Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The ship from Dunedin and the tragedies on Nukapu


My interview with Christchurch radio station RDU has gone online. Host James Dann asked me not only about the raid on 'Ata Island but about the wider Pacific slave trade and its links with New Zealand. I mentioned the Dunedin-based steamship Wainui, which was connected to the most infamous and misunderstood episode of the entire slave trade.

The Wainui's captain and crew stole men and women from Melanesia and sold them in Queensland or Fiji to the owners of sugar plantations. In August 1870 the Wainui approached Savo, a small island in the Solomon archipelago, and encountered a group of men and women in canoes. The captain of the Wainui steered his ship into the little vessels; their passengers went screaming into the water. The crew of the Wainui lowered a whaleboat into the sea, rowed towards the flailing bodies, and pulled them to safety, and into slavery.

But the Wainui's captain did not realise that his latest captives included both the wife and daughter of the chief of Savo Island. The people of the island were enraged, and its sole white inhabitant, a beachcomber and small trader, had to barricade himself in his hut.

A few weeks after the raid on Savo John Coleridge Patteson, the Anglican Bishop of Melanesia, approached Nukapu, an island in the far south of the Solomons, on the missionary ship the Southern Cross. For sixteen years Patteson had been landing on Pacific beaches. By 1871, he could preach in twenty-three of Melanesia's thousand languages. On island after island, the bishop left Bibles and medicines and sailed away with young men, who learned to read and pray at Anglican schools on Norfolk Island and in Auckland.

Patteson was popular in many places, and slavers took to imitating him. They would anchor off islands, don black garments, hold Bibles aloft on the decks of their ships, and wait for locals to paddle or swim towards them. After hearing about his imitators, the Bishop of Melanesia became a meticulous opponent of the slave trade. He collected stories of raids and whippings, and wrote long memoranda to the governments of Australasia and Britain.

In the months before the Southern Cross' visit, Nukapu had been repeatedly raided by blackbirders. The people of the island were not happy to see another exotic ship stop outside their reef.

Patteson landed on Nukapu in a Melanesian canoe given to him by some of his students. Hours later he drifted back towards the Southern Cross on the same vessel. There were arrows and axe marks in his torso, and the right side of his head had collapsed. The bishop had become Nukapu's message to the white world.
Patteson's death created an uproar throughout the British Empire. In New Zealand public meetings denounced the slave trade, and parliament passed a resolution calling on Britain to ban and punish the practice. Captain Jacobs of the Southern Cross published an account of Bishop Patteson's death that blamed the event on slave traders. The Southern Cross had visited Savo at the beginning of September, and Bishop Patteson had spent some of his time on the island hearing a report about the attack by the Wainui. It was the actions of ships like the Wainui, Jacobs suggested, that led to the slaying of John Patteson.

Despite Jacobs' testimony, the British government sent a warship, the HMS Rosario, to punish Nukapu for Patteson's death. The Rosario was driven by propellers and had eleven guns. On the way to Nukapu the ship stopped in New Zealand, where some of its crew played the first ever rugby union international against a team of Aucklanders.

When the Rosario anchored off Nukapu in October the local men danced on their beach, then fired a volley of arrows that fell into the sea far short of the warship. The Rosario responded by bombarding the island. The ship fired its largest guns, and the ship's crew opened up with their rifles. Later a party of marines went ashore, and burned a Nukapuan village.

The invasion of Nukapu was condemned by anti-slavery campaigners as an insult to the memory of Bishop Patteson, and was criticised by newspapers in New Zealand and in Britain. Patteson himself became the first Pacific martyr of the Anglican church, and is still remembered by members of the church today. Patteson's certificate of ordination is displayed at Auckland's Anglican cathedral; on a window in church in a Surrey village called Kingswood there is a portrait of Patteson serenely contemplating his Bible while two copper-coloured savages carrying clubs approach him.

What is not remembered is the share of responsibility that a steamer from Dunedin bore for both the slaying of Bishop Patteson and the British navy's attack on Nukapu.

Note: the original version of this post mistakenly claimed that there was a causal link between the raid of the Wainui on Savo and the slaying of Bishop Patteson, by claiming that Savo and Nukapu were neighbours, and that the people of the latter island were enraged by the abduction of the chief of Savo's wife and daughter. I am very grateful to Christine Liava'a for e mailing and pointing out that Savo and Nukapu are hundreds of kilometres apart. ('I know', Christine said, 'I've been to both'.) I've changed my post to make the weaker claim that Captain Jacobs of the Southern Cross saw the raid on Savo by the Wainui as an example of the blackbirding that led to Bishop Patteson's death.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

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