Letters from a Whaler in the South Seas

I spotted an auction on eBay that got me thinking.  The auction is for two letters from an American whaler writing back home about his experiences in the South Pacific.

“I am in the ship Beaver of Hudson, cruising on the coast off New Zealand. Our luck has been poor. 200 barrels sperm [whale oil]…. Ships are crowding in from every quarter of the globe….”

Early 19th century whalers played a key role in New Zealand’s early history.  The first towns were built to service their needs in both the South and North Islands, they were some of the first Europeans to settle here and they were some of the first to form relationships with local Māori.

I’ve only done a little research on whaling, sourcing some images for a television documentary on an archaeological dig.  But I’ve never really had the chance to get my teeth stuck into learning more about what life was like for the crew of those early whalers.  It is something I’d love to do more research on one day.

Many Australians and Māori signed up as crew but a large number also came from Europe and North America.  The history of whaling was a global story, one that New Zealand played a part in.

That is what got me thinking.  How fascinating it would be to do a thorough search of collections in the United States for first hand accounts from whalers that visited these shores.  I wonder how much correspondence and diaries from early whalers might be in private hands, or small town museums, university libraries and other archives.  It is an exciting time to be researching history – with collections slowly becoming digitized and new resources being discovered or rediscovered.

Over the years as a researcher I’ve often made an effort to look for New Zealand related material in overseas collections.  It is incredible where items can turn up.  Also as a collector I often keep an eye out for New Zealand related items from international sellers, such as photographs taken by early tourists.  Sadly auctions like this one are well beyond my means.  I just hope that whoever purchases it makes it available online, so that researchers the world over can have access to it.

If any North Americans are reading this and have come across letters from whalers in the South Seas then please get in touch.  I’m familiar with many of the larger American libraries but I’d love to keep a list of any lesser known collections that hold items related to the subject.

I’ll post more on whaling another day; there are some fascinating stories from those times.  Now back to browsing more auctions I can’t afford…

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