Ata Island

Ata Island

In this extract from his book The Stolen Island: Searching for ‘Ata, Scott Hamilton tells the tragic story of how 144 men, women and children from an isolated Tongan island came to be stolen and sold into slavery by New Zealand and Tasmanian sailors.


In the first week of June 1863, a ship called the Grecian anchored off the western coast of ‘Ata, within shouting distance of the island’s only beach. The Grecian was 90 feet long and powered by large square sails. It had recently been painted black and white, so that it resembled a man o’ war.

Thomas James McGrath was the captain of the Grecian. McGrath was 47 years old in 1863, and still strong and athletic. He had thin straight hair and a long grey beard. His eyes were small and very dark.

The Grecian was owned by one of Hobart’s wealthiest families and was a part of the town’s whaling fleet. In the 1850s, that fleet had included more than 30 vessels, the crews of which had dragged thousands of whales onto beaches and decks. There the creatures were chopped up like the trunks of great fallen trees, then cooked in try pots until they melted into oil that was used to make bright, almost odourless candles.

By 1863, whales had become harder to find. The fleet had shrunk, and captains were having to sail further and further from Hobart.

In December 1862, McGrath had left Hobart with a crew of 27 men. He had been expected to return within a year, and to bring with him either barrels of whale oil or cash he had made by selling oil at one of the ports of the South Pacific. As captain, McGrath had been promised an eleventh share of the proceeds from the Grecian’s journey. His crew would be paid wages.

By the time it reached the coast of ‘Ata, the Grecian had been gone for 18 months, and now had a crew of 16, only a handful of whom had left Hobart with McGrath. Most had been recruited a few weeks earlier in the Chatham Islands. McGrath had caught a number of whales during his journey, but the Grecian carried neither oil nor cash for his employers.

. . .

McGrath and his crewmates could see waves falling on the stones of ‘Ata’s little beach, and boulders stacked at either end of that beach, and cliffs that separated the beach from ‘Ata’s plateau. Dozens of caves opened in the cliffs. They were long and narrow, like the mouths of whales.

People appeared on the cliffs, and began to descend them. Men and women and children stepped through shrubs and slid over rocks on their way down to the beach.

An American whaler who had visited ‘Ata in 1840 had been impressed by the ease with which the locals navigated their cliffs. In the account of ‘Ata he published in the Massachusetts newspaper the Daily Mercury, he described how islanders would “leap from rock to rock” and “slide down the loamy steeps”, even while they carried loads on their shoulders. It was as though each “had a pair of wings in reserve” in case “their foothold should fail”.

The American was also impressed by the riches the ‘Atans could wring from their island. The plateau where they kept their village and gardens seemed not much larger than the deck of a whaling ship, but it contained a “field of sugarcane, a plantation of bananas, and a beautiful grove of waving coconut trees”, along with “many small patches of potatoes, yams, and melons”.

The ‘Atans were used to visitors. Hundreds of ships had dropped anchor off their island in the first six decades of the nineteenth century. Most of the vessels belonged to whalers, but a few carried missionaries or marines. Whalers gave ‘Atans rum, tobacco, long knives, fish hooks, hoes, pipes and cloth, and received pigs, chickens, sugarcane, yams and potatoes in return. Sometimes the islanders would move goods to and from visitors’ ships, paddling small canoes or swimming sidestroke and carrying loads under their arms. Sometimes a Palangi or two would row a skiff or whaleboat to ‘Ata’s beach.

There were other exchanges. When W. B. Rhodes visited ‘Ata in 1836 with his whaling ship Australia, he encountered a white man who had “remained on the island five years” and “married a young native girl”.

Two other ‘Atan women were “considered wives” of captains whose ships visited the island regularly.

Rhodes found only 75 residents on ‘Ata; by 1863, though, the island’s population exceeded 300, and included about 100 children.

In 1836 ‘Ata was, like almost all of Tonga’s islands, a pagan place: Rhodes was shown the “spirit house” where one of Western Polynesia’s miscellany of erratic gods and goddesses could be ventriloquised by a kava-inspired priest. By the 1850s, a chief named Taufa’ahau had used muskets and Bible to unify Tonga. He crowned himself Tupou I, and made Wesleyanism the religion of his new state. In 1854, an Australian newspaper reported that ‘Ata was still pagan, and had not yet accepted Tupou I’s rule. In 1863, though, the island had a Wesleyan church and a Wesleyan school.

. . .

Soon ‘Atans were filling the little beach at the bottom of their island. A man began to shout at the Grecian on the far side of the surf. The man’s name was Paula Vehi. He had been appointed Tupouata, or chief of ‘Ata, by King Tupou I. Paula Vehi spoke very good English. As the leader of ‘Ata, it was his duty to negotiate with the captains of passing ships.

The American who visited ‘Ata in 1840 reported that the islanders already spoke some English: one man introduced himself with the phrase “Captain, God send you good luck.” In 1844, Captain Home was sailing his British man o’ war past ‘Ata when “eleven canoes … each with four men and boys in them” appeared, “called in English” to him, and persuaded him to stop and trade. Some ‘Atans may have learned English while working as whalers. Vessels that had suffered from desertions or disease sometimes recruited at the island.

When Paula Vehi shouted an invitation to trade across the waves, Thomas McGrath shouted back. The Grecian, he explained, had many treasures. The ship’s crew would like to show these treasures to the people of ‘Ata. The islanders should come aboard, and select the goods they would like to exchange for their crops and animals.

‘Atans hurried through the water towards the Grecian. Some of them may have paddled canoes, but many would have swum. Even the island’s small children were strong swimmers. Their elders had taught them about the rhythm of the sea that broke against their beach. It would throw two or three big waves at the stones in quick succession, then level out for a few seconds, before offering a new series of waves. ‘Atans would climb onto the boulders at the edge of their beach, wait until the sea was briefly calm, then dive under the water and swim beyond the surf line before the big waves had returned.

The men on the Grecian would have known that Thomas McGrath was a veteran and successful whaler. He had been sailing ships out of Hobart for 15 years, had taken hundreds of tonnes of whale oil, and had often hunted and shopped in the Chathams.

But McGrath’s career had included a surprising number of mishaps. In 1849 he had wrecked a ship off Tasmania, and another off New South Wales. In 1858 and 1859 he had lost two vessels, the whaling boat Terror and merchant ship Sebastapol, off the same piece of coast in the Chatham Islands. But most of the present crew of the Grecian may not have known about these incidents, or about Thomas McGrath’s more distant past, because they had been recruited recently, and far from Australia.

Their captain had grown up in a Sydney orphanage after his father, who had already been deported from Ireland to Australia for theft, was convicted of burglary and sent to the penal colony of Port Macquarie, Tasmania. In 1831, when he was 15, Thomas McGrath was caught breaking into a Sydney warehouse, and sent to the penal colony of Hobart. Three years later, he was discovered with the carcass of a stolen sheep and sentenced to a further two years’ hard labour on a chain gang. After serving this sentence, McGrath married into one of Hobart’s ship-owning families and began whaling.

McGrath spent 1862 sailing around New Zealand and into the tropical Pacific. In March, he was cruising the cold waters off the Chathams, where he rescued three locals who had been carried out to sea in a skiff; by the end of June, he was watching a volcano erupt in the Kermadecs.

The captain struggled with his crew. In April 1862, six of them refused to take his orders and were put in chains; in June, 15 rebels wore irons for a day. McGrath had searched New Zealand waters in vain for whales, but when he reached the Fijian archipelago in August he quickly made four kills. The Grecian reached Wellington at the beginning of 1863, and most of its crew deserted. The captain went to the police, and a series of men soon appeared in Wellington’s court charged with breaking their contracts. On 16 January, a crewman named Glover was given a month’s hard labour for leaving the Grecian; the next day, a deserter named Lewis got three months’ hard labour.

While his old crew were in jail, McGrath took part in Wellington’s annual Anniversary regatta on the city’s harbour. The regatta included a race between small whaleboats for a prize of £10, and two of the three boats that entered the race belonged to the Grecian. One of the Grecian’s whaleboats was oared by a crewman named Roberts; the other was propelled by McGrath. Roberts finished the race in second place; McGrath won the £10.

. . .

Altogether at least 144 men, women and children boarded the Grecian to trade with Thomas McGrath. They would have outnumbered the ship’s crew by almost ten to one. Many probably arrived with trade goods — baskets of yams, or suckling pigs, or chickens — dripping under their arms.

McGrath told them that, before they traded with him, they should have something to eat. The Grecian’s cook, a man named John Bryan, had prepared a feast, and it waited for them below the deck. McGrath’s crew opened several heavy trapdoors, and the islanders descended steep and narrow staircases to the ship’s hold. The ‘Atans were soon busy with their meals, though we do not know what they ate.

McGrath had prepared for this moment. In Wellington, at the beginning of 1863, he had sold the oil he had taken in the 13 months since he had sailed from Hobart. Instead of returning home with the proceeds from this sale, though, McGrath had bought food and liquor, and repainted the Grecian a martial black and white. At the end of the summer, he and the remnants of his crew sailed not west to Tasmania but east to the Chatham Islands, where he recruited a score of new hands, telling them that he intended to hunt for whales up and down the coasts of the main islands of New Zealand, and promising to leave them in a New Zealand port once their contracts had expired.

But McGrath soon took the Grecian north into tropical waters. On 17 May, when the ship sat somewhere between the Kermadecs and ‘Ata, McGrath called together his puzzled crew. He wanted to make them a proposition.

The whaling trade, McGrath told his men, was becoming unprofitable now the creatures were harder and harder to find. There was more money in hunting people than fish. McGrath explained that Peruvian businessmen were eager to buy slaves. The Grecian should fill its hold with Pacific Islanders, then sail east. The Peruvians would pay well for such a cargo.

. . .

In 1862, after a campaign by business owners, Peru’s parliament had voted to allow the “recruitment” of labourers from the Pacific Islands. Islanders would be invited to sign “contracts” that promised them the right to live in liberty as “colonists” in Peru, in return for three years of almost unpaid labour there. These contracts could be bought and sold.

A fleet soon sailed from Callao, the port of Lima. But rather than convincing Pacific Islanders to sign contracts freely, the crews of these ships usually kidnapped whomever they could find. The captive islanders were then unloaded at Callao, and bought by businessmen who put them to work on plantations and as domestic servants. The first shipment of slaves arrived on a vessel named the Adelante in 1862. The men from the Adelante were sold for 200 pesos; the women fetched 150 pesos; children changed hands for 100 pesos.

By the middle of 1863, the Peruvian slave trade had become notorious across the South Pacific. Clergymen had held protest meetings; French colonial authorities in Tahiti had put the captain of a slave ship on trial; and newspapers had carried extended accounts of raids, quoting islanders who had escaped the whips and chains of the slavers. McGrath might have learned about the trade when he arrived in Wellington at the beginning of 1863, or even earlier, during his many talks with whalers he encountered on the high seas.

When he confronted his crew on 17 May, McGrath knew that he needed to win them to his plans. He could not sail the Grecian on his own, and he had suffered debilitating mutinies and desertions in 1862. Sixteen of the 24 men who heard McGrath’s proposal agreed to it, but eight men, most or all of whom had been recruited in the Chathams, condemned the idea. They would not enter the slave trade, and they demanded to leave the Grecian.

McGrath took the Grecian north to the isolated island of Niue, which had recently been raided by a slave ship from Peru. When the Grecian’s boatswain put the eight rebels in a whaleboat and rowed them to Niue’s rocky coast, a missionary quickly appeared with a crowd of locals, and explained that Turner and the others would be killed if they tried to stay on the island. McGrath was furious when the boatswain returned the men to the Grecian.

On 27 May, the Grecian reached the Samoan island of Tutuila, where McGrath succeeded in dumping his rebels at an isolated spot. The eight men eventually found their way to Apia, where the British consul to Samoa lived. McGrath, meantime, turned south, and sailed to ‘Ata. Along with a handful of men who’d stayed loyal throughout the long journey of the Grecian, his crew consisted of a couple of Portuguese and a larger group of Māori. The Māori had come aboard at the Chathams, and were probably members of Ngāti Mutunga or Ngāti Tama, the two north Taranaki iwi that invaded the Chathams in 1835, killed many of the islands’ indigenous Moriori people and enslaved the survivors. The Chathams became part of New Zealand in 1842, but Moriori were freed from bondage only in 1862. By then many Māori were leaving the Chathams and returning to Taranaki, where their relatives were fighting over land with Pākehā colonists.

. . .

With the ‘Atans below deck and distracted by their meals, McGrath and his crew went to work. They pulled down and locked the trapdoors on the deck.

The ‘Atans heard the trapdoors slam down, then the locks slam shut. They leaped up from their meals. The daylight that had been falling through the hatches had gone, and the islanders stumbled and pushed against each other as they rushed the dark steps that ended at locked doors. They smashed their fists and their shoulders and their heads against the wood and iron of the doors, and against the walls and floor of the Grecian’s hold. They shouted. They cried. They prayed. They heard the anchor of the Grecian splash out of the sea and slide up the side of the ship.

. . .

Half of the population of ‘Ata sailed away on the Grecian. King Tupou I, when he heard about the disaster, sent schooners to bring the survivors to his capital Nuku’alofa, where they lived in huts on the grounds of his palace before moving permanently to ‘Eua, the nearest large island to ‘Ata. On the plateau of ‘Eua the refugees established a settlement that they named Kolomaile, after the village they had left behind.

Paula Vehi was not on the Grecian when it left ‘Ata. He went with the other survivors of the raid to ‘Eua, and Tupou I continued to recognise him as the representative of the Tongan state in his community. But the remnant of the ‘Atan people no longer saw Vehi as a leader. According to stories that were told around the kava bowls of ‘Eua, the Palangi slavers had paid Vehi to help them steal ‘Ata’s people. Vehi had encouraged his fellow islanders onto the Grecian, knowing where the ship was headed. He was ‘Ata’s Judas.

The refugees never went home. Apart from the occasional castaway, ornithologist and archaeologist, ‘Ata has had no inhabitants since 1863.


Extract from Scott Hamilton, The Stolen Island: Searching for ‘Ata, Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, 2016. 

Copyright: Scott Hamilton


Stolen Island book draw 

The winner of this draw is Annah Evington, of Russell, Northland. 

Malo ‘aupito to everyone else who entered. 


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