Tuesday, 31 December 2013

On the Trail of Ancient Whalers.

Ancient harpoon heads
This is an epilogue to my visit to New ZealandAs I traveled around South Island I was frequently standing in the footsteps of the whalers of the nineteenth century; the simple reason for this being that these same places, particularly the Banks Peninsula, Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula, were (and are) places where marine mammals can be found and exploited. Now that exploitation is limited to nature tourism but once it was far bloodier.

George Mason whaler and settler

The first major expeditions of westerners came to New Zealand to harvest the local marine mammals; this was New Zealand's first industry and whilst I will focus here on whales, the New Zealand fur seal and Hooker’s sea lion were rapidly decimated and remain endangered to this day. Whalers entered the waters of New Zealand in their great (and sometimes leaky) sailing vessels relatively late in the history of sail-boat whaling, and only after they had already exterminated the more easily caught whales in the waters nearer home. When they first arrived, the right whales were numerous and their populations pristine but it appears that it took only some thirty years for the New Zealand population to also be reduced to a level below which it was no longer economic to hunt.

The whalers came in their ships from Europe and America. They caught the whales using relatively small rowed vessels that set off from the mother ships or from the land stations. When the westerners arrived, New Zealand was, of course, already inhabited and the local Maori tribes soon came to to barter with the whalers, sell them rights to their lands and even exploit them in their inter-tribal battles. The Maori had not traditionally hunted whales but had utilized stranded animals and New Zealand then (as now) would have seen plenty of these at certain sites now notorious for mass standings. Some Maori were also recruited to work as whaling crews on boats and at land-stations.

Whaling was dangerous; many died onboard the whaling vessels. (An old whaling log book that I saw during my travels attested to this. In the margins of its pages –on a horribly regular basis – are drawn the outlines of a coffin containing a stickman and a number marking a death.

New Zealand was also pretty much as far from home for those from Europe and America as it was possible to go and whaling expeditions were away from their home ports for several years. So what drove people to join them and what did they do when they reached the verdant islands of the Long White Cloud?

Making money is an obvious motive. The fat-rich tissues of the right whales (and the sperm whales that were hunted further offshore) yielded the oil that was helping to fuel the industrial revolution in the whalers distant home lands. It was very valuable and provided the main incentive for prospectors to travel far and wide to find it. Indeed, Dunedin, the home of New Zealand’s oldest university, was partly founded on the ‘liquid gold’ coming from the whales, but then mineral gold was found nearby and a more conventional gold-rush followed.

Motives for the men who joined (rather than ran) whaling-expeditions were I am sure as mixed as they are for those travelling far and wide today. Some would have been seeking adventure, some escape from something at home, but all would have found life hard on board the cramped sailing vessels that conveyed them and it is perhaps no surprise that many stayed in New Zealand when they got there.

Famously, in 1837, Captain Hempleman, a German whaling captain, settled at Peraki Bay on the Bank’s Peninsula, there transiting from being a ship-based whaler to running a terrestrial whaling station. The Banks Peninsula formed by the actions of two volcanoes sticks out into the Pacific on the east side of South Island. Its position meant that it intercepted the migration north of the right whales in winter and its bays were used by the whales as calving grounds. Its collapsed calderas also formed the main harbour for Christchurch and also Akaroa harbour. Both are deep and well protected and there are many other radiating bays. Peraki appears to have been a particularly useful one for the whalers. Deep enough for whaling boats to enter but also close to the open sea and also blessed with a high vantage point from which the sea could be viewed for some distance. Other whalers followed Hempleman's example and the suitable bays around the Peninsula were shared out among them. Hempleman remains the most famous because he maintained a log* that was later transcribed and published (and he and his wife were also the first German settlers in New Zealand). The ‘Peraki Log’ recounts the day-to-day activities on both Hempleman's whaling vessel and then the land station.

As the years went by, exhausted whalers coming to New Zealand, many suffering from scurvy after long journeys with poor nutrition, would have been able to find settlers who would trade with them for potatoes (rich in vitamin C and thus a treatment for scurvy) and dairy and other products. Britain also claimed New Zealand during this same period (in 1848) and just weeks ahead of the arrival of an expedition from France which had planned to do the same. The French settlers still stayed, and they formed a community at Akaroa where a distinctly French flavour still prevails. 

Akaroa, now an important tourist hub, still has tripots (the great cauldrons in which marine mammal fat was rendered down to release its oil) on display on its seafront. Relations between the French, the British and the Maori were evidently mainly friendly. By the 1850s and 1860s the New Zealand whaling stations were operating only sporadically and their time was almost over. (Later whalers would return again to New Zealand with motorized vessels and their attention would then focus on the swifter humpback whales but this phase of whaling in New Zealand, which coincided with the arrival of western settlers ended at this point.)

Whaling tripots on Akaroa seafront
The Okain's Bay Museum on the Bank’s Peninsula helps shed a little more light on what became of one of the men who first arrived in 1837 as a harpoonist on a whaling vessel: George Mason (pictured at the top of the page) was born in London in 1810 and reached Bank's Peninsula, which was to become his home, in 1838 and first went to work with Hemplemen at his shore station. He moved on to work elsewhere, was briefly held as a prisoner by the local Maori tribe (for reasons unknown) and, in 1850, he moved across the mountains of the Peninsula to buy land in the pretty and fertile valley of Okain's Bay on the north coast. Here, with his wife (and there is some confusion as to whether his wife was a Maori or the daughter of another settler) he farmed until his death in 1889. George Mason started his dairy farm with a share of 50 acres. His son, also George Mason, subsequently farmed some 700 acres.   

With the whales gone, the ex-whale men who elected to stay obviously had to find a different way to make a living and New Zealand with its rich soils, abundant fish and timber (and relatively friendly locals) formed a welcome home for many. 

Did these men (and the whalers were typically all of this gender - although as the presence of Frau Hemplemen at Peraki Bay shows some captains did take their wives and families with them) concern themselves about the cruelty of their hunts and the nature of the animals that they killed. We shall never really know; what we do know is that they were very efficient in their work and whilst there are signs of recovery, the right whales remain very rare and the bull sperm whales that now form the focus of the whale-watching industry at Kaikoura (previously home to a whaling station) number only a few individuals. 

*Poem from the Peraki Log:

With whalers and whaling there is always complaining,
Like a boat or a mill out of tune ;
While the whales are in the Bay the men run away -
And we will have a clear stage of it soon.

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