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Pioneering Reminiscences of Old Wairoa

Whaling Days

page 73

Whaling Days.

So far, with the exception of giving the names of some of the "queer characters" comprising the population of the whaling stations on this coast, I have not said much about them. In 1833 Captain Ellis was whaling at Waikokopu, but the first man to establish himself at Wairoa was George Morrison, but he did not make a single capture until 1845, though the Lewis brothers had some success, and as late as 1876 the remains of their camp at the Heads was to be seen. Mahia at first had the major population, and among the Maoris were Te Hapuka, Puhara and Morena, chiefs of Heretaunga, and about 10,000 to 12,000 Natives who had fled there under fear of the raiding cannibal chiefs of Ngati-tuwharetoa. The noted men among them were the Wards, Morris, Brown, Mayo and McFarlane, and Salmon of Auckland, and at Mahia in 1847 there were seventeen boats with over one hundred men at work. A few of these were law-abiding men, and one of these was the long deceased George Down, whose descendants are still here, but the majority were as wild as they could well be—and lived and died violent deaths in the Waikokopu bight. Dead men tell no tales, but if the ianiwha could speak what a revelation they could give. One, Ned Tomlins, a Tasmanian half-caste, was so generous that once, after killing three valuable sperm whales he gave one away for a bucket of water! He came to an untimely end for he fell off his doorstep at Waikokopu and broke his neck (so said a fellow whaler), but the truth was that he page 74was thrown out by Perry after a drunken quarrel, and no enquiry was held, but Perry very kindly read the burial service! "Happy Jack" (John Greening), formerly an English man-o'-war's man, caught the first whale at Waikokopu on 24th June, 1838. William Bartlett, who came from the Bay of Islands with Captain Ellis, had for headsmen two of his sons, and one story of the whaling days must suffice. Mr. Tom Bartlett, of Tawatapu, East Coast, and one of Mahia's foremost whalers half a century ago, recently told a story which indicates that the old-time whalers lacked nothing in the way of courage, whatever else they lacked.

"It was," said Mr. Bartlett, "late in the afternoon one day about forty years ago, and a whale was observed spouting just beyond the breakers. Unless she could be killed quickly, to go out after her would be only courting trouble. But the young bloods of our party were determined to have a go, so my harpooner, Morell, and I followed these daredevils down to the boat. They said they would take any chance so long as I was at the steer oar. We approached the whale and got almost on to her when Morell, a skilful harponer, made a successful throw. The whale turned seawards and sped out at a tremendous pace. It was an exciting time for the occupants of the boat, for darkness was fast approaching. But to add to the thrills, the injured whale called to her mates, and in a few minutes a big school surrounded her and the boat. The speed of the injured whale increased and ere long the boat had been dragged some miles out and it was dark. On our journey more than one whale bobbed up under our boat and we had narrow escapes as we glided off them. At times, also, the boat was half full of water, but, at the speed we were travelling, page 75a lot of it would be thrown out again. I wanted to get back home, so I called out to one of the lads to cut the rope. But he would not do so until I began to threaten him.

"It was a very awkward moment when the rope was cut. Coming suddenly to a stop, the boat was almost swamped by the rush of water created by the school of whales. We had to bale out with hats, as well as with a baler, and managed to keep her afloat. As it happened our sister boat came out to look for us; otherwise, we might not have got back till the morning. Luckily for us, our friends indicated the direction of the shore by lighting matches. It did not follow that harm would some to a boat even when in the midst of a school of whales, so long as it kept clear of any one that was injured. Only an injured whale would lash out deliberately."

Mr. Bartlett went on to say that although they lost the whale that had been harpooned they eventually got another. During their forced flight one of the whales that had bobbed up alongside them had exposed its side and Morell had thrust his lance into it. The whale died and next day drifted ashore, much to the delight of the crew. Earlier on the day in question there had been a little bit of trouble. Mr. Bartlett remarked:

"We had been out fishing and were expecting at any time to hear the signal, 'There she spouts!' or 'Ehi pauta!' the pigeon-Maori version of the warning. The young blades would, however, get the boat too close in to the breakers and we were oftentimes in danger. The position was that while the harpooner and myself would be looking seawards for any signs, our younger companions preferred to fix their gaze on the shore where their sweethearts were strolling page 76about. The aim of the young fellows in bringing the boat so dangerously close in was to enable their love-songs to be heard. To stop their little game I had to threaten to cut down their share of the spoils."

The whales as well as the population began to disappear in the early 'seventies, for in June, 1877, when Watty Black's hotel on the peninsula was burned down, it took all of the adult population to form the jury.

Among the Wairoa soldiers who engaged in the hunting of Te Kooti on this coast none ever got within rifle-shot range of him, and it was reserved for the late Sergeant-Major Smyth to get into close touch with him, but then he had no rifle and he could not have used it if he had, for the old rebel had then been pardoned by John Bryce, of Parihaka fame. It was in 1889 that he visited Wairoa with about 300 followers, and Mr. J. H. Smyth was then lessee of the bridge tolls. When the party arrived a demand was made by Te Kooti's lieutenant for free passage, but the toll-keeper was obdurate. The lieutenant went back to the rear and obtaining the toll fees threw them contemptuously at the toll-keeper's feet. This did not in the least appeal to Mr. Smyth who quietly closed the toll-gates. Te Kooti had at last to come to the front of the cavalcade and order his lieutenant to place the money in the toll-keeper's hands, after which the gates were thrown open for them to pass on.