Maori and Whaling

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Ancient archaeological finds in Te Tau Ihu include whale tooth pendants, whalebone amulets and other adornments, and simulated whale teeth made from local serpentine. It is not clear whether Maori hunted and killed whales, or just exploited strandings.

Te Awaiti Bay, Tory ChannelTe Awaiti Bay, Tory Channel, with a group at the whaling station. View looking south. Photograph taken by the Tyree Studio circa 1885.
Alexander Turnbull Library, 10X8-1012-G
Click image to enlarge

Commercial whalers investigated New Zealand waters in the 1790s and early 1800s. John Guard established the first shore whaling station in Tory Channel in 1827. In the early 1830s, when Taranaki Maori migrated south to lands they had recently conquered, they were accompanied by about a dozen European men, who had formed partnerships with high-ranked Te Atiawa women. Most were involved with whaling stations in Tory Channel.

The southern right whale passed through the Cook Strait area between April and September each year. Large fleets of northern hemisphere whalers arrived for the season during the 1830s, basing themselves in Port Underwood where they had deep anchorage, shelter, and Maori assistance.

Maori played a variety of roles. Local chiefs negotiated payment to allow a ship to establish a shore base, and to obtain wood and water; their people were often contracted to build shore bases. Sometimes chiefs provided women (probably slaves), again for a price. Communities across Te Tau Ihu expanded cultivations and supplied fish and pork in return for European food, clothing, cloth and blankets, guns and ammunition, metal tools and equipment, tobacco, and beads. Although most whalers used alcohol regularly, Maori usually rejected it.

At Te Awaiti, showing a group of whalersAt Te Awaiti, showing a group of whalers near a thatched shed  [ca 1910], Alexander Turnbull Library,  1/2-052151-F (Boulton, Joe :Photographs of Te Awaiti, PAColl-4108)
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Some captains deliberately reduced their crews for New Zealand, knowing they could hire skilled Maori boatmen. In 1837 one journal recorded at Port Underwood: “While we lay here at anchor we saw several whales killed, and there were not less than 30 boats out, manned by natives, with many European ones also”.1

Dieffenbach in 1839, wrote of Maori intelligence:

This spirit of curiosity leads them often to trust themselves to small coasting vessels; or they go with whalers to see still more distant parts of the globe. They adapt themselves readily to European navigation and boating, and at this moment a native of New Zealand is master of a whale-ship; and in Cook’s Straits many boats are manned by them alone.2

Fox, William 1812-1893 :Guards BayFox, William 1812-1893 :Guards Bay. Jan. 1848, Alexander Turnbull Library, B-113-015
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At Tory Channel he explained why Maori were popular crew:

In this dangerous occupation [they] have acquired in a short time so much skill, that they are perfectly equal to the Europeans, and being always ready to work, sober and frugal, the proprietors of the boats often prefer a crew of natives.3

The whaling boom was an exciting and fruitful time for Maori, although early missionaries were shocked by European whalers: 4

some of whom present specimens of human nature in its worst estate … they practise every species of iniquity without restraint and without concealment. The very soil is polluted. The very atmosphere is tainted.

Dieffenbach was “astonished, and at the same time gratified, to find that the character of Maori had been little affected. … I have not seen one instance of drunkenness among them …5

Whaling declined in the late 1830s; Maori found new markets for their produce and skills in the New Zealand Company settlement at Nelson.

2008 

Sources used in this story

  1. Symonds (1837) citing Rossiters Journal (1837, June). In McNab, R. (1913) Old whaling days, p.240 ; Mitchell p.238
  2. Dieffenbach, E. (1843) Travels in New Zealand (2 vols.) London : John Murray
  3. Dieffenbach, vol 1, p.15
  4. Mitchell H. & J.(2007) Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka: A History of Maori of Nelson and Marlborough, Vol 2 the New Society. Wellington : Huia, pp. 77-
  5. Dieffenbach v.1, p. 41

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