Review of “The Stolen Island: Searching for ‘Ata” by Scott Hamilton

‘Shock History: A sensationalist fictional horror story not to be taken seriously’

By Dr Rosanne Hawarden

In this slim book ‘The Stolen Island: Searching for ‘Ata by Scott Hamilton, a claim is made for a New Zealand/Australia slave trade in the South Pacific during the early 1860’s. The tale revolves around the purported capture and sale of 144 people at an unknown date in 1863 from the island of ‘Ata and the later resettlement of the remaining inhabitants on ‘Eua Island, south-east of Tongatapu. The small and remote island of ‘Ata is now part of the present day Kingdom of Tonga and was discovered by the Dutch in 1643. It was named Pylstaart Island by Abel Tasman after the many tropic birds frequenting it. The villain of the slaving tale is Captain Thomas James McGrath of the Hobart whaler, the Grecian. If the author is to be believed, McGrath resembles a dastardly pirate from his looks to his behaviour, having forsaken whaling for the more lucrative occupation of slave trading.

The author, Scott Hamilton, who has a doctorate in sociology on the New Left in post-war Britain, ventures for the first time into maritime history. He spent three months writing this short book as an awardee of the Darcy Writer’s Residency on Waiheke Island. This booklet is ‘shock history’ and is full of the errors made by an author venturing into an unknown field for the first time. His knowledge of nautical terminology is poor, for example he calls hatches ‘trapdoors’. He regurgitates and embellishes the little information available on the ‘Ata incident having uncritically accepted the 1981 version offered by H E Maude in Slavers in Paradise: the Peruvian Labour Trade in Polynesia, 1862-1864. This is the authoritative work on this brief era of Polynesian labour recruiting by the Peruvians. Hamilton accepts Maude’s estimate that the 144 people on board the Peruvian barque, the General Prim which arrived in Callao on 19th July 1863 with 174 ‘recruits’, were from the island of ‘Ata. This is a calculation made by Maude as he was more certain that 30 of this group were from Niuafo’ou or Tin Can Island, guessing that the remainder came from ‘Ata.

Maude states that McGrath sold his captives to the captain of the General Prim as he had a permit to recruit labour and could enter Callao, which McGrath could not. He speculates as to where McGrath fortuitously met the General Prim and notes that recruits were often ‘sold’ to other vessels as captains consolidated their ‘cargo’ to meet their quotas. It was Maude who set the ‘Ata legend in motion with another conjecture about the origins of these ‘labour recruits’, whether willingly or unwillingly on board the General Prim. The captain claimed they were from the Frinately Islands. This strange name for a Pacific island arose, Maude believed through the Peruvian captain confusing it with the Friendly Islands, one of the former names for the Tongan archipelago. There is no direct evidence to support this interpretation and as Maude frequently points out, the Peruvian captains deliberately kept their recruiting locations secret for fear of competition.

A report in the Sydney Morning Herald of the 10th May, 1854, pg. 3, entitled ‘The Friendly Islands’ by C. Sr Julian gives the pre-Grecian raid population on ‘Ata as 159 Tongans. The King of Tonga had already indicated at this date an interest in resettling the population of ‘Ata or Christianising them. Less than ten years later the departure of 144 Polynesians would denude the island leaving behind approximately 15 presumably elderly or very young inhabitants and unsuitable labour recruits, to resettle on ‘Eua Island. Scott Hamilton lists this newspaper article in his further reading list but did not do the maths. The only other source of oral history is a brief quote from interviews with two ‘Atan adults who were school children at the time by the anthropologist Edward Gifford. These are not likely to be reliable memories but they add grist to Hamilton’s mill.

Scott Hamilton is well known for a blog called ‘Reading the Maps’,, where he verbally spars with others of the internet troll fraternity. Where facts are inconvenient or absent, he is also known for his inventive blogs. He has blogged extensively on his search for the ‘stolen island’ of ‘Ata and promoted his book assiduously. It is no surprise to find that Hamilton inserts himself into the ‘Atan tale, which becomes a long meandering account of his search for the descendants of the ‘Atan people who relocated to ‘Eua Island. He portrays himself as a ‘historical saviour’ for one particular family, whom today he claims still suffer from the stigma of having sold their relatives to blackbirders. We are given graphic descriptions of the difficulties of ‘doing history’ as a palangi in ‘Eua as the locals are less than forthcoming. Scott Hamilton also got off sides with the relatives of Captain McGrath, whom initially were very co-operative, providing him with family photographs. Getting wind of the hatchet job being done on their ancestor, they stopped answering his emails (page 53). Hamilton makes no secret of his love for kava and alcohol and this book can be described as a deep look into a kava bowl or the bottom of many beer bottles in an ‘Eua hotel pub (page 74).

Scott Hamilton’s strong political bias towards left wing social criticism shines through and his limited historical lens ignores contemporary events in the Pacific and the turbulent wider Tongan history of the time. Captain McGrath is portrayed as one of many nasty exploitative colonials in the Pacific who rape and pillage the noble natives, cheating their crews and needlessly slaughtering the wildlife to extinction. Hamilton fails to consider that small islands like ‘Ata have limited resources and that there may be other explanations such as famine or illness for the reduction in the population. In addition, the Christianising of Tonga also resulted in the gathering of the population around the new churches and schools under the control of King George Tupou I (c. 1797 – 1893).

The dubious practices of one captain out of Hobart in an era where morals and standards were very different, does not reflect a large industry. Only one Tasmanian ship participated in what was touted to be a profitable business. It seems strange that no other colonial ships heard about this commercial opportunity and chose to participate in it. The three and a half pages Maude devotes to the tale of the Grecian are a disconnected account of the evidence which includes that of a disaffected crew member. The record of McGrath’s activities in New Zealand indicates involvement in a number of disputes including labour disputes that went to court. A great deal more evidence for a New Zealand slave trade is needed before the conclusion can be drawn that one existed.

Unfortunately Scott Hamilton has attracted the passing attention of the media and through social media channels will perpetuate this dodgy historical tale of a purported injustice or grievance. The historical material the author has unearthed is slim, and in the main is from newspaper articles that a quick search of the internet brings up. The book is poorly referenced and presents no new material. The renowned Tongan historian, Professor Ian Campbell does not comment on this incident in any of his books on Tongan history. Scott Hamilton did not consult him nor was Campbell invited to referee the book for the publisher.

There is certainly a need to revise and check Maude’s research now that so many previously unavailable sources can be accessed but Hamilton’s book falls far short in this respect. This book, ‘The Stolen Island’ on the purported blackbirder of ‘Ata should be treated with scepticism as a sensationalist fictional horror story, constructed on limited evidence and unreliable local legends.

Tongans keen to understand their history, should read for themselves H E Maude’s Slavers in Paradise: the Peruvian Labour Trade in Polynesia, 1862-186 and consult other more reputable history books.

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