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The Old Whaling Days

Chapter XX. — French Whalers and Scientists, 1839 and 1840

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Chapter XX.
French Whalers and Scientists, 1839 and 1840.


The only French whalers reported on the Southern New Zealand coast during this year were at Banks Peninsula. Early in January the France was at Akaroa, and on the fifth of that month the captain called on Hempleman at Piraki, and the latter returned to Akaroa with his visitor. Again, on 18th February, a boat from a French whaler at Akaroa, called the Roland, took round a cask of beef to the Piraki station, and Hempleman returned in the boat at daylight next day. The crew of the Roland were very bad with scurvy, and two trips were accordingly made to Piraki and several boat loads of potatoes obtained for them.

We again hear of a French vessel at Akaroa, on 13th April, buying 3¾ cwt. of potatoes at the Piraki station. Two days afterwards the second mate of the French whaler was again at Piraki, with, Captain Chase of the George, and 3 tons of potatoes were sent round to Akaroa in Hempleman's big boat, towed by the two officers. During that week, until Sunday, 21st April, the French mate was at Piraki almost daily.

On 29th April the Perseverance came into Piraki, having on board of her some merchandise for Hempleman, brought from Akaroa. There was already in Piraki a French whaler called the Narval, commanded by Captain Duval, and from this time on, while they were in Piraki together, the relationship between the two French whalers, and the whaling station, was of the most friendly nature, although the keenest rivalry existed between them in the catching of the whales. Hempleman's log records the fact when one of his boats captured a large whale from “the French ships”; when the Perseverance supplied a crew to take the big boat round to Akaroa; when the Perseverance's page 322 boats were utilized by Hempleman's men; and when, on repeated occasions, the station's whales were cut alongside the Perseverance. When this vessel, which appeared to be the more friendly with the station, sailed on 27th July for Akaroa, “3 Pots, Try work, Gear, &c., &c., were transferred to Hempleman's boat, and on 11th August the station mated with the Narval until she, too, sailed on 26th August.

When the American whaler, Atlantic, was wrecked on the coast near Akaroa, on 12th June, the master, officers, and six of the seamen were taken to the Bay of Islands on board the France, which was then at Akaroa.


The Heva, Captain Lelievre, was the first French whaler at Akaroa this year, and she probably arrived about the end of 1839. The next was the Ville de Bordeaux, 826 tons, early in January, and an interesting account of her visit is given by Dr. Thiercelin, who was on board that whaler. The Doctor found, to his astonishment, when strolling around one day, a tent with all the appearances of European cultivation around it. It was occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Green, who, with an assistant, had charge of a small farm and herd of cattle, and were carrying on regular farming operations. These were the cattle brought round by Captain Rhodes in the Eleanor. Mrs Green told the Doctor, in January, that the British were going to take possession of New Zealand, if they had not already done so.

The only other sign of the presence of Europeans was a little cabin, a chimney on which announced occupants of a different race from the Maoris. These were two English exiles who had one day disembarked from a ship which had come in for water, and had been left on the beach with all their baggage when the ship sailed away. The Robinsons, so their names were given to the Doctor, acted as “carcassiers,” as the French called them, collecting stray floating whales, or the intestines of whales already cut up and blown into the Bay, and melting them down to produce an inferior page 323 class of oil, which they sold to the whalers. Among the English-speaking whalers these men were called “tonguers.”

The Ville de Bordeaux afterwards sailed for Sydney, and there, on 8th June, was sold to Mr. J. Stewart for £3,200. The fault of this was said to be due to the bad conduct of her captain. M. David, of Bordeaux, was the owner.

When D'Urville called at Akaroa on 8th April, the Heva had gone round to Piraki, where also were the Adele and the Pauline. The only French whaler at Akaroa was the Gange, one of whose boats went to help the Astrolabe when it appeared that her fate was sealed. The Gange had only quitted France 9 months, but had completed her cargo and was to sail next day for home. The following day the captains of the three whalers at Piraki called and paid their respects to the French Commodore, and advantage was taken of the return home of the Gange to send the Expedition's Despatches to the French Government.

When D'Urville was at Otago, during the first week of April, the whaler Havre, commanded by Privat, was in the Bay. Privat had already met D'Urville at Conception Bay on the Chilian coast, where he had appealed to the French Commander for assistance to put down a revolt in his crew, and, having got rid of the source of his trouble, on his return to France, he now hoped to do well in these waters. He informed D'Urville that the French whalers were leaving the coast of Chili and making for Australia and New Zealand. Before the Astrolabe sailed, Privat applied for men to fill gaps in his crew, and D'Urville gave permission for any member of the Expedition, who cared to do so, to join him, but only one took advantage of the offer, received his kit, and transhipped.

The Havre remained on at Otago after D'Urville sailed, and later on was joined by the following, all of which were at Otago some time during May:—

The Earnest of Havre.

The Elizabeth, 16 mons. out, 1800 barrels. She page 324 had been ashore, but had been got off with the loss of a windlass.

The Oriental, 14 mos. out, 1100 barrels, and

The Rabance, 6 mos. out, 900 barrels.

On 12th May, the Ajax, of Havre, anchored off Otago, while the captain and a boat's crew came on shore for supplies. While they were away from the ship a gale sprung up from the south-west and the Ajax was driven to sea. By the twenty-second of the month, when the American whaler, which reported the incident, left Otago, there had been no re-appearance of the French whaler. She was just commencing her cruise and had only 100 barrels on board.

In the middle of May the Ocean, of Havre, was in Cloudy Bay with 900 barrels, and the author thinks that this is the same French whaler which Captain Nias reported as present in the Bay when British sovereignty was proclaimed at the Pa on 10th June.

In April a French trader, the Justine, 265 tons, Lucas, of Bordeaux, visited Kapiti Island with a miscellaneous cargo of goods and passengers. From Kapiti she sailed for Cloudy Bay, and then on to Port Nicholson, where she arrived on 3rd May.

The application of Captain Privat of the Havre for men to supplement his crew brings up the question of desertion, which was very prevalent among the French whalers. When Lavaud came out in the Aube, in August, 1840, he investigated this question, and his report to the Minister of Marine put the position very clearly:—

“One of the causes of the trouble on board the ships that come to fish in such far-away seas is the lack of victuals. Often a ship destined for fishing for about two years, at least, ships victuals for only sixteen months, then the men, deprived of a part of the food to which they are accustomed, commence to murmur, oblige the ship to put into port to procure what they need and cannot always find. While in port the ship generally loses a part of her crew, page 325 and is obliged, so as not to lose the fishing, to ship foreigners who, not accustomed to our “regime,” are only one more cause to prevent the re-establishment of order.

“The number of French deserters in the colonies of Australia is more considerable than is thought; for the small number of whalers I have met, it really appals me. Every year France must lose through the whale-fishery quite a considerable number of subjects, the number of whom would be easily ascertained at Havre, and would, I am quite sure, astonish Your Excellency. I have closely questioned the Masters of the whalers about the causes of this desertion, and those capable of appreciating them have been unanimous of this opinion: The wages of the crew are not high enough, rarely does the seaman, after a long, painful and dangerous voyage, receive from 7 to 800 francs. The articles furnished to him during his contract, by the owners, are quoted at prices the double of their value: if he will not take them and prefers to buy them elsewhere, he must have money, and this money is given to him at 20 per cent. interest; in one word, everything in the whale fishery is contrary to his interests and the profits are divided between the owners, the master, and the officers.

“There are here on the fishing grounds more American ships than of any other nation, their voyages are generally longer than ours, and the crew returns to America without having deserted. Why is this so? Because the master gets only 1/16th, the chief mate 1/30th, the mate and junior officers from the 1/15th to the 1/70th, whilst in France there are masters paid from ⅛th to 1/16th, chief mates from 1/16th to 1/26th, mates receiving 1/40th, junior officers receiving 1/45th. But it is for the seamen that the inverse difference is great, on board the American ships the harpooners, coopers, carpenters, page 326 and smiths, are paid from 1/80th to 1/90th, the seamen from 1/100th to 1/120th, but nearly always 1/140th: it is the same with the master coopers, carpenters and smiths; the sailors (French) are, at the most, at 1/200th, and nearly all at 1/220th and at 1/230th, it is the same with some owners who do not hesitate to pay them at 1/250th. In this condition how is it possible to prevent the men, when they find an opportunity, to exchange their sad lot for a better future? The British seamen employed in our whalers are generally paid by the month at the rate of 75 to 80 francs.

“In the United States the oil generally brings from 35 to 40 francs a barrel, in France it is worth from 60 to 80, even 100 francs, but I suppose it hardly ever rises to more than 70 or 80 francs, even that is double the price in the United States: the fishing gear costs one-fifth less in the latter country than in France, the cost of mercantile navigation in both countries amounts to about the same; however, the American owners receive no ‘premium of encouragement,’ and yet they earn money, for the number of their whalers far from diminishing still increases; the truth is that the American whalers do not compete with one another in Oceania. It would be desirable that French owners were alive to this fact; there is little chance of success in ships that lose their men by desertion, and consequently there is no economy in not paying the men according to their just worth. They ought to lower the pay of the masters to 1/16th, that of the chief mates from 1/30th to 1/35th, that of the second mates from 1/45th to 1/50th, and that of the third mates to 1/60th; the harpooners, coopers, carpenters and smiths should receive from 1/100th to 1/110th; the seamen should be paid from 1/150th to 1/170th; the apprentices at the rate of 1/180th share, instead of page 327 1/300ths, or 1/350th; the boys 1/300th, and not 1/400th, such as several receive. This is the only way I can see to avoid disorder, which will never be prevented by the presence of a war ship.”

D'Urville's Expedition, 1840.

The French Government has always been, if not superior to our own, at any rate quite abreast of it in the number of Expeditions sent out for scientific research to the Pacific, and on to the New Zealand coast, and D'Urville, the most successful of all French navigators, was placed in command of one which we are now about to describe. The two vessels comprising it were the Astrolabe and the Zelee, and they set sail from France in 1837, but it was not until the early part of 1840 that they were at Hobart en route to New Zealand.

Aided by a favourable breeze the Expedition reached Sarah's Bosom on 10th March, after a voyage of five days from Tasmania, and the members saw, as they reached the Bay, a large vessel, and heard guns fired. This proved to be the brig Porpoise of the United States Expedition. The following day the Astrolabe entered the Bay and cast anchor.

Close to the beach was a small hut, built some time before by the sailors of the French whaler Nancy, which M. Dumoulin at once proceeded to make use of for his scientific work. On a low point which had been cleared by the whalers, was flying a red flag, marking the burial place of some men from whaling vessels. One of the graves had a wooden cross erected to the memory of M. Lefrancois of Nantes, who had committed suicide there in 1837, through grief at the failure of an invention of his for killing whales. The notice left by the Porpoise was found in the hut.

Though the United States brig had sailed, the Frenchmen were not alone. A Portuguese whaler, called the Speculacao, commanded by an Englishman named Robinson, had arrived there some five days before and had page 328 cast anchor at the head of the Bay. Her boats, returning from a seal hunting expedition, made known to D'Urville her presence. The following day the whaler was visited and the Expedition learned that the Portuguese Government had given a subsidy to develop the whaling trade, and that this vessel was the first to be fitted out at Lisbon, five months before, and that she had made for the Auckland Islands after an unsuccessful cruise on the New Zealand coast.

During the stay of the Astrolabe and the Zelee their scientists took advantage of the kindness of Captain Robinson, and accompanied his whaling and sealing boats in their different expeditions. All made mention of the widely scattered indications of whalers' habitations, and of the success which attended the planting of potatoes and of vegetables generally.

After a very busy stay in Sarah's Bosom the Expedition sailed, on 20th March, for the South Coast of New Zealand.

Though the Snares were sighted on 22nd March, it was not until the twenty-sixth that the survey of the New Zealand coast-line could be taken up. When passing Pegasus Bay they were hailed by a boat manned by English sailors, the headman of which offered his services to pilot the ships in, but D'Urville decided not to delay, and contented himself with simply buying some fish and vegetables from the would-be pilots, paying them with arrack, biscuit, and money. He was told that there were about twenty English sailors settled on the shores of Foveaux Strait, and that they grew great quantities of provisions for the whaling ships which frequented the bays.

The next day the Expedition was across Foveaux Strait, and at 10 a.m. was visited by three whaleboats manned by Europeans from the whaling stations at Waikawa or Tautuku. The stay of these men on board was not prolonged, and they caused the impression on the French ships of being deserters from Sydney, or escapees from whalers, page 329 to whom the surroundings of a man-of-war were not congenial.

On 30th March Otago was reached, and four ships were found lying at anchor; two were Americans, one English, and one French. The last named was the Havre under the command of Captain Privat, already mentioned.

D'Urville lost no time in landing his officers to carry on their scientific work, particularly in regard to the survey of the bay and the fixing of its position. The spot chosen for this was near the dwelling-place of the Europeans engaged in the whaling, and at the spot where the whales were brought to be cut up.

The French Commander's description of the condition of things he found at Otago shows us that the descriptions given by the Missionaries at the stations further north were not at all exaggerated.

The Maoris presented much the type of those D'Urville had seen on his former visits, but they were far from having gained from their contact with the sailors. Generally they were clothed in European fashion, but their clothing served only to incompletely cover their filthiness, and gave them the appearance of beggars covered with rags. They appeared to have renounced all ideas of independence, or any quality of warriors which they had once had, and passed their lives on board the ships in the bay, the men begging the Europeans to give them some scraps to eat while the women, hideous to look upon, placed no limits upon the depth of degradation to which they were prepared to sink.

During the stay of the vessels the natives never ceased attempting to sell what they had, for money or European clothes. The provisions they offered consisted of pigs and potatoes, the price for a pig being from 16 to 18 shillings, but their flesh was disliked so much by the Frenchmen that D'Urville would not purchase them, and confined himself to buying the potatoes which were of excellent quality.

Taiaroa honoured D'Urville by calling upon that officer page 330 when confined to the Astrolabe by the gout. The following description is given of the old Maori warrior:—

“Taiaroa presented himself on board the Astrolabe, accompanied by many of his people, clad like him, in rags. He told me that he had come to salute me. but I was not slow to see he had another design, that of fleecing me. During several hours that he passed on board he did nothing else but beg. He coveted above all cloth, of which he was very greedy, finally he showed himself under the light of a skilful rogue, more than in that of a chief of warriors. To rid myself of them, and in the interest of French vessels which might afterwards come to anchor in the Bay, I proceeded to give him some fathoms of cloth; but, far from satisfying him, this man of insatiable avidity wanted to put a higher price still on the protection he was incapable of, and of which he could not give any manifest proof. He became so pressing in his demands, that he ended by fatiguing me, and I turned my back upon him.”

D'Urville describes the conditions under which the European portion of the inhabitants lived. There were about a dozen small cottages surrounded with gardens containing all the vegetables of Europe. Two of these cottages were transformed into taverns which were habitually frequented by the fishermen, and the sailors off the whalers in the Bay, and. above all, by the Natives who came to spend their money as soon as they procured it. The proprietors of the taverns did an excellent business and perfectly understood the needs of the society in the midst of which they dwelt. They sold, at a high figure, the vilest of liquor.

Round the villages were small potato cultivations, and, in the forest, cultivations of potatoes, lettuce, and turnips. These belonged chiefly to Europeans, but the work was always performed by the Maori women, though at times payment in brandy would induce a man to undertake tillage. Following the invariable custom of civilized men when page 331 residing with savages the Europeans led a life of indolence and disorder, abandoning all their work to their Native women, without whom they confessed they could not live.

On 3rd April, under direction of a local pilot, the Expedition crossed the bar and sailed for Akaroa.

On the journey along the coast great numbers of whales were sighted, and two whalers were passed, one showing French colours. At Akaroa the Astrolabe was nearly lost through the wind falling when she was in the middle of the entrance, and the ship being carried on to the western point. A favourable breeze, however, sprung up at the moment that the destruction of the commander's ship appeared certain, and enabled the sails to be filled and the vessel removed to a place of safety.

Of the two vessels at anchor in the Bay, one was the Gange, and one of her boats came to the help of the Astrolabe with a towline when that vessel was in trouble. Three other French whalers were at Piraki and their commanders at once repaired to Akaroa to meet D'Urville. They told him that Piraki was preferable for whalers; although the bay was more exposed to the S.W. winds than was Akaroa and vessels often had trouble while anchored, yet the boats were able to get out to the whales much more easily than in the larger bay.

While at anchor D'Urville sent one of his boats to transport a large anchor from the Gange to the Heva, at Piraki, and the officer who successfully carried out this work mAde a survey of Hempleman's little bay. The commander of the Pauline, also at anchor at Piraki, was supplied with some copper for repairs to his rudder.

D'Urville tells us that he spent a very pleasant day around and at the farm established at Akaroa under Mr. and Mrs. Green. By this time the dairy produce of the farm was available for the whaling ships which frequented the Bay. and the officers of the Astrolabe and Zelee obtained sufficient for their wants at a price which they considered quite reasonable.

page 332

Akaroa did not impress the Commander as a very good site for a colony. It appeared to him unsuitable to support anything like a numerous population, and he says that in choosing this place to found an establishment the French Government only considered the beauty of the port, the facilities for defending it, and the resources it offered to the whalers.

It is not known whether D'Urville knew that the arrangements made by his Government had miscarried, when he gave expression to this opinion, to cover their retreat. If it was a bona fide expression of his opinion, the history of New Zealand has shown its accuracy by placing the capital of the surrounding country on another site.

It will be noted that no attempt was made to hoist the French flag. It would have been in time had it been done.

The Expedition sailed for the Bay of Islands on 17th April and arrived at that port just as H.M.S. Herald was going out, southward bound, to proclaim British Sovereignty over the South Island.