The executive director of the Nantucket Historical Association talks about the whaling-age ties that still bind Nantucket and New Zealand.
One of the many pleasures of being executive director of the Nantucket Historical Association is being able to visit our properties at any time. Often, after our guests have departed and the shadows lengthen, I walk the halls of the Nantucket Whaling Museum. In its galleries are the pieces of our island’s past: portraits of whalers who spent most of their lives at sea; the skeleton of a young sperm whale that washed up on the shores of ‘Sconset; and silent movies, left on for the night, that tell of times that seem both distant and tantalizingly close.
Recently, on one of those strolls, I stood before a model of a Maori war canoe, known as a waka. Carved in the Bay of Islands in Northland, New Zealand, it was brought to Nantucket around 1850. This intricate piece captures in its carvings the gods of Maori legend, companions and protectors of the vessel’s crew. These carvings seemed alive in the twilight, and rightly so: Maori believe that such carvings are not mere representations, but the actual embodiment of the spirits of their ancestors.
The waka tells of a time when oceans were our highways and the sun governed the day’s affairs, a time when Nantucket whalers were as familiar with New Zealand’s northern bays as they were with the inlets and shores of their home. It reminds us that the past is itself a foreign country.
The connections between New Zealand and Nantucket are particularly intriguing to my family and me. We Tramposches lived in New Zealand for 12 years, having first visited when I had a Fulbright Fellowship in the 1980s. New Zealand is such an attractive country that it becomes a hard place to leave, so subsequently I became a director at the National Museum of New Zealand. Following that, I served as chief executive of New Zealand Historic Places Trust, an organization that oversees iconic heritage places throughout the islands. We are now dual citizens, and my wife and I periodically lead tours of New Zealand’s heritage places for those who share our passion for this country—and its connections to Nantucket that extend centuries into the past.
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.
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.