Polynesian Resource Center

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The Maori and the Whaling Days of Old New Zealand

The pre-European Maori had no history of maritime whaling, that being the active pursuit and capture of medium to large whales by harpooning or other means. They relied instead on incidental captures and strandings. The reasons were that their canoes were unsuited to this type of fishing; whaling was too dangerous; and fish were abundant and easy to catch using existing technology. Artefacts such as harpoon points and similar equipment for taking large mammals at sea are sparse in the New Zealand archaeological record. Dolphins were harpooned on occasions. At Akaroa, New Zealand about 1840, a dolphin hunt was witnessed being conducted by two canoes of Ngai Tahu,the harpooner using a bone-tipped wooden lance and flax line. The dolphin was chopped into pieces, briefly roasted and a dozen men ate about 25 kg of meat before turning the remainder over to the women and children. Small coastal dolphins were probably also taken in large beach seines. On other occasions, species such as pilot whales, which have a predisposition to mass stranding, would have been assisted ashore and, along with any large whales which had stranded, would have been considered a gift from the sea, from Tangaroa, and exploited for their meat, fat, oil and bone. Through history,strandings have been (and still are) an occasion for awe, for sorrow (at the death of a distant relative), and ultimately a cause for elation at the bounty provided.

Arrival of European Whalers
In the late 18th century, this reliance on strandings and natural events changed with the arrival in the South Pacific of European whalers intent in the pursuit of two valuable commercial commodities, whale oil - especially sperm whale oil, a fuel for lighting - and whale bone (baleen) from right whales, which was used as a precursor for sprig steel in the manufacture of buggy whip handles, corset stays, and parasols. The process of trying out oil from both sperm whales and "black" or right whales was very wasteful. As soon as the whalebone, blubber and sperm whale heads were secured, the carcass was cut adrift, to eventually sink or wash ashore thus providing Maori with a much greater supply of whale meat and fat than was previously available. In 1827, as John Boultbee observed: "As we were pulling along shore on our way, we saw a number of wild looking fellows on a rocky beach cutting a whale into hunks and carrying it away, they were as greasy and dirty as might be expected from the nature of their employment. It seems the Lynx had been in these parts, and struck several whales which got away, and this was one of them". Twelve years later, in 1839, Ernst Dieffenbach was observing whaling operations at Te Awaiti in Tory Channel. He noted: "As soon as the process of cutting was over, the natives, who had come with their canoes from the Sound, cut off large pieces of flesh which they carried off to feast upon:' Removal of meat for local consumption became a common practice at bay whaling stations around New Zealand.

Rules for distribution of the spoils from a stranding were rigidly adhered to. Each hapu of the community was allotted a share of any stranding which occurred within the group's territory. Failure to observe these rules led to inter-family quarrels which could cause fluctuations in the membership of the community. The first record of a visit to New Zealand waters by a whaling vessel is that of the William and Ann, which anchored in Doubtless Bay in 1792. About this time European sealing around the southern coasts and offshore islands began. Although a few young Maori joined the gangs there is no evidence of extensive Maori participation in this trade. Seals were taken by early Maori for their meat, energy-rich fat and skins. Recent studies suggest that in the north of the North Island, Maori may have exhausted their seal fisheries as early as 1300. European sealing began in the south of the South Island in the last decade of the 1700s. The dried skins were sent to China and salted skins to Europe. Abuses by European sealers soon led to the rapid depletion of seal fisheries. Gangs killed seals on the rookeries, disrupting the colonies, and all seals available including breeding females were taken. In some areas Maori protested, demonstrating that their protection and conservation practices had maintained stocks. There is evidence, however, that elsewhere Maori later joined withsealing gangs, splitting profits. By the 1820s sealing was in rapid decline, and by the 1840s the fishery was reduced to commercial non-viability. The arrival of the William and Ann at Doubtless Bay in 1792 and the Britannia around the Three Kings and Northland in 1793 made an indelible impression on local Maori and influenced their future relationship with whaling. For young Maori the adventure of voyaging in foreign whaleships and the challenge of chasing and harpooning whales was often exhilarating. The skippers of the whalers, often from Nantucket, were frugal, hardworking Quakers with a strong kinship ethic. They often took black and native Americans as crew and, in the South Pacific, impressed by the seamanship of Polynesians, soon recruited Maori and other Pacific Islanders as crew.

In 1803 the whale ship Alexander visited the Bay of Islands and a 16 year old Maori youth, Teina, joined her crew as a sailor. On reaching Australia, Teina stayed with the Governor, Philip Gidley King. The Alexander returned to the New Zealand whaling grounds and made a successful voyage, taking a number of whales. Teina and another Maori, Maki, remained aboard the Alexander for the next three years, visiting Tahiti, Brazil, St Helena and eventually England, where Teina and two Tahitians subsequently died. Maki, however, survived and worked as a carpenter before being "crimped" on to another English vessel.

In 1804, a New Bedford whaler Hannah and Eliza took aboard at least two Muriwhenua Maori into her crew and, during the next two years of whaling off Northland, spoke to at least fifteen other ships, some of which also took on Maori crew. Inevitably, many Maori and other Polynesians suffered abuse from unscrupulous captains. Governor King's enthusiasm for New Zealand and his obvious concerns and affinity for Polynesians, developed since having Teina as a guest, led to his issuing a "Government and General Order" published on the front page of the Sydney Gazette. It read as follows:

“It is therefore, hereby strictly forbid sending any Otaheitian, Sandwich Islander or New Zealander from this Settlement to any island or other part of this coast, on any sealing or other Voyage, to any place to the eastward of Cape Horn.

During their stay here, those whose service they are employed in are not to beat or ill-use them; but if those who brought them to this Colony, are not able to maintain and employ them, they are to report it to the Governor, who will take measures for their employment and maintenance until they can be sent home. And it is to be clearly understood that all such Otaheitians, &c., are protected in their properties, claims for wages, and the same redress as any of His Majesty's subjects."

This proclamation is particularly significant, for it extended to Maori and other Polynesians) some of the civil rights of British subjects 35 years before the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. The crews of these whale ships were not exclusively mainland Maori. In 1791, the Chatham Islands were discovered by Lt William Broughton on HMS Chatham. A Moriori, Hororeka, had left the island in about 1800 aboard a British sealer and returned in 1807. Later that year he shipped aboard the whaler Commerce and, having previously spent time at the Bay of Islands, was able to act as the Master's interpreter with Maori, despite the differences in his dialect. Following the invasion of the Chatham Islands by Ngati Tama and Ngati Mutunga, one Moriori, named Koche, escaped at least twice from slavery under the Maori chief Matioro, the second time aboard an American whaler. Koche never returned to the Chatham Islands and it is presumed he died in the United States. However, he was the only one of his people to leave an account of the invasion of the Chathams and the fate of the Moriori which he related to the American lawyer Ewing in about 1850 .

Relations between Maori and the whalers were by and large cordial. The Maori skill as market gardeners allowed them to develop a thriving trade as provedors to the whalers, whose main priorities for supplies were fresh water, firewood (for galley stoves and trypots), and fresh vegetables and root crops. However, a number of unsavoury incidents culminating in the killing and eating of 70 persons from the Boyd in 1809 led to a period of suspicion and bloodshed between some whaling crews and Maori tribes. Nevertheless, by 1826 Maori were prominent in whaling crews working the New Zealand grounds. Their courage and familiarity with the sea made them excellent boat hands and boat-steerers, with such records of success that stories of their deeds are now part of popular whaling history.

One of the best-known is recorded in Herman Melville's Omoo. After a long and tiring pull after a whale the Maori harpooner missed his first three strikes. The derision and curses of his crew was hard to bear; the next time the boat was alongside the whale he sprang on to the whale's back with his harpoon and disappeared in a welter of foam. The whale line smoked out of the tubs, indicating the whale was fast and moments later the Maori harpooner climbed back aboard, honour restored . Perhaps Melville's best known harpooner is the character Queequeg from Moby Dick. Queequeg is described as, "a native Rokovoko, an island far away to the west and south. It is not drawn on any maps; true places never are." He had a full facial moko, tattooed legs and arms and had brought up (to a New England whaling port) a number of `embalmed' New Zealand heads which he was selling When Queequeg ended his story to Ishmael he "embraced me and pressed his forehead against mine,. . ." a hongi (Maori greeting) perhaps?

The whaleships were international melting pots - with crews made up of Europeans, Maori and other Polynesians, American Indians, Negroes, Azoreans, Portuguese, Cape Verde Islanders and others. Thus it was not surprising that wherever whaleships' crews came ashore one of their contributions was to add substantially to the genetic diversity of the human inhabitants of the area.

Contact between Maori women and whale crews began as soon as whalers arrived. When the Sydney whaler Australian was in Cloudy Bay in the spring season of 1837, Captain Rhodes invited girls aboard, writing, "The ladies at the Bay were very condescending, and took lodgings on board the ship, to the great satisfaction of the sailors." Even more famous (or notorious) than Cloudy Bay was Kororareka in the Bay of Islands, which for a few busy years was known as "the whorehouse of the Pacific". The trader Eagleston called there in April 1834, and recorded that the women were "fond of visiting ships . . ." John B Williams, of Salem, the second American Consul to the Bay of Islands, was outraged by the libidinous behaviour of American and other whaling crews. In his journal he fulminated: "Merciful Heavens. When a ship arrives her decks are almost instantly lined with native women - a floating castle of prostitution. [But] how can it be different when the Masters and Officers set the example?"

Despite the inevitable spread of venereal diseases the "marriages of convenience" between Maori and whale ship crews continued. Occasionally lasting friendships and relationships were forged. A British captain,William Brind of the Emily, combined the fabled comforts of the Bay of Islands and the companionship of a wife at sea by taking a Maori girl, the daughter of the chief Pomare, on a whaling voyage in 1827.

Shore whaling Stations
Concomitant with the influx of foreign whalers into New Zealand ports inthe early 1800s was the establishment of shore-based whaling operations. On the vessels, Maori whalemen had learned many skills useful not only to whaling but which could be put into practice ashore, for example, coopering, carpentry, and boatbuilding. These skills were to prove of particular value in later New Zealand settlement. The earliest shore whaling stations were established in the South Island and the first began operation near Cook Strait in 1827, soon to be followed by many others in both islands before British sovereignty entered with the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. In almost all cases, at the commencement of the season, negotiations were entered into with the local tribe on whose land the station was situated. As part of the deal, wives were often provided, thus binding the whalers by "marriage" to the local tribe. This arrangement was usually carried out though consultation with the chief. The Maori wives generally looked after the whalers by attending to the cooking, making flax ropes and at times tending vegetable gardens. Many of the whalers' partners ultimately became permanent and legal wives, but often they had to wait some years before the union could be solemnised by a visiting Christian missionary. The taking of wives was a mutually beneficial political manoeuvre. The local chief had a sound money-making enterprise with employment, boats, trypots, and the other paraphernalia of whaling at this fingertips, while the whaler had, through marriage, the protection of the tribe during often troubled times. During the 1830s there was often a good deal of warlike skirmishing between tribes, especially in the South Island, between the Otakou and Murihiku Maori. It is not surprising, therefore, that Captain Angelm of the Lucy Ann reported serious trouble with the Maori at Otakou when the vessel returned to Sydney in August 1834. Her cargo included not only oil and whalebone but also a number of Maori hostages.

Despite the increasing numbers of American and other nationality whaleships working the New Zealand coast, shore stations increased during the decade 1830-40. At the Otakou station at the entrance to Dunedin Harbour, Weller began operation in 1833 with an equal number of Maori and Europeans, but four years later had twice as many Maori as Europeans. By 1839, Taiaroa, the main chief of the area had a European-style residence and numerous whale boats, and was running a shore whaling station. Further south at Awarua (Bluff) Shortland (1851) noted:"Here (Awarua) was the best managed and most successful whaling establishment on the coast. The boats were all partly manned by the natives, and one entirely so, the young chief Patuki, or Topi,. . . being its headsman." Howells even had a crew of Maori women. Shortland also made a very important observation regarding the desirability of whale boats, "the natives have, however, ceased to travel by land, if they can avoid it, since they have so generally obtained possession of whaling and sealing boats; for these are easily managed, and by a few hands."

The manifest superiority in sailing and sea-keeping qualities of whale boats and seal boats over canoes was quickly recognised. Ngai Tahu obtained their first European boats as spoils in skirmishes with sealers and runaway sailors, and also by stealing them from anchored ships, as from the Matilda in 1814, but the main source was by purchase during the 1830s, after sealing was abandoned and sealing boats became available. From then on, the traditional oceangoing canoes were progressively abandoned. In the 1840s and later, the male Maori preoccupation, in the South Island at least, was boats, both whale boats and seal boats, which carried them around to the fiords. However, these boats, like canoes, were not without their dangers. In 1844, the highly respected Ngai Tahu chief, Tuhawaiki, was swept off a whale boat by the scything blow of a steering oar in heavy seas off Timaru and drowned, according to conventional tradition. By the 1860s, the preference was changing to cutters, used for fishing but desired by all of the young men for racing. The consequence was a heavy toll by drowning.

At shore stations, as on whaleships, Maori were soon included in boat crews and were adept boatmen and harpooners. The shore stations' boats pursued right whales, which would enter bays on the high tide and leave them on the ebb. Shore-based whalers soon had competition from the foreign whaleships which would anchor in the same bays to pursue whales during the season.

Sperm whaling continued but, as the demand for bone increased, more and more British, Sydney and French vessels turned to right whaling. In 1834 they were joined by the first American right whalers in New Zealand waters. Despite the increased competition, numbers of shore stations grew between 1830 and 1840, and the numbers of Maori involved increased proportionally. At the same time, there were growing numbers of Maori employed on American ships which stayed in New Zealand waters and depended on local supplies for food and provisions.

Decline of whaling
Over-exploitation of right whales around the New Zealand coast led to a dramatic decline in catches through the 1840s. Nevertheless some local whalers struggled on right up to the1930's but after 1840 to all intent and purpose the glory days of whaling were over.


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