WILLIAM (George) ELLIS - a Profile.

South Pacific Trader

Anthony G. Flude ©1999



WILLIAM (GEORGE) ELLIS was born in 1835 and lived in a small village near the well-known Lincolnshire fishing port of Grimsby, in the northeast of England. At barely fourteen years of age, he gained work among the fishing fleet of vessels moored at the port, where, showing initiative, his employer took him on as an apprentice shipwright, when he learnt the skills of boat building and repairing damaged vessels.
William George Ellis

The Grimsby fishing boats were constructed to an ancient design, known as a 'Yawl', being pointed at both stern and bow. The knowledge he gained about their construction was to bear William in good stead in his later life among the Pacific Islands.

Leaving Grimsby when he was about 19 years of age, he travelled aboard a coastal schooner down to the East End of London dockyards, where he was taken on as a ship carpenter. He made several voyages as a seaman aboard the barques and brigantines, where they visited many of the ports of Europe, carrying both cargo and passengers. A few years later, he signed on aboard a Peruvian brigantine bound for the port of Callao in Peru. The voyage was uneventful until they were ninety miles off the coast of Peru, approaching their destination.

Lashed by a violent storm, the strong winds and current drove the vessel ashore onto the small barren, uninhabited island of San Lorenzo.  Pounded and smashed onto the rocky coast, the crew were lucky to get ashore unscathed and next morning there was little to see of the ship. Wreckage was strewn along the shore but fortunately there had been no loss of life. Living on fish and seabirds eggs, they survived on the desolate island for five weeks, until finally, the crew of the shipwrecked vessel were rescued by a passing fisherman who saw their signal fire and brought them in, half-starved, into the port of Callao.

 William recovered over the next few weeks and soon signed on as supercargo aboard a Peruvian labour recruiting ship, leaving the port for the central Pacific region.
He made several voyages aboard the Empress collecting cargo and on some occasions bringing back natives who were contracted and paid for working in the cotton and coffee plantations of Peru.

 A few years later, the Pacific slave trading, or 'black birding' era, as it was known, began.
 Ship-owners and captains, mainly from Peru but also from Fiji and Australia, deployed their cargo holds to carry kidnapped islander's to any plantation owner who would pay well for their human cargo of slaves. Other ruthless sea captains, eager to make easy money from their human cargo, began to collect 'slave labour' from the islands to work in the Peruvian silver mines or the Australian Queensland sugar plantations where no local labour force could be found.


Others were landed in Samoa and Fiji to work in the plantations there. Herded aboard at gunpoint, the crew promptly secured them in the holds, handcuffed and manacled and transported them forcibly to be sold to plantation owners many miles away or taken to the 'slave' port of Callao in Peru.

In 1860 he joined the Peruvian frigate "Empresa" and sailed across the Pacific Ocean, when the vessel called into the South Pacific island of Tahiti to replenish supplies. He decided to leave the ship and remain and settle in the beautiful Tahitian islands where he married and raised a family there and was employed by the French traders Capelle & Company.

In Papeete he met Captain Joseph Browne and Captain Samuel Brothers, two well known traders, who had set up a coconut plantation and livestock farm on Caroline Atoll, some 400 miles north-west of Tahiti.

During 1862, Ellis was back at sea again. In the port of Calleo, Peru,his previous ship, the Empresa was sailing for the Pacific Islands and looking for crew and supplies.
Ellis joined the ship, after being told by the ruthless captain that they were collecting 'recruits'from among the islands. William was soon to find out, to his dismay, that the captain had other plans and had decided to make this a 'slave trading' voyage and soon several natives from the Marquesian islands were captured by the crew and secured in the ships hold.
Central Pacific Map

When the ship called into Caroline Atoll for fresh water, William saw his chance to escape, wishing to have no part in the taking of natives as 'slaves.' Here he asked Joseph Browne if he could stay as supervisor of the native workforce and be employed on their plantation there. The 'Empresa' captain agreed if Browne was to take his place on board the ship.
Some time later,William was to learn from the captain of a small trading schooner, that the natives were in trouble on Penrhyn, another atoll some 400 miles to the northwest. The younger men from the island had been to Tahiti and Washington Island working for Mr. Brander but on being returned home, had found their island had been de-populated by the 'slave traders.'
They had lost many friends and relatives. He understood that the islets originally had eight tribes on them who continually fought and quarrelled over land, women and fishing rights for clams in the lagoon.
pearl boats

The missionary's, who had arrived in earlier years from Rarotonga, in the Cook Islands, made a wonderful change in the people; while working the copra and pearl shell also gave them incentive to work rather than fight among themselves. 

Later, sailing to Penrhyn, he found larger quantities of shell, pearl and beche-de-mer and decided to move from Caroline Island to Penryn and set up a trading post and agency there for the firm of Bander & Company.
It was on Penrhyn atoll that the natives had difficulty saying his name William and insisted in calling him 'George' after a much earlier American trader named Captain George English, who had traded on nearby Manihiki atoll. The name stuck and was used by everyone.
Shortly after his arrival, he organised and employed the natives into working parties. Soon they began to look up to him and expect him to protect and warn them of future attack from the slave traders.

'George' settled on one of the two larger inhabitable islands on the Penrhyn atoll, situated some fifteen miles around the coast from the 'Vaka' [Omaka] village, the main village on the atoll, where many of the natives lived along with the resident missionary, who had employed the people to build him a large white painted, two roomed house.
William's second 'marriage' was to a Manihiki lady on Penrhyn Atoll with his new family of two children.

On his own island, later to be named 'George's Island' by the people, [now named Te Tautua], 'George' built a large house and store. Here is where he traded with the natives for shell and pearls in exchange for all types of goods, flour and colourful dress fabrics, cottons, anchors, rope and all manner of trinkets and perfumes which he arranged to be imported from Tahiti each time Captain Brothers called to load up cargo. 

The people of Penrhyn had been lucky to gain a skilled trader who was able to teach them the skills of boat-building and under George Ellis' tuition they also constructed a fleet of pearl fishing boats [above], the design of which was based on the 'Grimsby' type yawl. George also built for himself a small schooner in which he could sail from his own island to the main island of Vaka.
George Ellis became so respected by the Penrhyn islander's, that they made him their honorary 'king” and named him 'Serikura'

By the year 1874,  'George' had decided  moved on to nearby larger Manihiki Atoll and its richer shell grounds with his wife and family of now four children. At the opposite ends of the  lagoon, there were two villages, each with its own king and 200 to 300  villagers. King  Aporo  ruled the village of Tukao and George was given permission to build himself a store and house.George's Store on Manihiki

He taught the natives boat-building and acted as agent and trader on behalf of other company's in later years which included the shipping firm of Henderson and Macfarlane of Auckland, who owned and operated the Circular Saw Line of sailing ships until the end of the century. On one occasion, in 1886, he sailed aboard the brigantine BUSTER, as supercargo, with Captain Theet in command. George was returning to his trading post on Manihiki after a business trip to Sydney and Auckland where he had purchased goods for his store.
[above: George Ellis' Store and house on Manikiki 1886.]

 An interesting  example of the trading costs and profits made by these traders in those times appeared in a Brisbane newspaper article in 1887.
The generally accepted currency of the time would be US$ or more often, a trade or barter for copra oil, pearl or shell in exchange for goods.
Viz: - Cotton prints from Sydney, Auckland or Tahiti @ cost: 6d. to 8d. per 6ft length. Sold for 2/- per 6ft length. White Shirts @ cost: 15/- per dozen. Sold for 6/- each. Sewing Needles @ cost: 2/- gross(144). Sold for 1d. each. Sewing Cotton @ cost: 1/- reel (126ft). Sold for 6d. per 6ft. Strong cheap Perfume @ cost: 7/- per dozen bottles. Sold for US$1 each. Tobacco @ cost: 2/- lb. Sold for US$1 per lb.