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  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: June 2012

15 - Migrations, plantations, and the people trade


The Sophia was a 537-ton teak and yellow metal cargo ship built in 1819 in Calcutta, India, regularly chartered for work between Europe and the Pacific. In late 1828, she began two years of voyages unremarkable for exploring, yet which traced out the circuit of Pacific worlds increasingly drawn together. Launching from Dublin, her holds were filled with almost two hundred shackled male convicts, tossed on the months-long passage to the British prison colony in Australia. In Sydney harbor, the Sophia was chartered to Tonga by Captain Samuel Henry, who picked up another human load, this time laborers he recruited to sail with him to Melanesia, the island of Erromanga in the New Hebrides, to harvest sandalwood.

With its cargo, the Sophia sailed north to Hawai‘i, where news of the valuable wood excited the attention of the Oahu governor, Boki, who launched his own ill-fated expedition to conquer Erromanga, as sandalwood had already disappeared in Polynesia. He and most of his force perished at sea or died of malaria. The Sophia also returned to Erromanga, but by now found the risks and returns unprofitable and sailed back to England through the New Hebrides, Singapore, and Manila. The ship's surgeon, George Bennett, returned to Plymouth with a young Erromangan girl, Elau, a chambered nautilus, and a gibbon, all of which he conflated as examples of primeval nature, contributing to Victorian debates about natural history and the possibility of educating savages.

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