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William Morris the Whaler

Whaling near the Cape Coast

Irishman William Morris, the earliest European settler in Hawke’s Bay, established a shore whaling station at Whakaari near Tangoio in 1841 and then at Rangaika on the southern side of Cape Kidnappers in 1845.

By 1840 there were up to 1000 whalers in New Zealand doing a thriving business. Whaling began in Gisborne in 1837 and within a decade there were 17 boats in Hawke’s Bay, mainly concentrated around Mahia. Other than whalers the only other permanent residents were missionaries William and Elizabeth Colenso who arrived in 1844 and Scotsman Alexander Alexander who opened the first of several Hawke’s Bay trading post at Ahuriri (Napier) in 1846. William Morris lived with his Maori wife Puihi Te Umutapu and along with brother-in-law Nepia Tokotahi operated three boats and hired 20 mainly local Maori men at Tangoio and later at Rangaika. Colenso met Morris, known as Morete to local Maori, at Rangaika where he lived “closer to the Maori than any other European in the district”. The two developed a life-long friendship. When the shore whalers had difficulty hauling their catch around Cape Kidnappers to their main stations they established short term stations for months at a time at Clifton and Te Awanga.

Hawke’s Bay stations were heavily dependent on Maori labour. Many went on to become boat steerers and headsman, some set up their own operations and a number purchased their own schooners and were active in coastal trading.

William Morris portrait

Fee for whale rights At Rangaika, Morris paid an annual fee of five pounds for whaling, fishing and occupation rights to Tiakitai, who was patron of his whaling station. In return he and his Ngati Hawea and Ngati Kurukuru hapu at Waimarama gained access to goods, trading opportunities and paid work.

Tiakitai, who had been the original seller of the Cape Coast land to W.B Rhodes, was known within the local whaling community as Jacky Tie and had his own whaleboat which he used for shore whaling and trading. Tiakitai lost his life in September 1847 when his boat capsized in rough seas off the Mohaka Coast on the way to marriage of his son Te Teira Tiakitai.

Following that tragedy in which 20 men lost their lives, Morris paid his fees for the right to his whaling operation at Rangaika to Kurupo Te Moananui. Morris had a contract with Captain Salmon of the cutter Fisherman and Captain McFarlane of the schooner Aurora to take whale oil back to Auckland. This was paid for in goods and sovereigns. His money was kept in pickle bottles, 100 sovereigns in each, which he buried for safekeeping. The rocky entrance to the horseshoe shaped bay at Rangaika required skill to navigate. The whalers had to be fit and fearless. Morris was described as “one of the most fearless men who ever went out” and had lost an eye through a harpooning accident. He once spotted a dark object in the water and ordered his brother in law Nepia Tokitahi to harpoon it. Despite being told that the object in question was a rock, Morris insisted. The rock was subsequently dubbed ‘Tokitia’ (striking the axe). Friends and relatives teased Morris about the incident for the rest of his life.

Like other whalers, Morris supplemented his income by trading not only whale oil and whalebone, but pigs, flax and corn. He left Rangaika in 1848 opting for full time trading and farming at Wherowhero (near Gisborne). Colenso correspondence After Morris left the district, he and Colenso corresponded frequently. In one 1852 letter, Colenso associated the view of the Cape from his Napier cottage with memories of his old neighbour: “I scarcely ever walk in my verandah and look toward the Cape but I think of you. That Cape and yourself somehow seem as if linked in my mind. Perhaps it is owing to you being our nearest white neighbour during the first years of your residence there.”

In the same letter, Colenso expressed his concern on hearing Morris had opened a public house: “I would rather you follow anything else than grog-selling” and wrote of his fears that Maori were continuing to sell off their land at an unsustainable rate.

When urgent business called Morris to Napier, he preferred to make the journey on his white horse, ‘Copenhagen’, which became as well-known as he was. He leased land for sheep farming near Wairoa and at Tangoio in 1867 before going into business at The Spit (Ahuriri), Napier, where he ran a store until his death in July 1882.

By 1860 large scale whaling had ceased and the last remaining smaller operations would disappear by the 1880s. The golden era was over and the whaling business was in rapid decline. The whalers, through their ruthless methods had undermined their own future.

In 1925, evidence of one of the whaling stations was excavated from the sand for closer inspection by two young Hastings residents N. Murton and S.W Baldwin. The metre high and metre wide try pots had been known abd a small shore-based station at Putotaranui between Ocean beach and Waimarama in the early 1850s.

Whale oil was heated in the pots and apparently drained off into a 400-gallon square tank, the remains of which was also visible in the 1920s. Lower down the beach, on a papa shelf, were the remains of a bollard and its equipment, used to drag the whale and whaling boats up the beach. Between the pots were the remains of several crude homes built from stone slabs.

Evidence remained for many years of two large derelict whaleboats pulled up near the beach at Te Awanga, apparently abandoned by the whalers.

The try pots were still visible along the coast in 1938. Then, in 1999, two of the three pots were airlifted from Rangaika to their new home in front of the newly opened Clifton Café.

Try Pots found on Clifton Beach
Try Pot outside Clifton Cafe

Sources: Jock Phillips. 'Whaling', Te Ara, Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 12-Oct-15, Angela Ballara. 'Tiakitai', DNZB, 30-Oct-2012 Historical Poverty Bay and the east Coast, Joseph Angus Mackay, Mackay, 1949, Gisborne, p.151. Personal letters of William Colenso transcribed by Ian St George, 1852 October 14: to W. Morris Ronga-ika, the old whaling station at Cape Kidnappers by Horance C. Cottrell, Trypots unearthed at Ronga-iki, published in Everybody’s Weekly News, Christmas 1925 Hawke’s Bay Today, Saturday 24 July, 1999. Wright, A. N. (2002). William Morris daybook: Life in early Port Ahuriri. Private Publisher NZ. Wright, A. N. (n.d.). Kaumatua: The life of William Te Pere Morris. Private Publisher NZ.

Photographs: Hawke’s Bay MTG Archives, Keith Newman and Wright


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