The visual installation Cry of the Stolen People is about the Tokelauan experience of blackbirding. The exhibition was created by artists Moses Viliamu, Jack Kirifi and the late Zac Mateo. (Photo RNZ)

Porirua artist Moses Viliamu’s work explores the brutal history of “blackbirding” and its devastating impact on Tokelau, which lost half its population to Peruvian slave ships in the 1860s.

That history is the focus of an arts installation by Moses and two fellow Tokelauan artists, which has been on show at the Festival of Pacific Arts in Hawai‘i for the past two weeks. Moses is among 85 artists and performers representing Aotearoa at the festival, which ends today.

He spoke to Teuila Fuatai about why he’s on a mission to shine more light on the history of blackbirding in the Pacific.


I was born and bred in Cannons Creek, Porirua, and for most of my life, I knew very little about the history of “blackbirding” in Tokelau and other Pacific Islands.

In 2018, I was doing my bachelor’s degree in visual art at Whitireia in Porirua. I was researching our cultural practice of tatau, or tattooing, in Tokelau. In particular, I was interested in its decline. Unlike other Pacific cultures, our tradition of tatau hasn’t remained strong over the years.

One reason I came across in my research was the influence of the missionaries, from the late 1850s and 1860s, which led to the practice of tatau being discouraged and even banned in some parts of the Pacific. Also, our population was really small compared to the other island groups (and still is, at just over 1,900), so that appeared to be another factor.

But I also found out that, at around the same time the missionaries were establishing themselves in Tokelau,Pacific islands like ours were being preyed on by “blackbirders”, slave ships which traded in the forced enslavement of our people.

In Tokelau, in the 1860s, those responsible were Peruvian. Their slave ships came to our atolls and took most of our able-bodied men, as well as some women and children. The islands of Tokelau were part of their larger “recruiter” missions around the Pacific. Often, they already had people on board from other places like Niue and the Cook Islands. In Tokelau, the impact was particularly devastating because we had such a small population. Virtually half of our people were taken.

On our most populated atoll of Fakaofo, only 84 people were believed to have been left after the Peruvian pirates came (17 men, 38 women and 29 children). The best estimate of the population before then was 261. On Nukunonu, about 70 were spared from a population of about 140. On Atafu, 37 men were taken — those left behind included six men who were deemed too old or sick to be useful.

These numbers and details of the whole Pacific experience of Peruvian blackbirding are recorded in the book Slavers in Paradise by British historian and anthropologist Henry Evans Maude. The book details the names of the ships and their captains, and it records how many people were taken from different islands. It also has information about the various routes and dates of travel, down to the month.

From Maude’s book, I learned about how blackbirding ships from Peru targeted many of the smaller Pacific islands, including the islands of Niue, the Cook Islands and Tahiti, throughout the 1860s. They tended to stay away from places with bigger populations like Sāmoa, Tonga and Fiji, where they were less likely to be successful.

For example, one slave ship that anchored near Ta‘ū island in Sāmoa’s Manu‘a group was thwarted when a Pālagi living on the island warned locals of the ship’s real intentions. The captain had planned to lure locals aboard his ship on the pretence of trading goods with them, and, according to Maude’s book, he’d offered to pay the Pālagi to help him capture 200 Sāmoans.

In Tokelau, it appears our people simply didn’t have a chance.

Some accounts show the pirates came ashore with weapons and carried people away. Others were lured aboard ships with the promise of trading goods, and once on board, they were overpowered and imprisoned below deck. At least one ship also had the help of an American, Eli Jennings, who’d taken over the most southern Tokelau atoll of Olosenga for its coconut plantations. Jennings was likely paid by slavers for his help. Maude’s book shows he also travelled with a labourer from Fakaofo who helped him to “recruit” other Tokelau people.

Slavers in Paradise by H.E. Maude  examined the practice of blackbirding in the Pacific by Peruvian slavers in the 1860s. (Photo: Teuila Fuatai)

The chapter in Maude’s book on our islands is called “Depopulating the Tokelaus” because that’s essentially what happened. Most of those left behind were women, children and elderly men, and those taken never returned.

The slave trade had been abolished in Britain and its colonies in 1807, and slavery itself in the 1830s. Peru had also abolished slavery in 1854 but was then persuaded to grant permits to Peruvian vessels to “recruit” labour from the South Pacific to meet the demands of landowners hungry for workers. As we know, that recruitment was achieved by force or trickery, with the vast majority kidnapped.

The Peruvian government was slow to wake up to the reality behind the imported workers, despite mounting pressure both internationally and in Peru. Public sentiment was against it, driven by the local media which exposed the brutal trade and the shocking conditions of those arriving on blackbirding ships, as well as their subsequent treatment in Peru. Many suffered under harsh labour conditions, became severely ill and malnourished, and died.

As a result of that attention, there was greater scrutiny of ships from the Pacific at the port of Callao in Peru. On April 28, 1863, Peru introduced new regulations preventing labour ships from disembarking crew or passengers without a special licence “which would only be granted after it had been made evident that the labourers had been freely contracted and that no crimes had been committed during the voyage”. This effectively halted blackbirding in Peru (although it continued elsewhere).

In keeping with this shift in attitude, the Peruvian government also ordered repatriation missions for Pacific people who’d been stolen. Maude’s research shows these missions didn’t go well. Many died on the repatriation ships, mostly from diseases like dysentery and smallpox. Others died immediately after they made landfall. And the repatriation ships went only as far as the islands of Rapa Nui and Rapa Iti (Easter Island and Little Easter island), and Nuku Hiva in French Polynesia, as well as Tongareva in the Cook Islands.

Overall, only 157 people (about five percent of those brought to Peru) “landed once again on a Polynesian island alive”.

According to Slavers in Paradise, some survivors from Tokelau made it to Rapa Nui. While exact numbers aren’t known, records indicate the group who made it to Rapa Nui included 15 from the Rapa islands, as well as nine men from Tonga, the Cook Islands and Tokelau. These men married locals and lived the rest of their lives in Rapa Nui.

Until I started this research, I didn’t realise the extent of blackbirding and how much it affected our people in Tokelau and the wider Pacific.

Records collected by Maude estimate 3,634 people were taken from across the Pacific by Peruvian blackbirders. The ships and their slave trade masters literally pillaged their way across the region, taking from wherever they could. Twenty-nine islands in Kiribati, Tuvalu, Fiji, Rotuma, Tokelau, the Cook Islands, Sāmoa, Tonga, the Federated States of Micronesia, Mā’ohi Nui, and Rapa are known to have been hit by blackbirders.

We also know the voyage to Peru itself was brutal. About 350 of those taken by blackbirders died on the slave ships. Another 1840 people died after arriving in Peru. Following that, there’s the tragedy of the repatriation process.

It’s hard to know what we’ve lost, or aren’t aware of, because of the abrupt disconnection and harm from blackbirding. For instance, our tatau practice seemed to stop when the slavers came because they took most of the adult men. Traditionally, in our culture, you’re only tattooed if you’re married, and almost all the men in that age group were taken.

Even the discussion within our own families and community about blackbirding is constrained. As part of my research, I talked to Tokelauan elders in Porirua about what they knew of the practice. Most of them didn’t really have much to say. The answer I got back was: “My parents didn’t know much either.”

Our conversations were also limited because I don’t speak my own Tokelauan language well. The older people tried as best as possible to speak with me in English, but their first language is gagana Tokelau and it would have been far better to be able to talk in our mother tongue.

I also spoke to people in my own generation about their knowledge of blackbirding. Some had the names of relatives who’d been taken, but little else. My own family didn’t have any information or stories either.

I found out as well that some of the strain of discussing this part of our history is because there were people in Tokelau who helped the blackbirding ships. It’s well- known that slavers often lied to people and communities to make it easier to take those they wanted. Even now, there’s a lot of hurt and pain and shame for families around that. For example, in some of my conversations, people gave me the name of a relative they knew had helped send people away, but they wanted those names kept private.

The artists who created Cry of the Stolen People. Moses (far right) with  Jack Kirifi and the late Zac Mateo. (Photo: Dominic Godfrey / RNZ Pacific)

I worked with two other Porirua artists with Tokelau heritage — Zac Mateo and Jack Kirifi — on an exhibition to encourage people to think about the bigger story of blackbirding.

Our exhibit is a series of black and white illustrations. The images are projected onto a sail that’s fixed to a mast modelled on an old tall ship. We’ve purposely kept the images simple to reflect that the particular piece of history we’re telling is from the 1860s. It’s an old look and feel. We also have sound effects that go alongside the image projection, including the sounds of birds and the ocean, as well as the sounds of chains and our cultural drumming.

The first time we showed the exhibition was in Porirua in 2020. Everybody who came was so emotional and shocked. Like me, a lot of people didn’t know the extent of blackbirding in Tokelau. People couldn’t believe that it was part of our history.

The second time we showed it, we had so much interest from intermediate and high school students. They wanted to know more about what happened, and that really made me think about what we should be doing with our project and research.

One of the reasons we created our visual art projection was so we could encourage more information about blackbirding to emerge from our own community. Attending the Festival of Pacific Arts here in Hawai‘i is another step in that journey. While we’re here, we want to hear from other island groups and get their stories too. Our exhibition tells the Tokelau story, but we know it was a common experience across the Pacific.

For me, this exhibition is about telling our history in our voices. I’m also putting together a children’s book on blackbirding in Tokelau. The aim is to have it published in gagana Tokelau and English. Obviously, I learned a lot from Slavers in Paradise, but that’s a version of our history from a Pālagi perspective. It isn’t the same as hearing stories from our own.

I work part-time at the library, so I know there isn’t an abundance of resources by Tokelauans for Tokelauans. That needs to change.

I have so many nephews and nieces who I know would benefit from knowing about our own history and culture, but there aren’t many resources that our young people can use to understand who we are.

My work and art on blackbirding is one way of growing that knowledge, so that our stories, history and culture aren’t lost.


Moses Viliamu (Tokelau–Atafu, and Sāmoa) is an artist based in Porirua, Wellington. He created the festival exhibition Cry of the Stolen People with Jack Kirifi and the late Zac Mateo. All three have roots in Tokelau and are from Porirua.

The 10-day Festival of Pacific Arts (FestPac) is the world’s largest celebration of Indigenous Pasifika artists. It’s held every four years and began in 1972 in Suva, Fiji. A contingent of 85 artists and performers represented Aotearoa at this year’s festival in Honolulu, from June 6 to 16.

As told to Teuila Fuatai. Made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.

© E-Tangata, 2024

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