Category Archives: Slavery

Blackbirding: New Zealand’s shameful shameful role in the Pacific Islands slave trade


This country’s shameful and long-forgotten role in the Pacific Islands slave trade has been revealed in the new book The Stolen Island: Searching for ‘Ata.

June, 1863. The Grecian, a 27m whaling ship painted a martial black and white, anchors off the western coast of ‘Ata, a small, rocky island in the far south of the Tonga archipelago. The captain, Tasmanian whaler Thomas McGrath, yells an invitation to the assembled islanders to come on board to trade.

Nothing unusual here. The ‘Atan population of about 300 are used to trading with passing vessels – pigs, chickens, sugar cane, yams and potatoes for rum, tobacco, pipes, knives, hooks and hoes. Almost 150 men, women and children paddle out to the ship. Some swim. On board they are invited to share a feast (or, some say, view the wares) below deck. But as soon as they descend the stairs, the trapdoors slam shut and the ship sails away with about half the population of ‘Ata locked in its hold.

Jump forward 150 years. New Zealand poet and historian Scott Hamilton was teaching at Tonga’s ‘Atenisi Institute in Nuku‘alofa. He took a group of students to ‘Eua Island, where the remaining ‘Atans had been evacuated to more than a century earlier, establishing their own settlement, named Kolomaile after the village they’d left behind.