Whales have an important place in Māori tradition. Several tribes tell of the arrival of their ancestor, Paikea, on the back of a whale. Although there is debate as to whether Māori hunted whales, it is clear they regarded stranded whales as a valuable source of meat, and used whale teeth and bones for ornament.
Māori men were eager recruits for whaling ships, as replacements for crew who had deserted; whaling was exciting and an opportunity to see the world. As early as 1804 a Māori was reported on board a whaler. In 1826, British whaleboat owners reported that one vessel had 12 Māori crew, who had proved ‘orderly and powerful seamen’. 1 At a gala day in Hobart in 1838, 30 Māori – one-third of the whalers present – took part in whaleboat races. Māori quickly introduced these boats at home, and by the 1840s whaleboats were widely used by Māori in New Zealand.
Visiting whalers also had a profound impact on Māori society. Especially in the Bay of Islands, whalers’ demands for potatoes and pork provided an early trade opportunity for Māori. In return, whalers often supplied muskets and alcohol, while their liaisons with Māori women further disrupted Māori society. On the positive side, it is said that the modern kūmara entered Māori horticulture as an American whaler’s sweet potato.
Shore whalers also depended on Māori for food and women. Many early whalers such as Dicky Barrett, Phillip Tapsell and Jacky Love married into Māori families. Māori men became important whalers at shore stations, comprising 40% of the shore whalers; in Otago they were 50%.
Chewing the fat
Parekura Hei, who was involved with the Te Whānau-ā-Apanui whalers, recalled of the whales caught near Te Kaha: ‘I’d eat it fresh and I’d also hang it up and dry it just like dried snapper … When the whalemeat is dry you chew it raw like chewing gum’. 2
Māori continued to whale in the later 19th century, long after most of the shore whaling stations had closed. They did so not as a full-time occupation, but as a seasonal activity alongside their agricultural work. This occurred to some extent on Māhia Peninsula and more particularly in the Bay of Plenty at Maungaoa, Ōmāio and Maraenui near Te Kaha. By this time the right whales had largely disappeared and Māori whalers hunted humpbacks and the occasional sperm whale.
On sighting a whale, lookouts would light fires and bang drums to alert the farmers in the fields. They would launch longboats and give chase to the animals before hauling them back to be cut up on the beach. This practice remained an important activity for the Te Whānau-ā-Apanui tribe until the mid-1920s.