Early sealing and whaling

Soon after Sydney was settled by Britain’s First Fleet in 1788, it became the busiest port in the South Pacific—not just for delivering British convicts but also to export whale oil (essential for gas lamps and cooking fuel), seal and whale meat, whale bones (for corsetry, umbrella spines, carved artefacts) and seal skins (for boots and clothing).

In the 1770s, English explorer James Cook had reported killing seals for ‘fresh meals’ around New Zealand and seeing whales off the east coast of Australia. His publications caused British sealing and whaling entrepreneurs to begin lobbying the British Government to establish new port settlements on Terra Australis to help them exploit ‘the South Seas fisheries’. Their voyages could not be be profitable without carrying significant payloads both outwards and on return.

When ships visited the new Port Jackson penal colony in the 1790s and early 1800s, they mostly anchored in Sydney Cove (now Circular Quay). The Third Fleet, which arrived in 1791, included five ships that began whaling as soon as they had disembarked their convict passengers.

The Brittania, commanded by Thomas Melvill, and the William and Ann, captained by Eber Bunker, returned to the Cove with a shared catch of only two whales among thousands they had seen near Sydney. Although they abandoned five other kills (through stormy weather and inexperienced crews), these two ships pioneered the sealing and whaling industry for both Australia and NZ.

A miniature portrait of Eber Bunker, captain of the whaling ship William and Ann, c1810 (SLNSW).

In 1792, the Brittania and William and Ann became the first European whaling and sealing boats to fish commercially in NZ waters. Some of their crews and passengers became NZ’s first European settlers, staying in Maori coastal hamlets at Kororeka (now Russell) and Dusky Sound.

During the next 50 years, before the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, NZ was not colonised by any European nation, so was a magnet for British convicts escaping Australia. Sometimes they would stow away on trans-Tasman whaling and sealing ships, or they might be forced aboard by bayonet-toting press gangs prowling Sydney’s early drinking dens. After arriving in NZ, convicts could ‘marry’ Maori women, open grog shops for visiting sailors, join shore stations to process whale products, become hard-drinking beachcombers, or join other ships sailing to further destinations.

In the 1830s, Australia’s sealing catch was declining (through unsustainably greedy kills off Tasmania) but whaling was still booming. The Official History of New South Wales, published in Sydney in 1883, included a table showing that the number of exported seal skins declined from 9720 in 1830 to 474 in 1840; while exports of sperm oil and black oil increased from 1081 tuns in 1830 to 7151 tuns in 1840. (One tun equalled eight or nine wooden barrels.)

By 1837, a few simple timber jetties were built along the northern shoreline of today’s Walsh Bay. These were named Walker’s Wharf (located between today’s Pier 1 and 2-3), Lamb’s Wharf and Pitman’s Wharf (approximating today’s Wharf 4-5), and Aspinal & Brown’s Wharf (near today’s Wharf 8-9). They were followed several years later by Moore’s Wharf, on the west end of this bay (today’s Maritime Services dock).

Map of Sydney engraved by John Carmichael in 1837, showing the first wharves built at today’s Walsh Bay.

These first wharves carried whale and seal products processed either on the fishing ships or at various shore stations. American, NZ and French whaling ships usually traded their products through Sydney exporters, to reduce Britain’s heavy taxes on imports from foreign countries.

Some classic whaling scenes were delineated by British marine painter Sir Oswald Walters Brierly when he visited Australia during the 1840s. (At the top of this post are three of his watercolours later published in London.) But by 1850, it seemed clear that whales had been over-fished in the southern seas and whalers turned to still-fertile grounds between Japan and Hawaii.

After the 1840s, Australia’s exports of wool and agricultural products grew exponentially—aided by the advent of very fast clipper ships built in west Britain and on America’s east coast. These demanded more and longer wharves and stone seawalls to be built around Darling Harbour, which was becoming the South Pacific’s major trading port.

This was when our shoreline, between Dawes Point and Millers Point, first began to prosper as Sydney’s second international sea-trading zone. Activities on the docks soon expanded uphill to support a lively Victorian community of working class and wealthy families, socialising on the streets and in the public bars of new hotels around Argyle, Windmill, Kent and Fort Streets.

More details

Jane M. Clayton. 2014. Ships Employed in the South Sea Whale Fishery from Britain: 1775-1815. Chania (Crete): Self-published.

L.S. Rickard, 1965 (1996 paperback edn), The Whaling Trade in Old New Zealand. Christchurch: Cadsonbury Publications.

G.P. Walsh, 1967, ‘Lamb, John (1790-1862)’, The Australian Dictionary of Biography, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lamb-john-2321 (accessed 12 February 2019).

Richard Wolfe, 2005, Hell-hole of the Pacific. Rosedale (NZ): Penguin.