OCEANIA

Painting the Islands Vermilion

           

Man has always spent a considerable time 'messing about in boats', and woman has usually been happy to let him get on with it alone! All the noted explorers have been male, and apart from a few of the so-called weaker sex who took to piracy and whaling on their own account, or chose to accompany their husbands or lovers, the seven seas until recent times have been a masculine preserve.

Greed, too, has always gone hand in hand with maritime exploration, and any nautical entrepreneur who promised rich pickings for a grasping prince could be fairly sure of firm financial backing. So it was with the Portuguese, and later with the Spanish. When the Spanish grew tired of showing the flag and carrying the Cross through the Pacific, the Dutch stepped into the breach Not that they cared for the souls of the heathen: the formation of their East India Company at the end of the sixteenth century heralded an era less of heroic and godly endeavour than of earnest - and self-seeking - trade.

As explorers, the Dutch were like any other whites who went before: they trespassed, and when discovered they made the usual overtures of friendship. Natives who believed in owning everything in common failed to understand European views on property, and the visitors failed to appreciate theirs; consequently shots were fired at a succession of half-naked petty pilferers - with predictable results. The Dutch were not particularly bothered: business was business, after all, and if the symbol of the Spaniards had been a bloodied Christian cross, that of the Dutchmen could have been a well-adjusted Christian cross, that of the Dutchmen could have been a sell-adjusted set of grocer's scales. A series of 'small and carefully thought-out probes into selected (profitable) areas' turned Indonesia into a Dutch archipelago, and Batavia - present day Jakarta - became the centre of their mercantile empire in the East.

It was almost two hundred years after Drake's circumnavigation of the globe in 1578 before the British - with the French in hot pursuit - returned to the Pacific with any serious pioneering intent. The discoveries and adventures of Captain James Cook are well documented, but how many know that Louis Antoine de Bougainville brought back living proof of Rousseau's Noble Savage?

Polynesian society was by no means as simple as the sights he witnessed in Tahiti suggested, but it is true that when commerce followed science into the Pacific islands, a million maggots hatched out in the Garden of Eden.

As with the Dutch, it was trade that brought America to the Pacific. Once the north-west Pacific coasts were depleted of sea otters and the south American beaches stripped of seals, the sealers of New England headed further south to match diminishing supply with a growing demand in China.

In South Australia a flourishing industry also served Chinese markets, and sealer groups, largely made up of 'escaped convicts and ships' deserters who were not much better than pirates' worked their way through colonies of seals. Although on Kangaroo Island, and probably elsewhere in Australia, they appear 'to have kidnapped Aboriginal women from the mainland and lived with them', in the Pacific sealers had the least effect of all the predators to follow - on humankind, at least. The effect of sealing and other forms of trade on wildlife was devastating.

Sea otter fur was especially prized in the Canton markets - as were Chinese silks and teas in the West - but once those creatures had gone, and seals w3ere in ever shorter supply, sandalwood was considered the next best thing to trade. Fragrant and fine-grained, it was ideal for making boxes, chests and small items of furniture: it was anathema to insects and attractive to the eye. The white sandalwood of India was common, that of Hawaii particularly prized, so from the 1790s onwards American traders moved freely about the central Pacific islands, filling their holds with sandalwood, not skins.

In Hawaii, entire villages were mobilised to go off seeking timber in the mountains, where exposure to the elements brought illness and disease, rulers who grew overly fond of American luxury items fell deep in debt to the traders, who in turn grew rich and sleek. by 1825 Hawaiian sandalwood was a glut on the market in China and unobtainable in its native forests like the sea otters, it had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, and like them, it had disappeared. Sandalwood from Fiji's Vanua Levu island did not last much longer but, as the saying goes, 'when one door closes another one opens' and in this case the sea slug obligingly swam through.

Besides enjoying the sensation of fur and the perfume of sandalwood, the Chinese were extremely fond of soup - sea slug soup. Trepang, sea cucumber or beche-de-mer, as it was mot popularly known, was available in huge numbers in the shallow Fijian waters and there two enterprising New Englanders set up in business sometime after 1806, with teams of natives hired through the agency of the chiefs for collecting, curing and drying. Dealing in 'ifs and ans' is a pointless occupation, but it is interesting to speculate what turn young Archie Watson's life might not have taken if the Chinese hadn't been so fond of their intricate boxes, and hadn't set so much store by a gelatinous concoction believed to enhance their sexual powers.

Soon those oriental market forces were bringing trading ships to the Fijis in ever growing numbers, and where there are ships, there are shipwrecks. The Eliza of Providence, Rhode Island, was in the Fijis for sandalwood - or so it was believed - until she was wrecked off Mocca reef. Among the wreckage washed up on the coral strand was a survivor named Charles Savage who, when faced with a host of hungry hostiles and the need for rapid thought, ensured his further survival by trading salvaged firearms for his life.

Passed from hand to hand by a succession of curious natives, Savage came to the attention of Naulivou, Ratu Mbau, and as the chief's military adviser Savage set himself up in style. He taught the warriors how to shoot, surrounded himself with nubile women, and turned the spear-toting Mbauans into a formidable fighting force. For five years they were able to wreak havoc, until a raiding party led by Savage was ambushed, the white commander was killed and served up as 'long pig'.

Although guns soon became general on the islands, Mbau never lost the supremacy given it by Savage, and it was Naulivou's nephew, Cakobau, who was to pioneer the real estate methods that eventually brought Sydney Watson's son to Fiji. Meanwhile, in peaceful intervals the trepang continued to be 'gutted, boiled, split open, and smoke dried - a fate not unlike that of the late Charlie Savage - and other exploiters arrived to share in the plunder of the seas.

The grey whales that once had been so plentiful in North American waters were no longer present in any significant number, but each season off the south east coast of Australia and around New Zealand the Southern Rights and sperm whales waited to be slaughtered. Soon British and New England whalers were a frequent sight at Australian ports, and the lamps and candles glowing nightly at Grandie Watson's Walwa, and the corset and stays that hugged his women close, came to the Upper Murray courtesy of the efforts of these crews.

Just as bay-whaling stations along the coast of Tasmania spelt doom for countless Aborigines, the advent of seagoing whalemen had a deadly impact on the Polynesians. They were a mixed bunch, including convicts taken aboard in Port Jackson and men of some social standing.

The whaling business is, in fact, a general receptacle for every kind of adventurer on the ocean. The ships very frequently go to sea with men in them who have been educated in the first institutions in the country, and been in extensive and respectable business on shore, but have been reduced in their circumstances by intemperance, or met with some misfortune, and in a fit of despondency, have entered on board for a whaling voyage ... There are men in whaleships who are of the most wicked families in the country, and are in consequence uninformed and disagreeable, and in many cases deplorably intemperate and licentious. 'but taken as a body, whalemen are the most respectable class of seamen with which I am acquainted.

Whalers took longer than seal boats to fill their holds, and sometimes they were away from home for up to four or five years at a time. Although ships might be termed 'temperance' vessels while they were at sea - like the Zenai Coffin of Nantucket, encountered by the South Australia bound barque John in 1839 - they spent frequent periods at anchor. By the middle of the nineteenth century those unfortunate ports of call were in the mid-Pacific, once thee, officers as well as men reacquainted themselves with the taste of liquor and women. Sometimes there was no need even to set foot on terra firma. 

'Merciful Heavens!' exclaimed the US Consul at New Zealand's Bay of Islands. 'When a ship arrives her decks are almost instantly lined with native woman.' Of course they were: Polynesians had a simple enjoyment of sex, and the sight of the welcoming whalemen - combined with the lure of trade goods such as highly prized nails made of iron - proved irresistible. The tragedy was that the innocence of the East bartered its favours with the outright lust of the West, and in the meeting that followed the Polynesian women were seen as practising prostitution; their degradation inevitably followed. Not that seamen were bothered by any such moral considerations, far from it. Indeed, desertion was common in the south Seas where, 'by the aid of a sunny clime, the means of subsistence is so readily procured, and sensual appetites so readily gratified'.

Unlike the whalemen, who grabbed and gave nothing in return, the missionaries who arrived with them did not come empty-handed. Grimly evangelical in purpose, they brought the word of God to the islands - and took away their joy. If beauty lies in the eye of the beholder then so, too, does sin. To the newcomers' censorious eyes the islanders were not simply easy going and loving, they were lazy and promiscuous, worse still, they practised infanticide, carried out human sacrifices and - horror of horrors - they were more than a little partial to human flesh! 

Nowhere, unless perhaps in the hinterland of Fiji where cannibalism was common, were any of these practices widespread, human sacrifice in most places was taboo; infanticide likewise was rare. But it was enough. The Noble Savage was revealed as something worse, and the men of God set to work with a will. As a result their impact was 'every bit as traumatic mentally as was the impact of whaling physically', and the islands never fully recovered.

'Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy', thundered the Rev. Samuel Marsden to his unwary congregation on Christmas Day 1814, thereafter things got pretty gloomy. Breasts and limbs that had gloried in the sunlight were covered up as shameful, while the missionaries settled in for the duration. The battle that followed with the whalemen was an uphill one for the stalwart men of God.

In those 'mystic summer isles' of Fiji where our two adventurers, James Murray and Archie Watson, were destined soon to meet, Europeans by mid-century were a fairly common sight, and they and the inevitable half castes were generally accepted. When the missionaries converted the mighty war-lord of Mbau in 1854, they must have felt they had changed life on Fiji for ever, yet that change had been imperceptibly under way for years.

As soon as deserters from whalers and trading vessels began to put their skills in boat-buildinhg and other crafts at the Fijians' service, they were often rewarded with intermarriage and grants of land, when required, these men fought in defence of their families and homes in what was a highly successful means of mutual support. In the 1860s other white men in the roles of planters and merchants took up residence in the islands, and guns and other desirable items of trade were exchanged for parcels of land. Again, the white man was welcome. Should one tribe attach another, then the Europeans could be counted on for help, and they in turn felt secure under the protection of one or other of the chiefs.

One such chief was Chief Cakobau of Mbau, or Thakombau, as his name was often spelt according to its pronunciation. The man whose actions were to change the course of Archie Watson's life so dramatically was first described as 'Sovereign and Supreme Chief of the Fejean Islands' as early as 1844 - although he was but one war-lord out of many, and with dominations in one limited area alone. Nonetheless, over the years the settl3rs and white 'waifs and strays' in the entourage encouraged him to proclaim himself Tui Viti, or King of all Fiji - despite the fact that many chiefs in Fiji likewise regarded themselves as kings. In their eyes the war-lord of Mbau was 'first among equals' - if that. 

Chief Ma'afu, whose power base was the Lau group of islands to the east and south-east of Viti Levu, originated from Tonga in 1853, arriving as governor of the expatriate Tongans who had first come as allies to the lord of Mbau. Like Cakobau he had regal aspirations. He was a Christian, again like the lord of Mbau, but he was also cousin of Taufa'ahau, King of Tonga. In the natural course of things the young man who arrived in Fiji when his cousin was fifty-six could have expected to succeed the ruler within a few years, but Taufa'ahau selfishly lived on for another forty. Understandably, his young relation grew tired of waiting and turned his eyes elsewhere. The conflict between Cakobau and Ma'afu is dealt with at length in John Young's study of pre-cession Fijian politics, and shows how in the period from 1853 to 1870 or so, the two chiefs drew the white men into the action by using land as bait. Ma'afu as a Tongan favoured leasehold, whereas Cakobau - in true lordly fashion - sold land that was not necessarily his to bestow. This rivalry between the two contenders was to result directly and indirectly in a tortuous series of claims on behalf of their respective European 'vassals' when Fiji was ceded to Great Britain in 1874.

Ma'afu, as a Christian convert, saw himself as a protector of the Wesleyan mission in Fiji; Cakobau likewise looked favourable on the white sojourners in his land. After his conversion he had learned to read and write, had abjured human flesh, and in 1858 'signed a Deed of Cession of the sovereignty of the Fiji Islands' to none other than Queen Victoria.

In doing so he was motivated more than anything else by self-interest: Ma'afu had enlisted United States support for his own claim to be overall ruler of Fiji, but acceptance by Britain would confirm Cakobau in power. Britain, too, was expected to pay off the indemnity demanded by the US Consul for perceived damages to US citizens during the preceding decade.

Her Majesty, however, spoiled things by declining the proposed addition to her Empire. Colonel Smythe, her Britannic Majesty's Commissioner sent to investigate the matter, also advised the Queen that in his opinion Cakobau had no right at all to the title of King of Fiji. Consul Henry Jones who arrived in the islands in 1864 shared this point of view; Jones thought Ma'afu a far better option, in fact, but wisely did not set himself up as kingmaker.

Instead, the next year the British consul persuaded the seven strongest chiefs of Fiji to form a 'confederation' to meet annually to discuss matters of mutual interest, with Cakobau as president. Ma'afu countered two years later by founding his own Confederation of Lau (u8nder the nominal control of Cakobau), where the Tongan law of leasehold prevailed in the matter of land sales. In Lau, consequently, there could be no conflict over ownership, and settlers and islanders coexisted in peace.

Cakobau had a distinct advantage over his rival in the matter of kingly aspirations: he had the support of everyone whose land purchases he had formally dignified with deeds before his bid for British protection. In May 1867 he underwent an absurd forms of coronation orchestrated by his European henchmen, complete with crown (and probably sceptre), although afterwards the status quo ane among the Fijian tribes once again prevailed, land was leaded by Ma'afu, who had the unfortunate tendency to evict the resident Fijians in the process, and sold by Cakobau and others who did not.

By the end of the 1860s the chiefs in the unsettled area of the interior were happily selling, and reselling, land as fast as they were able, in return for which they received 'a few Weapons, Trinkets or Articles of wearing Apparel'. In theory acceptable to both parties, in practice the arrangement was flaw3ed once the Fijians realised it was a one off payment, and not a continual source of munitions supply in the perennial struggle against tribal foes, they were l3ess than happy. Thus in June 1871 John Henderson, who had been in Fiji for about a year, was still without his land. 'I was turned off', he lamented, 'and my natives had to jump in the River and run for life so I t4ries again to gain possession but of no use'. He was not the only one, and the cycle of purchase and unceremonious eviction was constantly renewed among a succession of equally unsuspecting whites. Chi3ef Cakobau was obliged to pledge himself formally to protect settlers on his lands from 'native or other violence, molestation, interference, attacks, pillages, and robberies - fine words which more often than not meant nothing.

Unlike Great Britain, the United States of America had chosen to recognise Cakobau as Tui Viti from the outset, and the 'King of Fiji' was ever after held responsible for the behaviour of his 'subjects', an unruly mob. Trouble started on 4 July 1849 when celebrations of that glorious day went sadly amiss. J. B. Williams, soi-disant US consul, lost his house on Nukulau Island - and a compatriot his arm - when a cannon exploded. Looting followed, as 'among the Fijians a fire was always an occasion for legitimate plunder rather than for assistance in putting it out', and over the next twenty years the perceived bill for damages mounted up. At last the Unit4ed States threatened annexation over the non-payment of the so-called debt. For a potentate whose preferred currency was whales' teeth, the situation was understandably a trifle embarrassing - but only for a while. The monarch's mighty war canoes which made him well-nigh invincible throughout the 'Cannibal Isles' were of little use in this particular predicament, but white friends providentially came to his aid. 

Australian corporate interest had already turned towards the South Seas. In 1861 Adelaide businessmen had formed the Fijian Company Limited and although the company folded two years later, by 1866 the islands were receiving an increasingly favourable press.

Coconut oil had been the most important export in the first half of the decade but with the decline, then halt, in cotton production during the American Civil War of 1861-65, large areas of land were acquired for cotton plantations, either by foreign individuals or consortia. One Victorian consortium intending to take advantage of the South Seas cotton boom was the Fijian Planting and Trading Company, incorporated in the gold-mining town of Ballarat; the Polynesia Company of Melbourne was another.

In early December 1868 the Government Gazette for the Colony of Victoria noted the formation of the Polynesia Company Limited with a registered office at a most respectable address. When a General Manager and Inspector was appointed, the company was considered to be 'up and running'; in actual fact it never did more than limp. Over the next few years it was to occupy a succession of offices in Melbourne, moving headquarters no fewer than six times between 1868 and 1875, and its directors appeared to be equally unsure as to which direction to take.

Things had started purposefully enough. King Cakobau promised 200,000 Fijian acres (which unbeknown to the Polynesia Company's representatives in Fiji were not wholly his to give) and in return the company agreed to settle the indemnity levied by the US government. By September 1868 an advance payment of $US9575, or its equivalent, had been paid into the Melbourne branch of the Bank of New South Wales, and his Fijian Majesty's problems were over.

In early 1871 other problems were just beginning. The initial twenty-eight investors who had purchased land were still waiting for their share of 'the several islands, parts of islands, and other territory in Fiji' along with 'the soil and beds of all seas, rivers, creeks, and inlets thereto appertaining'. In the weeks and months following the meeting held at Scott's Hotel, Collins Street, on 7 February 1871, their initial eagerness as purchasers gave way to concern, and James C. Foden, the 'Secretary to the Trustees for the Owners of certain Lands purchased from "The Polynesia Company Limited" found himself bombarded with letters of anxious inquiry.

Few correspondents were as blunt as Corker Wright Minchin of Beaufort, although he did make a qualified apology later for his 'rather warm remarks'. Even fewer writers threatened to withdraw from the venture, as did Thomas Warburton who in the end refused absolutely to respond to the repeated calls upon his purse, 'or to have any further to do with this matter' - although his name does still appear on the list of shareholders in 1874.

It was a sorry venture from the start. Despite the fine legal terms of the memorandum of association, all the Polynesia Company actually got for its money was approximately half the land it had originally been promised. Cakobau's feudal allies in the Suva Bay area, where some of the land in question lay, agreed to the t5ransaction, the chief of Rewa, the king's avowed enemy, did not. His allies on the north and west shores of the bay were nominally Christian, but frequent visits from committed cannibal relations in the Rewa valley over the coastal ranges, with their 'big wigs' of woolly matted hair alive with vermin and generally undesirable habits, meant that there were no European takers for the land.

Alexander Martelli, the company surveyor, was meantime struggling with all these problems at first hand. Some months earlier he had received a little encouragement from Thomas Warburton, when the dissenting shareholder had gone out to Fiji to see things for himself, but his offer to supply labour - in the form of one half-caste who in the event seems not to have materialised - was hardly any help. There was no European labour available - or at least not at the price the company was prepared to pay - and the uncooperative Fijians were proving every bit as troublesome to Martelli as they had been to the Americans. By breaking into his camp, and threatening anyone who did sign on as labour, they generally made the task of hacking through the undergrowth and laying out the allotments transferred by Cakobau Rex as difficult as possible to achieve.

Writing from Viti Levu Bay, Surveyor Martelli tried desperately to make his employers understand:

I must not conceal to (sic) you that we have been dreadfully taken in this survey; the agents of the Company that were here before had walked over a very small parcel of ground, and gave the natives to understand that that was all the ground the Company was claiming. therefore they call us land robbers and similar complements (sic) and they treat us in (a) most hostile way. Our sufferings are without limit...

Despite shocking weather and poor health on the part of the surveyor, and spirited onslaughts by the natives, by the middle of May 1871 eighteen of the forty allotments were ready, and the township of what is now Suva and a suburban reserve had been cleared as well.

while in the comfort of their homes the good burghers of Melbourne and other Victorian towns fumed at what seemed to them totally unnecessary delays, and quite failed to understand Martelli's difficulties, other white speculators were doing very nicely indeed.

William Hennings, for example, was a German adventurer who arrived via the Australian goldfields in 1859 and was followed by his brothers, Frederick and Gustave. As the company surveyor, tormented by 'Fijian sores' inflicted by thorns and scrambles over coral, was plunging through thickets in the course of his duties - and longing for a few sturdy Tongans to keep the robust Fijians in order - the plantations, trading posts and general stores established by Hennings on Vanua Balavu and other islands were going from strength to strength. Coconut oil had declined in importance for the reasons mentioned above, but consignments of 'South Sea Island cotton' were being shipped to Sydney with gratifying regularity. And growing demand was met by a similar increase in planters and plantations, both in the Fijis and other island groups.

In 1870 James Hope was predicting a rosy future for the area, and considered Tanna in the New Hebrides, (Vanuatu) where the climate was 'so good' and the volcanic soil 'magnificent', to be a potential rival for Fiji. But cotton growing anywhere in the South Seas was never as easy as it sounded, and there were difficulties facing the planters and other foreigners in Fiji itself.

In districts whose chiefs were not favourably disposed to 'land robbers' and other interlopers, murders were frequent. News of such things was slow in reaching Australia and New Zealand, but since Fiji was the next raw frontier where fortunes could be made, would men and youths anxious to draw the quick benefits of two cotton crops a year have stop9ped to listen anyway? When King Cakobau formed a government in 1871 drawn up on British lines, with a House of Lords (made up of hereditary feudal chiefs), a House of Commons (comprising white settlers) and with the most powerful chiefs appointed governors of their own territory, the place considered from a distance must have seemed a very sound option indeed.

For residents of the Fijis, things appeared a little different close to: 'Horrible murders and mutilations of the planters Spiers and McIntosh', wrote Consul March in his private journal on 27 June 1871. 'The murderers are supposed to be the same as those who killed and ate poor Missionary Baker.'

A letter published in the Melbourne Argus painted a graphic picture of the incompatibility that existed between white settler and Fijian islander at the time, and shoed that such attacks were not always unprovoked:

A horrible tragedy has taken place on Viti Levu. Messrs Burt and Underwood have been completely ruined by the mountain natives, barely escaping with their lives. Within the last fortnight their plantation was attacked by natives. Underwood's two children (half-castes) were killed and one of them, a boy of thirteen, was cooked and eaten before his father's eyes. Their four horses were killed and eaten and their houses and cotton sheds containing fifty bales of ginned Sea Island cotton, with implements and machinery, completely destroyed.

While the Victorian readers were drawing their breath in horror at the wanton destruction of property and the fate of the poor child - albeit of mixed race and perhaps not quite as much to be pitied as one totally their own - the letter went on to apportion blame:

A more inhuman pair never disgraced the Slave States of America, whence they came, than these two white men. It was quite a common thing to flog their natives with nettles; sometimes they used the cat and then applied the juice of the Chili pepper plant, which burns like fire. They have chopped off the toes and ears of their unfortunate wretches, and having done this to one of their women and then sent her back to her tribe (the one which committed the outrage) was the principal cause of the dreadful reprisal.

The sigh of relief is almost audible: those dreadful brutes were Americans and what could you expect, after all? What could be expected from one of Queen Victoria's own subjects was revealed a little over two years later, when Dr James Patrick Murray arrived at Levuka on the Fijian island of Ovalau. Once he had set himself up in the labour business, he would display all the enthusiasm and ingenuity traditionally associated with happy amateurs hailing from the British Isles, and the continuing exploitation of the peoples of Polynesia would take another twist.   

Extract from Chapter Eight - Painting the Islands Vermilion - Archibald Watson and the Brig Carl 
Jennifer M. T. Carter
Melbourne University Press 1999
(Please note that the Fiji Islands are in Melanesia, Oceania, and
the Fiji Islanders are normally considered to be Melanesians
rather than Polynesians, as indicated in the text above)

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