Admiral Albert Hastings Markham -continued

4 Dec

On his return to England in 1864, Markham passed the examinations to become a Lieutenant. He was assigned to HMS Victoria, the Mediterranean flagship – the Royal Navy had an extraordinary reach and size at this time – where he was to spend three interesting years. The posting gave him the opportunity to indulge his interest in countries and cultures and he was able to visit Turkey, Egypt, the Holy Land, Greece and the Aegean islands. 

In 1868  he was appointed First Lieutenant of HMS Blanche. Blanche was sent to the Australia Station. Her first assignment was in New Zealand where her Captain’s orders were to protect English settlements and the local colonial government against guerilla attacks led by local Maori leaders who had attacked the local militia and constabulary.   The visible presence of the Royal Navy was such that no action was  actually needed – the sight of warships had a markedly restraining effect on the rebels and was reassuring to those loyal to the crown. The Colonial Secretary expressed his sincere appreciation of the ship’s powerful message.

Whilst he was on this posting,  Markham submitted a design for the New Zealand national ensign – a royal blue background, a Union Jack and four pointed white stars surrounding four pointed red stars- signifying New Zealand’s place in the South Pacific. The submission was approved and the flag remains to this day..

Blanche  then sailed from New Zealand to the Solomon Islands following reports of an attack on an English vessel. The response was immediate. Markham was present when a party of sailors destroyed a local village and killed a chief. This response must have been a significant deterrent against further attacks.

In 1871, aged 30,  Markham was appointed temporary commander  of HMS Rosario. This was an important assignment. Markham’s  instructions were to investigate the alleged kidnapping of thousands of native peoples from the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) and the Solomon Islands and their transport to Australia.  Men were wanted for work on Australian plantations because after the American Civil War, the Union had blocked the activities of the cotton producing Southern States. This had led to an increase in the price of cotton and establishment of new cotton plantations, in this case in Australia. 

Robert Towns instigated this profitable practice of recruitment in conjunction with a local trader Henry Lewin, who organized a regular flow of workers. Soon other plantation owners saw the benefits of such a scheme and followed the practice.  These man profited greatly from the  trade which grew rapidly. Slavery had been abolished  throughout the Empire in 1833 and concerns grew as to whether the men were being  transported legally, or by prohibited methods. Humanitarian organizations were appalled at this possibility and Christian missionaries claimed that the trade was a form of slavery. A group of missionaries approached the Queensland authorities to demand an investigation into the activities; Queen Victoria herself successfully urged the British Parliament to pass a bill outlawing the kidnapping of men in the South Pacific.

Enter Albert Markham! He was ordered to board and inspect all ships flying the Union Jack to check if local people were being transported and if so, to check that the ships were acting within the law with regards to their transportation.  This was a most difficult and delicate assignment.  Markham knew well that the ships involved in the transport were often owned by men of great local influence who, moreover, were reaping big profits.   He knew that previous attempts at prosecution had been unsuccessful  –  when one transport ship had been confiscated, her crew were acquitted at the subsequent trial and the officer making the arrest was sent a bill for damages to the impounded ship. Markham decided to proceed with caution – rather than preemptive action, he would issue warnings to ships under suspicion (unless he intercepted a ship actually in the act of kidnapping).  He had to obey orders, but his Christian beliefs would have dictated that he acted in moderation.

In October 1872 Markham set out to consult with Bishop John Patteson about recent murders in the region. Sadly he  was informed that the Bishop (a man of sympathy and respect for the native communities), had been murdered on the island of Nukapu along with three of his companions,   The local missionaries urged Markham not to take revenge on the islanders but to concentrate on stamping out the terrible, illegal trade and he agreed. As Rosario  toured the Southern Islands on her way to Nukapu, suspicious ships were stopped and searched.

It transpired that the murder of the Bishop was an act of retaliation against the kidnapping of five Nukapu inhabitants by a visiting ship. It is thought that the men of Nukapu had decided to kill the first white man who came into their domain. This man was, unfortunately, the Bishop, who, along with his companions, suffered a terrible death.  

But these appalling murders served to strengthen the movement against illegal kidnapping. The bishop’s death highlighted the terrifying situation of the local peoples.

En route to Nukapu, Markham detoured to investigate an attack on a British ship that had been made by the inhabitants of another island, Nguna. The inhabitants had resisted an attempt to abduct their men as labourers.  Local missionaries informed Markham as to the villages that had taken part in the attack, an attack that injured the captain and mate. Rosario reached Nguna in November 1872. Here Markham stressed to his men the importance of not firing on the local people (as was emphasized in the subsequent enquiry).  He sent a message to the Chief asking to meet him, but receiving no reply, advanced, with his men into the island. As they reached the village, musket shots could be heard and the villages were rallied to resistance by the sound of concha shells being blown.  Attacks by the villagers continued (with no counter attack) and Markham eventually ordered that half the village should be destroyed. Subsequently he sent a message offering to meet the chief but again, receiving no reply, he ordered the destruction of the other half of the village. A second village involved in the attack was also destroyed. As Rosario sailed around the island Markham ordered that warning shots be fired at a beach, but again ordered that the shot should avoid the inhabitants

Rosario reached Nukapu some three weeks after this episode. Again, Markham stressed that there should be no firing on the local peoples. The British advance was met this time with repeated hails of arrows.  Markham decided to burn the village as he had done in Nguna, but sent warning shots beforehand to allow the villagers to escape and, it is thought, most did though some defiant men stood their ground, continuing  to loose off arrows. It is unknown as to whether there were casualties. No further information concerning  Bishop Patteson’s murder was obtained.

Markham was  then informed of the disappearance of a trading ship, The Wild Duck. Arriving at the village where the ship had last been seen, he ascertained that the crew had been killed and eaten by the villagers because they (the crew), had attempted to kidnap some of the locals. Remarkably, Markham  simply imposed a fine of twenty-five pigs. But when the fine was not paid, he repeated the punishment of setting fire to the village.

When Rosario returned to Australia after a tour of  sixteen weeks Markham had inspected sixteen ships who were transporting native people and were flying the Union Jack.

He retained his sympathy towards the islanders, concluding that they had a widespread distrust of traders in general and this resulted in attacks on local ships, not necessarily involved in transportation of labourers. He opined that many traders were kidnapping the islanders in a way that amounted to virtual slavery and that this activity was immoral. In his report he suggested that, as the trade was so widespread, it could only be curtailed by Royal Naval ships regularly visiting and inspecting the various islands.

He must have been unprepared for the criticism that followed. His actions in  Nguna and Nukapu were attacked in the press, particularly relating to his indiscriminate firing of guns. It was suggested that he had gone to Nukapa solely to avenge Bishop Patteson’s murder. He  was described as a vengeful bully. Missionaries joined in in some of the criticism –he should not have gone to the islands without an interpreter, but they resisted the concept that he had acted out of revenge and said he had always attempted to act with moderation towards the local people.

He was subjected to an Admiralty enquiry. During this ordeal he was supported by testamonials from his officers who stated that Markham’s orders had always been to fire at objects (trees, rocks), to avoid attacking the native people. The officers also stated that they could not confirm any local deaths.  

Markham finally was exonerated. The Admiralty eventually accepted, having heard all the evidence, that his actions had probably not resulted in  loss of life in Nguna or Nukapu

He had clearly been right to be wary of his brief from the start. He was placed in the difficult position of balancing justice with mercy. He was a representative of the British Crown – if there had been no retaliation against the attacks, the Union Jack’s authority would have been diminished, dismissed. The attacks would have continued. His actions were a powerful warning to the islanders against further violence.

He never returned to the Australia station. But his career was not irretrievably damaged by the enquiry. He was promoted to Commander. 


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