Australia in the 1800s

Whales and sealers

Whaling and sealing were the two major exports from the New South Wales colony before wool displaced them. In the early 1800s, seals and whales were hunted around the Bass Strait islands. The seals were killed for their fur skins and the huge elephant seals for their oil. Seal fur was very popular in England and China where it was used for boots and clothing. In 1802 more than 25,000 seal skins and over 31 tonnes of seal oil were exported from the New South Wales colony.

One of the first sealers in Bass Strait was the Scottish merchant shipowner William Campbell (1770–1827). In his first season in 1801, his vessel the Harrington returned to Sydney with 3,000 seal pelts and nearly 9,500 litres of oil. Campbell became notorious when, on questionable evidence from American sealers, he believed that England and Spain were at war and proceeded to raid the South American coast as a privateer. On his return to Sydney, Governor King ordered that the Harrington be detained until it was known whether the rumour was true. Campbell also operated in association with John Macarthur, taking a cargo of sandalwood from Fiji to China, and returning to Sydney with essential merchandise in March 1808.

The sealing industry in Van Diemen's Land centred on Hobart Town, and many sealers were ex-convicts who hunted whales and seals in season and cultivated land in the off-season.

A cheap method of bay whaling was developed in 1806 whereby a small ship would harpoon a whale and tow it to a station onshore. The station could handle several boats at a time. Ships came from the USA and Britain to hunt the whales as they migrated up from the cold southern waters of the Antarctic to warmer waters along the east coast of Australia during their breeding season.

Whalers hunted the female southern right whale for their black oil, which was used for lighting and lubrication. Whalebones were used for corsets, for the ribbing of umbrellas and for hooped skirts. It was an unregulated industry and within a short period of time the number of whales was vastly reduced and the industry nearly extinct.

While there are no records of Indigenous Australians traditionally hunting whales, Aboriginal people did work in the whaling industry and there are oral histories of Aboriginal people hunting with whales. One story has been recorded of orcas or killer whales helping the Aboriginal people of Twofold Bay on the south coast of New South Wales to hunt other whales.

A snapshot of 1808

  • January
    • The governor, Captain William Bligh, was deposed and placed under house arrest.

  • May
    • Thomas Livingstone Mitchell became surveyor-general following the death of John Oxley.

  • September
    • The first medical diploma in the colony was issued to William Redfern.

  • October
    • The colonial office in London announced the recall of the New South Wales Corps to England.

  • November
    • The Cascades Female Factory for women convicts opened in Hobart Town.


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