… I am of the opinion, it is necessary in some cases to comply with the manners & customs of those people amongst whom, it is one’s fate to be placed… (John Boultbee, sealer, 1827)
John Boultbee was an ordinary crewman, recruited at Port Jackson by Commander John Rhodolphus Kent, an ex-Royal Navy officer, now trader and sealer, sailing out of Port Jackson to South Westland and Foveaux Strait. Though Boultbee was referring in his journal comment (above) to ‘other’ members of his own sealing gang, he later came to feel similarly about the Southern Māori amongst whom he finally lived on the north coast of Te Ara a Kiwa58; that he should comply with their manners and customs.
On his first visit to Dusky Bay in 1769 James Cook had reported the presence of seals. In his reflections upon the voyage, Joseph Banks, and later, on the second voyage, seaman John Marra both had reported the suitability of Australia as a place to send convicts. It is therefore no surprise that both issues were noticed by British authorities and came to fruition within the following twenty years. A convict settlement was established in Port Jackson (Sydney) in 1788, followed soon afterwards by the exploitation of seals in Australia’s Bass Strait in 1798, and soon after that on the Antipodes Islands and the South Western shores of New Zealand’s South Island (McNab, 1907). Pressure at the Port Jackson settlement for cargo to backload on ‘immigrant ships’ bringing convicts to Australia, meant that sealskins and, by the 1820s, whale products and then flax were in demand to help defray the transport costs. As the Australian
seal industry began to diminish, seals that were abundant on the south and west coasts of Te Wai Pounamu were seen as relatively easily accessible from Australia. Sealing ships began to range further afield as the Australian seal supply became increasingly scarce. Poverty-stricken men – many of them ex-convicts, and children of convicts – were put ashore with minimal provisions, often for extended periods in remote locations to fend for themselves while they hunted seals. From 1810 a gang was marooned at Open Bay Island for several years, because their captain failed to return to collect them. Most sealers were illiterate, but John Boultbee was a literate ‘outsider’ and risk-taker from a middle class family. He hated school, so went to sea, becoming a sealer who recorded significant ethnographic observations of the southern way of life in the 1820s. He was one crewman on Captain Kent’s brig Elizabeth, and it is the experience of violence between them and Ngāi Tahu Māori at Open Bay, Te Tai Poutini, that is described here.
May in South Westland is a cold time of year and early winter; the seas are frequently very rough. These conditions were fine for seal hunting, and Captain Kent disembarked Elizabeth’s three whaleboats on the coast between Dusky Sound and Bruce Bay, South Westland. Today it is still a frightening environment for sailors who know these waters intimately. De Blosseville (1823) had stated that seals would be more numerous in such conditions (in McNab, 1907: 220). According to Taylor, sealers reported during the years 1826-7 that there was also “an almost constant succession of earthquakes, sufficiently violent to throw men down” that completely altered the landscape “about 80 miles north of Dusky Bay” (cited in McNab, 1907: 349; cf. Best, 2001: 24). This earthquake sequence originating from the Alpine fault would have created fear and also could have been regarded by Māori as premonitions, omens, or warnings (as described in Chapter three and five). It was also a time of internecine strife amongst Ngāi Tahu and between them and their neighbours from Northern tribes. Thus the environment was a demanding and worrying one for the sealers and for the local Ngāi Tahu hapū. Boultbee wrote: “…We hauled up our boat on Open Bay island… a most difficult task we had, the place being steep… broken rocks… high water the surf beating against the boat so as to endanger her…”(in Starke, 1986: 39-40).
Therefore, as was the case at Kaiapoi, relationships of various kinds were crucial components of the context; relationships with land, sea, and weather conditions as well as those between people, including with Māori women. Fear and anxiety also, were features of both and would have manifested in gossip, rumour and kōrero, in much the same way as the discourse about cannibalism within the ranks of the British navy was a result of reports from
previous visitors to these shores. This was often exaggerated and misconstrued, as
Obeyesekere has suggested (2005: 2-3). For the Europeans, some of this information came directly from other crewmen. Captain Kent had been trading amicably with Māori in various parts of New Zealand for some years, and on his 1823 visit to Stewart Island he:
… was much pleased with the manner of our reception by those Southern savages, they with great warmth told me they did not intend to kill any more white men now that they had become friends by commencing trade (Mermaid journal, 31/5/1823).
On the other hand James Caddell, an English ship’s boy had recently told him that in 1810 he was the only survivor of a sealing crew of six from the Sydney Cove who had been killed, and many similar examples existed (Kent, MS: June 10th 1823). It was common knowledge also that Foveaux Strait sealer Jack Price, a member of an American gang in Fiordland, reported having lost four members who were “killed and roasted” by a large party of Māori, before the remainder were rescued at Martin’s Bay in 1821 (cf. P.Madgwick, 1992: 67; S. Cormack MS. papers, 1978). Kent’s sealing gang included ‘Captain’ Perkins, who, from prior experience of sealing and discourse (or both), warned them of the possibility of being attacked by cannibals, and which strategy to adopt if that eventuated. For the West Coast Māori, battles with other iwi were also within living memory, and there would similarly have been multiple discourses about the relationships that each group had with Europeans; rumours about which ones of them were allied with enemy tribes or hapū, which could be trusted, what their motives were, and so on. Specifically, how Kent and Perkins instructed the crew of the whaleboat that Boultbee was on, and his relationship with them as a relative ‘outsider’ in terms of his social class, constituted contributing factors in how the interactions with Māori played out. It is therefore uncertain how local Māori regarded Perkins or Honoré whose Māori wives resided in Murihiku (cf. McNab, 1907, 349-50).
There is also the issue of seal killing itself. Reports in the Colonial Times and Sydney Gazette gave details of the numbers of seal skins being delivered from New Zealand. These numbers were extraordinarily large and the wholesale slaughter of seals and pups to the extent that occurred must have seemed excessive to the Māori people for whom seals were an
occasional food source, and their skins were used for a few cloaks. Captain John Grono was 20 “years in the trade” and in December 1813 arrived at Sydney with 14000 sealskins and about 5 tons of sea elephant oil representing around one years’ work by about 10 men. The hunting was so excessive that within 20 years numbers were in severe decline, resulting in reports and letters to the newspapers in Sydney expressing concern about the foolish lack of consideration
for the resource as well as the killing of seal pups and seals in pup, where carcasses were left to rot (McNab, 1907: 269-271). This is not how Māori treated resources. They used what they needed. Furthermore, the brig Elizabeth on which Captain Kent brought Perkins, Honoré and Boultbee had been delivering sealing gangs to South Westland for about twenty years under different Captains: in June 1824 with John Grono, and in March 1825 with Alexander Books, for example. Perkins was with Grono in 1824. The whaleboats ranged along the coast, and it is likely that Māori would have recognized the mother ship and perhaps associated the behaviour of the different gangs with the vessel. Both the threat to personal relationships embodied in women, and the taking of seals could be regarded as a form of theft. The government agent later reported: “… when European sealers first began to frequent the coast… frequent disputes arose [with local Māori] relative to women or thefts, and blood was at times shed…”
(Shortland, 1844, in Richards, 1995 b;Entwisle, 2010: 209)
Therefore what is certain from the South Westland Māori perspective is that they had had a number of years interacting with sealers, had watched them decimating the resource, and had killed a number of them. Their concept of ownership and relationships with their women, their natural resources (seals), and unattended or wrecked boats, was not in accordance with the European practice and understanding, even at this late date, after their Southland relatives had reassured Kent of their peaceable intentions.