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Whaling Tales: The story of Norfolk’s first Whalers

Whaling Tales: The story of Norfolk’s first Whalers

Amongst the Pitcairners’ graves in the Norfolk Island cemetery lies Isaac Christian, a grandson of Fletcher Christian. The story of his death in a whaling accident in 1877 vividly and tragically illustrates the dangers faced by the Pitcairn Islander men undertaking one of the first industries established after their arrivalon Norfolk. Isaac was a respected and senior member of the community, a husband to Miriam and father to fifteen children. A diary entry recording his funeral on the 31st October 1877 sombrely states, “Isaac was buried this afternoon, deeply regretted by everybody”. Modern whaling with enormous ships and a sickening ‘killing technology’ bears no resemblance to whaling of the late 18th century. At the time of his death, Isaac was involved in a battle that was akin to man against beast. Once a whale had been sighted from a lookout on the cliff, the boats were launched. Each boat carried a crew of either five or six men, who would row the boat with the assistance of a small sail. In the open sea they carried out a perilous and backbreaking task, their only weapons being a hand thrown harpoon and lance. Once the whale had been harpooned, their boat was very often towed far out to sea. On their return they faced the equally long haul of the carcass back to the island. On the island, the families would make preparations to guide the boats home by lighting bonfires around the cliff tops. What comfort the sighting of these fires must have brought the men

Whaling was crucial to the islands economy, supplementing subsistence farming. Funds were needed to purchase essential products from the mainland including some foodstuffs, household supplies, shoes, fabric and hardware items. While there was no guarantee of how many whales could be caught in a season, there was always a market for the oil in Auckland and Sydney. The oil was also locally used to paint the timber of the houses and provide oil for lamps, while the blubber was also eaten.

On the day before his death, Isaac received the call that a mother and calf had been sighted. He and his crew of five, which included two of his sons Hunt and Ernest, quickly launched their boat. They gave chase of the whales, harpooning the mother who dragged them straight out to sea with her calf following. The Rev. Alfred Penny, from the Melanesian Mission recorded the event in his book Ten Years in Melanesia: “As the daylight began to fail, and the boat drew farther away, the look-out man thought he should have a better view from another point not far off, so he ran down the slope and up another, but when he gained his second vantage ground, the ‘fast boat’ could not be seen; in vain he looked, and others, coming in answer to his signals, also strained their eyes to no purpose”.

As darkness fell, far out to sea and out of eye-shot of anyone on land, the whale came to the surface. As she did so her calf also surfaced, made straight for the boat, and with one strike of her fluke, smashed and overturned it.

With no knowledge of this event on the island, search teams were put out for the missing boat. However by daylight Isaac and his crew had not been found. The first mainland appointed schoolmaster on the island, Thomas Rossiter, recorded the tragedy in his diary: “October 31st – Northing heard or seen of Isaac’s boat or crew this morning and three more boats are sent down. 12.15pm News came that the boats were returning with signals set showing “all right” and everybody felt immensely relieved but a little later the signal in the boats said “something wrong” and great anxiety was felt. A boat soon came in bringing the sad news that Isaac was dead…The poor fellows were in the water all night standing in the stoven boat. The night was very windy and sea rugged. Six times the boat rolled completely over. They suffered much from cold and about 6 in the morning Isaac died from cramp. Gregory and Ernest were also very near death when Johnson and his crew found them 8 to 10 miles off shore”.

Rev Penny records, “who can tell the horrors of that night… their position the while made worse by the alternations of hope and despair through which they passed, as they saw the lights, carried by the boats searching for them, approach and pass by, once so close that they could recognise the face of the man steering as he held his lantern above his head…With the cold of daybreak Isaac Christian died. His last prayer was to make his body fast to the boat so that the sharks might not devour it while his friends were still alive”.

James Wingate Johnstone Nobbs was the ‘header’ of the boat crew who rescued the survivors. In recognition of his role he was later presented with a large Bible inscribed by the crew of Christian’s boat. Sadly, earlier that month Isaac’s nephew Jacob Christian had also died as a result of a severe leg wound caused by his spade during flensing operations.

Perhaps ironically, one of Isaac’s other son’s George Henry Parkin Christian, known as Parkins, became the best known and most successful of Norfolk’s whalers. Ten year’s before his father’s death, Parkins went to sea. He was fourteen years old. He joined the whaleship Robert Towns out of Sydney in the 1870s and then the American whaleship Charles W. Morgan. He began as steersman, later rising to Second and then First Mate and remained with the Morgan for the next 25 years. Parkins was renowned as a steersman. It was said that, “given a good ash steer oar… he could almost lift a whaleboat round, so great was his strength”. He was also a strong swimmer and rescued a teenage girl who had fallen overboard at night in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands, earning him the Royal Humane Society’s Silver Medal.

On Norfolk, the formation of the first whaling company was the logical result of the Pitcairners circumstances. Within a few months of their arrival in June 1856 they had sighted passing whales. The men, wiry and strong, possessed consummate small boat handling skills. On Pitcairn Island they made frequent contact with American whaleships. In fact, it was the American Mayhew Folger in the Topaz who discovered them in 1808. Pitcairn’s young men often crewed on whaleships and so learnt the skills of hunting whales. On arrival at Norfolk, one of the first ships to greet them was a passing British whaler and American whaleships used the island for obtaining supplies of freshwater and provisions. The islanders earned valuable currency by providing them with water, fresh vegetables, meat, and dripstones.

Thirty-three islanders formed the first company after they had raised enough capital to purchase two boats and equipment from an American ship. As the industry developed a second company was formed and more boats were built from local timber. At various times through the industry’s peak during the 1880s and 1890s, more than half of the island’s adult male population were engaged in whaling. However as the century closed the financial return came under threat from the increasing competition that whale oil faced in world markets primarily from petroleum products. Whaling reduced, stopped and started several times through the early 19th century. In more modern times it was re-started for a short period between 1956 and 1962.

The legacy of the early whaling days lives on in many ways, but is particularly expressed through singing. As the boats safely returned after searching and maybe catching a whale, the men would sing themselves in with the hymn ‘Let the Lower Lights be Burning. This hymn is still sung today with much emotion and memory of those early whaling days.

Let the lower light be burning!
Send a gleam across the wave!
Some poor, fainting, struggling seaman
You may rescue, you may save

Whaling is part of the island’s history and culture. The sighting of a breeching whale close to the shore off Slaughter Bay in 2006 during the 150th Anniversary Day celebration of the arrival of the Pitcairners was considered by many as an omen of good luck and contact from the past. Today most island families will have a grandfather or great-grandfather who worked in the industry in those dangerous early years.

However they, together with Isaac Christian’s descendants, now take part in the celebration of the sighting of whales off our coasts for completely different reasons. During the annual whale-watching season locals help with sightings to add to an official survey, welcoming their coming and working towards their long-term protection.


Image Credit: Robin Nisbet


Article content disclaimer: Article first published in YourWorld, Volume 01 Issue 03, 2011. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.


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