31 October 2021
As part of Black History Month 2021, our Archivist uncovers the story of the first recorded Indigenous person to travel from Vanuatu to England. Her name was Elau and she was a seven year old girl from Erromango in the South Pacific.
She arrived in Plymouth in March 1831, on board the merchant vessel, Sophia and stayed until she died three short years later, in 1834. She’s now buried in an unmarked grave in the sunken memorial garden in Efford Cemetery, over 9,000 miles from home. The story of how and why she made this vast journey is truly extraordinary. It’s also a painful reminder of the overt racism of English society in the early 1800s and a challenge to us all about how we think about people of different cultures and backgrounds.
Elau came here because of a young Plymouth-born man, George Bennett, (1804-1893), ship’s surgeon on the Sophia. He had a keen interest in natural history and ‘collected’ Elau as if she was a scientific specimen, alongside a rare pearly nautilus (a type of sea mollusc) and a Sumatran gibbon he found in Singapore, named Ungka. The Sophia visited Erromango to harvest sandalwood which was a valuable commodity. Bennett wrote articles and books about his travels including accounts of Ungka and Elau, with a mixture of scientific detachment and paternalistic interest.
Elau was taken on board the Sophia in March 1830 with three boys. Her family had been killed. She had been taken as a prisoner of war by one of the Erromangan tribes and was, allegedly, at risk of being killed and eaten by her captors. The children were rescued by a group of Tongan workers. There are few records of Erromangan society at this time and the suggestion of cannibalism is impossible to confirm or deny. However, later generations had a tradition of capturing and adopting enemies’ children so it’s possible Elau’s generation was similar.
The Sophia was driven onto a coral reef at Rotuma, Fiji, during a gale. The three boys went ashore but Elau stayed on board ship, playing with the ship’s monkey. The threat of another gale meant the decision was taken to set sail again. The boys were left behind in the care of a Rotuman chief, while Elau stayed on board, under Bennett’s care. When Bennett added Ungka to his ‘collection of specimens’, Elau befriended him and must have been upset when he died of dysentery a few months later. Bennett showed far more detachment - he dissected Ungka’s body and kept it to be stuffed and donated to the British Museum. Likewise, the nautilus was pickled and given to the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons.
In England Elau was looked after by ‘a lady in Plymouth’ - possibly Bennett’s sister Caroline who lived at 51 Cobourg Street. She acquired the forename ‘Sophia’ and was taught to read, sew and dance; the latter she was particularly gifted at. Bennett saw this as an experiment in the ‘civilisation’ of a ‘savage’ as well as an experiment into the benefits of education (it's worth remembering that children under nine workedg in English factories until 1833 and primary education wasn't compulsory until 1870!)
The lady under whose charge she is placed, and who takes much interest in the orphan stranger, will cultivate her mind; instil into her precepts of moral and religious duty; and suppress those stubborn and overbearing passions seen too often in children…
Bennett enjoyed showing Sophia Elau off to friends and fellow scientists, praising her “affectionate disposition and considerable intellectual powers…” However, he left her in Plymouth from May 1832-May 1834 while he went to Australia; during which time she sadly developed a wasting disease. She died just a month after Bennett returned, on 6 June 1834 at 6pm. Unthinkably, Bennett asked a friend to carry out an autopsy on her body and included the report in his written account of her life, before allowing her to be buried at St Andrew’s Westwell Street burial ground on 13 June. The image at the top of this article shows the entry in the parish register from The Box’s collections (Ref 358/62).
Westwell Street burial ground was closed in 1878/9 and cleared during Plymouth’s post-war reconstruction. All remains were moved to Efford Cemetery sunken memorial garden. According to the archives at The Box, Sophia Elau either didn’t have a headstone or it was illegible at the time of the removal.
Elau’s story was shared for the moral improvement of British children by Anne Marie Hall in the Juvenile Forget Me Not, published in 1835. Elau was praised for her cleanliness, honesty and quiet fortitude during her illness. Her simple childlike faith was promoted as an example to follow. She was the archetypal ‘noble savage’.
George Bennett emigrated to Australia in 1835 and died at Wooloomooloo in 1893. During his lifetime he had eight children. Would he have treated Elau as less of an experiment and more of a daughter if he’d had them before adopting her? Sadly, it’s possible her race and gender would have always made him see her as ‘other’. If you’d like to read more about her extraordinary life, see L Lindstrom’s article ‘Sophia Elau, Ungka the gibbon and the pearly nautilus’, in the Journal of Pacific History Vol 33 No 1, published in 1998.
The story of Sophia Elau is one we plan to highlight soon in the Active Archives gallery. It also has links with our ‘Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters’ exhibition which explores the world of Australian Indigenous communities. Hopefully, by learning more about the lives and beliefs of different cultures we can learn to respect those from other backgrounds, and appreciate our common humanity.
Thanks to Claire Skinner, Archivist