After Cook's tragic death in the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands, Captain George Vancouver, erstwhile midshipman on Cook's Resolution (second voyage), had been appointed to continue his work in mapping the coast of northwestern North America. Vancouver's ship sighted New Zealand on November 2, 1791, putting into Dusky Sound with both ships of his expedition. The Italian scientist, Alessandro Malaspina, in command of a Spanish expedition, attempted to make a call at Dusky Sound on February 25, 1793, but bad weather forced him to put to sea again without entering the fiord. These voyages served to make New Zealand still better known.
Between the visits of Vancouver and Malaspina, Dusky Sound became the site of the first European attempt at commercial exploitation of South Island's resources. Cook's journals had described the great seal population there, and his accurate charts made navigation of the narrow channels less hazardous. It was in Dusky Sound, in November of 1792, that the first sealing party anchored. This was to be the real beginning of a series of steps by which sealers, "flax" gatherers, whalers, pastoralists, agriculturists, and gold miners explored, exploited, and settled South Island. Before discussing the initial sealing party in more detail, however, it will be useful to review some general features of New Zealand's position in the antipodean world at the turn of the century.
Cook's journals had publicized not only the seals but also the flax (Phormium tenax) and the excellent timber of northern North Island. In three of the schemes for the settlement of New South Wales (then southeastern New Holland) proposed between 1783 and 1786 this flax was mentioned. Phillip, the first governor of New South Wales, suggested in 1787 that the flax should be imported to that colony from New Zealand. When a settlement, based on New South Wales, was established on Norfolk Island in 1788, it was found that Phormium grew there too but that there were no natives with skill in working it. A first attempt to kidnap two Maori for the purpose in 1792 failed, but the captain of the ship involved in the try became, incidentally, the first whaler off the New Zealand coasts. It was a returning ship of Vancouver's expedition which finally succeeded in the abduction of Maori from New Zealand for this purpose. The search for timber began in 1794 with the visit of the brig Fancy to collect a load of flax and spars in the valley of the Thames River, to the east of the present site of Auckland; two more ships followed in 1801. The raw material for buildings, as well as that for canvas and rope, was in great demand across the Tasman Sea, the "white pine," or kahikatea, being the earliest timber exploited (the more famous thick-boled kauri did not become a staple until 1820).
Also mainly associated with North Island, but important to the eventual southern settlements, was deep-sea whaling. The first recorded in Australasian waters, in 1791, was undertaken by a fleet of ten transports, some of which were ordinary whalers bound for the western coasts of the Americas after dumping their convict cargoes at Port Phillip ( Melbourne). They were satisfied with the first month's fishing in the Tasman Sea, but then, feeling that the weather was becoming too difficult, they left for their original goal. Not until 1798, when rumor reported three Spanish cruisers off Cape Horn as a repercussion of the European war, did three more whalers appear. In the next half century they were followed by increasing numbers which divided their attentions between deep-sea and shore whaling, the latter of much the greater significance to South Island. McNab reports these whalers to have been a cosmopolitan group, two of the eight ships recorded in 1805 having come from New Bedford, Massachusetts.