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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 VII. — First Sealing Gang, 1792

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First Sealing Gang, 1792.

THE first recorded intention of captains to visit Dusky Sound for trade purposes pure and simple, is referred to by Collins, the New South Wales historian. Mr. Eber Bunker, the master of the William and Ann, a vessel of 367 tons, “had some thoughts of touching at Dusky Bay in New Zealand” and “Governor King finding after trying every process that came within his knowledge for preparing and dressing the flax plant, that unless some other means were devised, it never would be brought to the perfection necessary to make the canvas produced from it an object of importance, either as an article of clothing for the convicts or for maritime purposes, proposed to the master of the William and Ann to procure him two natives of that country, if they could be prevailed on to embark with him, and promised him £100 if he succeeded, hoping from their perfect knowledge of the flax plant, and the process necessary to manufacture it into cloth, that he might one day render it a valuable and beneficial article to his colony; but Captain Bunker had never returned.”1

The date of this may be taken to be about November, 1791, as the William and Ann arrived in Sydney with convicts on 28th August, 1791, and sailed for the whale fishery on 22nd November.2 Whether Bunker ever visited Dusky is not stated; he does not appear, however, to have applied for the reward promised, and disappeared from Australian history until June, 1799, when he brought out the Albion, belonging to Messrs. Champion, in the then record time of three months and fifteen days. The Albion was a whaler and “was intended to give the whale fishing upon the coast a complete and fair trial.”3

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Flax dressers were afterwards procured by the Daedalus and landed at Norfolk Island.

The first attempt to establish trade between New South Wales and Dusky resulted in failure.

The next man to move in this direction was Mr. William Raven, the master of the Britannia, a vessel of 300 tons burden, which, like the William and Ann, had come out to Australia with convicts. She was owned by the well known firm of Messrs. Enderby. Told in Captain Raven's own words, his plan was as follows:—“My first plan after discharging the cargo I brought from England to Port Jackson, was to have gone to Dusky Bay to procure Seals' skins for the China market.”4 He accordingly made a start for Dusky on the thirtieth day of September, 1792, armed with a three year's trade license from the East India Company;5 but before getting clear of Sydney, his plans were entirely altered, his trip to Dusky was postponed, and his voyage to China cancelled.

Major Grose, who commanded the soldiers in Sydney, finding that his men were without shoes and had only the miserable rations issued from the Government stores, called a meeting of his captains to consider the position. After discussion it was decided to charter the Britannia, then ready to sail to Dusky, and send her to the Cape of Good Hope for provisions. Governor Phillip when informed of the position of matters and asked for a protection for the ship during her voyage, pointed out that the charter of the East India Company might come into conflict with their proceedings. At the same time he defended the Government ration, deprecated private action, and offered to write to the Cape of Good Hope and ask the authorities to forward such stores as the officers might order to be purchased.6 The Governor, however, evidently realised his own inability to prevent the officers trading in the manner proposed, as he ultimately informed them that he could take no official step in the matter. The officers completed their charter for the sum of £2000 for the vessel, and eleven shares of £200 each were subscribed to purchase the stock and other articles.

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The Britannia, having a very good between-deck, was well adapted for carrying cattle, and military artificers were immediately employed to fit her with stalls for the reception and accommodation of cows, horses, &c. A quantity of hay, sufficient to lessen considerably the outlay for that article at the Cape was put on board; the vessel was made ready for sea by the middle of October, and Raven sailed for the Cape of Good Hope on the twenty-third, leave being granted to station a gang at Dusky to collect seal skins for the China market.

On Saturday, 3rd November, the snowy summits of New Zealand were sighted, but the weather proved so unfavourable that it was not until the following Tuesday evening that the Britannia was moored in Facile Harbour. Raven at once set about an examination of the Sound, visiting in succession Cormorant Cove, the Seal Islands and Pickersgill Harbour. At both Facile and Pickersgill Harbours were the signs of trees newly cut down, probably by Vancouver's men in the previous year, and there were still visible the logs at Cook's clearing. Though his own visit to the Seal Islands did not prove successful, Raven sent his chief mate there, and on the latter's report decided to leave a gang at Dusky.

On the twelfth a party set out for Breaksea, and when approaching the opening of the sea, smoke was seen issuing from a native hut in a small cove on the left hand side. When the boat's crew landed, the natives fled to the woods and Raven contented himself with leaving an axe and two knives, but nothing would induce the Maoris to return.

The spot finally decided on for the location of the sealing gang was Luncheon Cove on Anchor Island, and on 14th September Raven commenced the work of the construction of the sealers' huts. All the ships hands were employed to make the men's quarters comfortable, and by the latter end of November they had completed a dwelling house, 40 ft. long, 18 ft. broad, and 15 ft. high. Provisions and stores for twelve months were landed. The second mate, a carpenter, and a party of men, were left at the bay, page 93 and to make provision against the danger of the non-return of the Britannia, ironwork, cordage, and sails for boatbuilding were included in their equipment, and the men were directed to commence the building of a small craft, sufficiently large to carry them, in the event of accident, to a friendly port. Thus was the first sealing gang stationed on the New Zealand coast. Luncheon Cove, Dusky, claims the honour of being the spot, and Wm. Leith, second mate of the Britannia, had the distinction of being its commander.

On 1st December, 1792, the Britannia left for the Cape of Good Hope via the South of New Zealand, leaving this small band of intrepid spirits on the wild southern coast of a veritably unknown region, cut off from all communication with civilization, save such as they could establish for themselves by the construction of a vessel from timber growing in the virgin forest. And they had volunteered for the work. As the Britannia was leaving Facile Harbour a sharp earthquake was experienced.

The day after leaving Dusky, Raven sighted the Snares and not knowing of their prior discovery by Vancouver, called them Sunday Islands.7 It was not until he returned to Sydney and met Vancouver's men that he ascertained the fact of their prior discovery. This was the first time after their discovery that these islands are known to have been sighted.

The following February, while the sealing gang was at Dusky, Malaspina with two Spanish discovery corvettes attempted to enter Breaksea Sound, but failed, and made for Sydney. Neither the Spaniard nor the sealing gang, was aware of each other's proximity.

When Raven, in accordance with his charter, landed his cargo from the Cape of Good Hope at Sydney, seven months had elapsed since he had seen his men, and naturally his first anxiety was to have them relieved. The necessity for further supplies at Sydney was, however, very great, and again the Britannia was chartered, this time to proceed to India. Grose, who had command of the soldiers page 94 when Raven got his first charter, was now Lieutenant-Governor, and doubtless was only too willing to assist Raven in every possible way. He met Raven's anxiety about his men by granting leave in the charter-party to call at Dusky, in addition to which he ordered the newly built colonial schooner the Francis, a vessel of 41 tons, to accompany Raven. The Francis, it is interesting to know, was the first vessel completed in Sydney. She had been imported in frame from England in the Pitt, and called the Francis because she was launched on the birthday of Francis, the son of the Lieutenant-Governor. The foremast of the vessel was a red pine spar brought from Dusky by Raven8 by whom also she was launched and fitted out. Her first voyage was, by direction of the Lieutenant-Governor, to Dusky and she was commanded by William House, late boatswain of the Discovery, who had been with Vancouver in Dusky in 1791, and who, having been invalided, had recovered sufficiently to accept a Government appointment. An official reason had, of course, to be given for the Francis going to Dusky, and in the Lieutenant-Governor's own words it was stated that the Francis “was to sail for Dusky Bay in New Zealand immediately in order to ascertain how far that place, which, I understand, possesses all the advantages of Norfolk Island, with the addition of a safe harbour and seal-fishery, may tend to the benefit of his Majesty's service, as connected with these settlements.”9

It should be noted that two months before this, in April, 1793, the results of Vancouver's visit to the south of New Zealand were made known by the arrival of the Daedalus, store ship, under the command of one of Vancouver's men, Lieutenant Hanson, late of the Chatham. He brought copies of Vancouver's new maps showing the Snares and the Chatham Islands.10 It was by this vessel that House reached Sydney. From Lieutenant Hanson of the Daedalus and William House now appointed master of the Francis, the Lieutenant-Governor would doubtless obtain information about Dusky and its capabilities. The favourable reports of these men suggested to Grose the page 95 possibilities of opening up lucrative trade, and justified the sending of the colonial schooner. The dates suggest that the first sealing gang was stationed at Dusky on Cook's information, and the Francis sent to report on Vancouver's.

The two vessels sailed from Sydney on 8th September, 1793, the Britannia reaching Dusky on the twenty-seventh of that month, while the Francis, having been blown off the coast four times, did not make the bay until the twelfth of October.4

On the first visit, Raven had anchored in Facile Harbour, the choice of Cook; on the occasion of the second, in Anchor Island Harbour, the refuge of Vancouver. The moment the vessel came to an anchor, Leith and a party of five, who had been seen coming round the south point of the island from their sealing station at Luncheon Cove, came on board and reported that all were well. Everything was found to be snug. As a sanatorium Dusky had sustained its reputation acquired from Cook and Vancouver. Raven tells us the health of the men, with one exception, had been good, and that exception was attributable to illness contracted before leaving Sydney, and the fact kept from the knowledge of the captain. This case however, was on a fair way to recovery. On the other hand, it had not turned out a pronounced success as a sealing station; the ten months that Raven was away had yielded only 4500 seal skins, but there were circumstances to account for this, and as the party had used every exertion, and procured as many as possible, Captain Raven was satisfied.4

The boat built during the gang's stay was, as far as the author can ascertain, the first vessel built in Australasia, purely from Australasian timber. The Francis, the first vessel built in Sydney, came out from England in frame, in one of the ships, and was only completed with Australian timber. The building of the Dusky craft is an Australasian historical event, and justifies us here in placing upon record the particulars as given by Raven himself. “What excited my admiration was the progress they had made in constructing a vessel of the following dimensions: page 96 40ft. keel, 53ft. length upon deck, 16ft. 10in. extreme breadth, and 12 feet hold. She is skined, ceiled, and decked, and with the work of three or four men for one day would be ready for caulking. Her frame knees and crooked pieces are cut from timber growing to the mould. She is planked, decked, and ceiled with spruce fir, which in the opinion of the carpenter is very little inferior to English oak.

“Her construction is such that she will carry more by one half than she measures, and I am confident will sail well. The carpenter has great merit, and has built her with that strength and neatness which few shipwrights belonging to the merchant service are capable of performing.”4

The Francis had not been seen since the afternoon of 22nd September, and it was now the 28th and there was still no appearance of her. Under the terms of his charter Raven was allowed to stay only fourteen days at Dusky, and, all being anxious to get away, sails were repaired, the balance of the stores got on board, some timber secured for planking, and on Thursday, 9th October, Luncheon Cove with the unfinished craft of some 70 tons burden was abandoned. Stress of weather compelled Raven to make for Facile Harbour, where several days were spent in completing preparations, in visiting various spots ashore, and in inspecting some native huts. It was fortunate that events turned out as they did, because with the somewhat prolonged stay awaiting suitable weather to leave, a boat was sent back to Luncheon Cove for no other purpose than to bring away one of the domestic cats which had been left by the last boat. To the great joy of the boat's crew they found the Francis at anchor and learned that she had arrived the previous day, after being driven as far south as the Snares.

The condition of the tender was so bad that without repairs she could not have ventured to sea again, and the following day she was taken round to Facile Harbour, where lay the Britannia, and all hands were set to work to page 97 effect what was necessary. She had been rigged as a sloop, and as her want of success in making the coast of New Zealand was attributed to this, she was converted into a schooner and under that rig, on Sunday 21st October, left for Port Jackson, the Britannia sailing the same day for Norfolk Island.

During the stay of the sealing gang, the weather had been very bad, severe gales and heavy rains from the northwest often impeding the fishery and other labour.

Before the site of the shipbuilding yard in Dusky was known, Mr. Henry, late caretaker in the Sound, after carefully investigating different localities, indicated Luncheon Cove as the spot, and informed the author of his view. Now that the locality has been placed beyond doubt through the discovery of the Britannia's log, this opportunity is taken of testifying to the accuracy of Mr. Henry's researches.

The Britannia, after leaving Dusky, called at Norfolk Island and took Governor King, with the two Maori flax-dressers, back to New Zealand.

When House reached Sydney with his vessel, he reported to Grose on the result of his visit, but he cannot be said to have given a very favourable report. Collins the historian remarks regarding it. “Nothing appeared, by this information from Dusky Bay, that held out encouragement to the Government of Port Jackson to make use of that part of New Zealand. So little was said of the soil, or face of the country, that no judgment could be formed of any advantages which might be expected from attempting to cultivate it; a seal fishery there was not an object with it at present, and besides, it did not seem to promise much. The time the schooner was absent however, was not wholly misapplied, it proving the event of having, as Mr. Raven had done, left 12 people for 10 months on so populous an island, the inhabitants whereof were known to be savages, fierce and warlike. It might certainly be supposed that these people were unacquainted with the circumstances of there being any strangers near them, and page 98 that consequently they had not any communication with the few miserable beings who were occasionally seen in the coves of Dusky Bay.”11

This was the first impression gathered from House's report. Probably the four times he had been driven off the coast and the hard work he had been put to in altering the rig of his vessel had more to do in producing an unfavourable report than anything he saw. Others held an entirely different opinion. An officer at Norfolk Island writing in 1793 to a friend in Lincoln, England, and speaking of Raven's visit to Dusky, says: “They speak so highly of the country, for the goodness of the soil and the fine timber with which it abounds, that it may be an object to Government in course of time.”12

The Britannia, on her road to India, called, as we have seen, at Norfolk Island, and from this place on 2nd November Raven penned his official report to Lieutenant-Governor King, from which the following, outside the ordinary narrative of events, is extracted.

“There are various kinds of timber in Dusky Bay, but that which is principally fit for shipbuilding is the spruce fir, which may be cut along the shore in any quantity or size for the construction of vessels from a first-rate to a small wherry.

“Fresh provisions are readily procured. Coalfish are innumerable, and may be caught with hooks and lines in almost any quantity, and have this peculiar excellence—my people ate them without bread for many months twice a day, and were fond of them to the last. Ducks, wood-hens, and various fowls they had procured in great plenty. Tea they made from the spruce and tea-trees. The animals I left had fed themselves on what they found in the woods, and were exceedingly fat and prolific.

“The rains here are not attended with that inconvenience experienced in other climates. Colds or rheumatisms my people were never afflicted with. page 99 “The winter was mild, and in general they had better weather than in the summer months. The flax grows here in great abundance, from which our people made fishing-lines and kellick-ropes.”

Collins says: “The natives had not molested the Britannia's people; indeed, they seemed rather to abhor them, for, if by chance in their excursions (which were very few), they visited and left anything in a hut, they were sure, on their next visit, to find the hut pulled down, and their present remaining where it was left. Some little articles which Mr. Raven had himself placed in a hut, when he touched there to establish his little fishery, were found three months after by his people in the same spot.”13

Captain Raven had intended procuring “seal skins for the China market.” This was at the very earliest dawn of the Australasian seal trade. Two vessels had sailed southwards from Sydney in quest of seals, but returned in November, 1791, unsuccessful. Governor Phillip expressed concern for the prospects of trade in 1792, and in March of that year reported that he feared that “the fur trade of the north-west coast of America, and the trade among the islands, was too great an object to those employed in it to allow of them giving the Australian trade a trial.” The Russians had long before an extensive fur trade with China, going overland from Siberia, and the northwest coast trade of America, which was American and British, also went largely to China. The result was that when a fur industry arose in Australasian waters, China appeared to be the natural market for the produce. Later on the market became flooded to such an extent that the price of a fine seal fur was only four shillings to five shillings and sixpence—a non-paying price. About the commencement of the new century the trade shifted to England, where fur began to be used for the making of felt for hats.

The early whaling trade was pelagic and can scarcely be claimed as a trade by any country, while, on the other hand, the sealing trade was essentially coastal and local. page 100 Beyond a spar or two put on board a stray vessel in the North Island, the Dusky Bay sealing of Captain Raven in 1792–93 was the first trade with New Zealand, and that was destined for the China market, and not for the English. References to the China trade crop up everywhere in the old records. Even the mails sometimes went from Australia via China, the vessels arriving from England being under charter to the East India Company to go from Australia to China and take thence a cargo of tea to England.

We saw that when Raven set out for Dusky in the first instance, he was armed with a three years' trade license from the East India Company. It was under this authority that he was able to kill seals on the New Zealand coast, as trade in the East was a monopoly of the United Company of Merchants of England trading to the East Indies. When in 1795 whaling was found to be a profitable employment in the newly explored waters, legislation was passed fixing the limits for the Southern Whale Fishery. By that legislation, vessels could not proceed further east than 51° E. This still kept New Zealand and the New Zealand sealing under the domain of the East India Company and doubtless encouraged the seal trade to go to China, rather than to England. In 1797 the Board of Trade considered a petition of the merchant adventurers of the Southern Whale Fishery for an extension of their limits, owing to the war between Great Britain and Spain; and the application was referred to the East India Company for favourable consideration. In 1798 the extended limits sought were granted by legislation. In 1801, Messrs. Enderby and Champion on behalf of merchants, secured a further extension which opened the whole Southern Ocean for fishing, provided the vessels delivered their journals to the Court of the Directors of the East India Company on their return to England. Thus the New Zealand seal trade became free to British subjects, as to foreigners.