Islanders, Natives and Cannibals: Making Headlines Back Home

Islanders, Natives and Cannibals

When approaching Australasian news in the Scottish press, there are three main categories: economic trends, the rise of civilised society, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the horrific deeds of blood-thirsty savages.

In fairness, the final two categories speak of the successful civilising of the native inhabitants as often as they do the barbarous nature of transported Europeans. Yet, the tales of adventure and misfortune surrounding cross-cultural encounters have produced an interesting editorial twist.

Take for example the account of Captain Fowler, master of the Indian Brig Matilda. He had sailed from Sydney in August 1813 with a mixed crew of European sailors and Indian Lascars, six of whom (five in initial accounts) were said to have absconded. Although Samuel Fowler was a notoriously optimistic individual when it came to Britain’s civilizing mission, the account of his journey in the Sydney Gazette was hardly so.

According to a November issue, the deserters, having apparently joined forces with the local inhabitants:

took the opportunity of a dark night, and the wind blowing fresh right on the land, to cut the vessel adrift; by which means she drove ashore through a heavy surf, and was soon bilged and filled with water –When the cannibal natives saw that it was impracticable to get the vessel afloat, they concurred universally in the design of putting the whole of her crew to death, which appears to have been a constant practise among the different islanders towards one another.

Fortunately for the Capitan, and at least a part of his crew, their lives were saved by what the Gazette refers to as the king of local tribes. Having previously developed a friendship with Fowler, ‘he withheld his assent to the murder’ though, the Gazette adds, he ‘had no hesitation in permitting the plunder of the vessel.’ When the king sent forth this proclamation, however, he ‘was opposed by many other chiefs, who, though somewhat inferior in rank, were very far superior in number, supported by the common usages of the island, from which the exhibition of clemency appeared an insufferable deviation.’

When it became clear that he could not reason with his fellow islanders:

he deliberately took up two ropes that were near him, and fixing one round the neck of his son, and the other round his own, called to the chief next in command, who immediately approached him. His conference was short and decisive: he first pointed to the cord that encircled the neck of his son, and then to the other which he had entwined around his own. “These strangers are doomed to death,” said he, “by my chiefs and my people: and it is not fit that I, who am their King, should live to see so vile a deed perpetrated. Let my child and myself be strangled before it is performed and then it never will be said that we sanctioned, even with our eye-sight, the destruction of these unoffending people.”

The magnanimity of such a conduct could not do less than produce, even in the mind of the unenlightened savage, a paroxysm of surprise, mingled with a sentiment of admiration in which the untaught man may possibly excel his fellow creature – whose conceptions are moulded by tenets calculated to guard him from the extremes of passion. For a moment the people looked wildly upon their King, whose person they adored, because that his principles were good, and his government just and mild. They saw the obedient chief, to whom the order of strangulation had been imparted, staring with horror and amazement at the change which a few moments had produced: The mandate that had proceeds from the King’s own lips must be obeyed: and, commanded to perform the dreadful office, he proceeded to obey when a sudden shout from the multitude awed him to forbearance. “The King! The King!” from every lip burst forth: -‘What! kill the King! No, no, let all the strangers live: no man shall kill the King!”

Thus, the lives of Fowler and his men were spared.

What is curious about this story is the path it took in British Imperial press. The piece first appeared in the Gazette in November 1815 and was then slowly transmitted back to Britain, appearing in the London Courier and the Caledonian Mercury during the first week of January 1817. It is not entirely clear from the typography if the Mercury received the news directly or if it retrieved it from the Courier; however, at some point on its transoceanic voyage two important changes were made.

The first, rather innocuously, was the change of the word islanders to natives in both British versions of the text. The word natives (as well as cannibals) had been used by the Gazette in various parts of the article, but this initial alteration made its use consistent throughout the text. The implication of this change can perhaps be overstated, but is curious nonetheless. The other, appearing first in the Mercury is more notable.

While the Gazette included no headline to the piece (as was typical of its accounts) the Mercury chose to use ‘ANOTHER DREADFUL MASSACRE BY THE NATIVE OF THE MAHQUESAS ISLANDS.’ The typographical error of ‘native’ rather than ‘natives’ notwithstanding, the headline certainly puts a very particular spin on the account.

This is not to say that the harrowing portrayal was entirely the Mercury‘s doing. Indeed, Fowler’s normally approving opinion of Pacific Islanders, and their suitability for Christian civilisation, was somewhat overruled by the Gazette’s editor, who  instead of concluding his commentary with Fowler’s eventual return to the friendly Port Anna Maria, ended his report with the views of an unnamed missionary who described the local inhabitants not as eager traders, as Fowler had, but as a ‘people constantly studying their thoughts on plunder, and devising schemes for taking advantage of strangers.’

Nonetheless, the Mercury‘s addition did not sit well with everyone. The American versions of the piece utilised the less emotive headline of ‘From the London Courier, Jan. 2′ and The Percy Anecdotes, a literary digest printed in 1822, chose the headline ‘Magnanimity of a Savage King.’ In Scotland itself, the inflammatory nature of the headline was equally unsuitable for the church-minded Aberdeen Journal, who reduced it to ‘DREADFUL MASSACRE BY THE NATIVES OF THE MAHQUESAS ISLANDS’, correcting the typographical error and removing the suggestion that this was but one in a long line of brutal acts of cannibalism. That did not, of course, prevent them from concluding the piece with the Gazette’s  direct account of the savage act:

A native man belonging to Port Anna Maria, who was not tattooed, and in consequence prohibited from the eating of human flesh, on pain of death, impatient of the restraint, fell upon one of the murdered bodies, and darting his teeth into it in all the madness of a voracious fury, exhaled the crimson moisture, which had not yet coagulated.

 *Image Courtesy of Wikipedia

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