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Dr. Scott Hamilton says NZ’s role in the Pacific slave trade is “a dark piece of history”

 (Radio & TV Tonga, Nuku’alofa, 03/01/2017)

A New Zealand researcher Dr. Scott Hamilton says his country’s role in the Pacific slave trade is “a dark piece of history” that is often overlooked.

Dr. Hamilton says the idea that New Zealand was involved in the slave trade conflicts with their image of themselves.

He told Sunday Morning that in the 1870’s, Pacific Island slaves worked in NZ flax mills and on the estates of some of their wealthiest citizens.

In his book “The stolen Island: Searching for ‘Ata” he tells the story of a slave raid by NZ and Tasmanian sailors on the isolated island of ‘Ata in Tonga in 1863 where nearly 150 were stolen for sale in the slave market in Peru.

‘Ata is about 150 kilometers south of Tongatapu.  The island was settled by Tongans in 1600’s and is surrounded by high cliffs, battered by wild seas and has almost no reef.

Dr. Hamilton says despite all of those odds in this incredible tough environment they created a thriving society.

However, this was all destroyed in the first week of June 1863 when a man named Thomas McGrath brought a ship up from New Zealand with a mixed NZ and Tasmanian crew.

McGrath was a Whaler and although he had some successes, he decided that taking slaves would be more profitable than whaling which was in decline because of over-exploitation.

Dr. Hamilton said about 150 Ata men, women and children had swum out to greet the ship, and they had been invited below deck to either view merchandise for trading, or to share a meal.

He said they didn’t get back on the deck.  McGrath battened down the hatches and the ship sailed away.
He sailed to Niuafo’ou where he took 30 men and then he sold the lot of them to a slaver who took them to Peru.

Peru was the notorious centre of the Pacific slave trade at the time.

But just as the people from ‘Ata arrived, pushback from the clergy, revolts on the islands and internationally pressure had led to the Peruvian government rescinding the law legalizing slavery.

Instead of being sold on, the Atans were kept in a dank warehouse at the port with other Islanders awaiting repatriation.  The smallpox arrived, spreading quickly through the warehouse, killing many.

Dr. Hamilton says McGrath was never tried for the slave raid,  but he did face justice for thwarting customs after he returned to Stuart Island with illicit, undeclared, cargo.

He says, McGrath never faced justice for what he did really.

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