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Revolution, convicts, and whales

Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emanuel Leutze
What do the American Revolutionary War, convicts and whales have in common?


After the American War of Independence, Britain retaliated by closing all of the country’s ports to US trade and the US economy fell into a recession. England was also hurting as the country no longer had access to vast American natural resources and had also lost its convict dumping grounds. So in 1788 England reluctantly set out to colonize New South Wales (NSW) and establish a penal colony at Botany Bay. The east coast of Australia had been charted by Captain James Cook 18 years earlier, in 1770, but England had been too busy waging war to take advantage of the discovery. Upon arrival in NSW, Captain Arthur Phillip, commander of the First Fleet, decided to establish the new colony one bay north of Botany Bay at Port Jackson, which became present-day Sydney.

While American whalers had lost their whale oil customers in England they found new demand for their services. Their solidly built, wide-beamed whaling ships were perfectly suited as convict transports, and so a number of American whalers (of the loyalist persuasion) ended up transporting convicts from London to NSW. New England born Captain Eber Bunker was one such captain and in 1791 he commanded the William and Ann as part of the Third Fleet to NSW. Bunker was an entrepreneurial fellow and rather than returning to London empty handed, he decided to try whaling and sealing in nearby New Zealand waters. He knew that only 3 years earlier Captain James Shields commanding the Emilia had rounded Cape Horn and successfully hunted whales on the other side of the South Pacific, off the coast of Chile. Bunker found his whales and seals in abundance at Dusky Sound, New Zealand and from then onwards both whaling and sealing became big business in the South Pacific.

The "Golden Round" around-the-world trading route
Meanwhile, American merchants who had been denied access to English markets had turned to the Pacific to seek out new trading opportunities. In the 1790s, New England traders developed the so-called "Golden Round" around-the-world trade route. This entailed sailing south from New England in time to round Cape Horn during the southern summer (December through February), then sailing all the way up the other side of the Americas to the Pacific Northwest in time for the northern summer. Merchants would trade for sea otter and seal furs until the onset of autumn, which signaled it was time to sail for warmer climes in Hawaii for the winter. In spring, they would sail onto Canton (Guangzhou) arriving in autumn, where furs would be traded for tea, porcelain and other Chinese wares. They would then head south as winter approached. The return trip was via the Sunda Strait (through then East Indies, now Indonesia), first by harnessing the northeasterly trade winds (north of the equator), then harnessing the southeasterly trade winds across the Indian Ocean to cross the Cape of Good Hope and back to New England. In all, an incredible 3-year journey of some 36,000 nautical miles (67,000 km), including over a year spent at sea (route shown at left).

Whereas American whaling was all about harvesting blubber for oil, sealing was two gory businesses. Fur seals were killed for their skins and elephant seals were killed for their oil. Antipodean sealers quickly tapped into this lucrative trade. Eastern Australia is conveniently located east of China and the easterly trade winds kick in between latitudes 30°S and 30°N, so sailors could harness the trades for most of the voyage north. They just had to avoid northern Australia’s monsoon season between the months of December and March, during which time northwesterly winds replace the easterly trades and cyclones are common.

Sealing was Australia’s first “gold rush” and like any free-for-all it was completely unsustainable. The sealers decimated seal populations everywhere they went and the hunt for seals quickly moved from one exploited place to the next. After Dusky Sound, sealers focused on the southern coast of Australia, including Kangaroo Island and the islands of Bass Strait (1803). On Kangaroo Island, the township of American River and the nearby American Beach owe their names to those intrepid American sealers. The sealers then moved onto the Antipodes Islands (1805), then to the Auckland Islands (1806), back to the South Island of New Zealand to nab some poor animals they missed the first time (1809), then onto the newly-discovered Campbell and Macquarie Islands (1810). Seal numbers plummeted and by 1830 the sealing industry had self destructed.

The sad business of hunting whales in the South Pacific carried on a bit longer, and with the exception of Japanese “research” whaling, petered out in the 1850s. The era of South Pacific whaling and sealing was over, but those American whalers and sealers had made their mark and Australia's fledgling colonies had indelibly established themselves as part of global trading routes.

PS Happy 4th of July to our American readers!

By Alan Noble, originally posted at blog.arribasail.com.