1868: At 9 pounds a person; Thomas Pritchard, Ross Lewin’s trade – was it slavery, recruiting or indentured labour?

The schooner Daphne was registered in Melbourne to a South Australian, Thomas Pritchard, who either chartered it to Ross Lewin or entered partnership with him. Lewin arranged the refitting of the ship as a recruiter, and secured a licence to carry 58 labourers into Queensland under that colony’s Polynesian Labourers Act.

The ship left Brisbane in February 1868: It was skippered by an American, John Daggett, and recruited over 100 islanders from Tanna, Erromango and Efate. The licensed number was taken to Brisbane, and the others remained on Tanna.

Second voyage in 1869 mustered 108 recruits: Loyalty and Banks islanders were added to those left on Tanna, where the Daphne arrived in March. According to Pritchard, they decided at that point that the Daphne should sail to Fiji. The motivation was twofold.

Lewin accused of rape of 13 year old Tanna “wife’: Lewin’s reception in Brisbane was becoming increasingly hostile. After the Daphnes first voyage, he had been prosecuted unsuccessfully for the rape of a 13-year-old Tannese girl whom he had kept as a concubine. It was best he never returned. Also, in Fiji the recruiters could get 6  pounds for each of 108 islanders, where in Queensland they could get 9 pounds for each of only the 58 that the Daphne was permitted to carry under that colony’s legislation.

Looked  like a slave ship: Lewin remained on Tanna. The Daphne sailed on to Levuka, on Ovalau, and was met there by a man-of-war: HMS Rosario, on patrol from Sydney. Rosario’s captain, George Palmer, had served on west African patrols and thought that the Daphne looked much like a transatlantic slaver, excepting the irons. The sleeping quarters had no bedding or matting. The ship was crowded. The islanders appeared undernourished.

Palmer arrests Pritchard:  Although Pritchard produced the Queensland licences, the ship itself did not comply with the Queensland legislation and had not been carrying the food, clothing or supplies for the passengers that it required. The licences were made out to Lewin, who was not there, and showed that the Daphne was to take 58 labourers west to Brisbane when it had taken 108 east to Levuka. Palmer later testified that his suspicions were really aroused by the references to Lewin on the Queensland licences, as he had learned of Ross Lewin as a man-stealer and a kidnapper. He concluded that the Daphne was a slaver, detained Pritchard and Daggett, and had them taken with the Daphne to Sydney.  The islanders were placed under the care of Sir John Thurston, the resident British consul in Levuka.

By Reid Mortensen


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