Convicts and Whales
By Alan Noble - originally posted at blog.arribasail.com
While American whalers had lost their whale oil customers in England they found new demand for their services. Their solidly built, wide-beamed whaling ships were perfectly suited as convict transports, and so a number of American whalers (of the loyalist persuasion) ended up transporting convicts from London to NSW. New England born Captain Eber Bunker was one such captain and in 1791 he commanded the William and Ann as part of the Third Fleet to NSW. Bunker was an entrepreneurial fellow and rather than returning to London empty handed, he decided to try whaling and sealing in nearby New Zealand waters. He knew that only 3 years earlier Captain James Shields commanding the Emilia had rounded Cape Horn and successfully hunted whales on the other side of the South Pacific, off the coast of Chile. Bunker found his whales and seals in abundance at Dusky Sound, New Zealand and from then onwards both whaling and sealing became big business in the South Pacific.
Round" around-the-world trading route
Whereas American whaling was all about harvesting blubber for oil, sealing was two gory businesses. Fur seals were killed for their skins and elephant seals were killed for their oil. Antipodean sealers quickly tapped into this lucrative trade. Eastern Australia is conveniently located east of China and the easterly trade winds kick in between latitudes 30°S and 30°N, so sailors could harness the trades for most of the voyage north. They just had to avoid northern Australias monsoon season between the months of December and March, during which time northwesterly winds replace the easterly trades and cyclones are common.
The "Golden Round" around-the-world trading route
Sealing was Australias first gold rush and like any free-for-all it was completely unsustainable. The sealers decimated seal populations everywhere they went and the hunt for seals quickly moved from one exploited place to the next. After Dusky Sound, sealers focused on the southern coast of Australia, including Kangaroo Island and the islands of Bass Strait (1803). On Kangaroo Island, the township of American River and the nearby American Beach owe their names to those intrepid American sealers. The sealers then moved onto the Antipodes Islands (1805), then to the Auckland Islands (1806), back to the South Island of New Zealand to nab some poor animals they missed the first time (1809), then onto the newly-discovered Campbell and Macquarie Islands (1810). Seal numbers plummeted and by 1830 the sealing industry had self destructed.
The sad business of hunting whales in the South Pacific carried on a bit longer, and with the exception of Japanese research whaling, petered out in the 1850s. The era of South Pacific whaling and sealing was over, but those American whalers and sealers had made their mark and Australia's fledgling colonies had indelibly established themselves as part of global trading routes.