It seems likely that before the arrival of Polynesians, between 1250 and 1300 CE, New Zealand fur seals and to a lesser extent sea lions and elephant seals were widespread around the coast. They were an obvious prey for Māori. As the naturalist Johann Reinhold Forster recorded, seal meat was ‘a most excellent & palatable food; by far more tender, juicy & delicate than beefstakes’. 1 In addition, seal teeth were valuable for fish hooks.
In the first two centuries of settlement, Māori were more often seal hunters than moa hunters. There is evidence of extensive sealing in the far north, Coromandel, Taranaki, Cook Strait, the Canterbury coast and the south from Waitaki to Fiordland. However, by the 1700s seals were confined to the far south.
It was perhaps bad luck for seals that in 1773 Captain James Cook spent time in Dusky Sound, where numbers of fur seals still survived. Cook’s men shot or clubbed the seals for food, and used their skins for repairing rigging, and their oil for lamps. Their potential as a trading item was especially noted in Sydney – from 1788 merchants in the new convict settlement were seeking ways of paying for imports. The London firm of Sam Enderby and Sons, who were active in transporting convicts to Sydney and had a licence from the East India Company, arranged for the Britannia to drop a sealing gang in Dusky Sound in November 1792. They were to procure skins for the China market as payment for tea. When the men were picked up in September 1793 they had collected 4,500 skins, and had also built New Zealand’s first sailing ship. However, the opening of Australia’s Bass Strait rookeries (as seal colonies were known) in 1797 diminished the attraction of New Zealand.
Sealing in New Zealand revived after 1803 when the Bass Strait rookeries were exhausted. Traders looked to England, where seal fur was in demand for hats, and the leather for shoes. In addition seal oil, especially from elephant seals, burned without smoke or smell and was needed for lighting and some industrial processes. Sealers tried to keep their sealing locations secret from competitors, and were nervous about the legality because of the East India Company’s monopoly in the area. It appears that there was a rush to Dusky Sound and the West Coast in 1803, mainly for skins. Two years later American sealers initiated a surge to the Antipodes Islands, and to a lesser extent the Bounty and Auckland islands. In three years, 140,000 seals were killed in the Antipodes Islands. By 1808 sealers were back, working around Foveaux Strait and Stewart Island. Two years later there was a rush to Macquarie and Campbell islands, largely for elephant-seal oil rather than skins.
Sealing dwindled from about 1810, apart from a few operations around Foveaux Strait and the occasional visit from Sydney traders like John Grono. In the early 1820s the removal of duties on colonial oil, a renewed demand for sealskins and a recovery in the rookeries revived activity, and for a few years there was a new boom, which quickly faded. Sealers were now more often shore-based, and numbers of Māori became involved.
Increasingly sealers supplemented their incomes with trade in potatoes, flax and timber, and by the 1830s most had become traders or even whalers. Sealing survived only as an off-season hobby of shore-based whalers. As seal numbers dwindled, hunting was confined to the winter by a law of 1875. But after 1894, with the exception of 1914 and 1915, there was no open season. The last sealing came in 1946 when an open season was declared in Otago and Southland from fear that seals were harming the fisheries. The 6,187 seals killed from June to September in that year were the last legally killed in New Zealand.
Most of the sealing in New Zealand was organised by Sydney companies, nearly all founded by ex-convicts such as Simeon Lord. A few American captains and ships were used, to avoid restrictions applied by the East India Company, who had a monopoly on sealing in the area. The men were a tough breed of ‘sea-rats’, some former sailors, others ex-convicts. Some joined gangs after stowing away on ships from Sydney.
Sealers were paid on the basis of a ‘lay’, generally one-hundredth of the ‘take’ of the skins and oil collected; but this did not normally bring a fortune. The life was tough. Gangs of six to eight men would be left on coasts or islands for months at a time. One group survived on the bleak rock of Solander Island in Foveaux Strait for four and half years before rescue.
The men would live in caves, or under rocks or upturned boats. Swarms of rats were common, and the men were constantly cold and wet. Fresh water was often scarce, and they lived off dry cakes, seal meat or fish, often suffering from scurvy because of the lack of vegetables. After a time as a sealer, John Boultbee noted in his 1820s journal that he had ‘become changed from the delicate youth, to about as rough a piece of goods as ever weathered the wide world.’ 1
Boultbee also noted that it was not all hard graft. When the weather kept them from working, ‘we passed our days in slothful ease, sometimes listening to the wonderful stories related by one of our party, of enchanted islands, haunted castles, and lover’s misfortunes’. 2
There were two main killing seasons – between October and November when the cows joined the bulls and pupped soon after, and from April when the young pups were slaughtered. Usually the seals were approached from behind, out of scent or hearing. The sealers would then rush forward, yelling to confuse their prey. They would swing their clubs (usually made of rātā wood) to left and right until all were slaughtered. Then they would skin the seals, place the skins out to dry and salt them for packing.
Hunting was not quite as easy as it might seem. It was often done at night, over dangerous rocks or reefs. Many a hunter slipped and drowned. To prevent slipping on wet rock, the sealers would wear flax sandals known by the Māori name pāraerae.
In the long term, sealing had more impact on the fate of the seals than on the evolution of society in New Zealand. But the trade did bring over 30 ships to the south of New Zealand, and exposed Māori there to European people and technology. A number of sealing gangs were attacked by Māori after 1810, but in general the contact was harmonious. Some sealers like James Caddell joined the Māori community, while others began trading from coastal settlements.
Sealers were the first of the trans-Tasman communities of hard itinerant men – the work gangs that played a significant role in establishing a footloose masculine tradition in New Zealand, subsequently carried on by groups like whalers, gold miners and bushmen.
Boultbee, John. Journal of a rambler: the journal of John Boultbee, edited by June Starke. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1986.
McNab, Robert. Murihiku and the southern islands. Invercargill: William Smith, 1907.
Richards, Rhys. ‘Murihiku’ re-viewed: a revised history of Southern New Zealand from 1804 to 1844. Wellington: Lithographic Services, 1995.
Salmond, Anne. Between worlds: early exchanges between Maori and Europeans, 1773–1815. Auckland: Viking, 1997.
Smith, Ian W. G. The New Zealand sealing industry: history, archaeology, and heritage management. Wellington: Dept of Conservation, 2002.
Tapp, E. J. Early New Zealand: a dependency of New South Wales, 1788–1841. Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 1958.