Back in history: ‘Police use teargas to disperse crew, prevent injuries’

The New Zealand ship Ngahere. Picture: FT File

Seventeen seamen from the New Zealand ship Ngahere were fined $80 each and put on good behaviour bonds for 12 months after they pleaded guilty to a charge of obstructing a police officer in the execution of his duty.

According to an article in the Fiji Times on July 19, 1977, the men had all pleaded not guilty when they first appeared in court, where they also faced three other charges. The crown prosecutor, Dyfred Willams, sought leave to withdraw the other charges after they admitted the first charge.

Magistrate Hugh Sinclair said during sentencing that trade unionists were subject to the same laws as other members of the population. The defence council, Anu Patel, stressed in mitigation that all the accused were trade unionists and as such could be expected to stand by each other, and other unionists in their struggle for better working conditions.

“I accept this may well have been the case, but it does not mean, and can never mean, that it entitles them to take action which is wrongful in law,” Mr Sinclair said.

He said by 5pm on July 1, the accused, as crew members of the Ngahere, had refused to continue loading the ship with sugar. From that date to July 13. the 17 men, through their captain and union representatives, were given concise and repeated warnings of what would happen if the vessel was not removed from the berth to make way for another ship.

“Were they not, then the accused reacted with a greater speed than can normally be attributed to human beings, no matter what their nationality, upon hearing of the intended action by the Ports Authority that morning.”

In his submission, Mr Willams said the seamen refused to work night shifts in protest to their employer’s refusal to discuss a union demand of a 6.3 per cent salary increase.

The master of the ship, Captain Henry Hunt, told union representatives normal work should resume pending a meeting of the tribunal, but this was ignored.

He said the crew began disobeying lawful orders of Captain Hunt, their refusal arising from an industrial dispute not connected to the Fiji dock strike.

On July 4, the general manager of Lautoka Sugar Mill, Abdul Yusuf, wrote to Captain Hunt ordering the removal of Ngahere from the wharf, and the offloading of Fiji Sugar Corporation gear on board.

On July 12, the PAF port master, Captain Harrison, directed Captain Hunt to remove the ship, fixing 10am the next day as the deadline.

The next day Captain Hunt told a senior marine officer, Alan Foster, that he was willing to move the ship but was powerless to do so because his crew, apart from being unwilling to cooperate, were showing signs of active resistance.

The men had piled the deck with spades, fire hoses and chipping hammers ready for action. Police were called to the wharf as a disturbance was feared when the PAF tried to remove the ship.

Mr Williams said when the police party advanced onto the wharf towards the ship’s gangway, the accused began screaming abuse at them.

The throwing of shades, brushes and chipping hammers began before the police party got on the ship. Mr Willams said the only way to prevent injuries and disperse the men was to use teargas, which the police did.

Speaking in defence, Mr Patel said as the police advanced, Captain Hunt hailed them from the bridge, saying the Ngahere was New Zealand flagship and police had no authority to board it.

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