Fur seal once abounded on the coast of New Zealand

by Anthony G. Flude ©2002.

Fur seal pup

SEAL FUR TRADING has long been a lucrative world-wide business. The killing of seals for commercial purposes can be dated back to the Spanish in 1515, when a cargo of fur skin pelts were sent from Uruguay to the markets in Seville, Spain. Hunting and trading in seal skins still continues annually in a few countries today, despite many other governments, throughout the world, placing bans on the import of seal skins and manufactured garments and also passing conservation laws to protect the seal herds from near extinction.

Many varieties of seals were found in the northern hemisphere, particularly in South America along the coastal areas from Peru to Brazil and Uruguay. As the seal numbers depleted through hunting in Canada and South America in the 1790's, the fur trading companies began to focus their attention on Australia and New Zealand. The explorers, Abel Tasman, D'Urville and Captain Cook had reported sighting of large herds of fur and hair seals in the Bass Strait, off the coast of Australia, the Auckland Islands and the lower South Island of New Zealand during their voyages in the Southern Oceans. The prospect of a new plentiful source of supply of seal pelts sent supply ships and gangs of sealers on the long journey to New Zealand's southern shores in search of this easy prey.

Despite warnings and reports of hostile receptions from local Maori tribes, the first recorded arrival, off the south-west coast of the South Island of New Zealand, was Captain Raven aboard the supply ship "Britannia" in November 1792, where he put into Dusky Sound.

Anchoring near the entrance, he put ashore the second mate and eleven seamen at Luncheon Cove, leaving provisions for them to last twelve months. As an added precaution, Captain Raven told them to build a ship from local timber in case the "Britannia" was unable to return or was lost at sea, a hazzard the men were well aware could happen. He sent tools ashore so that a ship's carpenter, one of the men, would have equipment to work with. They were to hunt for seal skins for the lucrative Chinese market.

The best time to slaughter the seals was found to be in April for the young pups and in December for the adults, as this was the breeding season. The seals were killed with a hard wood club, where they were struck with a heavy blow on their nose. They were skinned while warm and the body taken back to the camp to extract the seal oil. About eight litres of oil could be boiled from the blubber of a young pup, 20 to 25 litres from a fully grown adult.
The seal skins were scraped, salted and pegged out to dry for the Chinese market; a small layer of blubber was required to be left for the European market.

Luckily the "Britannia" returned 10 months later. Meanwhile, the sealers had built themselves a European style house and Thomas Moore, the carpenter, had almost completed a 16 x 5 meter two masted cutter that they had to leave unfinished in its cradle. Captain Raven was extremely pleased with their efforts, both in the hunt and their acheivements ashore. With his cargo hold loaded with 4,500 high quality seal skins he set sail for Sydney.

A year later in 1793 the supply ship Endevour entered Dusky Sound. She was old , storm damaged and leaking badly. The sight of the abandoned vessel sitting in its cradle which had been built by Captain Raven's crew could not have come at a better time. Working through the warm summer months, they completed the vessel and launched her into the Sound, naming her Providence before setting sail for Sydney.

After several months fur sealing at Jackson Bay and running out of supplies, one sealing gang realised they were stranded when their ship failed to return. They set to and carved 80 planks of timber from the nearby kauri trees to build a vessel of their own but were rescued by one of Captain John Grono's ships which had been built in Sydney for the seal trade. He had sent his three vessels to New Zealand and combined they had on board in their cargo holds some 35,000 seal skins taken from the Chatham and Auckland Islands. Gruno's ships explored up and down the south-west coast naming many of the bays and coves as they searched for seals.

The American vessel Favorite exceeded this record catch a year later returning with a cargo of 60,000 skins which were landed in Sydney during the 1806 season.

By the year 1820 the sealing trade around New Zealand began to deminish as the seal numbers dramatically dropped from all of the seal colonies., however, the trade was to continue for another ten years on a smaller scale.

The vessel Samuel sailed from Sydney on the 29th November 1829 to collect sealers who had been working for a Mr. Street. On arriving at the Chatham Islands the gang informed them that their entire catch of skins had been 'pirated' and seized by some thirty convict men aboard the vessel Cyprus who were now scouring the coast looking for other sealers to plunder their catches also.

Records in Sydney record the sealing ship Waterloo under Captain Guard, returning from Kapiti Island in March 1831 with 15 tons of flax aboard and 700 seal skins. Returning to New Zealand she continued hunting seals in 1832 in Foveaux Strait when she returned to port with 115 seal skins and 9 tuns whaleoil.
The Fairy and the Emma Kemp sailed from Sydney in February, 1830 bound for Preservation Bay. They returned to Sydney after four months seal hunting with a cargo of 113 seal skins, 8 tons of flax and 4 tons of pork.
On the 29th march, 1831 the schooner Samuel under Captain Anglin left for Dusky Sound, returning to Sydney with 440 seal skins and 10 tons of flax.

About this time, 1832, Peter Williams, a trader and merchant of Sydney, exchanged 60 muskets with the chief of the Southern Islands, Te Whakataupuka, for land situated and running from the north-west of Dusky Sound to the South Head of Preservation Inlet. [Lat S45 Long E166.15 - LatN46.30 Long E166.43] The transaction was signed by both parties and witnessed by James Spencer, the Maori chief drawing his face moko(tattoo) on the deed.
The document of sale was effected in 1829 but no deed of sale was drawn up until 1832; perhaps the first official conveyance of land from Maori to Pakeha in New Zealand's early history.
The whaler Venus returned to report that there were no seals to be seen on Macquarie Island but had made for Campbell island where 170 skins were obtained. The following year sealing continued with the Caroline out of Sydney returning with a cargo of 1000 seal skins and the Sydney Packet leaving Bunn's whaling station on Preservation Point with 259 whalebone bundles, 127 casks of whaleoil and 200 fur seal skins.

Skinning seals on Cambell Island
Trading in seal skins (and later whaling) was encouraged by the Colonial Government in Sydney who could levy high duty on the traders of the seal skins which were shipped overseas to be used in the fashion industry to make coats, fur stoles and hats.
When the south seas seal hunting grew in momentem in 1808 and the size of catches reached high proportions, Colonial Sealing Industries were established in Australia at Hobart, Lauceston and Sydney to process the huge volume of seal skins arriving at the port. This was Australia's first large scale export overseas. However, the boom was over by 1830 and the industries closed as the seal colonies were depleted and hunted to near extinction in Bass Strait, Macquirie Island and the South-west coast of New Zealand.

The American schooner and sealer Antartic from New York under Captain Ben Morrell , was anchored in the Auckland Islands in December 1830. He sent three officers ashore to search for seals. They reported none were to be found.
In the ships log he wrote:
"Although the Auckland Isles once abounded with numerous herds of fur and hairseal, the American and English seamen engaged in this business have made such clean work of it, as scarcely to leave a breed; at all events there was not one fur seal to be found on the 4th January, 1830. We therefore got underway on the morning of Tuesday and steered for another cluster of islands, or rather rocks, called 'The Snares' one hundred and eighty miles north of the Auckland Group...."
"We searched there in vain for fur seal which they formerly abounded. The population was extinct, cut off, root and branch, by the sealers of Van Dieman's Land, Sydney."

Meanwhile in November, 1832, Captain W. Kinnard, together with four seal hunters, were left at Rocky Point to establish a sealing station. They arrived aboard the Admiral Gifford out of Sydney. When the ship returned to pick them up with their bales of sealskins some six months later, they could find no trace of them. To their horror, they learned that their party had been seized by a band of the local Maori, their camp burned and that they had all been slaughtered and eaten.

Other sealing expeditions to the coast of New Zealand met with the same fate, the crews and seal gangs being attacked by unfriendly maori tribes, slaughtered and eaten, their camp plundered and burned. Others were taken prisoner and held in captivity for many months by the Maori who planned to hold out for ransom for their release when the ship returned to pick up the cargo. The tribes around Kapiti were noted by sealers to be hostile and several gangs had been slaughtered and eaten before their vessel could return to take them and their cargo back to Sydney.

In 1825, John Guard, having served his time as a convict in New South Wales was released a free man and became a whaler and sealer. Five years later, he married fifteen year old Betty Parker and the couple returned to New Zealand to Cloudy Bay, where he had established a whaling station. In 1832, Captain John Guard bought Kakapo Bay from the Maori chiefs Te Rauparaha and Te Rangiheata and moved his whaling station there.
The couple and their two children, a boy and a girl, went on a visit to Sydney in January, 1834, intending to return to New Zealand in April.

On the 14th April, 1834, the 240 ton supply ship Harriott under Captain Richard Hall sailed from Sydney bound for Cloudy Bay. On board was John Guard and his family and twenty three other crew members and sealers.
At about 4.30 a.m. in the early morning, the vessel was driven ashore at Cape Egmont, Taranaki, in a strong gale and by the evening was a complete wreck. None of those on board were drowned; all got ashore in three long boats with some sails to make tents for protection against the weather but only ten muskets were salvaged from the wreck.

The outline of this story is taken from Mrs. Guard's brief account which she gave to a Sydney reporter on her return:

While making preparations to sail down to Cloudy Bay in the longboats, a band of thirty native Maori visited them appearing friendly and left without incident. Several days later a band of 200 or more Maori suddenly appeared, armed with muskets, tomahawks and spears and set upon the party, threatening to kill and eat them while others plundered the camp.
At some time during the affray, John Guard managed to escape, unaware that his wife had been taken prisoner after she had received two blows to her head with a tomahawk causing a heavy loss of blood. Her captors licked the blood flowing from her wounds and stripped her and the two children naked, dragging them to their huts. They would have killed her but for the intervention of a chiefs wife who thought she might be worth saving for ransom.
Her captors took the two children from under her arms where she was trying to protect them and threw them onto the ground, and while dividing the goods plundered from the camp, ran backwards and forwards across them as they lay terrified on the ground. They then delivered the youngest child back to her but took the boy away into the bushes. She did not see him again for four months until they were rescued.

Mrs. Guard and her young child were taken by the natives to the Pa at Te Mamu, still in a state of nudity, where she was finally given an old shirt, the only cover she had for the winter weather. She was given potatoes to eat and for a month or more was forced to watch her captors cut up and eat the slaughtered crew members of the Harriott, among them her brother, occasionally bring some pieces of human flesh for her to eat which she steadfastly refused to touch.
John Guard, her husband and six crew members who had managed to escape lost no time in seeking help and with the help of friendly Maori made their way to Port Nicholson. Unihabited at the time, they were fortunate to secure a passage on a whaler leaving for Sydney.

Here he sought the aid of the Australian Governor Burke but it was to take four months before they finally ordered two naval ships, the 'Alligator' and the schooner 'Isabella' to proceed to New Zealand to effect the rescue of Mrs. Guard and the children and the remaining crew who were still alive.
When the first ship, the man-o-war HMS Alligator with troops aboard, arrived off the coast the Maori decided to release the eight surviving sailors held from the Harrier. Mrs Guard was still being held captive with her children, the natives presuming they would get paid a ransom for their release.
Finally, they brought her and her daughter, roped to a native, down to the shore. John seized the man who held her but he broke free and ran with Mrs. Guard back into the bush, while other natives fired shots at John as he gave chase but was unable to catch up with them. Several of the natives were captured, one a Maori chief named Oaoiti.
The soldiers finally went ashore and burned the Te Namu Pa but Betty Guard and her daughter had been taken to another defended Pa at 'Wymattee.' [Waimate]

Retiring from the beach, they boarded HMS Alligator which sailed down the coast to the Pa at 'Wymattee."
The ships bombarded the Pa for three hours. Alarmed when the soldiers aboard then came ashore, the Maori finally agreed to give up their prisoners, when the military exchanged their captured native prisoners for Mrs.Guard and her child.
Captain Guard and seven of the crew went to secure the release of the boy who appeared from a bush track carried on the back of a native. He was wrapped in a rug with several white feathers in a band around his head and seemed to be unharmed.

Determined to avenge the murder of their shipmates, the surviving crew of the Harriett fired upon the Maori assembled on the beach, about 100 or more in number. Hearing the gunshots, the soldiers deployed on the hill in case of trouble, also opened fire. Several of the natives fell dead, wounded or dying on the beach, the remainder running for the shelter of their pa or the surrounding bush. The Guard family returned to Sydney aboard the Waterloo some months later, but were to return to New Zealand to settle at a later date at the Te Awaite whaling station in Cloudy Bay.

By the year 1891 both Australia and New Zealand had placed a ban on seal hunting owing to the depletion of the species from their natural habitat.

furseal coat
In Canada, one of the few remaining countries in the modern world to allow the continued annual hunting of the northern fur seal , there is a huge revival in the fur fashion industry aimed at producing jackets, coats, hats and handbags made of the northern fur seal skins. Modern processing of the skins have made the pelts softer, more pliable and supple so they can be cut to better fit the female figure. The Canadian Fur Fashion show 2004, headlined their promotion; "Hot Fur Fashions & record Fur prices - Northern fur and seal skins hot in Montreal", later quoting fur seal pelts selling for CA $90 at auction.

A leading London fashion editor who attended the show, passed the following comments:
"Fashion's appetite for fur has returned to Europe - In the past decade, the use of sealskin in fashion has been spurred by the growth of a market for luxury goods in eastern Europe where fur has always been desired for its warmth. In Russia, sealskin is seen as an affordable alternative to more expensive furs such as mink or sable. A seal coat can be bought for as little as 2,000 - roughly one-fifth of the price of mink." The 2002 collection in Paris of Loius Vuitton, featured coats, tunics and pinafore dresses made from fur sealskin.

Canada, Norway, Russia and China remain the main buyers and suppliers for the fur fashion market.