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Peruvian Slave Trade - Blackbirding

Blackbirding involves the coercion of people through deception or kidnapping to work as slaves or poorly paid labourers in countries distant from their native land. The term has been most commonly applied to the large-scale taking of people indigenous to the numerous islands in the Pacific Ocean during the 19th and 20th centuries.  


These blackbirded people were called Kanakas or South Sea Islanders - including Tokelau. For several months between 1862 and 1863, crews on Peruvian ships combed the islands of Polynesia, from Easter Island in the eastern Pacific to the Gilbert Islands (now Kiribati) in the west, seeking workers to fill an extreme labour shortage in Peru.


Peru had officially abolished slavery in 1854, but were persuaded by Joseph Charles Byrne, an Irish speculator, to grant him a permit to recruit South Sea Islanders workers. Byrne's ship, Adelante, set forth in June1862 across the Pacific intending to go to Vanuatu (New Hebrides).​


However, Byrne made an unplanned stop at Tongareva  (Penrhyn) in the Northern Cook Islands where he was able to acquire 469 "willing recruits'".  They went voluntarily because there was a shortage of water and disease had wiped out their coconut crops, so were keen on short term work in a neighbouring island - they had no idea they were being taken to South America to work on the plantations and mines.  Bryne died on the return journey to Peru.​

When the Adelante arrived back at the Peruvian port of Callao in September 1862, the human cargo from Tongareva was sold off - US$200 for men, US$150 for women and US$100 for boys (the equivalent of US$4,700/NZ$7,450 for men, US$3,500/NZ$5,550 for women and US$2,350/NZ$3,725 for boys in 2023).  Because the ship had not had to do the long voyage to Vanuatu and no recruits had been lost, the enterprise made a considerable profit and so almost immediately other speculators and ship owners set sail to make money on Polynesian labour.  Within two months of the Adelante returning, more than 25 vessels had left Callao for the South Pacific to "recruit" Pacific labour, thus launching the shameful Peruvian slave trade.​


Over a period of several months, more than 3,600 Polynesians were taken by the Peruvian slave ships, 1,400 of them from Rapanui (Easter Island).  Some escaped or died on the journey.  It's understood 3,470 left for Peru, 345 died before arriving. 

Only 3,125 arrived in Peru - 2,116 landed, but 1,009 were held on the ships for repatriation.  Many of those who actually touched Peruvian soil, died of disease, poor treatment or despair.

​Of those abducted, 253 were Tokelauans, about 47% of the total Tokelauan population at the time - certainly all the able-bodied men, some women and even children.  According to H.E. Maude in "Slavers in Paradise", the most authoritative work on the Peruvian slave trade from 1862-64, the atolls lost: ​

Peruvian officials were slow to fully appreciate what was really happening from the permits they'd granted, despite sustained pressure from other countries, with France, Hawai'i and the British at the forefront.  The United States was preoccupied with the Civil War at the time. Fuelled by local media outraged at the trade and treatment of the Polynesians, public opinion in Peru and Chile against the enterprise was mounting as they came to fully understand the true nature of the imported labour.  On 28 April 1863, Peru introduced new regulations that no labour ship could disembark crew or passengers without a special licence, 'which would only be granted after it had been made evident that the labourers had been freely contracted and that no crimes had been committed during the voyage'.

Eventually a repatriation programme was arranged, with the first ship leaving Callo port in July 1863 but it was so badly organised that almost as many islanders died as a result of being returned to the South Pacific, as had died up to that point.

Altogether 3,215 Polynesians are believed to have died as a result of being taken to Peru. But these were not all the deaths.  The smallpox and dysentery brought back by the few remaining survivors during the repatriation operation is estimated to have resulted in another 2,950 deaths, making a total of over 6,000 who died owing to the Peruvian slave raids, according to Maude.

Maude wrote that soon after the repatriation was over there were said to be only 100 Polynesians left alive in Peru and nine of these managed to escape to the islands in ships which called, including one from Tokelau whose name is not known but who died from consumption soon after his return. Another Tokelauan, Hehe a Afora (or Mato as he was known on Rapa) married a Rapan and settled on the island, but his son Teau visited Fakaofo to see the land of his ancestors in 1924, when he was given a big welcome by the people.


In 1973, anthropologist Dr Grant McCall was sent to Peru by The Australian National University to search for oral traditions or contemporary documentation concerning the Polynesians who remained behind after the abortive attempts at repatriation. Maude wrote: "He found that nothing remained but the record of 155 deaths in the Lima Charity Hospital, the last being in 1867; nothing, that is, but the single word 'canaca', now used as a derisive term for a lazy person and without any remembered connection with Pacific islanders or other racial group."

The Peruvian government undertook an investigation into the slave trading, but very few of those involved were punished for their abhorrent crimes. 

This page was compiled and written by Tokelauan/Samoan writer/producer Samson Samasoni based on a variety of sources.  Please refer any questions/notes to Samson directly by email.

Photo Caption:  Cry of the Stolen People is a 2019 art installation that tells the story of blackbirding, the abductions of Tokelauans, and their sale into slavery in the world's last slave market in Peru. It's the brainchild of three artists in residence at Porirua's Whitireia Polytech, Moses Viliamu (a member of the Atafu Tokelau Community Group), Jack Kirifi and the late Zac Mateo.  Cry of the Stolen People was to  be shown at the Pacific Arts Festival in Hawai'i in 2020 but the event was cancelled due to the global Covid pandemic.  It was later shown in Porirua in 2021, a video of the full  Event is available here.

Are You Friend or Slave Raider?

When greeting the dignitaries for Tokelau Language Week celebrations in October 2018, Atafu Tokelau Community Group members enacted what the people of Tokelau would do with any vessel approaching their atolls, especially after the slave raids of the 1860s - the women and children would scatter and hide, while the men challenged the ship, checking whether those on board were friendly or there to do them harm.

Video was filmed by the Te Ao Maori News team.

New Zealand Public & Media Outrage at Atrocities 

During 1863, there was growing anger and outrage amongst the New Zealand public as the actions of the Peruvian slave traders in the Pacific became known.  This indignation was reflected in the media with scathing editorials and articles.  Here are some excerpts from The New Zealander:

"We have shown the atrocious proceedings of the pirates themselves; on the authority of a Peruvian journal, we have exhibited the complicity of the Peruvian Government in sanctioning such infamous crime."

Republished from  TheNew Zealander in the Otago Daily Times, 4 June 1863 (pictured)


“Having brought the infamous atrocities of the Slave Pirates of Peru so prominently before the world; and having been among the foremost to advocate conjoint action by the leading Maritime Powers, not only in repression of all further outrage, but in redress of injury to barbarously inflicted, and in restoration of living victims to the island homes from whence they have been so inhumanly abducted, - we cannot but rejoice to find that the question has been taken up, with the most Christian and commendable zeal, both by the Governor and Colonists of New South Wales.”

The New Zealander, 30 June 1863

“It is hoped that Peru will be made to pay the full penalty of the atrocities committed under her contemptible flag.”

New Zealander, 16 July 1863

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Sina is Crying - Bring Back the Boat

Popular Tokelauan/Tuvaluan group Te Vaka adapted a traditional song which expresses the sadness and desperation felt by those left behind.


Tagi Sina

Ko kalalaga tuku mai te vaka e

Ko kalalaga tuku mai te vaka e

Ko kalalaga tuku mai te vaka e

Ko kalalaga tuku mai te vaka e

Aue Tokelau / Kua fita ki tatou I faifaiga venei

Sina is crying , Sina is crying

She is calling "please bring back the boat"

Slavers in Paradise (1981) - Depopulating the Tokelaus

Over 20 years, Professor H.E. Maude pieced together like a detective story the events that have become known as the Peruvian slave trade in Polynesia of the 1860s.  Chapter 9 on Depopulating the Tokelaus is made available here for you to read.  Slavers in Paradise: The Peruvian Slave Trade in Polynesia, 1862-1864 by H.E. Maude.

Art Installation Tells Story (2019)

Tagata Pasifika interviews a trio of Tokelau artists - including Mose Viliamu, a member of the Atafu Tokelau Community Group - who planned to take their unique view of the impact the Peruvian slave trade had on Tokelau, to the Festival of Pacific Arts and Culture in Hawai'i.  However, the event was cancelled due to the global Covid pandemic.

Full video of the installation is available here.

Installation tells story of

Tokelauans sold into Slavery


​​​​This story was first published by RNZ on 1 November 2019, written by Dominic Godfrey .  Note that the Hawai'ian Pacific Arts Festival referenced in this story was cancelled due to Covid.

​In the late 1800s, Tokelau's population plummeted to 85 people, because of slavery.  


This little known history is the subject of a new art installation, which will travel to next year's Festival of Pacific Arts and Culture in Hawai'i.  The work was launched this week in Porirua to emphasise the resilience of the Pacific country as part of New Zealand's Tokelau Language Week.


Cry of the Stolen People tells the story of blackbirding, the abductions of Tokelauans, and their sale into slavery in the world's last slave market in Peru.


It's the brainchild of three artists in residence at Porirua's Whitireia Polytech, (pictured from left to right) Jack Kirifi, Zac Mateo and Moses Viliamu  The three went to high school together, then studied at Whitireia in the early 2000s. They became artists in residence, Moses Viliamu said, during last year's Te Vāiaho o te Gagana Tokelau, Tokelau Language Week.  "We were only supposed to be here for a month but then they decided to keep us on for another year," Mr Viliamu continued.

"From October we were here but then in February we applied to Creative NZ to be part of the Pacific festival in Hawai'i in 2020 in June. And we got accepted."


They submitted a project, Jack Kirifi said, that was sufficiently new and different to have resonated with the selection panel, particularly as first time applicants."

So with Creative NZ we're so grateful and thankful for their support," Mr Kirifi added.  "When we found out about the acceptance of our application, early this year, we said wow this is it, this is an opportunity and a platform for telling stories on behalf of our tupuna, our ancestors."


The installation is a modern form of audio-visual story-telling using images projected on to three screens which allude to the sails of the slave ships but represent the three Tokelau atolls of Nukunonu, Atafu and Fakaofo as well.


They are set on masts akin to those on the tall-ships used by the blackbirders.​


The installation's imagery graphically tells the brutal story of abduction and upheaval but in the beautiful iconography of Tokelau using traditional wood-block style prints.


The story of the abductions, and the blackbirder ships and slave markets of Peru, Moses Viliamu said, still brings grief to the hearts of their people."


Not many people really talk about it. I think they just kind of, like, know of it but they don't really talk about it that much," Mr Viliamu said."


Which is what we found out when we did our installation, that lots of people were very emotional and very touched and they said this really needs to be talked about a lot more with our own people and community.


"By 1872, the population of Tokelau had plummeted to 85 people, mainly old men and women or children. The installation is enhanced with Te Vaka's emotive song Tagi Sina, which mourns Tokelau's loss and implores the blackbirder ship to turn back with their people.


They really had to think laterally, Mr Mateo said, to come up with the format and media for the installation."


So we dreamed, we brainstormed, we prayed and as we kept pushing our ideas we came up with something that we thought was pretty unique and pretty exciting," he added.


The on-screen computer graphics are rendered from images that are hand drawn or painted.  They illustrate the stories researched about the era including iconography and tattoo styles that have been lost as a result of blackbirding.Cry of the Stolen People - research material used for the installation.


Jack Kirifi said the installation had been showing to Porirua's Tokelau community, as part of Tokelau Language Week, as a story of survival.


"This week ends with the celebration of our culture. On one side, this is our story then. On the other side, this is us now so the resilience, that strength, we want that to come through for our future generations.  "With refinements made from the community's feedback, Cry of the Stolen People will represent Tokelau at next year's Festival of Pacific Arts and Culture in Hawai'i.

Sadly, Zac Mateo - a printmaker, collaborator and educator - died in November 2020.

Cry of the Stolen People (2021)

Cry of the Stolen People was shown at Whitireia Polytechnic  in Porirua, New Zealand, on 26 April 2021 after the Covid pandemic meant the work could not be shown at the 2020 Pacific Arts & Cultural Festival in Hawai'i.

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