Start My Family Tree Welcome to Geni, home of the world's largest family tree.
Join Geni to explore your genealogy and family history in the World's Largest Family Tree.

Whaling in early New Zealand

« Back to Projects Dashboard

Project Tags

view all


  • James Worth Morris (1850 - 1933)
    Article which appeared in the Auckland Weekly News p. 28, Mar 15 1933 Early Whaling Days of the late James Morris The number of survivors of the whaling days on the East Coast has diminished steadi...
  • William Morris (1815 - 1882)
    William left home at a young age to avoid the press gangs, became a whaler and settled in New Zealand. He never returned to Ireland. - from Overview: Jemima Morris Came to NZ from Sydney, New South...
  • William Bartlett - Hawkright (1788 - 1848)
    William Bartlett, who came from the Bay of Islands with Captain Ellis, had for headsmen two of his sons, and one story of the whaling days must suffice. Mr. Tom Bartlett, of Tawatapu, East Coast, and o...
  • Thomas Ellison (c.1816 - c.1840)
  • Edward Weller (1814 - 1893)
    Reference: MyHeritage Family Trees - SmartCopy : Feb 15 2018, 2:51:55 UTC Edward Weller and his brothers were born in England but emigrated to Sydney with their parents in 1829. The Wellers were not co...

WHALE OIL was a commodity which was in great demand. It was used for machinery lubrication and as a clean burning fuel for lamps in Europe, Asia and America, where the oil from the head and jaw of these mammals did not congeal in extreme cold, nor require any form of refining, and could therefore be used to lubricate the cogs and wheels of the most delicate of instruments such as clocks and watches. Whaling ships came from as far away as Britain, Europe, America, Britain, France and Australia to 'fish' the waters off New Zealand well before the year 1794, when the first ledgers were kept of their cargo's of oil and sealskins which were then officially registered by Customs agents and placed on public record. It was common knowledge among the owners and captain's of the whaling fleets, that the schools of Humpback, Right, Minke and Sperm Whales from the Pacific Ocean, began to arrive off the west coast of New Zealand during their migration to the Antarctic in early May each year (whaling season was during the NZ winter). They made their way south past Kapiti Island and the mainland, heading through Cook Strait for Picton and Kaikoura to a place known as Cloudy Bay. During June, the schools continued to cruise south towards Ferveaux Strait before turning northwards again, heading towards the Chatham Islands and the wider Pacific Ocean during the month of October. Armed with this knowledge, several Australian and American shippers decided to set up Whaling Stations in those areas where the whales were known to frequent or pass through. They negotiated with the local Maori chiefs for the use or sale of the land for the establishment of these.

The earliest association of whaling with New Zealand is from December 1791, when the whaleship William and Ann called in at Doubtless Bay during a whaling voyage of the Pacific. It is not recorded if any whales were actually caught in what are New Zealand waters. The Britannia arrived about the same time. Both were whalers that had dropped convicts at Sydney. In the early 19th century, Kororareka (now called Russell) was a supply port for whaling and sealing ships, and developed a wild reputation being called the Hellhole of the Pacific by Charles Darwin who did not like his time in New Zealand. His opinion reflected that of many of the puritanical evangelical Christian missionaries. This behaviour was not just confined to the Bay of Islands. Missionary John Brumby in Marlborough in 1838, found the whalers to be "rogues and outlaws unrestrained by any law" Other contemporary observers had differing views. In 1839, Edward Wakefield, who later became a member of parliament in Britain, described shore whalers as having a dark side to their character but they were "frank and hospitable". They were intrepid with boundless resolution and great powers to endure hardship. He pays tribute to their hospitality to casual visitors and noted they were in stable relationships with Maori women, such as Te Wai Nahi of Te Atiawa, with whom they raised large families. His sentiments are echoed by his uncle, Colonel William, who was no advocate of working men. Other early whaling ships were the Foxhound, a London whaler, in 1827 and the Waterloo, which operated between Cloudy Bay and Sydney from 1829, taking 3 cargoes per year and returning with supplies and trade goods to exchange for flax.

The first recorded Shore Station was for Fur Seals and was set up on the New Zealand Coast, located at Dusky Sound, Fiordland, in the year 1792, when, sealing parties were landed to establish a base to hunt the seals for their pelts. These were in vogue in the fashion industry in England, America, Britain and Europe, where they were made into men and ladies hats. Whaling ships from several countries, plied up and down the coast of New Zealand for several years during the whale hunting season, but it was not until 1828 that the first so-called 'Shore-Whaling' Station was introduced in the South Island at Te Awaiti, Cloudy Bay, by Captain John (Jacky) Guard and James (Jacky) Hayter Jackson. In 1827 Jacky Guard was the captain of his own ship "Waterloo" with his first mate Jimmy (James Hayter) Jackson. Jacky Guard and Jimmy Jackson were both strong men, competent sailors and natural leaders, and they would have been a good combination in the rough coastal waters of New Zealand. In the winter of 1827 they were caught in a storm in the Cook Strait, they were racing towards cliffs when suddenly a little beach of an uninhabited bay appeared ahead. After the storm the men climbed a ridge for a view as two huge right whales moved below them, close to shore. The men were experienced whalers and they knew at once that Te Awaiti had potential as a shore whaling station. Jacky Guard named the bay Fair Haven and between 1827 and 1829 he and Jimmy Jackson built rough raupo huts and established what has been referred to as the first shore-whaling station in New Zealand.

In the winter of 1834, at the start of the whaling season, Jacky Guard had sold out his interests at Te Awaiti to Dicky Barrett (Richard Barrett) and Jacky Love (John Agar Love), English sailors who had lived on the Taranaki coast since 1828. John Agar Love had been captain of the trading vessel "Adventure" and Richard Barrett was his first mate (William Keenan was one of their crew). They had settles with the Ngati Awa people at Ngamotu, New Plymouth, married into the tribe and had Maori children. During the Maori wars with Te Rauparaha the Ngamotu refugees Barrett, Love and Keenan saw an opportunity and persuaded Guard to let them take over his Te Awaiti whaling station and in the summer of 1833 they crossed the strait to get their wives Wakaiwa, Mereruru and Hikimapu and their families and moved into Gaurds old house at the northern end of Te Awaiti Bay for the whaling season of 1834.

However exactly when whaling from shore began in New Zealand is a matter of debate. Ex-convict and sea captain John (Jacky) Guard claimed that he began whaling (for bone, not oil) in 1827 at Te Awaiti in Tory Channel. The date is disputed and it appears that Peter Williams established a whaling station at Preservation Inlet in 1828. Certainly by the following year both men were successfully hunting right whales for oil.

A second Whaling Station began operations soon after in 1829, on Arapawa Island, Malborough Sounds. This was followed in November 1831, by the setting up of an Australian station, Weller's Bay Whaling Station, in Otago Harbour by the Weller brothers.

In April of the following year, while back in Sydney, Weller was to learn that his station and its whalers houses, had been burned to the ground by a Maori raiding party. Undaunted, Weller sailed with Captain Worth in the Lucy Ann in 1833 to rebuild the station again for bay-whaling and was successful in the hunt, collecting 130 tuns of whale oil and seven tuns of whalebone, together with a bale of sealskins during that season. (Note:* Whale oil was measured in tuns or barrells.) In Otago Harbour the Weller brothers, like many early whalers originating in and financed from Sydney, established a station in 1831 called Otago (present-day Ōtākou). In 1835 the 85 men there killed 103 whales, producing 260 tuns (248,300 litres) of oil – despite competition from foreign bay whalers. Like other stations which survived for any time, Ōtākou doubled as a trading centre purchasing potatoes, pigs and flax from Māori for sale to Sydney merchants. But it was a precarious existence, and as catches declined in one area a new station would be established elsewhere. In 1841 Ōtākou closed after producing only 10 tuns (9,550 litres) of oil that year.

The whales were usually found close inshore in the bays, between 2 and 7 miles off the coast. The whalers moved in with their fleet of small whaleboats and made their kill, dragging their large carcasses back to the station, which, depending on the size and weight, could sometimes take up to a total of 14 hrs. hard rowing over several days. If the weather blew up stormy, they sometimes had to anchor their catch in the swell and row for the safety of the distant shoreline and return the next day. Beached whale After the whale had been dragged back to the shore station, it would be hauled up the beach so that the 'flensers' could climb over the carcass with their sharp 'spades' to cut the strips of blubber down the entire length of the body. These strips were then dragged off with the help of a capstan and chopped into blocks to be thrown in the trypots which were heated with 'scrag', the name given to the residue flesh of previous rendering, which burned well. As the oil rose to the surface, it was skimmed off and stored in large wooden casks for cooling, ready to be loaded aboard the visiting whalers. The whale jawbone was carefully cut out also and buried in the sand for ten days, by which time the hair on the plates had rotted away. Washed, scraped and carefully packed, whalebone was a valuable commodity, the pliable bone from the mouth being used by the makers of ladies corsets and stays. A further use of this bone, was in the manufacturer of flexible 'buggy' horse whips. One such station, already mentioned, was Cloudy Bay, (Te Awa-ite, north of Kaikoura), which was set up in Marlborough Sound during early 1829, under the control of Captain John Guard. He had the station built and up and running for that whaling season. The number of whalers and settlers working and living at the station gradually rose over the following years to a population of nearly two hundred people, where it became the largest white settlement and Whaling Station on the South Island of New Zealand. A one-time whaler and settler named Dick Barrett had been living and working at the whaling stations in New Zealand for ten or twelve years. He decided to settle at the Te Awa Iti whaling station, Marlborough Sounds. By 1839 he had built a house of sawn timber, floored and lined inside, with a sheltered verandah, perched on the flat of a knoll overlooking the settlement and anchorage. The Rev.Edward J. Wakefield came out to New Zealand in 1839 and on a visit to the station met Dick Barrett. It was Sunday and some of the whalers were dressed in their Sunday best. Others worked. Wakefield in his narrative wrote: "A large gang were busy at the try-works boiling out the oil from a whale lately caught.....The whole ground and beach about here were satuarated with oil and the stench of the carcasses and scraps of whale flesh lying about in the Bay was intolerable..." As the men stoked the furnace and stirred the reeking pots, one of them was asked if they always worked on Sunday? Contemptuously the worker had replied, "Oh! Sunday. It never comes into this Bay!"

Whalers wait Wakefield's journal continued:- "The workers at these bay-whaling stations were not paid wages, they were paid in slops (loose fitting trousers; ready made clothing), spirits or tobacco. They were a bearded, unkempt mixture of runaway seamen, deserters, or escaped convicts of several nationalities. They could earn the equivalent of £35 wages during the season between May and October, while carpenters, blacksmiths and coopers (barrel-makers) were paid at the higher rate of 10/- a day. The women at Cloudy Bay were from the maori tribe of Kawhia, those in the Sounds were Ngati-awa. There were twentyfive children at the whaling station, all part-maori." Reading through the journals of the early travellers to New Zealand, it was apparent that the Whaling Stations left a strong impression with them, for the same descriptive terms were used for each one visited by them:- Te Koroiwa, "looked filthy and had a disgusting stench from the putrid carcasses of the whales" Waikouaite Whaling Station, "the whole beach was strewn with gigantic fragments of bones.........the pigs and seagulls picked over the refuse left lying there." Whaling was not for the faint hearted! The year 1830 had been a bumper year for the whalers at Cloudy Bay. Lying at anchor in the Bay was the whaler Waterloo, a 66 ton schooner which had aboard, in the cargo hold, some 66 tuns of whale oil and 1,185 seal skins. The previous year, the brigantine Hind, owned by R. Campbell & Co. Sydney, picked up a cargo of flax from Kapiti Island and from the 'bay-whaling' station at Cloudy Bay, some 25 tons of sperm oil. In 1832 six vessels arrived in Cloudy Bay at the start of the whaling season and set off into the Bay after the whales which could be seen basking and spouting from the shoreline. The Dragon out of Hobart, later reported a haul of 1600 barrels of oil in her hold, the Courier 300 barrels of black oil and 400 of sperm oil. The William Stoveldhad 300 barrels of black oil and 400 of sperm oil and the New Zealander the same amount. All of this oil was landed in Sydney. Porirua whale station The Juno, an American vessel, had her hold full to capacity with nearly 1000 barrels of oil procured from her whale hunt along the New Zealand coast. Meanwhile in November, 1832, Captain W. Kinnard, together with four seal hunters, were left at Rocky Point to establish a sealing station. They arrived aboard the Admiral Gifford out of Sydney. When the ship returned to pick them up with their bales of sealskins some six months later, they could find no trace of them. To their horror, they learned that their party had been seized by a band of local Maori, their camp burned and that they had all been slaughtered and eaten. Excitement mounted in Sydney as merchants began preparations for the whaling season off New Zealand in the year 1836. Two whaling vessels were dispatched, however, when they arrived at Cloudy Bay, they found they were not the first. Two British whalers lay at anchor alongside a French schooner, which had arrived a few days before. On the other side of the Bay some thirteen American whalers lay clustered together. For several days the fleet lay quietly waiting for the whales arrival. At dusk came the news from the returning lookout whaleboats that a school of 21 or more whales had been sighted and counted in the outer Bay; the next day, anchors were weighed and the hunt began in earnest. Whaleboat parties would be launched from every vessel once they were among the whales; some 20-25 boats set out, each with a crew of six, comprising four strong rowers, a steersman in the stern and a harpoonist standing in the bow ready to strike as they persued their quarry. The Chase Adrenaline would have run high as the chase continued. The most dangerous time was when the whale had been harpooned and the ten fathoms of line had snaked out. The crew then prepared for the ride of their lives as the whale set off at a fast pace, dragging the whaleboat and its crew behind; others would sound (dive to the bottom) and then surface again among its attackers. The whales gigantic tails, thrashing in the swell, caused many a persuer's whaleboat to be smashed or capsized and crew members killed, maimed or drowned. Others would become swamped and founder, the crew cast into the sea clinging to the upturned boats awaiting rescue from the others in the vicinity. When a kill was made, the catch would be pulled alongside the whaler where it would be secured and the task of stripping the blubber and whalebone begin. Boiling trypots aboard the whalers would then extract the valuable whale oil which would be stored in wooden barrels.

In November of the year 1837, the whaler Roslyn Castle, out of Sydney, returned after a nineteen month whaling voyage around the coast New Zealand. She had a large cargo on board for her owners, Richards & Co., which consisted of 3000 barrels of black whale oil, 500 barrels of sperm whale oil and some 15 tons of whalebone. Despite the high profits made from the sale of this cargo, it was not enough to save the company, which had meanwhile gone into receivership. The trustees now offered for sale the three company owned whaling vessels, the Proteus, Rosyln Castle and Bee, together with two Whaling Stations it owned on Kapiti Island, New Zealand. Two Whaling Stations at Ocean Bay and Port Underwood were bought and operated by A.Oliver between 1837-1839; at Preservation Harbour, Ferveaux Sound, the Whaling Station was reported to have recovered 616 tuns of black whale oil from 'bay-whaling' which was fetching between £14 and £16 a tun. Their efforts for that season netted the amount of £9,856. The American owned Whaling Stations on Kapiti Island were reputed to have been run on a more military basis by Messrs. Mayhew and Lewis in 1839 who may have been somewhat tidier in their activities. On Evan's Island, east of Kapiti, Evan's six whaleboats netted 250 tun of black whale oil which returned £300; while Mayhew, with nineteen whaleboats, managed only 216 tuns, returning £285. Another of the many whaling stations set up on the New Zealand coast was the Tuatuku Station situated on the south-east shores of Stewart Island in 1846. It operated for a few years successfully but the owners moved on to better grounds. Robert Fyffe began shore-whaling at the Kaikoura Whaling Station in the year 1841, but at that time the ownership had not been settled until he entered Fyffes Cove into a partnership agreement with businessman John Murray and others in 1842. They were offered the use of the Coalheaver Station on Mana island, Nr. Wellington, but refused the offer, as they were aware that the whaling results were poor in that area. Fyffe was left to run the whaling station and gradually Murray dropped out of the whaling scene to run his sheep station. Murray was unfortunately drowned in 1845 and his brother took over running both the sheep station and the whaling business. Fyffe later became the sole owner of the Kaikoura Whaling Station and purchased the South Bay station in late 1845. He reported a good catch for the next two seasons, selling his whale oil and bone to the Wellington firm of Waiitt & Tyser in 1845-46, who shipped it on to England. The Fyffe Whaling Station at Kaikoura continued operations for many years; the demand for whale oil on the world markets weakened slightly as the supply of gas and electricity became readily available for the average homeowner and the whale lamps were stored away in cupboards for the odd emergency. Sealskin hats and collars had long gone out of fashion so this trade also declined rapidly.

By 1840 there were up to 1,000 whalers in New Zealand and whaling led the country’s economy. During that decade new areas for whaling were discovered. There was an expansion on Banks Peninsula where stations had been established at Little Port Cooper in 1836 and Peraki in 1837. Kaikōura saw a rush in the early 1840s as Guard (temporarily) and other Cloudy Bay whalers, including Robert Fyffe, moved there, financed by Wellington money.

Another area of growth was the east coast of the North Island. Whaling began at Gisborne in 1837, and by 1847 there were 17 boats in Hawke’s Bay, with a particular concentration around Māhia. There were small ventures further north to Cape Runaway.

In January 1847 the house of William Edwards, the owner of the Putotaranui whaling station, a few kilometres south of Rangaika, was burned down, killing his infant son. Edwards believed this was the work of local Maori upset at the Pakeha taking advantage of them.

Decline Some east coast stations operated sporadically into the 1850s and 1860s, but by then the great days of shore-based whaling were over. More than 100 whaling stations had been set up and much wealth produced. Charles Heaphy claimed that of the £224,144 worth of whale oil exported from Sydney in 1840, more than half came from New Zealand. But the shore whalers’ methods were ruinous to a long-term industry. As the naturalist Ernst Dieffenbach wrote: ‘The shorewhalers, in hunting the animal in the season when it visits the shallow waters of the coast to bring forth the young, and suckle it in security, have felled the tree to obtain the fruit, and have taken the most certain means of destroying an otherwise profitable and important trade.’

In 1908 the first motorised launch, built in Wellington to the order of J.Goodall, had one of the latest muzzle loaded harpoon guns mounted on the bow. Pursuit of the whales was now faster and easier. Motor launches used for shore whaling began to reach speeds of 16knots by the year 1917; they could easily catch the whales and overhaul them, if necessary, to turn them back towards the shoreline. Jackson, at Kaikoura, went one better in 1920, when he purchased a craft of 45hp., capable of speeds up to 18-20 knots on flat water and was therefore able to speed ahead of his competitors to take the pick of the whales before they arrived on the scene. Gradually the Shore-Whaling Stations closed down over the years. Some were still fully functional and operating in 1925 on the South Island supplying whale oil to Europe and Britain. Through the 1930's and 40's, motor industry petroleum oils and machinery lubricants were found to be just as efficient and the demand for whale oil in industry gradually declined through to the 1960's.

In 1939, probably the oldest colonist alive in this part of the world wass William Reeve, who resides with his. daughter, Mrs. King, at No. 7 Blnham Street, Wellington. He is no ordinary man this fellow, who roved the colonial seas way back in 1838—before Wellington was Wellington— and who subsequently was married here on the day Wellington was established, 65 years ago. He will attain his 96 th birthday in June next. William Reeve arrived in Port Jackson (Sydney) in 1838,. one of the crew of the brig Ann and Mary. At Sydney the vessel was sold, and her new owner fitted her up for a trading cruise to New Zealand. She sailed from Sydney about February or March, 1838, in charge of Captain Richards, with Reeve in the crew. Wellington, or what is now Wellington, was the first port made, and a. pretty spot it was with the native bush extending' like a soft cloak of green from the hill-tops tothe water, with only a few insignificant clearing round the Maori settlements. There was no prospect of much business, so the Ann and Mary stood out to sea again, rounded Terawhiti, and cruised for a time about Kapiti and Mana. Receiving little encouragement to trade in safety, Captain Richards beat through the Strait again, and stood out east—away for the the Chatham Islands, then a whaling station of some importance, though even then not what it had been on account of the great, decrease that had taken place in the number of whales.