Solomons and Efate in the New Hebrides, coastal tribes were sometimes paid to hunt down and deliver labourers from inland tribes.
Blackbirders commonly claimed that their captives had agreed to labour on a plantation for a certain number of years, and sometimes they produced contracts to support these claims. While a few islanders undoubtedly went willingly aboard the blackbirders' boats, out of a desire for adventure or Western goods, few of them could have understood the details of what awaited them. Coley Patteson, the first Anglican Bishop of Melanesia and a relentless campaigner against blackbirding, ridiculed the notion that islanders had signed fair contracts with the blackbirders, telling the New Zealand government that
I do not believe that it is possible for any of these traders to make a bona fide contract with any of the natives of the northern New Hebrides, Banks and Solomon Islands. I doubt if any one of these traders can speak half a dozen words in any one of the dialects of those Islands; and I am sure that the very idea of a contract cannot be made with a native of those islands without a full power of communicating readily with him. More than ten natives of Mota Island have now been absent nearly three years. The trader made a contract with them by holding up three fingers. They thought that three suns or moons were signified. Probably he was very willing that they should think so, but he thought of three years.
After being delivered to a plantation, a blackbirded islander could in theory expect to work for three to five years for six days a week before being handed a tiny sum of money - ten pounds was a typical figure - and being sent home on a ship. In practice, many labourers died of neglect or overwork before finishing their contracts. Those who lived long enough to leave their plantations were often placed on a ship and dropped on the nearest convenient island, where they faced being ostracised or killed by locals. Labourers who deserted their plantations were hunted down and beaten.
By the end of the 1860s at least fifty ships were working full-time to supply the plantations of Queensland and Fiji with labourers. In addition, a handful of ships supplied labour to the smaller cotton farms which had been established in Tahiti and on Samoa. In 1870 the little island of Fortuna in the New Hebrides alone received more than forty different visits from blackbirders, and lost nearly half its population of nine hundred. In an account of blackbirding published in 1888, a former slaver described the devastation that the trade brought to one island:
After travelling about two miles, we came right in front of a long clearing, and sticking out of it were a lot of what we took to be black poles. The skipper, as soon as we saw them, swore worse than ever, and said "We'll get no men in this place; somebody has been here before us'...there was an awful stink, which grew stronger and stronger...Here, there, and everywhere - in twos and three, and bunches, with limbs all twisted and stiffened, blocked and blistered, in the scorching sun - were the bodies of a lot of natives, men, women, and children...In the middle of them was a drove of wild pigs, scarcely able to move after their horrible feast. I began to think I had had quite enough of blackbirding...
Coley Patteson quickly noticed the effects of blackbirding on Melanesia. The Bishop had once been welcomed by large peaceful crowds on his journeys through the islands, but after the beginning of large-scale blackbirding he found shorelines and villages suddenly deserted. When Patteson did make contact with islanders, he frequently found them hostile; not unreasonably, they associated all white men with blackbirding.
By the end of the 1870s Queensland, with its huge sugar and cotton plantations worked by imported blacks, had earned the nickname 'the second Louisiana'. The similarities between the vanquished American Confederacy and the colonial plantations of the South Pacific were not entirely coincidental. After the defeat of the Confederate army and the emancipation of southern slaves in 1865, plantation owners in the south faced ruin. Thousands of them fled to Mexico, South America, and the Pacific and sought to recreate the society they had lost. By the end of the 1860s more than two hundred Americans were living in Fiji; many of them were ex-Confederate cotton farmers. Other former Confederates became blackbirders.
James T Proctor was typical of the ex-Confederates who shifted operations to the South Pacific in the late 1860s and early 1870s. A nephew of the famous Civil War general PGT Bureauregard, Proctor lost one of his legs in a battle with the Yankees, and later lost all of the two hundred and twenty slaves who worked his Louisiana sugar plantation. These injuries did not stop him setting up a cotton plantation in Fiji and leading blackbirding raids on the New Hebrides.
In his book The White Pacific
the African American scholar Gerald Horne describes how Proctor and other ex-Confederates established a section of the Ku Klux Klan in Fiji, and used the organisation to terrorise indigenous Fijians and agitate for the American annexation of the islands. The Klan soon won the support not only of Americans but of the many Australian, New Zealand, and English settlers in Fiji.
But men like Proctor can hardly be blamed for the whole of the Pacific slave trade: along with the Australian colonies, New Zealand was deeply involved from an early stage. At the end of 1868 John Thurston, the British Consul in Fiji, wrote to Wellington to report that nine New Zealand ships had recently called there with human cargoes. A year later Thurston's successor, Edward March, provided details of another seven blackbirders' vessels active in Fiji. March noted that the number of blackbirders in Fiji was increasing in 'proportion to the steady arrival of settlers'.
At first relatively small ships - cutters, and ketches, and schooners - from New Zealand's more northerly ports made up the bulk of the Kiwi blackbirding fleet, but as time went on, and the profits to be made from the trade in humans became clear, businessmen from New Zealand's wealthy south funded larger ships. In 1871 JR MacKenzie, one of the richest men in Dunedin, launched a steamship called the Wainui
, which was soon busy 'recruiting' labour in Melanesia.
Although missionaries like Coley Patteson produced detailed exposes of the trade, governments in Wellington were at first very reluctant to take any sort of action against blackbirding. Frustrated by their own failure to create prosperity in New Zealand, the country's political elite hoped that the sugar and cotton booms in Queensland and Fiji would spread. Auckland might become a profitable 'depot' for Fijian exports destined for Europe, and the newly-wealthy planters of Fiji and Queensland might import large quantities of consumer goods from New Zealand.
New Zealand's involvement in blackbirding was a reflection of the failure of the promise which lured so many settlers to the country. Men who had dreamed of winning their own economic freedom in a new country were instead enslaving and transporting Pacific islanders; shipowners who might have expected to export wool or beef found a different product to move.
In May 1870 the slave trade reached the shores of New Zealand, as the schooner Lulu arrived in Auckland
with a cargo of twenty-seven men from the New Hebridean island of Efate. In an account of his blackbirding expedition
published in several newspapers, the Lulu's
captain noted that the many of the New Hebrideans were 'timid and distrustful' or else openly 'hostile', and revealed that he had paid 'douceurs' (bribes) to chiefs to help acquire labourers.
mission had been organised by Edward Brissenden, a wealthy Auckland businessman who wanted to cheap labour for a flax mill he co-owned in Waitakere. Brissenden's 'contract' promised his labourers ten pounds each for three years' work.
In an editorial that mixed sympathy with condescension, the New Zealand Herald
described the arrival of the labourers from Efate, and noted that 'these niggers are at present entirely in the hands' of their 'importers'. 'Experience and common sense should tell us', the Herald
said, that 'the niggers' were not in New Zealand voluntarily.
In 1872, after blackbirding had become a political issue, the New Zealand government sent a policeman to report on the situation of the men from Efate. Constable JB Thomson discovered that the labourers had worked for a while at the mill in Waitakere and then been split up, with some of them being sent to a flax mill at the Hokianga harbour heads and others being sent first to a mill in Thames and then to work on estates in Kohimarama and Epsom. Thomson recorded
that one of the men had died, and noted
that the others were unhappy about their long stay in New Zealand:
They assert, and in this they are unanimous, that…they were to be engaged for one year only, for which they were to receive a musket and ammunition, a tomahawk, a knife and blankets, and at the end of that time were to be returned to Efate…They brought to me a notched stick, on which they had recorded the number of months (lunar) they had served, and upon counting the notches I found their calculations to be twenty-three months.
By 1871 blackbirding had brought chaos to large parts of the western Pacific. Across the New Hebrides and the Solomons, missionaries, whalers and legitimate traders as well as blackbirders were being attacked by peoples angry at the depopulation of their islands. Fiji was in a state of war, as islanders tired of the expropriation of land by cotton and sugar growers and the arrival of more and more outsiders took up arms against the white settlers, and the Ku Klux Klan responded with atrocities.
In September 1871 Coley Patteson and two of his staff were killed on Nukapu Island in the Solomons. The master of the bishop's ship The Southern Cross
blamed the slayings on the Wainui
, which had allegedly raided Nukapu and taken several islanders away by force shortly before Patteson's arrival. Another New Zealand ship, the Nukulau
, was also suspected of raiding Nukapu in 1871.
Patteson's death received enormous publicity, and made blackbirding into an important issue in New Zealand. Large crowds attended memorial services up and down the country, and a particularly large gathering in Auckland, the city where Patteson had begun his missionary work, produced a resolution:
That this meeting is impressed with the conviction that the death of Bishop Patteson and the Rev J Atkin is attributable to the so-called labour-trade carried on by British subjects and others in the Islands of the South Pacific, and respectfully urges the Imperial Government to take measures in concert with the Australian and New Zealand Governments to place that trade under effective control.
There was a curious quality to the sudden outcry against slavery. Newspapers condemned the 'labour trade' at length, but usually avoided discussion of New Zealand's involvement in the phenomenon. Instead of connecting the trade to British imperialism and its ideology of racial superiority, the media and public called for the elimination of blackbirding through the expansion of British imperial power and New Zealand colonial authority. The annexation of Melanesia and Polynesia by Britain and New Zealand was held up as the best way to 'protect' the peoples of those regions.
New Zealand's deep involvement with blackbirding completely contradicted the ideology of progressive imperialism which had legitimated, in the eyes of both the colony's elite and its ordinary citizens, the dispossession of the Maori and the establishment of a settler nation. For that reason it had to be denied.
In November 1871 both houses of New Zealand's parliament passed resolutions mourning Patteson, and urging Britain to take action against blackbirding. London responded the following year with the Pacific Islanders Protection Act, which made ships registered in Britain or British colonies legally liable for kidnappings and other abuses committed outside the borders of the empire. In the aftermath of Patteson's death Britain also gave colonial governors the power to license the 'labour trade'.
The reforms of 1872 institutionalised rather than abolished blackbirding. Although armed raids on islands by blackbirders became less common, labour was still often acquired through duplicity, and labourers were still paid virtually nothing for years of work. New Zealand ships still took part in the trade, though in smaller numbers than before. In a report for the Queensland government in 1882, Commodore JC Wilson of the British navy listed six ships licensed to carry human cargo by the New Zealand government between 1772 and 1881.
Finally, in the 1890s, the Liberal governments of John Ballance and Dick Seddon ended New Zealand's involvement in blackbirding. In an 1898 despatch to the British Colonial Office, Governor Ranfurly explained that the Seddon government regarded 'the labour traffic' as 'debasing' and believed that it was 'depopulating...many of the islands'.
Despite the example of Edward Brissenden, New Zealand employers never resorted to the use of blackbirded labour in any quantity. Their reluctance to employ the services of 'labour recruiters' may have had less to do with moral scruples than with the fact that a large pool of very cheap local labour became available to them in the 1860s and '70s. Dispossessed of much of their best land by postwar confiscations and then the mendacities of the native Land Court, many Maori suddenly found themselves obliged to work for Pakeha farmers and businessmen. Because they usually still had access to enough land to provide them with a subsistence living, Maori could be made to work for sub-starvation wages on tasks like roadbuilding, scrubclearing, fencing, and logging. When the advent of refrigerated shipping made the export of beef and lamb to Britain possible in the 1880s, Pakeha farmers and businessmen had a continuous supply of super-cheap labour to exploit. A modified form of 'plantation capitalism' came to New Zealand.
The shallowness of the debate which has followed Murray Deaker’s recent faux pas is a symptom of the continued forgetfulness of Pakeha New Zealanders about their country’s role in the nineteenth century slave trade. We continue to repress this part of our past because we continue to hold on to the illusion that our country is somehow different from and more civilised than others. The evidence suggests otherwise.
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