Netting Whales at Whangaruru in New Zealand
Circa 1895

As told to Hally Wagener many years ago by Captain Keatly, skipper of a coastal steamer

'...its a long story, and to begin with I must go back to how I came to take the job on. I arrived in Auckland in 1895 after a voyage to the Pacific Islands in an old schooner. I had been away for eight months and paid off and I thought I would have a month's spell. She was a pretty hungry ship, plenty of work and not much to eat except salt pork etc. On my ninth day ashore my skin began to crack to get back to sea again.

Now in those days there was an office run by an old salt who used to find seamen for any ship that found it hard to pick up a crew. He was a real hard doer who had learned the hard way Johnson was his name he had a scar right along his left cheek where he had been in a fracas in his early days at sea. It was a knife mark and a real beauty. Some called him Scar Johnson, but most called him Shanghai Johnson as he used to pick up drunken sailors and ship them in any old square rigger.

I was passing his office when I saw on the blackboard hanging up on one side of the door 'Four A.B.s wanted'. I went in to ask what ship, and he said "No ship, it's a good shore job", and the picture he painted seemed fine to me; four pound a month, well found, passage found one way, and in bad weather when the boats could not go out there was nothing to do but play games, cards, etc in the big dining room.

He asked me to try to get three more to fill the complement. Now, times were hard and there were a lot of dead-beats around the waterfront. I went down around the railway wharf where I knew there were a lot of them sleeping at the back of some boat sheds. I collected them without any trouble and in no time took them along to Shanghai who signed us all on.

That three consisted of one who was a jockey trimmer who had jumped his ship here, not a bad chap who only made the one voyage and ran away, and a Canadian fireman who could cut anyone's throat for a dollar. The third was a young New Zealander who had got into trouble away down south, Dunedin I think, and had done a month or two in clink and come up to Auckland to get away from those who knew him. I might say that he made good and in after years landed a real good job.

We left Auckland on the 'Ohinemuri' (NSS. Co); Bob Gibbons was master.

Governor Glasgow was Governor at the time and his ADC was Major Elliot, a very fine man, and he was going to Whangaruru to see whales caught in nets and was a passenger [with us]. On the first night the weather wasn't too good and we spent the night at Kawau. As Bob Gibbons was funky and always was, I wanted to hold back until after the Major had finished his meal but the steward said it was alright.

I had told him that I was afraid one of my crowd may spoil things at the table and so he did by saying 'pass the flaming black-current jam'. He was the Canadian fireman and his language was choice. In the morning we got under weigh and got as far as Tutukaka and stayed there until daylight, arriving Whangaruru late afternoon. We were shown our quarters and bunkhouse. I had brought blankets and the others only had what they stood up in and pretty scant at that, so they only had sacks for bed covering and fern mattresses.

Next morning we had breakfast, boiled snapper and spuds it was, well before daylight, then out to work. It turned out that we were to be the shore gang. I called it the Plucky Out Brigade. They had already caught three whales and stripped off the blubber and anchored the carcasses off the beach.

Now the oil was in three grades. No. 1 was the blubber oil, No. 2 was the tongue oil, and No. 3 was the gut oil and it was kept separate. Our first job was to take the gut fat out of those carcasses, and when a whale is dead a few days it ferments and gets very hot inside. They were taken to the end of a small jetty where there was a grab winch and crane which had three twelve inch planks that were towed to the water's edge and went right round the whale to stand on.

Three sides of a square were cut in the breast and a chain string fastened to one side of it and hove up on the winch, and one man had to go inside the whale like Jonah, (that was my first job) in the dress he was born in as it was very hot in there, for the whale had been dead three days.

One on the winch, one on the staging, one on the jetty. Inside man, or Jonah passed the gut fat to the man on the stage, who passed it the man on the jetty, with the man keeping the weight on the winch so as to keep the belly above water. Inside the whale was the dirtiest job of all.

We were nearly a week cleaning up these dead ones and were pleased to see them finished. The boats - two of them used to leave before daylight and arrive after dark. There was only one white man in the boat's crew and he didn't like the job so I swapped him and got out in the boat, and wasn't I pleased to do so, although we had longer hours there.

As the gut men only work from daylight to dark, those in the boats took watches. That season Cook [The Cook family operated the whaling venture] had chartered a small launch, a steamer called the 'Despatch'. She had very little power, could hardly pull a herring off a grid-iron and as the Scotchman said, "Pull the tail out of a Goldie". She used to tow the boats out doing about five knots, and on the way out we had to plait rope yarns together for stops on the nets. These were about twelve inches long.

There was a ring-bolt in a rock at the end of a reef, and a buoy anchored about 150 yards seaward, a hawser was fastened to it with the stops so when the whale hit a net it could easily break away from the hawser. There were two reef barrels fastened to each net in case the whale got clear of it and it would be kept afloat by the barrels.

While the whale was arguing the point with the net it made it easy for the boats to harpoon him, also to kill him with the lances. It usually took an hour or more of lancing before he was finally dead.

When all the nets are set one boat's crew go ashore on the lookout for more whales, the men just laying in the scrub and tussock while one keeps watch with the glasses for a whale which comes close inshore. He yells "There she blows". The other boat and crew has to stay out there and catch snapper until they have caught twelve fish, then they too can come inshore and join the look-outs. Sometimes fish are scarce and they may not catch their quota and have to stop out until they get enough.

Now, when the look-out yells "There she blows", both boats stay at the ready for the whale to come along, and as soon as it hits the net there is a race on to see who gets the harpoon in first, as that is the crew which takes first watch at the boiling down house. They go on as soon as they have had their tea, and work at minching up the blubber ready for the "Try Pot" until 11:30 pm. The other crew go on at midnight until breakfast at 5 am, and out in the boats again before 6 am to start it all over again.

It took three nights to deal with each whale. The morning after it is brought in the crews stay in and. strip the blubber off it. To do this it is brought in to the end of the jetty and is cut with spades which are flat steel blades about 8 inches long by 4 inches wide and kept very sharp. They are on long straight shafts eight or nine feet long.

The blubber is taken off in flakes about 2 ft by 1ft, hauled off by the winch, then cut up smaller into what they call "Horse pieces". They are cut cross-wise about the size of a boat on edge. That cutting is done with ordinary shoe makers knives and to keep them sharp a box of fine sand is kept handy, and a piece of soft wood from the side of a kerosene case about one and a half inches wide and one foot 8ix inches long is dipped in the sand and the knife rubbed on it, because if a stone is used the grease soon fills it up.

These horse pieces are drawn between two wooden pegs by a man with a hook, while another man minces away with a piece of scythe blade on two handles. It is all minced up about the size of Bycrofts Odlin Bread, and the mincing is done at night by the boat's crews.

The Try Pots

Four of them are started with wood, and after they get well going and the first oil is cooked, there are enough scraps to keep the fire stoked. The Maori used to eat a lot of the scraps which looked like greasy toast. I had a go at it but they were too greasy for my palate.

Now the shore gang or gut brigade had to deal with the carcases after the blubber came off it. One of their first jobs was to deal with the tongue which was soft and tough, something like a sponge rubber. It was hard to cut up and the knife had to be kept very sharp.

There was up to one or even two tuns (drums) of oil which was kept separate as it sold for less than the blubber oil. When the tongue was finished they had to cut up the whole carcass. It was done with a cobbler's knife and cut into chunks of ten pounds or more. They went into the digester, and from there to a press something like a wool press which squeezed all the oil out.

The flesh was then stacked or dumped in a shed to dry, ready to grind and bag up for fertilizer - and didn't it hum [stink] after it was there for a month or two. The bones were cut with axes and treated in the digester where all the oil was taken out and they were ground up for bone dust, so instead of playing cards and games in bad weather as old 'Shanghai had said we got all these jobs to do'. Wasn't the old bounder called some names altogether too numerous to mention, some Canadian, some Cockney and some plain New Zealand. The tucker taken out in the boats was two biscuits and most went back as we could not eat them. They came in 100 pound cases at the start of the season and the cases were all opened up so that they could get tough. If kept closed up they would be nice and crisp and would be eaten with relish, which was no good to Bert Cook who had learned the hard way. He put in his apprenticeship in our old Hobart brig called the 'Splendid', one of the old-timers which had a blue-nose skipper from New Bedford U.S.A.

At night time when mincing in the shed, if there was a carcase at the jetty we often baited a line or two with bits of blubber and succeeded in catching a snapper which we gutted and put in the try pot of boiling oil. In a very few minutes it was cooked a beautiful brown, the scales would all be gone and a bit of salt from the cook-house and it was soon scoffed up. The cook was an Indian we called 'Joe the Mongo' and he did not like the name. He used to make 2 batches of bread once a week.

We used to sneak into the cook-house in the early morning, and when his back was turned sneak a loaf of dough and chuck pieces like a walnut into the boiling oil and in a few minutes it would be as big as a golf ball and look like a dough-nut. We also pinched spuds which were very scarce. This was easily the hardest life I ever had. We never had duff on the menu.

Now, getting back to Major Elliot. He was there a whole week and during that time they never saw a whale. He was taken to Russell by the launch "Despatch" and that day, my very first day out we caught one, and not in the net either. It was the only one we caught outside the nets, and as soon as he was harpooned off he went at a hell of a pace. The lines - two of them each, were a whole coil of two and a half inch manilla. There was a 'loggerhead', a five by five with the top rounded [the rope was looped around it and it became a brake of sorts]. It came up through the stern sheets, the line had two turns around the post or 'loggerhead'.

As the whale set off it was kept just taut enough to prevent the water from flowing over the bow of the whale-boat. After it [the whale] had run a quarter of a mile or less, it sounded as soon as the line slackened, and we had to haul the slack in. It was again coiled down on the tubs ready for the next run. By the time it was all hauled, up came the whale to blow, and while it was on the surface the lancer got to work on it getting in up to five or six jabs before it commenced to run again. Usually two or three runs were enough to settle him, though he would start spouting blood sometime before he gave in.

Once now and again the whale would be killed very quickly. There is a light patch just under the fluke; if the lancer got a chance he gave it him there. It went straight to the heart and he was soon finished off.

The lance was about the size of a good hen's egg which had been flattened, and was about two and a half inches in the centre down to a sharp edge all round. It was welded to a 3/8 length of Swedish iron about four feet long, and the wooden shaft was about five feet long and two inches in diameter. The iron used to be bent when it was pulled out by a piece of rope like plough line. There were two slots cut in the gunwale close to the bow of the boat, one each side, and the iron was straightened easily in these slots ready for the next sortie with a whale.

It was strange how the seabirds knew there was tucker about- one fellow called a whale bird used to arrive in dozens and even before you were on to a whale you may see some of them about. They fed on the blood that was spouted out and also small pieces of fat or blubber. Sometimes one of them would be killed by the lance, they were so close. If it was blowing hard and the boat was to leeward when the whale was spouting blood you got some in your eye which smarted like blazes. I often got some in my mouth a1so, and it was quite bitter, so my advice is to keep to windward always.

It has been said that Swedish iron of which the shaft of the harpoon is made of is very soft and wi11 draw out [stretch like toffee], and although I was shown one at Wanganui that certainly was thinner at the centre than at either end, I took it with a grain of salt.

There was one variety of whale, Calke Sulphur Bottom I don't know if that was the right name, but Bert Cook called it that. It never came close enough inshore to get in the nets. He would not attempt to harpoon it as it ran too far before sounding, and he said that both tubs of line would be run out before it did and he would lose the harpoon and line both, so he left it alone. The Humpback was the only one he took.

In the summer season when the whales were returning from the tropics they were not so fat and he didn't do so well. If he saw a cow and calf together he always harpooned the calf, as by doing that he was sure to get the cow for she would not leave the calf. It was sometimes the size of its mother, also fatter so worth having, but between the two they wouldn't produce as much as one caught in the winter. He asked me to come along for the summer season but I had had enough and promptly declined his kind offer.

The last job we had was to pull all the whalebone out of the jaws. It was not very valuable and only fetched a low price, and had to be scraped and scrubbed with soda and hot water and packed in sacks for shipment to Australia.

We left Whangaruru for Auckland in the old cutter 'Tairuri'. She had lain in the sun on the beach for I don't know how long and had all her seams opened up. We caulked them with oaken and 'shenaumed them up'. 'Shenaum' is putty made with burnt shell lime and oil. We sailed in the evening and called at Whangarei to pick up oil his brother had there.

She was only a small cutter and could only take thirty odd barrels. We left there for Auckland and passengers and all had to bail or sink, so bail we did. Had a good fair wind and arrived next day. The following day we had to meet at Jagger's office. I think Jagger financed the whole business and if there was anything made he was the one who had it, as Bert Cook had very little. He had the 'Wainui II' built shortly afterwards, perhaps a season or maybe two seasons later.

They tried a season down at the Campbell Islands but I don't think it was a success. She had a fast launch that they used as a chaser, and had a gun fitted that fired a bomb harpoon. What killed that was the Union, for both firemen and sailors had to join the seaman's union and the wages were too much for them so they eventually closed up all together.

The Cook Family

Now for the Cook family; I knew four of them. Bert at Whangaruru, Tom who was working for Bert, but the Maoris refused to go out in the boat with him.

He was very bad tempered and although nearly a half-cast himself, he used to call them all sorts of names; black bs, black cows, etc. and used to threaten their black heads off. In after years he was in the Government steamer 'Tutanekai' and since died. Bill had a small whaling joint at Whangaruru, only one boat and a crew of Maoris. He used to catch only one or two each season. He worked for J. J. Craig in Auckland and died only a couple of years ago, a real nice chap, Bert.

Albert went down to Tonga [note: Maoris used reverse up and down for nth and sth, and it appears that Capt. Keatley had the habit.], married there and had a family, but never came back. He used to catch one or two whales each season but he didn't try them out for oil. They were cut up and sold to the kanakas who eat the whole lot, blubber and all, and he always sold his whale in less than three days. He made a good living out of it of course when I say good living it did not take much to feed and clothe his family down there, and he is now dead, being the first to go.

Bert died of tetanus. He was walking along the beach at Russell and had on an old pair of sand-shoes when he trod on a rusty nail. They rushed him to Kawakawa hospital but it was too late and he died next day. Bert Cook was a remarkable man. I wouldn't say he was religious, but I never heard him use a swear word, not even damn, and I never saw him lose his temper over anything or get worried over anything, his word was his bond. He was a fairly good blacksmith, handy with any machinery or engines etc, a really handy and good fellow.

Tom was just the opposite - Bill, I had little to do with but he was always spoken well of. Albert I didn't know. So now you have all there is to know about whaling with nets. If there is anyone who may doubt anything written here, tell them to ask me. I don't know anyone on deck today who would or could verify it unless there were maybe one or two of the younger Maoris still alive at Russell.

I know most of them, most of them must be gone as they were very much older than me, and I was only nineteen at the time. There were quite a few little incidents that happened there but they were not connected with the whaling; I could carry on a page or two perhaps, but they are probably best left unsaid.

Signed; E Keatley, 22 May 1953 (as told to H. B. Wagener, Pukenui)