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The Old Whaling Days



On 14th January, the American barque Mechanic called at Stewart Island, and Captain Doggett landed nine seamen who had been serving on board the brig Cornwallis. The Cornwallis had been sperm whaling, and had, when going out of Bouka Bay, Solomon Islands, on 1st January, gone on a reef and been wrecked. The Mechanic, which was with her at the time, took the shipwrecked men on board and brought them to Sydney, calling en route at Stewart Island to land at their homes nine seamen who were natives of that place.

The brig Mic Mac, commanded by Bruce, and trading to Jones' stations, came up to Sydney on 4th February with 90 tuns of oil and 119 seal skins. Dr. Stewart and Mrs. Byrne also came up in her as passengers. When Captain Bruce was among them, the New Zealand natives were greatly agitated at the prospect of war with Te Rauparaha. That chief had despatched one of his generals and a strong detachment of warriors to fight the Maoris, on the western side of the island, and Bruce reported that the invaded natives had advanced to meet the northern warriors. The Europeans were also in a considerable state of alarm and had packed up their valuables and made preparations to defend themselves.

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The Mic Mac was now taken off the stations trade and put on to the black whale fishery. Bears took command, and Bruce went back to his old vessel.

The huge cargoes of oil which had come up from Otago during the 1836 season caused a great deal of interest to be manifested in Otago, and in the “Australian” of 20th January, 1837, a writer, A.B., published the following shipping information relative to the Harbour, “famous in point of obtaining right whales”:—

“Port Oxley, or Otago, on the east side of the Middle Island of New Zealand, is situated at the S.W. angle of a spacious bay of the same name, and seven miles north of Cape Saunders, in lat. 45° 49′ S. and long. 170° 25′ E. The harbour being of no considerable width, and trending north and south between hills of very considerable elevation, renders the distinguishing of the entrance rather difficult to strangers proceeding there from the eastward. The following may therefore prove serviceable to such as may in the course of the whaling season be destined to proceed thereto.

“The entrance to that harbour may be discriminated from the offing by a white sandy beach about a quarter of a mile in length (situated immediately to the north of the headland forming the N.W. side of the entrance), near the middle of which there is a small rock, assuming, at a distance, a conical form, also by a number of oblong cultivated patches at, and adjoining the summit of, the hill forming the S.E. side. Having descried these marks, steer for either, as the then prevailing wind may be, until the interior of the harbour comes to view. Having proceeded thus far, the course should be shaped for the latter mark, and continued until its being approached within a musket shot; then steer along it, maintaining the same distance until brought to bear east by compass; then steer S. ½ E. for three quarters of a mile, and anchor in 2½ page 178 fathoms low water, spring tides, rather to the southward of mid-channel. A vessel of large draught of water should anchor near the second projecting headland on the southern side, where there is deep water. It may be judicious to observe, that on the N.W. side of the entrance there is a sand spit, which stretches half way across (on the most elevated part of which there reside a number of natives); therefore, plying inwards with adverse winds, the greatest attention should be paid to the lead, so as to tack on the first indication of the water shoaling.

“The tide at Otago runs with very considerable velocity; therefore vessels remaining thereat, for ever so limited a period, should moor, one anchor to the northward, and another to the S.W. High water, full and change, 3h. 30′—rise and fall (unless greatly influenced by winds) 9 feet.

“It is necessary also to observe, that during the prevalence of strong N.E. or easterly winds, the sea at intervals (during the ebb) breaks across the entrance, which would impress a stranger that to enter under those circumstances, would be incurring a great risk; I would, therefore, notice that sufficient depth of water remains, even at low water spring tides, for a vessel of any draught less than 30 feet.

“The whaling season commences at Otago the latter end of March, during which whales are in abundance throughout the bay, and often caught within the harbour. In the vicinity, the flax plant grows luxuriantly, and the fibre is of good quality. Esculents are also abundant, and obtainable at a very low price. Various species of timber grow at, and in the neighbourhood of Otago, which may be purchased from the natives at an extraordinary low price.”

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March saw an agitation on foot for a rise in the wages of the sailors, and as soon as the shipowners recovered from the shock, Jones, Weller, and the Cook Strait merchants met and issued the following manifesto which puts the case with more clearness than sympathy for the lot of man before the mast.

“A meeting of the Merchant Shipowners of the Port of Sydney, having been convened this day, to consider the expediency of complying with the demand made by the seamen and labourers usually employed in the outfits of vessels (whalers especially) of four shillings per diem, have on mature consideration of the several reports and statements made, drawn conclusions:—That the demand for increase of wages does not arise from scarcity of seamen or labourers, nor from inadequacy of wages hitherto paid to such men while fitting for the fishery, but from combination on the part of the men which they believe they can carry into effect at this important and busy season of the year.

“That this meeting has great reason to apprehend serious detention to ships of all descriptions in the Port of Sydney outward bound should any advance be acceded on the usual port wages to seamen and lumpers, as the increased wages in port, would increase the already too frequent desertion of seamen, especially those from Europe.

“That this meeting view the conduct of the seamen and labourers in the Port of Sydney, as the acts of a systematic organised body whose intentions are not yet fully developed, but whose object, if accomplished, would materially retard the progressive Advancement of our Colonial marine. Therefore they, the Colonial Shipowners, resolve to adhere to the rate of wages hitherto paid by them, in their outfits or harbour pay, viz.:—three shillings per diem, with full and ample allowance of provisions: and they trust that by all the shipowners page 180 unanimously agreeing to carry this resolution into effect, they will effectually counteract any unjust attempt that may be made to injure the shipping interest of the Port of Sydney. Agreed to by us this 14th day of March, 1837.”

William Richards John Jones
Richard Jones Robert Duke
R. Campbell. Junr., & Co. Thomas Collins
P. D. Mestre W. Walker & Co.
George Weller Archibald Mossman
A. McGaa. Breed & Co. G. H. Grose
Campbell & Co. &c. &c. &c.

On 19th March, the Bee sailed with stores for the various whaling stations and went viâ Foyeaux Strait and up the east coast to Cook Strait. She called in at Otago on 20th April and there found the Alexander Henry, clean, and the Henry Freeling, which had recently been purchased by Mr. Weller, loading up oil at his station for Sydney, from which place she had not long arrived with a whaling gang and a supply of stores.

Captain Bruce made his next trip in the Sydney Packet and brought back in her to Sydney, on 25th May, a cargo of 18 tuns of oil, 30cwt. of whalebone, and 1 pack of seal skins. He had sailed from Preservation on 5th May, and on his round trip had found the following whalers:

At Paterson's River, Stewart Island—

  • The Gratitude, New Bedford, a full ship, bound home.
  • The Margaret Rait, St. John's, out 8 months, 800 bar., bound for Bluff.
  • The Courier, Captain Worth, 900 bar., trying out.

At Preservation—

  • The Bombay, London, out 13 months, 250 bar.

The success of the Denmark Hill on the Foveaux Strait grounds the previous year had directed the attention of whaling masters to that locality, and after page 181 the Cloudy Bay season was over, and the takings found to be poor compared with those of the southern bays, some of the American vessels made their way south and into Foveaux Strait.

Bruce reported that matters had developed in connection with the Maori disturbance. The Cloudy Bay war party had come overland and fought an engagement near the Bluff, when Te Puoho, their leader, was killed, and a large number were taken prisoners. This is evidently a reference to the fight at Tuturau, on the banks of the Mataura, and gives us material to fix the date of that event with a fair amount of accuracy. It was earlier than 5th May, the date of Bruce's sailing from Preservation, and the author is inclined to think that the mention made by Bruce, on his former visit, that the Natives had advanced to meet the invaders, referred to an expedition from Ruapuke, which ended the invasion at Tuturau. If so, the date of the Tuturau fight can be put down as January, 1837; if not, February or March of that year. The particulars of the expedition do not come within the province of this work, which excludes Maori intertribal contests where no Europeans took part.

On 7th May, or only two days after Bruce had sailed from Preservation, the London whaler Bombay had a remarkable escape from destruction. Captain Lawson's log gives us the minutest detail of the accident.

“Fresh winds and clear weather; people employed in bending sails, and making ship snug for whaling. By 9 p.m. the breeze increased; by midnight it blew a hurricane of wind, when the ship drove so as to bring the whole scope of cables ahead. At 1 a.m. the ship's keel struck the rocks, and there remained striking throughout the remaining part of the night, expecting every surge she would bilge herself. At midnight the same weather. Noon, the wind blew with the same violence, there being no possible means of saving the ship until the gale abated. 8 The gale still continued to blow with increased violence. At 3 p.m. the gale page 182 moderated, when two boats from Mr. Palmer's establishment, with that gentleman himself in one of them, came to our assistance at the extreme hazard of their lives, the sea being at the time feather white, in consequence of our signals of distress. With their exertions we succeeded in laying a stream anchor to heave the ship off by. At 4.30 p.m. she came off, but was obliged to slip both cables to save the ship from destruction. Hove the ship up to the stream anchor, cut the stream hawser, and made sail on the ship; beat her up and down the bay during the night, and at 10 a.m. got the ship moored by hawsers to trees on shore, and let go a kedge, with a gun to back it, fast to the remainder of the cable. Sent four boats away to get the anchors, but found it utterly impossible to get near them.”

The Bombay had sailed from London on 24th January, 1836, and, when the accident happened, had 300 bar. of sperm, 100 of black oil, and 2 tons of whalebone on board. She lost 70 fathoms of chain and 20 of stream cable, 2 bower, and 1 stream anchors.

Not very long after the Bee had called in at Otago, the vessels she reported there began to move. The Alexander Henry sailed along the coast and was at Akaroa on 10th May, and Piraki six days later. Weller's boat, the Henry Freeling, sailed on 31st May, with 30 tuns of oil and some potatoes. The Establishment had secured 100 tuns of oil in all, and the 70 tuns left over were for a vessel to come down from Sydney for. The homeward trip of the Henry Freeling was an eventful one of no less than 11 weeks. She made Akaroa on 10th June and appears to have gone on to Port Cooper. Before she reached Sydney she was almost entirely out of provisions and was assisted by the Earl Stanhope with meat and biscuit. She made port little better than a wreck, having lost her bowsprit, bulwarks, boats, &c.

The next trip of the Sydney Packet was her last. Johnny Jones had commenced a new whaling station at page 183 Moeraki, and Captain Bruce was anchored there on 17th July, when a gale set in so strong that although three anchors were down the vessel broke from them, went ashore, and became a total wreck. She had on board 50 tuns of oil and 7 tons of whalebone, which was all saved but about 30 casks of oil. The insurances totalled £900.

Moeraki is next reported to have been visited on 10th August by the Lunar, commanded by Captain Kaley and owned by Mr. Grose, of Sydney.

The Henry Freeling reached Sydney on 20th August, and Mr. Weller at once chartered the Dart to run down and bring up the balance of the oil at Otago.

It was not until the 17th September that the news of the wreck of the Sydney Packet was brought to Sydney and with it came news of misfortune to two of Wright and Long's vessels. The Proteus grounded at Moeraki, but was got off without damage; the Governor Bourke also went ashore and injured her rudder but was relaunched and sent to Otago for repairs. Tempestuous weather had been experienced all along the coast, but the shore stations had been very successful. “Johnny” Jones had secured 400 tuns of oil, and Mr. Weller, 120.

Five days before the Bombay arrived Jones had sent down the Magnet to visit his different stations, under the command of Captain Winkworth. The loss of the Sydney Packet made Jones short handed for vessels, so he immediately chartered the Lynx and sent her down to bring up Captain Bruce and the crew and cargo of the Sydney Packet, the immediate requirements of which would be attended to by the Magnet. Among the passengers who went down in the Lynx were some of Jones' leading men—Jas. Spencer, Wm. Carter, John Wilson, and two New Zealanders. The Lynx took 16 days to go down, and on the day of her arrival—22nd October—the Magnet sailed for Sydney with Captain Bruce, J. Hughes, Sherat, and McKenzie as passengers, and 100 tuns of oil and 22 tons of whalebone.

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Captain Winkworth brought up a great budget of Otago news. The sea had washed over one of Weller's whaling stations, but fortunately the oil had been secured by being carried to higher ground and thus saved. The season on the whole had been very successful. The Dart had sailed on 15th October, with 112 barrels of oil and 287 bundles of whalebone, and with Mr. Harding and 19 men of a whaling gang as passengers. The Lucy Ann had discharged a full cargo of oil and was fitting for sperm fishery when the Magnet left. The Proteus, none the worse for her stranding, had 1100 barrels on board, and was coming on to Sydney with her own cargo and 60 tuns of freight. The Governor Bourke and the Isabella were loading oil for Sydney, for which port the latter sailed on 26th October. When in Foveaux Strait the Magnet spoke the Lynx, bound for the New River, and the Lunar, bound for the sperm fishery. The season's take of oil had been 200 tuns by Weller's gangs.

In October Jones still further increased his fleet by the purchase of the Genii for £2000 from Captain Duke, and Weller chartered the City of Edinburgh to proceed to New Zealand and load up with oil before sailing for London. The latter sailed for Otago on 21st October, and the former for Preservation Bay on 2nd November.

The bad luck which “Johnny” Jones had experienced in the loss of the Sydney Packet still followed him. He lost the Lynx, which he had sent to bring up oil from the different gangs along the coast. “The Sydney Monitor” of 23rd December thus describes the disaster:—

“The Lynx, Captain J. Gaunson, left Sydney about three months since for New River, New Zealand, to take in a cargo of oil from the whaling establishment of Messrs. Williams and Co. Having taken in 100 tuns of black oil, she commenced her passage down the river for Sydney on 18th November; they got the vessel under weigh about five o'clock in the afternoon, with a light breeze from the North-east. The wind dying away, they were obliged to tow her down with the boat, and succeeded in towing her page 185 about three miles when she took the ground. She got the stream anchor out and hove her off, and came to anchor in mid-channel with the best bower. At four o'clock the wind shifted round to the South-west, and came on to blow very hard, with a heavy sea setting in, which obliged them to get under weigh to run up the river again, so as to get into smooth water. In endeavouring to trip the anchor, it parted, and before they could get any canvass on the vessel, she was on shore, they tried to back her off but without success. Having but one whale boat left, they could not possibly convey an anchor out, the sea being very high; they clued up all the sails, and made all as snug as possible. By this time the sea was making a breach over her, the vessel had shipped a large quantity of water in her hold, and the cargo began to float about. Some of the crew took to the quarter, and some to the rigging. They then cut away the mainmast which fell to leeward, but hung by the lee lanyards, and after two or three bumps gainst the side started some of the planks, owing to which, she began to fill very fast; this was at day break. At six o'clock Mr. William's (Williams') boat came off to their assistance, although the sea was tremendously high, and succeeded in getting the crew into the boat, and after a great struggle they reached the shore. There are only a few huts at this place, and no provisions to spare. They only saved from the wreck, 1 cask of bread and part of a cask of cook's fat, upon which they subsisted for 8 days, when they started with the whale boat for Stewart Island, where they remained all night, and caught some fish, of which they made a hearty meal. The next morning they started for a place called the Neck, an establishment of Captain Joyce, who received them very kindly and supplied them with every necessary as far as the place would allow, until the Governor Bourke was reported off the Bluff by Mr. Palmer, a gentleman, at the time residing on that part of the island. Captain Cotherall agreed to take the Captain and chief officer, Mr. Moss, on board, but said he could not take all the crew, being very short of pro-

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visions. The Governor Bourke got under way for Sydney the same day, and had a foul wind for two days, in the Straits; during this time they discovered a cask of flour and salt provisions more than they expected. Captain Cotherall again put into the Neck, and took all hands on board, consisting of the Cook and nine seamen. They had again to put into Port William to water the ship, whence they started for Sydney, on the 9th inst., and arrived safe in port on Saturday morning.”

In describing the scene of the wreck one Sydney account locates it as “near Mount Missey,” which is probably the then name for the hill to the south of the entrance.

On 12th December the schooner Henry Freeling arrived from Otago with 30 tuns of oil, 2 tons of bone, 600 baskets of potatoes, and 60 rough spars. Three men belonging to a whaling gang came up as passengers. When she left Otago the City of Edinburgh, which had arrived there on 4th November, was the only vessel in port, and she was booked to sail for Sydney on the nineteenth. The Governor Bourke had sailed for Sydney viâ Foveaux St., and the Lucy Ann and the Alexander Henry for the sperm fishery. The City of Edinburgh got away to sea on the twenty-first with E. Weller, W. Geddis, R. Driscoll and T. Elliot as passengers, and reached her destination on Christmas Day. The Henry Freeling was probably the “schooner, Bound to Otago,” which the natives, on 9th November, reported at Piraki as being then at Port Cooper.

The last voyage of the Magnet for this year was made on 9th December, when there sailed to New Zealand in her, amongst others, Thomas Jones, Mr. Hughes, T. Chaseland and wife, J. Loance and wife, and J. Hoare and wife. The Genii brought up 125 tuns of oil for “Johnny” Jones on 21st December. On her return she came viâ Cloudy Bay.