Massacre at sea

“A painful sensation was created yesterday morning upon the beach, at the rumour that Mr. T. Warburton, merchant in this town, Mssrs Kington, Robson and Whitaker, planters of Taveuni and Mr Owen, master of the Meva cutter and a Fijian, had been murdered on board that craft on Wednesday night.”

This was the report run by The Fiji Times of November 4, 1871, about a tragedy, the massacre of five white settlers and a Fijian on board a vessel within Fiji waters.

The incident occurred during the height of the trade in human labour within the South Pacific region.

This exchange of human cargo, infamously known as “Blackbirding” was accompanied by much violence carried out by the white men who recruited labourers from Melanesia and the “poor wretches” many of whom were lured into vessels never to see their respective homelands again.

We examine this incident which took place on the night of November 3, 1971 in waters close to the Yasawa group of islands.

On board the Meva, a 10 tonne cutter that traded in and out of Levuka were five white men, two Fijians and 40 Solomon islanders who had only recently been recruited from the blackbirding schooner Lismore.

The Solomon islanders had been grumbling about their lack of food during the voyage from Levuka bound for Taveuni, which they had left on Tuesday November 2.

After departing Taveuni, the four Australians, one New Zealander on board the vessel had no idea what was in store for them, except for one of the two Fijian crew members.

According to Marika, the Fijian who was the lone survivor of the massacre, the Solomon Islanders had murder on their minds once their demands for more food were unmet.

“When we left Levuka there was only light winds, and progress was necessarily slow. By night we were off Nairai, between that and Koro,”Marika recalled to The Fiji Times of that year.

“Throughout the day the Solomon Islanders had two meals, each receiving two ship biscuits. They were to receive two more for supper but objected through one of their number, that two was too little, they wanted three each.”

The labourers were refused and it is believed that this prompted them to take murderous revenge on the white settlers when they were least prepared.

According to Marika, “They had bought plenty of firearms with them but had left them in the cabin.”

But the Solomon Islanders were prepared.

The Fijian said the Melanesian labourers had with them three axes and pieces of wood as weapons which they used on the unsuspecting men in a lightning attack.

Marika had suspected the Solomon men all day on account of their manner, “for they had been so watchful of him as he was treeing, observing keenly how he put the vessel round and how he acted when in a squall.”

“I was at the tiller steering, another Fijian (Moturiki man) was at the galley and the five white men at tea on deck.”

“As the white men were sitting at tea, the Solomon men made their attack on them,” reports The Fiji Times of November 15, 1871, which ran an account of the massacre related by Marika.

“Their first victim was Mr Warburton who was approached from behind and struck with an axe on the back of the head.”

“The work of death was hurried on the victims being taken so unaware as not to have the least show of resistance.”

“One of them rushed for the cabin but was struck down on the way,” while the Moturiki native “had his head split open”seeing that his captain jumped overboard following Marika, who had made for the water after unsuccessfully, grappling over an oar with one of the assailants.

“While swimming away the captain directed Marika’s attention to the cutter where the murderers were cutting up the bodies of the slain,” continued a Fiji Times report of December 5, 1871 which carried further accounts of the tragedy by Marika.

Owen and Marika swam on for time before the New Zealander said he would not be able to continue on with the heavy clothes he had on.

According to the survivor. Owen told him to “carry word of the tragedy to Mr Scott, owner of the cutter and Messrs J C Smith and Co, Merchant of Levuka.”

“Marika swam towards him but before reaching him the captain sank.”

According to The Fiji Times of November 14, the Solomon Islanders managed to direct the vessel towards an island in the Yasawas.

Except for Owen, the captain who was a New Zealander, the rest of the planters were originally from Ballarat and Melbourne in Australia. Warburton was reported in The Fiji Times to be a very well-known merchant from Melbourne while the others were also well regarded.

This was why the incident caused so much fury in a white dominated Levuka and resulted in such a rapid response.

Owen, The Fiji Times reported, had only a few days earlier written to his wife inviting her to join him in Fiji.

“Not since the days of Fijian colonisation do we think that any occurrence has thrilled the people with so much horror as to date, the fearful tragedy on board the cutter Meva,” The Fiji Times stated.

“We trust that there will not be any time in sending a force down at once to secure the wretches.”

The Fiji Times article reported that a native reported the matter to a Mr Wanton who carried news of the tragedy to Levuka where it was received with shock and an immediate response.

This same native also carried a conflicting report about after Captain Owen and Marika jumped overboard to escape the rampaging islanders.

He said that Owen had tried to induce Marika to help him to shore by offering to give him 10 pounds but the latter refused in fear of being drowned in the process.

Meanwhile in Levuka, “about 100 men came forward to aid the Government in pursuit of the blood thirsty wretches who had perpetrated this foul deed”.

The Solomon Islanders who managed to sail the Meva towards the Yasawas made ashore trying to carry out trade with natives of one of the islands in the group.

“They promised to share the trade they had on board the vessels with the Fijians saying that they had been working on Ovalau for 18 months, that their time was out and had given 80 pigs for the vessel to take them home,” The Fiji Times reported.

“They also stated afterwards that they had eaten the white men and got hungry again and killed three of their comrades and eaten them so that now there were only 37 men left”.

After arriving on shore, the Yasawa Island men asked the Solomon islanders, “Is this Tanna? They were told that it wasn’t.

The also wanted to know whether they were going to be clubbed which the Yasawa islanders gave a similar reply.

Shortly after this exchange a Mr Murray, while on his way to Naviti “observed a cutter, with the sheet close hauled and behaving in a very strange manner, as he accordingly made for her.”

“When they knew they were being pursued, they made for the reef, jumped off and swam ashore.”

The Fiji Times account stated that Mr Murray had “stripped the vessel of her sails and distributed these among the natives of the island in order to prevent the men from escaping.”

The 37 Solomon Islanders would be captured and taken to the capital Levuka where they would face trial for the murders.

This was just one of a number of incidents that painted a horrific picture of the blackbirding trade in Fiji and the Pacific.

The most notorious incident in fact took place that same year which claimed the life of these on the Meva.

In 1871, a voyage of the brig Carl was organised to recruit labourers to work in the plantations in Fiji.

Murray had his men disguised as Christian missionaries, islanders were enticed to religious services and later guns would force the islanders on to boats. During this voyage Murray shot about 60 islanders.

Murray was never brought to trial for his actions, and was given immunity in return for giving evidence against his crew members.

The captain of the Carl, Joseph Armstrong, was later sentenced to death.

Although the incident helped raise awareness about the illegal trade in human cargo, the business would go on for another four decades.

Between 1863 and 1904, about 62,000 islanders were brought to Queensland and Fiji, mainly from Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, to provide cheap labour for the booming sugar, cotton and pearling industries.

Fiji was also a major recruiter of neighboring Pacific nations with an estimated 10,000 Solomon Islanders recruited with only about 4000 returning to their island homes after the completion of their contracts.

This year will mark the 150th anniversary of the arrival of Melanesians in Fiji.