Shore Whaler's Wahine

Members of a Typical Shore Whaling Community

This page is to assist biographers to identify what position a wahine/women’s partner occupied in the overall hierarchy of a shore station. Writers need to appreciate that often achieving this objective is impossible due to a lack of primary evidence. The temptation to surmise as to a person’s position should be resisted without a reliable source.

In some cases careful research may reveal that some so-called whalers were in fact men employed to assist in agricultural diversification.

Some men stood out from the run-of-the-mill shore whaler, for example well-educated whalers were reasonably unusual.

Commonly high-born wahine were deliberately partnered to prominent shore whalers.

  • The Owner

    Whilst some owners lived at the station and were also managers, the majority were absentee owners.

    Up to 1840 the majority of these owners were located or had connections with Sydney, Australia. After 1840, once Wellington was established, it rapidly assumed dominance in terms of the servicing of the stations and in the collection of their produce. This included majority of the southern stations. When this occurred some of the station owners or their financial backers lived in Wellington (John Wade and William Fitzherbert are examples of this).

    Ownership took a variety of forms: companies, partnerships of two or three people and individuals.

    A number of owners also owned ships. These were utilised to supply stations and transport oil and bone to Sydney or later Wellington.

  • The Manager

    Frequently an experienced headsman (chief headsman) the manager was often also the master of the ship that provisioned the station. He could also be the owner or part owner. The managers were the leaders of the shore whaling communities. They were also strict disciplinarians who were responsible for “law and order” and ensuring the whaler’s informal code of conduct was adhered to during the whaling season.

  • The Headsmen

    The officers, mates or boat commanders who were in charge of a whaleboat crew. They steered the whaleboat with the steering (or sweep) oar located at the stern. They manoeuvred the boat and “layed it on’” to the whale so the boatsteerer could “dart the fish”. Once the whale tired from towing the “fast” whaleboat the headsman also killed the whale using a lance. This was an oval or petal (laurel leaf) shaped iron or steel implement mounted on a long wooden pole.

    Chief Headsmen were also sometimes referred to as master whalers.

  • Coopers

    Men who constructed/assembled barrels or wooden casks that were used to transport or ship whale oil. The roles of the cooper, carpenter and blacksmith were often interchangeable.

  • Carpenters

    Men who carried out duties such as repairing whaleboats, made the staves (used to construct barrels) erected sheers and constructed boat ways and buildings associated with the station. Some of these men were originally “ships carpenters” and also boat builders.

  • Blacksmiths

    Men who carried out duties such fixing hoop iron making or repairing irons (harpoons) other whaling equipments (generally known as whalecraft) and made fittings associated with the shore whaling industry.

  • The Boatsteerers

    The boatsteerer or harpooner was the member of the whaleboat crew who manned the first oar (the oar closest to the bow). He “darted” the harpoon or made fast to the whale and at the end of “the chase” changed places with the headsman when the latter made preparations to kill “the fish”.

  • Pulling Hands

    In the early stage of the chase, the headsman stood at the steering oar in the stern of the whaleboat while the boatsteerer manned the forward most, or harpooner’s oar (closest to the bow to the starboard side). The headsman was the only man in the boat who could see the whale when it was being chased.

    Aft of the boatsteerer to the port side was the bow oarsman, usually the most experienced hand in the whaleboat. Once the whale had been harpooned, it was his task to lead the crew in pulling in the whale line.

    Next on the starboard side was the midships oarsman, who worked the longest and heaviest of the lateral oars - up to eighteen feet long and weighting forty-five pounds.

    Next to the port side was the tub oarsman. He managed the two tubs of whale line. It was his job to wet the line with the small bucket like container known as the piggin, once the whale was harpooned. This wetting prevented the line from burning from the friction as the line ran around the loggerhead, an upright post mounted on the stern of the boat.

    Aft of the tub oarsman on the starboard side was the after oarsman. He was usually the lightest of the crew, and it was his job to ensure that the whale line did not tangle as it was hauled back into the boat.

    In a seven-oared whaleboat there were two after thwarts and so in these craft there was a first (located on the starboard side) and second (located on the port side) after oarsman. Some New Zealand stations had seven-oared craft.

  • Other Members of Shore Stations

    Other specialists were employed at the larger shore stations and often these men were also actively involved in whaling.

    Examples are ships surgeons, clerks, store men, boat builders, sail makers, sawyers, flax gatherers, stonemasons and cooks.

  • The Decline of Shore Whaling

    Towards the end of the shore whaling era, when whalers were forced to diversify in order to survive, other specialists were employed at some of the fisheries. For example: stock keepers and shepherds.