'THE SNATCH-SNATCH SHIPS"
by Anthony G. Flude © 2000
The Pacific kidnappers, or 'blackbirder's' as they were called by the Europeans, began their long voyages into the Pacific Ocean in the year 1863, the last 'snatch' recorded nearly ten years later.
Prior to this time, recruitment from the islands had been conducted on a small scale, where groups of natives were taken, under a two year contract, to Samoa, Fiji and Peru, to work in the plantations there. They were to be repatriated to their islands after this time.
Many of the promises of wages and return to their islands were not kept; recruitment became more difficult, while the demand from plantation owners for more labour continued to grow.
It was inevitable that cash offers would be made to ship owners and sea captain's to procure a ship load of native labour at £2 a head, where no questions would be asked, or contracts entered into.
In 1862, the Port of Callao in Peru, South America, had the reputation as being one of the roughest, lawless seaports in the world.
It was the haunts of deserters, merchantmen, guano diggers, ex-criminals and the roughest type of men you could encounter. In this lawless town of cut-throats and criminals, no one dared venture out, unless he carried a pistol, bowie knife, or cudgel for his own self-protection.
Callao became a well-known 'slave traders' marketplace, where one could buy a dozen or so strong native men or women from the Pacific or Africa to work in the labour gangs on the coffee, cotton and sugar plantations or in the silver mines.
The lucrative market in 'slave labour' expanded in 1863, as ruthless shipowners and sea captain's began transporting full cargo holds of 'natives' back to Callao to work in the plantations of Peru. Other ships in later years supplied the demands being made from plantation owners in Fiji, Samoa and Queensland, Australia.
The first small fleet of ships, under the Peruvian flag, left Callao bound for the central Pacific islands. The Delores Carolina, Polinesia and Honorio sailed the 4,300 miles across the Pacific Ocean to reach the island of Pukapuka, where they were to all rendezvous. One of the ships, the Margarita, was lost at sea and never seen again. The three vessels headed northwest for Nukulaelae, a small island in the Ellice Group.
At Penryhn Atoll, another ship of the fleet, the Adelante,was already setting a course back to Callao and had on board 77 men, 73 women, 15 boys and 33 little children, all of whom had been torn from their villages at gunpoint by the crew, piled into the whaleboat and once aboard ship, frightened and bewildered, had been herded below into the dark hold when the hatches had been battened down.
On reaching the small island of Nukulaelae, the Delores Carolina made her way close inshore where they called out to the people gathered on the beach to welcome them aboard. The unsuspecting islanders came out to her by swimming the short distance, or by canoe, the men, women and children willingly swarming aboard to see what trinkets and treasures the white man had to offer in exchange for coconut oil, kopra and shell.
When the decks were crowded with excited islanders, the ships crew, awaiting the captains signal, threw down large boulders over the ship sides to sink the fragile canoes drawn up alongside, while orders rang out to up-anchor and hoist sail.
Over 250 natives were taken, representing about 80% of the islands population. Standing out to sea, the Delores joined her sister ships and together they headed for their next destination, the island of Funafuti.
It was decided to send the Honario inshore, when the same proceedure was successfully carried out. A total of 171 men, women and children were taken aboard, leaving the old, infirm and infants behind.
Heading south for French Polynesia, the vessels picked up just one native from Nukufetau and three from the island of Rotuma before setting a final course back to Callao in Peru. The voyage of the two vessels had netted a total of 428 slave labourer's, [the Adelante had 198 on board], while 78 of them died through sickness and malnutrition during the return passage to Callao.
In 1864, the Mercedes A, de Wholey out of Callao, succeeded by trickery and bribes to entice some one hundred and fifty-two natives aboard from the Paumotu group of islands in French Polynesia. Provisions of food and fresh water were low.
Putting into the port of Papeete to replenish supplies and provisions was her undoing, for when she was searched by the French authorities, her human cargo consignment was discovered.
Her Spanish Captain, Juan Baultiste Unibaso, was arrested for 'slave trading'. He was sentenced by the French Courts to five years hard labour and the ships owners fined 18,500 francs.
Another ships officer, a German national, who had acted as his interpreter and pilot, was sentenced to ten years hard labour.
The 'blackbirding' continued, where on a second voyage in 1865, the Delores Carolina 'recruited' a labour force at gunpoint from the Proa islands of one hundred and twenty-two Polynesian natives, all of who landed in the markets of Callao to be sold as slaves to the highest bidder.
The nearest island to Peru, Rapanui or Easter Island, was raided on many occasions during the period 1863-1867, by the Peruvian slave ships, the Hermosa Delores, recorded that on one trip alone, that one hundred and thirty-eight men and twenty-two women were aboard from Easter Island and were landed at Callao. On another trip, the same vessel took twenty-five women and forty-five children, other ships continuing the raids, until the island was almost completely denuded of its population.
Another two islands lost almost all of their inhabitants in 1875, after the arrival of the captain and crew of the Empress, commanded by a ruthless one-eyed Spanish captain, the vessel carrying a crew of the roughest seamen that could be found in the port of Callao.
She sailed for the Duke of York and the Duke of Clarence islands, also known as the Sandwich Islands, where, after landing armed parties ashore, the crew rounded up every person on the islands by sword or at gunpoint. The terrified islander's were driven onto the beach where they were forced into the whaleboats and taken aboard ship, leaving just a few very old men and women and several young children.
A newspaper account in 1863, had detailed a report of how a 'snatch-snatch' Peruvian vessel, the Rosa Y Carmen, had anchored off Sunday Island [Raoul Island] on her way back to Callao in Peru.
She had on board nearly three hundred islanders she had collected from the Tokelau Islands, Northern Cooks and Easter Island on the outward passage. Typhoid fever had broken out aboard and the ship was short on food and water. Sunday Island had several settlers and their children living on there at the time and had fresh water streams.
The captain ordered the sick natives to be landed on the island where over one hundred of them died and were buried there, but not before infecting the settlers, who all died of the disease, with the exception of a man named Cavat and his Samoan wife who survived.
The ship was cleansed and disinfected, following which the crew landed and pillaged all the available food on the island before setting sail again.
Fearing that the disease would be still on the island, Cavat and his wife left on the Gem, a whaling ship, which put in to replenish her fresh water supplies some days later.
These slave traders activities did not pass un-noticed by other ruthless sea captains from other countries, all eager and willing to contract to supply labour, where large sums of money changed hands.
Northern Australia and Queensland was slowly being settled in 1864. Sugar and cotton plantations began to be established north of Brisbane and it was not long before they needed to engage labour to work them.
Since there was none available locally to employ, the settlers sought the services of a ship owner or sea captain, who, working under verbal contract and securing cash in advance, would forcibly recruit a group of 'workers' from the Pacific Islands. Bobby Downs, captain of the Salty Dog, was reputed to be one of the first skippers to supply the Australian plantations with labour in this way.
Another Australian, Albert Hovell, was the master of the Young Australian in 1869 when he went 'blackbirding' for recruits for the Fiji plantations. He headed into the Venuatu group of islands.
He was susequently sentenced to be hanged in the Sydney High Court, when it was learned that he had shot and tomahawked the islander's to death in the ship's hold.
He was lucky to escape justice on a technicality on appeal and left Australia to live in the island's in exile.
Captain Finley McLiver, in command of the Nukulau as late as 1871, kidnapped eighty Solomon Islanders at gunpoint and held them, manacled in the hold while he made the return passage back to Fiji. They were quietly smuggled ashore during the night at Tauvenui, collected and paid for by a local plantation owner.
The American buccanneer, Captain 'Bully' Hayes was soon to engage in these activities. While in Samoa in 1869, he secured a contract to recruit labour for a Mr Sevewright who owned a large plantation; Hayes had already decided that this was to be a 'snatch-snatch' voyage.
He called into the island of Manihiki aboard the Atlantic, where, with promises of work and money he secured several islander's.
Unable to believe his luck, he was asked to take a wedding party to the nearby island of Rakahana [26 miles] and welcomed them aboard after a price had been agreed for their transportation. A large group of men,women and children swarmed aboard dressed in their wedding finery.
The voyage began with Captain Hayes steering the vessel north then west, his passengers suddenly noting the shores of their destination, Rakahana Island, slipping by . They began to express their concern, but Hayes assured them he had to call into PukaPuka [Danger Island] first. With an island pilot at the masthead, the ship eased between the sharp coral heads marking the narrow entranceway into the lagoon and anchored.
Several more workers came aboard and soon the Atlantic was heading for the open sea, the passengers secured below decks. With a course set for Apia, Samoa, another group of islanders had been duped and were destined to join the workers of the Samoan plantations.
Diplomatic protests were made in 1864 by the British government to the Peruvian authorities over the scale of the kidnapping. This resulted in one ship being sent from Callao to repartriate a few of the islander's who had been taken the previous year.
None of the Penrhyn islanders had survived to make this return journey, all had died in Peru. The vessel Ellen Elizabeth, was made ready and dispatched from Callao with one hundred and eleven Pacific Islander's aboard, who had origionally been taken from the Gilbert Islands during an earlier raid on the Kingsmill Group.
The ship ran into bad weather and put into the Penrhyn lagoon where the Captain dumped them all off, saying he was going no further. The ship sailed the next day, back to Peru. Stranded, with little hope of getting back to their own island, the Gilbert island natives, mostly men, remained on Penrhyn with the 150 residents left there, inter-marrying and introducing some of their own culture to the island life.
Another repartiation ship, the Barbara Gomez due to depart out of Callao for Tahiti, found that 162 of her 470 passengers aboard awaiting sailing, had died of smallpox and many of the remaining 318 were ill.
The ships owners decided to send the remainder who had so far survived the illness to Rapa, a small isolated island at the south end of the Poumotu Group in French Polynesia; however 277 more of them died during the voyage and were thrown overboard, 15 were landed at Easter Island and the remaining 16 at Rapa.
During the years of the slave trading, it eventually became plain to the employers and the shipowners, that the Polynesian people could not easily survive life in a western society. Those taken from Micronesia seemed to fare better.
The fate of these natives was determined soon after their capture, when they were herded into the hold of the vessel where they would be secured, sometimes in manacles, or crowded together below decks where they could not escape or harm the crew or damage the ship.
They were fed coconut and a little rice or fish during the journey with only limited rations of water which was always in short supply and on many occasions they did not even survive the long journey to Peru.
After landing in the slave port of Callao, they were sold, by pre-arranged contract, to a plantation owner who would generally work them from dawn to dusk. A selected few were more fortunate and were sold as servants and gardeners to the rich of Callao or sent to the nearby capital of Peru, Lima.
There was a high rate of disease in those early times and Smallpox and Typhoid were both killers. The South Pacific Islanders had no immunity against the white man's diseases and many died within a few months after their arrival. Unfamiliar food contributed to the death rate from dysentery and intestinal disorders while working the long hours on the plantations, where they too died and were buried there.
In the meantime, other natives were being taken by the 'snatch-snatch' ships to replace those lost to the plantation owners through death and disease. In 1875 The vessels Carl and Empress raided the Sandwich Islands at gunpoint and took another 164 natives back to Callao as slaves.
The British Consul in Apia, Mr. A. Williams, reported to the Foreign Office in London in 1872, advising them of information he had received from the Rev. Newell and missionery records. The report stated that the island of PukaPuka had been reduced to approximately 300 people; on Manihiki about 500 people remained and on Penrhyn atoll just 150 people. On the island of Nukunono, in the Tokolau Group, only 80 inhabitants were left. It was estimated that over 1000 native people had been taken from the above islands since the kidnapping began in 1863.
The British and German governments again protested strongly to the government of Peru about the taking of slave labour, as they had become more aware from Consul reports in the Pacific region of the numbers of natives that this had involved.
At first this was ignored, the Peruvian government aware that other nationalities were also involved in transporting slave labour from the islands. As a gesture, they later dispatched the Diamante to take 69 of the survivors back to their islands.
The British Foreign Office introduced the Pacific Islander's Protection Act into the Australian Parliament in the year 1872. This was designed to control the taking of 'slave workers' by British subjects [Australians] for the Queensland plantations and also ensure their treatment was humane during the sea passage and their later employment in the sugar plantations.
The period of slave trading gradually drew to a close in the year 1876, with no more vessels dispatched from the port of Callao. The islander's in the Pacific were still wary of any un-identified ship that came close to their island or landed for fresh water supplies.
The demand for labour for the plantations continued for several more years, and genuine recruiting agents, appointed by various governments or agents, needed to beware of landing on remote island shores.
In 1881, five years later, New Zealander Gilbert Mair, aboard the Isabella, a government recruiting ship from Sydney, under Captain Hawkins, was preparing to land at the small island of Espiritu Santos in the New Hebrides.
Captain Mair and his party cautiously approached the beach in the whaleboat and noticed that there were no women or children to be seen. As he and a crew member stepped onto the sandy beach, a group of natives suddenly sprang from the trees and attacked. Mair was struck down along with another crew member, the remaining crew quickly turned the boat around and rowed franticaly out to sea with spears and tomahawks landing in the water close to them, while they fired their rifles into the group of natives on the beach.
During the ten years of the snatch-snatch kidnapping era, it has been estimated that nearly 3,000 natives were taken from their island homes by force, leaving the Pacific islands sparsely populated for many years to come.
The ''snatch-snatch" ships