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The Old Whaling Days



For a long time before the period now to be reviewed New Zealand had been intimately associated with the whaling trade. Whalers had “fished” off the northern coast from about 1794, and had, from somewhere about that date, made the Bay of Islands a depôt from which they obtained food for their crews, and crews for their ships. These were sperm whalers, who hunted the cachalot in the open sea, over recognised whaling grounds in the vicinity of our coasts, but their trade cannot be claimed as belonging to any country in particular, it belongs to the Ocean. The whaling trade we now propose to deal with was of an entirely different kind, and consisted of pursuing and capturing the right whale, when these animals paid their annual visit to the New Zealand bays.

Dieffenbach, the naturalist of the New Zealand Company, who wrote fully on the subject in 1839, when there were ample facilities for accurate observation, says that the whales arrived off our coast from the north, in the beginning of May, skirted the western coastline of the North Island, passed between Kapiti Island and the mainland, and then entered Cloudy Bay. In June they appeared at the Chathams. In October they made to the east or to the north. Some, instead of coming through Cook Strait, went round by Preservation Inlet and Foveaux Strait. In the early part of the season the whales were in Cook Strait, in the latter part, in Cloudy Bay.

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The end of the third decade of the century found quite a number of Sydney firms engaged in the sperm whale trade, in company with the whaling vessels of England, Europe, and America. As sperm whales came to be reduced in number, and as the demand for right whale oil and whalebone made the right whale more valuable, greater attention was paid to the latter's movements, and some of the whalers captured the right whale when opportunity offered, and took sperm or right as they were available. Noting the bays on the New Zealand coast which the whales visited to calve, and the period when that took place, the whalers, during the same period, forsook the open sea whaling and visited these same bays. Thus did bay whaling become a New Zealand trade.

The Rev. R. Taylor states, under date 1855, that whaling began in Cook Strait and Preservation Inlet in 1827, but as Williams, who managed the Preservation Station, only claimed to have started there in 1829, Taylor must be wrong in his dates or in his association of the two places. In April, 1836, the Customs Department, Sydney, informed the Governor that the fisheries had been carried on for about eight years and were increasing. That would imply a commencement in 1827 or 1828, according as the writer spoke of the seasons the stations were used, or the years since they were opened. In 1839, Guard told Colonel Wakefield of the New Zealand Company that he entered Tory Channel in 1827, having been driven in by a gale of wind. There he built a house and carried on sealing and whaling, with great risk and annoyance from the natives and with no profit to himself. Sometimes he was compelled to live on whale's flesh and wild turnip tops. For want of sufficient men and the necessary tools, he was unable to save the oil, so he killed the whales for the bone only, which he sold to passing vessels. The Maoris repeatedly burnt down his buildings. Guard's account is quite consistent with contemporaneous records, and would explain the absence of any mention of New Zealand whale oil, amongst Sydney imports, during those years.

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The explanation of any misunderstanding as to the date of the commencement of the Cook Strait whaling is probably to be found in a letter of date November, 1831, written by Mr. Bell, a Sydney merchant, who was extensively engaged in the trade, and who had resided with a shore party at Cloudy Bay for some seven months during the whaling season of 1830. That gentleman says:—

“The black whale fishery was tried in New Zealand some years ago, but it was again abandoned until last year, when it was renewed by one vessel and two shore parties from Sydney, and one vessel from Hobart Town. As they had to look out for the best bays and other difficulties to encounter which always attend the commencement of such speculations, some time was lost at the beginning of the season, but they were, on the whole, very successful, and caught about six hundred tuns of oil and thirty tons of bone…. The black whales visit the bays and coasts of New Zealand for the purpose of calving, and begin to set in about the beginning of April and remain till about the middle of September. Cloudy Bay in Cooks Straits is considered the best situation on account of its excellent harbour, but should too many vessels frequent it there are several other smaller harbours and bays in the Middle and Southern and Stewarts Island where the fishery may be carried on.”

This clears up the mystery surrounding the starting of bay whaling in Cook Strait, and fits in with the statement attributed to Guard of his connection with it. Bell varies, to the extent of a month, the date of arrival of the whales. This may have been one of the results of the nine years of persecution which the whales had undergone when Dieffenbach wrote.

The first cargo of whale oil, which can be identified as coming from the South Island of New Zealand, reached Sydney on 3rd February, 1830, in the Waterloo, a small schooner of 66 tons, under the command of Captain Guard. page 4 The oil cargo consisted of only two tuns, and was consigned to R. Campbell & Co., but whether it was taken by a shore party during the 1829 season, or was captured at sea, is not stated. In addition to her oil, the Waterloo had on board 1185 seal skins, which she had procured in the south. During her southern trip she met the Caroline, Williams, off Chalky Inlet the day she sailed. Her sealing trip might explain the delay in getting to Sydney the oil of the 1829 season.

On 13th February, the Harlequin, 71 tons, Scott, sailed from Sydney for Cook Strait, with a cargo of muskets, gunpowder, pipes, tobacco, and rum. She brought back a cargo of flax and potatoes on 30th March. John Cowel, the son of a ropemaker in Sydney, was on board acting as interpreter. The work he did was highly spoken of, and his services were commended to merchants engaged in the New Zealand trade. Her second trip was from Hobart Town on 2nd June, under the command of Allan Monteith. Her cargo was consigned to Mr. George Macfarlane, who was also a passenger.

While at Hobart Town Captain Monteith told, that, a short time before, he had been at New Zealand as second officer on board a vessel, and had spoken the Government brig Cyprus, which had been piratically seized while in Research Bay on a voyage from Hobart Town to Macquarie Island with convicts. Convict Walker then commanded the captured vessel. Under him she was sailing as the Friends of Boston. When spoken she was taking in ballast and water, and had plenty of provisions on board. It is probable that Monteith was second officer of the Elizabeth and Mary, as that vessel brought similar news to Sydney in September, 1829. If so, it was at Port Underwood the pirates were met with, and it would be from the natives of Cook Strait they obtained their provisions.

This conclusion is supported by the recollection of Mr. John Guard, of Port Underwood, of his father's version of the incident. The original John Guard, captain of the page 5 Waterloo, told his son that he was in Port Underwood when the Cyprus arrived; that shortly afterwards “Billy” Worth arrived (the Elizabeth and Mary). When Worth found out who his neighbours were he wanted to effect a capture, but Guard would not hear of it. “Captain” Walker treated Guard and Worth to everything good that was on board, and the pirate quite won the heart of Mrs. Worth by presenting her with some ladies' dresses. These dresses had belonged to the officers' wives when the craft was seized and all but the pirates put ashore. Guard also said that the Waterloo, the Cyprus and the Elizabeth and Mary were the first three ships to visit Port Underwood. This statement is open to grave doubt.

In March, R. Campbell & Co. purchased the brig Hind and fitted her out for the black whale fishery. On 26th April, Bell and Farmer sent the William Stoveld on a whaling cruise to New Zealand. The Hind followed on 4th May. When the brig Tranmere arrived on 24th June, with a cargo of flax from Kapiti, Captain Smith reported that the William Stoveld and the Hind were bay whaling there, and that the former had 25 tuns of oil on board, and the latter 16, with a whale alongside.

Reports which reached Sydney in July regarding the prospects of the bay whaling were very favourable. These were borne out by the return of the William Stoveld on 13th August, with 50 tuns of oil and 25 tons of flax. This vessel appears to have had a party stationed ashore in connection with her operations. On the day of her arrival in Sydney, the Norval, Harrison, sailed for the New Zealand black whale fishery.

The Currency Lass, the Java Packet, and the Industry were at New Zealand when the William Stoveld left. In consequence of the increased demand flax was becoming rather scarce, and masters of vessels were reporting great difficulty in getting cargoes. The real significance of the trade was not lost upon the Sydney people, and some appeared to have qualms of conscience over the fact that page 6 the trade was a flourishing one simply because the islanders wanted weapons to wage war against one another. One journal took up the cudgels on behalf of the trade, and argued that the supplies of muskets and gunpowder which were pouring into New Zealand would make war such a fearful thing that the natives would hesitate to embark on it and peace would result. Whether that argument is true to-day remains to be seen, but subsequent events among the Maoris showed that in their case the result was the very opposite.

On 3rd September the Prince of Denmark brought up 15 tons of flax. Her report was that there was plenty of flax, but that the natives would not trade. The Argo, the Currency Lass, the Elizabeth, and the Industry had only 5 tons among them. Whaling looked better, as the Hind had about 140 tuns of black oil, the William Stoveld's party 100 tuns, and the Deveron, of Hobart, 140 tuns.

Six days later the Argo, disgusted at her want of success in getting a cargo, reached Sydney a clean ship. To add to the disappointment she had lost two of her anchors.

On 11th October, the brig Industry returned with 21 tons of flax and a passenger, Richard Murphy. Captain Young reported speaking the brig Elizabeth, the Dragon, and the Currency Lass, all empty; the Waterloo, with 10 tons of flax, and the Hind, at Cloudy Bay on 28th August, almost full of oil.

The Java Packet, which was the other vessel in Cook Strait with the William Stoveld, Industry and Currency Lass, came to a sad end. Some prisoners at Norfolk Island seized a boat and escaped. They made for New Zealand, seized the Java Packet, and, it was thought, murdered the crew and took the vessel to Rhootamah where they scuttled her.

The Waterloo returned on the twenty-third with 14 tons of flax. During the following month—November—the remaining bay whalers returned to Sydney. The Norval and the Hind sailed together, but the former put into Cloudy Bay for several days, eventually reaching page 7 Sydney on 2nd November, with 110 tuns of oil, 10 tons of flax, and 6 tons whalebone, while the latter reached Sydney on the thirteenth, with 160 tuns of oil and 6 tons of whalebone.

The doings of the Elizabeth will form the subject of a special chapter.

J. B. Montefiore, of Sydney, decided at this time to form mercantile establishments throughout New Zealand, and, to make himself acquainted with the country and its inhabitants, chartered the brig Argo, 168 tons, Billing, and sailed for New Zealand on 11th September, 1830. His first port of call was Kawhia, where he purchased some land for a trading station and then sailed south. He intended to visit the South Island, but the events to be recorded in the next chapter altered his plans, and he returned to Sydney in the Elizabeth. The Argo did not reach Sydney until 28th May. Her cargo consisted of 55 tons of flax, 10 tons of potatoes, 30 pigs, 2 sacks of wheat, and 30 jars of pickled oysters. Among trade pioneers she may claim the honour of being the pioneer of the oyster trade.

In addition to the Sydney whalers, the Deveron had returned from Cloudy Bay to Hobart Town on 2nd November, with 200 tuns of oil and 20 tons of bone. This barque was commanded by Captain Lovett, and although she brought back to port a very fine cargo, she had been compelled to bring her voyage to an end through a terrible accident met with while on the fishing station.

“Two parties, in different boats, were examining a bay on that coast, when a sudden squall overtook them, and, dreadful to relate, one of the boats was immediately capsized. The poor unfortunate sufferers were seen by the crew of the other boat in this dreadful situation, but owing to the tempestuous weather, it would have been certain destruction to the other crew had they attempted to relieve their companions, who consequently met an untimely end. page 8 The crew of the boat consisted of the first and third mate, besides four seamen, one of whom was a native lad of the place, named Williams. In consequence of the above unfortunate circumstance, by which six hands were lost, the captain considered it advisable to return to port, particularly as, with the exception of about 15 tuns, the whole of his oil casks were filled.”

The date of the tragedy is given as 28th September, 1830. The cargo obtained during the five months of the voyage was valued at £5000, and belonged to Captain Wilson.

When Captain Briggs returned to Hobart Town in the Dragon, on 10th December, after experiences at Kapiti which will be recorded in connection with the movements of the Elizabeth, the Customs authorities treated his cargo as foreign produce, and called upon him to pay five per cent, duty in addition to wharfage charges. At that time, in Sydney, New Zealand produce was treated as Colonial, and neither duty nor wharfage charges were imposed upon it. Under this system Sydney had built up a big New Zealand trade. The point had never been raised in Hobart Town, where the New Zealand trade was very insignificant. Briggs, who was one of the owners of the Dragon, applied to the authorities to have his cargo treated as foreign produce. The Customs officers at once saw the importance of the point in relation to the development of their trade with New Zealand, and reported favourably on the application. The Sydney Customs, on being consulted, advised that they dealt with New Zealand produce as their own “free of duty, or any charge whatever,” but that the Regulation was purely a local one, and they suggested that the subject was worthy of the attention of the Lt.-Governor at Hobart Town. On examination, and in view of the importance of cultivating an oversea trade for the young town of Hobart Town, the Lt.-Governor decided that New Zealand produce should be admitted as Colonial, and Captain Briggs was advised that his cargo page 9 of spars and flax would be admitted free. Whether due to this step or not, the author will not say, but after this date the Hobart Town trade with New Zealand developed to a wonderful extent.

It is possible to give a very fair description of the local bay whaling and to indicate the quantity of oil obtained during the season of 1830, in Cook Strait. For this we are again indebted to the information supplied by Mr. Bell, who thus places upon record the result of his observations while at Cloudy Bay.

“If the fishing is to be carried on by a shore party, the try pots and huts are erected on the beach and the vessel which brought the party down is either employed in collecting flax along the coast, or returns to Sydney, and is sent down again at the end of the season to bring them up with what oil they may have caught. The boats are sent out at daylight every morning, and when they are so fortunate as to kill a fish it is towed ashore and flinched and boiled up on the beach. When the fishing is carried on in a vessel, the blubber is boiled out in try pots erected on deck as in a sperm whaler. From its being tried out immediately after the fish is caught the oil is much purer and is free from the rancid smell of the Greenland oil. A vessel had a great advantage over a shore party as in fine weather they can go out of the harbour and anchor in the Bay, and when they have got a sufficient quantity of blubber, or when bad weather comes on, they can tow the dead whales in; whereas if a shore party kills a whale, and bad weather comes on, they are obliged to anchor it and come in, and it is a great chance if they do not lose it.

“The whales are seldom killed nearer than two miles from the harbour, and sometimes seven or eight, and if the tide or wind is against them it is a most laborious business to tow such a huge animal. page 10 I have known the boats to be out for 14 hours pulling, except at short intervals, all the time. Indeed, killing the fish is a trifle in comparison with the getting it in, our party alone lost seven large fish after they were killed last season. The depth of water in the bays where the whales are killed is from 14 to 20 fathoms. They yield from 2 to 13 tuns of oil, those killed by my party last season averaged 6 tuns of oil each and three and a half hundred-weight of bone. The cows are generally larger and produce more oil than the bulls, but they get thin towards the end of the season from supporting the calves. It is a pity that it should often be necessary to fasten to the calf in order to secure the cow, but I do not apprehend it will cause such a diminution of numbers as to injure the fishing, at least not until it is carried on to a much greater extent than it is at present.”

Mr. Bell speaks of one whaling vessel and two whaling stations being fitted out from Sydney during the first season. It is somewhat difficult to follow his figures in this. The Hind was fitted out by R. Campbell & Co., and the William Stoveld by Bell (probably our informant) and Farmer. The Tranmere reported both of them to be whaling at Kapiti. According to the Sydney press, two different firms had a whaling station and a vessel engaged in the industry. The solitary vessel from Hobart Town was the Deveron, owned by Captain Wilson. Bell puts the total catch at 600 tuns of oil and 30 tons of bone. At the London prices of £28 for oil and £125 for bone the whaling products for the season would amount to £20,550. The whalers also took away 25 tons of flax. Probably the distinction between Kapiti and Cloudy Bay in regard to trade generally was not very clearly observed.

The following table will show the cargoes of oil reported in the press to have been obtained in and about Cook Strait during 1830:—

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Arrival Vessel Class Tons Captain Tuns
Feb. 3 Waterloo Schooner 66 Guard 2
Aug. 13 William Stoveld Brig 187 Davidson 50
Nov. 2 Norval Brig 294 Harrison 110
Nov. 2 Deveron 272 Lovett 200
Nov. 13 Hind Brig 140 Scott 160

The following Flax Traders also visited Cook Strait:—

Arrival Vessel Class Tons Captain Tons
Mar. 30 Harlequin Schooner 71 Scott
June 24 Tranmere Brig 186 Smith 17
Aug. 13 William Stoveld Brig 182 Davidson 25
Sept. 3 Prince of Denmark Schooner 127 Jack 15
Sept. 9 Argo Brig 169 Billing
Oct. 11 Industry Brig 87 Young 21
Oct. 23 Waterloo Schooner 66 Guard 14
Nov. 2 Norval Brig 294 Harrison 10
Dec. 10 Dragon 135 Steine
Java Packet 88 Morris

This table is limited to those known to have been in Cook Strait. Probably it does not form even a majority of those that were there.

Bell was in the habit of getting supplies of potatoes for his Cloudy Bay whaling station from the Kapiti natives, and on one occasion an Englishman, who came over with them in a canoe manned by 40 Maoris, told him of a singular custom which the Natives observed when coming across. They coasted along until they came to the narrowest part of the Strait when every man but the steersman covered his eyes. They obliged the Englishman to do the same, and to sit down in the bottom of the boat. In this singular position they paddled across. Shortly after they started the Englishman uncovered his eyes, but the natives remained blindfolded and speechless until the canoes came within a quarter of a mile of the land, when, at a signal from the steersman, they resumed their normal condition amidst demonstrations of joy.

Up to this time vessels engaged in the flax trade always come down to the New Zealand coast with sufficient goods page 12 on board to enable barter with the Natives to be carried on until their cargoes were completed. This meant great delay on the coast and consequent loss of money. A very much better plan now came into operation. Collectors were landed at the different settlements to buy the flax and have it all ready to be put on board when the vessel was ready to receive it. Meanwhile the vessel sailed away and visited other places.

The goods usually taken for exchange were tomahawks, pipes, fishhooks, clasp knives, tobacco, cotton handkerchiefs, cartridge paper, bullets, cartouche boxes, bayonets, cutlasses, bullet moulds, and leather belts. In winter there was a very good demand for blankets and woollen slops. The goods got in return were pigs, potatoes, curios, and flax. Labour was paid for the same way. Tobacco was in good demand, and rum gave promise of improvement as its taste was acquired. Muskets, with a plentiful supply of gunpowder, were looked upon as the most valuable articles for the Natives to have, and they were purchased by such quantities that an onlooker would have thought they would have long before this become a drug on the market. This was not so, however. When the trade first commenced, any sort of weapon which the trader could fire off, if it were only when the weapon was being tried, was good enough to buy, and, as the Natives were provided neither with the means nor the knowledge of effecting repairs, the number of muskets which had to be “scrapped” was very great. By 1830 this was all changed, and the Maori knew a good gun just as well as the European did, and they knew the men they were dealing with, so they made it a rule to take off the locks and examine them before completing the bargain. They preferred the muskets which bore a Tower stamp, and fancied the stocks which were dark in colour and had most brass upon them.

When it is known that the trade in muskets and gunpowder was almost wholly to enable Te Rauparaha to plunder and devastate the less efficiently armed tribes around him, the expert knowledge which the Maori had page 13 acquired in connection with munitions of war gives us an idea of the tremendous magnitude of the trade, and the consequent destruction of human life on which it lived. One trader hired out his vessel to take natives to a certain spot to kill other natives, another trader sold the guns to the transported natives by which they were able to effect their purpose, knowing at the time what the weapons were being bought for. The problem of deciding which was the greater offence is passed on from the author to the reader.