Although Sydney was initially established as a punishment nearly as final as hanging, or possibly more simply just to get convicts out of England – and maybe to rehabilitate them at the same time, but maybe no-one cared that much – it very swiftly became a convenient stopping point for traders, and a market for sale of goods as well.
Cook’s voyages in 1772-75 had revealed the abundance of sea life in the southern waters, and sealing and whaling had followed.
Sealers were after oil and skins; whalers wanted the oil that was used for lighting: “he [the whale] must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all.”[i]A very large sperm whale “will yield the bulk of one hundred barrels of oil” or “ten tons of net weight”.[ii]The jawbone supplied “ivory teeth … that hard white whalebone with which the fishermen fashion all sorts of curious articles, including canes, umbrella-stocks, and handles to riding whips.”[iii]Also prized was ambergris, “an essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale”, a substance that was “soft, waxy, and so highly fragrant and spicy, that it is largely used in perfumery, in pastiles, precious candles, hair-powders, and pomatum.”[iv]
Sealing and whaling ships regularly stopped along the coast for repairs and to boil down their catches. Manning Clarke records that five whaling ships brought convicts in 1791 on their way to the whaling grounds, with the first American whaler arriving in 1802.[v]Hermann Melville reverses cause and effect:
That great America on the other side of the sphere, Australia, was given to the enlightened world by the whaleman. After its first blunder-born discovery by a Dutchman; all other ships long shunned those shores as pestiferously barbarous; but the whale-ship touched there. The whale-ship is the true mother of that now mighty colony. Moreover, in the infancy of the first Australian settlement, the emigrants were several times saved from starvation by the benevolent biscuit of the whale-ship luckily dropping an anchor in their waters.[vi]
The sealers and whalers were greedy and indiscriminate, killing in 50 years the bulk of seals and whales in the area. As Melville says, ‘They were bent on profitable cruises, the profit to be counted down in dollars from the mint.’[vii]
The hunt was extremely dangerous for the hunters as well as the prey: “For God’s sake, be economical with your lamps and candles! not a gallon you burn, but at least one drop of man’s blood was spilled for it.”[viii]Not only the hunt – which was conducted by men in small boats flinging harpoons into whales when close enough – but the subsequent ‘boiling down’ of the blubber to make oil. Having secured the animal to the side of the boat and hoisted it high enough to be reached by the ‘spade-man’, the blubber is cut into chunks and brought on board. There it is minced and fed into the ‘try-pots’.
With huge pronged poles they pitched hissing masses of blubber into the scalding pots, or stirred up the fires beneath, till the snaky flames darted, curling, out of the doors to catch them by the feet. The smoke rolled away in sullen heaps. To every pitch of the ship there was a pitch of the boiling oil, which seemed all eagerness to leap into their faces.[ix]
The life of the sealer was equally fraught, with many sealing gangs dropped off on tiny wild islands for months, sometimes years at a time, to catch everything they could and then load it when their ship returned.[x]
For the tiny new colony of Sydney Cove, these sacrifices added up to one thing: something to trade.