‘Thar she blows’—a grisly trade in bone and oil
Within 30 years of Captain Cook’s first arrival in New Zealand, whalers were prowling our seas. Fortunes were to be made from “whalebone” (baleen), for corsets and umbrella ribs, and from whale oil, for fueling lamps and lubricating the gears of industry. Although the bonanza was over by 1860, small-scale whaling continued fitfully for another 100 years, until industrial whaling in Antarctic waters all but wiped out the big mammals. Whaling was a hard, often perilous business but exhilarating, too. The work of a nation’s pioneers.
I have had just two encounters with whales. Once, while I was sailing in the Hauraki Gulf off Great Barrier Island, a humpback surfaced a few hundred metres astern of the boat and wallowed in the waves, lazily blowing vapour. When it had had its fill of air it flexed and sank back effortlessly into the deep.
On the second occasion I was drifting becalmed in a small yacht off Whangarei Heads when, not two arm spans from where I sat, the glassy surface was sliced by a waist-high blade—the dorsal fin of a killer whale. Almost before I had seen it, the black fin arced and went under, leaving nothing more than a patch of disturbed water to mark its passage.
In the silence that followed, my heart beat such a tattoo in my chest I thought it would dislodge itself. I barely breathed, thinking how vulnerable I was floating on the restless sea in a glorified plywood dinghy while somewhere down below was an eight-tonne battering ram the size of a truck.
It was the undeniable solidity and muscled horsepower of the thing, the unexpectedness of its appearance and its unreadable intentions, which had got me rattled. Gradually, as time passed and nothing else happened, it became clear that the orca had merely sidled up alongside to satisfy its curiosity before plunging off to attend to business elsewhere.
I relaxed my grip on the helm. The boat lifted and dropped in the glassy swell as before, and I was left to my thoughts. Left to contemplate Leviathan.
Those old images, still crisp, still evocative, played in my mind once more as I drove from Blenheim airport to Picton. Despite my discomfort with the mass slaughter of wild creatures, I had welcomed the chance to meet two former whalers—the last of a breed—who half a century ago had hunted whales with small boats and harpoons in the unforgiving waters of Cook Strait.
I wanted to know what had driven the men to this dangerous, primeval work, and what feelings they harboured now, 40 or so years after the last harpoon was fired from a pitching deck and the last rope snapped taut behind a gigantic, heaving quarry.
Joe Heberley and Tom Norton were waiting for me on Picton’s waterfront. Heberley had offered to show me around historic Tory Channel, the cradle of New Zealand shore whaling, and had that morning travelled the 30 km stretch of water from his home at the far end of Arapawa Island.
He and Norton greeted me warmly, and I grasped the big, meaty hands of men who had known a lifetime’s labour. I felt dependability in their handshakes, and saw in their gaze the steadiness and directness that comes from having faced fear, from having summoned time and again the inner resources to survive, to overcome.
They were as geographically rooted (anchored, I should say) as it is possible for Europeans to be in this young country. Heberley, 59, and Norton, 71, are both fifth-generation whalers. As far as anyone knows, Heberley’s mother is the only woman, anywhere, to have driven a chaser in successful pursuit of a whale.
Heberley himself started out as the youngest harpooner in the southern hemisphere. Norton carries the distinction of having shot the last southern right whale to be killed in New Zealand waters. On December 21, 1964, his cousin, Trevor Norton, enacted the industry’s swan song when he shot a bull sperm whale off the Kaikoura coast, the last whale killed from a New Zealand boat.
I was in good company, then, as we climbed aboard the small runabout Heberley uses in place of a car and veered out past the looming flank of the inter-island ferry into Queen Charlotte Sound. Heberley had a mind to show me the chaser Balena II, from whose deck he had despatched his last whale. It was not anchored where he expected it to be, so we poked about in a few wooded bays in Tory Channel, coming across another much altered chaser, Sea Raider, moored to a private wharf.
“Bit of a dud, that one,” said Heberley as he gunned the runabout out of the bay. “It has an 80-horse Ford. Could do 13 knots, I suppose, with a clean bum.”
In their prime, the 11 m chasers—unadorned boats with V-shaped planing hulls and 300–400 hp engines could do almost three times that speed. Norton said he would like to get his hands on Surprise. He had crewed on it up at Great Barrier for a while, and it was a beautiful boat. Ideal, he said, for getting about the Sounds.
We made for Arapawa Island’s Fishing Bay, near the entrance to Tory Channel. On one arm of the small bay stood the rusting remains of the country’s last whaling station. Built by the Peranos, Italian immigrants who, from 1911, made their living from whaling, it was once the country’s biggest commercial station. In the record winter season of 1960 no fewer than 226 whales, almost all humpbacks, were processed there. So many were captured—78 in just 16 days in June—that a halt was called while the factory caught up.
The bay in those days was full of birds, sharks and blind eels, attracted by the offal and the rivers of blood that mingled with the tide. Further out there were tuna, crayfish, groper, and moki “like that”—Heberley stretched his arms. “You could catch whatever you wanted.”
Corrugated-iron huts once stood at the mouth of the bay and up the hillside, the homes of 50 or so seasonal workers—shearers and freezing workers—who brought their families with them for the hunting season. The whales passed through Cook Strait between May and August on their way from Antarctica to the tropics to breed (see New Zealand Geographic, Issue 30).
We climbed up onto the wharf and wandered about. There was the steam-powered winch that hauled the carcasses tail first up a ramp to the flensing deck; a steam saw with its crosscut blade; the huge digester—really an oversized pressure cooker—for rendering down blubber. (Humpbacks yielded up to 5 t of oil each, right whales as much as 20 t.)
It was filthy, dangerous work. The cables hauling the 50 t whales were under enormous strain. The residue of the coal-fired cookers stayed boiling hot for days. Cutting tools were razor-sharp. The men worked long hours, seven days a week and in all weathers, with no union to look out for them. There were no safety guards on the machinery, no smoko room, toilets or showers. They laboured on a slippery cutting deck ashore and more than once fought off a frenzied white pointer in the water. Somehow, they came to terms with both the rigours of the chase and the crushing boredom of days and weeks spent fruitlessly scouring the ocean for spouts.
One worker met an agonising death when he fell into the scalding cooker residue. Heberley’s late father, Charlie, also a whaler, recalled the incident: “I was on the boat taking him to town, and when I pulled off his gumboot his whole foot came away from the bone. It was a godsend when he died.”
In all, four Perano whalemen lost their lives. The only one to die at sea was killed when his harpoon gun broke open, firing the charge back into his face. Deaths in the whaling industry were always messy and agonising.
Across the water, West Head rises up above the entrance to Tory Channel in a staircase of rock. Perched on the highest crest, 91 m above sea level, was the whalers’ lookout, now little more than a pile of broken timber and iron. During the season this vantage point, which affords a sweeping panorama from Cape Campbell in the south to Plimmerton on the Kapiti coast, was occupied from dawn till dusk.
The men made chairs from old benzine packing boxes, reversing them so that their binoculars could be clamped to the back rests in front of them. From their hilltop lookout they methodically scanned the ocean. There was incentive enough to make a good job of it—each man earned £2 17s 6d when a whale was caught, and the first to sight it earned a bonus of 11s. In his first season, Charlie Heberley earned £150, although considering the hours worked, that equated to a mere ninepence an hour.
Year by year the lookouts would carve their tallies into the wood, preserving a history of the industry for anyone able to decipher the marks. “You could read Charlie’s chair like a book,” Heberley told me.
Later, in Picton Community Museum, I was to see just such a chair, along with other industry detritus: try pots, harpoons, spades, a gun post and what may well be the oldest surviving piece of New Zealand-made furniture—a whale-vertebra stool from an early whaler’s hut.
The moment a whale was sighted the watchers sprang into action. A Union Jack was run up the flag pole, letting the crew of the mother ship, Tuatea, in nearby Okukari Bay, know that a chase was under way, and signalling factory workers to get up steam in the boiler. Grabbing their lunch tins, the chase crews then ran down to their boats, flung off the mooring lines and made with all speed for the open sea.
To Heberley, it was more like a sport than a job. Once contact was made and the pursuit was on, there was, he said, an adrenalin rush “like the All Blacks going onto the field at a test match.”
Out from land, the chasers were guided originally by tussock fires at the lookout: smoke to the left of the main fire meantbear left; a fire extinguished, keep on course. Eventually, and much to the relief of the lookouts, the eye-watering smoke signals gave way to a radio-telephone.
On the water, the ensuing fight was less uneven than might be imagined—that is, when a whale tumbled to the fact that a fight was on. Weighing 10 times more than the boats that hunted them (roughly three tonnes per metre), right whales and humpbacks were capable of doing great damage, and were known to have lifted chasers clean out of the sea. Right whales were the more aggressive. Big animals they were, said Heberley, “as agile as a cat.”
In later years, while Heberley was helping his father run a station on Great Barrier Island, a wounded bull whale charged one chaser, then turned its attention to the second, ramming it in the port bow and driving its head through the hull into the crew’s quarters. As the whale backed off, the crew were dismayed to see bits of bedding draped over the animal and splintered wood on the water. “It frightened the hell out of me,” said Heberley. Fortunately there was little wind and only a slight sea, and the damaged chaser made harbour with its catch.
Such conditions were exceptional. Usually, the winter weather was far from benign. For the gunner, there was the added difficulty of standing at his post while travelling at maybe 30 knots in a lumpy sea. “I never went over the side,” Norton told me with a grin. “But I’ve been round the rail once or twice.”
Heberley’s father, Charlie, did go over once, and it almost killed him. He had been leaning out to fix a tow wire to what he thought was a dead whale when the animal lashed out, knocking him overboard. A second kick of the flukes struck him across the shoulders, pushing him deep. After taking a couple more smacks, he came up to the surface, face down and limp. The other crew used a boat hook to get him aboard. He refused suggestions that he be taken back to base to recover—there were still four whales in the pod to be caught. Rummaging through a bag of engine rags, Charlie found an old dress, and for the rest of the day he manned the harpoon gun clad in that and a jersey, with his legs through its arms. He got three more whales that day, but his battered head and jaw took months to heal. Not for nothing did whalers in days past call the tail, which could dash a boat to pieces and send men to eternity, “the hand of God.”
Another time, Charlie’s boot became tangled in a rope that was fast to a running whale. Thrown to the deck, he had the presence of mind to fling his arms round the gun post and pulled his foot free just as the rope tore the boot through the fairlead at the bow.
The technology of whale slaughter is not for the squeamish. Killing something as big, as unstoppable, as a whale calls for extreme measures. The harpoon guns used by the Tory Channel whalers were improvised from the cut-down barrels of anti-aircraft guns. A gunner prepared his cartridges while the boat was under way, using detonators, time fuses, gelignite and blasting powder stored in a wooden chest. Once a cartridge was in the breech, a wad of paper (“Five pages of the Weekly News was perfect,” said Heberley) was rammed down the barrel, followed by the harpoon.
The gun had no system to absorb the recoil. The laminated gun post took the entire shock, and often broke. The harpoon had an explosive head with a delay fuse that was activated by the concussion of the firing cartridge. The pounding of the hull could also set it off. If a harpoon began to smoke it was fired seaward “pretty smartly.”
The barbed explosive harpoon slowed a whale, but to kill the animal a pipe bomb filled with electrically detonated gelignite was driven in. To keep the dead whale afloat, air was pumped into it through an air spear fed by compressor.
Such method, built around harpoon and line, were not far removed from those employed at the outset of bay whaling in New Zealand—something first attempted, as it happened, in Tory Channel. On our way out from Picton, Heberley had slowed the runabout a headland or two short of the Peranos’ factory to show me Te Awaiti Bay. As we drifted with the motor cut, Norton took a long look at the bay. There, beyond a line of try pots, five generations of his family lie buried.
Heberley reached into the boat for an old photograph and held it up. Taken from almost the same spot where we floated, it showed two immaculately maintained whaleboats, steered by snappily dressed men, striking out from the beach, harpooners posing awkwardly in the bows. (Later, I came across one of the whaleboats, the Hobart-built Swiftsure, in the Canterbury Museum, its Huon pine planking none the worse for wear more than a century on.) In the background stood sheds and thatch-roofed cottages ringed by fences with whale-rib posts.
The photograph dates from the 1890s, when whaling at Te Awaiti—“Tar’white” to the whalers—was already 70 years old. The whole novel enterprise was kicked off by Australian convict and sealer-turned-whaler Jacky Guard, who had been shipped out from London to the New South Wales penal colony in 1815. Like many in the whaling game, Guard had been knocked about by life and knocked back with equal vigour, earning a reputation as a tough, sometimes ruthless, man.
It was said that Guard had been forced into Tory Channel in 1827 while passing through Cook Strait in the teeth of a violent storm. Dropping anchor in Te Awaiti, a sheltered, stream-fed bay 3 km from the channel entrance, he realised he had found an ideal base from which to catch the humpbacks often sighted in the Strait.
Setting up a station at Tar’white soon after, he was at first limited to shipping out whalebone. Once he had laid his hands on some casks, however, he and his party began freighting oil, landing two tuns (2290 litres) in Sydney as early as 1830.
In that year, Joe Heberley’s forebear, James “Worser” Heberley, arrived at Tar’white aboard Guard’s schooner, Waterloo, to work at the station. His timing was unfortunate: Te Rauparaha’s warriors were just then causing mayhem on the Kaikoura coast, and almost immediately Heberley stumbled on bodies from a recent fight.
Worse was to come. “On May 10 the natives returned from Kaiapoi,” he wrote in his memoirs. “The party numbered 2000 all told, including the women and children, and they brought about 500 prisoners with them. Altogether there must have been sixty or seventy canoes; the bow of each was decorated with dead men’s hands and heads. They landed on Te Awaiti and stayed on the beach about nine days.” Such gruesome goings-on must have made the visceral nature of the whalers’ trade seem unexceptional.
Maori–Pakeha relations were scarcely cordial, either. Waterloo was ransacked and burned by Maori after it ran aground on Waikanae beach in 1833. The following year there were two kidnappings, the most serious when Harriet, carrying Guard, his wife and children, was wrecked off the Taranaki coast. Twelve of the crew were killed by Maori, and others on board held prisoner until Guard could collect the ransom demanded.
It was a mark of Worser Heberley’s prudence that soon after his arrival at Tar’white he formed a relationship with Te Wai Nahi, a high-born Maori woman whose uncle, Ropoama Te One, paramount chief of Ngati Awa, had allied himself with Te Rauparaha’s Ngati Toa to drive out other tribes from the Sounds. The couple, married in 1841 by the missionary Samuel Ironside, had two daughters and six sons.
Charlie Heberley, born at Oyster Bay in 1918, was proud of his whakapapa. Okukari, where Joe and his two fishing sons still earn a living from the sea, was “the place where my tupuna first set foot in the South Island,” said Charlie. His wife, Ruby, was a direct descendant of Jacky Guard.
That’s how it was in the Sounds. The names of old whaling families—the Heberleys and Guards, the Toms, Jacksons, Nortons, Peranos and others—recur as a leitmotif in local histor, evidence of increasing ties between Pakeha and local Maori, a drawing-together through shared toil and kinship.
The shakedown between tangata whenua and the new arrivals was to continue for decades, but common ground, or at least mutual accommodation, was found early on between European and Maori in the pursuit of the whale.
While working for the New Zealand Company, the German naturalist and surgeon Ernst Dieffenbach visited Tar’white in September 1839, finding that the settlement had grown to become the South Island’s first real town, with 700 people living and working there (this at a time when Port Nicholson—now Wellington—barely existed). Going ashore, Dieffenbach noticed several whale carcasses lying under water, while the beach itself was covered with “skulls, vertebrae, huge shoulder blades and fins; and the blubber, in pieces a square foot in size, was still boiling in large pots.”
The try-pot fires’ wreathing smoke by day and hellish glare by night were signatures of the shore stations, as were the stench from piles of putrid whale flesh and the equally offensive smell of arrack rum, an evil concoction that only men stranded on the untamed rim of the world would willingly have endured. The whalers themselves, often unshaven and coated with whale oil, soot and sweat, toiled in the midst of offal and blood, the sand at their feet saturated with the residue of seasons past.
Yet the place was not entirely devoid of refinement. Dieffenbach had good things to say about Tar’white’s houses. Some were substantial and made of wood, although most were modest clay-floored buildings thatched all over with reeds and rushes, or with walls of wattle and daub. They were, said Dieffenbach, “not inferior to those of villages in many parts of Europe.”
At the time of Dieffenbach’s visit, 40 whalers were working at three whaling stations at Tar’white and in nearby Jacksons Bay, all of them living with Maori women. Over the summer months, the whalers drifted off to other corners of the Sounds, occasionally trading pigs and potatoes with passing ships, but on the whole doing little.
Journalist Samuel Martin was more critical of conditions in Queen Charlotte Sound, saying the notoriously debauched Kororareka, in the Bay of Islands, was a paradise compared with Cloudy Bay, “where crimes of every description flourish as in their native soil.” If there were a formula for creating pandemonium on earth, he thundered, it was to settle whaling gangs in the midst of a native population.
Whaling had certainly contributed to drunkenness and prostitution in Kororareka. Henry Williams spoke of the difficulty of keeping any girls at the missionary establishments there because of what he coyly termed “the influence of shipping,” and Samuel Marsden described the port in 1837 as a place where “Satan maintains his dominion without molestation.” However, it seems that the Tar’white whalers did little to earn the fulminations of the likes of Samuel Martin beyond swigging their arrack rum a little too fondly and cohabiting with Maori “wives.”
Drink was the more besetting evil. Johnny Jones, of Waikouaiti station lost so much business through his lookouts being too inebriated to sight whales that he locked up the grog. Undeterred, his hard-bitten gang set about distilling liquor from potatoes, grain and whatever else was to hand. The resulting brew was so much worse than even standard-issue arrack that Jones was obliged to unlock his supplies.
By contrast, the avuncular Bishop Selwyn, who once rebuked a Maori chief for selling rum to whalers—“a vile practice into which he has been led by his English companions”—found much to admire in the whalers’ character, notably their love for their children. “They were most earnest for schools, and offered to pay considerable sums for their children’s education,” he wrote. “Their care of orphans also won my heart . . . xthe children of the dead have always found protectors in the friends of their fathers.”
Shore whaling threw up more than its share of flamboyant characters, and one of the most eccentric was Tommy Evans. Known to one and all as the “Old Man,” Evans presided over the most efficient and successful whaling operation on the Kapiti coast, which he ran from Tokomapuna Island. Uniquely, his crews sported a uniform: a red or blue shirt edged with white, white trousers and sou’westers.
Evans’ own boat, Saucy Jack, was painted a flesh colour with a red nose, which bore as an emblem the feathers of the Prince of Wales. (Evans was either harking back to the land of his fathers or, more likely, indulging in a wry pun.) The decorative effect was more in keeping with a man-of-war’s fancy gig than a no-nonsense whaleboat.
More importantly for morale, Evans did not charge crews for their food and paid them fairly for their labours, so that, unlike at stations elsewhere, they were unlikely to end a season actually in debt to their employer.
In return for such consideration, Evans insisted on unwavering discipline. Boats were handled with naval precision, and when whales were scarce the crews were sent as far as Horowhenua, 25 km away, to look for them. They weren’t permitted to rest until they had reached the whaling ground, when the headman allowed the oars to be peaked and pipes lit.
The young adventurer Edward Jerningham Wakefield, whose travels through New Zealand overlapped those of Dieffenbach, recorded an incident which reveals Evans’ strongmindedness. In October 1839, a brig was sighted trying vainly to reach shelter in the teeth of a strong nor’wester. Evans rowed out with his men and tried to get aboard the brig to help bring it in, but through poor seamanship on the part of the brig’s captain he had to abandon the attempt. For two hours the whalers pulled for home, pinned where they were by the storm and a spring tide. At length the tide slackened and they made shore, by which time the brig was 15 km off and the gale blowing harder than ever.
“One of the men muttered as he walked to his house that ‘he had not been signed to pull after Sydney brigs.’ The ‘old man’ turned round and said with a string of oaths, ‘you grumble, do you? I shall pull out to her again. Launch my boat!’ and it was with great difficulty that he was dissuaded from the enterprise, which would probably have been his last.”
Then there was the cockney Dicky Barrett, “perfectly round all over” and dressed in blue dungaree trousers, a white jacket and a broad straw hat, who ran Tar’white after Guard had gone. He turned publican, building the original Barrett’s Hotel in Wellington, but was not averse, even then, to taking a whale in the Strait when the opportunity presented itself. Barrett Reef, which claimed the Union Steam Ship Company’s ferry Wahine in 1968, is named after him.
Paddy Gilroy, whom English writer Frank Bullen declared to be “unsurpassed as a whale-fisher or a seaman by any Yankee that ever sailed from Martha’s Vineyard,” cut a passable living in Foveaux Strait on his scruffy barque Chance and had a reputation for catching whales in almost impossible conditions.
Other whalers shone for their adventurousness. Jimmy Jackson, a solidly built Londoner, “all florid fatness, jollity and juice,” was said to have circumnavigated the South Island in an open sealing boat. He was also reputed to have built the first ship in New Zealand big enough to trade with Australia and to have been the country’s first cattle importer.
Worser Heberley accompanied Dieffenbach on the first European ascent of Mt Egmont/Taranaki (which the whaler was keen to name Mt Victoria) and, if his own account is to be believed, was the first to set his foot on the summit. He later became Wellington’s first harbour pilot.
These were just some of the whalemen going about their trade in the young country, marrying locals, venturing inland, finding new ways to turn a quid and rejoicing in (or hiding behind) their sobriquets. There were others: Flash Bill, Black Pete, Long Bob, Butcher Nott, Horse Lewis, Gypsy Smith, Geordie Bolts. By and large they did poorly out of shore whaling. In the early days, at least, the enterprises were often controlled from Sydney, with the local men little more than cogs in a money-making machine.
Worser Heberley, for one, was unhappy with the system: “We could not get any money for our work, instead of money we had to take spirits, soap, sugar, clothing etc . . . The agent would give an order on the merchant in Sydney. The merchant sent down their order for the produce of the place and gave orders to the captain not to give anyone a passage to Sydney without charging an enormous price . . . That was done so they could keep us there. We paid high prices for everything that we got, about eight hundred per cent . . . we got robbed.”
Heberley was bridling at what was, in effect, the sweatshop underbelly of the world’s first truly global industry. To understand how New Zealand became subject to the economic vicissitudes of distant markets, we must go back another century or more, to the dawn of commercial whaling.
The Dutch and others in Europe had indulged in active whaling (as opposed to scavenging stranded carcasses) since the 17th century, killing the animals in shallow waters and beaching them to strip off their blubber. Later, as the number of whales fell—or the animals learned to stay away—whalers took to the high seas, eventually mounting expeditions to Greenland and beyond, and to make the voyages longer and more lucrative began the risky practice of rendering down the blubber on board ship.
For years, baleen whales—the ones which sieve planktonic food through bony, comb-like structures in their jaws—were the favoured target, especially the northern right whale. Aside from the commercially important baleen—used to make, among other items, corset stays, umbrella ribs and buggy whips—the northern right had the virtues of swimming slowly, yielding a good amount of oil and usually remaining afloat once dead. In every way it was the “right” whale to hunt, hence the name (see New Zealand Geographic, Issue 40 ).
In or about the year 1712 a singular event transformed the industry. An American whaler by the name of Christopher Hussey was carried well out into the Atlantic by a storm while searching for right whales. Seeing a large, toothed whale, he killed it and brought it in. In its head cavity was found oil of a much higher quality than the “black” oil extracted from the blubber of baleen whales.
A white, waxy substance found in large quantities in the creature’s head cavity lent the creature the name Sperma cetus: the sperm whale. Candles made with this substance burned with such brilliance that they came to define artificial illumination, candle-power being a measure of luminosity based on the light emitted by a spermaceti candle. The chance finding of a secretion in the intestines called ambergris, used in the manufacture of perfume, more than offset the lack of baleen.
The sperm whale’s liking for temperate waters soon lured northern-hemisphere whalers into the Pacific. Among the most productive of the new whaling grounds was the Tasman Sea. In 1791, Britannia, a ship belonging to the British firm of Samuel Enderby and Sons, reached Port Jackson with the usual cargo of convicts and supplies. On landing, its master, Thomas Melville, fired off an eager letter to his employer, reporting that: “Within three leagues of the shore we saw sperm whales in great plenty: we sailed through different shoals of them from twelve o’clock in the day till after sunset, all around the horizon as far as I could see from the masthead . . .”
It was impossible to keep such news under wraps, and soon the port was astir, with five out of the 10 transport ships at anchor there setting sail in pursuit of the whales. What followed was indicative of the part chance played in the game of ocean whaling. Britannia and William and Ann (the latter, in 1792, became the first whaling ship to enter New Zealand waters) each brought back a sperm whale. They had killed seven, but bad weather had robbed them of the remainder. Mary Ann did not see a single spout, while Salamander reported seeing an estimated 15,000 whales in less than two weeks. Heavy seas had prevented it and Matilda from lowering boats for the chase.
Buoyed by the prices fetched in Europe (which was increasingly illuminated, and its machinery lubricated, by whale oil), the whalers persevered, opening up new grounds in a series of oil rushes across the Pacific.
New Zealand was long considered one of the more dangerous places to practise the trade. As early as 1823, Samuel Enderby pressed for annexation of the islands to protect British whalers and forestall American competitors. No doubt the burning of the transport ship Boyd and the massacre of its crew and most of its passengers by Maori in Whangaroa in 1809 gave weight to his argument, along with several other brutal episodes, including that involving Guard’s Harriet 11 years later.
As a result of such incidents, some ocean whalers became decidedly jumpy. George Bayly detailed the pre and low-cost provisions. Whalers tended to hunt closer to the equator during the winter, returning to New Zealand over summer to refit and restock their ships and top up their cargo of oil by chasing right and humpback whales inshore and sperm whales off the continental shelf. Maori, valued for their harpoon and boat-handling skills, were increasingly prominent among the crews.
Ocean whaling differed little in technique from bay whaling, but the sheer scale of its canvas and the epic sweep of its unfolding drama have made it an icon of human endeavour. There is the whale—a sperm bull—breaking a flimsy whaleboat across its back or splintering the thin cedar planking with its massive jaw. An iron (or harpoon) is fast to the whale, but the monster cannot be restrained. Steersman, headman and crew are thrown into the water amid trailing cordage, oars and cautions taken aboard his ship as it approached the Firth of Thames in 1825: “An arm-chest was hoisted into each top, containing half a dozen muskets, as many pistols, cutlasses, [and] boarding-pikes, and a good supply of ammunition. The two carronades were hauled into the roundhouse [and] loaded with charges of musketballs and slugs. Inside the roundhouse, the bulkheads were fitted with racks for firearms, cutlasses, axes, and so on . . .”
Despite the risks, visits by whalers increased, and during December 1827 and January 1828 as many as 14 whaling ships lay at anchor in the Bay of Islands, attracted by freedom from duties (at least until annexation by Britain) mast.
Herman Melville, himself a one-time whaler, elevated the drama of the whale hunt to the status of myth with the publication in 1851 of Moby-Dick. The fate of the fictitious Pequod, rammed and sunk by a gigantic white sperm whale, mirrors the end of the real Nantucket whaler Essex, which was destroyed in exactly the same way in November 1820. “The ship brought up suddenly and violently as if she had struck a rock, and trembled for a few seconds like a leaf,” said the aptly named first mate Owen Chase of the initial impact.
Another notorious fighter was “New Zealand Tom,” a sperm whale said to have destroyed a great number of ships’ boats. When finally caught by Adonis in 1804, he was found to be carrying irons with the identifying marks of several whaling ships.
The danger of whale attack always ran high. The 19 year-old American John Burr Osborn, aboard Amazon, left a rare record of a whale hunt on the Solander Ground, west of Stewart Island, in 1845: “. . . the second day out we raised a school of sperm whales and, lowering our boats, we pulled directly for the school. There were about fifty in the school, and my boat fastened to an old bull. As soon as fastened he ran his under jaw across the stern sheets of the boat. His junk [the lower part of the massive head] was laid back as if he was getting ready to smash things. He turned the after oar man and myself across under his jaw, and all the crew were in the water, the after oar man and myself being badly mixed up with the line as it had rolled out of the tubs when the boat capsized . . .
“Our boys all crawled on the bottom of the boat. The harpoon had done its work, for about this time the old bull went into his death ‘flurry,’ when he lashed the sea into a foam of blood and water all about us. We could not move our boat because of its being bottom up. At one time we left the boat because the whale was coming directly at us and with great force, but he shut his mouth just before getting to it, and seemed to change his mind. The sharks were getting thick on account of the blood, and we crawled back on the boat again, and there we remained eight long hours . . .”
The crew of Amazon eventually got the whales alongside and cut the blubber overnight. The next day they sailed to Jacobs River, near Bluff, where the chunks of blubber—the “blanket pieces”—were tried out (melted to extract the oil) in kettles on shore.
Bigger ships usually tried out the blubber at sea, fires being lit for the purpose under copper boilers set in brick frames on deck. The blubber was cut into strips called horsepieces, which were minced and fed into the boilers. The resulting oil was then cooled and casked. The work went on day and night until it was finished, the fires often casting an eerie glow over the whale grounds.
Lighting fires on wooden boats was risky. Deck planking sometimes caught fire and collapsed, sending both cauldron and burning timbers down into the bowels of the oil-laden ship, inevitably sealing its fate.
The French doctor Felix Maynard witnessed such a calamity from the decks of Asia, as it tried out at night off the New Zealand coast in March 1846. Another ship was in flames 25 km to windward, its trying fire having become an uncontrollable blaze.
“The horizon was illuminated, and at the bottom of the flames one perceived, through the telescope, an ignited mass, a colossal coal . . . which fed the conflagration and gave to the disaster the recurring radiance of an immense intermittent lighthouse . . . Suddenly a more vivid light was diffused over the ocean; then the flames lessened in intensity little by little, and we perceived the colossal coal diminishing in size and becoming extinguished as it sank beneath the sea.” Sunrise revealed little more than a few pieces of charred timber floating on the surface.
Given such a scenario, it is not surprising that crews welcomed the prospect of cutting up a carcass and trying it in harbour. There was also the possibility of outside help. Frank Bullen, aboard Splendid, told of one occasion when the ship ran in to Port William, on Stewart Island, with a catch to escape bad weather. Just as the crew were about to start work, a gang of Maori rowed up and asked what the captain intended doing with the carcass, which at sea was always jettisoned. A deal was quickly struck, whereby the Maori took the remains of the whale, agreeing to sell back at a favourable rate any oil they recovered.
Bullen later went ashore and found them “working as I have never seen men work . . . They attacked the carcass furiously . . . chopping through the massive bones and rending off huge lumps of the flesh with marvellous speed. They had already laid open the enormous cavity of the abdomen, and were stripping the interminable intestines of their rich coating of fat. In the maw there were, besides a large quantity of dismembered squid of great size, a number of fish, such as rock cod, barracouta, schnapper, and the like, whose presence there was a revelation to me. . . . Every part of the animal yielded oil. Even the bones, broken up into pieces capable of entering the pot, were boiled.”
It was a good season for Splendid, and with a hold full of potatoes, firewood and freshly casked water for the months-long journey round the Horn to distant New Bedford, the old barque was soon ready to shake out its sails and weigh anchor. With rigging tarred and hull freshly painted, whaling gear carefully oiled and stowed and several of the boats taken inboard and secured aft, it began to take on the appearance of an ordinary merchantman with an urge to reach market. Once out at sea, the bricks and mortar of the trying station were heaved overboard, and the transformation was complete.
The year was 1876, and, despite Splendid’s full hold, whaling was by then in terminal decline. The previous year, The Official Handbook of New Zealand had rated oil and whalebone, “which in the early days of the Colony were regarded as its staple product,” as “too insignificant to mention.”
As early as 1843, Dieffenbach had predicted such an outcome, warning that by killing mothers and calves indiscriminately, shore whalers had “felled the tree to obtain the fruit.”
By the 1850s, shore whaling was dead. Pelagic whaling lingered on, but if sperm whales proved more difficult to annihilate than had other species, their oil was vulnerable to competing products such as petroleum-based fuels for lighting and, in more recent times, oil from the jojoba plant for lubrication.
Splendid was dismantled at Port Albert, in Kaipara Harbour, in 1890. Paddy Gilroy’s Chance, which Bullen had seen in harbour at Stewart Island in 1876, was even then the sole survivor of the local whaling industry—“carelessly rigged, and vilely unkempt as to her gear, while outside she did not seem to have had a coat of paint for a generation.” The old warhorse ended its whaling days soon after, only to linger ignominiously as a beached hulk at Bluff before being broken up in 1903.
Which brings us full circle to Joe Heberley and Tom Norton and to the third phase of whaling in New Zealand: the use of fast, motorised chasers to catch whales for processing ashore—a development that briefly resuscitated the industry, first in Cook Strait, then in the Hauraki Gulf.
Thus did the grisly business of whale hunting flare and fade in the dawn of nationhood. From the shaky, short-lived enterprises of restless outsiders to the long-established factories of family dynasties, whaling helped propel the country’s slow drift to colonisation. As with pioneering activities the world over, it was an extractive industry, built on the exploitation of a limited resource. As the machinery of harvest became more efficient, it outstripped the ability of the resource to regenerate itself, so dooming both whales and whalers.
The 21st century is a far different world. It is easy for us to look back on our whaling heritage with repugnance born of the amnesia comfort creates. The early whalers lived in a brutal world of inequality, hardship and bloodshed. We can hardly expect Worser Heberley at Tar’white in 1830 to have looked down from the human remains fixed to the prows of Maori waka and felt a twinge of conscience over whale entrails at his feet. At a time when petty criminals were being deported from Britain to Australia by the shipload, the plight of mere “fish” was unlikely to have raised much concern.
“Most of the old whalers wouldn’t kill a whale these days,” Joe Heberley told me. His father, Charlie, ended his days an avowed conservationist. But that shouldn’t blind us to the very different reality under which he and his forebears once laboured.
The industry’s candle may have guttered, but the courage, resourcefulness and hardihood of the whalers live on.
So too, if there is a grain of justice in the world, will Leviathan.