The two decades following Cook's discovery and exploration had yielded little knowledge of the country inland from the coasts, but they had served to make these coasts well known. A steady intercourse with the Maori of North Island had begun for supplies, labor, and the gratification of sexual appetites. In the Bay of Islands on the North Auckland peninsula an unstable, rowdy settlement of Europeans grew up. Its reputation for lawlessness was to make the name of New Zealand synonymous with the outermost pale of civilization for many decades. To the south, European settlement was slower to be established and more directly concerned with the immediate economic problems of obtaining seals and whales.
A sealing vessel of 1792 which landed a party in Dusky Sound has already been mentioned. It was apparently the earliest occasion on which a group of Europeans spent so much time on South Island. When the men were picked up a year later, they had built a forty-foot boat (probably the first entirely constructed to European plans of Australasian timber) and had procured forty-five hundred sealskins. Thus was sealing--of such great significance to the subsequent invasion of peoples, plants, and animals--initiated in South Island. Important as it was, however, it was destined to last but little more than a quarter of a century; by 1830 it had virtually ceased on the shores of South Island proper.
In the last decade of the eighteenth century, the area about Bass Strait and the southern shores of Tasmania had been the great sealing grounds of Australasia. Bass himself, one of the most famous of the sealers, who visited Dusky Sound to secure timber, brought back fresh reports of the abundance of seals along New Zealand coasts. This contrasted with the depleted condition of the old grounds. Baudin, commander of the scientific expedition sponsored by Napoleon on the ship Géographe et Naturaliste, wrote, in 1802, from King's Island to Governor King of New South Wales:
There is every appearance that in a short time your fishermen will have drained the island of its resources by the fishery of the sea-wolf and the sea-elephant. Both will soon abandon their resorts to you if time be not allowed them to recruit their numbers which have been much diminished by the destructive war carried on against them. They are becoming scarce already and if you do not issue an order you will soon hear that they have entirely disappeared.
No effective heed was given to Baudin's conservational broadside; with this decimation of the quarry in Australian waters, Bass himself led the shift to New Zealand in 1803 (although he and his ship were lost on the first voyage), when one small schooner of thirty-one tons spent three months sealing at Dusky. In 1804 an English whaler, the Scorpion, visited Dusky en route to Port Jackson and secured some skins there. In the same year an American whaler first recorded the existence of Foveaux Strait. Advertisements in the Sydney Gazette on April 14 and April 21, 1805, speak of vessels frequenting, or occasionally touching at, Dusky Sound and its vicinity. These, it may be suspected, refer to sealers visiting occasionally and whalers regularly, the latter for refreshment.
Sealing by colonial ships based upon Port Jackson had to contend with the repressive measures devised by the still powerful mercantilist groups at "home," particularly in the periods from 1795 to 1801 and from 1805 to 1808; by the end of the second period, sealing had begun the shift from South Island proper to Stewart Island and the various antarctic islands ( Antipodes, Bounty, Campbell, Auckland, Macquarie, etc.), most of which were officially named by 1810. The second decade of the nineteenth century marked the height of the sealing industry in what were called "New Zealand" waters, and seventy to eighty thousand skins were secured there each year selling in the Sydney market at fifteen shillings each, 16 but these must have been largely taken to the south.
The primary reason for the shortness of the period of interest of sealers in the Foveaux Strait area (as had been the case in the Bass Strait region earlier) was the rapid decline in number of seals there. Up until 1825 at least, a few sealskins continued to be recorded among mixed cargoes derived from the area, thus precluding any opportunity for the remaining seals--too few to be objects of sealing per se--to recruit their ranks. When Captain Benjamin Morell of the American schooner Antarctic visited the Auckland Islands and the Snares in the late eighteen-twenties, he could not find one seal on those formerly prolific grounds. In the twenties the decreasing number of sealers became altogether based on Australian ports, as British and American ships joined the rush to the South Shetland Islands following their discovery in 1819.
The mention of traders calling for other cargoes suggests interest in the area beyond the taking of seals. One of these was the continuing search for "flax" (Phormium) by the official and mercantile interests of New South Wales. Attempts to rely upon a combination of "imported" Maori labor and Norfolk Island fiber had failed. In 1813 one of the many syndicates formed for the purpose of increasing this supply of raw material for cordage and canvas explored the area around Foveaux Strait very thoroughly. The report of this journey by one Williams, a Sydney rope-maker attached to the expedition as an expert, is most informative. From a base on Stewart Island, now called Port Williams, he crossed to Bluff and penetrated some distance into the Southland plain. He found that the local Maori were growing large crops of white potatoes, which not only formed their own staple food but also gave them a surplus for trade with visiting ships.
The actual evidence of other visits is spotty. In 1808 two ships from New South Wales, the Pegasus and the Governor Bligh, had officially recorded the insularity of Stewart Island, and in 1809 the Pegasus (Mr. Stewart first officer and navigator) returned with the report that "The coasts of Stewart Island were explored by the ship Pegasus (Capt. S. Chase) in 1809. The island was then uninhabited, abounding in wood . . . containing several excellent harbours and runs of the finest water . . ." The Pegasus then sailed up the east coast of South Island and first recorded the peninsularity of Banks "Island." The Sydney Gazette of March 12, 1809, reported that a sealing party abandoned on an islet west of Stewart Island had spent four years in the area, but after the report of Williams' visit in 1813, a period of thirteen years has left scant record.
Then in 1826, William Stewart, late of the Pegasus and apparently acting for an English syndicate, directed his attention to the island which bore his name. He first visited the Bay of Islands in North Auckland peninsula. Kororareka on this bay bad maintained the reputation for disorderliness established early in the century. A rough, lively, enterprising, undisciplined assemblage of white men, Maori, and half-castes, including ship deserters and convicts, had established a lawless community there. From this motley group, Stewart recruited some Europeans, including two sawyers and two shipwrights. He brought them to Stewart Island and established them at Port Pegasus on the southeast coast to start a small timber and shipbuilding yard. They were shortly visited by two ships sent out by the New Zealand Company of 1825 which were en route to the Bay of Islands. From this trip, leaving his employees on the island, Stewart returned to New South Wales with but four hundred and sixty sealskins and a ton and a half of prepared flax--a very poor cargo. As the project looked increasingly unprofitable, it was abandoned, although the little community thus established on Stewart Island struggled on for some years.
In this fashion did the southern shores become known to sealers, traders, and the officialdom of New South Wales; though little is recorded, a good deal of intercourse with the southern Maori is almost certain to have occurred as ships took seals, refreshed, or traded. Moreover the nature of sealing had required that gangs be left for varying periods of time to conduct the sealing and be picked up later with their catch. Some fought the Maori, some traded with them, some lived with them; in all, the southern shores obtained potatoes, half-caste children, and some rather devastating European diseases, along with some useful metal goods and varied new techniques.
There are at least two good reasons for presenting at such length this rather laboriously culled story of the earliest contacts of Europeans with South Island. In the first place, there has been little emphasis on the degree to which seamen out of Port Jackson were familiar with the shores of South Island in the earliest part of the nineteenth century, and this study will stress the importance of the area's cultural inheritance from the New South Wales. In the second place, Australian knowledge of South Island was largely confined to the cool and rainy southern shores. Half Moon Bay on Stewart Island has some sixty inches of rain distributed over two hundred and twenty-nine days a year; there are many days as well which are cloudy without actual rain. Over the region as a whole the rainfall averages between fifty and one hundred fifty inches a year and is just as evenly spread. Not only does the rain seem virtually perpetual but there are few windier parts of New Zealand than the Foveaux Strait area, a circumstance which created serious navigation hazards resulting in a series of shipwrecks during this period. Such conditions of climate seemed to be unsuitable for agriculture and sheep-running, and the difficulties of preparing flax due to the unavailability of wood (for heating water) in the areas where flax could be found, discouraged the development of the flax industry. There seemed to be little in this unfriendly coastal environment to encourage permanent settlement.