BLACKBIRDING AND THE BULLY
First, the historical fact should be observed that whenever two cultures have clashed on an economic basis, ethics go out the window. England’s maritime supremacy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was owed to great Elizabethan sea captains whose acts would be considered arrant piracy today, and shocking social conditions contributed in no small way to the success of the Industrial Revolution. And the cruel practice of slavery, where African men, women and children who were prisoners of tribal raids and wars were treated as cattle, to be transported to foreign lands to work without pay for conscienceless plantation overseers, was due to economic pressures of the time, as well.
And so it was with the so-called ‘black-birding’ trade of the nineteenth century Pacific.
‘Blackbirding’ is a pejorative term for the practice of kidnapping Pacific Islanders, particularly from the New Hebrides (modern Vanuatu) and the Gilbert and Marshall Islands (modern Kiribati), and transporting them to Queensland, Samoa and Fiji, where they fetched head money from sugar plantation owners in need of cheap labour. However, the trade, now considered extremely cruel, had a surprisingly benign origin, and its roots lay in cotton, not sugar.
Blame the American Civil War. With no supplies of cotton from the Southern States, the cotton mills of Bradford, England, were grinding to a stop. In 1863 the hunt was on for replacement plantations, and Queensland, Fiji and Samoa were considered ideal. The problem was that cotton is a labour-intensive crop, and to get the enterprise going, plenty of cheap willing labour was necessary. And this is where a man by the name of Robert Towns stepped in.
Originally an English sea captain who carried speculative cargoes to Australia, Towns was a hugely successful entrepreneur. One of his most profitable ventures was in sea slugs — bêche-de-mer — which sold well in the Orient as the main ingredient in a virility-boosting soup. This had been harvested in Vanuatu, so he knew those islands well. So, he bought land upriver from Brisbane , and sent out his schooner Don Juan to the islands to recruit natives to weed and harvest the fields.
The vessel arrived back in Brisbane on 15 August 1863. According to the Queensland Guardian, ‘seventy-three South Sea Islanders for Captain Towns’ cotton plantation’ were on board. This was not slave-trading, because the natives were on board of their own free will. Not only did they know Towns from his record in the sea slug lagoons, but often they were keen for adventure and fun, away from the social strictures imposed by the missionaries. And, what’s more, money was involved, as they had signed a contract: they were to receive ten shillings a month (in an era when a cook on a plantation earned five pounds a year), with abundant food, clothing and shelter provided. As well as this — and most importantly — Towns had promised to return them to their homes within a year, a commitment he did not fail to meet.
Unfortunately, many men were not as honest as Towns, and it was a system that begged to be abused. Other plantation owners had no scruples about hiring wicked men to kidnap Islanders with false promises and fake contracts, and in the lawless ocean of the time, there were plenty of conscienceless captains. One of the worst, ironically, had started off in Towns’ employ, a recruiter by the name of Ross Lewin.
Lewin was deservedly notorious. He used to pose as a missionary — Bishop John Patteson being a favourite — and abduct the men and women who had come to his ship in search of a sermon or a prayer. He also captured natives out of their canoes by dropping large stones into their craft, and sinking them. However, the blame for all this was shifted to another man — Bully Hayes, while Lewin was lost to history. Much later on, in a story published on 14 May 1899, the New York Tribune named Hayes as the man who posed as a bishop and sank canoes with heavy stones, triggering a myth that was retold many times, in particular by the solo circumnavigator Joshua Slocum, who loved to tell a racy yarn about this particular bête noir.
So, did William ‘Bully’ Hayes feature at all in the brutal labour-recruiting trade?
Not often, it seems, and not very successfully. As so often happened, his own misdeeds caught up with him, with highly unexpected results.
In December 1868, the British Consul on Tahiti reported to London that ‘about 150 natives of Savage Island’ had been carried into port by Hayes on the brig Rona. None of them had complained about bad treatment. And the same kind of report was published in the Westport Times (New Zealand) on 31 August 1869. But the following year a much more sensational report appeared, first in the Sydney Morning Herald, and then in other papers as the story evolved. Hayes was under arrest in Samoa for kidnapping a cargo of Islanders — and the brave fellow who had arrested him was a Samoan chief!
When Hayes had been hired by a man named Frederick Sievewright to recruit labourers for Fiji, the job looked straightforward, as he was on good terms with the people of Manihiki, having carried them to neighbouring islands on his vessels before. His device for getting them on board was characteristically devious, involving fake contracts and false promises. By the same he called for fresh water at the Samoan island of Tutuila, the natives were suspicious enough to make a complaint to Mauga, the local high chief. With Mauga’s connivance, the natives made their escape, and Hayes, when he pursued them in a towering rage, was apprehended by Mauga’s mighty warriors. And so Hayes was carried under arrest to Apia, the main settlement of Samoa, where he was confined at large, there being no prison to keep him.
Naturally, he escaped. And that is the end of reported kidnappings. After that, Hayes turned to blatant robbery, seizing the property of lonely copra and coconut oil traders. The time for transporting natives was over. At the islands where he set down his own traders, he mistreated the locals, forcing them to work for his men, but once he had sailed away their lives returned to something like normal, as within months Bully’s traders needed rescuing by the captains of the British and American ironclads, who found them destitute of goods and on the verge of starvation.
So, why were those navy captains hot on his trail? Because Hayes was charged with blackbirding? Not necessarily. When Commander Richard Meade of the US ironclad Narragansett arrested him in Apia in February 1872, it was not for kidnapping natives and transporting them to plantations for head money. Instead, it was on a charge of violating the Navigation Laws — or so Meade told the British Consul — for Hayes flogged his crew, carried enough arms and men to equip a privateer, had marooned one of his chief mates on a waterless atoll, and was running a protection racket in the islands.
And none of it was proven. As usual, Bully Hayes talked and charmed his way off the ironclad, and strutted ashore. Then he sailed off with celebratory bunting flying from his topmast rigging, to carry on with his multi-crime career -- which was of all the above, with the probable exception of blackbirding.
The history of blackbirding in the South Seas is a grim and engrossing one, about which much has been written. Useful were: a paper read by E.V. Stevens to the Historical Society of Queensland, 23 March 1950, called ‘Blackbirding, A Brief History of the South Sea Islands Labour Traffic, and the Vessels Engaged in it’, and Doug Hunt, ‘Hunting the Blackbirder: Ross Lewin and the Royal Navy’, in Journal of Pacific History, vol. 42, No. 1, June 2007, 37–53. The letter from Consul Miller at Tahiti to Lord Stanley, 16 December 1868, was quoted in Lubbock's, Bully Hayes, Buccaneer, 147–148. A biography of Robert Towns can be read in the online Australian Dictionary of Biography.
The journal kept by John Chauner Williams, British Consul in Apia, Samoa, was studied at the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand, as part of the Pacific Manuscripts Bureau series (micro-ms-coll-08-0037). The complete collection of handwritten testimonials is held at the New Zealand National Archives, Wellington (as item R19684924, also available as micro S3623). The despatches presented to both Houses of Parliament regarding accusations of kidnapping and slave-trading against Captain W.H. Hayes of the Atlantic were published in the Queensland Government Gazette, 28 August 1875. While the case of Hayes is not mentioned, a very good background discussion is given by Reid Mortensen, as ‘Slaving in Australian Courts: Blackbirding Cases, 1869-1871’, Journal of South Pacific Law, article 7, volume 4, 2000.