Slave trader competes in Wellington Anniversary Regatta

22 January 1863

Thomas McGrath
Thomas McGrath (Wikipedia)

Captain Thomas McGrath skippered the winning whaleboat in a race on Lambton Harbour which carried a £10 prize. The second-placed boat was also from his ship, the Grecian.

Forty-seven-year-old McGrath had had a successful 15-year career hunting whales in the South Pacific, but by the early 1860s the leviathans of the deep were near extinction. The voyage he had begun at Hobart in December 1861 was to be his last in pursuit of cetaceans.

McGrath was a hard taskmaster, and most of his 27 crewmen deserted when the 90-foot Grecian docked in Wellington in the first days of 1863 after making four kills off Fiji. Instead of returning to Hobart with the proceeds from the whale oil, McGrath bought food and liquor and had the vessel repainted black and white to resemble a man o’ war.

The under-manned Grecian then sailed to Rēkohu / Chatham Island, where McGrath recruited about 20 Māori to replace the deserters. He told them he intended to hunt for whales around the New Zealand coast, but soon headed north.

On 17 May McGrath announced his intention to fill the hold with Pacific Islanders and take them to Peru, which had recently legalised the ‘recruitment’ of Pacific Islanders as plantation labourers and domestic servants on three-year, almost unpaid ‘contracts’. Businessmen paid up to 200 pesos per person, no questions asked. It was a more reliable income than could be made from whaling.

Eight crewmen who refused to take part in the scheme were put ashore in Samoa. The rest – nearly all Māori – sailed the Grecian to the isolated Tongan island of ‘Ata. The locals were used to trading with passing ships, and nearly 150 men, women and children – half the island’s population – came aboard. They were lured into the hold with the promise of a meal. Once the trapdoors were closed and locked, the Grecian set sail for Peru.

Trading in Pacific workers had been banned by the time the ‘Atans were offloaded in Callao. Many contracted smallpox while cooped up in a warehouse waiting for a ship home. It is unclear if any of them ever returned to Tonga. The remaining inhabitants of ‘Ata were evacuated to the mainland after the raid. They were later resettled on the island of ‘Eua, where many of their descendants still live.

In December 1863, McGrath stood trial in Bluff on charges of appropriating the Grecian from its owners and breaching the Customs Act by failing to declare spirits and foodstuffs he had landed on Rakiura / Stewart Island. He was convicted and probably served time in gaol. McGrath was never charged in relation to his actions at ‘Ata.

Source: Scott Hamilton, The stolen island: searching for ‘Ata, BWB Texts, Wellington, 2016

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