Who were the sealers?
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.