Also at Korarareka on that day were the Nantucket whale ships Ganges and Planter. The Mohawk had just departed. These ships were at equal or greater proximity to one another in the Bay of Islands than where their captains lived on Nantucket.
Just north of the Bay of Islands is the little harbor of Mangonui. It had been referred to as a “safe harbor” by some captains. (While it may have been freer of the vices that defined the Bay of Islands, no port where whalers roamed was entirely free of debauchery.) I recently traveled to this little harbor at the request of a long-time colleague who built New Zealand’s Butler Point Whaling Museum, a remarkable place that offers an intriguing window into the past. Today, this harbor—somehow more serene than the Bay of Islands—is also a tourism and sportfishing center. A popular fish-and-chips shop hangs on the edge of the harbor and houses ascend the hills surrounding it, each with a view that tempts one to place an immediate call to a local real estate agent. Yet how different was this place in the mid-19th century! Between 1850 and 1860, 251 American whale ships re-provisioned here. And on a single day in January 1852 we know there to have been 27 whale ships, which would have had some 800 crewmembers, anchored in this narrow crescent of water.
But after many years aboard ship, the romance that drew a man to sea often dissipated. Desertion was a problem, and William Butler provided a solution. Butler had run away from England at age 14 and landed in New Zealand. Later, sensing the growing economic importance of this harbor, he purchased a point of land in the harbor at Mangonui. There, he opened a store that provided good service and welcomed captains from distant shores, and he headed a family renowned for its generosity and hospitality.
Butler also forged a relationship with the local Maori that provided an antidote to the desertion problem, one that would ensure a whaling captain who entered Mangonui Harbor could leave with his crew intact. If sailors deserted, Butler would pay Maori a bounty for finding them. In fact, this system was so sophisticated that more than a few whale ships would depart over the horizon, pretending to bid Mangonui farewell. Once out of sight, the deserters, still on shore and infused with a sense of inevitable freedom, would come out of hiding. Then, Maori—partners in this pretense—would round up these final deserters and return them to the whale ship, which would suddenly reappear on the horizon. This arrangement with Maori is what made Mangonui a “safe” harbor.
Today, Butler Point Whaling Museum introduces modern visitors to the amazing fact that this quiet little harbor was once a vibrant center of international trade. Its owners, the Ferguson family, offer an experience in history and nature that, from my extensive experiences in New Zealand, is hard to beat. A day here does wonders for one’s imagination, reminding us of the “mystic chords of memory” (as Abraham Lincoln might say) that bind our two countries historically.
Nantucket’s relationships with New Zealand began in Mangonui and the Bay of Islands and continue today, but under very different circumstances. Whaling, for example, has been replaced by whale-watching: The mighty sperm whale is no longer hunted but held in the highest esteem and reverence. New Zealand, like Nantucket, has become an international center for tourism fueled not by exploitation, but by an interest in history and in the beauty of its natural surroundings.
The waka on the wall of the Nantucket Whaling Museum is believed to have been a token of appreciation from a Maori chief to a whaling captain. For me, it is a symbol of the deep and continuing cultural connections between two countries whose histories are intertwined.
Bill Tramposch is the executive director of the Nantucket Historical Association (NHA). His wife, Peggy, and he were married at the Town Building on Nantucket in 1976 because they wanted to be wed in a place where “great voyages began.” Thirty years to the day of their wedding, Tramposch began his job as executive director at the NHA, just across the street.