Story: Weller, Edward

Page 1: Biography

Weller, Edward

1814?–1893

Whaler, merchant, coloniser, adventurer

This biography, written by Peter Entwisle, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 1, 1990.

Edward Weller was baptised at Folkestone, Kent, in England, on 29 July 1814. He was the son of Joseph Weller and his wife, Mary Brooks. There were six children of this marriage; Edward was the third of three sons, and was later in partnership with his elder brothers, Joseph Brooks (1804–1835) and George (1805–1875). His sister Anne married Charles Schultze, who took over the management of the Wellers' whaling operations in Otago from 1840.

Edward and Joseph went to Sydney about 1829 and were soon followed by their father, after he had sold his estate for, reputedly, £80,000. The two brothers set out for New Zealand in their barque Lucy Ann late in 1831 to establish a shore-whaling station. They landed, according to tradition, at Weller's rock, Te Umu Kuri, in Otago Harbour. The brothers built up a substantial village, known as Otago, beside the existing Maori one. Eventually they merged to form the present day Otakou.

Edward twice entered into relationships with local Maori women. The first was with Paparu, daughter of Tahatu and Matua. They had one daughter, Fanny, born in 1835 or 1836. By 1839 he was living with Nikuru Taiaroa, daughter of Taiaroa and Hine-i-whariua Taiaroa. Edward's second daughter, Nani Weller (Hana Wera), was born probably in 1840; her mother died three days later.

The Wellers' village consisted of about 80 cottages with try-works, slipways and sheds, but this was destroyed by fire early in 1832. They rebuilt, and made Otago the centre of a network of seven stations from Banks Peninsula to Foveaux Strait. This was achieved in a boisterous era. In 1833 Edward was kidnapped by Maori and had to be ransomed. The next year a serious confrontation with a large party of Maori from outside Otago caused the Wellers to import some heavy arms. In 1835 an epidemic of measles shockingly reduced the local Maori population. At the same time Joseph died of tuberculosis. In the fashion of the time Edward shipped his remains in a puncheon of rum back to Sydney, where his brother George was in charge of the family business.

Edward emerged as the business manager and leader of the large Otago station and its satellites. At times he had as many as 85 men employed at Otago alone. With their wives and children they made up a substantial community. Edward took personal command of one of the whaleboats, despite George's anxieties. In 1836–37 the firm earned about £8,000 in 10 months from whaling alone. That was not the only commercial activity: there was shipbuilding, mixed farming, supplying visiting ships, and trading in flax, fish and preserved Maori heads. The Wellers even tried to ship their oil direct from Otago to London, while still claiming the exemption from duty allowed to oil taken by British ships. This was not allowed and they had to revert to shipping through Sydney. At one point in these negotiations George was ready to give up the New Zealand operation but Edward revealed his obstinacy by going to greater lengths to keep it running.

Unscrupulous competition from Johnny Jones of Waikouaiti and, after 1837, a declining harvest of whales precipitated a financial crisis for the Wellers. In order to recover their position, they began large-scale land purchases. By 1840 they could claim nearly 3 million acres, but New South Wales Governor George Gipps's proclamation of January that year that all land purchases had to be investigated and approved by the Crown confronted them with impending ruin. They attempted to place settlers on some of these lands in order to make good their claims, but met with little success. In December 1840 Edward handed over Otago to Charles Schultze, and left for Sydney. In 1841 the Court of Claims rejected all 13 land claims made by the Wellers.

The long remainder of Edward's life seems to have been an anti-climax: the Georgian boy-adventurer turned into a Victorian colonial squire in up-country New South Wales. But in New Zealand the settlement he had founded endured; Otago Harbour, which he had helped to make an international port, flourished. The Wellers' most important if unintended achievement may have been their establishment of a working relationship with Maori. From that the growth of port and settlement followed.

Edward's oldest brother, Joseph, remains a shadowy personality. Presumably it was he who took the largest part in deciding to go whaling and to undertake it from Otago. After 1831 he spent most of his time at Otago and was perhaps the dominant personality among the brothers until his death.

The character of the elder brother, George, is easier to discern. He made a few excursions to Otago, but generally stayed close to the family hearth in Sydney; he had married Elizabeth Barwise before he emigrated to Australia. He was the fusser and the worrier – about Edward's health, about the chances of an accident to Edward in his whaleboat, about his need for more money than his brothers to keep up appearances in Sydney, and about the effects of the firm's collapse on his children's education.

Edward's characteristic stubbornness led to his death on 10 or 11 March 1893. As floodwaters rose round his house in Maitland, New South Wales, he refused to leave. To escape the rising waters he knocked a hole in the ceiling and climbed into the roof space, where he eventually died of exposure and exhaustion.

How to cite this page:

Peter Entwisle. 'Weller, Edward', first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol. 1, 1990. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1w13/weller-edward (accessed 21 August 2017)