1863: Hobart Whaler ‘Grecian’ captures 130 Tongans, from ‘Ata and sells them to Peruvian slaver

The tale of the Hobart Whaler ‘Grecian’ from: Slavers in Paradise – The Peruvian Slave Trade in Polynesia, 1862-1864 reported Captain Thomas James McGrath, master of the 209-ton Tasmanian whaler Grecian left Hobart on 17 December 1861 for a whaling voyage to the South Seas. With the exception of one islander his crew of twenty-seven were all of European extraction and for the most part old hands at the whaling game.

Sydney stop-over to sell whale-oil: After picking up a lady friend at Botany Bay the captain spent over a year on the whaling grounds, selling more than six tuns of whale oil at Wellington ( New Zealand) in January 1863. Here, and also at the Chatham Islands, the crew were changed: it seems probable that in fact they left the ship voluntarily. These were replaced by fifteen Maoris and Portuguese and ten others, who were to be discharged at the first Australian or New Zealand port called at after 20 May.

Slave trade more profitable: McGrath then headed for the islands and on 17 May 1863, he proposed to the crew that they should enter on the slave trade as being more profitable’, adding that ‘the islanders could easily be sold on the South American coast’ .

Eight crew refuse to go slaving: A seaman named John Turner and seven others refused and were landed at Niue Island three days later, their articles having by then expired. While they were disembarking, the Niueans, accompanied by the missionary W.G. Lawes, arrived on the scene and gave them five minutes to leave; the second mate, who was in charge of the ship’s boat, agreed to take them on board again, only to be charged by the captain with disobeying orders ‘in not leaving the men on the rocks as he was told to do’.

More crew refuse to go slaving: Ten days later they were put ashore at Tutuila, and on reaching Apia they were joined by another shipmate, John Bryan, who had been landed at Levuka when he also objected to serving on a slaver.’

130 Tongans captured, taken to Peru: Bryan told them that after leaving Samoa the Grecian had gone to Tonga and that: the captain there induced a large party of natives to come on board to trade, and while they were dining on the ‘tween decks, closed the hatches upon them, men, women and children to the number of about 130, and sailed with them for the Peruvian coast.

Stolen from ‘Ata: This kidnapping could only have taken place at ‘Ata, the isolated southernmost outlier in the Tongan Group, for apart from a few men from Niuafo’ou no other Tongan island lost any of its inhabitants.

Account of the ‘Ata abductions: In 1929 an anthropologist, Edward Gifford, published this account of the ‘Ata abductions, obtained from two informants who were school children on the island at the time:

Grecian painted to look like a man-of-war?: When the Peruvian raider appeared she was black with white doors painted on her sides to make her look like a man-of-war. Vehi went aboard and presumably arranged the kidnapping. When he returned ashore, he made a proclamation that each family was to send a good-looking man aboard with provisions to sell. There was to be no selling on shore, and furthermore the selling on the ships was to take place below decks. Once the Ata people were aboard they were sent to various rooms to select the goods they wanted in exchange. After entering the rooms the doors were locked.

Paul Vehi reports: The Vehi referred to was a Tongan named Paul Vehi, who had lived for two years in Sydney; he claimed to have been appointed Mayor of ‘Ata by King George I and was generally blamed for the kidnapping, though it seems probable that he too was deceived by the captain. It is significant that the people of ‘Ata should have remembered that the Grecian had white doors or ports on her bulwarks which made her look like a warship, for in actual fact she had formerly been a 6-gun brig-of-war and when in Wellington she had been refitted ‘in a suspicious manner, but no notice was taken by the authorities, as the master was well-known to them as an experienced whaler’.

Grecian back in Stewart Island, New Zealand, December 1863: Captain McGrath was decidedly hazy as to his movements between June 1863, when he got rid of Bryan, and about December, when he turned up again with his ship at Stewart Island, where he settled with the lady from Botany Bay. He was strongly suspected of having been engaged in slaving operations, but although in a Court action for arrears of wages claimed to be due from the owner’s agents he stated that he had taken fifty Tongans from Niuatoputapu to Vanua Levu, he denied that they had been sold.’

30 taken from Niuafo’ou around 1868: Captain Moresby, of H.M.S. Basilisk, called at Niuatoputapu in 1872 specifically to enquire whether any islanders had been kidnapped but was told by the local trader that apart from an unsuccessful attempt to obtain labour two years previously no recruiters had visited the island; on the other hand Axman, the German trader on nearby Niuafo’ou, informed him that five years before his visit a ship had called there and under pretence of taking the islanders to Fiji, where they would earn plenty of money, induced 30 of the men to go on board; not one of the 30 have ever since been heard of. It is supposed that they were taken to Sunday or Rasue [Raoul] Island for the purpose of being sent to work the Peruvian guano islands. The statement was confirmed by the head missionary teacher, who spoke a little English, and apart from the fact that the date of the visit is incorrect, as it often is in hearsay verbal accounts of past events, there is no reason to doubt the accuracy of the report.

Grecian’s route from ‘Ata to Levuka: The Grecian’s route from ‘Ata to Levuka would have taken her close to the isolated southern Lau Island of Ono i Lau and Captain McGrath apparently made an attempt to obtain recruits there also, for it was reported in July that ‘the Peruvian slavers have been to Ono’ and, no recruiting vessel from South America came anywhere near Fiji. He was, however, unsuccessful as is clear from the British Consul’s report in October that no one had been taken from the Fiji consular district. That it was McGrath who also called at Niuafo’ou is even more probable: for no captain from South America is likely to have known that Fiji would be a place of work both plausible and attractive to the men of Niuafo’ou, whereas McGrath evidently knew the Tongan and other Western Pacific Groups intimately through his whaling voyages, had just been to Fiji and would have been passing near the island on his way, as Turner said, to the Peruvian coast.

Barque General Prim also on a slave run: Perhaps fortunately for McGrath, since she had not been licensed by the Peruvian Government to engage in the Polynesian labour trade, the Grecian did not have to arrive at any Peruvian port with her recruits, where her appearance would have excited considerable attention, particularly from ships of the French Pacific Fleet and the British Pacific Station at Callao. For on 19 July the barque General Prim, owned by Ugarte y Santiago, arrived with 174 recruits (101 males and 73 females) from ‘the island of Frinately’.

Slaves hard to obtain in 1863: What seems to have happened is that the Grecian, making for South America with a full load of passengers, met the General Prim, which had left Callao in March in search of recruits (who by the middle of 1863 were becoming hard to obtain), most probably at or near Pukapuka, and sold them outright, to the mutual advantage of both parties. (the Tongan captives were then transfered to the General Prim) Captain Olano, of the General Prim, on being told that his new passengers were from the Friendly Islands, would have transcribed this information as best he could.

Slave transfers between ships: Offers to buy recruits and transfers between ships were quite frequently made by those engaged in the Peruvian trade, and the fact that the General Prim had obtained her complement by purchase would have occasioned little comment.” As regards the numbers taken from ‘Ata it is suggested that a more exact figure than the ‘ about 130’ given by John Bryan could be 144, i.e. 174 landed by the General Prim, less 30 taken from Niuafo’ou.

Slaver Margarita captured on ‘Uiha? According to an account given to the Rev. A.H. Wood, one other attempt was made to kidnap Tongans at about the period of the Peruvian labour trade. The ship involved called at ‘Uiha, one of the Ha’apai Islands, and some of the islanders had actually been taken to her when their compatriots ashore, by banging on an iron pan, succeeded in luring the sailors to return: presumably under the impression that more wished to recruit. Once ashore they were successfully ambushed, the ship seized and their friends released. The tradition is well known in Tonga and in evidence of its authenticity the ‘Uiha people point to five small cannon, allegedly from the ship, and still preserved on their island. If true, it could account for the fate of the Margarita, which left Callao on 26 January, bound for the islands: and vanished


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