Lydia Syson on Pacific slavery, and a writer’s responsibility to tell our hidden histories.
“Sometimes how one frames a story determines whether or not we will see the fullness of a character.” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, on Guardian webchat
I didn’t set out to write a novel ‘about’ slavery. Or indeed to ‘dip my pen in someone else’s blood’. But the process of researching my latest book made me aware of a particular kind of slavery previously unknown to me, widespread in the Pacific in the second half of the nineteenth century: blackbirding. As a white Londoner who, at that point, had never even been to Oceania, I was both shocked and wary. The particular episode related to my story is emblematic of a series of repeated, devastating and largely hidden moments in the history of Pacific colonisation. I felt I couldn’t look away.
Mr Peacock’s Possessions began life as a an out-and-out Robinsonade, the tale of a roving family of English origins whose attempts to make a life for themselves on a wildly bewitching but inhospitable subtropical island go horribly wrong. It’s based on a true story, told to me by my aunt-in-law: her uncle was born on Sunday Island (now Raoul, or Rangitāhua), in the Kermadecs – about halfway between New Zealand and Tonga, on the volatile Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’, and six hundred miles across the ocean from any other human habitation. King, as he was always known, was the youngest of ten. His oldest sibling Hettie, who acted as midwife for her mother’s four island births – was only 11 when their parents, Thomas and Frederica Bell, landed on Raoul in 1878. They expected the ship that had brought them to return in three months with fresh supplies, perhaps even take them off the island if the challenge of creating a private paradise proved impossible. But the captain had sold them rotten provisions. He sailed into the sunset, never to be seen again. The Bells were effectively transformed from voluntary Crusoes to castaways, surviving on limpets, fern roots, birds eggs and the feral goats which could only be captured after climbing the sheer cliffs surrounding the bay.
Two years into their thirty-five year stay on the island, Mr Bell ‘smoked’ in a passing schooner. After taking a brief trip to Auckland to buy iron, timber, grass seed and clothing, he returned in another vessel, the ‘Orwell’, which then sailed eight hundred miles to Niue – named ‘Savage Island’ by Captain Cook on his second voyage a century earlier. Eventually the ship came back with five ‘native boys from that Island, together with all the edible plants that grow there’.* One, it seemed, was ordained.
This discovery completely changed my plans. It allowed me to transform an intriguing survival story – about a spectacularly isolated family of adventurous pioneers battling the elements alone – into something far more complex: the meeting of two very different migrant groups, each defying the other’s stereotypes. My imaginary encounter drew carefully on what I learned about the characters’ historical counterparts. Niue is a Polynesian outlier, both geographically and culturally: it had seen off European encounter for far longer than most islands, and then thoroughly embraced Christianity in less than a generation. The islanders from Niue in my book are, as they would have been in real life, missionary-educated, teetotal, literate and god-fearing. They are not a little horrified at meeting the barefooted, free-roaming Peacock children who cannot not read or write. They have mixed feelings about the family’s charismatic father, who drinks, and works on Sundays, driving himself and others on with a will of iron. Both parties find themselves on the island together for similar reasons. Both have journeyed vast distances, and left everything they knew in an effort to make new and more prosperous futures for themselves. Their stories are entangled, overlapping.
The collective history of nineteenth-century Oceania – as the fiction of Melville, Ballantyne, Stevenson, Jack London, and also Georges Baudoux of New Caledonia, bears witness – is a history of diaspora. Vast numbers of people of many different backgrounds and ethnicities were on the move in this ‘sea of islands’: indigenous islanders and white immigrants, whalers, traders, beachcombers, naturalists, convicts, deserters, castaways and missionaries. Some are now labelled pioneers, others migrants. Some set sail by choice, others by force.
Although the nineteenth century is known now as the great era of abolition and emancipation, this is only partially true. In fact the slave trade changed its name, its organisation, its victims and its locations. After the American Civil War, cotton and sugar production shifted to the Pacific. The people of the small scattered islands of the ‘South Seas’ were peculiarly vulnerable to exploitation. First the blackbirders came – initially selling their captives in Peru, cheap labour for the white colonists’ mines and plantations. Then the indentured labour recruiters arrived, tricking or forcing workers to sign contracts they didn’t understand, plundering Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia for the benefit of the newly growing colonies of Australia and New Zealand. The Pacific Labour Trade tore families and communities violently apart. Far too many people have never been able to recover their ancestors’ stories.
I had spent the past five years writing books for young adults, embracing the emerging movement in children’s writing for much wider diversity of representation in fiction. Increasing the diversity of writers and employees in children’s publishing is clearly a vital step towards this, but, meanwhile, it’s been widely agreed that the first priority is to make sure that young readers can meet and empathise with a huge range of well-drawn protagonists in the books they read – characters of every colour, creed, class, sexuality, appearance and ability – irrespective of any individual writer’s background. In my young adult historical novels I had developed a habit of interweaving close-third person narratives, offering multiple perspectives.
J M Barrie identified Ballantyne’s The Coral Island as a manual for boyhood. For James Joyce, Robinson Crusoe was the ‘true prototype of the British colonist’. I was writing against a long history of island fiction. Both political and aesthetic reasons made me want to construct my twenty-first century ‘Robinsonade’ from two other points of view – Kalala, one of the Niueans, and Mr Peacock’s daughter, Lizzie. Both, in a sense, are simultaneously outsider and insider voices, depending on where you’re standing. It seemed important to open Mr Peacock’s Possessions in the first-person voice of Kalala, who arrives at my reimagined Monday Island with his brother Solomona, a ‘native teacher’ trained by the resident missionary on their own island.
I drew on every resource I could find to imagine a voice for Kalala, hoping it would be convincing if not ‘authentic’. With increasing anxiety I read and discussed with fellow writers both historical debates on academic imperialism in Pacific studies and contemporary arguments over cultural appropriation. Heading all the while, inexorably, for the section of my novel which I knew would be most difficult: that moment of collision between fiction and history. I wanted it to be empathetic, not exploitative. In the end, I decided to step out of the main narrative, at least partially.
It took longer than I’d hoped to find a writer, historian and cultural expert from Niue, New Zealand-based Ioane Aleke Fa’avae, who generously read and commented on the novel before publication. I know that’s not a ‘get-out’ ticket. But his response was certainly promising. I’m looking forward to the reactions of others in time, and prepared for the fact that not everyone will welcome the book and what I’ve tried to do with it as he has.
While I was following the trail of the Bells, Australian Solomon Islander filmmaker Amie Batalibasi was exploring her own family history to shed light on the sugar slaves of Australia: three of her ancestors were blackbirded from the Solomon Islands. Her award-winning short film, Blackbird, was released internationally on 4th July, and she is working on a feature-length version now. It’s part of a growing movement for greater discussion and formal acknowledgement of the hidden history of South Sea Islanders in Australia, and also New Zealand.
Global migration and people trafficking continue at alarming rates: in sheer numbers, more people around the world are enslaved today than at any other time. Slavery is surely everybody’s business. When empathy seems so often in short supply, to have ignored what I had learned myself, to tell my tale (safely) purely from a white family’s point of view, felt like an evasion of responsibility. Whether I had the right to do this, whether I have done it well enough, I leave readers to judge.
Lydia Syson is the author of four critically acclaimed YA novels. Mr Peacock’s Possessions was published in May and was Times Book of the Month. Find more sources of information about Pacific slavery on Lydia’s website.
(*Extract from unpublished Thomas Bell writings quoted by Steven Gentry in Raoul and the Kermadecs: New Zealand’s Northernmost Islands, included in correspondence with Evelyn Maitland, a Bell descendent.)
- Martin, Josiah, 1843-1916. Martin, Josiah, 1843-1916 : The landing place, Alofi, Niue. Ref: 1/2-116279-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22580134
- Thomas Bell. Oliver, Walter Reginald Brook, 1883-1957 :Photograph album of Kermadec Islands Expedition 1908. Ref: PA1-q-135-16-3. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23136167
- Mrs Bell and family outside vegetable shed, Raoul Island. Oliver, Walter Reginald Brook, 1883-1957 :Photograph album of Kermadec Islands Expedition 1908. Ref: PA1-q-135-13-2. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22781170
- Niueans waiting on a wharf at low tide, during the visit of the HMS Mildura and Lord Ranfurly. Ross, Malcolm 1862-1930 :Photographs by Malcolm Ross of New Zealanders in the Great War, Maori, mountaineering, New Zealand scenery, etc. Ref: 1/2-021264-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23204616
- Approaching Niue island © Lydia Syson
- Blackbird Film Still © 2015 Photo credit: Mark Morris