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history of the early whalers in Bass Strait

Early history of Bass Strait - the sealers & whalers


  • Bass Strait is the sea passage between mainland Australia & its southern island, Tasmania which had been explored by George Bass and Matthew Flinders in 1798 and had reported seeing vast numbers of seals.
  • Captain John Brabyn's only son, "Boy" Brabyn, at thirteen,  was a member of the Lieutenant Murray's crew on the Lady Nelson, possibly as a mid-shipman, which, in 1802, discovered the entrance to Port Phillip Bay (the entrance to the bay on which the city of Melbourne was later founded).
  • The 1st attempt at colonisation in the region was at present day Sorrento in Port Phillip Bay in 1803 but this was a failure and it was moved to the estuary of the Derwent River, Tasmania & marked the beginning of Hobart.
  • Tasmania (then called Van Diemen's Land), was first occupied by the British in 1804. The main reason for this occupation was to ensure the French did not get a foothold in Australia as France and England were at war, struggling for world supremacy. Another consideration was the sealing industry, which was growing rapidly. 
  • At the same time Governor King was ordered to resettle the occupants of Norfolk Island, which was to be abandoned, to the northern coast of Van Diemen's Land.  These settlements were initially at Port Dalrymple and then at Launceston but struggled with limited supplies and food, surviving mainly on the plentiful kangaroo meat, although this impacted the food supply of the indigenous Aboriginal peoples and with encroachment on their lands creating conflict. Aboriginal women were taken as “sooty wives” as slaves for the free European settlers and sailors.
  • By March 1808, Port Dalrymple consisted of 14 civil officials (including my ancestor, Peter Mills who had arrived with Captain Bligh at Port Jackson, NSW in 1806 and had sailed to Port Dalrymple to become harbour master and in Jan. 1810, he married Jennyfer Brabyn, the daughter of my great, great, great, great, great grandfather, Capt John Brabyn, the commandant of Port Dalrymple 1808-10), 96 military personel, 19 settlers and free people, and 115 prisoners. 
  • Ongoing conflict between the Tasmanian Aborigines and the European settlers resulted in attacks by Aborigines on farms protected by the wives with their guns, but the impact of the early European settlers here on the Aborigines resulted in the Tasmanian Aborigine population falling from some 5,000 to only 200 by 1830!
  • Van Diemen's Land was built on the labour of convicts who provided all the labour for public works & most for private works. The convicts were treated brutally and their work inefficient despite a highly organised structure developed by Governor Arthur. The convicts at the bottom of the hierarchy were sent to the harshest of the penal stations at Maria Island, Macquarie Harbour & Port Arthur. The “top” 50% of convicts were assigned servants to farmers, householders or businesses (one of these was my ancestor, James Glare, who was transported there in 1821 & may have been assigned to the Mills family, as he later married their daughter).

Sealing (1798-c1831):

  • the 1st industry in Van Diemen's Land with the 1st major sealer being Capt. Bishop, who in only a few weeks on Cape Barren Island. brought back a load of 5,000 seal skins & 300 gallons of seal oil to Sydney. By 1802, there were 200 sealers in Bass Strait as there was a ready market for oil & skins in England & China as the oil was used for cooking, lamps & as a general fuel while the fur was greatly prized for its high quality & used in making hats, shawls & other goods. Furs could be sold for 5-10 shillings each in China, and 25-30 shillings each in England, while oil sold for 4 shillings a gallon. A shipload was worth more than £10,000 in England - a fortune considering how easy they were to catch.
  • the effect of sealing on the small settlements such as Launceston were enormous with many industries being developed to outfit & refit ships for the voyages. Two men who made fortunes out of sealing were Henry Reed & John Griffith, for whom two sons of the Mill's family (John & Charles Mills) worked as sailors. These brothers were to become local legends spending much of each year from 1826 onwards in the Port Fairy region & thus effectively becoming Victoria's 1st settlers.
  • despite letters to newspapers protesting against this uncontrolled slaughter, no action was taken to curtail it, and by 1830, the seals were virtually wiped out, resulting finally in the Government legislating for their protection.

Whaling (1820's-1850's):

  • Southern Right whales migrate from Antarctica in the Southern hemisphere winter with their pods to escape the killer whales which cannot make the long journey. The migrating whales reach the Great Australian Bight and then either pass west to the west coast of Australia, or eastwards into Bass Strait past Portland, Port Fairy then to Eden before passing up the east coast of Australia.
  • although whaling had been an established enterprise since the 1790's, it was not until the end of the sealing industry that whaling really took off in Bass Straight, and it was the Reed-Griffiths partnership which dominated the scene, building bay whaling stations at Kangaroo Island, Twofold Bay in Eden, Portland (from 1833), and one at Port Fairy from 1836. 
    • the unique whaling pattern in Eden - a symbiotic relationship between killer whales and man:
      • before the British arrived in Eden, the indigenous peoples had developed a rapport with the local killer whales which would systematically force the migrating whales into Two Fold Bay and then attack the whale cubs - the “Killers of Eden” - ABC broadcasting in Australia have a documentary about this.
      • when the British came and started whaling, they employed the local indigenous people who assisted with hand-harpooning the whales and passed on to the whites, the “Law of the Tongue” - by leaving the killed whale to float for a day in the bay before bringing it ashore, the killer whales would get their reward by eating the whales tongue region. In return the killer whales rounded the whales up into the bay, alerted the whalers and had a very close rapport with them which extended to stories that killer whales saved a drowning whaler by bringing him back to the surface as well as circling a smashed whaleboat to keep the sharks away from the whalers in the water. When the whales had diminished in number causing starvation of the killer whales and perhaps the killing of a stranded killer whale by a white man, the trust and food supply was lost and the killer whales left and have not assisted the locals again.
      • without this symbiotic relationship, neither the killer whales nor the humans with their hand spears would have been able to kill the adult whales alone which were able to dive deeper and for longer than the killer whales in the bay.
  • catching Right whales could be done from land bases rather than the long voyages in deep sea needed to capture Sperm whales, thus this was called bay whaling & bay whaling stations were set up wherever Right whales were plentiful, and at one stage there were 35 stations in Van Diemen's Land alone.
  • the bay whaling season lasted from May to November, but the stations were usually partially manned for the whole year & many became permanent settlements.
  • the whaleboats were 9m long made of cedar wood, pointed at both ends and low in the middle. They held 5-8 oarsmen, a harpooner & a steerer. A rope of 200 fathoms would be wound carefully around a pole - sometimes it was pulled out so fast by a harpooned whale that water had to be poured over the woodwork to prevent fire. The crews waited onshore until a whale was spotted in the bay or as was the case in Twofold Bay where the killer whales had been trained to round up the Right whales into the bay for the whalers and if it was at night, they would splash their fins on the shore to signal to the whalers who would then reward them with some of the kill.
  • whaling stations were often so close that several competing whaleboats would take after the same whale.
  • an unexpected flick of the whale's tail could overturn or smash the boat.
  • one whale could give 5.5 tons of whale oil & 5.5 hundredweight of whale bone (which was used as fertiliser).

Port Fairy & Portland in the 1830's & 40's:

  • under the 'old sealers' law, a sealer was entitled to a maximum of five Aboriginal 'wives', and in 1830, it was reckoned the population of the Bass Strait islands consisted of 30 white males and 44 aboriginal women, with sealers usually living in pairs in crude huts with gardens of potatoes, onions and barley.
  • William Dutton, a sealer and a whaler from Van Diemen’s Land, laid claim to becoming the first white resident of Victoria’s first permanent European settlement. He built a house and dug a garden in 1830 at what would become the town of Portland. He took as his “wife” an Aboriginal child named Kalloongoo, kidnapped from her country in Sth Australia in the late 1820's by a sealer named James Allan who took her to Kangaroo Island to catch and butcher seals, and sold her to Dutton as a slave c1830. He called her Sarah but thrashed her and when he finally abandoned her on King Island in 1835 (perhaps after pressure from the upper class Henty who disapproved of him taking a black wife), he took away their daughter and had her baptised, aged about six, in 1836 in Launceston as Sophia (b. c1831). Kalloongoo was not Dutton’s first Aboriginal female companion. During the 1820s he travelled with a woman named Renaninghe Kotaternner Puerre, who is believed to have been taken from the North George River area of north-east Tasmania. Dutton later travelled to Launceston and married a white woman Mary Saggers, in 1841 and not having children adopted two. He settled with her in Narrawong but eft her destitute when he died in 1878. 1)
    • George Augustus Robinson, undertook an extensive interview with Kalloongoo who was renamed Charlotte. Deserted and stranded on a storm-racked sliver of granite in Bass Strait, she was brought to Flinders Island in early 1837 aged c 20yrs. Robinson had been responsible for rounding up Tasmania’s dwindling Aboriginal people and removing them in the early 1830s to exile on Flinders Island. Having saved about 200 Aboriginal Tasmanians from final destruction in what was called the Black War – Van Diemen’s Land’s fierce frontier conflict from 1824 to 1831 – on Flinders Island he had tried to convert these people into a European peasant culture and had failed. He would become the Chief Protector of Aborigines in the Port Phillip District (later Victoria) in 1839 and took with him 15 Aboriginal people, including Kalloongoo/Sarah/Charlotte, and the legendary Truganini, born about 1810 on Bruny Island, who had survived terror almost impossible to imagine.
  • the Mill's brothers who had been sealing since 1826 and were to be the 1st pioneers of Bass Strait whaling and the founding of Port Fairy - but unlike Dutton did not take an aboriginal “wife”.
  • the start of whaling in Bass Strait and Portland
    • in May 1831, John Mills shipped on the Henry under Capt Young, on the 1st whaling party out of Launceston, although with only harvesting 50 tons of whale oil it barely paid for costs.
    • in Dec 1831, John Mills transferred to the Elizabeth, newly commissioned under Capt John Hart, the owner, John Griffiths was also a passenger. They landed in Portland Bay that month and reported a boat crew who had landed a year earlier (and perhaps included Jon's brother Charles Mills), had procured 400 seal skins. Ten thousand wallaby skins from Kangaroo Island and Spencer Gulf coastline (including to where Adelaide now stands), which, along with 25 tons of salt collected at Hogg Bay, and 50 tons of whale oil made this ans subsequent voyages in summers of 1832 and 1833 profitable.
    • in early 1832, Capt Griffiths asked Capt Alex Campbell to take charge of the whaling station established at Portland Bay.
    • on 2nd April 1834, Charles Mills accompanied Capt Dutton on the smaller Henry to Portland, while John Mills shipped with Capt Young on the Socrates leaving Launceston 10 days later.
    • Edward Henty landed in Portland on 19th Nov 1834
    • John and Charles Mills, built simple huts on Griffiths Island which stands at the mouth of the Moyne River
    • John Mills preferred the large deep sea ships (and in 1839-43 was to embark on deep sea whaling), while Charles was a master of the harpoon and small whaleboat and suffered sea sickness on larger decked vessels so settled as a farmer in Port Fairy in the late 1830's, although both had been involved in whaling in Portland by 1833, and in the off season, 'barking' such as their wattle barking expedition to Westernport Bay in 1835.
    • in 1835, John Mills went on a Sperm whale voyage off the coast of New Zealand as First Mate to Capt. Alexander Campbell (after whom Port Campbell at the Twelve Apostles is named). John's brother, Charles Mills stayed in Portland in 1835, second in command to Griffith at the whaling station and worked for the Henty brothers who had just arrived in Portland & soon built their own whaling station, making 4 rival stations there in 1837.
  • 1836: whaling station established in Port Fairy and the start of a township and agriculture
    • Griffiths set up a whaling station on Griffith Island in Port Fairy in 1836 and made John Mills his right hand man.
    • in 1836, John Mills, now a respected captain, argued for the protection of cow and calf whales to ensure their survival, but the Capt Campbell and big whaling companies refused his argument and the Southern Right Whale was nearly exterminated. John also transported sheep to Port Fairy for John Griffiths in 1836, and in 1837 married
    • in 1839, John Cox opened a general store in port Fairy.
    • By 1840, there were some 100 people living in Port Fairy at the height of the whaling season and in April 1840, Charles Mills brought his wife and child to settle in Port Fairy where he had become the pioneer farmer on “The Farm” of Alex Campbell and John Griffiths in 1836, and built his cottage at 40 Gipps St in 1840-41.
    • Archdeacon Braim, the 1st incumbent of St Johns Church, founded the first school in Port Fairy
    • John Lucas was a bootmaker of McArthur, who was born in north Tasmania and was another of the direct descendants of First Fleet convicts Nathaniel LUCAS and his wife Olivia Gascgoyne, as was Charles MILLS' wife Olivia WILLIAMS. The schooner Olivia was the 1st built and launched in Tasmania. It is likely that a Thomas Osborne, the 1st newspaper proprietor and founder of the Port Fairy Gazette, 1st parliamentarian of the district and buried in Port Fairy cemetery was the son of First Fleeters Thomas and Elizabeth Osborne.
  • “war” against the Aborigines (1837-c1855):
    • an extremely sad part of the white colonisation of Australia was the widespread adverse impacts on the indigenous peoples as they were displaced from their most valued lands and violence was only to be expected as they attempted to fight back for their lifestyle and land.
    • long before the Europeans arrived, the Port Fairy region was inhabited by the Knarn Kolak Aborigines
    • inland pastoral expansion by the Henty's and others from 1837 onwards resulted in a fight for the land with the indigenous Aborigines who retaliated with guerilla-style warfare of raiding parties consisting of 100-150 men, raiding pastoral properties, stealing & killing sheep, cattle & horses and at the height in 1842 of the war, killing 4 European settlers. 
    • In 1847, an Aboriginal “guerilla” hideout in Mt Eccles was discovered and more than 30 were killed including their babies. In Port Fairy, 9 Aborigines were poisoned by arsenic-laced flour given out by pastoral station holders. But in the end it was diseases such as influenza & syphilis, the increasing white numbers and decreasing birth rates of the Aborigines that caused much of the decline in Aboriginal numbers while the introduction of Aborigines as “Native Police” was effective at ending this war in the 1850's. Thereafter, the attitude of the European settlers towards the Aborigines softened as their threat was diminished and they became valued for their labour which cost nothing, especially during the gold rushes of the late 1850's when labour was sometimes very scarce.
  • the end of free settlers taking up land
    • In 1843, radical changes took place in Port Fairy with Australia in a deep depression, Right whales becoming scarce & the Special Survey System introduced which was to affect Port Fairy life for decades. This System was a tool by the British Government devised to end the independence of illegally settled areas of Victoria. This forced the land to be bought in 8 sq. mile lots (5120 acres) at £1 an acre, meaning only rich men could have any chance of acquiring it. All of Port Fairy and a radius of several square miles was sold to James Atkinson, and another 8 sq. miles, including rich farming land around Tower Hill, went to William Rutledge including the best parts of 'The Farm'. This alienation of land, coupled with the depression, meant the financial ruin of John Griffith & most other Port Fairy entrepreneurs. Griffith closed the whaling station & went back to Van Diemen's Land.
  • RH Woodward (b.182, arrived Port Fairy 1841, became mayor in 1864) was an agent for and nephew of James Atkinson, and a Woodward child was among the 1st burials in Port Fairy.
  • in Feb 1844, there were 50 buildings in Port Fairy
  • John Ritchie established his 26,000 acre Aringa station, one of the earliest runs in Victoria
  • Charles Mills' pioneering farm and Woodbine
    • in Aug. 1843, Charles Mills took up a grazing licence on one square mile “Port Fairy Flats” which he renamed “Picaninny Peaks”, and then later “Lagoon Farm”, on which he had already worked for several years while still living in Gipps st cottage.
    • in 1846, the govt extended his licence for 1 year but in March 1846, Charles' farm was devastated by major fires in the region which resulted in heavy financial losses of 400 pounds which would have been enough to allow him to purchase the land.
    • In 1846, his sister Eliza & her husband, my great, great, grandfather, the ex-convict James Glare, came from Launceston to join Charles on his farm.
    • in 1847, his grazing licence was terminated and the govt sold the land to Atkinson in Feb 1847 for 1 pound per acre, who then graciously leased 416 acres of it back to Mills on a 30yr lease as of March 1847 at a nominal one shilling pa for 1st 5yrs in recognition of improvements made, then the standard one bushel wheat (52 pounds) pa thereafter.
    • Charles sub-let half to James Glare (although unfortunately the boundaries in this sub-lease were for the whole 416 acres creating legal issues on Charles' death) and allowed Charles to have confidence in 1848-9 to build a double story house with 21“ thick limestone walls on basalt foundations, while is brother John and his family had also moved into Gipps St cottage in late 1843.
      • James built his 'Glare's bluestone bridge' on his northern 'half' (which in 1854, if named as Woodbine) near a house he built for his family, although Atkinson had made Charles reduce the sub-lease to James to only 14 years. Later, when the whole property again came under one ownership, Charle's house also became known as Woodbine.
  • Under the direction of Atkinson & Rutledge financial empires, the town became a trading port for the expanding pastoral & agricultural interests of the surrounding area. Capt. John Mills became master of one of these trading vessels, the “Essington”, and so brought his family across to Port Fairy to live.
  • in 1851, the area was saved from the Black Thursday bushfires descending upon them by a timely southerly wind change
  • in 1852, John Mills' Essington struck its anchors and sprang a leak & had to be beached with considerable financial loss to Mills who then took up the appointment of harbour master of Port Fairy from 1853 to his retirement in 1871.
  • Port Fairy cemetery
    • 35 were born before settlement in 1836 including:
      • Greene ATKINSON (d. 1868 aged 82yrs)
      • Clara ATKINSON (d. 1873 aged 51yrs) wife of John Henry ATKINSON (chemist)
      • Gloria ANDREWS (d. 1855 aged 55yrs), Elizabeth ANDREWS (d. 1870 aged 59yrs)
      • George DIGBY (d, 1875 aged 45yrs) who had come from Portland area
      • Eliza Sophia GLARE
      • Charles Frederick MILLS (d. 1855 aged 43yrs)
      • John Brabyn MILLS (d. 1861 aged 20yrs)
      • James George Pyrmont MILLS (d. 1865 aged 11yrs)
      • Thomas Hamilton OSBORNE (d. 1853 aged 47yrs) and his wife Eliza OSBORNE (d. 1885 aged 63yrs)
      • Robert PIERCE (d. 1854 aged 56yrs) and Elizabeth PIERCE (d. 1869 aged 60yrs)
      • John RITCHIE of Aringa (b. 1801, d. 1887)
    • as expected, the most common ages of death: age < 5yrs, men aged 40-60yrs and then women in childbearing years (although ratio of men to women was quite high)
    • the years with highest death rates were 1853-1855, especially May/June 1854, and 1859, 1862 and 1870
history/h_aust_vic_whalers.txt · Last modified: 2021/10/13 08:04 by gary1

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