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Murihiku: A History of the South Island of New Zealand and the Islands Adjacent and Lying to the South, from 1642 to 1835

CHAPTER XI. — First Sealers Arrive, 1803 to 1805

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First Sealers Arrive, 1803 to 1805.

BASS Strait was, up to 1803, the great sealing ground of Australasia. Seals had been taken in New Zealand, but chiefly by the crews of vessels calling there while loading for distant parts. It was to Bass Strait that the regular sealing craft owned by Sydney men sailed. These vessels consisted of small sloops and schooners, of from 11 to 38 tons burden, and eleven of them were, in February, 1804, trading to that locality.

There is no doubt that the publicity given, through Bass' negotiations, to the question of the proposed New Zealand fishery concession, directed the attention of sealers to the shores of Dusky and the vicinity of the South Cape, as well as to the islands lying to the south—the Snares, the Bounties, and the Penantipodes. This was inevitable, and we are not borrowing much from our imagination, in supposing that advantage was taken of Bass' absence to exploit the localities of the concession contemplated by that gentleman.

The above however was not the only reason for the new order of things which began to obtain in sealing. As early as December, 1802, reports from King's Island disclosed the fact that the seals, owing to continual harassing, were forsaking the island, and it was anticipated that the sea elephants would follow them. The French Commodore Baudin of the Geographe and Naturaliste, sent out by Napoleon at the end of 1802, wrote from King's Island to Governor King in these words: “There is every appearance that in a short time your fishermen will have drained the island of its resources by the fishery of the sea-wolf and the sea-elephant. Both will soon abandon their resorts page 134 to you if time be not allowed them to recruit their numbers, which have been much diminished by the destructive war carried on against them. They are becoming scarce already, and if you dont issue an order you will soon hear that they have entirely disappeared.”1

When this was the official intimation of the state of affairs it is easy to see that the traders were on the look out for other fields to exploit. The most energetic of these firms were R. Campbell & Co., Simeon Lord, Palmer & Co., and Kable and Underwood; names that were to be known afterwards in New Zealand history. A paragraph occurring in the narrative of the voyages of the Geographe and the Naturaliste, in reference to their stay at Sydney in 1802, suggests that Palmer & Co., at that early date, had a sealing fleet engaged on the New Zealand coast. The paragraph is thus rendered by Pinkerton: “Here it is that Mr. Palmer causes those small vessels to be built he employs in the whale and seal fishery off New Zealand, and in Bass's Strait.”2 The statement is a very general one, but records show that Palmer had only four small vessels at the time, all of which were engaged in the Bass Strait and coastal trade, and none are mentioned as trading to New Zealand.3 Palmer himself had only arrived in the colony in November, 1800.4 The mention of his whaling receives no support from any other source. Turnbull, too, who visited Sydney in the latter end of 1803, mentions Bass Strait only as the scene of the Sydney sealing. He describes the gangs located on the islands as being moved from place to place by attendant craft as the seals became scarce. Nothing is said about New Zealand sealing.5 In the added matter written as late as 1813, Turnbull refers to the subject thus: “When the sealing flagged, in some degrees in Bass's Straits, they (the sealers) turned their thoughts to the neighbouring island of New Zealand, where the seals were known to abound. Every bay, creek, and river was examined by them in quest of these objects, and the fruit of their labour most amply recompensed them. A most constant and friendly inter- page 135 course, mutually advantageous to them and the natives, took place.”6 It must be surmised that the French Commodore meant that the whaling was off the New Zealand coast, the sealing in Bass Strait. In any case he cannot be quoted as an authority for the proposition that sealing had commenced on the New Zealand coast at this early date.

The first firm to attempt the wild New Zealand coast with the small craft of that day, appears to have been Kable and Underwood. The Sydney returns show that this enterprising firm had, at that time, two schooners engaged in the seal trade in Bass Strait—the Governor King of 38 tons and the Endeavour of 31. They had also a sloop of 24 tons called the Diana.7 The Endeavour was the pioneer vessel of this little fleet, having been registered in 1801, the Governor King in 1803; the Endeavour was also the first to engage in the New Zealand trade.

On Monday 18th April, 1803, the Endeavour, Captain Joseph Oliphant, sailed for Bass Strait. In six days after leaving Port Jackson she arrived at the Sisters, and after landing the sealers, sailed for Dusky Bay.8

The following is the report of the voyage handed to the press for publication by the captain on his return to Sydney:9

“On the 9th day of May last, she first made Dusky Bay, and finding but few seals visited Break Sea and Solander's Isles; at an Island near the former of which one of the Seamen was drowned in endeavouring to land. The surf running very high, the stem of the boat was suddenly whirled round upon a ledge of rocks, and instantly overset; two men saved themselves by means of the oars, and two others fortunately got on the keel and were also preserved. The boat was afterwards got on shore with her stern post staved.

“Mr. Oliphant reports that on the South side of the West Cape four entrances were discernible, which he concluded to be the mouths of the Harbours; between the two Northermost of which is a small island, white and page 136 apparently chalky. Off the South Cape Mr. Oliphant experienced much bad weather, and one heavy gale which continued several hours, and arose in the forenoon obliged him to lay the vessel too; at 2 in the afternoon an island was seen at only 8 miles distant, lying by observation in latitude 47° 58′ S. and long. 166° 30′ E. bearing S.W. by S. from the South Cape. Being in want of wood and water they sent a boat on shore but found it to be barren and dry. They afterwards put into Launching Cove, where the vessel anchored, and a party went in quest of seals, but with little success. On shore they suffered much from severe cold, and incessant falls of snow, hail or rain. Her freight consists of 2200 skins all of which were procured with extreme difficulty and hardship.

“Mr. Oliphant reports the natives of New Zealand to be very friendly, and ready to render every assistance he could possibly require. This peaceable and amicable disposition has manifested itself in several instances, and we doubt not that upon the return of Treena, who was brought hither and taken back by Captain Rhodes in the Alexander, his report of the hospitality he met with here will be productive of a confidence that may prove highly beneficial to the British mariner in the Pacific Ocean.

“The skins procured, amounting to 2000, were all purchased by Captain McLennan. The Endeavour's skins were preserved by being salted, a method necessarily resorted to, as the weather and other circumstances prevented their being cured in the usual way, and has long since been established as an excellent succedaneum. Report declares them to be high in estimation at home, and consequently gives new stimulus to the war against the pups and wigs, who rejoice but little at “a ship in sight.”

The island reported as sighted in latitude 47° 58′ is by some supposed to be the Snares.

There is reason to believe that the instructions given to Oliphant to go to Dusky were not communicated to the sealing gangs. The firm's gang at King's Island, for page 137 instance, did not know of his movements. The Good Intent arriving from that island reported that the Endeavour had not reached there when she left.10 At that time the Endeavour must have been heading for Dusky. It was natural that her movements in breaking new ground, and ground in a measure pledged to Bass, should be kept secret. It is worthy of notice, that Cook's vessel when he discovered Dusky, the first vessel wrecked in Dusky, and the first Bass Strait sealer to visit Dusky, were all named the Endeavour.

Captain Rhodes commanded a whaler, one of a small fleet which regularly visited the Bay of Islands for provisions, and it was no uncommon thing to take natives on board while whaling or for a trip to Sydney. His report would be pleasant news to the seafaring men of Sydney who still had a lingering fear of the ferocity of the New Zealander, inculcated by Governor Phillip when he asked the English authorities for special powers to deport condemned men to New Zealand to be handed over as food for the natives.

Captain McLennan of the brig Dart, who purchased the skins, sailed from Sydney on 24th October for the coast of Peru.11

A fragment from what is supposed to be a reference to the trip of the Endeavour turns up in a most unexpected quarter. In 1812 the following advertisement was inserted in the Sydney paper12:—

“To the Public.

“Charles Frederick Bradford, commonly called Charles Bradford, was in 1801 a Seaman on board the Prince of 98 Guns; in 1802 he entered on board the Bridgewater Indiaman, Capt. Palmer, which Ship he left at Sydney Cove, New South Wales, and embarked on board a Vessel destined for the Seal Fishery, New Zealand, 1803. He was known to Mr. Kable, Sydney Town, Port Jackson. If the said C. F. Bradford be now living, and will apply to Caton and Brumell, of Aldersgate-street, London, page 138 “he will hear of something greatly to his advantage; or, if dead, any Particulars or Information concerning him will be thankfully received by them.

“Any information left at the Gazette Office relative to the above will be thankfully received and forwarded.”

These enquiries were renewed by Bradford's friends in October 1814.

It is most unfortunate that when returns of arrivals and departures were prepared by the Naval Officer at Sydney for transmission to England, no notice was taken of the schooners and sloops locally owned. For information of the doings of the local craft we are indebted solely to the Sydney press. Everything was under the direction of naval or military officers and the last thing thought of by them was the local production of wealth to make the settlement self-supporting. The place was now 15 years old and about as non-productive as if it were in its second or third year. The sealers, whose small vessels were ignored by the naval officer, were about the only portion of the inhabitants which was engaged in building up an export trade.

One would suppose that this New Zealand trip was followed by others, but on this point we cannot speak with confidence, nor can we say what vessels, if any, of the Bass Strait fleet visited New Zealand after this date, because New Zealand shipping would first clear for one of the islands in Bass Strait and thence proceed to New Zealand. The official or other intimation of the destination would be the islands in Bass Strait or simply “sealing.”

The next recorded visit to Dusky is that of a whaler called the Scorpion, a vessel of 343 tons and commanded by Captain Dagg. On the 30th March, 1804, she reached Sydney, after a most eventful voyage. On 24th June, 1803, she had sailed from England with Letters of Marque carrying 14 guns and 32 men. Before reaching St. Helena she captured two French whalers, the Cyprus and the Ganges, of Dunkirk, with 1000 barrels of oil each,13 their captains not knowing of the war then raging. About the page 139 beginning of December, 1803, she sailed from St. Helena to New Zealand, and in Dusky Bay secured some sealskins. When she arrived at Sydney, she had on board 4759 skins, 20 barrels of sperm oil, and 18 tons of salt.14 She sailed once or twice out of Port Jackson before going Home, a full ship. The captain leaves a record of his name in Dagg Sound.

On 9th February, 1805, the Contest, a new schooner of 45 tons, Johnson, master, registered as late as 1804, and belonging to Kable & Co.'s fleet, arrived from New Zealand with 5000 seal skins. She had evidently called amongst other places at Dusky, for on Sunday 14th April, in the “Sydney Gazette,” occurs the following advertisement:


“Two small boats having been left at New Zealand by Mr. Oliphant, Master of the Endeavour, in January last, all Masters of vessels and others frequenting or occasionally touching at Dusky Bay, or its vicinity, on the said coast are hereby strictly cautioned not to take away, or in any manner soever damage either of the said boats, as they will otherwise become responsible to the owners for any act contrary to the tenor of this Notice.”

The following Sunday the notice was changed to read “Contest” in place of “Endeavour,” and the date “Sydney, April 13″ was added.

The author is of opinion that, although in the intimation of her arrival Johnson is mentioned as captain, Oliphant who had all along commanded the Endeavour, took the Contest for her pioneer trip. This is borne out by an advertisement in the Sydney papers of October, 1804, for a new captain for the Endeavour, then returning from Bass Strait.15 It is suggested that Kable & Co. had again attempted the New Zealand trade with this larger boat, and on the voyage, had called at Dusky, where they had left two boats in view of a permanent station; that the mistake in the first advertisement was caused by the Endeavour page 140 having been Oliphant's old boat, and was corrected in the following issue. The words “frequently or occasionally touching” seem to imply that Dusky was visited by some vessels, regularly, to catch seals, and by others occasionally when whaling—as in the case of the Scorpion—or when bound for a distant part of the world trading—as in the case of the Britannia. On 28th February, 1807, the Contest was wrecked a few miles to the southward of Port Stevens, near the mouth of the Hunter River. Her crew fortunately were saved, but all the cargo was lost in the tremendous surf.16 She had just returned from Norfolk Island where she had been driven during an unsuccessful attempt to visit the sealing grounds at Dusky Sound.

Kable & Co. pushed on the Dusky Bay trade. On 26th April, 1805, they despatched their largest sailing vessel—the schooner Governor King, 75 tons—to New Zealand. Dusky Bay is not mentioned as her destination, but we have seen that they had a station and two boats there. In addition to this the Governor King was wrecked at Hunter River on May of the following year, and when describing the shattered condition of the wreck the following was reported. “Great part of her freight of pork was saved, but little else except about two tons out of twelve tons of iron taken in at Dusky Bay in lieu of ballast, picked up from the wreck of the Endeavour.”17 This quotation is interesting as being the first newspaper reference to the wreck of the Endeavour. It also shows us that Bass had not taken away everything when 12 tons of her iron could now be got for ballast. The Governor King was lost close to the wreck of the Francis, one of the first Dusky Bay visitors.

Another colonial sealing vessel, the sloop Speedwell of 18 tons, owned by John Grono, a name afterwards to be famous in New Zealand sealing, had been stranded in October, 1804. She was got off by Andrew Thompson the shipowner, and in the second week of August, 1805, he sent her on a sealing expedition to the coast of New Zealand. From this voyage she returned in September, 1806, fairly page 141 successful in procuring seals, but unfortunate in losing three men. The scene of the catastrophe is not stated.18

The opportunity is here taken of referring to the labour regulations of the year 1805 dealing with the sealing trade. In these regulations we have about the earliest labour legislation in Australasia. Owing to the distress which prevailed in the sealing gangs belonging to Kable & Co., and Campbell & Co., in Bass Strait, regulations were made compelling owners to provide food depots. In September of that year no colonial vessel was allowed to leave Sydney without entering into a bond to secure the above mentioned provision, and limits were specified within which the colonial craft had to confine themselves. These limits prevented them navigating outside of latitude 43° 39′ S.,19 and thus visiting the south of New Zealand and the southern islands. What the reason was the author has been unable to ascertain. It seems all the stranger when we consider the rich harvest within the colonists' grasp, and the fact that north of latitude 43° 39′ S. there were few seals to be got in New Zealand.

As showing the quantities of seals in the prohibited ground, the comments by Sir Joseph Banks, under date 4th June, 1806, were to the following effect: “The island of Van Dieman, the south-west coast of New Holland and the southern part of New Zealand, produce seals of all kinds in quantities at present almost innumerable. Their stations on rocks or in bays have remained unmolested since the Creation. The beach is encumber'd with their quantities, and those who visit their haunts have less trouble in killing them than have the servants of the victualling office who kill hogs in a pen with mallets.”20

There is no doubt that sealing vessels visiting New Zealand would go to the south, limits or no limits, but it is significant that during the next few years little mention is made of sealing by colonial vessels in the prohibited area. Appearances would however indicate that it was done but not made public.