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The Peruvian Slave Trade of 1862-1864 had a devastating effect on Easter Island. It decimated the population and destroyed the culture. Ultimately all that remained was the ruins of a civilisation

The first labour ship to call at Easter Island was the barque Serpiente Marina on 23 October 1862, en route to Mangareva, but she made no effort to recruit on Easter Island. Early in October 1862 however, the Bella Margarita and Eliza Mason sailed from Callao to try out the islands potential as a source of labour. The brig Bella Margarita returned to Callao on 24th November, after what must have been a remarkably short stay off the island, with 154 immigrants (142 men and 12 women), who were sold at an average price of $300 as labourers or servants.  Within a fortnight a fleet of no fewer than eight ships had left for Easter Island with the intention of obtaining colonists on a more systematic basis. 

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The eight ships in what we have called 'the fleet', since they acted in concert in their operations at Easter Island, comprised the Spanish barque Rosa y Carmen, the smaller Peruvian barques Rosa Patricia and Carolina, two Peruvian brigs, the Guillermo and Micaela Miranda; and three Peruvian schooners, the Jose Castro, Hermosa Dolores and Cora.

Leaving Callao together on 5th-7th December, with the small and slow 88-ton Cora sailing a few days earlier and the Micaela Miranda two days later, they had with one exception assembled off Easter Island by the 22nd. Early arrivals had made some desultory efforts to recruit, both ashore and by attempting to attract islanders to come aboard, but without much success.

On the night of the 22nd, therefore, a meeting of captains was held at which it was decided to initiate a combined expedition comprising armed crews from each of the ships, under the command of the Spanish Captain Marutani of the three-masted, 400-ton, clipper-built barque Rosa y Carmen, which was recognised as the flagship. The scheme agreed upon was to round up as many of the islanders as possible and take them to the Rosa y Carmen, where they would be divided between the participants in proportion to the number from each vessel taking part in the exercise.

The expeditionary force of about eighty assembled on the beach at Hangaroa at 7.30 a.m. the following morning, where the men were addressed by the Rosa's captain, who explained the plan of campaign. Most of the force were then dispersed to wander about as inconspicuously as possible in the neighbourhood of the beach area, where Marutani and the other captains were helping seamen detailed to spread out a selection of trinkets, such as necklaces, mirrors and other knick-knacks. Incited by curiosity and desire, about 500 islanders began to gather around this display: 'most on their knees examining the trade goods'.

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As arranged beforehand Captain Marutani then fired his revolver in the air, whereupon the armed crews followed suit with a simultaneous volley. Although orders had been given to fire above everyone and not to aim at anybody except in self-defence, the confusion which arose was such that some of thee sailors lost their heads and, fearing an attack, killed at least ten of the islanders.

The rest of the crowd filed in all directions, shouting and screaming: some threw themselves into the sea while others clambered up on the rocks and tried to hide as best they could, at the same time a large number were caught and securely tied by the sailors who, leaving the beach, combed the area for any still in concealment. A witness describes how the captain of the Cora, seeing two natives hidden in a small gully, called to them to come out (in Spanish coupled with gesticulations), and when this only made them climb farther up the ravine brought them down with a couple of shots, leaving them supposedly dead.

Over 200 'Indians' had been netted by the posse from the eight ships and these were taken, bound hand and foot, to the Rosa y Carmen: 'the air resounding with their cries and lamentations'. The following day they were divided up among the ships as already agreed upon.

It had been decided that the captives, together with others who had come aboard some of the ships to trade, should be transferred to the barque Carolina and the schooner Hermosa Dolores for conveyance to Callao, as the rest of the fleet proposed to sail to Rapa for water and thence to the western Polynesian groups for further recruits. Before they were rowed over in the ships' boats, however, they were labelled or stamped with their owner's mark. In the case of the Gullermo this identification was a large cloth collar on which was written the name of the other vessels apparently preferred a distinctive marking tattooed on the forehead.

As the six ships expected to be away for some time it was obviously unprofitable to keep many of the prisoners on board except for some good reason: perhaps a promising youth to help with the less skilled shipboard chores, or a girl or two for the officers and crew. The Cora, for example, sent twenty-two but kept a boy Manuragui to help in the galley, the Guillermo sent twenty-five but kept a child aged six and an old woman, who was later thrown overboard by the supercargo as too aged to sell; the Jose Castro, which turned back at Rapa, had twenty-one Easter islanders on board when she returned to Callao, via Easter, but these were probably all procured on her second visit; the Rosa y Carmen sent sixty-five and for some reason seems to have kept no fewer than sixty-three; the Micaela Miranda sent twenty-eight and apparently kept one; while the Rosa Patricia sent forty-five and kept none. 

Easter Island Map

Click on the above Map for a detailed Map of Easter Island

An attempt to repeat the December raids was made about the 14th March 1863 by the Jose Castro, assisted, it seems probable, by the Carolina. The March raid was but a pale shadow of the December venture and when the Carolina returns to Callao on the 1st April and the Jose Castro on the 21st April, they have succeeded in collecting a mere 73 (72 men and a woman) and 21 (18 men and 3 women). There were only two further shipments, for on the 28th April, the Peruvian Minister for the Home Department suspended all licenses and required special permission before any crew or passenger on labour ships could be allowed to disembark, which would only be granted on the production of satisfactory proof that the recruits had been voluntarily contracted and that no crimes had been committed during the voyage.

A grand total of all islanders taken from Easter Island amounted to 1,407, or 34 per cent of the estimated population of the island. 

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Easter Island is a special and unique case, because it is the only completely unevangelized Polynesian Island visited by the Peruvian vessels; and its culture was virtually, is not wholly intact. With the removal of the hereditary high chiefs and community leaders, the social, economic and political system collapsed and chaos ensured, since unlike the other Polynesian islands, they had no respected expatriate missionary, pastor or teacher who could enforce community standards and impose sanctions.

On Easter Island the true character of the Peruvian labour trade was not finally realised until the repatriation of the survivors from the Barbara Gomez in September 1863. Nearly 35 per cent of the population had been taken to Peru, and although fifteen returned, they brought with them smallpox which killed off, at the best estimate, a further 1,000: this meant that the population declined between 1862 and 1864 was somewhere in the region of 57 per cent, a percentage exceeded only by Nukulaelae, Tongareva and Rapa.

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Pakomio Maori, who returned to Easter Island.
In 1886 he was the last survivor of the Peruvian Slave Trade.

The old social order of Easter Island had been entirely destroyed. The Peruvian slave traders had taken to the Guano Islands on the Peruvian coast not only the King with many members of his family but a considerable number of learned men (Maori). This catastrophe, disrupting the traditional mode of living created a state of anarchy and confusion. This coupled with the academic of smallpox introduced by a few kidnapped men who returned to their island, decimated the population and struck the last blow to native culture. When the missionaries arrived in 1864, they were surprised to meet such complete ignorance of the past, such rudimentary forms of religion, and such disintegration of social organization.

They found only the ruins of a civilisation.     

When the first missionary Brother Eugene Eyraud, arrived in 1864, it was into this archaic situation, and one would expect he had a difficult time. When Eyraud left nine months later, he had been stripped of his goods, his clothing and his dignity. It was only after the arrival of more experienced priests two years later that island society was gradually reconstructed along lines approved, and often devised by the Catholic church. By 1868, the last Easter Islander had embraced Christianity.

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Although Maurata, the last "King"of Easter Island, had died in Peru, when the Cora was captured at Rapa, a six year old boy called Manuragui was discovered on board and cared for by the Catholic Fathers in Tahiti. Distinguished by his intelligence and good disposition, he was discovered to be the surviving heir-apparent to Maurata. Known as Gregario by the Missionaries he was the first East Islander to be baptised and he was apparently regarded with respect by the people, who would "bring him the first yams" as tribute. The mission has high hopes that he would become the political leader as Maurata's legitimate successor, and a stabilising force on the island, but unfortunately he died when he was only twelve and with his death the high chieftainship of Easter Island came to an end. 

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Jane Resture
(E-mail: -- Rev. 25th January 2005)