Maori and Whaling
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 Māori hunted and killed whales, or just exploited strandings.
Alexander Turnbull Library, 10X8-1012-G
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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 Māori 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 Māori assistance.
Māori played a variety of roles. Local chiefs negotiated payment to allow a ship to establish a shore base, and to obtain wood and water and 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, Māori usually rejected it.
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Some captains deliberately reduced their crews for New Zealand, knowing they could hire skilled Māori 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 Māori 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
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At Tory Channel he explained why Māori 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 Māori, 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; Māori found new markets for their produce and skills in the New Zealand Company settlement at Nelson.
Updated April 2020
Sources used in this story
- Symonds (1837) citing Rossiters Journal (1837, June). In McNab, R. (1913) Old whaling days, p.240 ; Mitchell p.238
- Dieffenbach, E. (1843) Travels in New Zealand (2 vols.) London : John Murray
- Dieffenbach, vol 1, p.15
- 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-
- Dieffenbach v.1, p. 41
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Further sources - Maori and Whaling
- Dieffenbach, E (1843) Travels in New Zealand, vols 1&2. London : John Murray.
- Druett, J. (2001) Petticoat whalers : whaling wives at sea, 1820-1920. Hanover, N.H. : University Press of New England.
- Duff, R. (1977) The Moa hunter period of Maori culture. Wellington : Government Printer, pp.: 104-8, 112-127
- Grey, G (1906) Polynesian mythology & ancient traditional history of the New Zealanders as furnished by their priests and chiefs. London, G. Routledge & sons, limited; New York E.P. Dutton & co.
full text http://www.nzetc.org/tm/scholarly/tei-GrePoly.html
- McNab, R (1975) Old whaling days: a history of Southern New Zealand from 1830 to 1840. Auckland : Golden Press
- Mitchell, H & J (2004) "Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka: A History of Maori of Nelson and Marlborough, Vol I the People & the Land. Wellington : Huia, pp230-251 and references cited there.
- Wakefield, E.J. (1845) Adventure in New Zealand. 2 volumes London: John Murray, pp. 50-51
- Dawbin, W.H (1954) The Maori went a-whaling. Pacific Discovery, v.7.
- Sole, Steve. (2008,May/Jun) Pound of flesh : the life and times of John Guard. New Zealand Geographic; 91, p.76-87
- Joy, Capt. (1836, April 27) Log of the Mary Mitchell. Pacific Manuscripts Bureau, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington
- Bradford, Haami. (2008) Te wha¯nau puha – whales. Retrieved from Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand:
- Cawthorn , M. (2000) Maori, whales and "whaling"an ongoing relationship. Wellington : Department of Conservation:
- Johnny Norton's evidence to King Salmon enquiry, 2013. Retrieved from EPA 9 March 2015:
- Lovell-Smith, M. (accessed 30 March 2020) 'Early mapping - Traders, whalers, missionaries: 1800–1840', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand:
- Phillips. J, (2008) History of immigration. Retrieved fromTe Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.
http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/history-of-immigration (section on shore whaling)
- Sealers and whalers - pre-1840 contact (2008). Retrieved from Ministry for Culture & Heritage, Nzhistory.net :
- Whales - then & now (touring exhibition). Retrieved from 8 December 2008 from Te Papa: