Māori Iwi, Quaker Whalers, and Missionaries at the Bay of Islands in Aotearoa/New Zealand (1790–1840)

Among the many records of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) held in the Cadbury Research Library at the University of Birmingham are minutes of a meeting of the CMS committee in London. At this meeting on 9 August 1819 the committee learned from a letter sent by the missionary Thomas Kendall that several whaling captains who had anchored in the Bay of Islands in Aotearoa/New Zealand ‘had been very kind to him and his colleagues’. The ‘Officers of the above ships’, Kendall continued, ‘conducted themselves towards them and the Natives in a most friendly manner; and parties of Sailors attended Divine Service, on the Sunday, when the weather would permit’, including one ‘Captain Swaine of the INDIAN’, a whaling ship.1

This at first sight unremarkable and convoluted letter needs untangling, however, and a scholarship from the GHIL gave me the chance. Suddenly, a whole world of socio-economic interactions between whaling captains with a Quaker background and Māori Iwi in the early nineteenth century opened up, and this is at the heart of my Ph.D. project. Based on the experiences of the Swain and Starbuck whaling families, my research aims to reconstruct the entanglements of Quaker whalers with the Māori Iwi in the Pacific Ocean. It will ask what practices changed or remained throughout the centuries, and to what extent Quaker tenets came into play in the whaling industry. The Swain family provides an exemplary entry point.

Throughout the 1820s and 1830s, Captain Swain and other members of the Swain family featured frequently in letters and journals of Missionaries based at the Bay of Islands. They also featured in the accounts of the mission station store because they traded with the local Māori for refreshments, attended church services, provided the missionaries with supplies, traded whale oil, and carried correspondence between the mission station and the CMS office in London. Yet who were the Swain captains? To answer this question, they must be situated within the transoceanic whaling industry—one of the crucial contributors to the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The growing cities of the Atlantic World required whale oil as an important lubricant and a fuel for lighting. In the colonial settler ports along the coasts of New England, such as Nantucket and New Bedford, Quaker families were dominant players in this maritime extraction industry from the late seventeenth century onwards. This industry’s economic success, however, was built on slave labour and practices such as debt peonage and indentured servitude among Native American communities.2 While families such as the Swains and Starbucks in Nantucket benefited economically from these practices, which were common in the whaling industry, there were dissenting voices. As a result, Quakers engaged in a long discourse about the proper treatment of enslaved people, Native Americans, and African Americans at their regular meetings.

The American Wars of Independence (1775–83) divided the Quaker community, and between 1785 and 1815 many Quakers migrated to Nova Scotia in today’s Canada, Dunkirk in France, Milford Haven in Wales, and London. They were able to stay in touch with their fellow Quakers in a translocal community, and began to look for new whaling grounds as far away as the Pacific Ocean.

When the British Colonial Office established a penal colony in New South Wales in 1788, the (maritime) spaces of neighbouring Aotearoa/New Zealand quickly attracted the attention of various players with commercial and religious interests. In 1793, Philip King, lieutenant-governor of Norfolk Island, had Tuki Tahua and Huru Kokoti, Māori from the Cavalli Islands, New Zealand, kidnapped and taken to Norfolk Island to teach the penal convicts how to work the flax which they were attempting to cultivate there.3 In the same year, Captain Eber Bunker, who had a Quaker background, first looked for whales near the islands of Aotearoa/New Zealand. It was not long before the first Māori – Teina, Ruatara, and Maatara – were employed on whaling ships. Ruatara was a nephew of Te Pahi, and Maatara was his son. This employment of Māori men on ships encouraged Te Pahi, a rangatira from the Bay of Islands, to visit Port Jackson, Sydney in 1805.4 Almost ten years later, at Christmas 1814, Samuel Marsden, a chaplain in New South Wales, brought in three missionary couples to the Bay of Islands under the patronage of the Māori rangatira Ruatara, Hongi Hika, and Koro Koro, in order to ‘excite the spirit of trade’ and ‘Christianity’ towards the Māori.5

Leading Māori rangatira actively forged contacts with whalers, missionaries, and Europeans in general as they sought to gain access to their goods, and guns in particular.6 Whaling ships, sailing across the Pacific, depended on making regular stops for provisions at ports and islands where they came into contact with local communities. Felix Schürmann describes this industry in the nineteenth century as a phenomenon of global entanglements7 which created maritime connections with peoples and places alike. These entanglements also involved sailors, for their working lives at sea were hardly comparable with land-based career patterns. In the early nineteenth century, members of the Swain and Starbuck families continued their voyages in the Pacific Ocean, and were seen regularly during their stopovers at the Bay of Islands.

Tim D. Smith, Randall R. Reeves, Elizabeth A. Josephson, and Judith N. Lund,Spatial and Seasonal Distribution of American Whaling and Whales in the Age of Sail’, PLOS ONE, 7/4 (2012), 12, accessed 10 Oct. 2022. Dark blue: sperm whales; red: right whales. Figure licensed under a CC BY 4.0 license. Port names and arrows added by Haureh Hussein.

It was at this time, finally, when whalers such as the Swain family, looking for whaling grounds throughout the vast Pacific Ocean, saw the enormous economic potential of the waters and coasts of Aotearoa/New Zealand. They drew on the abundance of whales and seals, on land-based resources such as wood for timber, food, and fresh water, and on the labour and knowledge of Māori men and women. Missionaries, however, saw whalers, runaway convicts, and traders at the Bay of Islands—whom they described as ‘agents of vice and fatal impact’8—as influences which compromised Māori communities as well as their own attempts at Christianization. This lays bare the complex web of religious, economic, and political considerations at play in a history of the whaling industry.

Using the Swain family as a case study of whaling captains with a Quaker background, my Ph.D. project explicitly aims to reconstruct and reveal their manifold interactions with Māori Iwi and other groups at the Bay of Islands. The scholarship I received from the GHIL made it possible for me to address this research question.


The featured image shows Kororareka, Bay of Islands as depicted in a sketch by Captain Clayton from 1845, printed in James Cowan, The New Zealand Wars: A History of the Maori Campaigns and the Pioneering Period, vol. i (Wellington, 1922), 9. Artwork in the public domain, photograph provided by Wikimedia Commons.



Cite this blog post
Haureh Hussein (2022, November 22). Māori Iwi, Quaker Whalers, and Missionaries at the Bay of Islands in Aotearoa/New Zealand (1790–1840). German Historical Institute London Blog. Retrieved June 18, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/p1qz

  1. Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham, CMS/G/C/4/155, CMS Committee Minutes, 9 Aug. 1819. []
  2. Daniel Vickers, ‘The First Whalemen of Nantucket’, William and Mary Quarterly,40/4 (1983), 560–83; Frances Ruley Karttunen, The Other Islanders: People who Pulled Nantucket’s Oars (New Bedford, Mass., 2005); Nancy Shoemaker, Native American Whalemen: Indigenous Encounters and the Contingency of Race (Chapel Hill, NC, 2015. []
  3. Anne Salmond, Between Worlds: Early Exchanges between Māori and Europeans, 1773–1815 (Auckland, 2018, 1st pub. 1997. []
  4. The Māori term ‘rangatira’ refers to an Indigenous person of ‘authority’ and is more appropriate than the English term ‘chief’. It will therefore be used in this blog post. See ‘rangatira’, in Te Aka Māori Dictionary, available online.], accessed 15 Sept. 2022. []
  5. Angela Middleton, ‘Mission Station as Trading Post: The Economy of the Church Missionary Society in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand’, New Zealand Journal of Archaeology,28 (2006) 51–81, at 53. []
  6. Tony Ballantyne, Entanglements of Empire: Missionaries, Māori, and the Question of the Body (Durham, N.C., 2014), 38. []
  7. Felix Schürmann, ‘Die Wale, ihre Jäger und der Strand von Annobón’, in Winfried Speitkamp and Stephanie Zehnle (eds.), Afrikanische Tierräume: Historische Verortungen (Cologne, 2014), 43–75, at 43; see also Felix Schürmann, Der graue Unterstrom: Walfänger und Küstengesellschaften an den tiefen Stränden Afrikas (1770–1920), (Frankfurt, 2017). []
  8. James Belich, Making Peoples: A History of the New Zealanders from Polynesian Settlement to the End of the Nineteenth Century (Auckland, 1996), 139. []

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Haureh Hussein

Haureh Hussein is Doctoral Researcher and Research Assistant in the DFG research project ‘Family Business: Creating a “Maritime Contact Zone” in the Colonial Anglo-World, 1790–1840’ at the Trier University. He studied history and political science at Trier and at the Catholic University Leuven in Belgium. He can be contacted via his blog: www.transoceanic.hypotheses.org/

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