An extraordinary story of the lawless Queensland slave-trade and how a Queensland member of Parliament with a sugar plantation bought slaves from the south pacific pirates
How men and women were trapped, killed or sold.
In the 1870s slaves were sold at Levuka to Heinnemann and Co for 30 pounds a person
“It was in the beginning of the (1870s), the good old Fiji cotton days.
Captain Phil MeKeever and myself, his mate Joe Barton of the 40-ton labor schooner Alert, were trudging down Beach Street, Levuka.
We had only arrived from the Solomons the night before, and had just handed over our live cargo of b blalckbirds (slaves) eighty souls all told, to our owners, a German firm, Messrs.Heinnemann and Co., who retailed them out at about 30 pound per head to plantation owners.
We had received our respective dollars, and commission per head recruiting and were steering a direct course for the Royal Hotel for a feed of gin, as was the custom in those days, and is still.
We ran out of liquor on board – a most unusual thing in n those days and our thirst as very great.
Phil used to tell me — sea he had a great long giraffe sort of thirst, and what a feed of gin he would have when he got to port; and he stuck to his word. I never knew Phil to lie in that respect.
Gin was only eighteen shillings per case, and Phil laid himself out for a gross, which he intended to demolish before he put foot on board another vessel. –
Phil (MeKeever ) was a good sort; handsome and fair, open-hearted and kind to a degree, gentlemanly in his ways and manner, but by continual intercourse with low beach-combers he descended low at times; a lover of adventure, but with an ungovernable temper.
He had been an old ‘Varsity man somewhere, nut where, he was loth to say. He was like a good many more in Fiji in those days, who had left their coun try for their country’s good, and had come to Fiji for the benefit of iheir health. “Climate so exhilarating!” they used to say. So it was square gin 18/ per dozen, other gins cheaper.
We duly arrived at the pub., and were greeted by our host with open arms. Recruiters were always wel come; they generally spent their cheque in the shortest time possible, like the proverbial shearer.
Louis Armstrong, our host, was a “hail fellow well met,” sort of chap. On our return from our last recruiting cruise he had given all the recruiters in town a picnic to the back of the island Ovalau, chartering a small cutter for the purpose. It was the usual kind of South Sea picnic; a case of gin and a tin of sardines per man were all that we had to eat or drink.
We were looking forward to another picnic, but after two or three nips Phil forgot about tbe picnic and had one on his own account for a fortnight.
Phil and I were not sailors in the proper sense of the word, but we had knocked about a bit in yachts in the old country and a great deal in cutters in the South Seas, and knew ab out as much as the average seaman. Certificates were not, required in those days no Government, no Customs, did as you liked, a regular go-as-you please.
If you were in the labor trade, recruits you must get either by fair ‘means or foul it was usually the lat ter way. Nobody to interfere with you; old Cakabau was rex, ( King) and everybody was the Government. They were great old times, as Phil used to say.
We had been kidnapping for about a year together, and had. always made successful trips. I was full, and in tended to “chuck it” this trip. It was a ghastly game, to say the least of it.
Phil’s burst progressed merrily for a fortnight, when our owners had a fresh order for eighty more labor and wanted Pbil and me to start at once. Phil was too drunk, I couldn’t sober him up. So he got the sack. The owners wished one to go; I declined, I intended to stay by my mate.
A new captain and mate -were soon procured, and were fitting out for the cruise when I managed to sober Phil up and tell him he bad been sacked. “The square-headed sons of guns,” he remarked, “we’ll be even with them yet. Joe, I”ll not touch another darned drop till I square with them.”
Phil sobered up very quickly. His recovery was a bit sudden, though. I offered hm gin to steady him. but it was hopeless, his mind was made up. His feelings were hurt to get the sack for such a paltry offence as drunkenness, and allowing his ship to take charge of herself for a fortnight. Why, the thought of it was ridiculous; it was unprecedented in Fiji. Why, it was the fashion to be drunk.
The new captain of the Alert, Bill Taylor by name, an old man-o’-war’s man, had been busy for a week getting – fitted out for an old-time recruiting trip. All the old crew left with Phil and me, so consequently there was new captain, mates and crew on board.
The day before they sailed from Levuka Phil held a council of the old crew and myself, when wo arrived at the follow ing plan to avenge Phil’s dismissal.
The old crew were to invite the new crew on shore for a farewell evening to commemorate their departure, which invitation we knew they would readily accept. .
Bhil said would manage old Cap tain Bill Taylor’s two mates. When we got them all ashore we were to shove gin down their threats as fast as they would drink, get them hopelessly drunk, collect all our traps, meet at Hedemann’s wharf at midnight, take the ship’s boat and make off with the Alert.
Everything went splendidly. At mid night the new crew from the captain downwards were dead to the world.
An hour later we had shipped our anchor, and were standing out of the Passage heading for Wakaya, Phil having taken his bearings previous to darkness coming on.
Phil told me before he left he had posted a notice up on the owners’ office to this effect:
“Disappeared on the night of the 12th January, 187-, the forty-ton schooner Alert, the property of Messrs Heinneman and Co.500 pound reward will be paid to the per son or persons returning same or giving information as to her whereabouts.’
Phil was as cool as a bread-fruit, and thought it a huge joke. I must confess I was a little excited, and was even sorry I had had anything to do with the labor trade.
In the morning we inspected our prize. She was full of the usual re cruiting stares: yams, trade, powder, shot, muskets, pig iron, and gin.
We had a slashing breeze and sighted Kadavu that evening about five o’ clock, took our bearings, left Fiji behind us, and steered straight forthe Loyalties as Phil said, for repairs. Besides, it was a much safer anchorage than the Hebrides under the circumstances.
We fetched up at Mare on the seven teenth day out after an uneventful trip, and beached the schooner in a nice secluded spot on the Lifou side of Mare. The crew, being all Fiji half castes, were more or less carpenters.
We dismantled the schooner, turned her into a cutter rig, made new sails from canvas in the hold; being formerly painted olive-green we painted her white, changed her rig and appearance entirely within a month, and altered her name to the Cutter Agnes.
While at Mare we got on famously with the French missionaries, and had many an evening at Letou, their central station on the island. The traders were a little suspicious of our move ments for what I don’t know. We were supposed to be pirates of some sort, for the traders always had spies on us.
When our work was complete Phil convened another council of,the crew, when he threatened to put every man jack of them ashore and ship new hands who knew nothing of the cutter’s previous history if they did not swear to stick to the ship and keep mum under pain of death. All hands agreed, and the second mate, a half caste Fijian, known as Jimmy the Demon, said he would hold himself responsible for the crew.
We then directed our course for the Hebrides. On the voyage Phil shaved his beard, and dyed his moustache and hair black from native juices procured at Mare, and so altered his appearance that we didn’t recognise him. When he came on deck he gave instructions. for myself and crew to do likewise. In a couple of days we were transformed into new beings; it was a couple of days before we fell into each other’s looks and appearances and knew one another.
We were a happy family onl board – at first, and the crew had their nip according to captain’s instructions every seven bells. On the eighth day out of Mare the crew waited on us in a deputation to know where our destination was. Phil quite coolly replied “Malua” “Wait,” or “By and by.”
One of them answered rather sharply “Malua marusa! By and by be damn d. We want to know now.’ The man had scarcely finished speaking when a puff of smoke, a report, and a half-caste lay on the deck with a bul et through his brain, and Phil said quite calmly, “I want no mutineers on board this ship. You agreed to stick by me, and by God, I will make you.
Joe,” he said, turning to me, “throw that half-bred’s carcass overboard to show them what we think they are worth.” I shuddered, and passed the order on to Jimmy the Demon.
I went below to get a nip to steady my nerves after what I had seen, when Phil came down. I remonstrated with him for his harsh treatment of the sailor. Phil replied: “If you don’t show these brutes you mean business, they will take liberties,” and that ended the matter.
On the sixteenth day out we sighted Santo in the Hebrides. We avoided Sandwich and Mallicollo -, as we knew that the latest arrivals from Fiji would most probably be there, and-we wanted to avoid danger as much as possible.
‘Having groped our way through the many coral patches in Santo Bay, we finally entered in about eight fathoms of water. I immediately got the boat in the water ready to go ashore, but Phil stopped and said his intention was to wait for the niggers to come oft to us.
They had seen many a recruiter there before us, and fought shy for a day or two; but, seeing we didn’t move, they chanced it, and paddled out to us in their canoes only a few at first, as they were suspicious. We watched them very closely, too, as they are about the most treacherous race in the Hebrides, and many a recruiter has lost his life on the shores of Santo.
As they came closer to the vessel Phil, by means, of owe of the crew, interpreted to them we weren’t recruiters, but wished to buy cccoanuts, copra, and pigs. The news spread quickly, and soon the water was black with canoes about us. When there were about sixty ‘in the immediate vicinity.
Phil gave the order to have our fire arms ready, bring up the pig-iron, and swamp the canoes which the crew did most effectually. Most of the natives were on board the cutter at the time buying muskets and bullets, but we had not sold them any powder.
The pig iron knocked the bottoms out of the .canoes, and we drove those on deck down the already prepared hold. Some jumped into the water some started to swim for shore Demon had his boat’s crew out and picked them all up, shoved them in with their mates, closed the hatches down, hoisted sail and made tracks for Aneitium in the south of the Group, where Phil said he wished to call on his friend, the Rev. Mr Thompson, the Presbyterian missionary, before leaving for Queensland with our booty, which consisted of fifty-four men and eight women.
There was great wailing and gnash ing of teeth that night down the hold. They wouldn’t stop the row till Phil ordered the cook to open the hatches and throw a couple of buckets of boiling water on them to quieten them; need less to say, it had the desired effect.
Anchored at Aneitium the fourth day out, about a quarter mile from the shore in the bay where the old pioneer mission station stands a large build ng built out of coral and lime.
Phil left Jimmy the Demon in charge, with instructions not on any account to open the hatches, and watch the labor carefully, while he and I went ashore, .and he introduced himself as a planter, and I as captain of tbe cutter.
The missionary prevailed upon us to stay for tea and prayers, which we did. At prayers Phil sang most devout edly; he looked so beastly religious that I laughed outright; and when the Rev Mr Thompson ended up the proceedings: with the Lord’s Prayer,,and said:
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive, them their trespasses against us, and lead us not into temp tation, but deliver us from evil, etc.,”
I wondered what Phil’s thoughts were, and what he was scheming in his mind; and when the missionary said “Amen” so did Phil so loud that Jimmy the Demon swore he heard him on board ship.
I could not “follow the drift of things at all. What the devil Phil wanted to run his nose into danger for like this I couldn’t make out; but when prayers were finished, and a very, pretty Samoan girl about sixteen came into the room to take the children to bed, I got an inkling, and began to get the hang of things.
Mrs Thompson had on a recent visit to Fiji picked up Solotosoa, the Samoan girl, who had just arrived from Samoa with a batch of young girls who were to be handed over to the whites as wives pro. tern on the payment of 10 pound per head to the captain of the vessel. She induced her to come as nurse-girl to her mission station.
The missionary questioned us as to our movements, and where we came from, and what were our intentions. Phil in his fine suave manner to Fiji to take up land. Solotosoa, hearing the name Fiji, rushed to the conclusion we were going there, and im plored Phil to take her back to Fiji, ”Faamelemole oe le alii ia e ave ane au i fitto,” “please sir, you are a gentle man, take me back to Fiji.” to which Phil readily consented if Mr Thompson was willing.
Mrs Thompson said it was rather hard for the girl being away so far from her friends and anybody of her own color, and she was always pining to get away, and this was a fine opportunity Phil being of so taking a manner and gentlemanly appearance, and so well read that no doubts were afloat as to his character. He spoke of his college life, his ‘Varsity friends, his people how they lost all their e tates owing to speculation, and he the eldest son was now looking out for land in the South Pacific with what little money was left, to make a pile out of cotton; and restore the old family estates and their long-honored name, and sixty-two niggers on board our hooker, with the crew all armed guard ing the hatches! Honored name, for sooth, Aneinitum was a fool to him!
Next day we got Solotosoa on board with her belongings, and were making preparations to go, after many inducements being offered by Mr and Mrs Thompson to stay for a few days, when a cry of “Sail ho” from thie natives on the beach was heard. Phil was on deck in a brace of shakes, and recognised the Meg Merrilees schooner from Fjii, and sailing straight into the harbour. “Damn her” was all I heard him say, and he dived below, to reappear in a few minute in a black felt missionary hat, black trousers, and close ” buttoned-up long silk dust-coat; called me aft and said
‘that old idiot Captain Giles on the Meg must be bluffed, and mighty smart too.
He is after us. Get the boat’s crew in the boat, tog yourself up, and come aboard with me; I will do the talking, you listen all you know.”
We pulled off, and before the Meg Merrilees had her galls furled Phil and I jumped on board.
I was rather nervous. I didn’t know Giles, but knew the mate; we had a drink or two together in Levuka before I started. But my luck was in there was a new mate.
Phil introduced himself as Dr Selton, of the Presbyterian mission from Sydney, visiting the various stations for the first time in these seas in their new cutter the Agnes. Turning to me, he said: “This is Captain Burton. We all shook hands, Giles telling us his name, telling us he was down on a trading trip.
Phil advised him to deal honestly with the natives, and he would never regret it. Captain Giles questioned us how long we had been at Aneitium “Two weeks,” said Phil.
I nearly fell overboard at his answer; at any rate, I had to go to the side and spit.
Giles questioned us if we had seen a schooner, the Alert by name, anywhere in the islands. Phil answer ed in the affirmative, and turning tome, said: “Captain wasn’t that the name of the green colored schooner we observed on the beach near the Rev. Mr Robertson’s place?.” I said yes.
Old Giles I could see wanted to go and have a nip on the strength of what he had heard, but lacked pluck while Dr Selton was present.
He eagerly asked me if Phil McKeever was with her, and Joe Barton his mate, I said yes, they were beached at Eromango, and were repairing the copper on her bottom.
Then Giles told us how Phil McKeever had run away with the Alert, and had the cheek to post a notice up on Heinnemann’s office door that 500 pounds would be paid on information as to her whereabouts, and how Heinnemann and Co had confirmed the reward.
Giles asked us if we had seen the brig Carl, and being answered in the negative, told us Captain Dupont, of the H.M.S. Rosario, was after the two of us, the Carl and the Alert.
Giles begged to be excused; he was so eager to get that 500 pound reward, he up anchor and was away an hour after he arrived. It was lucky old Giles had been drinking square-face himself, or he would have smelt Dr Selton had likewise been drinking, and no doubt got suspicious.
We returned to the cutter, had a good second-mater each came on deck to find about twenty native teachers with food from Mr Thompson, yams, pigs, turtle, drinking nuts, etc. Phil got them all down in the cabin to have a look at the Bibles he had on board, when the sails were hoisted, and we too sailed out of Aneitium harbor with twenty more recruits than we came in with.
What Mr Thompson’s opinion of his fine English gentleman was I don’t know.
We directed our course to the Ellis Group to dispose (sell) Solotosas, the Samoan (Solo I called her) to Ben Taylor, the trader, for one thousand dollars, as he told Phil he would give that for a Samoan wench some fourteen months previously.
Ben also had oil. So this was Solo’s destination, to be the . .wife of an old shell-back.
Solo and I became great friends. She always radiant and happy, thinking or seeing all her friends again in Fiji; I pitied her, and a love grew out of my pity. I was resolved to baulk Phil. and prevent him from selling so pretty a creature to such a brute as I heard Ben Taylor was.
My love increased daily, for she was as simple and pretty very nice-mannered, and quite unconscious of her beauty. I made my mind to marry her myself, and settle down to a trader’s life. I was full up with buccaneering.
Phil tried hard to make her his wife for the time being on – board before he handed her over to Taylor. I protested, and she always clung to me for protection. “Papalaga le ua pepclo ia le au” – (he is a bad white man; he lies to me), she would say.
We were three weeks in arriving st Nakafatau; and before we knew it were up to the passage, and for the first time saw lying in the lagoon the H.M.S. Rcsario. Strange none of m saw her, and it gave us a start when we did we were wholly unprepared for such a surprise. To delay matters we pretended not to know the passage in the reef, and cruised about for an hour before we attempted to go inside.
Safely anchored, Phil went off this time by himself, dressed as an ordinary captain. He was frightened to present him self as Dr Selton, for most probably Captain Dupont and Dr Selton knew each other; , so he personated a Queensland labor captain, showed forged papers as toname of cutter, crew, etc.
In about an hour’s time Phil returned, saying everything was all serene, had a nip, and told me his story. “They questioned me,” he said, ‘if I had seen the brig Carl or the Alert. I told Du pont they were both in the Solomons, and had fired three villages in Malatta.”
The Rcsario was in for water, and was going away that night, so we waited patiently for her to get before-,we moved. What Captain Dupont thought of our recruiting labor for Queensland in the Eilice Group it is hard to say. I never knew anyone to come from the Solomons to the Ellice Group for la bor; however, he departed, add glad we were.
Old Ben Taylor [Benjamin Hughes] came off shortly afterwards in his whaleboat, recognised Phil, saw Solo, and got gloriously drunk.
After the Rosario had gone; Phil and I went ashore to see what oil Old Ben had. We were immediately accosted by his old Tokalau wife, asking us in Fijian what we wanted ashore while Peni (Ben) was aboard our hooker. She was rather suspicious in our movements, having been taken in by the famous Bully of the South Seas some months previously in the same way. When we ventured to .peer into Bern’s oil-house, a thatched native house on the beach, she started to finger a six-inch knife she carried in her waist, too familiarly, for mr.
“Where’s the oil, Makereta?” I asked. “Sa, se hone lako tanua” (clear out) she replied.
“‘We can’t do anything, Jce,” Phil said, ”till we get the old girl drunk,” so accordingly I sent the beat off for a, couple of bottles of square-face. While we went up to Ben’s house and had a glass of Tokalau coconut toddy made by Makereta the gin arrived, and we made the old lady as tight as a fiddler. “What are your movements now, Phil?:’ I asked.
“Take every damned drop of oil in that oil-house on the beach and leave the Samoan piece as compensation. If I-don’t get that oil, Jce, Billy Hayes will get it; I will.”
I remonstrated, but of no avail. I declined to let Solo come ashore, for if she did that old Tok would put six inches of steel into her as soon as she put foot inside Ben’s house. Besides I loved Solo, and the first sky-???? I dropped across we were to be married.
The sailors burst the store, door open according to Phil’s instructions, shipped twenty tons of oil in two tides and kept Ben and his missis drunk alll the time, left him a case of gin to recover on, and made tracks for Gilberts. I heard afterwards that old Bill put day light through his Old Tok for allowing us to steal the oil.
We played the same trick on Ted Eaves in the Gilberts, relieving him of five tons of oil, and would have filled tip there only for Bully Hayes; coming in on top of us, when we thought it time to get. If you crossed his path he made it warm foryou; he carried cannon.
The Aneitium boys fell out with the Santo boys, and there was a devil of a row in the hold. Phil would never let them up on deck as was the custom.
When the row started he ordered the hatches to be opened a little, and was going to fire in amongst them, but I stopped him. He was growing more fiendish every day.
“Where to now, Phil?” I asked as we left the Gilberts.
“To the Solomons for sandalwood” I told him that we were full up, and couldn’t carry another ton.
“Well, we can stow about five tons on deck.
I protested, and he gave in, and we turned our heads for Moreton Bay where, after an eventful trip of two months, with ten of our labor dead, and five more dying who we threw over board to end their misery we sighted Cape Moreton, and were soon inside the bay, taking us a couple of days to get to the mouth of the river. Our crew towed us up to Petrie’s Bight, where we anchored. The Customs officer was easily bluffed by Phil, who, “when had got rid of the officer, went ashore dressed up to ‘kill, leaving man in charge, to return in about two hours With a great fat member of the (Queensland) Upper House who was a partner in a Mackay sugar plantation, to inspect our recruits, who ultimately bought them at 20 pound per head.
Next day Phil sold the cutter and the oil, paid off the crew, and gave me 500 pounds, and said he was going to retire.. The sugar planter had a fifty-ion schooner chartered to take the labor up to Flat Top, had all the labor transshipped into her, and was making preparations for a start.
Phil and I dined at Lennon’s Hotel that night, and drank to the health of the cutter Agnes. Dinner being finished, Phil left me saying he would be back in an hour or so, and to wait for him. I never saw him again.
Two days afterwards I was surprised to read in the “Brisbane Courier” of the disappearance of the schooner Westward Ho with sixty-seven recruits on board. It was at first surmised that the labor themselves had made off with the vessel; but on further-Inquiry it was ascertained that a lot of half castes and a white man had come on board about nine p.m two evenings ago, the captain being ashore and all the labor locked down below, overpowered the mate and two of the crew on board, towed the vessel down the river, landed the mate and crew at Lytton, the mouth of the river, hoisted sail and off. I knew it was Phil by the description given of him, and I never saw any of the crew again in Brisbane.
I married Solo in the old Creek Street Presbyterian Church, not faa Samoa (Samoan fashion) but English fashion. I was very proud of Solo, she being admired by everyone, no Samoan having been seen in Brisbane before. She used to wonder at the greatness of the white man’s town, and the beautiful dresses the ladies wore, and enjoyed herself thoroughly.
Some two months later I read in the “Courier” how Phil ended up. He made for Mackay, there being no steam communication in those days; retold the labor to a local planter for 10 per head, and disappeared as suddenly as he had come.
* * *
Now twenty years odd have passed by, and I look back with regret at, my sad past in the old South Sea labor days and of my experiences with Captain Phil McKeever. I am again in Fiji with my old Samoan belle of twenty odd years ago and my son Filemu (Peace) who helps me work my cocoa nut plantation in Vanua Levu, where he is a great help to me in my old age, little knowing of how romantic a nature was his mother’s and my wooing.
Some years ago I heard Phil was competing in the opium trade in China