Scott HamiltonScott Hamilton is a Pākehā historian and writer who’s drawn our attention to the Pacific slave trade that thrived in the 19th century — and the part New Zealanders played in that trade.

And, in his book The Stolen Island, he’s told the story of one especially cruel raid which, in effect, put an end to human life on ‘Ata, a remote, almost inaccessible Tongan island.

Here he’s chatting with Dale about how he came to embark on that project.


Kia ora, Scott. I’ve enjoyed reading your book, and that has me wondering about the wealth of Pacific and New Zealand history that we still haven’t heard of — and about your whānau and how you as a young fulla came to pursue this kind of research.

Well, I grew up on a dairy farm. About 150 cows, in Drury, just south of Papakura, in the shadow of the Hunua ranges. We were close to a lot of historic sites. Some of them marked the journeys of missionaries — there were trees down the road apparently planted by Augustus Selwyn, who was that spiritual accomplice of the invasion of the Waikato.

Also, there were the sites of some of the very early battles from the Waikato war. For example, at the Pukekohe East Presbyterian church, there was still the outline of a defensive ditch that settlers had dug as insurance against an attack by King Tāwhiao’s forces. And, in the backs of some of the oldest stones in the churchyard, there were grooves left by bullets that Māori fired during their assault on the church in the first months of the war.

I always had an interest in history. A fascination really. So I ended up at university studying history and society — and doing a PhD in sociology. To be honest, I had a pretty Eurocentric approach to scholarship in those days, although I had a strong interest in Māori history and in the relationship between Māori and Pākehā. And I even wrote a bit about it.

But I chose to do my PhD thesis on British politics in the 20th century. It’s a choice that now seems strange to me. I went to Britain and swam through archives and wrote my PhD, which was eventually turned into a book by Manchester University Press. But I wanted to get away from Britain and back to the South Pacific, and so I took a job teaching at ‘Atenisi Institute, a university in Tonga.

For a Pākehā New Zealander, visiting Tonga is like entering an alternate reality. You go from being in a society where people like you are dominant — and where the language and culture of the indigenous people are marginalised — to this society which was never colonised by Palangi. A society which has proudly maintained its cultural traditions and where a Polynesian language is the first choice of communication. So everything is upturned.

And that really encourages you to think in new ways. Not only about the present but about history as well. So I was just fascinated and challenged by Tongan ways of communicating about history, society and politics. By the oral nature of the way knowledge is stored and transmitted in Tonga. By the importance of stories around the kava bowl as opposed to things written down in books.

There’s a difference, too, in the way history is conceived. History is not so much as a linear progression of events, one following the other in a straight line, as a cycle in which events and characters recur in the way that the seasons recur.

So, although The Stolen Island is mainly about the tragedy of ‘Ata and its consequences, it’s also a book about me struggling to attune myself to these different ways of understanding history — and often failing. Now I’m back in New Zealand, most of the time, and I find that I’m thinking in different ways about our society. I’ve just realised how encyclopaedic my ignorance is of some aspects of the indigenous culture here. So that’s something I want to correct now as well.

Let’s go back for a moment to your parents, to their background and to the question of their influence on you taking a special interest in history.

My parents are Don and Jennifer Hamilton. My mother’s maiden name is McLennan. My father’s ancestry is Protestant Irish from Northern Ireland and there was a very strong Ulster influence on the family when my father was growing up.

My grandfather belonged to that generation of Ulster men who had one eye on the homeland and were always preoccupied with the struggle of the Ulster colonists against the indigenous Irish people. So, my father grew up with a big painting on the wall that showed the Battle of Boyne, when the Protestants routed the Catholics. My grandfather was a Freemason and he may have been involved with the Orange Order, which was almost a sister organisation of the Masons in Ulster.

I believe that some of my ancestors were also involved with the British Israelites, a very strange group which flourished 100 years ago. William Massey, one of our longest serving prime ministers was a member. They believed that the British, the Anglo-Saxons, were a lost tribe of Israel and that they were destined to rule the world.

My mother’s ancestors were Gaelic Scots. They were forced off their lands during the enclosures. They were pushed out of Skye, that very bleak island in the far north of Scotland. And they relocated to the fringe of the Australian outback, to an arid and flat region in the far north of Victoria called the Mallee. And, in the story of the Celtic peoples who migrated to Australia, you find the tragic irony which recurs throughout history, where a people who are oppressed can become oppressors in the next generation.

As you know, the settlement of the Australian Outback by Europeans is a story of dispossession and sporadic warfare and terrible marginalisation of the indigenous people. I frequently visit the outback areas where my mother lived. I’ve visited the Ebenezer Mission Station, on the edge of the Mallee, in the rohe of the Wotjobaluk people, where Aboriginals were confined for decades. It’s very sobering.

So, there’s a lot of complex history within my father’s and mothers’ line. I’ve always been interested in the Ulster history of my father because I feel there’s a parallel between the situation of the Protestants in Northern Ireland and the Pākehā in New Zealand. We’re both peoples who have an almost schizophrenic view of ourselves.

On the one hand, we’re wanting to be British and we look back to Britain as the home country. Then, on the other hand, we’re separated from Britain and we’re in a situation where we have to relate to these indigenous people. That creates a strange tension in our thinking and it makes us, sometimes, want to be more British than the British themselves. And, at other times, we rail against the British.

Also, when you look at the history of the colonisation of Ireland, many of the tactics and strategies used against Māori in the 19th century were tested in Ireland centuries before. The outstanding example, of course, would be the confiscation of land. The raupatu in the Waikato in 1865, after the Waikato war, meant two million acres were confiscated. It’s absolutely modelled on the confiscations that took place after the suppression of Irish resistance to the English in the 17th century.

Thanks for pointing out some of the interesting parallels between Irish and New Zealand settlement. But you ended up in Tonga — and writing this intriguing book. And it raises an unsettling issue, one that’s seldom mentioned, which is New Zealand’s part in the slave trade. Not just in the trade itself but in using slave labour in our flax mills for instance. Could you describe how you came to learn of these practices and how you learned of those people who were taken against their will from ‘Ata, a tiny island in the Tonga archipelago?

I was profoundly ignorant of the Pacific Islands until 2009 when my wife, Cerian, and I took a trip to Samoa and, on our way back, the plane stopped to pick up some passengers in Tonga. I’d previously had no knowledge of Tonga. And no interest in the place.

But, in the airport café, the staff, with tears in their eyes, were watching television pictures of dead bodies being brought out of the sea. The Princess Ashika, a government-owned ferry, had sunk in the Ha’apai group, central Tonga, the night before. And it was an appalling tragedy. Seventy-four people drowned. This was a disaster that, in a small society like Tonga, affected everyone.

As I was trying to assimilate this, I looked out the window and, on the tarmac of the runway, there was this bizarre performance. All these soldiers dressed up in absurdly archaic uniforms. They had funny hats and shiny swords — and they were doing this silly march.

And walking out in the middle of them, was this overweight, dandy-ish looking man with a big smile on his face. This was the King of Tonga. Tupou V. He was a rather controversial figure who passed on several years ago. And he was getting on the plane. On my plane. It was the first stage of a journey he was making to Scotland.

He was going to Scotland for five or six weeks and to see the Royal Tattoo and hang out with the British royal family. Doing a sort of a tiki-tour. And I thought this was a really strange society. And I needed to find out more about it.

What sort of society is it where the head of state goes off at precisely the moment when there’s a national disaster? So I visited Tonga a couple of times as a tourist and I became aware that it was a society that, for all of its strengths, was in a profound state of crisis. It was only a few years since the centre of the capital, Nuku’alofa, had been burned to the ground by rioters demanding democratic change — and there was still a revolutionary spirit in the air.

What was the next step for you?

Well, I spent a little bit of time at ‘Atenisi Institute, which is a fascinating institution that has a great deal of responsibility for Tonga’s transition to democracy. It was founded by a legendary intellectual, Futa Helu. ‘Atenisi is the Tongan word for Athens. And his idea was to take some of the techniques of ancient Greece and adapt them to the South Pacific. The philosophers of Ancient Greece, like Socrates and Plato, used to sit around a wine bowl and talk, argue and learn. And Futa thought: “Well, we can do that in Tonga with our kava bowls.”

So classes, especially in the early days, would take place around the kava bowl. Which is a very nice way to teach. Futa Helu wanted to make ‘Atenisi into a centre of exchange between European and Polynesian cultures, and as a base for free thought in the kingdom. And in the 1970s and ‘80s, ‘Atenisi had hundreds of students and was a profoundly influential institution. Many of the leaders of the pro-democracy movement were associated with it or trained there.

By the time I got there, ‘Atenisi was in serious decline. Futa Helu had died. But there was still a remarkable set of students and it was a privilege to teach them. Many of them are now studying overseas at prestigious universities. Futa Helu had a tradition of giving teachers almost complete freedom to do whatever they wanted. So I decided to take the students out of class and to mount an expedition to ‘Eua, a remote island in the south of Tonga.

‘Eua is high and forested and has a relatively small population. We had a great time tramping around the highland. And we undertook a number of research projects. Documenting local oral history. Talking with people. That’s when I was approached by a woman who told me about the tragedy of ‘Ata. And she said that, for her whole life, she’d been living in the shadow of this tragedy. She told me she came from a remote island that had been raided by slavers. And that it was still a source of shame to be descended from this island.

She told me her parents were ashamed to talk about it with her — and that she was teased by her school mates. And she asked me and my students to research the history of the island and to find out what really happened. She wanted to know whether any of the stories and the laulovi (the bad gossip), were true.

So that was a challenge. A sort of gauntlet thrown down for us. We began to research and interview people — and that was the beginning of me becoming obsessed with the subject and trying to get to the bottom of the story of ‘Ata.

Which is a fascinating story. What can we learn from it?

I think that, from the story of ‘Ata, we can learn a lot about the resilience and creativity of human beings. Here is an extraordinarily inhospitable environment. An island of less than one and a half square kilometres, surrounded by high cliffs. No running water. Battered by high seas. Virtually no reef.

And yet people created a thriving society there. Over hundreds of years, they cultivated every inch of the island. They produced all sorts of crops. They successfully traded and intermarried with the early European visitors, whalers and sealers. They developed their own unique culture.

So we had an extraordinary achievement in this fragile environment. And then this wonderful society was destroyed in a single day in June 1863, when the slavers came calling. It was Thomas McGrath and his crew of mostly Tasmanians and New Zealanders.

Another thing that we can learn is not to hold on to the exceptionalist view of New Zealand history, which many Pākehā New Zealanders still cling to. It’s the view that New Zealand is the good settler colony society. We’re not like the Americans — we didn’t have slavery. We’re not like the Australians — we didn’t brutalise and enslave many aborigines. We didn’t do anything like that. But that kind of exceptionalist view is dangerous because it blinds you to the dark stuff in your own history.

The raid on ‘Ata is one of numerous events in the Pacific slave trade, too many to talk about really, that involved New Zealanders. They disprove the exceptionalist view. I also think they disprove the notion that any people can be immune from dark acts of colonisation or even genocide.

And I think that the involvement of some Māori in the raid on ‘Ata shows us that even a people who’ve been invaded and oppressed, can themselves become invaders and oppressors. In this case, I think it’s highly likely, from my research on that period of history in the Chathams, that the Māori involved in the raid on ‘Ata were Ngāti Mutunga, either participants or descendants of the group that invaded the Chathams in 1835. So, again, we have the possibility of a people who‘ve been oppressed, becoming oppressors. So, for me, there’s something that nearly everybody can learn from the tragedy of ‘Ata.

Overall, it’s such a fascinating story, it seems odd that it’s been kept secret for such a long time.

Yes. And the question has to be asked: Why hasn’t this story been told? The explanation may be that the exceptionalist view in New Zealand history has made some Pākehā historians of previous generations disinclined to look at the darker side of our history.

But, with the Māori renaissance and the emergence of some important Māori historians, like the late Ranginui Walker, we’ve been forced to enter the dark parts of our history. And now, perhaps as a side effect of that, and as a result of the work of Polynesian intellectuals like Futa Helu, we can now look at the Pacific in a new way. And we can see all sorts of things that we didn’t see before.

I was talking to a group of descendants of ‘Ata who were at the book launch — and I explained how, for many years, mainstream New Zealand was largely ignorant of the Parihaka story. But, nowadays, virtually every New Zealander knows the basics of the story of what happened there in 1881. And, in the same way that the Parihaka story has moved from the margins to the centre of New Zealand consciousness in the late 20th century, I hope that the story of ‘Ata and similar stories from the Pacific will move from the fringes to the centre of our consciousness in the 21st century.

I imagine that, as well as having the satisfaction of fleshing out the ‘Ata story for Tongan and other Pacific readers, you’ve enjoyed coming to grips with all this material yourself.

I tried really hard in the book not to present myself as what I’m not. I’m very much an outsider. I’m someone who’s still struggling with faka-Tonga, with the Tongan language, despite the lessons I’ve had this year from a very good fai’ako, a very good teacher, Loloa ‘Alatini of the Pacific Education Centre. There are many aspects of the culture that elude me. And, in the book, I tried to show how I bumbled about really. But, despite all my limitations, the story is so strong that I believe it still comes through.

And what are the prospects of you ever being able to make a visit to ‘Ata?

For a long time I was fascinated with the possibility of visiting the island. A good friend of mine, Kenneth Tuai, who’s a descendant of ‘Ata, lives in Auckland. We’d sometimes drink kava and fantasise about making a visit. And we’ve talked about the logistics.

But, as I relate in the book, we met Alvaro Cerezo, the Spanish adventurer who visited ‘Ata last year. He spent nine days in ‘Ata. Took him three or four months to organise his expedition.

He was fresh off the island and he’s a fit, young, athletic man. Unlike Kenneth and me, because we’re both middle-aged guys and carry a little bit on the stomach. But Alvaro was devastated by the experience. He said he was looking at the horizon, looking for the boat. He wanted to get off. He really struggled to survive on the island.

It’s a tremendously harsh environment. Even landing is really dangerous because there’s very little reef. So, if you get a rough day, even a slightly rough day, you can get smashed against the cliffs. And the one beach on the island is covered in boulders. It took Alvaro two days to get up the cliffs to the plateau where the flat land is.

In 1964, there were six Tongan schoolboys who stole a boat and then were shipwrecked on ‘Ata. They spent three months on the beach living off seagulls. They drank seagull blood and ate their eggs before they got desperate enough to try the cliffs. And they eventually got inland. But the cliffs were so dangerous, they were too scared to climb them for three months. So, even to get to the plateau where the ‘Ata made their village was extremely dangerous and time-consuming.

This just increases my admiration for the people who settled on this island and created a society there. There’s an earlier whaler who visited and he said the island people strode down the cliffs so easily. It was if they had wings.

When we met Alvaro and he recounted his experiences, we could see the marks on his body from his time on the island. The scratches, the sores and the bruises. I just felt that it’s well beyond my capabilities and, anyway, my wife would never let me. So that’s one adventure that, for me, will remain an adventure of the mind.

Fair enough, too. But meanwhile I’m sure there’s a lot of aroha coming your way from the people of Tonga for your commitment and for the work you’ve done.

I feel very humbled by it — and grateful to the people of Tonga for changing and enriching my life. I feel like going to Tonga was the most important thing I’ve ever done. And I’ll never see the world the same again.


See here for an extract of Scott’s book, The Stolen Island: Searching for ‘Ata.


© e-tangata, 2016


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