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The Old Whaling Days



The Heva, Captain Lelievre, was the first French whaler at Akaroa this year, and she probably arrived about the end of 1839. The next was the Ville de Bordeaux, 826 tons, early in January, and an interesting account of her visit is given by Dr. Thiercelin, who was on board that whaler. The Doctor found, to his astonishment, when strolling around one day, a tent with all the appearances of European cultivation around it. It was occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Green, who, with an assistant, had charge of a small farm and herd of cattle, and were carrying on regular farming operations. These were the cattle brought round by Captain Rhodes in the Eleanor. Mrs Green told the Doctor, in January, that the British were going to take possession of New Zealand, if they had not already done so.

The only other sign of the presence of Europeans was a little cabin, a chimney on which announced occupants of a different race from the Maoris. These were two English exiles who had one day disembarked from a ship which had come in for water, and had been left on the beach with all their baggage when the ship sailed away. The Robinsons, so their names were given to the Doctor, acted as “carcassiers,” as the French called them, collecting stray floating whales, or the intestines of whales already cut up and blown into the Bay, and melting them down to produce an inferior page 323 class of oil, which they sold to the whalers. Among the English-speaking whalers these men were called “tonguers.”

The Ville de Bordeaux afterwards sailed for Sydney, and there, on 8th June, was sold to Mr. J. Stewart for £3,200. The fault of this was said to be due to the bad conduct of her captain. M. David, of Bordeaux, was the owner.

When D'Urville called at Akaroa on 8th April, the Heva had gone round to Piraki, where also were the Adele and the Pauline. The only French whaler at Akaroa was the Gange, one of whose boats went to help the Astrolabe when it appeared that her fate was sealed. The Gange had only quitted France 9 months, but had completed her cargo and was to sail next day for home. The following day the captains of the three whalers at Piraki called and paid their respects to the French Commodore, and advantage was taken of the return home of the Gange to send the Expedition's Despatches to the French Government.

When D'Urville was at Otago, during the first week of April, the whaler Havre, commanded by Privat, was in the Bay. Privat had already met D'Urville at Conception Bay on the Chilian coast, where he had appealed to the French Commander for assistance to put down a revolt in his crew, and, having got rid of the source of his trouble, on his return to France, he now hoped to do well in these waters. He informed D'Urville that the French whalers were leaving the coast of Chili and making for Australia and New Zealand. Before the Astrolabe sailed, Privat applied for men to fill gaps in his crew, and D'Urville gave permission for any member of the Expedition, who cared to do so, to join him, but only one took advantage of the offer, received his kit, and transhipped.

The Havre remained on at Otago after D'Urville sailed, and later on was joined by the following, all of which were at Otago some time during May:—

The Earnest of Havre.

The Elizabeth, 16 mons. out, 1800 barrels. She page 324 had been ashore, but had been got off with the loss of a windlass.

The Oriental, 14 mos. out, 1100 barrels, and

The Rabance, 6 mos. out, 900 barrels.

On 12th May, the Ajax, of Havre, anchored off Otago, while the captain and a boat's crew came on shore for supplies. While they were away from the ship a gale sprung up from the south-west and the Ajax was driven to sea. By the twenty-second of the month, when the American whaler, which reported the incident, left Otago, there had been no re-appearance of the French whaler. She was just commencing her cruise and had only 100 barrels on board.

In the middle of May the Ocean, of Havre, was in Cloudy Bay with 900 barrels, and the author thinks that this is the same French whaler which Captain Nias reported as present in the Bay when British sovereignty was proclaimed at the Pa on 10th June.

In April a French trader, the Justine, 265 tons, Lucas, of Bordeaux, visited Kapiti Island with a miscellaneous cargo of goods and passengers. From Kapiti she sailed for Cloudy Bay, and then on to Port Nicholson, where she arrived on 3rd May.

The application of Captain Privat of the Havre for men to supplement his crew brings up the question of desertion, which was very prevalent among the French whalers. When Lavaud came out in the Aube, in August, 1840, he investigated this question, and his report to the Minister of Marine put the position very clearly:—

“One of the causes of the trouble on board the ships that come to fish in such far-away seas is the lack of victuals. Often a ship destined for fishing for about two years, at least, ships victuals for only sixteen months, then the men, deprived of a part of the food to which they are accustomed, commence to murmur, oblige the ship to put into port to procure what they need and cannot always find. While in port the ship generally loses a part of her crew, page 325 and is obliged, so as not to lose the fishing, to ship foreigners who, not accustomed to our “regime,” are only one more cause to prevent the re-establishment of order.

“The number of French deserters in the colonies of Australia is more considerable than is thought; for the small number of whalers I have met, it really appals me. Every year France must lose through the whale-fishery quite a considerable number of subjects, the number of whom would be easily ascertained at Havre, and would, I am quite sure, astonish Your Excellency. I have closely questioned the Masters of the whalers about the causes of this desertion, and those capable of appreciating them have been unanimous of this opinion: The wages of the crew are not high enough, rarely does the seaman, after a long, painful and dangerous voyage, receive from 7 to 800 francs. The articles furnished to him during his contract, by the owners, are quoted at prices the double of their value: if he will not take them and prefers to buy them elsewhere, he must have money, and this money is given to him at 20 per cent. interest; in one word, everything in the whale fishery is contrary to his interests and the profits are divided between the owners, the master, and the officers.

“There are here on the fishing grounds more American ships than of any other nation, their voyages are generally longer than ours, and the crew returns to America without having deserted. Why is this so? Because the master gets only 1/16th, the chief mate 1/30th, the mate and junior officers from the 1/15th to the 1/70th, whilst in France there are masters paid from ⅛th to 1/16th, chief mates from 1/16th to 1/26th, mates receiving 1/40th, junior officers receiving 1/45th. But it is for the seamen that the inverse difference is great, on board the American ships the harpooners, coopers, carpenters, page 326 and smiths, are paid from 1/80th to 1/90th, the seamen from 1/100th to 1/120th, but nearly always 1/140th: it is the same with the master coopers, carpenters and smiths; the sailors (French) are, at the most, at 1/200th, and nearly all at 1/220th and at 1/230th, it is the same with some owners who do not hesitate to pay them at 1/250th. In this condition how is it possible to prevent the men, when they find an opportunity, to exchange their sad lot for a better future? The British seamen employed in our whalers are generally paid by the month at the rate of 75 to 80 francs.

“In the United States the oil generally brings from 35 to 40 francs a barrel, in France it is worth from 60 to 80, even 100 francs, but I suppose it hardly ever rises to more than 70 or 80 francs, even that is double the price in the United States: the fishing gear costs one-fifth less in the latter country than in France, the cost of mercantile navigation in both countries amounts to about the same; however, the American owners receive no ‘premium of encouragement,’ and yet they earn money, for the number of their whalers far from diminishing still increases; the truth is that the American whalers do not compete with one another in Oceania. It would be desirable that French owners were alive to this fact; there is little chance of success in ships that lose their men by desertion, and consequently there is no economy in not paying the men according to their just worth. They ought to lower the pay of the masters to 1/16th, that of the chief mates from 1/30th to 1/35th, that of the second mates from 1/45th to 1/50th, and that of the third mates to 1/60th; the harpooners, coopers, carpenters and smiths should receive from 1/100th to 1/110th; the seamen should be paid from 1/150th to 1/170th; the apprentices at the rate of 1/180th share, instead of page 327 1/300ths, or 1/350th; the boys 1/300th, and not 1/400th, such as several receive. This is the only way I can see to avoid disorder, which will never be prevented by the presence of a war ship.”