Pacific Redemption Songs

Te Hau

“Te Hau” by Abby Wendy

A few years ago I was reasoning with members of Ras Messengers, a reggae-jazz band who had in 1979 toured Aotearoa New Zealand. The Rastafari musicians recollected their experiences with various Māori communities. Occasionally female Māori elders (kuia), in introducing themselves to the band, would connect their genealogies back to Africa. The kuia did this as part of an indigenous practice called whakapapa, which literally means to “make ground”. It is a practice that allows diverse peoples who might never have met to find a genealogical route through which they are already personally related.

Chauncey Huntley from Ras Messengers showing the Rakau (traditional sticks) that he was gifted thirty years previously

Rastafari also have a practice called “grounding”, which is to collectively reason on the meaning and challenges of contemporary life. Over– or inner- standing (instead of under- standing) is cultivated through the guidance of natural laws and – often with the help of drums, fire and holy herb – the intuition provided by spiritual agencies (Irits) that allows ones to pierce the veil of deathly inequality, oppression and dehumanization so as to redeem living energies and relationships that might help with healing in the present. When I think of Irits I also think of a key concept of Māori cosmology called hau. Overstood by Māori Marsdenhau is the breath or wind of spirit which is infused into the process of birth to animate life and associated with the intention to bind peoples together in righteous living.

A key stone of the Rastafari faith is that adherents collectively redeem their African genealogy so as to breathe life back into their suffering condition and leave behind the death of enslavement and its contemporary legacies. So when I heard of this story of the kuia and Ras Messengers, I imagined how this practice might have given strength to the Ras. After all, in those days (and perhaps still today), peoples of various African heritages were often forced (directly or indirectly) to disavow those connections themselves.

Whakapapa is an art practised collectively. Yet it is not free play, nor is it the manufacturing of fiction. It is a creative retrieval. It could even be a redemptive act.

Keskidee 13

Keskidee perform in New Zealand

This was certainly the intention of those who organized the tour of Ras Messengers alongisde the Black British theatre group, Keskidee (the name of a Guianese bird known for its resilience). The organizers were a group of New Zealand activists that came together under the banner Keskidee Aroha (Aroha being the Māori word for love, sympathy, nurturing affection etc). Their intention was to learn from and work with the artistic tropes of Black Power and Rastafari so as to catalyse a cultural revolution and renaissance amongst young Māori and Pasifika peoples thereby strengthening them in their confrontation with a racist post-settler society.


Tigilau Ness, one of the organizers, an activist, poet and musician, envisaged this redemptive relationship between the African Diaspora and indigenous peoples of the Pacific in terms of whakapapa/ grounding.

This is it:

keskidee tigi

Colonial mentality can abide no re-personalisation of peoples who have been dehumanized. It certainly cannot abide any prospect of (post)colonized peoples grounding with each other without the permission and supervision of the master. Tigilau’s vision, then, is subversive to the extreme.

Grounding/whakapapa pierces the veil of ignorance that constitutes colonial mentality. Grounding/whakapapa is prophetic in its uncanny ability to reconnect relationships that have been intentionally forgotten, silenced, ripped up, extinguished, burnt and buried by colonial narratives. Sometimes those who ground do not know quite what they will redeem, but simply know that they must redeem something. Ancestors and spiritual agencies weave threads of the past into persons so that they can tug and be tugged to enable a new patterning of the present. Relationships rendered unspeakable, un-reasonable, non-sensical by the colonial veil of ignorance have new life breathed into them as they are made eminently reasonable and fruitful to pursue.

What relationships were the kuia, Ras Messengers and Keskidee Aroha retrieving and redeeming in the Pacific? What Irits are circulating beyond the veil? What redemption songs await the breath of re-birth?


To address these questions I will use research garnered mainly from archives, interviews and old books. However, I will start by exposing the colonial mentality that dehumanizes living peoples and turns them into things and commodities. In service of this imaginary, peoples would be forced to uproot and travel oceans, enriching a particular interest by the sweat of their brow and at the expense of their life energies.

Family in Dusky Bay New Zealand

In 1769 Thomas Forrest, an English navigator employed by the East Indian Company, wrote a pamphlet addressing the prospect of war against Spain in South America. Concerned with providing a base for supplies in the broader region, Forrest suggested that a good location might be found at Dusky Bay in the extreme South West of the South Island of Aotearoa NZ. At Bancoolen in Sumatra, noted Forrest, “the Company has got a super abundance of Caffre slaves, who speak the Malay tongue, may speak English, and are familiarized to our manners and customs.” Forrest suggested that some of the enslaved could be sent to far-off Dusky Bay, there to live free but on condition of supplying the English navy with agricultural products such as legumes, wildfowl and fish.

Bencoolen - English Fort and Plantation

Bencoolen/Benkulen – English Fort and Plantation

Caffre (Kofra, Kafir) originates from the Arabic for infidel with a specific focus on non-Muslim Africans. At an early date the term was spread by Portuguese across the Indian Ocean to primarily denote enslaved Africans. By the late seventeenth century the East India Company were using “Caffrey” to refer to enslaved Africans (while enslaved Hindus were referred to as Gentues).

At Bancoolen (Benkulen) the Company operated a fort and, following its general policy for the Indian Ocean region, had established a pepper plantation. Indeed, as early as 1704 a Caribbean planter by the name of Nathaniel Cox travelled to Benkulen in order to introduce sugar canes. Enslaved Africans from or routed through Madagascar as well as other Africans forcibly routed through St Helena and Madras all worked the plantation, built the fort and even guarded the outpost. In this endeavour, the Company learnt from fellow Portuguese and Dutch colonizers in an enterprise of enslavement and dispossession that would circumnavigate the world from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

As Epeli Hau’ofa says, this is a “sea of islands” not an empty ocean

From an early period of European entry into the Pacific there is evidence of the co-presence of Africans, often – but not always – enslaved. In his 1767 account of earlier Pacific voyages Alexander Dalrymple relates an encounter in the late 1500s between Spaniards and peoples of the Marquesas Islands who, when “seeing a negro with the Spaniards, made signs toward the south, that there were such”. In rehearsing the long presence of slavers in Oceania, Thomas Dunbabin recounts a meeting in New Guinea at the turn of the sixteenth century between Spanish sailors and a Moor who bore the Spanish mark of enslavement – an S branded on the cheek. The Moor had been captured by Christians at the Battle of Lepanto, taken to Seville, sold and transported to Manila where he then stole a boat and headed south. 

The British also entered the region in similar fashion when, in the late 1500s, Francis Drake left on an island near Sulawesi “two negro men and a woman whom he had carried off from the Spanish settlements on the west coast of America”. The idea, according to Drake’s nephew, was pre-emptive of Thomas Forrest’s design almost 200 years later – to form a colony of Africans that could feed English sojourners.


But perhaps the first imperial project by the British to be successfully undertaken in the Pacific was William Bligh’s transportation and transplantation of breadfruit from Tahiti into Britain’s slave plantation economies. Bligh’s infamous missions were in large part funded by the Caribbean plantocracy. Able to grow on marginal land, and yielding a high calorific crop, breadfruit was the planters’ answer to the growing abolitionist calls for “humane” treatment of the enslaved.

This project introduced tenuous but long standing imperial connections between the Caribbean and Pacific islands. For example, seventy five years after the mutiny on the Bounty, Edward Eyre, an ex-Lieutenant Governor of New Munster Province in Aotearoa New Zealand, would preside as Governor over the massacre that followed the Morant Bay uprising in Jamaica 1865.

Adventuring in the Pacific by the United States merchant and military navy reveals similar tales to that of the British.  Around 1809, Captain Brown sailed out of Boston with an intention to annex one of the Mariana Islands from Spain and build a colony. Among the men Brown deposited on Saipan (the island that he had landed upon due to poor navigation) were “a couple of negroes”. Brown’s motley crew were eventually taken by the Spanish to Guam and subsequently deported to Hawai’i.

There, in Honolulu, a Black community was in existence by as early as 1833, and almost half of the whalers in the docks were Africans from the Americas. Most likely they were a combination of freed, indentured and enslaved. Regardless, they ultimately attracted a Klu Klux Klan branch. By the second half of the nineteenth century more Africans from the United States and the Caribbean were travelling the islands of Oceania with some even participating in the Australian gold rush. Those who took part in that rush might perhaps have met the approximately 150 Africans from the British Caribbean who were forcibly deported to New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) between 1821 and 1837.

African American Whalers Hawaii

African American Whalers out of Hawai’i

Yet it was not always the case that Africans were powerless in these regional dramas. For example, in 1849 at Nukulau, New Caledonia, a US consular agent and an English sea slug trader named Fitzgerald left twenty Fijians workers under the command of an “American man of colour” whilst they sojourned in Fiji and Sydney, New South Wales. And on one occasion an African American operated as recruitment agent for a schooner, built in Auckland, New Zealand, that was used for “blackbirding”, the colloquial phrase for the Pacific slave-trade.

It is important to note, in this respect, that the civil war in the United States created openings for “entrepreneurs” in the cotton and sugar markets who proceeded to open up plantations in Fiji and Queensland. Former planters from Jamaica, Guiana and St Kitts settled around Brisbane.

Kanaka - Pasifika peoples - on a plantation in Queensland, late 1800s

Kanaka – Pasifika peoples – on a plantation in Queensland, late 1800s

This time, though, the captive plantation labour force were not “negroes” but “kanakas”, that is, indigenous peoples of the Pacific and especially those who Europeans defined as Melanesian – i.e. the more “negroid” in character as opposed to the more “Asiatic” Polynesian. Was it perhaps the case that, in this Pacific juncture, the epithet “nigger” was used more for Kanakas than for African Americans?

Columbo Plan students in NZ

With this wider drama sketched out, I will now focus upon the African presence in Aotearoa New Zealand. Before increased immigration in the 1990s, a small number of African students arrived in the 1960s through the Columbo Plan. Before that, African Americans, as part of the US forces, were stationed in Aotearoa NZ (with a base at Paikakariki) during the latter years of World War Two. On the eve of World War One the New Zealand census counts ninety five “negroes”, six Abyssinians and two Egyptians. However, the African presence, despite its paucity relative to indigenous and settler populations, is not peripheral to received histories of the settler colony but can be identified in some of the key episodes of European colonization…and in the indigneous struggle against colonization.

Captain Cook brought two African “servants” on board his first voyage to the Pacific who did not survive past Cape Horn. But for his second voyage Cook was accompanied by Tobias Furneaux with his ship, the Adventure. James Swilley, the “Captn’s Man” of this vessel was an African. When anchored in Charlotte Sound, Swilley apparently caught a Māori in the act of theft and beat him. Later the crew found Swilley’s cooked body on an adjacent beach.

Another key moment occurred in 1839 when agents of the New Zealand Company sailed from London on board the Tory, intent on undertaking the first systematic colonization of the islands. En route to Port Nicholson (present day Wellington) the ship stopped at Queen Charlotte Sound, there picking up an English whaler, Dicky Barrett along with his charge, “a powerful negro who had escaped from an American ship, and went by the name of Sippy or Scipio”. Barrett, presumably with Scipio in tow, would subsequently help to negotiate the occupation of land that would ultimately become the colony capital.

The name Scipio strongly suggests in the United States context, the legal status of slave. And Scipio’s story demonstrates a common practice in the Pacific amongst Africans working in commercial ventures (often whaling) of jumping ship upon landfall and taking their chances inland with indigenous inhabitants. Indeed, as far back as 1772 (in between Cook’s two voyages) Marion du Fresne embarked on a trading and exploration voyage of Oceania. Anchoring in Aotearoa New Zealand at the Bay of Islands a “negro belonging to Marion” deserted the ship.

Tapsell and Māori wife

The most documented incidence of African landfall in Aotearoa NZ, albeit not desertion but capture, occurred in 1831 at Whanganui. At this river estuary, Joe Rowe, a Kapiti based trader in dried human heads arrived in a whaling boat and promptly came into conflict with local Māori. The contention was most probably due to the fact that some of the heads that Rowe carried were rangatira (chiefs) from Taupo whom the Māori at Whanganui were genealogically connected to. Rowe and his crew were killed except for a white man, Andrew Powers, and “a negro … who, being a man of colour, was spared”. According to T.W. Downes, Powers was subsequently taken to Taupo while “the black man went in a different direction and was lost sight of.” At Taupo, Powers was bartered for by a Danish trader called Hans Homman Felk, popularly known as Philip Tapsell, a resident of Maketu (a small village in the Bay of Plenty).

A couple of books focusing on Tapsell’s life pick up on this story.


It seems that in fact Rowe’s black sailor had also been taken to chief Te Heuheu Tukino in Taupo. In James Cowan’s narrative, this sailor is identified as “an American negro” also called (perhaps after his white slaveholder?) “Powers”. Tapsell bartered for the white and black Powers, as well as a captive Lascar. While resident in Maketu, Tapsell utilized the black Powers as a “special messenger”. After some time, both of the Powers departed on a ship arriving from Sydney.

Yet there is one more chapter to this story. Another schooner arriving from Sydney in 1840 with merchandise for Tapsell was beached in a storm at Maketu. On board was a “black cook, a big Jamaican man”. Was this Jamaican one of those 150 previously deported to New South Wales from the Caribbean for their “riotous” (resistant) behaviour? In any case, all crew were saved. And we will return to the fate of this Jamaican towards the end of the blog.

These are not isolated stories; the African presence peppers the nineteenth century historical landscape of Aotearoa NZ. For example, in Edward Crewe’s narration of his time in Auckland during the early 1850s he records a story told to him on Queen Street of a canoe accident in the nearby area. The only sober passenger, “a black fellow – a nigger”, drowned, and in suffering this fate the “African” had been “washed white”.

John Thomson’s narrative of gold panning in the Tuapeka goldfield in Otago on the South Island reveals more African presence. Edward Peters – otherwise known as “Black Peter” – was an Indian gold prospector from Bombay who had spent time in California before discovering the first workable gold field in Otago in 1858. Joining Black Peter alongside Thomson that year was a “big American negro who had been cook on board the Strathfieldsaye”, a ship that had arrived from Glasgow via London. This team, consisting of an Indian, an African-American and a Pākehā, seem to have been instrumental to the inauguration of the gold rush in Otago.


There also exists a certain casual racism to the recording of such African arrivants. A sketch of “George”, a crew member of the Duke of Portland arriving in Lyttelton, Christchurch in 1851 from London, is accompanied by the aliases of “jumbo, sambo, snowball darkie, blackie, cootes”.

One account book of the 1870s, held by Messr’s Jones and Morrison of Greymouth, randomly contains un-titled but racially stereotypical sketches of a Chinese and African man. And these records prompt us to consider how Europeans gleaned the relationship between the indigenous peoples of Oceania and Africans through the two key colonial-racial lens of complexion and culture.

casual racism

Commentaries from European sojourners in the 1830s often placed Māori on a spectrum of complexion between white (European) and black (African). For example, Richard Hodgskin noted the variance of Māori colour, but pointed out that “none approach the Negro hue.” In fact, “owing to their being so dirty … they appear much darker than they really are”. Hodgskin’s racial comparison was made in the presence of both Māori and Africans: “we had a black seaman on board, and many jests they indulged in at darkey’s expense.”

Similarly, Ernest Dieffenbach opined that “they call themselves Maori, which means indigenous … in opposition to pakea, which means a stranger, or pakea mango mango, a very black stranger, a negro.” Perhaps at some point Māori mobilized this term to refer to specific Pasifika peoples (including Australians). But Europeans, working with at least a century of racial discourse concerning Atlantic slavery, had already conjoined black, savage and African. And to this black end of the spectrum of civilization they easily melded the “negroid” indigenous peoples of Oceania. Hence, Joel Polack could with common sense translate “munga munga” as “an African”. However, on occassion Māori would also utilise this identification but for anti-colonial purposes. We shall return to this point.

Moreover, the cultural capacity of Māori was also adjudicated by European sojourners through the framing of Africans/blacks as either slaves or children. William Swainson judged Māori as having “nothing of the gentle, loving nature, the affectionate disposition, and the child-like docility of the negro race”. From a 1814-1815 voyage, John Nicholas focused on the existence of “the detestable trade in human flesh” amongst Māori. And, acknowledging that “civilized Europe” had only recently determined to abolish the trade, he was unsurprised that “cannibals should be insensible to its injustice”. Polack judged Māori culture through the same grammar, if less harshly: “a slave or taurekareka has not the miserable being the British public are inclined to think is inseparable from the Africans bearing that term in our colonies.”

These musings were often embedded in a crudely racialized global demographic history. Nicholas suggested that Māori originated from Asia (which has some truth to it in terms of cultural genealogies) but that in moving to the Pacific islands they “degenerate[ed] into barbarism, from a high state of civilization, the consequence most probably of their seclusion from the continent”.

Polynesian Hair Melanesian Features

Similarly, Dieffenbach commented at length on the blending of Negroid, Malayan and other races; while in Sketches in New Zealand W. Tyrone Power suggested that most Māori were “Asiatic” yet “betray evident marks of a Negro extraction”. Back in England an amateur Egyptologist, Gerald Massey, was making a similar claim but as part of a global narrative that attributed the origin of human civilization to Africa, transmitted through Egypt. Through a comparison with Egyptian language and cosmology, Massey determined that Māori culture had African origins.

While I prefer Massey’s narrative to that of other European “scientists”, I still have some discomfort with a counter narrative of civilizational diffusion that might  replicate the straight line of discovery/conquest treasured by European imperial lore, even if shifting the originating point to Egypt. I would prefer to say that relationships are not straight lines and that both entities in a relationship are co-creative of it. After all, I began by defining whakapapa – the making of a ground for relating – as a creative and collective art. Hence, all peoples must be acknowledged as creators of their own pasts and presents even as they are woven and weave themselves into a broader human fabric in the process. Without this acknowledgment there is no ground for redemption. The breath of sacred life (hau ora) would not circulate. The Irits would not reveal anything. And with these thoughts in mind, I will finish by redeeming this circulation of African, Māori and Pasifika hau and Irits, peoples and stories, as a tidal force for social justice.

A few years ago I was lucky enough to have some reasoning sessions with a key figure in indigenous documentary film making in Aotearoa NZ and worldwide. This person had been part of Ngā Tamatoa, a young Māori activist movement of the 1970s. She helped document a number of cases where the Māori struggle interacted with the African struggle. And she helped to document the 1979 tour with the Ras Messengers that I started this blog post with. I asked this documentary film maker where she had received her sense of social justice from. And she started by talking about her father.

Louis Armstrong in Hamilton

She explained that, during his day, black men – especially African Americans – were heroes to many Māori men. Her father and his friends adored Joe Lewis; they would sing the lines of black vocalists rather than their white dualists; and her father once drove them through the night so that they could see Louis Armstrong perform in Hamilton in 1963. In her later years this film maker realised that whilst her father was not explicitly political he was nevertheless attempting to demonstrate to her that it was not just white people who could possess world-class skills and perform notable feats.

I asked her where she thought her father got his sense of social justice from. She replied, “no idea”. But then she spoke of a treasured ancestor in her whakapapa – her personal genealogy. His name was Tame Haika, which literally translates as Tommy Anchor. This black man had been caught in a storm and forced to jump ship. He had been found by my friend’s  iwi (tribe), who had taken care of him and eventually arranged his inter-marriage. The film maker told me that, when she was growing up, elderly Māori called her family “the niggers of Maketu”. Yet this name “was whispered in awe more than as an insult”.


Ras Sam Brown

Listen to Ras Sam Brown, a famous Rastafari elder, reasoning in 1990s Jamaica: “Australia, New Zealand, the island of the East, all those lands, the lands of the Long White Cloud, all those lands are African lands. When we shall free Africa from cape to Cairo and from Timbuktu to the Nile, our job is not yet finished, for we shall free the sub-continent of Australia, and we shall free all the lands of the Pacific that bear the pigmentation of Black Humanity.”

King Tāwhiao of the Kīngitanga

Listen now to the propagandists of the Kīngitanga movement locked in deadly struggle with the British colonial army and reasoning in 1860s Aotearoa about the instructive example of the Haitian Revolution: “Let the rūnanga (council) work quietly; wait a little and perhaps the rangatiratanga (chieftenship) of that island [Aotearoa] will be like that of Haiti: possessing property, mana (authority), law, because we aspire to right side. Perhaps God will protect his black skinned children who are living in Aotearoa.

How is it that peoples living on islands that are on the other side of the earth can know and feel so much about each-other?

They cultivate this overstanding by making a ground, reaching out to the Irits, and breathing life (hau) back into existing relationships. Through this practice they retrieve a solid reality for the healing of the nations from the illness of colonial mentality. Can you hear their songs?


One thought on “Pacific Redemption Songs

  1. Such interesting stuff! There is now much literature about “Black Atlantic” and similar histories that cover the structures and processes of interaction among the Americas, Europe, and West Africa since the early modern period, but “Black Pacific” remains a known unknown – at least for me. But i will note that Pacific history includes some very creative understandings of blackness propagated by European “scientists” – The Aryan Māori come to mind – that have no equivalent in the Atlantic. James Belich has a quick, and recently updated overview here: ‘European ideas about Māori ‘, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 13-Jul-12, (I always wondered about how Belich’s work was received among Māori historians).


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