Of the three sealing parties set down by Captain Kent, a continuous record of the immediate development of the resulting skirmish is available only for one boat, and this is found in the journal of John Boultbee. Some sketchy Māori oral narratives are also available for comparison. Herries Beattie recorded them from descendants of Perkins, Honoré, and the Māori chief Kāhaki (in Starke, 1986: 42-3; 1919: 219-20). However sketchy, they contain unusually detailed facets that concur with Boultbee’s account. They reveal detail that is significant to Māori and enable some reflection on issues such as utu, tapu, a Māori view of ownership, and the likely role of gossip and kōrero that had entered the general discourse in both communities. Particular actors and the points when decisions were made for actions to proceed remain identifiable, and these can be linked to certain individual characteristics, which those actors are reported to have exhibited. In Boultbee’s case he reports reflexively upon his own motivations and decision-making as well as that of others, as the quotation at the
character and motivations of the other known actors William Perkins, Joseph Honoré59, John Kent, Ngāi Tahu chiefs Kāhaki, and Toko.
The decision to set down the sealing gangs was that of Captain Kent’s employers, Cooper and Levy of Port Jackson. Kent had an intimate knowledge of the New Zealand coastline and had been in the southern waters on a number of occasions since 1820 surveying and flax trading, and as a trader, he had a good working relationship with Māori. Where the boats were set down was his choice and the objective was clearly to kill seals and obtain skins for the New South Wales markets. This was about obtaining natural resources for which no payment would be made to Māori unless they were working as sealers. At the time, sealing and sealers were not new to the Māori of Te Tai Poutini60, so for this particular expedition, the arrival of Kent’s gang would have been regarded as ‘more of the same’ unwanted European activity on their coastline. Perkins, the ‘boat-steerer’61, had been a member of an earlier sealing party that had arrived on the Elizabeth in 1824. This highlights the issue of prior experiences for Māori, their possible recognition of Perkins, and the brig Elizabeth, their opinions of them and any outstanding utu they saw as needing to be paid.It also highlights the persistence of stories about Perkins’s negative experiences, which (as with Māori also), when combined with stories from other Murihiku sealers such as Price, would have resulted in heightened anxiety for all the human social actors.
The immediate initiating circumstance to the Open Bay conflict was, then, Kent’s decision to set the boats down in the particular place he did, amongst Māori he did not know, and the decision to employ Perkins who appears to have been in charge. This choice was probably intended to be helpful because of William Perkins’s prior experience in that
environment, and amongst Māori, rather than an impediment to the expedition (which it turned out to be) because of what had happened the last time that he was there. The sealers were given 6 months provisions, 6 muskets and an Australian hunting dog, although they declined the three further muskets offered because Perkins said they would make the boat too heavy. Their instructions were to range about 100 miles northwards catching seals. Another crewman was John Boultbee, and there were two others (Starke, 1986: 40). One, Joseph Honoré was an experienced sealer from Foveaux Strait.
The first transition point after the boat left the Elizabeth at George’s Harbour was when Perkins issued the instructions, and the nature of the instructions. Boultbee described how they had a “keg of gunpowder, 200 or 300 balls etc…[and Perkins said they should] make a few cartridges”. They hauled up from time to time on the coast and arrived eventually at Open Bay
where they saw the first evidence that Māori were about – a broken spear and some flax sandals. This impression was reinforced the following day when they pulled ashore at the northern headland of Open Bay Island where Perkins had been before, and he said that on that occasion he had seen natives there. At this second place they also saw footprints of about 30 people on the beach. Perkins told them that, as they could expect to be attacked by cannibals, they should hide their sealskins and salt on an islet, in case they had to leave quickly, if attacked. Boultbee noted:
The natives about this place are a set of runaways from the settlements… about Banks’s island who have… formed a tribe of about 500… lead a life of predatory warfare, plundering and murdering, alike, boats crews, and defenceless people of other tribes (in Starke, 1986: 39-42).
The effect of Perkin’s information, combined with the knowledge that there were a number of locals about, would hardly have inspired confidence in the new members of the sealing gang, but is likely to have been pragmatic just the same. However, as this account will show, anxiety engendered by these warnings from Perkins, did affect their next acts and enhance the likelihood that any interactions with Māori would eventually turn violent. They in fact did result in Perkins’s death.
The second transition point in the progression towards a violent outcome was again a decision to camp on the mainland in a cave, which they did on two occasions, having two people as guards, but though they had loaded muskets, they had no ready-made cartridges62. Perkins warned them that in the possible event of an early morning attack they should run to the boat and fire at them from offshore once the boat was launched. Nothing untoward
occurred on the first night in the cave, and the “day but one following” was spent exploring an offshore island63 and killing seals. They eventually stopped for a night at a hut upriver, and were disturbed by the dog barking and ducks being disturbed, which they interpreted
(correctly, it turned out) as being evidence that there were other people around. After two days of killing seals, the gang returned southwards to the same cave that they had occupied before. There was some discussion about whether this was wise, as they again saw footprints in the sand, but because one man said that he was too tired, they pulled their boat up on the beach about 30 yards away, and settled in for the night. The identity of this man is not known, but he was a key actor at this turning point because his reluctance to ‘pull an oar’ was a form of risk- taking that endangered them all. It is likely that it was at this time that Māori were watching them for several days and opportunistically made the decision to steal the boat.
Whilst asleep the sealers heard a musket-shot and voices, jumped up and ran out towards the boat. Boultbee loaded his musket and fired it into the darkness towards the approaching Māori. This was the third transition point, precipitated by the situation, and the fear, but it was Boultbee’s contingent action of going against Perkins’ original instructions, by firing at the Māori before reaching the boat when he “could not distinguish individually, they appearing like a cloud at the time” (in Starke, 1986: 49) that probably was the cause of death for Perkins, because he decided to return to the cave to retrieve his gunpowder and was killed with a taiaha (longstaff club)by Toko (in Beattie, 1994: 58). This spontaneous decision by Perkins to prioritise the retrieval of the gunpowder lost him the precious time needed to escape, and he may have been targeted because he was perceived as the leader, or was known from the previous visit to Open Bay. Both reasons seem likely. Boultbee’s premature firing could have hastened the arrival of Toko and his party, as Māori sources told Beattie that the cause of the noise on the part of Māori, was that they were trying to steal the sealers’ boat, possibly not realizing that the owners were close at hand. Such an explanation would be consistent with the Māori view that wrecked or abandoned boats belong to the salvager. It was in Boultbee’s nature to be proactive and vigilant, and his actions may have saved most of them, but we will never know whether, if he had followed Perkin’s instructions, things may have turned out differently. Nevertheless, for the Europeans, the unfolding of the violent sequence, was
precipitated by the firing of Boultbee’s musket ‘into the crowd’, and it could be argued that this was triggered by fear and exaggerated stories from the past experience of Honoré, Perkins, and even possibly Kent and Caddell. From a European point of view, Toko’s decision to kill Perkins does not appear to have been a transition point in the sequence for the Europeans, because it did not alter the course of the interaction once it had started, though it did form a starting point for a European revenge at a much later date. However, it may have been triggered by Boultbee’s anxiety and it serves to emphasise the role of hearsay and fear in violent sequences. The death was only discovered at dawn and the skirmish had been
proceeding apace despite it, and in the absence of knowledge by the sealers about it. However, from the Māori point of view it may well have been a transition point because it would have been encouraging, to have killed the apparent leader of the opposing faction, thus reducing his mana, and that of his group. Furthermore, Toko is reported by Beattie’s informants to have killed Perkins “to pay for Nukutahi”, ie, as utu for the killing of a Māori that had taken place at a previous time64. This would seem to support the view that Perkins was targeted, either as the leader of a generalised sealing gang, or as a particular person known to them already. It could
also have been seen as presaging an imminent positive outcome. He was, after all the ‘first fish’ (if in a small skirmish such as this it could have been regarded so).
The sealers ‘made it’ to the boat but were unable to move it, so ended up having to retreat for cover. The incident became more and more violent as Māori tried to obtain the boat and the sealers to retain it. Boultbee lost self control and:
… snatched up the after oar… swung it with all my strength… in this state of desperation and struck the native on the arm with the blade… fear had left me… I had also the satisfaction to hear two of my boatmates, firing amongst the natives… our kangaroo dog biting… the darkness of the night preventing them from seeing the smallness of our numbers… we had the satisfaction to see ourselves afloat once more… [but] two of our party missing… we were now only four in number… (Boultbee, in Starke: 48- 9).
This final withdrawal from the fray, the launching of the boat and the departure of these remaining four sealers represented the fourth and last transition point of the violent episode for them. They eventually met up with the other sealing gangs and set off for Dusky Sound. According to Beattie’s informants, when the boat was launched, the Māori group raided the sealer’s camp and gained some freshly baked bread, some clothes, and a camp oven. Kajaki [sic] (Kāhaki), Mrs Barrett’s ancestor, got the bread and is reputed to have danced a haka with it in his hand (Beattie, in Starke, p. 43). All these situational facts are supported by Boultbee’s journal narrative. The issue of Kāhaki dancing with the bread is reminiscent of the previously described placing of bread under the head of Arthur Wakefield at the Wairau Affray. It was a matter of the tapu of battle, and whakanoa (tapu removal) by exposure to cooked food. For Māori this would be the third transition point, at which they estimated that utu balance was restored and the conflict ceased for them. Boultbee’s crew pulled away to the Open Bay island of Taumaka to rest before they headed south to report their experiences to the other two of Captain Kent’s crews. Kāhaki nursed a broken arm or damaged hand as a result of having been fired at from the boat as it pulled away. This result was in accordance with the advice Perkins gave before his demise: that the crew should “fire at them from the boat” (in Beattie, 1919: 220).
In the grand scheme of things the skirmish at Open Bay is a mere snapshot illustrative of the numerous times that sealing gangs had altercations with the local Māori of the areas they visited. It was followed quite soon afterwards by some violent retribution by the famous sealer Tommy Chaseland, on other Māori which, from a European point of view, was unjust because
those Māori killed were unconnected with the incident. Māori would have understood it as utu, which did not have to be carried out on the original perpetrators. All that mattered was the social relationship or kinship connection, for the requirements of utu to be satisfied. The archival records about such interactions are generally very brief and one-sided, being confined to a few lines in a ship’s log, or a brief report in the shipping news of the Sydney Gazette that, for example, between six and ten men from a particular ship had been attacked on the New Zealand coast, killed, and eaten whilst going about their business of killing seals for their skins. The boat carrying the men was often the focus of the altercation, and was usually taken by their captors. The ships’ captains were not directly involved as they left the men with few provisions and went away for months or sometimes years. Most of the men were as illiterate as they were poorly paid and provisioned, and they were forced to ‘live off the land’. Records of their activities are therefore slim. However, the risk-takers and outsiders are still visible, choosing to do things differently, changing the course of the action, and changing the way that the violence progressed. Although the numbers of Māori participating directly in the episode are not mentioned by Boultbee, it seems that there were at least an equivalent number as there were Europeans and that the main target of the exercise was the boat. The reason suggested here is the ongoing utu relationship connected with past interactions they had each had with their ‘others’.
John Rhodolphus Kent was 38 years old when he delivered Perkins and crew to Dusky Sound for their sealing expedition. After serving in the English Royal Navy he was employed on the colonial vessels of the New South Wales administration, and then by 1826 was working for a private employer. He was known as a good navigator and explorer, described by J. O’C. Ross as “a man of character, always willing to assist travellers and missionaries and always careful not to offend Māori by disregard of their customs or sacred places… and… lived and died a Pakeha Māori” (1978). At the time he was operating it was common for captains of sealing vessels to keep the exact location of their killing grounds secret, which sometimes led to them being described as opportunistic “loners” and “ruthless and self-interested”. It is therefore likely that both comments are true, which lends credence to the view that Kent chose a crew whom he thought could negotiate the contingencies of the sealing situation; dealing successfully with the locals, perhaps being able to make themselves understood in the Māori language, and being able to live off the land. This enabled the captains of the mother ships to maintain a distance from the workplace and its difficulties, so that they could not be blamed when things went wrong, as they often did. He wrote regarding Māori groups that there was “a
very great jealousy between them” [and it was necessary for] “ circumspection to keep in with both” (Ross, 1975, MS-papers: 5, ATL). Because of this attitude it seems likely that whilst Kent kept at arm’s length from the actions of his crews, he chose them with the intention of minimizing cross-cultural misunderstanding or cultural offence. In the Open Bay situation it seems that fatigue engendered by the demands of the job and the harsh environment, the pervasiveness of warnings and hints of ‘savagery’ and ‘cannibalism’ in sealers’ discourse, and the inexperience of crewmen such as Boultbee could still undermine his intentions. It was these issues, and an incomplete understanding of the Māori ontological world that caused the interactions between Māori and European sealers to become violent at Open Bay.
John Boultbee was an educated man in his late twenties, of middle class background, who recorded the experiences of his gang reflexively and in vivid detail with amateur drawings to support the text. This reveals the Open Bay episode as a skirmish which though small and having only few actors, nevertheless had the same processual characteristics as the Kaiapoi battle, with particular characters generating anxiety through their personal
interpretations of the behaviour of ‘others’. Like Kaiapoi, the Open Bay skirmish had its ‘outsider’, who was Boultbee himself. He took personal risks, broke the rules, misinterpreted Māori motives and influenced where the transitional turning points were, by deciding to shoot before it was necessary. Similarly to the situation at Kaiapoi, although four of the six
Europeans escaped with their boat, the mana of the victory can be seen to have been with the Māori locals who had driven them off leaving behind some clothes, food and cooking