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A masterpiece of Pacific story-telling: Part 2 of the strange story of Tonga’s lost island of ‘Ata

All week this week the Spinoff Review of Books looks at Scott Hamilton’s brilliant new book, The Stolen Island, his investigation into the people-snatching raid on the Tongan island of ‘Ata. Today: Michael Field reviews a  masterclass in combining Pacific history with story-telling.

Back in 1981, a reformed and repentant British colonial administrator, Henry Maude, had a remarkable book published, still in circulation but little read. Maude had been Britain’s resident commissioner in the Gilbert Islands (now Kiribati) before heading to academia and researching his book Slavers in Paradise: The Peruvian Slave Trade in Polynesia 1862-64.

He told of how 3000 Pacific Islanders – Tongans, Niueans, Tokelauans and Cook Islanders – were kidnapped and taken to Peru where they were made to work on guano mines. That they never returned helped explain why their stories quickly disappeared into family folklore. Despite Maude’s scholarship, the extent of the Pacific slave trade has been downplayed, most recently in Joan Druett’s book The Notorious Captain Hayes: The remarkable true story of the pirate of the Pacific.

Sociologist Scott Hamilton, in The Stolen Island: Searching for ‘Ata, looks at what happened when the slavers – sailing out of Wellington no less – arrived at the small island of ‘Ata, around 160 kilometres south of Tongatapu. In its 112 pages Hamilton goes beyond history and describes his own reaction, and that of Tongans, to what he found.


Read more about Tonga’s lost island of ‘Ata:

‘They have six fingers on their hands’: Part 1 of the strange story of Tonga’s lost island of ‘Ata

The long nightmare of imperialism: part 3 of the strange story of Tonga’s lost island of ‘Ata


Hamilton is obsessed with Tonga, seeing it differently to many of us who get frustrated by it. He writes, “Tonga’s intellectuals and artists synthesise Polynesian and palangi ideas and images with a panache rare among their counterparts in either colonised or colonising nations.” Yes, he suggests, there are problems: “Tonga’s economy is dominated and distorted by its royal family and nobles, and its people avoid destitution only because of remittances from relatives living and working in wealthier parts of the world. In 2013, though, I felt unqualified enthusiasm for Tonga, and impervious to the kingdom’s troubles.”

View from the so-called Rat’s Cave, on the Tongan island of ‘Eua (Image: Supplied)

His seduction is easily explained. He was involved with the unforgettable and now late philosopher Futa Helu, who created the ‘Atenisi Institute. ‘Atenisi is Tongan for Athens, and at its height it was an intellectual powerhouse, briefly combining with the Catholic Church to create what became a democracy movement. Confusingly Helu’s closest friend was a colourful bachelor crown prince (the now dead George V) even as Helu complained “there are too many gays” in the royal family.

Flights from Auckland to Tonga often approach the airport over ‘Ata, now unpopulated. This view fuelled Hamilton’s search for what happened. In 1863, a Tasmanian skipper, Thomas McGrath, took his ship Grecian, to ‘Ata, which then had a population of around 300 people. He lured at least 144 onto the ship, and sent them below decks to enjoy a feast. Suddenly, writes Hamilton, “the ‘Atans heard the trapdoors slam down, then the locks slam shut.”

The kidnapped Tongans disappeared for ever. The new and first King of Tonga, hearing what happened, had the survivors on ‘Ata taken off and moved to the safer island of ‘Eua, leaving ‘Ata without humans to this day.

Hamilton says the slave trade even reached Auckland, through the “blackbirding” of Melanesians. In 1870, 27 people from Efate in what is now Vanuatu, arrived in Auckland. The New Zealand Herald denounced their arrival insisting “no one can pretend these niggers are here of their free will.” It did not like them anyway, insisting they were “savages of the lowest type”. As a student of Pacific history, it still surprises to see that Granny Herald has a long and sustained tradition of being on the wrong side of history and race. Its proprietors always believed in the inferiority of Pacific Islanders.

 

Pangai Fa’itoka, on ‘Eua’s west coast, where some of the first refugees from ‘Ata are buried (Image: Supplied)

Hamilton gets around Tonga, trying to find connections between the lost people of ‘Ata and today. He also found some Tasmanian descendants of McGrath. He emailed one and suggested they could come to Tonga: “I talked to him about the amorality and irony of history, about how McGrath, whose family had been expelled from Ireland to New South Wales by British imperialists, could rip others from their homes and send them across the sea.”

No reply.

The story has Spanish treasure in it. It would seem there is Spanish bullion in some of ‘Ata’s sea caves, Hamilton suggests, perhaps hopefully given Tonga is deeply in debt to China these days. As unlikely as it may seem, Tonga has always featured in buried treasure tales, although none has ever been found. I’ve been caught up – as a reporter – in a couple of these Tongan wild goose chases.

One involved the multi-million dollars“Treasure of Lima” – which disappeared in 1820 – that reputed was been buried on Tafahi Island in northern Tonga. It’s never been found but the reporting variation I got involved in was built around the notion that Robert Louis Stevenson – scribbling away and dying quite quickly in Vailima to the north – had found it. That, it was said, was the dark secret to his wealth. Perhaps. That and gunrunning. Then there was the case of the 1988 collapse of Goldcorp in Auckland. In that sad yarn, there was talk that Yamashita’s Gold – Japanese wartime loot – was hidden somewhere in Tonga. If it was, it’s still there.

Hamilton has produced a splendid read, best consumed in a single gulp. It is delightful, too, that so much of Tonga has plainly rubbed off on him. As well as echoes from Futa Helu, there is the subtle influence of the late Epeli Hau’ofa. The Tongan writer in 1983 produced his classic Tales of the Tikongs, a collection of satirical short stories, which he himself stressed – over-stressed even – were all fiction. The Stolen Island belongs to that entertaining Tongan literary tradition. It proves a point I’ve long laboured; there are many untold and quite fabulous stories to be published in the South Pacific.


The Stolen Island; Searching for ‘Ata (BWB Texts, $14.99 by Scott Hamilton is available at Unity Books.