Located in the heart of the South Pacific, New Zealand is one of the youngest countries on earth. The Maori—the island’s first indigenous residents—landed only a thousand years ago. Europeans, in turn, arrived in earnest in the mid-19th century. The waka left the antipodes only 10 years after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in February 1840, which signaled the inception of New Zealand as a nation.
In the mid-19th century, Nantucket was the whaling capital of the world, and safe, distant ports in which whale ships could be re-provisioned during multi-year journeys were crucial to the success of the industry. New Zealand provided superb harbors for re-provisioning, and it also offered American whalers the comfort of the English language. Nantucketer Eber Bunker punched his way around South America’s Cape Horn in 1792 to become the first whaler in New Zealand and Australian waters. In 1808, another Nantucketer, Mayhew Folger, discovered the last of the living Bounty mutineers surviving on Pitcairn Island, now a British colony with governmental headquarters in Auckland, New Zealand.
Perhaps the port best known to Nantucket whalemen was the Bay of Islands, called “Korarareka” by its inhabitants. The little town of Russell, across from Waitangi, was the central harbor and re-provisioning center in the Bay of Islands. With so many sailors, it was also a place of much crime and vice—usually fueled by strong drink—that earned the nickname “Hell Hole of the Pacific.” William Colenzo, New Zealand’s first printer, commented that the Bay of Islands was “notorious for containing a greater number of rogues than any other spot of equal size in the universe.” Robert FitzRoy, the captain of the Beagle—the vessel that once ferried Charles Darwin—noted that several whale ships had anchored away from town in order to keep their crews from the spirit shops.
In 1839 alone, 62 American whale ships entered these waters, many from Nantucket. One would leave with this very waka now on the wall of the Whaling Museum.
Legions of Nantucket whale ships called in at the Bay of Islands in the ensuing years. These were heady days for America, the height of the so-called “American Renaissance.” In February 1855, Eliza Brock sailed into Korarareka on the Nantucket whale ship Lexington with her husband, Captain Peter Brock. (Her journal, a treasure in the Nantucket Historical Association’s manuscript collection, can be viewed online at nha.org.) Our collective sense of Nantucket’s history is richer for Eliza’s decision to join her husband—her accounts of the voyage are among the most vivid and perceptive remembrances we have of these days. For example:
Tuesday morning, the 13: Fine weather, but Cool, two boats along side loaded with peaches, the Decks thronged with natives, men, women and children, their faces all tattooed and for an ornament, a whale’s tooth tied around the neck. Dresses made lose [sic] and very short …all barefooted, quite amusing to hear them jabbor and see them go up and down the side of the Ship just like Cats.