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Life in Early Poverty Bay

Lively Days — Before the Advent of Missions “A Reckless, Godless Kind of Life

Lively Days
Before the Advent of Missions “A Reckless, Godless Kind of Life

“At the time of which I write the Bay of Islands was a great resort of shipping. Auckland was a small place; its Government House not built. Wellington was rarely heard of and then only as a horrible locality in great danger of being swallowed up earthquakes. Traders from Sydney had, for years, found it to their account to coast round the eastern shores of the island and exchange slops, tobacco and fire arms for large stores of maize, pigs, potatoes and flax which the Natives were ready to supply to facilitate trade with what were known as trading masters.

“We dropped from time to time at various places a supply of goods to give in exchange for produce to be collected against the arrival of the coasters. The business of trade was very frequently connected with whaling; the whalers being traders and vice versa. Almost all the old hands had at one time or another had a turn at both.

“In 1837 two fisheries were established—one by Ward Bros. at Waikokopu and the other by Ellis at Te Mahia and a number of Natives collected together as a consequence. In Poverty Bay, Capt. Harris, Espie, Halbert and others whaled in winter and spent the summer trading and sawing timber for their residences. Mahia Peninsula was thickly populated with Natives. Hapuku, Puhera, Marena and the principal chiefs of Heretaunga (Hawke's Bay) had their dwellings there and including Nuhaka. There could have been little fewer than 2000 Maoris at that end of the Bay.

“The Good Old Plan.”

“Most of the whites had domestic establishments with an aboriginal lady at the head of it and the good old plan of having a pet chief who took you in charge and whilst plundering you himself preserved you from others was still in vogue.

“No regular mission had, as yet, been established at Turanga (Gisborne) so left to their own “Messieurs the Whites” led a pretty considerable careless, reckless, Godless kind of life, drinking and gambling, having in these halcyon days full liberty of action.

Spree Follows Success.

“Risking life to acquire money in the fortunate season brought no greater benefit than to bestow a means for a greater spree than ordinary. Nor were the Natives at all backward in following so noble an example. It became a custom with these shore parties to man some of their boats with Maoris and having European page 69 headsmen and thus in consequence was there emulation and jealousy among the Natives.

“The fisheries I have named employed some eight or nine boats, five oared and carrying six men in each, besides a little army ashore. Black oil was the produce most obtained, the sperm whales not showing up till 1842. The owners paid the Natives a rental for the ground occupied by the fishery huts, trying down works, etc. The oil sold for a price varying from £18 to £26 a tun allowing enormous profits to the buyers. More established as the trade was generally in those days there was little else besides barter in which the mercantile class had by far the best of it.

How the Spoil was Shared.

“The plan on which these establishments worked and, indeed, the whole thing was based has, I believe, often-times been described before. Nevertheless, it is necessary to my purpose to give an outline of it. The custom that obtained with some variations was a system of division by shares. For instance the headsman would receive a 1½ share, the boat steerer 1½, the boat 1, each baling hand 1 and the try-works 1/4. The owners would appear to have been the worst off under this arrangement. In reality, owing to the amiable propensities above referred to, everything went to them. Clothing, food, lodging, perhaps everything, had to be paid for and the balance, when there was one, went for rum, which the owners supplied. It was the duty of the headsman to steer the boat up alongside the whale when the boat steerer pulled the bow oar made fast and, passing aft, took charge of the boat until the headsman killed the fish and had all ready for towing when he again took to his oar, redelivering charge of the boat to the headsman.

A Laborious Pursuit.

“The catch of a fish was very naturally the occasion for much labor. It had to be towed in at the top of high water and the line, having been made fast, it was hauled as high up as possible on to the beach. The cutting in now took place, the blubber being sliced off in pieces 18 to 24 inches in length by 5 in breadth. It was then crimped and cast into the try pots, the fires of which had to be kept up constantly while the process of trying out was being completed which usually occupied about 30 hours. The scraps rose to the surface as the boiling down went on and were skimmed off with a kind of long-handled colander. The oil was drawn off into coolers as fresh blubber was thrown in, after which came the filling of the casks.

Did Well Out of the Oil.

“In addition to the regular crews there were generally a couple of men attached to each party who followed the occupation called “tongueing.” These men were bound to give their services to pull in the event of any of the regular hands falling sick, to assist in cutting in and trying out, receiving the tongue and whatever was left besides (generally a good deal of fat inside the fish, especially about the heart) as their “perks.”

“The oil from these parts was, for the most part, inferior in quality and dark in color owing to the blubber becoming stale, the whalers being obliged to wait till the finish of the try-out before they could obtain the use of their works. Nevertheless I have heard these men say they did well out of it. The black fish yielded from three to eight tuns of oil according to their size. The tongue contained nearly a tun of oil itself. Besides this, the bone was scarcely less valuable than the oil and three whales would yield a tun. The smell of the fishery during the lucky season, when the carcases of three or four of these huge animals lay festering in the sun Is something once felt by the unaccustomed nose is not easily forgotten. The whalers themselves—such is use—scarcely noticed it and I verily believe rather liked it than not: it smelt like business. I found that the Wards didn't make much of it.

Whales Worth £200 Apiece.

“In 1836 Ellis took up Waikokopu station. Accounts under this heading page 70 are very conflicting, but Ellis had matters all his own way in 1841. When the Auckland people began to feel an interest in the East Coast. Morris and Brown commenced whaling under their auspices. Perry, an American, came down in 1842 and the Maoris shifted to Whakaari, whaling there for a season. Ellis then appears in 1843 to have gone to Kini Kini, better known as Long Point. In 1844 the first fishery was established at Wairoa river, George Morrison being at the head of it. In 1845 the first extensive capture of sperm whales was made, no fewer than 26 being captured at Kini Kini alone. These fish were worth on the average £200 each, making a pleasing total for our friends. The Wairoa fishery was not very successful during 1844 and 1845.

“About 1843 or 1844 Perry bought out Ellis, taking Waikokopu station for a debt due by Ellis to Mayo and stipulated that Ellis should whale no longer in Hawke's Bay. Mayo then disappeared from the scene and Perry became the principal fish master at that end of the Bay.

“Whaling continued to augment in importance till 1852 or 1853 which time would seem to have been its culminating point in Hawke's Bay something like fifty boats being engaged in the pursuit of the animals under various owners, one gentleman having as many as 20 under his direction. The Natives then owned boats, Toha distinguishing himself among the rest.

Fate of Two Brothers.

“The Lewises (Americans) were well-known in Wairoa in 1846 and did pretty well, carrying on with the fishery successfully till nearly 1860. Thaddeus Lewis left in the boat Wave in 1856 and was never heard of again. Wm. Lewis was drowned while in charge of a small vessel belonging to Mr. Joseph Lewis… . The mortality Amongst the old hands seems to have been probably caused in many cases by drunkenness. During ten years 17 deaths occurred of which only two were due to the ordinary operations of Nature.

“Ned Tomlin was notorious. He was a valuable man and an able headsman. On the occasion of a heavy spree, after a more than usually successful haul Perry and others were card playing. Tomlin, more drunken than the others, had been turned out of the house. In the evening, just after dusk, he persisted in going in again and Perry, considerably irritated, went to the door and struck him, knocking him down. No more was page 71 thought about it and the card playing was resumed. But in the grey light of the morning some of the party, wandering forth, discovered Tomlin lying stark and stiff. Without enquiry and without comment and after a mockery of a service read by Perry they huddled the poor remains into the cold earth.

“Happy Jack” An old-time Mahia Whaler.

Happy Jack” An old-time Mahia Whaler.

William Morris, old-time whaler of Mahia.

William Morris, old-time whaler of Mahia.

“Blind Charley's” Exit.

“Another man known as ‘Blind Charley,’ although, at the time, seriously unwell, upon a cry of ‘Whales in Sight’ being raised insisted upan taking his place in the boat, being afraid or losing his share of the luck. Finding himself unable from weakness to pull as well as his mates, he got chaffed by them, which he resented on leaving the boat and reaching the house he immediately drank off a whole basin of rum and then disappeared. When his mates tired of their several occupations they went to look for him. They found him dead under the table where he had drank the rum. Two others died raving mad owing to similar excesses. Perry himself died suddenly from apoplexy.

“In the Wairoa district the Natives have made considerable progress under the missionary teaching and have learned to read their Bibles and are striving to walk consistently with its teaching they have received but genuine reformation has made but small progress

Maori Observance of Sabbath.

“With the Natives' love of special observances the institution of the Sabbath and its rigid regard was insisted on so strongly as to become an infringement of personal liberty. Cooking was strictly prohibited and potatoes were peeled and prepared on the Saturday for use on the Sunday. It has been said that the Maoris had a custom of observing a day similar to our institution long before any whites ventured to settle in the country.

“However this may have been, it is certain the custom became used so tyrannically that the Maoris had, in many cases, to exercise their personal influence to mitigate fines and penalties imposed for some petty breach of the rightful observance (to the Native mind) of the Sabbath.”

The Old Brewery in Read's Quay

The Old Brewery in Read's Quay