A real Swiss Family Robinson?

More than a century and a half ago, the Bells, an English family who had settled in New Zealand, made their home on a remote Pacific island, embracing an isolated existence filled with risk. So how much is known about their lives as a real-life ‘Swiss Family Robinson’? Historical novelist Lydia Syson takes up their tale…

Mrs Frederica Bell, photographed with her children Freda, Roy and 'King' on the Pacific island of Raoul. (Photo courtesy of Lydia Syson/Mr Peacock's Possessions)

It’s the stuff of Victorian juvenile fiction. The story of the Bells – a family of settlers of English origin who claimed an uninhabited Pacific island and made it their home for more than 30 years – could have been written by adventure novelists RM Ballantyne or Johann David Wyss. Yet the island of Raoul where they made their home is no fantasy, and Yorkshireman Thomas Bell, his wife Frederica and their six small children were not shipwrecked: in the 19th century, they became voluntary ‘Crusoes’.

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Born in Leeds in 1839 to Henry and Naomi Bell, a doctor and a nurse, Thomas had an adventurous and restless spirit from an early age. In his mid-teens, he set sail for the goldfields of New Zealand, finding his first job on an Otago sheep farm before working his way up the country to Napier. Within a few years he had persuaded his parents to join him, and in 1863 Bell bought his first piece of land in Nuhaka, planning to grow flax.

Ship in a bottle (Dreamstime)

Frederica Patch, a trained dressmaker and the daughter of a wealthy silk merchant, arrived in New Zealand in 1865, and married Thomas Bell a year later. When their flax mill and stock were burned down in a Maori rebellion in 1869, the Bells moved on to run a hotel and county store in Poverty Bay. Four years later – now with four young children – they moved again, this time to Ohiwa in the Bay of Plenty where they bought another hotel by the sea.

That venture didn’t last, nor did the next (farming near Whakatane), but Thomas developed a new ambition: to become a trader in the Pacific islands. Yet after selling the farm and taking passage to Tonga, he discovered a German firm already well established there. When the family sailed on once more to Samoa, business opportunities seemed no better. But in Apia, the capital of Samoa, he met a blacksmith named William Johnston, who had lived with his wife on a remote Pacific island called Raoul for about six years from 1857.

Thomas Bell, who with his wife Frederica and children, moved to the remote Pacific island of Raoul in the 19th century. (Photo courtesy of Lydia Syson/Mr Peacock's Possessions)
Thomas Bell, who with his wife Frederica and children, moved to the remote Pacific island of Raoul in the 19th century. (Photo courtesy of Lydia Syson/Mr Peacock’s Possessions)

An island paradise?

Raoul (Rangitāhua in Maori) is the largest of the Kermadecs, an isolated group of tiny islands lying about halfway between New Zealand and Tonga, along an arc of active volcanoes known as the ‘Ring of Fire’. Today, the Kermadecs’ waters are still so remote and unspoiled that they rank as one of the globe’s most pristine marine environments.

Johnston’s account of Raoul – which he called “Sunday Island” – was tempting to Bell. Empty of inhabitants, the island seemed to offer what Bell had not yet found: fertile land that belonged to nobody else and a chance to become monarch of all he surveyed. He believed he would be the “King of the Kermadecs”.

Don’t imagine waving coconut palms or turquoise lagoons; Raoul is nothing like the archetypical idyll described by Ballantyne in his novel The Coral Island. Though Raoul’s subtropical climate is perfect for growing fruit and vegetables, there’s no safe anchorage in its ultramarine seas, the weather is wild and changeable, and cyclones are frequent. It’s also the tip of a live volcano – an eruption in 1870 had seen off the last of a previous group of settlers.

This did not put off Bell, who was the epitome of the 19th-century pioneer: iron-willed, ambitious and patriarchal. From Apia, the family took passage with one Captain McKenzie in the schooner Norval, en route for Auckland. Stopping in Tonga to buy seeds and other necessities, the Bells landed in Denham Bay on Raoul on 9 December 1878, Thomas arriving with his wife and children: Hettie, aged 11; Bessie, 9; Mary, 7; Tom, 5; Harry, 3; and Jack, just a baby.

Unfortunately, Denham Bay was not the ideal side of this anvil-shaped island on which to settle: the Pacific surf beat furiously on the long, steep beach, which is surrounded by cliffs 250m high. The winds were not in their favour. The captain was in a hurry to set sail and the family believed he’d be back in three months, bringing fresh supplies and taking them off the island if they decided it wasn’t for them.

The 'landing place' on the island of Raoul, where "the Pacific surf beat furiously on the long, steep beach, which is surrounded by cliffs 250m high". (Photo courtesy of Lydia Syson/Mr Peacock's Possessions)
The ‘landing place’ on the island of Raoul, where “the Pacific surf beat furiously on the long, steep beach, which is surrounded by cliffs 250m high”. (Photo courtesy of Lydia Syson/Mr Peacock’s Possessions)

Only after the schooner had “disappeared in the sunset”, as Thomas Bell later wrote, did they discover that McKenzie had sold them rotten provisions, spoiled by mould and weevils; all they had to eat were a few sandwiches. They saw neither captain nor ship again.

For months, their survival was touch and go. One of the many endemic species at the Kermadecs is a giant limpet, (Patella kermadecensis), the largest in the world. The Bells prised them from the rocks at low tide, but soon exhausted their supply. Oranges and sweet potatoes planted by earlier settlers helped stave off hunger. When the weather was good enough, they caught fish, and gathered terns’ eggs. Bell’s knowledge of Maori lore enabled him to identify wild plants that could be eaten – fern roots, the hearts of Nikau palms, and the pollen of Raupo – a kind of bulrush which could also, with backbreaking effort, be used to build whares (huts). The work regime was brutal. Eventually, Bell took his two eldest daughters up the cliff to hunt for feral goats in the forest, for meat and milk.

Within a few months, the seeds they had planted began to grow and all of their hard work seemed to be paying off. Then came a plague of rats – hundreds of kiore, who consumed or destroyed almost everything. A few months later the seabirds flew north, and the winter cyclones arrived. Eventually, after eight months, an American whaler appeared. On its way back to New Bedford via the Solomon Islands, the captain couldn’t rescue the Bells, but he topped up their food supplies.

Frederica Bell and 'Willie', Denham Bay, Raoul. The Bell family found a way to exist on the unpredictable, risk-filled environment of the island. (Photo courtesy of Lydia Syson/Mr Peacock's Possessions)
Frederica Bell and ‘Willie’, Denham Bay, Raoul. The Bell family found a way to exist on the unpredictable, risk-filled environment of the island. (Photo courtesy of Lydia Syson/Mr Peacock’s Possessions)

The Bell family existed on the unpredictable, risk-filled environment of the island with little attention from the outside world until, in 1887, New Zealand annexed Raoul. And so the seeds were sown for a long and complex dispute between Thomas Bell and the Crown, over compensation for loss of land. It intensified a few years later when the government advertised leases – with deceptive hyperbole. New, less hardy settlers arrived in 1889, but their optimism soon turned to disappointment and disillusion when they experienced the realities of island life. Most returned to New Zealand as soon as they could. By 1893, Thomas Bell was alone on the island once again, with only his wife and their four youngest, island-born children.

A tale fit for Disney

In the 1950s, when the Bells’ second daughter Bessie was in her 80s, she told her story to New Zealand journalist Elsie K Morton, who wrote it up grippingly, overlaying the grim realism of her saga with a heavy dose of sentimentality. ‘Adventure-story’ style drawings by Raymond Sheppard, who also illustrated Enid Blyton’s stories, accompanied the serialisation of ‘The Crusoes of Sunday Island’ that appeared in one British newspaper. Walt Disney even bought the rights to the tale.

But according to Madeleine Brettkelly – the niece of Thomas Bell’s tenth child and youngest son, William (who was always known as King) – Morton’s account was distinctly sanitised. Madeleine, my partner’s aunt, spent her summer holidays with King and his wife, who were by then living on New Zealand’s North Island. King’s mother Frederica’s ashes were kept in a wardrobe in the spare room, in the hope that one day she might be scattered by one of her offspring on Raoul.

Yet none of the family ever returned. Although family myths can be doubtful, Madeleine knew of Thomas Bell as a violent and unreliable father, whose beatings had crippled one of King’s older, unfavoured brothers.

William 'King' Bell, photographed with a turtle during his residence on the Pacific island of Raoul. (Photo courtesy of Lydia Syson/Mr Peacock's Possessions)
William ‘King’ Bell, photographed with a turtle during his residence on the Pacific island of Raoul. (Photo courtesy of Lydia Syson/Mr Peacock’s Possessions)

Madeline remembered King as a brilliant gardener who could grow anything, including exotic species rare in New Zealand at the time. He had a biblical turn of phrase and, perhaps through having grown up in such isolation, seemed to rehearse every sentence in his head before uttering it out loud. He must have been often alone with the plants and creatures of the Kermadecs. The most comprehensive history of Raoul records the Bell parents setting off for New Zealand in 1899 to pursue another legal battle, leaving their four youngest children – then aged 10 to 17 – to look after the island.

In truth, though the family’s tale might resemble many of the island adventure stories which have captured imaginations of the public since the late 19th century, the entangled history of the Bell family’s 36-year residence on Raoul is anything but a bedtime story.


 ‘Blackbirding’ in 19th-century Polynesia

My novel Mr Peacock’s Possessions follows the early history of the family quite closely. However, it opens at a point on which records shed little light: a few years into the Bells’ residence on Raoul, when a work gang from the Polynesian island of Niue arrived to help the family.

An outlier geographically and in terms of European contact, Niue had been named ‘Savage Island’ by Captain Cook when, on his second voyage (1772–5), he had tried to land but failed to ‘penetrate’ the island or effect a parley. When Christianity came to the island, brought by a Samoan teacher called Paulo in 1849, conversion was rapid and almost universal. Niue was a ‘poster island’ for the London Missionary Society (LMS); on the Rock of Polynesia – as the island is known – alcohol was forbidden and breaking the rules of the Sabbath was out of the question. The LMS archives reveal that the island missionary fretted constantly about making his figures add up: falling congregations meant a falling income for the church, which was expected to be financially self-sufficient: the Word – both literacy and Bibles in translation – had to be paid for.

Oceania in the 1860s and ‘70s was a world in flux, , and the lure of work away from the island was an ever-growing temptation for young men eager to broaden their horizons and increase their wealth. Once Cook had opened up the region for trade and settlement, piecemeal migration took place on a grand scale all across this ‘sea of islands’: whalers, traders, beachcombers, naturalists, convicts, deserters, castaways and missionaries were all on the move.

So were indigenous islanders, but not always by choice. In the early 1860s, a practice known as ‘blackbirding’ began in the Pacific. Slavers kidnapped vulnerable islanders by force or trickery and sold them first in Peru, later in Australia, Fiji, and New Zealand, usually for plantation work. Public outrage in Britain eventually led to the Pacific Islanders Protection Act of 1872: kidnapping became an offence and patrolling Royal Navy vessels stepped up their efforts to stamp out abuse. The ‘Pacific Labour Trade’emerged around this time as a form of indentured servitude often considered as no better than slavery. Few islanders were returned home when their ‘contracts’ ended, and it relied heavily on similarly deceptive and violent methods of ‘recruitment’.

Missionaries found their work severely undermined by blackbirders – some of whom were said to disguise themselves as clergymen. ReverendDaniel MacDonald in the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) argued that the Navy gun-boats made the situation worse, leading to ever more “cunning, deceitful, systematic purchasing” of “savages”. Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands were most affected, but the Loyalty Islands (part of New Caledonia), Papua New Guinea, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Tonga and Fiji also suffered terrible losses.

In 1862, Niue’s resident missionary failed to prevent three blackbirding raids. The last men captured joined a hold crowded with captives from Tokelau, Easter Island (Rapa Nui) and the Cook Islands, who were already sickening with dysentery. Rather than lose his entire human haul, the captain of the Rosa y Carmen holed up in the Kermadecs. In the very bay where the Bell family had first landed, the dying were set ashore.

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Once I had discovered the terrible history of blackbirding, I found it impossible to ignore. So that too is woven into Mr Peacock’s Possessions.

Mr Peacock’s Possessions by Lydia Syson is published by Bonnier Zaffre (£12.99) and is out now.

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