Monday, June 23, 2014

Bishop Patteson's "South Sea Island Labour Traffic" Memorandum

 By Janelle Blucher

The Norfolk Island Museum Trust has recently purchased additional shelving and a filing cabinet to properly house the books and files donated to the Museum by Paul Bowes from the Estate of the late Les Brown.  Undertaking the task of re-housing this collection again reinforces the value and interest of this material. One item is a Memorandum written by Bishop John Coleridge Patteson, the first Missionary Bishop of Norfolk Island. Dated 11th January, 1871 it is on the “South Sea Island Labour Traffic” and was presented to both Houses of the General Assembly in Wellington NZ in 1871.

Bishop  Patteson was a strong advocate against ‘blackbirding’ throughout the South Pacific Islands and ironically it was this atrocious activity that led to his violent death in 1871. 

In the Memorandum he expresses his concern with the means of ‘procuring the labour force’ from northern New Hebrides (Vanuatu), Banks and Solomon Islands to work on the cotton and sugar plantations in Queensland and Fiji.  This procurement of labour is otherwise referred to as ‘blackbirding’.  Bishop Patteson states, “No regulations can prevent men bound by no religious or moral restraint, practicing deception and violence to entice or convey the natives on board, detaining them forcibly while on board.”

Blackbirding was especially prevalent between 1847 and 1904.  The Queensland
Government first attempted to control it in 1868 with the Polynesian Labourers Act. This regulation provided for the treatment of labourers — who theoretically worked of their own free will for a specified period — and the licensing of “recruiters.” However the Queensland government lacked constitutional power outside its own borders which made the regulations impossible to enforce.

If it was assumed that the Government of Qld and H.M. Consul at Levuka, Fiji did all in their power to safe guard labour ‘traffic’ from abuse and provide some security to the islanders whilst working on the plantations.  Bishop Patteson states that they do not and cannot protect the so-called labourers from these lawless men. These lawless men were the masters and crew of the transport vessels, there was no way to protect the recruited labourers whilst on board. 

It was impossible for any of the islanders to make a bona fide contract as the traders could not speak more than half a dozen words in any one of the dialects of these people.  For example, ten people of Mota Island entered into one such contract with a trader holding up 3 fingers, this signified either 3 suns or 3 moons to the islanders where in fact in meant 3 years to the trader.  The three years had passed and these men were still absent from their home. 

The traders or recruiters supported the system of so-called emigration.  This system degenerated into a practice approaching a slave trade, or perhaps amounted to it.  It was a mockery to speak of it as a system of emigration.

While there was the suggestion of a benefit to bringing the islanders into contact with ‘civilisation’, indeed what type of civilisation did they make contact with on the plantations?  This was difficult to ascertain as most were not returned to their homes.  Of the 400 or 500 Banks Islanders taken away only a tenth of that number were returned and the Bishop stated, “of these no exhibit benefit, but noticeably bearing bad character amongst their own people”.

The Bishop received reports of the “nefarious nature of many of the transactions, undoubtedly in a number of instances being nothing less than kidnapping.”  One person writes to Patteson stating he knows the names of 4 vessels carrying on this ‘rough work’  “these men have no scruples of conscience, and, so long as they make money, are perfectly dead to any code of laws, human or divine.  This is told in confidence from a friend for the Bishop’s own protection when amongst the Islands.  

Patteson reported that in former years the natives would come off shore to the boats, bringing articles of trade. They trusted the white people and the white people trusted them. The missionaries and other seafarers used to transport the island people from one island to another and they would receive hogs and other articles in return.   This activity however was now to the slavers advantage.  The natives were easily enticed below deck, the hatches put on, and the vessel was off with the unsuspecting human cargo. 

Patteson chillingly surmises that should any ship be wrecked on these islands the lives of those on board would probably be taken for those lives that have been stolen and the natives would be condemned and called bloodthirsty.  This is not right in the mind of Patteson, however he declares that any civilised people would do the same in their situation.  

Patteson had spent many years travelling throughout the islands and developed an intimate and trusting relationship with the islanders. Now the traders were using the name of ‘Patteson’ and the mission ship ‘Southern Cross’ to decoy natives from the islands.   The evil effects of trafficing having damaged relationships meant the white people were now obliged to be cautious.   He asserts that some of the Melanesian scholars from the mission on Norfolk Island had returned to the islands and tried to dissuade their people from going on these blackbirding vessels

Bishop Patteson's study on Norfolk Island
Bishop Patteson concludes by exclaiming the desire to “protest by anticipation against any punishment being inflicted upon natives of these Islands who may cut off vessels or kill boat’s crews, until it is clearly shown that these acts are not done in the way of retribution for outrages first committed by white men”.    Reports of killings of boat crews had been received, “it is the white mans fault, and it is unjust to punish the coloured man for doing what may be naturally expected”.

Patteson said people spoke and wrote about the treachery of these Islanders but he had experienced no kind of behaviour during his fourteen years of intercourse with them, if they are treated kindly they will reciprocate kindly.

Bishop Patteson sailed to the islands on the Southern Cross in April 1871.  On the morning of the 20th of September he landed alone on Nukapu near Santa Cruz where he had called at every year and would give the Chiefs and people presents. That afternoon his body was retrieved from a floating canoe by the crew of the Southern Cross; Patteson had been clubbed to death.  Captain Jacobs of the Southern Cross records with certainty that some vessel had been there ill-using the natives just previous to their arrival, or they would never have killed the Bishop.  Patteson was buried at sea the next morning.   The Southern Cross arrived back at Norfolk Island with her flag half-mast bearing the news of Patteson’s death.  The HMS Rosario under the command of Captain Markham touched at Norfolk Island soon after and decided to sail to Nukapu to investigate the situation.  The missionaries on Norfolk made a plea for no attempt to punish the islanders and the Captain agreed.  However when the Rosario appeared off Nukapu the natives naturally assumed that she had come to avenge Patteson’s murder.  The natives set off an assault of arrows and a sergeant of marines was killed, the crew responded with guns resulting in a number of natives being shot.  This unfortunate sequel to Patteson’s death was the absolute reverse of what he would have wished.

The death of Patteson made a huge impact in England, Australia and New Zealand, attention and focus was targeted towards the cessation of blackbirding which amounted to slavery, kidnapping and murder.  The Under-Secretary for the Colonies, moved the first reading of the Pacific Islanders Protection Bill in 1872, this became known as the Kidnapping Act but was doomed to be ineffective as it only applied to British subjects and ships.  Fiji was annexed in 1874 and a new Pacific Islanders Protection Act was passed in 1875, however this was still limited in preventing the incidence of blackbirding.  Queensland had a demand for labour and the practice continued until the inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, that year the Commonwealth Pacific Islands’ Labourers Act was passed and a provision made for the cessation of the labour trade and deportation, with certain exceptions, of all “Kanakas” (as they were colloquially called) still in Australia after the end of 1906.

Ref:   Memorandum by Bishop Patteson on the South Sea Labour Traffic, Missionary Bishop, Norfolk Island, 11th January, 1871.  Presented to both Houses of the General Assembly, by Command of His Excellency, Wellington 1871.
Martyr of the Islands – The Life and Death of John Coleridge Patteson, Sir John Gutch

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