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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 XII. — The Sealing Islands, 1804 to 1808

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The Sealing Islands, 1804 to 1808.

NATURALLY the first visits of the sealers were to the mainland or to the islands in its immediate vicinity. It was not long however, before the outlying islands were exploited and robbed of their rich harvest. First to arrive upon the scene were stray vessels of the American fleet, the first representative of which had already been on our coast as far back as 1797, relieving the remnant of the Endeavour's crew. Now, in 1804, they reappeared in the vicinity of New Zealand for the purpose of obtaining skins for the China market.

A brig of 99 tons, the Union, was, in 1803, sent out by Messrs. Fanning & Co., of New York, under the command of Captain J. Pendleton, to follow up the discoveries of Vancouver in Australia, and to secure a cargo of seal skins. At Border's (supposed to be Kangaroo) Island, her crew built another vessel called the Independence, of 40 tons, and these two vessels made for Sydney, where they refitted and set out together on a sealing expedition.

On this trip Pendleton re-discovered the Island of South Antipodes, as the Americans called the Penantipodes. Large rookeries of seals were visible, but there being no harbour in which to anchor vessels, an officer and eleven men were put ashore as a sealing gang, and Pendleton returned to Sydney intending to revisit his men when they had procured a cargo.1

Fanning in his “Voyages” unfortunately does not give us the date of this interesting event, but we learn from other sources2 that the Union reached Sydney on 29th June, and the Independence, commanded by F. Smith, on 1st July, page 143 1804. As this is the first mention of the Independence, probably it was his initial visit to Sydney, but the Union had called there on 6th January, and 9th March, sailing again on 12th January, and 28th April; in the former case for Norfolk Island, in the latter for Bass Strait. The sealing gang placed at the Antipodes by the Union was probably put there about the beginning of June, 1804, and was thus the first sealing gang stationed on these islands.

The islands next to be visited by the Bass Strait sealing vessels were the Snares and the Bounties. In October, 1804, the Bass Strait seal islands were visited by two American vessels, the Perseverance and the Pilgrim, under the command of Captain Amasa Delano.3 At Kent's Bay, disturbances took place between the Americans and the sealing gang of Kable and Underwood. The account given by the man in charge of the sealers makes the Americans out to be the greatest scoundrels unhung, while the report of the American captain indicates that the gallows was too good a fate for the Sydney men. Delano publishes an account of his travels, and from it we learn that on 24th October, he sailed from the islands for the South West Cape of New Zealand. He made the Snares on 3rd November, and says, after mentioning Vancouver as the discoverer, “I know of no other person except him and myself, who has ever seen them.” In this Delano was mistaken, as Captain Raven, when returning to Sydney in the Britannia in 1793, sighted the islands, and Oliphant, in the Endeavour, is supposed to have seen them in 1803. Delano thus records his visit: “At three o'clock p.m. we discovered the Snares, bearing north east by east, eight or nine miles distant. At six p.m. we came near to them, and it blowing strong from the westward, we did not have so good an opportunity to examine them as we could wish, but from what we could ascertain there was no safe shelter for a vessel any where amongst these islands. If there is any, it must be on the south or south east side of the large one, which had some appearance of smooth water under its lee. I think, if the weather should be pleasant enough for a boat to go in and page 144 explore the cluster, that an anchoring place might be found; but the weather here is so bad, and the winds blow so strong and constantly from the westerly quarter, that it would be difficult to keep in a station for a sufficient length of time to effect this object. We found them, as captain Vancouver says, ‘a cluster of craggy islands,’ and they did not appear to be capable of affording anything, except it might be a few seals, which I think probably they do, as we saw a number swimming in the water near the ship. If it were the case that the seals are on these islands, it would be very difficult to obtain them. We did not observe any dangers any where near them. We saw seven small islands, and found them to be rightly laid down by captain Vancouver.

“After we had examined the Snares as much as the weather would permit us to do, we proceeded to the eastward with a strong westerly wind, and visited Bounty Islands.

“November 7, 1804 at six a.m. we made the Bounty Islands with an intention of examining them. It may be expected that we might have had a better opportunity to examine and describe them than lieutenant Bligh had; but when we made them it was blowing a strong gale from the westward, with a large sea, and by no means clear weather; under which circumstances we made the islands about four or five leagues distant, and ran down within about one mile of them. We discovered broken water close under our lee bow, and immediately luffed to the southward of it; but as we passed, it fairly broke, and convinced us that there was not water enough for our ship on it. The breakers lie about south west of the body of Bounty Islands, and will not always show themselves.

“We saw several other breakers to the south and west side, lying off from the main group; but we were convinced that it a very dangerous place for a ship to come near to. The …. description given by lieutenant Bligh is very correct. They cannot afford any kind of vegetable production. We saw shags and gulls, and a few seals round them; and I believe they are all they afford. It will be proper to observe, that we had soundings three or four leagues page 145 to the westward of these islands, and had good reason to think that they could be had at that distance all round them. It would be very dangerous for a ship to fall in with these islands in the night, or in thick weather, although she will have the advantage of soundings, which will apprise them of approaching danger, if due attention is paid.

“After passing them we continued our course.”

So far the prospects of success at the Snares and the Bounties had not encouraged the Bass Strait sealers to land gangs there. The great harvest of the localities already worked, though reduced in quantity, had not yet become so small as to make the unattractive appearance and dangerous approaches of the southern islands worth overcoming. At the time of this visit of Delano the gang of the American ship Union was probably on the neighbouring Antipodes.

When the Union returned to Sydney, Pendleton had 12,000 to 14,000 seal skins procured at Kangaroo Island. These he left in the store of Mr. S. Lord, and, without considering the necessities of his men at the Antipodes, entered into a contract to proceed to the Fiji Islands, and take thence a cargo of sandal wood for China. At Tongataboo, however, on 1st October, 1804, Pendleton and several others met their death at the hands of the natives, and the Union returned to Sydney on 25th October under the command of D. Wright, the first officer.

On 12th November, Wright made another attempt to carry out the contract, but this time the vessel was lost at the Fiji Islands and all the crew massacred.

Then followed, according to Fanning, a most remarkable series of events:

“Upon the arrival of this sad information at Sydney, Mr. Lord chartered a ship and proceeded with her to the Island of Antipodes. At this place, the officers and crew whom Captain Pendleton had left, had taken and cured rising of sixty thousand pure fur seal skins, a parcel of very superior quality: these, from information since obtained, were received on board Mr. Lord's ship, who page 146 thence proceeded to Canton, and disposed of his valuable cargo at good prices, the proceeds being invested in China goods, he accompanied to an eastern port in the United States: these were also sold, and Mr. Lord off to Europe with the amount of proceeds, before the agent for the owners of the Union was made acquainted with the transaction: thus unfortunately terminating the Union's voyage, her owners never receiving either for the skins taken from South Antipodes, or for the fourteen thousand left by Captain P. in Mr. Lord's charge at Sydney, one farthing. Nor was the remainder of the brig's company more fortunate than their messmates, for nothing was ever heard of the few who after delivering the skins to Mr. L. embarked on board the little schooner and sailed for Sydney, in New South Wales: it is supposed they were either lost in a heavy gale at sea, or were wrecked on some unknown reef or island. Thus terminated a voyage than which, none was ever commenced with more encouraging prospects, and thus went her crew, than whom, more hardy and resolute spirits never strode a vessel's deck.”

Further details of this remarkable narrative are available, but they scarcely bear out this story of the iniquity of the Sydney merchant, Lord. The Independence, under the command of Joseph Townshend, reached Sydney from Norfolk Island on 23rd April, 1805, and it is probable that the news of the fate of the Union was brought by her. Two days afterwards a Nantucket vessel called the Favorite, 245 tons, commanded by John Paddock, arrived from the Crozets, and on 11th June sailed in company with the Independence from Sydney,4 the former entered as whaling, the latter in ballast for Canton, but as a matter of fact, they both sailed for the Penantipodes.

On 29th July, 1805, the brig Venus, 45 tons, Calcutta built, carrying 14 men and commanded by Captain William Stewart, cleared for Bass Strait in ballast.6 She also sailed for the Penantipodes. William Stewart is presumably the man after whom the southern island of this Dominion is called, and this, so far as the author can determine, was page 147 his first connection with New Zealand. On 24th January, 1806, the Venus returned with only a few skins, having left Captain Stewart with a sealing gang on the island. This was the second gang stationed there. Stewart remained for some time until taken off by a whaling vessel called the Star, commanded by James Birnie, and on 21st June, 1806, was landed at Sydney. Prior to this, probably as a result of the rich haul of the Union's gang, a visit had been arranged for, to the Penantipodes, by a whaler called the Aurora, 302 tons, commanded by Andrew Meyrick, and when she sailed on 30th June she was supposed to have cleared for these islands, but for some reason not given, possibly because of Stewart's return, she appears to have changed her destination.5

On Monday, 10th March, 1806, arrived the American ship Favorite, Captain Paddock, from the Penantipodes with skins.

“We are sorry,” says the report, “to report the probable loss of the American schooner Independence, which vessel sailed from hence 10 months since in company with the Favorite, for the same destination; and was for some time conjectured to be traversing on discovery of advantageous situations for procuring seal; but has unfortunately never since been seen or heard of. This vessel belonged to Captain Pendleton of the Union, whose visit to Tongataboo proved fatal to Mr. Boston and himself; and whose vessel afterwards under the command of Mr. Wright, the chief officer, foundered at her anchors with the supposed loss of all her people.

“The Independence sailed from hence, under command of Captain Townshend, a young man very much respected for his talents, with 22 men, 11 of whom were happily taken on board the Favorite the day before they parted company.”

The cargo of the Favorite is shown in the shipping lists to have been 60,000 seal skins, and the place from which the vessel returned is described as the “E Coast of New Zealand.”

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Landing on the Penantipodes about the beginning of June, 1804, and being relieved not earlier than the beginning of July, 1805, the unfortunate party of one officer and eleven men must have been on these desolate rocks for over a year. After leaving the Penantipodes the Favorite had evidently sailed for the East Coast of New Zealand and spent the remainder of her time sealing around the coast, thus accounting for the very lengthy voyage.

On the 29th July the Favorite sailed for Canton with 32,000 skins, so that Fanning is not correct in stating that the cargo obtained at the Penantipodes was taken to Canton and disposed of at good prices. The other 28,000 was probably the parcel set aside to send to England in the Sydney. If Lord intended to swindle, he would scarcely risk taking the cargo to Canton, selling it there, and with the proceeds going to an eastern port of the United States: much less would he venture to visit the States in a vessel belonging to Nantucket. The point established beyond doubt is, that Captain John Paddock, in the Favorite of Nantucket, lifted 60,000 skins from the Penantipodes, and took them to Sydney: whence he sailed for Canton with 32,000 of them. The question of selling them at that port, and returning with a China cargo to the United States must be left to Fanning to explain. Theft on Lord's part would involve Paddock in the crime, and as the Favorite was well known in Nantucket, and the captain belonged to a leading family there, the idea of a deliberate fraud is a very unlikely one.

On 30th July, 1806, the Star, this time under the command of Captain Wilkinson,7 sailed for New Zealand and the Penantipodes. She reached Whangaroa and when there, a chief named Pipi requested the captain to take his son to Europe, to procure material for the tribe and to see the King. The youth accordingly sailed with Captain Wilkinson to the seal fishery at the Penantipodes. While on board the young man received the name of George, a name that has come down to posterity in New Zealand history. Returning from the islands he was restored to his page 149 friends.8 On 29th December, 1806, the Star reached Sydney with 14,000 seal skins. In the Records she is described as coming from “the South'rd Islands,” in the press, from the sealing islands.”9 Maori tradition, as given to the author by the late Mr. Hone Heke, M.P., thus modifies Dillon's version given above. The chief's name was Kira and his father, having been to England and seen King George, had given the name of King George Kira to the lad.

Amongst the difficulties which beset the sealing trade in these early years, one of the most remarkable was a legal one, which arose out of the monopoly enjoyed by the East India Company. In 1805, the ship Lady Barlow took a cargo of oil and skins to England, which was seized by the officers of the East India Company for breach of their exclusive trading rights. The sale of the cargo was delayed for four months. To avoid a similar fate for the Sydney, which was expected to arrive during 1806, Campbell & Co.'s agent applied for and obtained permission from the Company to land that vessel's cargo upon arrival. To prevent a repetition of the Lady Barlow incident, legislation was introduced in the House of Commons. The Bill itself is not available, but we know by the comments made upon it by Banks, that it excluded southern New Zealand from the sealing trade:—“Why any southern boundary should be set to the enterprise of our successful sealers does not appear. The limit proposed by the Bill of 43° 9′ S. will prevent them from visiting the south part of New Zealand, where treasures of seal-skins and oil have been accumulating for ages, and the little island of Penantipode, which has furnished 30,000 of the seal-skins, and a proportionate quantity of the seal oil laden on board the expected ship (the Sydney) which their Lordships have been graciously pleased to admit to an entry here, to the no small encouragement of the southern fishery.”10

While the Bass Strait sealers were establishing trade connection with all the known islands of the New Zealand group, another island was added to the list. The Ocean, a page 150 whaling vessel of 401 tons, belonging to the Messrs Enderby, and under the command of Captain Abraham Bristow, was sailing from Van Diemen's Land round Cape Horn, when on 18th August, 1806, several islands were discovered and were called by the captain, Lord Auckland's Group. The extract from Bristow's log is as follows:—

“Moderate and clear: at daylight saw land, bearing west by compass, extending round to the north as far as N.E. by N., distant from the nearest part about nine leagues. The island or islands, as being the first discoverer, I shall call Lord Auckland's (my friend through my father), and is situated according to my observation at noon in lat. 50° 48′ S., and long. 166° 42′ E., by a distance of the sun and moon, I had at half past 10 A.M. The land is of moderate height, and from its appearance I have no doubt but it will afford a good harbour in the north end, and I should suppose lies in about the latitude of 50° 21′ S., and its greatest extent is in a N.W. and S.E. direction. This place I should suppose abounds with seals, and sorry I am that the time and the lumbered state of my ship do not allow me to examine.”11

The year 1807 saw the Penantipodes trade still the objective of sealing craft, and we find the Commerce mentioned in the official records as returning from the Penantipodes on 8th April. The owner and master of this vessel was James Birnie, evidently the same man who brought Stewart back from the island and who owned the Star.12 She brought a cargo of 39,000 skins which was intended she should take on to London, but the damage she had sustained rendered that impossible and the skins were transhipped to the Sydney Cove.

Bristow, after reaching England in the Ocean, returned in 1807 to the Auckland Islands, in a vessel called the Sarah, belonging to the same firm which owned the Ocean,13 and on 20th October cast anchor in a harbour which he named after his vessel, Sarah's Bosom.14 Formal possession page 151 was taken, and, to provide food for navigators, who might visit its shores, pigs were liberated on the mainland.

On this second visit the position of the various points was ascertained by Bristow, and afterwards published in the “Oriental Navigator,” for the use of seamen.15 On her return from the trip the Sarah was, on 26th October, 1809, captured by a privateer called the Revenge. The captor was in turn herself taken by the Helena, and the Sarah was recaptured by the Enterprize on 10th November, and sent either to Lisbon or Cadiz.16

On 23rd April, 1807, H.M.S. Cornwallis under Captain Charles Johnston, took her departure from Port Jackson for Chili. She sailed round the South Cape without sighting land and, on 13th May, passed the Bounty Islands at a distance of 11 or 12 leagues, and three days afterwards obtained a glimpse of the Chatham Islands—the first mention in contemporary literature of the islands after their discovery in 1791. The Cornwallis sailed past the south of the group at a distance of some 12 or 13 miles, the officers contenting themselves with merely taking the bearings of conspicuous headlands and sketching the outline of the coast without making an effort to land.

The islands lying to the east of Chatham Island were named after the vessel—Cornwallis Islands. Their discovery is thus recorded in the master's log. “At 3.31.4 Longt. by chronometer was 183.25.27 E., the S.E-most I. bore N. 35 E., next N. 30, East end the Longest N 28 E. West end do., N. 21 E. & the westernmost Island N. 17 E. about 5 Lgs. by Estimation. Those islands not appearing on any chart, Captain Charles James Johnston gave them the name of Cornwallis Islands; those Islands appeared to be barren blocks, and do not extend from East to West above 5 miles.” The Cornwallis Islands included Rangiauria or Pitt Island and Rangatira. One of the lieutenants, Wm. H. Smyth, communicated the facts ascertained regarding the position of the islands to the publishers of the “Oriental Navigator” for the benefit of the merchant marine.

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In 1807, the Santa Anna, a Spanish prize of 202 tons, owned by Messrs. Lord, Kable and Underwood and commanded by William Moody, made a voyage to the Bounties on a sealing expedition, which was followed by consequences of great importance in the evangelization of the natives of New Zealand. The Santa Anna sailed from Sydney on 10th July, 1807, for “the Seal Fishery, and to proceed to London.”17 She made for the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, and there took on board a native Chief—Ruatara. Ruatara had had some previous experience on board ship. When only eighteen years of age he had shipped on board the Argo, whaler, to get a view of Sydney. He did duty as a sailor for twelve months, and was finally discharged and cheated by the captain out of his pay. To get home from Sydney, he shipped on the Albion, served for six months, and was returned to the Bay of Islands. Ruatara now conceived the idea of visiting King George III., and to secure his object shipped on board the Santa Anna bound for the Bounties.18 On arrival there, the Maori chief and thirteen others of the crew—a Maori, two Tahitians and ten Europeans—were put ashore to kill seals, while the vessel proceeded for supplies to Norfolk Island and New Zealand, leaving the fourteen men with very little water, salt provisions, or bread. In May, 1808, the owners in Sydney received word from Captain Moody, dated from Norfolk Island, where he (Moody) had been since the 1st of March, his vessel having been blown off while he was on shore, calling their attention to the fact that the gang must now be in need of relief. To allay fears it was stated in the press, by way of reply, that the Commerce had sailed from Sydney on 6th February to relieve the gang, and by that time they had been provided for.19

The Santa Anna reached Sydney from Norfolk Island on 8th June, and sailed on 14th October for the sealing isles, from whence she was to proceed to Great Britain. The Commerce (Ceroni) reached Sydney with 3,000 skins on 10th July, 1808.

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About five months after the Santa Anna left, the King George, whaler, under the command of Captain Chace, called at the islands, and a few weeks later the Santa Anna returned to her gang. During all this time Ruatara and his companions, there being no water, and scarcely any food to be procured on the island, had undergone such extreme sufferings from thirst and hunger, that three of them had died. After taking their cargo of 8,000 skins on board, the vessel set out on her voyage for England, the great object for which Ruatara had originally shipped, and which had sustained him through all his hardships.

In July, 1809, the Santa Anna arrived in the River Thames, but Ruatara found that he was as far from his object as ever. Instead of seeing the King, he was scarcely permitted to go on shore, and never spent a night out of the ship. Making enquiries how he could see His Majesty, he was sometimes told that he would never be able to find the house, and at other times, that no one was permitted to see George III. This disappointment distressed him so much, that with the toils and privations he had already sustained, a dangerous illness took hold of him. Meanwhile, the master of the Santa Anna, when asked by the Maori chief for wages and clothing, refused to give him any, telling him that he would send him home by the Ann, a vessel taken up by the Government to convey convicts to New South Wales. The captain of that vessel, however, refused to receive him unless the master of the Santa Anna provided him with clothing. The Revd. Samuel Marsden happened to be a passenger to Sydney by the Ann, and, finding out the condition of Ruatara, took him under his charge, and nursed him back to life and strength. Before the vessel reached Rio, Ruatara was able to do his work as a sailor, in a manner equal to the best of the crew. The Ann reached Sydney on 17th February, 1810.

In Sydney the Maori chief resided with his deliverer, and devoted his time to the studying of agriculture. When he left in the Frederick, on 30th November, he took with page 154 him various seeds and implements, but Bunker, the captain, appears to have taken the natives to the Bay of Islands and when, within sight of their homes, refused to land them, but sailed away to Norfolk Island and stranded them there. The Frederick fell in with an American cruiser and was captured. Ruatara had not yet reached home. From Norfolk Island the Maori chief reached Sydney, and once more came under the care of Marsden. Finally he got the chance of a trip to New Zealand in another whaler, also called the Ann, and after working his passage for five months, was landed at the Bay of Islands, among his own people.

The friendship thus formed with Marsden, continued unabated until his death. In his position as a chief, he did more to make possible Marsden's mission to New Zealand than any other native. In fact, it may safely be said that the mission could not have been established had it not been for the friendship of Ruatara. And all this was brought about by the desire of a Maori to see King George, and his visit to the Bounties, as a sealer, to earn the wherewithal to gratify his ambition.

The King George, which is mentioned as visiting the sealing gang on the Bounties, was a colonial built vessel of 185 tons, owned by Kable & Co., of Sydney, and had sailed for the Fishery on 28th August, 1808, or less than two months before the Santa Anna left Sydney. As she was engaged in the whale oil and seal skin trade, and was owned by the same firm which sailed the Santa Anna, her captain probably looked in at the islands to leave provisions, and let the gang know that they would shortly be relieved.

Amongst other vessels which sailed for the sealing islands about this time were the Perseverance on 8th August, and the Fox on 30th September, 1808.