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] 

8 Comments:

Blogger Richard said...

Your Blog is like a ship whose keel is encrusted with barnacles and thus runs less efficiently in the sea and has to be cleaned periodically!

But it can be exciting for a historian to find these things.

New Zealand is not uninvolved in atrocities or injustices to "native" peoples. Thus it is not clear we can criticise the Israelis for colonizing Palestine. Their holocaustic actions were a sped up version of our and in general Europeans' slow decimation and pollution of the Pacific in more ways than just the environmental. Religion, organised is perhaps one of the pollutants, greed for cash another. McGrath could be seen as a dark but perhaps a colourful character of the times.

Now Trump is getting oil pipelines built. He is not interested in pandering to any ideas of the 'environment' as he puts employment as an urgent priority....

Reading the Listener it seems that in fact Obama (or under the Obama administration) employment increased and the US economy was in excellent shape...I wonder if it will now get really bad and Trump will convince everyone, marvelous raconteur that he is, that all is beautiful, that America is now great...

Trump is not keen on immigrants or Afro-Americans, women etc...as a Gung-Ho Capitalist he might have endorsed McGrath as a man of enterprise. Asked about how men in real estate such as himself in many ways contributed to the origin of the 2008 crash (with mortgage bundling esp. for workers where the jobs were to go and they lost the ability to repay leading to a stock-market meltdown): asked about the misery caused in the US and elsewhere and he said:
"That's business."

But that aside, I enjoyed your book very much. Be good to see the Great South Road epic when it hits the press...!

10:42 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Thanks for your comment Richard. This blog is certainly getting encrusted with barnacles! I've been sick and then on holiday at Waipu beach recently, and the whole vessel has suffered from torpor for some time. I have to decide what direction to sail the thing in! Hope your work assembling a mss for BC is going well...

9:49 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Yes. Hope it was a good holiday. I got caught up in a chess tournament. But I have talked with BC and there seems some time as he has a few projects. However I need to get a move on for sure!

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