Hard Men #5: Van Diemonian Sea-Wolves
Sealers and Whalers 1800-1850
Van Diemonian Sea-Wolves
1. Conventional criticism
The sealers along the southern coast of Australia in the first half of the nineteenth century have a bad reputation. They have been portrayed as "rude, rough, wife-snatching" brutes, "wreckers, pirates, freebooters, slave-drivers, murderers, rum-swillers, sea-wolves, and sea-rats -- ragged drunken beasts" [Leslie Norman, 1946, Sea Wolves and Bandits, Hobart]. This negative and still quite current view is largely consistent with contemporary accounts.
W. Stewart, Letter to the colonial secretary, HRA, series 3, volume 2, 575-576
"There is a custom...of whale boats from 25 to 30 feet long, who clear out from the Derwent [Hobart] or Port Dalrymple [Launceston] each with two or three people on board, and after their departure amount to six or seven in number, then go equipped with arms and dogs to hunt for their living, and save the kangaroo skins as well as what seal skins they can; the elephant [seal] they kill and destroy for their tongues...The people are banditti of bushrangers and others who are carried...after committing robberies and depredations on the industrious settlers and depriving them of their arms, dogs, boats and other property...they encourage men belonging to vessels to desert and leave them in distress...and likewise to rob and plunder them."
Sydney Gazette, April 5, 1817, describing Captain Hammond's meeting with European men and Aboriginal women living in a "curious state of independence" on Kangaroo Island.
"They are complete savages, living in bark huts like the natives, not cultivating anything, but living entirely on kangaroos, emus, and small porcupines, and getting spirits and tobacco in barter for the skins which they capture during the sealing season. They dress in kangaroo skin without linen and wear sandals made of seal skin. They smell like foxes."
[John Boultbee, who stayed with the sealer James Munro on Preservation Island, VDL, in September 1824, writes that the women were "clothed in a kind of jackets made of kangaroo skins" and that the men's "general appearance is semi-barbarous...They wear a kangaroo skin coat, caps of the same and moccasins (a kind of sandal fastened with thongs of hide)."]
Sydney Gazette, December 2, 1824, reporting evidence given to the Bigge Inquiry by Hobart Harbour Master James Kelly on the Bass Strait sealing industry.
"...they are sometimes allowed to clear out in boats of their own and sometimes in boats that are called the property of individuals resident in Van Diemen's Land. They generally take convicts in as they go down the Harbour, and proceed to the Islands where they subsist on kangaroo, wombat and emu. They also seduce the native women and have children by them, and instances have occurred of their purchasing them off their husbands in exchange for carcases of seals after they have taken their skins off. They likewise sometimes carry them off by force and employ them in hunting kangaroos for their skins, and also in killing seals, at which the women are very expert. Vessels passing to this Port and Dalrymple, knowing the men are there, take the sealskins off them as they pass, paying them slop clothing and spirits."
Hobart Town Gazette, February 18, 1826, from a source believed to be James Holland, escaped prisoner, who visited Phillip Island and Westernport Bay in 1825 on the sloop Caledonia.
"Western Port, in the centre of the sealing ground, [is] one unvaried scene of verdure and fertility, equal in beauty to an English park, finely watered, and abounding with game of all descriptions. There are numerous fine bays and a large salt marsh, all covered with swan and other birds. The natives are harmless, but were provoked by some sealers while he was there to kill four men, and severely wound a fifth. George Johnson, a black, was drowned, and a boat lost in a gale, which had belonged to a party that had a little before robbed Mr. Meredith of a number of sheep. The bird on which the sealers chiefly subsist is a dark brown colour, clothed with down, has a hooked bill, and is of the size of a half grown duck, webfooted, with a small spur on the heel...The sealers knock the birds down with sticks on their return to their holes at night. They have the flavour of coarse mutton, with oily fat adhering to the skin, like that of a goose. In May, both old and young betake themselves to sea until September following, but the sealers usually salt down sufficient to subsist on during their absence."
Hobart Town Gazette, June 17, 1826, from a source believed to be the wily and highly dubious James Smith, owner and master of the prisoner smuggling and spirits selling sloop Caledonia.
"[On] Kangaroo Island...A bay called the Bay Of Shoals...is resorted to by the fishermen on account of a salt lagoon, or sea pool, which when dried up after the rainy season, is filled with excellent salt to the depth of 5 or 6 inches. Near it is a lake of fresh water, both being situated about 2 miles from the beach, which distance the productions are carried on the back to the boats. This, as well as every other labour, is performed by the native women, whom these unprincipled men carry off from the main[land], and compel to hunt, work and fish, and do every other menial service, while they themselves sit on the beach, smoke, drink, and sleep by turns, occasionally rousing to kill a young seal while basking on the sunny beach. This food, though far from palatable, is all that their indolence will in general allow them to procure, and they sometimes salt it down for future store. It is much to be lamented that so debased a specimen of the Christian race as these men, should be the first to give an impression to the natives, who are there very numerous, and of a superior cast to those here and at Sydney. They live in regular villages, and are all clothed with a cloak made of skins and stitched together and ornamented, and though like all other savages addicted to stealing, are nevertheless friendly and hospitable."
[Note: Firstly, Smith is giving the Gazette readers (a free settler elite) exactly what they want to hear. Secondly, he is deflecting their attention away from his own character (arrested and his vessel confiscated earlier in the year). Thirdly, he is careless with the facts, trusting in the colonists' ignorance of these then unknown shores (Kangaroo Island was not inhabited by Aborigines before the sealers' arrival)].
2. Contrasting 'civilisation'
Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) received 70,000 convicts over the period, half of those transported from Britain to New Holland (Australia). Until 1824, when the reign of penal terror began under Lieutenant Governor George Arthur, the island was virtually a prison without walls. But from then on the circumstances of all transportees -- whether still under sentence, assigned as servants to non-government employers, in receipt of their ticket of leave after serving seven years of their sentence, or emancipated convicts with a certificate of pardon -- rapidly deteriorated. The threat of being swept back into the system of punishment, often for minor civil or criminal infringements, became very real. By any measure of rationalism, those who ventured out into the maritime wilderness, beyond the reach of governmental authority, were making a decision in their own best interest.
Arthur to Horton, Letter, 14 September 1825, HRA 3/4: 366-371
"I am beset with difficulties and quite at my wits end...The convicts have too much liberty and great evils result from it...if my hands are strengthened, I hope to make transportation a punishment which, at present, it certainly is not."
[Note: His hand was strengthened in 1826 when the 40th Regiment, with 607 rank-and-file soldiers, was posted to Van Diemen's Land.]
Unknown correspondent to Meredith, Letter, 31 August 1826, AOT, NSA 123/1
"...the chain gang is one of the best things that has ever been projected in this reign, never were men better worked, better flogd and better managed than they are in a gang."
[Note: As further evidence of the governor's resolve, there were 103 public hangings in 1826/27 alone, against a total of 260 during his twelve year tenure of office.]
James Boyce, 2008, Van Diemen's Land, Black Inc, Melbourne, pp. 171-173
"Even Arthur thought the chain gangs as 'severe a punishment as may well be inflicted on any man'. The aim was to break the source of convict resistance, with, as the lieutenant governor informed London in 1833, 'idleness or insolence of expression or even looks, anything betraying the insurgent spirit' leading 'to the chain-gang or the triangle or to hard labour on the roads'...At the executive council meeting of 28 January 1833, Arthur reported that the English parliament wanted 'to convince criminals in England that the mere fact of being transported to the colonies will by no means operate as an extinction of of their crimes but that they are to expect on their arrival here a life of slavery and privation.' To this end, resources would be concentrated at Port Arthur, where convicts could more 'easily be secured, classified, and put to work suitable to their strength and the degree of punishment it is intended to inflict upon each'...Nearly one in six convicts would spend some time there, and even those who never saw the empire's largest gaol were greatly affected by it...the threat it posed...compelling subservience of the unfree labour force of Van Diemen's Land."
[Note: "By 1834, 14 per cent of male convicts were on road gangs, 6 per cent were in irons, and 7 per cent were at the newly built Port Arthur..."]
Henry Reynolds, 2012, A History of Tasmania, Cambridge University Press, Port Melbourne, pp.153-154
"The young settler George Russell recalled that when he was living near Bothwell he 'had a wish to see a man flogged', so he went to the local gaol one morning where a convict was to receive 25 lashes...the victim 'was tied up to a triangle, which consisted of three poles stuck into the ground and fastened at the top. The man's legs and arms were tied to two of the poles so that he could not move; his back was laid bare to the waist; and the flagellator stood ready with his cat-o'-nine tails...the punishment seemed to be very severe. Each stroke changed the colour of the man's back, and when he had received twenty five lashes his back was almost black, or like the colour of raw meat; but his skin was not broken. He never moved a muscle, but kept chewing a piece of tobacco or something else which he had in his mouth.' Every flogging was a dramatic exhibition of the fierce force of the law designed to humiliate and humble the victim. But as in the flogging Russell witnessed, the convicts often displayed their strength of will by not giving the authorities the pleasure of hearing the sounds of submission or pleas for mercy."
[Note: "In 1836 there were over 14000 male convicts in the colony outside the penal settlements. Of these, 9 per cent were flogged; the average number of lashes was 30. At Port Arthur there were over 900 prisoners, 11 per cent of whom were whipped; the average number of strokes was 42. At the Port Puer boys' prison there were 249 inmates. Over 40 per cent of them were flogged with the average punishment of 15 strokes."]