The Stolen Island – Searching for ‘Ata, relates the untold story of a tiny Polynesian island near Tonga, whose history seems to have been forgotten, largely due to the booming slave trade in the 1800s that resulted in a tragic incident for the island’s inhabitants.
In 1863, an Australian-born whaler, who decided that the slave trade was more profitable then whaling, lured 144 ‘Atan men, woman and children onto his boat under false pretenses, only to sell them as slaves. No one knows exactly what happened to these people after they had been sold, but it is certain that they never made it back to their island home, ‘Ata. The Stolen Island relates how the author, Scott Hamilton, came across these stories of the now-deserted island and his journey in finding evidence to support the legends handed down through generations of story-telling among families and tribes.
I’m not sure what I was expecting from the book but it surprised me. We don’t have to go back too far in history to see slavery being practised all over the world, and yet somehow realising the extent of it in New Zealand and the Pacific which the The Stolen Island pointed out, shocked me. The story of the natives of ‘Ata being captured would have been saddening enough, but that, along with the other accounts of kidnappings and exploitation that Scott Hamilton outlines in his findings, made it all the more appalling. Many were tricked into signing contracts that gave them little or no remuneration for years of servitude and labour. Others were forced into hard labour, some even left to die on abandoned ships, and almost all had very little hope to ever making it back home.
While what happened on ‘Ata in 1863 is the main focus of the book there are many more interesting points relating to ‘Ata or slavery that the author notes and discusses which makes The Stolen Island that much more intriguing and well-rounded. The way he progressively relates his experiences made me feel like I was right there too, seeking out whatever information was linked to this mysterious island, and feeling a mix of eagerness, desperation, at times disappointment but also satisfaction.
Scott Hamilton did a commendable job of tackling this topic; clearly it was something that intrigued him and piecing the puzzle together satisfied much of his own curiosity about the island, but to put his journey and findings into a book means that people are able to know a bit more about the history of slavery in New Zealand and the Pacific, but also the history of a little uninhabited island between Tonga and New Zealand, ‘Ata.
Reviewed by Sarah Hayward
The Stolen Island – Searching for ‘Ata
by Scott Hamilton
Published by Bridget Williams Books