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Once Were Whalers…

Scumbuggery (Part I)

by Julie Halligan

‘Once Were Whalers…’ is part 1 of a 6 part series looking at the ‘scumbuggery’ that has happened through the years in New Zealand.

It was the era that has retrospectively been described as the Age of Discovery, a time when the commercial and imperial interests of Europe sought to expand their power through global exploratory expeditions. It was also a time when the foreign policy of the day was to weaken a nation by strangling its access to resources. As Abel Tasman set the course of his ship in a north-easterly direction away from New Zealand in December 1642, he knew that the report he would have to compile for his paymasters, would admit to the failure to find the famous gold strewn land of ‘Beach’ or Terra Australis. This legendary land had reached almost mythical proportions in the centuries preceding Tasman’s exploratory expedition and modern day historians suggest that the existence of it at all owes itself to a mistranslation of the accounts of Marco Polo of the 14th century. Despite this failure to win for the avaricious Dutch East India Company further riches for its trading coffers, Tasman did discover the lands of New Zealand, however the knowledge of their existence were not cause for immediate overt action by any known European power.

It was not until over 100 years after Tasman’s explorations that New Zealand was again visited by another European who also had been sent on a fishing expedition in an attempt the discover Terra Australis Incognita and its gold strewn lands. Lieutenant James Cook in his little collier ship the Endeavour was tasked by the British admiralty to scour the southern latitudes in search of this mythic land of abundance and it was this mission that brought him into New Zealand waters. Before any sighting of land occurred a curious sea creature asleep on its back atop the ocean waves was encountered, a fur seal and later a lone penguin but what was most impressive for Cook and his crew were the sightings of the giants of the deep, in this case the Sperm and Southern Right Whales. It were the whales that later caused the most excitement in commercial circles in the northern hemisphere once the anonymous reports of Cook’s voyage had leaked out into the public arena, a full 18 months ahead of the official versions.

The whaling industry of the Atlantic had almost hunted the Northern Right Whale to the point of extinction and the industry was faced with a deadly crisis. At this time in our collective history, whale products featured in a myriad of ways within our society; baleen in the clothing industry, oil for industrial machinery and the lighting of many European streets and homes to name a few. So the discovery of new whale breeding grounds in the southern oceans stimulated the industry as never before and within a few years whaling stations started to appear on the mainland and islands of New Zealand previously unknown to Europeans. The discovery of the superior Fur Seal also was an added boon, particularly for American commercial interests as the otter skin industry had hunted the North American otter to the point of crisis (although the sealing boom of NZ was short lived, 1804-09, due to the short sightedness of these commercial interests in realising that if you kill all the mothers coming ashore to calve, the population levels drop, as in the north, the Fur Seal was hunted to the brink of extinction). While European whaling companies and chancers were arriving in our southern oceans, making landfall in hitherto unknown New Zealand territory and making friendly with the natives, England was exporting another of its less than salubrious resources, convicts. It was to the lush lands of the Australian continent as reported by Captain Cook and Joseph Banks that the British government decided to offload their criminals as the previous markets of North America had dried up in the aftermath of the American Revolution.

It was against this backdrop of the late 1700s and the early decades of the 1800s that the European presence established itself and influenced the further development of a sprawling group of Maori villages along a strip of coast into what became the biggest whaling port and the most infamous town of the southern hemisphere; Kororareka, The Hellhole of the Pacific.

It was discovered by whalers that the Bay of Islands was a perfect haven to pull ships into not only during foul weather but in fair as well, for the area was fertile and lush with abundant food sources, ample water supplies, timber for ships repairs (as soon as ships were launched they started to rot, hence the need to have a permanent ship’s carpenter on board on long hauls) and seemingly friendly Maori. The other pale faces finding their way to this comfort stop were adventurers, deserters, those on the run from the harsh whip of the law in that fledgling colony of New South Wales as mutineers or as stowaways on the ships that were now engaged in the lucrative Trans-Tasman trade and industry.

This hodge podge of human detritus at Kororareka was populated by some of the lowest individuals you would never hope to meet, hard men living hard lives. Law had no place at the ‘wretched, filthy and anarchic’ Kororareka, justice was conducted by whoever had the gun and no authority existed to protect those weak, infirm or young. ‘Once a British subject set foot on New Zealand soil, he left behind all the constraints of British law – as though shedding a skin. A new and tough hide would have to be grown almost straight away to protect him against the lawlessness of the country.’ [1]

At times there would be up to a dozen or more ships at anchor in the Bays which meant there would have been upward of 700 men on shore leave, filling themselves up at the notorious and prolific grog shops and making use of the hundreds of Maori women who were made available as prostitutes whose condition was described as ‘degraded indeed...which arise from the frequent arrival of European ships’ Maori women were used for sex as a means of exchange, for items such as muskets, lead and powder, implements such as spades and hoes, blankets and sparkly trinkets, tobacco and grog. Despite the efforts of the early missionaries into the Bay of Islands, to stamp out the prostitution trade, such was the favour and support of the local chiefs to this enterprise that it continued to flourish. The benefits far outweighed any moral indignity.

Drunkenness proliferated and brawls that continued for days on the beaches of Kororareka were a frequent occurrence, by Maori and European alike and the town soon was able to claim the distinction of hosting the only brewery in New Zealand built by trader and resident Joel Pollack. Later the in-bound ships carried such copious supplies of grog matching the excessive quantities to be had onshore and it was soon reported in ‘The Missionary Register’ in 1833 that four fifths of all crimes committed within New Zealand were at the hands of alcoholic ‘madness’, New Zealand was awash in booze. Soon Maori adopted the ways of the white man and became quite adept as organising and running a grog supply chain that reached into the farthest corners of the country. In fact, Maori were quick studies and unfortunately not all they adopted from the white man was to their benefit; close contact and the ongoing prostitution racket soon had disease rapidly spreading through a population untainted by the infections of tuberculosis, venereal disease or influenza.

Profound as this early interaction was on the social landscape of New Zealand Maori, more profound was the introduction of the deadly musket which led to the carnage of the Musket Wars of the 1830s.


[1] ‘Fatal Frontiers: A new history of New Zealand in the decade before the Treaty’ by Paul Moon, ISBN 0143020595.

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elocal Digital Edition – March 2019 (#216)

elocal Digital Edition
March 2019 (#216)

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