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The Six Penny Hat

One particularly stormy Friday towards the end of 1900, the Government steamer Otter arrived from Brisbane on her bi-weekly trip. On board, together with other passengers, were the Visiting Surgeon and the island’s warder dispenser.

Six penny hat

As the pair disembarked at the jetty, the dispenser’s hat, a straw one valued at around sixpence, blew off into the sea and a warder, noticing the incident, ordered one of the kanaka boat-boys into the water after it.

The prisoner, known simply as Forka, obeyed with great reluctance: he was not only fearful of the heavy seas but also of the sharks that were known to frequent the area. He plunged in but, when about three yards from where the hat was floating, he threw up his hands and called for help.

A newspaper report continued the account:

Although there were several people on the jetty, as well as those on board the Otter, not one volunteered to make an effort to save the drowning man until one of the kanaka’s countrymen, seeing there was nothing else for it, swam towards the now fast sinking man. He reached him and took hold of his hand, but immediately let go and swam back for his life, calling loudly, “Dead man! Dead man!” The body of the kanaka was recovered and buried without even being looked at by the doctor.

Forka lost his life under a tragic circumstance which, at least in the view of one section of the contemporary press, was nothing less than ‘a horrifying and blood-curdling murder on the part of the authorities’.

Was the life of Forka, the South Sea Islander, worth only sixpence?

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