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Whaling WELLERs and Moby Dick

Australia & New Zealand


Weller Connected
Newcastle Herald

Saturday January 5, 2008

Mike Scanlon

CRUEL, unnecessary, barbaric. These are some of the words used to describe the impending slaughter of 1000 whales this year by Japan in the Southern Ocean sanctuary.

But the closest most of us might come to whale hunting today is scenic whale watching out of Port Stephens, or reading the 19th century classic Moby Dick.

Penned in 1851 by Herman Melville, it's a parable of fatal obsession set on board a timber whaling ship. Its crazed captain, Ahab, is hell-bent on revenge on a battle-scarred albino whale called Moby Dick.

Moby Dick was filmed most famously in 1956 with Hollywood star Gregory Peck as the obsessed Captain Ahab. Peck then appeared in a cameo as whaling preacher Father Mapple in a TV mini-series remake, filmed in Australia in 1997.

The famous book is driven by an encyclopedic knowledge of whaling and whalemen. Among the cast of characters is the tattooed Queequeg, a big Polynesian harpooner who carries a shrunken head about with him for sale. As well, there was a real Moby Dick.

The real white whale's name was Mocha Dick; a scarred rogue sperm whale some 30 metres long and known to chase rowboats, drown sailors and batter merchant ships.

When finally killed off Brazil, the legendary fighting whale carried 20 rusty harpoons in his blubber.

Melville knew what he was writing about, intimately, having once shipped as a seaman aboard whalers roaming the South Seas.

Melville deserted in Tahiti, though, on his second whaling voyage in the Sydney barque Lucy Ann. This later featured as the ship Julia in his early semi-autobiographical novel, Omoo.

So, it's a bit of a surprise to suddenly find a link between Moby Dick's famous creator and three brothers with strong Hunter Valley links.

The Weller brothers George, Edward and Joseph Brooks Weller helped pioneer the whaling trade in southern New Zealand, and the ship Melville once worked on in 1842, the Lucy Ann, had been the mainstay of the Weller whaling fleet out of Otago, near present Dunedin, only seven months before.

Today, the Wellers' story of their whaling adventures is almost forgotten in Australia, according to their Lake Macquarie biographer, Peter Murray.

And yet, these Maitland landowners are still associated with the first European settlement of New Zealand's South (or middle) Island.

"They were go-getters, no doubt about that," Murray said this week.

"I first came across the Weller name doing other research.

"It was just a chance thing and it was then only little bits of the tale, but they proved fascinating."

A retired teacher, researcher and oral historian, Murray spent more than a year piecing together the extraordinary story of the enterprising Weller brothers, their place in New Zealand history and even their old ship link with Moby Dick's creator.

His exhaustively researched book, The Wellermen, reveals the life and times of the remarkable merchant adventurers who went from boom to bust through a tough, unregulated era of early 19th century history.

As Murray concludes in his 2004 local studies book: "Their values embody the best and worst of these times energy, purpose and personal courage, balanced by acquisitiveness, with little regard for consequences.

"Their fame declined with their material fortune. For five decades after leaving New Zealand in 1840, the family seems to have paid for their financial errors and excesses of the 1830s."

Brother George, who ran the Sydney end of the family whaling business, is buried at East Maitland, but J.B. Weller's grave in Sydney's Sandhills Cemetery disappeared when Central Railway Station was developed there.

Edward Weller is buried at West Maitland. He died just four months short of his 79th birthday, trapped in the ceiling of his house where he'd sought refuge during the devastating 1893 Maitland flood. He'd been only 26 years when he left Otago, never to return.

Murray said that his book's title, The Wellermen, came from a sea shanty of the 1830s or 1840s. It told of the Weller brothers who ran their whaling station in Otago from 1831 to 1840.

But by 1841, surviving brothers Edward and George Weller, feeling the effects of an economic depression in the colony of NSW, began selling off assets. Whales were in decline and they'd lost two ships before their firm went bankrupt. The main ship of the Wellers' whaling fleet, the Lucy Ann, was sold to new owners in August 1841.

By October, the Wellers had also advertised two of their Newcastle grants for sale in a desperate attempt to pay off their creditors.

Edward and George Weller were co-claimants to more than 4 million acres of New Zealand land which could have been sold off to future British immigrants.

Their late brother, Joseph Brooks Weller, in 1831 was also said to have bought three islands, including the whole of NZ's Stewart Island, plus almost half a million acres on New Zealand's North Island as well.

But like most such claims by European speculators, all of the Wellers' applications were rejected.

An early sad episode of the Otago whaling venture was the death of J.B. Weller, aged only 33 years, of consumption (tuberculosis). It hit the family "like a thunderbolt" in 1835. The melancholy news was compounded by his body being shipped back to Sydney preserved in a barrel of rum. The reason given was that there was no consecrated ground in New Zealand for a proper burial.

J.B. Weller, it seems, was the brains behind the bold and ambitious "bay whaling" venture in New Zealand and its expansion.

He raised the initial cash outlay for the Otago (Otakou) station by mortgaging his Newcastle property called Wellersley. This consisted of 1200 acres on Hunter's River bordering Hexham Swamp.

Today, this former grant takes in much of the present-day suburbs of Birmingham Gardens and parts of Shortland.

J.B. Weller also appears to have been the courageous Mr Weller who was repeatedly struck when 500 Maoris ransacked the Wellers' Otago base in 1834.

Only Weller's stern warning that a chief's son in Sydney would be hanged in retaliation apparently prevented wholesale murder of the whalers.

Author Murray records that a fire once destroyed the family's Otago whaling station, but that it was soon rebuilt, and that Edward Weller was captured at age 18 in New Zealand's North Island and later ransomed.

Race relations with the Maoris seems to have been frequently tense, possibly because many natives had no respect for the rough, drunk, violent whalermen, most of whom seem to have earlier been the scum of Port Jackson. Often recruited from the ranks of brutalised former convicts, the whalers were a courageous, if reckless and daring, lot of mariners. Many of the whalemen along the coast were paid in rum, if not at all, which might explain many being drunkards.

Whaling was of prime importance back in Sydney. As late as 1833, whaling was seen as the main export industry of NSW not wool or coal cargoes.

But why? Besides the need for whale products for lamps, in soap and for dinner table candles, there was a great demand in the early 1800s by women for corset stays, umbrella frames and dress hoops using the elastic baleen plates from the jaws of whales.

And these were products hard won. Besides the remote New Zealand locations and daily risk of death, the whales first had to be herded into the narrow inlets, then lanced from small whaleboats before waiting for the huge, enraged mammals to expire, vomiting up clotted blood in red geysers.

And if killed offshore, the crews could expect to tow the enormous carcasses up to 14 hours back to shore to be cut up and the blubber melted down.

A final epitaph to the grisly, once profitable whaling trade, came when the centenary of European settlement at Otago was celebrated in October 1931.

It was held in the twilight of British imperial ambitions with the then Dunedin mayor waxing lyrical about his region's pioneering Weller brothers, describing them as "traders and gentlemen, the type to whom the British Empire owes its foundation".

Other related content: The Wellers who emigrated to Australia and New Zealand., WELLER Brothers. Traders, merchants, shore whalers, and land speculators., Wellers whaling Station (1831-1839),

People related to this content: Edward Weller (Born:1814-07-06), George Weller (Born:1805-12-26), Joseph Brooks Weller (Born:1802-08-01),

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