Whaling, Forty Mile Beach, A Gruesome Discovery – A Pioneer’s Story

By a Pioneer of the Fifties
Trying Out
Trying out – Illustration of whalers rendering whale blubber into oil on board ship, 1874. Source: National Library of New Zealand ID: MNZ-0006-1/4-F

Many years previous to, and some few years after the arrival of the first four ships, the coast of New Zealand was frequented by whalers, notably those of England, America and France.

Whales at a certain season of the year migrated from the south into warmer waters to calve, and they generally remained on the east coast for a period before taking their departure.

Many seamen who had either been discharged or had deserted from whalers had settled down on Banks Peninsula and other parts of New Zealand.

Many were the yarns they spun, and the accounts they gave of their hair-breadth escapes, their hardships and adventures.

Their fare at sea as a rule was salt horse (salt beef), salt pork, hard ship biscuits, black tea, and on Sundays, flour and water boiled with a decoction of coarse molasses. As a result, they invariably suffered from scurvy. Occasionally they got a run ashore, when Maori cabbage, etc., was much relished. After making fast and killing a whale it was the custom to serve out a tot of rum.

Generally the men were of a rough class, but there were among them some splendid fellows. In the early part of 1852 ,I had occasion to visit Little Port Cooper, and found three whalers lying at anchor there. Two were cutting and trying-out (extracting the oil from the blubber) and the other was overhauling and refitting.

The stench, when once experienced, is never to be forgotten for a lifetime.

The trying-out pots were fixed ashore, and after the oil had been extracted it was run into casks and conveyed back on board ship. Up till a few years ago the holes used for the pots were still visible.

Many men who had died either at sea or in port lie buried in this port, their graves being marked by whale-fins at the head and foot, and in some instances an inscription carved into the bone was added, giving particulars of the deceased and his ship. All these monuments of a by-gone generation have long since been obliterated, and the men themselves are “by the world forgot”.

At the period of which I am speaking, the sea shore, from the estuary to the length of the Forty-mile Beach, was strewn so thickly with whalebones that a horse and cart was only driven along the beach with difficulty.

The presence of such a vast quantity of bone was accounted for by the fact that the whalers, after killing and stripping the carcass, turned it adrift, when it gradually became dismembered, and was washed ashore in fragments. The drift sand had closed in over the bones and covered them up.

The Forty-Mile Beach

During the summer of 1852 I had occasion to visit the Forty-mile Beach. There were then no tracks, and the only way to proceed was to skirt Bottle Lake and then shape a course for the sea. It was a long, dreary walk, and, starting at 9 a.m from Christchurch, I at length came out on the beach at about five in the afternoon. Having eaten my supper, I camped down among the sand dunes, and slept until towards daybreak, when I was awakened by a noise, which I discovered heralded, the appearance of four wild pigs.

They stood stock still, eyeing me with curiosity, and perhaps I was the first human creature they had ever seen.

However, I mistrusted their intentions, so, waving my haversack about my head, I “shoo’d” and yelled, and I had the satisfaction of seeing them at once scamper off.

A Gruesome Discovery

Having made my breakfast, I started off towards the estuary, and, while picking my way among the sandhills on about the spot where New Brighton now. stands, I came upon a cross and two spritsails (square-rigged sail). They were petrified, and close by was a coffin, tbe nails of which had rusted and permitted the sides and ends to fall apart.

Within was the skeleton of a man, and adhering to the bones were pieces of chintz on other material, which had evidently been used for wrapping around the corpse.

Over the eyesockets were spectacles, with a wide, metal brim, and around the skull was a piece of broad, black silk ribbon, tied behind in a bow. This ribbon was probably used for tying a pigtail, one orf the distinguishing marks of a seaman in the early part of the century. A hair guard round the neck held what remained of a locket and a common bone comb.

At the head of the coffin was a space of some 9 in, in which was lying the rusted remains of a metal case. It contained what I took to be fragments of parchment, but all traces of writing had disappeared. All these articles, with the addition of the skull, were deposited in the Christchurch Museum.

A few days after the discovery I returned to the spot with four companions, but a nor’-west wind had sprung up in the meantime and the remains had disappeared, having evidently been buried by the flying sand. Subsequently, upon looking up Captain Cook’s voyages, particularly his last, and taking into consideration all the surrounding circumstances, we arrived at the conclusion that the remains were those of Captain Cook’s doctor, who died on the last voyage whilst the ship was tacking on and off Banks Peninsula. He was taken ashore and buried in the sand. I discovered the remains nearly half a mile inland.

(Cook’s surgeon on the Resolution during the third voyage, William Anderson, died of consumption in the Bering Sea in 1778. A coffin containing human remains had been discovered on the Forty Mile Beach, about a quarter of a mile from the water’s edge on Wednesday June 20, 1860, on the run of Mr. Greenstree. The coffin appeared to have been buried for some time in the sand, and to be of rather an old date, so that it is supposed to be the remains of some one who had died at sea, and had been landed for interment. It was said to have been “well made, of sawn timber, and in the English fashion”. Source: Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, Volume XIX, 23 June 1860, Page 2;  Colonist, Volume III, Issue 280, 26 June 1860, Page 3, Empire, Sydney, NSW, Wednesday 27 June 1860.

Runaway Sailors

About December 1851 instructions were received from the governor, Sir George Grey, to the effect that every effort should be made to  capture deserters. This enactment was in view of the encouragement of trade and barter with intercolonial and deep-sea ships. The circumstances I am about to relate occurred in connection with an American whaler called the Texas, then lying in Pigeon Bay, trying-out and refitting.

One afternoon a burly, rough-looking gentleman entered the Police Office, and stated that two young hands had escaped from his ship at Pigeon Bay while ashore with a watering party.

He offered a reward of £5 for their apprehension, and I took particulars of their appearance, etc., not without an inward hope that the lads would get clear away. At this time there were many sheep runs in the vicinity of Lyttelton, one in particular being a regular dumping ground for runaway sailors. Accordingly, with this particular run as my objective point, I started out next day, and after a two-days’ journey through dense native undergrowth –  the hills had not yet been burnt off –  l arrived at my destination late in the evening.

An invitation from the run-holder followed, as a matter of course, and he evinced great curiosity as to my presence in those parts and possible errand. I told him that I should probably going on further next morning.

After yarning with him until nearly midnight, I was accommodated with a shakedown in a room leading off from mine host’s apartment, and from which exit could only be obtained with his knowledge. I had no sleep that night, thinking perhaps, that the runholder would take an opportunity of slipping out and apprising the lads – if, indeed, they were in the place – of my presence.

At breakfast next morning I broached the object of my visit. In Law, I might mention, any person harbouring deserters was liable to a heavy penalty, but there was a pretty well understood arrangement between us two in regard to this.

He eyed me keenly and then told me that the lads were in his place doing boundary work on the usual terms a twelve months’ engagement and 1 shilling a month and tucker.

Two horses were saddled, and we started out for the sod boundary hut, where the lads were situated. They were just preparing breakfast as we arrived, and I placed them under arrest. Poor fellows, how they begged to be let go. The skipper, they said, was a perfect brute, and would half murder them when they returned to the ship. However, there was no help for it, so putting the handcuffs upon them we set off on our long trudge back to Lyttelton.

We completed our journey without anything unusual happening, and the following morning we started out in the Government boat for the ship. As soon as we were clear of the land the handcuffs were removed, an attention for which the prisoners were exceedingly grateful. The day being very calm I resolved to steer through the rocks off Port Levy, and the rip being strong in our favour I ordered the crew to cease rowing.

The boys were stowed away in the bows, and at this point they jumped up and tried their best to overturn the boat.

Water was pouring in, and with the possible prospect of a watery grave in front of us we had to take desperate measures, and the man pulling stroke got up and with his oar knocked both down. They were then bound hand and foot, and we resumed our voyage.

After a long pull we reached the ship, and the prisoners were hauled’ up on deck with a rope-lashing. Immediately upon their reaching the deck, the skipper commenced to abuse and rail at the lads for leaving the ship. They answered him in the same tone, and in the end the captain completely lost his temper and knocked both down to the deck. They were then placed in irons and taken below.

A Whaler’s Supper

It was impossible to return that night, so the boat was hauled alongside, and the men provided with a meal. At about 7 p.m the cook invited me down to tea in the cabin, and with my fancy turning to visions of mutton chops, fried potatoes,’ etc., I followed him with pleasurable anticipation. Presently tea was served; . There was but one covered’ dish, and the inevitable biscuits and black tea were present.

The cover was lifted, and out came, not the appetising aroma of fried cutlets, but a most insulting and unsavoury odour, something between whale oil and dried shark.

Reposing on the dish was what appeared to be a rotten, uninviting mass of black fish, and the captain quietly asked me if I would have some mutton-fish (paua). I tried a little, but, ugh it was too nasty, so I made a meal off biscuits and tea. A conversational evening followed, andl at length sought repose in a bunk.

Everything was oily. Blankets, pillows, mattress, everything was greasy, and the atmosphere was redolent of oil, oil, oil.

I slept very little, and in the morning we made a hasty breakfast and set out on our homeward journey.

Source: Papers Past: Star, Issue 7796, 29 August 1903, Page 4

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