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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Whaling in Wellington

An American whaler recruits in Wellington.
A recent visit to Wellington Harbour by two southern right whales is a reminder of colonial days, when the port of Kororareka was a roistering port famed throughout the Pacific for its loose morals and plentiful grog. That was in the Bay of Islands. Wellington, by contrast, was not a popular anchorage with the American whalers. On August 24, 1854, however, one lone full-rigged sailing ship arrived, one of her crew being a young adventurer by the name of Charles Stedman, who left an entertaining record of activities in the harbour.

The whaleship, named Mount Wollaston, had set out from the port of New Bedford, Massachusetts, on December 21, 1853. “The crew being all green & the wind ahead, we found some difficulty in getting underway,” Stedman noted.

Stedman was very much a greenhand himself, for not only was this his first voyage as a seaman, but he'd been forced to run off to sea and abandon a comfortable life at home, because of some indiscretion. “My feelings are rather difficult to describe,” he admitted on New Year's Day. “Leaving home suddenly, entirely unaccustomed to work, and especially to the exposures of a sailor's life, I naturally am somewhat downhearted.”

Not only was the food awful, but the company was rough, the time off-duty being “diversified with sleeping, smoking, chewing, eating, swearing & playing cards.” Another time, the crew amused themselves by beating up one of their fellows, for the very good reason that he had “vermin” and “was exceedingly filthy.”

After eight months of cruising all over creation for whales, however, the ship made port in Wellington, and Stedman found out that the seafaring life held opportunities for fun, as well as hard work. He thought Wellington “a Splendid anchorage” and the crew celebrated their arrival by “making merry with a drum, tamborine, accordion, bones &c &c.”

The next day, “Saw any quantity of Mourys and some very pretty ones.” There were other diversions as well. “The 2D mate got us some liquor on shore and some of the fellows got pretty drunk.” In the afternoon of the second day, everyone “went ashore to have a ramble and shake out the scurvy,” but none of them had any money, for the captain was convinced they would spend it all on grog. This made no difference, however, for they swapped their shirts for booze — all except Stedman, that is, for he went exploring, instead. “Found the place very handsome, with billiard tables, ten-pin allies, and other places of amusement.”

The Mount Wollaston stopped in port for three weeks, and so the crew came to know colonial Wellington very well indeed. Their favourite haunt was the “Wellington coffee house”, and their common recreations were drinking, fighting and planning desertion.

On September 7, 1854, `All hands called as usual,' Stedman recorded. `After breakfast half the ship's company went ashore with the skipper, with permission to remain till sunset.' He himself was one of those on liberty. `Roamed about from one shop to another, played a game of billiards, some got drunk as usual.”

The customers of the Wellington coffee house got more entertainment than they had expected, for “The mate and 4th mate had a row, and dared each other to fight — the mate dared the 4th mate to fight him with his fists, and the 4th mate challenged him to fight with pistols.” The mate backed down at that, saying “that he had a family to support, and therefore could not run the risk of being shot.” And so the roisterers moved on to another tavern.

Perhaps it was not surprising, then, that so many of `the chaps' (as Stedman often described them) deserted. When the Mount Wollaston set sail, on September 15, eight Maori men had been shipped, to make up for those who had disappeared. Captain William Potter was not a skipper to give up easily, however. On 26th September the ship turned back to port, to find two of the deserters locked up in jail, and that the six others had “taken up the shore whaling business” on Soames Island, a few southern right whales having strayed imprudently into the harbour at the time.

And so, while Potter was collecting these men, the citizens of Wellington were entertained again, the seamen predictably getting drunk on shore and then smuggling more grog on board. Charles Stedman was more enterprising, buying ten pounds of sugar and setting up a little home-brew operation, selling the product to his shipmates on board.

And then at last, on September 30, 1854, having gathered up her crew, the whaleship Mount Wollaston finally departed from Wellington, undoubtedly much to the local residents’ relief.

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