In 1857, 51 Gilbertese (I-Kiribati) and 14 Solomon Islanders were spirited away from their homes. They were transported on the Sydney-based barque Sutton, and then sold as indentured sugar labourers on the French-owned island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean. When the scandal hit the shores of Sydney, the incident shifted from a global diplomatic dispute between the British and French empires to a local story, revealing the complexity of the colonial space where culpability was tied to local politics, class, and notions of nationality.
Post-abolition, Reunion was experiencing a boom in its sugar industry that it was struggling to exploit. A plan was hatched in Sydney between Franco-Australian trader, Didier Numa Joubert and Reunionese merchant, ‘Monsieur Chateau’, to supply hundreds of Pacific Island labourers to Reunion. The Reunionese administration approved the ‘immigration scheme’ provided that a delegate, endorsed by the consul of France at Sydney, was placed aboard the ship.
Sailing from Sydney on 8 June 1857 with Captain Joseph Wilson at her helm, the Sutton recruited in the Gilbert Islands where two white beachcombers, William Ferrier and William Meadows, were taken on board to act as interpreters. Pleading ignorance as to the Sutton’s final destination and asserting the ‘willingness’ of the Islanders to board the ship, Ferrier got them to sign recruitment contracts as the captain feared he would be accused of slave trading if stopped by a British man-of-war. The men were told that they would be extracting coconut oil on a neighbouring island.
The beachcombers then described two recruits who went mad when they realised that they were being taken away from their native country. They were tied up and kept below before being dumped on two different islands in the Solomons. John D’Allemagne, the (unofficial) French delegate, mentioned neither this incident, nor the presence of the interpreters, nor any details on how the men were recruited in his report. Instead he painted an idyllic colonial picture of happy recruits helping with the ship’s operation.
After recruiting in the Solomons, the Sutton eventually landed her human ‘cargo’ in Reunion on 31 October. The Islanders were sold for £40 each and engaged for five years. Wilson paid off the crew and sent them to Mauritius.
This incident may have passed unnoticed if a self-interested Ferrier had not petitioned William Stevenson, governor of Mauritius, six weeks later. Stevenson, in his haste to expose what looked like ‘French’ slavery, ordered an investigation. Deeming the incident to be the French government’s responsibility and accepting Ferrier’s assertion that the Gilbert Islands belonged to the British government (they did not), he despatched copies of the depositions and other documents to French, British and Australian government officials.
The acting governor of Reunion denied any illegality, claiming that D’Allemagne had been accredited in Sydney by the consul Louis Sentis. This was a lie but it proved useful for the French who, faced with rising tensions over British slavery allegations elsewhere, chose to maintain the fiction and deny all wrongdoing. And, as the British had eventually determined that the Gilberts and the Solomons were not under their sovereignty, there was nothing further they could do (after all, they were not ‘their’ natives).
Despite all of the British moralising, they ultimately did nothing. While the alleged kidnapping occurred on board a British ship with a British captain, it was decided that this was a French enterprise and therefore a French problem. The French then whitewashed the affair.
The archival documents illuminated what was, in effect, a geopolitical arm wrestle between two nations vying for control of the waves. While the British feigned concern for the ‘victims’ of this adventure, they did not ask the French authorities to release the Islanders from their contracts nor did they quiz the recruits on their version of events. The recruits were rendered voiceless and allocated a purely passive role in the proceedings. How better might we now understand the situation if these men had been permitted to speak for themselves?
Meanwhile, in Sydney, on 26 June 1858, the liberal daily newspaper the Empire broke the news of the alleged slave trading. It named Wilson and Joubert as the scoundrels behind the abduction of 65 Pacific Islanders.
Reactions from the public were both damning and dripping with racist discourses. Trader James Malcolm, for instance, called for Wilson’s hanging, accusing him of piracy and slaving and blaming him for the revenge attack on his schooner by ‘savage’ ‘cannibals’ in the Gilberts. Another correspondent complained that a British ship was used to transport ‘free labour’ to a French colony and that instead of sourcing the workers from a ‘French protectorate’, they had recruited Pacific Islanders who, they claimed, were unable to understand the contracts.
When analysed against the backdrop of the British anti-slaving laws, particularly those dependent upon nationality and ownership of vessels (British subjects were prohibited from trading in slaves as were British ships but, as of 1845, the British were not to interfere with French ships) and the need to prove that people were knowingly and willingly carried off specifically for use as slaves, the actions of all (white) parties involved in the affair reflect considerable cynicism. Stories seemed fashioned to circumvent these laws.
The Empire’s reports also shifted the focus from the diplomatic sphere to Sydney. The expedition had been organised by two ‘French’ merchants, one of whom (Joubert) was an influential figure who later became mayor of Sydney suburb, Hunters Hill. However Joubert, a naturalised Australian (i.e. British citizen), was conspicuous by his near absence in the archival documents that focused on the legitimacy of the operation in terms of French law and in which the roles of the ‘French’ actors were pushed to the fore. Yet, if the object of the voyage was to ‘procure’ labourers to sell to Reunionese planters, and if this had been sanctioned by the French, then it was very much a commercial enterprise undertaken for the profit of Australian-based individuals rather than the French government.
Joubert resorted to various ruses to dupe the British administrators. He misspelled his name in the charter party. He claimed to use the services of missionaries as go-betweens when he knew there were none in the Gilberts or the Solomons. He lied about the status of the delegate. And he used Chateau as a front to disguise his expedition as operating under the French flag.
But the liberal press was not so easy to fool. With the conservative daily Sydney Morning Herald weighing in on the debate, defending the wealthy shipowner and the consul and pointing the finger at the (lower class) captain and crew, the trial by media highlighted Joubert’s opportunistic identity smudging and exposed the simplistic Franco-British divide that framed the diplomatic correspondence. The press reports drew attention to the complexity and fluidity of the concept of ‘nationality’ within the ethnically/culturally heterogeneous colonial space and the extent to which ‘foreigners’ were either absorbed into the local or othered, depending on the agenda. The Empire repositioned the perspective to reveal a saga of Sydneysiders, members of the Establishment and the working class, who had seemingly engaged in slavery.
Despite the scandal, and despite the more sceptical press reaction, no one was held accountable for any criminal acts. At no point in either the official correspondence or the press coverage was there any suggestion of asking the Pacific Islanders what had happened. Why? Because the Sutton case was never about them. Instead, their plight served as a test case for diplomatic and legal wrangling over future exploitation in human trafficking that spanned two oceans and involved two colonial powers.
It would seem that the convoluted web of half-truths spun by all involved sufficed to obfuscate the real issue. Instead of focusing on the predicament of the kidnapped Islanders, the official discourse revolved around abstract questions of legality and national responsibility. In the Australian press, similar arguments were put forth, except the attention was more on local accountability and tied up with questions of class and nationality.
This glocal incident demonstrates the complex international networks at play in the colonial spaces of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Where one might expect imperial conflict, it instead shows cooperation between persons of French and British origin, residents of Sydney, who teamed up in order to exploit labour reserves in nearby Pacific Islands to provide a service, at a tidy profit, to the colonial planters of French Reunion, all the while carefully skirting British anti-slaving laws. As such, it can be seen as the first collaborative Franco-Australian foray into blackbirding.
For the full story, see: Karin Speedy, “The Sutton Case: the First Franco-Australian Foray into Blackbirding,” Journal of Pacific History 50, no. 3 (2015), 344-364.
 This post is based largely on archival documents in the National Archives in London (FO 27/1259, FO 27/1277A ) and in the Archives Diplomatiques in Paris (Correspondance Commerciale, Sydney, 1856–66, tome 3) as well as articles published in the Empire and the Sydney Morning Herald between 26 June 1858 and 6 September 1858. For full references see Speedy (2015).