THE EARLY DAYS OF SOUTH SEA WHALING
The last years of the eighteenth century will be remembered in Europe as the period when the genius of Napoleon brought victory after victory to France. Even England's sea supremacy was threatened by the fleets of Spain and Holland which were then allies of France. It was at this time that the Pacific Ocean began to attract the American whalers, the first of whom had sailed round the Horn soon after the news of the British pioneer's success had reached the States. The Yankee fleet was still very small; it had not yet recovered from the upset of the break with England, but was steadily being built up again. Its shipmasters were now "free lances" and very unwelcome to the British Government officials, as well as to the British owners of whaling vessels, who suffered still under the restrictions of the East India Company.
This extraordinary corporation, with the backing of the British Government, ruled like a despotic Eastern potentate. Its Court of Directors did not like the founding of an Australian colony, and its influence appeared even in the instructions given to Governor Phillip for his expedition to Botany Bay. Phillip was told that any interference of New South Wales with the settlements of the East India Company was to be prevented. Objection was also made to the opening up of relations between New South Wales and China and the islands of the Pacific. The early governors had almost to pray to the powers of this organization. When, in 1797, the English merchant adventurers presented a memorial at Whitehall, asking for the removal of restrictions which prevented them from fishing farther north than the equator and farther east than 51 degrees east longitude, all that could be done was to refer the document to the Directors of the company, with a letter expressing the hope that the Court of Directors would not be averse to removing the restrictions.
The relations between the whaling companies and the East India Company in 1800 are indicated in a letter from the two chief English firms (Sam. Enderby & Sons and Messrs Champion), to Lord Liverpool. Both companies were at the time renowned for their enterprise in advancing the British trade to the uttermost parts of the world:
The same thoughts were expressed in a letter from Governor King of the Sydney settlement to the Duke of Portland, written about a month later:
The application of the English companies for a small privilege forbidden under the East India Company's remarkable monopoly was favourably considered. But it was some years before New South Wales ships could trade between the colony and the East.
The years between 1793 and 1800 were actually rather lean ones for whaling, although Sam. Enderby & Sons did not give up hope of the Australian and adjacent Pacific whaling, and continued to send ships. Most of the other whalers left for what they discovered were happier regions (meaning more restful waters!) and when, round about 1797, Spain was allied with France against Great Britain, they turned privateers; worked near the South American coast; and brought some of the captured prizes into Sydney harbour itself.
At this time the young colony was often hard put to it to produce a sufficiency of food. The folk at home in England had a surplus of their own worries. On more than one occasion the whale-ships came to the rescue of the settlement, but the most curious aid was that in 1799, when the whalers Cornwall and Kingston captured the Spanish vessel, Nostra Senora de Bethlehem off Peru, laden with grain A prize crew from the Cornwall navigated her to Port Jackson where she arrived in the nick of time, for the colony was "distressed for it." She was not the only Spanish ship captured by whalers to reach Sydney. How the Sydneyites must have loved the Euphemia in 1799 with 5000 gallons of wine and spirit! All this was, of course, in the days of Nelson and a few years before the battle of Trafalgar.
Not all the successes in privateering fell to the British. A statement in the Press of November 1799 indicates that both sides were active. Fifteen whalers, engaged in their normal industry off the Pacific coast of South America, had been captured by the Spaniards.
The settlement seemed so distant and so precariously connected with European civilization that it is not difficult to imagine the excitement in Sydney when a signal flag at South Head indicated a ship was in sight, making for Port Jackson. What tidings did she bring? What help did she carry? It was not all plain sailing after coming within sight of the long-sought destination. More than one good ship, laden with much-needed supplies, nearly wrecked herself at the entrance. The Justinian was one of these; but I don't think she was a whaler.
Another Enderby letter is illuminating at this stage. It presents the commercial whaleman's outlook on the conditions of settlement in Australia, and the way the owners of whale-ships tendered for carriage of convicts:
The voyage of a whaler from England to Sydney was clearly no bagatelle or pleasure trip, with the presence of Spanish cruisers in the Atlantic adding to the other perils of the sea. When one remembers that the return voyage to London had to be made with the cargo of oil, it will be realized that the journey to and from the whaling-grounds was a costly item both in time and money. The Albion, on her voyage to Sydney in the early months of 1799, made the trip in three months fifteen days, and this was a record for a whale-ship up to that date. Our old friend, Captain Ebor Bunker, [footnote 1] was in command. It was good going!
The clipper-ships on their lightning voyages in the sixties and seventies reduced this time to seventy-five days and even less, but those were exceptional performances. Some of their best twenty-four hours runs were quite equal to those of P. & 0. liners within recent years, and far in excess of the possibilities of tramp steamers to-day. The Melbourne, in a passage to Australia in 1876, averaged 300 miles per day for seventeen consecutive days, and on her three best days actually achieved 374, 365, and 352 mites respectively. It is unfortunate that there is so much uncertainty in the wind.
As early as 1801 the whalemen began to frequent the waters of New Zealand, that glorious country then still unclaimed by the white man. The sailors were the first to appreciate its blessed state. Its seas abounded in Sperm whales, its weather was kindly to whalers, and its harbours were attractive to their crews. More and more ships came, and as they frequently called at Sydney, a traffic grew up between New South Wales, the South Sea islands, and New Zealand, where the favourite rendezvous was the Bay of Islands. A New Zealand writer years afterwards put the situation neatly when he said that to have a history long before the establishment of law and order, was peculiar to New Zealand of all the Australasian colonies. The early visits of white men to New Zealand were entirely due to lavish biological display-when whales gambolled in the bays, seals basked on the shores, and fine timber grew in the forests.
For the first time the natives of all these out-of-the-world spots of the Pacific came under the influence of the whitemen of Europe and America. If the first visitors were whalemen, missionaries were close on their heels, the transport of the pioneers of Christianity being made possible by the lawless seamen themselves. Some of the sailors were good and some were bad; those that were bad probably impressed the natives most, because the bad were "very, very, bad." They were not Europe's best samples, who, deserting their ships, became the first South Sea beachcombers.
During the years 1800 to 1803, this traffic of English and American whalers between Sydney and the whaling grounds in the Pacific gradually increased. Exciting and romantic stories of the conditions in these seas were handed from one to another and discussion must have been lively in the drab seaports of the older countries.
The New South Wales yachtsman of to-day no less than the historian can find interest in the letter which follows. It was written by the captain of the English whaler Speedy and addressed to the Governor at Sydney.
It was in 1802 that Governor King of New South Wales optimistically wrote to Sir Joseph Banks telling him that whaling was now established; the letter itself was carried back to England by the whale-ship Speedy, mentioned above. Other prominent whaling vessels from overseas were the Venus, Britannia, Albion, Alexander, Greenwich, and General Boyd (one of the first, if not the first American whale-ship to fish in Australian waters).
So the story goes on. But with what an accompaniment of diverse happenings! Every week was really full of adventure on sea and on land. Dullness only comes with stability. In 1804 a letter from New South Wales stated that five ships had left the colony with cargoes of sperm oil averaging £13,500 each in value. No wonder there were men willing to risk the unknown Pacific! Captains could certainly make good money if they were lucky. What happened to the sailormen was more problematical, but can any one explain why men go to sea, otherwise than by stressing the peculiar attraction which a sea life exerts on some folk? Shanghaiing is excluded! After all, many and many a sailorman must have found the perilous seas more friendly than the land with its harpies of both sexes who preyed upon him.
Many of the whale-ships were well armed. In 1805 for example, the Elizabeth and Mary, a ship of 235 tons, carried ten guns, and the Harriet of 227 tons carried eight. This is not surprising for the Spanish were keeping an eye on American waters at least and France and England were still at war. But war had then almost a comic element of chance. Take the story of Enderby's ship the Sarah. She was captured by a French ship, the Revenge on 26 October 1809. The British privateer Helena, recaptured both and then a French privateer came along and sailed off with the lot!
The Bay of Islands, a beautiful haven on the New Zealand coast, became an important centre for "refreshment" as it was styled; and the neighbouring Maoris utilized seeds so well that they were soon supplying the whale-ships with potatoes and other commodities.
Governor King of New South Wales was so very pleased with the progress of the whaling industry that he directed the Commandant at Norfolk Island to send pigs to the Bay of Islands at intervals. Sydney too, made the most of the refitments, and must have been a somewhat lively place in those days of "rum swilling." (Professor E.G. Shann states in his Economic History of Australia that no less than 69,980 gallons of spirits, and 33,246 gallons of wine were landed for this small settlement between 1800 and 1802.)
Almost from the beginning of the New South Wales colonization Norfolk Island had been utilized as a settlement. In 1792 there were no less than 1115 souls on this little Pacific Ocean islet. About 300 were convicts. Instructions were given for this settlement to be disbanded, or partly so, about 1804. Evidently some misunderstandings and protests had arisen regarding this abandonment, and Governor King, writing in 1805, made some strong comments which have a direct bearing upon our story. Norfolk Island was well situated in a Sperm whale "ground":
It is almost needless to say that the whale-ships frequently carried away escaped convicts. In 1806 the whaler Venus was piratically seized by escaped convicts and taken across to New Zealand, where she wandered about along a coast that at least provided freedom from the law. But trouble was brewing; some of the worst elements on the whalers were not treating the natives of the South Sea islands or of New Zealand fairly. This was a dangerous game, for it was most easy for the natives to retaliate. They were very much more at home in their surroundings. It must not be thought that the captains and crews of the whale-ships were the only sinners. A trading ship, the Parramatta, put into the Bay of Islands in distress in 1808. She was badly in need of supplies, which, on request, were provided by the natives. When, however, the latter asked for payment they were brutally thrown overboard to an accompaniment of jeers.
It is quite clear that the English whalemen came to discover the "delights" of New Zealand waters in the first few years of their Australian experience. Any one who knows the eastern Australian coast and the New Zealand coasts to-day will scarcely ask why the latter became so popular. For my own part, I think the coast of New South Wales from Sydney to the southward is a very unpleasant region for sailing ships. The winds are extremely changeable when not blowing from the southward, and good shelter is too infrequent for comfort. The southerly winds always raise a big sea; and to make matters worse this frequently occurs with a heavy swell from those unpleasant regions south of Tasmania.
Governor King, in 1802, said that every ship arriving at Sydney reported great numbers of whales, but there was an objection to whaling on the coast on the part of the masters of the whale-ships owing to the frequent gales. I once thought this an exaggeration, or an excuse, until I tried to carry out scientific work from a small sailing boat at regular intervals. The only thing that was regular was mal de mer on the part of some of my crew, and bruises on the bodies of all of us.
As for the South Sea islands, it did not take long for their "beauties" to be advertised. Why, George Bass the navigator, had something to say about Tahiti in that regard in 1802:
By 1803 the whalers were quite familiar with the area to the north-east of New Zealand, which, later on, was to become one of the great Sperm-whaling regions of the world, frequented by English and American and later by Australian owned ships.
The author has made a search through nearly 1500 logbooks of old whale-ships in the collections in Nantucket and New Bedford in the hopes of finding notes of interest covering Australasian history. What might have been told of the unexplored Australia which was so frequently seen? What amazing opportunities for achieving fame those old whalemen had in describing the new countries! Alas, the harpoon was mightier than the pen. Writing was not the strong point of the mate who usually kept the log. Often the most serious disaster was covered by a few words on one line. However, one discovery worth while was the battered log-book of one Mayhew Folger, captain of the ship Topaz on a voyage to the South Seas.
He reached Adventure Bay, Tasmania, on 16 October 1807. On the way north from there he solved the mystery of the missing mutineers of the Bounty, the men who, under Fletcher Christian, the leader of the mutiny, had evaded Bligh. Folger rediscovered Pitcairn Island. The following extract was copied out in the tiny library of the Museum at Nantucket - it needs no comment.
References to this discovery are often made in books on Bligh but so far as I know the actual diary of Folger must have been seen by very few and the words set down by him are rarely quoted.
Trouble had already been caused, as we have seen, by whale-ships taking away escaped convicts. It is stated that Americans actually stole convicts from Sydney, and when they had no further use for them, landed them on the South Sea islands. Natives were taken too, either by force or by guile, to be deposited later (after use), at any spot that might be convenient. Much cruelty, much terrible hardship, was thus caused both to South Sea islanders and to New Zealand Maoris. To exert some control, the Sydney Port Orders of 1805 warned shipmasters that any vessel attempting to pass the Sow and Pigs (a nasty clump of rocks projecting a foot or so above the water at low tide in the middle of the fairway after entering the port) without showing a naval officer's signal indicating that the vessel had been cleared, would be fired on with shot. The same order goes on to add that a South Sea whaler had just disobeyed this regulation, and it comments on the matter of the South Sea islanders being taken to the islands of Bass Strait.
Even Tahiti was already besmirched. It had become a most popular place of call for the South Pacific whalers.
This is what Sir Joseph Banks said about that ocean gem in 1806 only seven years after the famous mutiny of the Bounty:
The treatment of the Maoris was, however, a more serious business for the whalers. The civilized West had made a disgraceful introduction to the southern East, and the southern East retaliated, as was entirely natural.
Towards the end of 1809, a ship, the Boyd, was captured by the Maoris at Whangaroa, about thirty miles north of the Bay of Islands, and the crew were killed and eaten. One woman passenger, a boy, and two children were spared and rescued some weeks later. The boy was saved because he was club-footed, the natives apparently taking him for a son of the devil! It was stated that on the ship's passage to New Zealand a New Zealand chief, who was a member of the crew, had been flogged for some misdemeanour and, bent on revenge, took it with the help of friends on shore at Whangaroa. Their method of surprise was ingenious. The captain who, with the chief officer and some of the crew, was seeking for masts and spars, was encouraged by native guides to go deeper into the woods and then was suddenly attacked. Those left on board the vessel were murdered on the following night. The Boyd was, however, not engaged in whaling at this time. She was a transport previously hired by the British Government to bring convicts out, but now chartered by one Simeon Lord of Sydney, and carrying cargo to England. Governor Macquarie, writing home on 12 March 1810, added that South Sea whalers would need to be cautioned to be very vigilant and guarded in their intercourse with the New Zealanders as well as with all natives of the South Sea islands.
So the Pacific Sperm whaling went on amidst dangers by land as well as sea, and the Sydney merchants looked on, one or two being just a little bit interested in this game, and rather more intrigued by the possible settlement of New Zealand, and the development of trade in hemp and flax. The ship chandlers and stevedores of Sydney must, however, have profited exceedingly from the visits of the English and foreign ships.
The English whaling firms, including Sam. Enderby & Sons, evidently became much concerned about the "carryings on" which disgraced the Europeans on the New Zealand coast, and endeavoured to persuade the British Government to make New Zealand into a colony and organize a settlement. In one letter, they pointed out that the coast of Australia was not only too far from the New Zealand coast for help should a ship meet with damage, or her crew become ill, but undesirable, too. "The greatest evil we experience, and which we dread from our ships going to the settlements in New Holland, is that the convict women so demoralize the crews as to make them in a short time, from the best of sailors, become extremely mutinous, and we scarcely know an instance of our ships going there without greatly altering the conduct of the crew many of whom desert, which is attended with serious evil to a whaling ship."
One can well imagine the sexual conditions of a crew of young lusty men, sailing the seas for months, and having no intercourse with the women of their own race. The native girls of the South Sea islands and of New Zealand were eminently desirable, and there is pretty good evidence that they were very ready to entertain and be entertained. The results were ruinous to the natives and fraught with danger to the white men. The "hard-tack" of a whale-ship, and the fisticuffs of the mates, provided the very opposite of an antidote to feminine charms that were not to be despised even by white standards of comparison. And many of the whalemen's stories must have enlarged upon the beauties they met. Melville was not alone in this: "Out of the calico I had brought from the ship a dress was made for this lovely girl. In it she looked, I must confess, something like an opera-dancer. The drapery of the latter damsel generally commences a little above the elbows, but my island beauty's began at the waist, and terminated sufficiently far above the ground to reveal the most bewitching ankle in the universe."
Whaling in the southern Pacific did not consist solely of whale-chasing on the restless high seas, and many of the male travellers on the steamers running there to-day will not need to be persuaded of the early attraction of its little islets.
Bunker, excited with the possibilities of Australian whaling, had been sent out with the Albion, a 362-ton ship belonging to Champion & Go., of London. He later on played quite a considerable part in the early history of the colony and after leaving the sea settled down at Liverpool, near Sydney, where he died in 1836.