The Nantucket-New Zealand Connection -June 2009

The NHA in the Antipodes

by: William Tramposch

photography by: Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association

“And thus have these naked Nantucketers, these sea hermits, issuing from their ant-hill in the sea, overrun and conquered the watery world like so many Alexanders; parceling out among them the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans.”
– “Moby-Dick,” Chapter 14

With our blue Nantucket flag in hand, 13 fellow travelers joined my wife Peggy and I on a Nantucket Historical Association Explorations Tour of New Zealand. For 19 days we traversed this small country, visiting many places familiar to our forebears, especially our island’s 19th-century whalers. This is the story of our adventure.

Nantucket’s winter is New Zealand’s summer, so we chose February for visiting (smart, eh?). Our tour began in Wellington, the nation’s capital and home of Te Papa, the National Museum of New Zealand. Opened in 1998, Te Papa is the country’s largest building, a testimony to the high value New Zealanders place on their national identity. Our welcome here was our first official one in New Zealand, and it was special: The museum’s director and staff offered us a powhiri, the traditional indigenous Maori welcome on the magnificent national marae, or sacred Maori meeting ground. The memorable ritual of the powhiri, by the way, is captured in the movie “Whale Rider.”

We then crossed the Cook Straight to the South Island through the Marlborough Sounds, passing rusting remnants of the country’s first whaling stations. During the next couple of days we would have the opportunity to explore these stations from a much smaller boat. We would also visit historic Ship Cove, a quiet inlet framed by native bush. Captain James Cook careened his ships here during his South Pacific voyages, and on a nearby island he planted a flag and proclaimed sovereignty for Great Britain. We, in turn, proclaimed momentary sovereignty over Ship Cove … at least until we had eaten our box lunches.

We traveled next by train through the famous Marlborough wine region and into Kaikoura, another early whaling port. Today, Whale Watch Kaikoura takes visitors five miles out to sea where the shelf drops precipitously. In these depths the giant sperm whales dwell, much as they did when Nantucket whalers plied these waters in the past. We knew we were on a lucky boat when, just three miles out, we spied our first of five sperm whales, a near record according to our guides. Each of these leviathans appeared bigger than the boat we were on, and it was further disquieting to learn that even our guides were never exactly sure where a whale would rise from its hour-long search for squid. Equally unforgettable was our return to shore, as we were accompanied by hundreds of rollicking dusky dolphins and a half-dozen majestic southern albatross.

Christchurch, to the south of Kaikoura, was our next stop. As we headed south, however, our bus broke down on a remote hillside populated only by hundreds of baaing sheep. We sat there while our heroic, rain-soaked driver climbed hill after hill in search of cell-phone coverage. Although the breakdown was unfortunate, it did lead to a “Kiwi-esque” experience: After the repair, as we traveled through the sparsely-populated countryside, several of us developed the growing need to visit a bathroom. There being none for the next 40 kilometers, our driver pulled into the driveway of a farm called, ironically, Whale Back Station. Knocking politely, he asked the owner if we might use her bathroom. Not surprisingly (for Kiwis) she welcomed us, and after 15 minutes (and as many visits to the bathroom) we were ready to depart. Yet by now we had made such friends with our hostess that I half-suspected we would be asked to dinner. As we left, she commented that this often happens to her: cars break down, there is an accident, etc. … “But,” she added, “this is the first time a bus has stopped!”

We were soon relieved, as it were, to arrive in Christchurch, the most English of New Zealand’s cities. Home to parks, shops and museums, Christchurch is also home to the Antarctic Center, which interprets life on the nearby (comparatively) great southern continent. We took pride in the fact that the first recorded sighting of Antarctica was by Nantucketer Christopher Burdick, who lived at 81 Main St.

Our next destination was Akaroa, which in Maori means “long harbor.” This town, replete with French influences, sits on the edge of a giant volcanic caldera, and serves as a reminder that there was a time when France, too, had an interest in New Zealand. The French whaled these waters in the years preceding England’s claim of sovereignty over the country in 1840. In that year, the English and indigenous Maori signed a treaty in a place called Waitangi, far north of Akaroa, and our next destination.

In 1840, the whaling era was still at its height, and one of the major ports for the provisioning of American whalers lay just across the Bay of Islands from the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. In 1855, Nantucket’s own Eliza Brock, accompanying her husband Peter, master of the ship Lexington, kept a detailed journal, now in the collection of the NHA’s Research Library, in which she described the ship’s entry into the paradisal Bay of Islands. She notices the Enterprise of New Bedford:

“… here five months from home. Deck … thronged with natives loaded down with peaches. If I could only pass a few baskets of them to my children at home, I should like it. One large canoe paddled by eight (Maori) ladies, they seem to manage them as easily as our sailors do their boats. It is a matter of great wonder to me how they do it . . . This is a very beautiful climate, very healthy, but very thinly settled by white people, all Englishmen, very quiet here, and now and then a Fracas with the sailors.”

Now and then a Fracas?

Eliza understates the facts. The port she describes was called Kororareka (now Russell), and our whaling forebears were not as gentle in this place as Eliza was in her descriptions of it. This now-quaint town was once commonly referred to as “the Hellhole of the Pacific.” Kororareka was not just a port for provisioning, it was a hemispheric center of prostitution and drunkenness, “notorious for containing a greater number of rogues than any other spot of equal size in the universe,” according to William Colenzo, New Zealand’s first printer-in-residence here.

Near Colenzo’s printing shop lies historic Christ Church (Anglican), and in the solitary upper end of its graveyard a stone reading “Nantucket” marks the resting place of Henri Turner, cooper on the Mohawk, a whaleship that departed Nantucket in May of 1859 (George H. Swain, captain). In October of the next year it encountered a smallpox epidemic in the Sula Islands, and several months later Turner became ill. Swain headed the ship into the Bay of Islands where Turner died, leaving a widow on Nantucket.

Purer harbors lay farther north of the Bay of Islands, and on one of them live Nantucketers Peter and Carol Krogh. Their home commands lovely views of Monganui Harbor, a place once described by an early traveler as “the best port for provisioning.” We learned here that captains often steered clear of the sinful waters of Kororareka and the Bay of Islands, opting rather for this snug harbor, “for provisioning only.”

Stories of those days are preserved just across the harbor in the Butler Point Whaling Museum. Although its collections are of great interest to any Nantucketer, just as interesting is the museum’s remarkable founder, Lindo Ferguson, and his family. We were so moved by our visit to this place that we happily presented our Nantucket flag to Lindo with thoughts that it might occasionally fly from the Butler Point pole.

Our last days were spent in Auckland, the country’s largest city, but not before traveling through dense northern forests of kauri trees, some predating the birth of Jesus. The forests once blanketed the North Island, but aside from these public reserves, kauri wood today is to be found mostly in the thousands of New Zealand homes it has helped build. In the “City of Sails,” as Auckland is known, a memorable visit to the Auckland Museum coupled with an evening sail on the waters that hosted the America’s Cup were highlights of this last part of our trip. We also visited Cornwall Park, one of the country’s most beautifully-landscaped reserves. As we passed the main gate, we thought of longtime Nantucket resident Austin Strong, who designed the park when he was a student of landscape architecture in Wellington.

It was now time to return to America. We had come halfway around the world to see many places that our forebears had known well, better perhaps than parts of their own little “ant hill in the sea.” We were now leaving New Zealand with a renewed appreciation of those times when wind, water and very long journeys connected people with places still seemingly remote to us today.

Think on it. Our own Benjamin Worth of Liberty Street sailed 870,000 miles during his lifetime. That is 36 times around the world. Now, in our last moments in New Zealand, we were building up our reserves for the mere 12-hour flight from Auckland to San Francisco.

William Tramposch is executive director of the Nantucket Historical Association. Prior to coming to Nantucket, he was CEO of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust.

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