Ports and Happy Havens

On 20 September 1871 the Right Reverend John Coleridge ("Coley") Patteson, the first Anglican Bishop of Melanesia, met his death in the hands of natives in the Santa Cruz Islands. Murder was nothing new in Magellan's Mar Pacifico traders, whalemen, explorers and adventurers - good men as well as bad - had dropped dead or dying on numerous coral beaches, and the sequence would not halt with the passing of the Bishop James Coodenough, commodore of the Australian station at a time when missives on the subject of one A. Watson were flying like arrows between Ovalau, Fiji and Whitehall, England, himself was to fall victim to a poisoned barb in 1875 - again in the Santa Cruz Islands - and die of tetanus a week later.


The case of Coleridge Patteson had rather more of an impact. He, too, was killed in the line of duty, and for the sixteen years of his ministry in the New Hebridean, Banks and Solomon Islands he had protected his dusky parishioners as best he could against the white man's raids. They had loved him in return, and the ludicrous posturings of the captain, passengers and crew of the Carl, as they went ashore at Mallicolo disguised as missionaries and distributing 'tracts', took on a deadly irony when Bishop Patteson paid the price for the kidnapping that followed. News of what was seen as his martyrdom eventually hit a London, along with news of the Carl, and outraged white folk in the Heart of Empire began buying for the villains' blood. 

The howls were soon echoing Downunder, and those attending a meeting presided over by the mayor of the City of Melbourne in November 1872 had pointed out to them what they all then very well knew: that such means of obtaining labour were 'commonly lawless and cruel and productive of much misery' to the islanders and, moreover, dangerous to those traders who kept within the law, and missionaries too. Afterwards, the worthy burghers, with the mayor and town clerk well to the fore, respectfully petitioned Her Majesty in England to intervene 'to prevent British subjects from entrapping or forcibly abducing ignorant and comparatively defenceless savages for labour in the plantations'. Three months later, a Methodist conference also held in Melbourne deplored the 'scandalous disgrace thereby brought upon Christendom in general and our own nation in particular'.

It was not surprising that feelings in Australia were running high: Queensland was a major beneficiary of the labour traffic, and Victoria had nursed this particular viper in her bosom. When Dr. Murray dobbed in his former shipmates he could have had no idea of all the implications soon the Carl, its owner, and its passengers and crew were caught up in a maelstrom of international indignation and local tensions far beyond his anticipation - or control. Sydney Watson was not the only Victorian to have had great expectations of the Fiji Islands: the influx of settlers peaked in July 1870, followed by another high in April 1871, and for that brief period Europeans felt secure in their cultural identity. Some men brought out their wives and the trappings of civilisation followed, with 'colonial house and furniture, books, vegetable garden, work shop and white wife' forming a 'cultural oasis' in the depths of the Fijian jungles.

It was a show of confidence that economics simply did not warrant. The price of cotton had gradually been falling, and for years there had been a need to reduce the costs of production and find a cheaper source of foreign labour. It made for an unsettled situation, with the Fijians resentful of so many outsiders living in their midst. The arrival of European wives had naturally enough stopped racial intermingling in the more settled areas, but white plant4ers in the hinterland were still consorting with non-Fijian island women and the perceived insult was one potential source of trouble, another was the diversion of coveted trade items from Fijians to non-indigenous workers.

The threat to the colonial lifestyle was further exacerbated by the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in July 1870, the gin that was such a crucial part of daily life still flowed, but for six months the important French markets were closed to South Sea Island cotton, and the expansion of Fiji greatly threatened. Due to financial difficulties, planter after planter failed to carry out the promised repatriation at the end of the contractual period and the time expired imported labour force, like the Fijians but for different reasons, showed increasing signs of truculence; thus, given the additional uncertainty of land tenure in many cases, and the behaviour of the mountain tribes to boot, the Europeans had every reason to feel insecure, with danger lurking on every side. Chief Cakobau of Mbau was installed as King of all Fiji - after much debate and soul searching, and an abortive uprising backed by a strategically absent Ma'afu. When his first government was formed in June 1871, the European community polarised into two district factions. One group, th4 men who had been in Fiji for many years, were happy with the situation: relatively prosperous and on good terms with their neighbours, they were by no means apposed to a native government - which, after all, included themselves. Men like Frederick Hennings, and John Thurston could well believe in equality between the races, but the relative newcomers took exception to 'black' Fijians set in authority over them. Some sold, others abandoned their property, most of them waited for a massacre on the scale of the 1857 Indian mutiny. The massacre never came:

Instead, from 1868 to 1874 there was a state of troubled peace, marked by attacks by Fijians on isolated planters, by punitive expeditions to avenge them, clubbings on one side, floggings on the other, clandestine arson and murder, answered when possible by visits from warships, execution at the yardarm, and speeches about law, and justice, from the quarterdeck.

Some settlers could never bring themselves to balance their belief in racial superiority with the need to make concessions. The would have accepted a republic run by white men, or annexation by Great Britain, but with neither option forthcoming they declared themselves subject only to British law. Edward Bernard March, HM Consul for Fiji and Tonga, sided with them, and was equally resistant to the Fijian government's claim to rule for one and all; he refused to acknowledge Cakobau as king, referring to him as the 'chief of Bau' in all official and unofficial correspondence. He openly supported the British Subjects' Mutual Protection Association founded in January 1872 by concerned but responsible citizens - and less openly what was described by Captain Robert Douglas as 'a lawless and law breaking body in Levuka resembling the American Ku Klux (Klan)', and which was indeed a branch of that secret racist organisation. The consul's antagonistic attitude also coloured his correspondence with Whitehall, in which he rarely let pass an opportunity to slight the Cakobau government. And every day he did what he could to thwart it.

Unfortunately for Consul March, however, and although the Fijian government was in Whit4ehall's eyes only a de facto one, British officialdom inclined to accept its version of events more and more, especially when supported by British naval officers on the spot:

Mr. March, whilst in some cases  nominally recognising King Cakobau's ministers, appears in others to totally ignore their action, as well as that of the Fijian courts of law. To the position thus taken by Mr. March, and to the personal ill-will between him and some of Cakobau's ministers, may be traced the present very unsatisfactory state of affairs there existing.

 When the 1872 Pacific Islanders' Protection Bill reached its committee stage in the British Parliament in April and the Royal Naval presence in the Pacific was increased, naval officers found they had rather more in common with Consul March. As they went around the islands, they were most zealous in their duty to 'impress on the chiefs that the English Government does not countenance and will not allow the kidnapping to go on'. Indeed, Captain Douglas of HMS Cossack sent his superiors three letters - with 103 enclosures and sub-enclosures - as witness to his earn4estness in dealing with the cutter Volunteer alone. To what extent March's behaviour in the matter of the Carl was influenced by his attitude towards the white elements in the Cakobau government is difficult to assess - and his espousal of the islander's cause does seem rather at odds with his so-called racist views. Nevertheless, he too appears to have been genuinely concerned for the imported labourers' welfare, and as zealous as Douglas in his attempts to regulate the labour trade.

It was March who issued licenses for the various labour vessels flying the British flag before they set out on their quest, and who conferred a measure of legality on their efforts; he also inspected the ships on their return, in order to ensure that the natives they carried had come of their own free will, and were in good health. Entries in his diary show him to have been highly critical of the whole business in general, and the callousness of the employers in particular:

August 3rd 1871

The other day an imported labourer, a native of the Solomon Islands, was found half buried, with his toes sticking out of the ground. Had the body examined by Dr. Freeman. It appears he died a natural death, and was buried like a dog. Today I hear of another, who had been found sown up in a blanket, and deposited behind Mrs. Cox's boarding house. The body must have been there several days, as it was quite decomposed. These poor imported people may die without any notice being taken, in fact like brute beasts, and the planters object to my supervision of their plantations. I am sent here to grapple with and put down the wicked trade. I am expected to do a great deal, but am left alone to fight a host of unscrupulous black-guards.

Such blackguards included not only the captains and crews of the labour vessels, but also the planters and merchants on shore. In one official report March cited the example of the Nukulau, a ship that had sailed without consular clearance, to illustrate the difficulties under which he was working:

I mentioned the matter to one of her owners, Mr. J.C. Smith of Levuka, a Minister of this so-styled government. He averred that he was no longer a British subject, having taken the oath of allegiance of Thakambau, and that as the period for which the provisional certificate under which the Nukulau was sailing had expired, he considered her a Fijian vessel.

The Smith referred to was just one of a number of planters and traders in the Cakobau government who were in an ideal position to obstruct the consul - and did. It is not surprising, either, that their attitude was taken as official, and was adopted by captains who also felt themselves to be immune. All this should be kept in mind in the light of subsequent events. It was against this background of conflict between the two authorities on Ovalua, each with their own quite different interests, that Captain Joseph Armstrong brought his ship safely back to port. On Thursday, 18 April 1872, after many weeks at sea, and bearing the dangers of rocks, reefs, poisoned arrows - and the equally hazardou8s pleasures of Ponape - those on board the brig Carl breathed a sigh of relief. The vessel negotiated the narrow channels between the outlying islands, made for safe anchorage at Levuka, and it was over now they would reap the rewards of their labours, the head money would be apportioned more or less fairly, and they could be off to their various forms of rest and recreation.

Alas, once ashore on Ovalua - a port shared by the Royal Navy ships of the Australian station and patrolled by Consul March - the reality was to prove quite different.

In his account of his experiences in the South Seas, Captain George Palmer reckoned that the consul for Fiji and Tonga had 'as difficult a billet as any gentleman in the diplomatic line, or indeed any other'. He was referring to 1869, when the islands harboured 'every variety of villains from the neighbouring colonies'. By 1872 that particular consul had been replaced, although the villains stayed the same. Except that now the 'Melbourne sharper' and the 'Sydney defaulter', types described by the captain in his book, could - in Edward March's opinion at least, - be found in King Cakobau's cabinet. The Fijian government, for its part, expressed its contempt for the British consul in the most courteous of terms, but that contempt was plain. Matters between the warring parties came to a head after the arrival of Dr. Murray's Carl.

On 23 April, Minister for Native Affairs F. E. Hennings respectfully invited Consul March to accompany him on board the brig that afternoon to inspect the native labour force and check that all was in order. The invitation apparently failed to reach March in time, and Hennings went alone, returning to his office afterwards, he found a message to the effect that March had already 'done the needful, so there is no occasion for my going again, especially as the weather is bad and I am suffering from a bad foot'. 

It was a lame excuse in every sense for what may have been a piece of very bad manners. Bad foot or no, March was so appalled by what he found - 'a state of confusion, the master intoxicated, and the discipline among the crew correspondingly bad' - that he immediately swung into action. The natives were disembarked in batches, taken to the consulate, and suitable interpreters summoned. All, it soon became clear, 'had been kidnapped and brought to Fiji against their will'. Moreover, the consul informed his superiors in England, the Line Island natives had told him they had been 'cowed to the last degree whilst in the vessel'. Through the interpreters March was told of three deaths, and after the interviews two natives stayed on in the consulate: an old man deemed too ill to go anywhere else, and a girl who spoke English and who for three years had been under the tuition of an American missionary on Ebon Island in the Marshalls and the missionary's wife. It must have been extremely galling for March to find out later that when Minister Hennings had followed him on to the Carl that day he had - contrary to the consul's clear instructions - passed the immigrants fit for labour in the name of the Fijian government, and that most of them were quickly engaged for the plantations.

As well as being the Minister for Native Affairs, Frederick Hennings happened to be 'the consignee of the Carl, the mortgagee of the Carl, and the person most interested in the disposal of the natives'. He was also, as March who was half Spanish on his mother's side pointed out, German by birth and a naturalised Fijian - as if nothing more needed to be said. Hennings was promptly defended by his colleague, John Thurston, the Fijian Minister for Foreign Relations: March had passed the natives taken on the first 'piratical' voyage as having been honourably acquired, Hennings had been acting as the brig's agent and not in his ministerial capacity when he in turn passed those recruited on the second. Thurston failed to point out that Fred Hennings was also acting for the brother and himself, and that the brig's living cargo was transferred to their Makogai Island plantation, where they were immediately put to work. (They were still there months later, and three of them were found by Edward March before he relinquished office, 'lying upon a mat on the ground, their glassy eyes telling of approaching death, turned towards me as if making a last appeal to be returned to their people'. Some were already dead 'from consumption and the penetrating influence of deep dejection'.

The antagonism between Thurston and March was inevitable. Thurston had been acting consul and had fully expected the position to be his permanently; instead, March replaced him in November 1869. Thurston was not impressed with his successor, and his assessment of the consul as being both vain and idle was shared by many during the two years March was in his post. For a long time Thurston held out against pleas to join the Cakobau government and kept aloof from politics altogether, and it was only March's espousal of the racist elements in planter society that forced him to change his mind.

'If I am now a Fiji-man', he told a friend when he had finally thrown in his lot with independent government, it was because of the man he termed 'Don Eduardo' or 'this half bred Spanish bigot - an interesting turn of phrase for an official now pledged to promote harmony among the races. 

As well as dealing with the natives, Thurston's ministerial colleague, Fred Hennings, also took care of the ailing Dr. Murray, who was 'so ill that he had to be carried on shore and was placed in an empty house having no communication at all  with the outside world' - as Murray's still devoted wife Caroline put it in her letter to officialdom on her husband's behalf.

Certainly, while the brig Carl remained at anchor and the drunken debauch that had so scandalised the consul presumably went on, its owner stayed for some weeks in a detached cottage outside the town close to Hennings' own residence under the care of Levuka's Dr. Brown, and with his life, as he thought,  in supreme danger. As he recovered from the effects of the ague that had laid him low from early in the voyage, he became aware of the consul's interest in his affairs. Accordingly, and perhaps predictably, James Patrick Murray decided to take the necessary steps to preserve his reputation - and his neck. On 29 April, Edward March accepted Dr. Murray's invitation to call. It was the consul's third visit and with him came William Mitchell, another physician, anxious to check the sick man's health. Dr. Brown, the man being paid to effect a cure, was reluctant to leave the patient alone with his visitors, which, in the light of what followed, was understandable. In a move which was to mean the end of the brig Carl's usefulness to Fred Hennings, trader, and deal a considerable blow to the dignity not only of Hennings the minister, but of the Fijian government itself, Murray was invited to finish his convalescence at the consulate where, with March's every encouragement, he made three devastating depositions concerning his former companions. 

The third and last deposition concentrates on the initial voyage alone, and is a horrifying account of the massacre that took place in September 1871 off the Solomon Islands. Because of the public outcry at the loss of those seventy or so human lives which formed the basis of the charges against the Carl, little attention was given to the deposition covering the subsequent events of December 1871 to April 1872, and they have largely been forgotten. They are startlingly damning documents and coming as they do from someone so deeply involved himself, they are little short of incredible. Upon examination, however, it becomes obvious why Dr. Murray made them.

the informed reader who knows of Murray's behaviour after the failure of the Ladies' Leichhardt Expedition back in 1869, and remembers the way in which the physician forestalled censure of his actions by casting the blame elsewhere, will have a sense of deja vu. But this time Murray readily admitted himself to be at fault. That he was guilty of murder, anyone on board the brig in September 1871 would swear, anyway, but when he set his name to his final testimony he called on a higher power as witness for the defence.

I make the above deposition from purely conscientious motives, having been party in these horrible transactions, when aborigines were regarded as so many cattle and treated accordingly. I met a just retribution from the hands of the Almighty on my second trip, by sickness and manifold dangers bringing me to the brink of the grave.

As a result, he added, he had 'registered a sacred vow to devote my future life, as far as possible, to the suppression to this infamous and sanguinary traffic'.

Murray realised no doubt that his story of what had taken place on the second voyage would seem fantastic, and that he might even be called mad. He explained Hennings' attempt to keep him in seclusion after his return as a calculated attempt to derange his mind, and render his evidence inadmissible. The reason for his taking part in the second voyage was, the doctor said, for reasons of health: he had some down with ague on Tanna Island and felt that se breezes would help his recovery. He left William Scott, his friend and partner, on the island to run their plantation - and, incidentally, meet his death at the hands of the natives - and looked to Captain Armstrong and the Carl's young passenger, Archibald Watson, to care for him in his convalescence. At some point during the voyage, Murray said in his second deposition, feelings towards him changed. He was treated as not being quite in his senses, and subjected to a long process of persecution - first of a bantering nature, but finally of such proportions that he feared for his life.

Murray's account of what occurred on board the ship was delivered under oath, but that does not necessarily make it the truth. That he was ill is evident: Watson's log bears witness to that. That Archie took care of him, and that the crew saved him from drowning is also true. Did the whites perhaps indulge in a certain degree of horseplay to relieve the daily tedium, which Murray in his delirium misinterpreted? If they had seriously intended to dispose of him, as the doctor testified, and later elaborated, it would surely have been easy enough to arrange ...

Whatever the truth, Murray lay for weeks in Hennings' cottage in Levuka, brooding over the real or imagined dangers he had survived. When Edward March began to visit him and talk of his perceived mission to bring all blackbirders to justice, Murray must have begun to feel alarm. With the mention of HMS Cossack's expected visit to the island, I believe the doctor panicked. And as the seriousness of his position struck home, the gravity of the charges he laid against his former companions intensified, in first one, then a second, then a third series of accusations brought against them to quick succession.

Murray's charges led the consul to do all in his power to keep the Carl in Fiji. this was not difficult, as Murray, the owner, had given no orders to sail. In a place like Levuka where gossip was rife, the sudden friendship between the physician and the consul would have been the subject of some speculation - enough for Archie Watson, now clear of the Carl, to assess his own position. 

If Archie had indeed taken no part in the brig's first voyage, there was no denying his presence on the second. As HMS Cossack approached the island of Ovalau, the so-called poisoner of James Patrick Murray and his 'most inveterate enemy began to think of his future. Accordingly, he took the precaution of finding himself a lawyer. Who better to advise him than James Stewart butters, one time mayor of Melbourne, presently colleague of Frederick Hennings and Speaker of the Fiji House of Commons - a man no stranger to litigation himself, and who had the mental and physical agility to escape any unheralded danger. Butters's sang-froid was communicated to his young client and former associate, and - for the time being anyway - Archibald Watson kept his head.

Extract from Chapter Twelve - Painting the Islands Vermilion - Archibald Watson and the Brig Carl 
Jennifer M. T. Carter
Melbourne University Press 1999

Bishop Patterson - The First Bishop of Melanesia

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