WELLER Brothers: Edward, George, and Joseph.
Traders, merchants, shore whalers, and land speculators.
A new biography of Weller, Edward appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
The Weller family of three brothers, like so many more of the oddly assorted company of Europeans who first brought trade to New Zealand in the days between 1827 and 1840, achieved scant biographical mention in the contemporary reports and writings which provide most of the information about that era. When they came to the South Island of New Zealand from Sydney, they were known as eager and enterprising traders in any field that promised reasonably safe and remunerative returns. The early sealers and whalers had been operating on the New Zealand coast for some years when, in 1831, the Wellers cast their eyes across the Tasman and decided that there were business prospects in the new land. They fitted out the ship Lucy Ann, of 214 tons, loaded it with muskets, gunpowder, grog, hardware, clothing, stores, and whaling equipment, and set out for New Zealand. From the outset they concentrated on the South Island and had interests from Banks Peninsula to Foveaux Strait. In a very short time they had whaling stations in operation and had established a brisk two-way trade between Sydney and New Zealand.
From 1831 the brothers made Otakou, on the Otago Peninsula, their headquarters, and in doing so may be said to have founded the port of Otago 17 years before the first Scottish settlers arrived. They built jetties, storehouses, wharf buildings, and dwellings. Their investment was a substantial one, but it was not long before they had evidence to justify it. The Dublin Packet and the Joseph Weller made up the trading fleet with the Lucy Ann, and soon their oil and whalebone were being shipped out in large quantities. In addition they built up a steady trade in timber, spars, flax, potatoes, dried fish, Maori artefacts, and even tattooed Maori heads which were in keen demand in Sydney.
The Weller enterprise was not satisfied merely with trans-Tasman trade. The English market beckoned, and in their efforts to develop it they were pioneers in the tariff and customs relationships between this country and the United Kingdom. Right at the start they experienced tariff difficulties. Edward Weller foresaw a profitable market for whale products on the other side of the world and in 1833 sent a trial shipment to London. The cargo arrived safely, but as New Zealand had not yet been proclaimed a colony it was classed as a foreign country, and the English revenue authorities put an impost of £26 a ton on whale oil as Weller Bros., despite their Sydney domicile, were regarded as foreign traders. Strong representations made to the Home Government were of no avail. In the face of such a handicap the trade had to be abandoned, and the station at Otakou, as Edward Shortland noted in 1843, with its numerous buildings, was already in decay.
Perhaps it was this setback that turned the attention of the Wellers to the accumulation of land. The trade with Australia and their whaling ventures were still flourishing, but the Weller aggressiveness had to find an outlet for expansion and this was discovered in a fantastic policy of land purchase. Joseph Weller, who was engaged in the Foveaux Strait area, started the ball rolling with some modest purchases of land in the vicinity of Bluff, and then found two Maori chiefs who sold him Stewart Island for £10. The Maoris later repudiated the sale, although they admitted that Weller had actually bought half the island and two off-shore islands. Meanwhile Edward and George Weller, who were dividing their time between Sydney and Otakou, were also in the market for land. Their speculations were on a vast scale, almost assuming the proportions of empire building. When in 1834 and 1835 their general business began to slacken off, they intensified their efforts to accumulate land, and by the time the first colonists arrived in Wellington in 1840, they claimed title to nearly 3,000,000 acres. Two areas totalling half a million acres on and around Banks Peninsula were bought for £67, which like all other payments to the Maoris was made in kind – arms, clothing, spirits, and hardware. Two more purchases of 500,000 acres and 400,000 acres were made in Canterbury for an overall consideration of £82. Then the brothers went to the North Island and acquired another area of nearly half a million acres on the East Coast for a single cask of gunpowder. Further transactions at strategic points in the South Island, involving areas from 3,200 acres to 56,000 acres, added to their huge domain.
By the end of 1835 the Wellers were convinced that they would have to withdraw from Otakou. Joseph Weller had died at the Otago base that year, and by the time the country was proclaimed a British colony the business was defunct. After the 1840 proclamation of sovereignty, George and Edward Weller were among a considerable company of anxious merchants and land speculators who met a nervous and hesitant Governor Hobson in Wellington to try to ascertain the Government's intentions about land titles. But Hobson was of little assistance. Sir G. Gipps, Governor of New South Wales, had taken a hand in the matter, and all past purchases had to be investigated and approved by the Crown. The gauntlet was thus flung down to a veritable army of land sharks, jobbers, and speculators. The Wellers accepted the challenge and prepared to fight for their kingdom. Their lawyers in Sydney assured them that bona fide land purchases in a foreign country made before a proclamation of sovereignty could not legally be invalidated. On this opinion the Wellers took their stand, and in 1841 presented 13 claims, covering the whole of their purchases, before the Court of Claims that had been set up on the instructions of Sir George Gipps.
The litigation that followed was protracted, and in the words of George Weller, “utterly ruinous”. The two surviving brothers urged their titles in the face of an official attitude that their acquisitions were “gifts or pretended gifts”. The Court rejected every one of their claims and recommended to the Government that “no grant be made”. The documents of the hearing, still in the National Archives in Wellington, show the dogged nature of the fight the Wellers put up, but they were doomed from the start. Each claim carried a marginal note setting out the consideration for which the land in question was acquired, the amounts varying from a cask of gunpowder to sums ranging from £10 to 50 and 60. George Weller sought to retain Stewart Island as the heir-at-law of his deceased brother Joseph, but that petition, like all the others, was thrown out of Court. Not surprisingly the Wellers at this stage slipped unobtrusively out of the pages of New Zealand history.
by Ronald Jones, Journalist and Script Writer, New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, Wellington.
- Old Land Claims Files, 1840–41 (MSS), National Archives
- History of Otago, McLintock, A. H. (1949)
- Murihiku, McNab, R. (1909)
- The Old Whaling Days, McNab, R. (1913).