BlackbirdBy: David Crookes
Something was wrong.
There was no sign of life on the island’s pristine long white beach and no sound from the jungle beyond. Except for the tiny wavelets gently lapping against the shore, everything was absolutely still. The whole island seemed too silent to be real.
A ship’s boat splashed noisily into the sea. From his position at the rail of the brigantine Faithful, Captain Isaiah Cockburn looked on apprehensively as the oarsmen of the small craft dipped their blades into the crystal clear turquoise water of the anchorage.
Moments later a second boat, followed quickly by a third and fourth, pulled away from the vessel. When the small flotilla passed over the island’s fringing reef, the leading boat made directly for a coconut grove on the long white beach.
At Bougainville, Cockburn’s task had been easier. As soon as the Faithful arrived at the island, scores of friendly natives paddled out in canoes loaded with yams, fruit and shells. His crew had shown them brightly colored cloth, rolls of calico and knives, and indicated their willingness to trade.
When the eager islanders clambered aboard, crewmen led them down to the ship’s hold where all kinds of goods and trinkets were displayed for trade. Then the hold hatches were slammed shut and hastily locked, and yet another hapless group of Melanesians were destined to cut cane in Australia on the sugar plantations of the British Crown Colony of Queensland.
The captain drew a bulky silver timepiece from a waistcoat pocket and held it as close to his eyes as its restraining chain would allow. It was two minutes to noon and oppressively hot in the lee of the island which sheltered the Faithful from the persistent southeast trade wind blowing over the Solomon Sea.
Cockburn stretched his tall frame and cursed the heat. Even in July, the middle of the southern winter, the sun was merciless in the offshore islands of New Guinea. He put the timepiece away and raised a well polished brass telescope to an ageing but clear blue eye. Ever so slowly he scanned the entire length of the beach. Still there was no sign of life.
The captain shook his head. He had been expecting more.
Just three months earlier in April 1883, the self-governing colony of Queensland had assumed Imperial powers and annexed the eastern half of New Guinea, including these outlying islands, for the purpose of ensuring a plentiful supply of black labor for the colony.
The smell of stale sweat and molasses assailed Cockburn’s nostrils. Without taking his eyes off the ship boats, he knew Ned Higgins, the Queensland Government agent assigned to the Faithful, had finally awoken and found his way up to the deck.
Higgins joined Cockburn at the rail. He cleared his throat noisily, then lazily spat what he had gathered over the side of the ship.
Cockburn tolerated the repugnant drunk aboard his otherwise tightly run ship only because of the certainty of Higgins turning a blind eye to breaches of the regulations supposedly governing the labor trade, providing his appetite for rum and women was suitably satisfied.
Higgins pulled a flask from his coat pocket. He took a long swallow, then wiped his mouth with a dirty hand.
‘You’ll be sure to take aboard a Mary for me, won’t you Isaiah?’ The agent’s face broke into a near toothless grin. ‘Some say the Kanakas of these islands are the best looking of all the islanders of the Solomon Sea. There are no blue-blacks here Captain, like the savages of Bougainville. These people, I am told, are the color of creamed coffee and some of the females are uncommonly handsome.’
Cockburn turned an unappreciative eye to the little agent beside him. Higgins had neither washed nor shaved in the four days which had passed since the Faithful left Bougainville with three quarters of her licensed quota of living cargo—seventy five terrified and now halfstarved islanders, packed like sardines below decks in the brigantine’s stinking coal-black holds.
‘Yes Ned,’ Cockburn growled. ‘We’ll get you a Mary if we can, but as you can see, it looks as if this island is deserted.’
‘May I Captain?’ Higgins held out a bony hand.
Cockburn handed him the telescope. Higgins screwed up his ferret-like face and peered through the glass.
The boats were almost at the shore now. Higgins focused the lens on the first boat just as it reached the island. He watched as two figures in flowing robes and wide-brimmed hats stepped over the gunwales onto the sand. He laughed out loud ‘Got Bates the recruiter and Geddes the interpreter in missionary frocks eh! Isaiah? he said. ‘It’s an old trick but it usually works well when the savages are afraid to show themselves.’
Kiri crouched low in the undergrowth just a few yards behind the palm trees lining the beach and watched the white men pull their boats up onto the sand. The villagers had first seen the brigantine at dawn when she appeared on the horizon to the south. They had ample time to plan for the arrival of the ship while she nosed her way slowly up the shore-line, carefully avoiding the profusion of coral heads close in to the island.