The Sealers' War, also known as the "War of the Shirt", was a conflict in southern New Zealand that started in 1810. It was started by a Māori chief, after he stole a red shirt, a knife and several other items from the sealing vessel known as the Sydney Cove in Otago Harbour. The war gave rise to the view, among some Europeans, that the Māori were treacherous by nature. The true cause was revealed by the discovery of the Creed manuscript in 2003, which records the views of Māori who were alive at the time of the events.
The initial incident
Late in 1810, the Sydney Cove, an English sealing vessel, was anchored in Otago Harbour while its crew were working at Cape Saunders on the Otago Peninsula. Māori were in the habit of visiting such vessels to trade for pork and potatoes. During one such visit, a Māori chief, Te Wareripirau, according to one of Creed's informants, or Te Wahia, according to the other, stole a red shirt and a knife amongst other items. Some of the sailors attacked the chief with cutlasses. He "fled from them with his bowels protruding through the wound in the side" and died. "The Europeans fled, by ship & boats to the Molyneux" – the modern Clutha River Mouth – where they attacked and killed another chief, Te Pahi. They also left behind a boy, James Caddell, known in New Zealand history as a Pākehā-Māori.
At Waipapa Point one of the Sydney Cove's gangs landed and proceeded overland to the Mataura mouth, where they were surprised and killed by Māori under Honegai. The Sydney Cove paused at Stewart Island before continuing its voyage. Men from the Brothers who had been in the vicinity of Otago Harbour proceeded south late in 1810. They were seeking a passing ship to take them back to Sydney, but four of them were surprised and killed, supposedly just because they were Europeans.
These tensions still existed when six lascars, Indian seamen, from the Matilda, absconded from her in a long boat somewhere on the south west coast in 1814. Encountering Māori, apparently at Dusky Sound three were killed and eaten and the others enslaved. The Matilda went on to Stewart Island and from there sent Robert Brown in an open boat to look for the missing men. He came up the east coast and touched at Cape Saunders before going on up the coast to a point some eight miles north of Moeraki. There he and his seven companions hauled the boat ashore and went to sleep under it, but were seen by Māori and attacked. All but two were killed and eaten, and those two survivors fled through the night to what is now known as Bobby's Head near the Pleasant Valley. Māori initially entertained the survivors, but upon discussion with later arriving Māori who participated in the attack, the two survivors were killed and eaten as well. The mere, greenstone club, used to dispatch one of them became legendary. Meanwhile Fowler brought the Matilda into Otago Harbour where he received a friendly reception from the Māori, in which he later reported to correct a misconception that the Māori were hostile to Europeans and unlikely candidates for conversion to Christianity.
The following year, 1815, William Tucker who had been in the Otago Harbour area as early as 1809, landed again from a Hobart sealer and settled at Whareakeake, later called Murdering Beach. There he kept goats and sheep, had a Māori wife, but no children, built a house (or houses) and apparently set up an export trade in ornamental hei-tiki – jade neck pendants made from old adzes. He left but returned, apparently with other Europeans meaning to settle, on the Sophia, a Hobart sealer commanded by James Kelly. The Sophia anchored in Otago Harbour and Tucker – "Taka" to Māori – was well-received but the harbour chief Korako wouldn't ferry across other Māori. This was late in 1817. Two or three days later Kelly went to visit Whareakeake in an open boat, with Tucker and five others, having been persuaded by Tucker not to take their firearms. At Whareakeake they had a friendly reception and encountered one of the Matilda's lascars, an Indian seaman who told them of his countrymen's fate.It seems Tucker had gone into his house but Kelly was attacked, at the instigation of the Whareakeake chief Te Matahaere. In the ensuing melee Veto Viole, John Griffiths and William Tucker were killed. (Griffiths was Kelly's brother-in-law.) The dead were eaten. Escaping by longboat, Kelly returned to the Sophia in Otago Harbour but suspected that the Māori there were planning an attack. As a preemptive measure, he attacked the Māori first. Then, and over the next few days, he apparently killed several people, possibly including Korako, destroyed multiple canoes and set fire to "the beautiful City of Otago."
Effect on sealing
These hostilities and the diminution of seal populations, saw a decline in sealing ventures to southern New Zealand. It seems this was unknown to Captain Abimeleck Riggs of the American sealer General Gates, who in late 1819 landed a gang at Stewart Island. He had a troubled cruise and it wasn't until 1821 that he returned. He then dropped a second gang and then a third at Chalky Inlet. The second gang was attacked by Māori in October 1821. Six of his men were captured, taken north up the west coast, where eventually four were killed and eaten. Meanwhile, a young boy, that the gang at Chalky left to look after their stores, was also attacked by the Māori and eaten. The rest of the gang were pursued by Māori and two members were killed before they came across Captain Edwardson of the Snapper in Chalky Inlet. Their pursuers included women and dogs under the leadership of "Te Pehi" "Topi" and "Te Whera". With them were two Pākehā-Māori. Also with them was James Caddell, who, originally captured from the Sydney Cove, had acculturated himself to Māori society, in part by being tattooed and married to a high-born Māori woman. James Stuart there as well. Stuart came with the General Gates, with an aboriginal wife and children in tow. Edwardson now took Caddell to Sydney, where his arrival caused a sensation in 1823 and where a peace was brokered. Thereafter, sealing resumed although it soon petered out again because the animal populations had been severely depleted.
The Sealers' War – really a rolling feud – may have seen seventy-four people killed, among them forty-three Pākehā, or non-Māori. William Tucker was not a cause of it, as has previously been thought, but one of its victims. The Creed manuscript clearly reveals the original cause, invisible to history for nearly two hundred years, identifies the later triggers of particular events while observing they were all consequences of the first theft and its revenge, often visited on people unaware of what had set these events in motion. When people of different cultures clash they are quick to react against any member of the other group, regardless of personal responsibility. The Sealers' War is a classic example of the tendency of incident to turn into inter-communal strife at the interface of cultural contact.
- Robert McNab, Murihiku, Invercargill, NZ: 1907,p.263 for the suggestion the attacks arose from a supposedly treacherous nature of Māori.
- The text of the Creed manuscript is reproduced in Peter Entwisle's, Taka: A Vignette Life of William Tucker 1784–1817,Dunedin, NZ: Port Daniel Press, 2005 as appendix vi, pp. 128–131. Charles Creed, MS papers, 1187/201, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ.
- "The story of James Caddell...", Te Ara
- The quotes are from the Creed manuscript, cited above. The identification of some of the personnel and ships is made in Peter Entwisle, Taka: a Vignette Life of William Tucker 1784–1817, Dunedin, NZ: Port Daniel Press, 2005, pp. 69–71.
- The Creed manuscript, cited above; also Peter Entwisle, Taka: a Vignette Life of William Tucker, 1784–1817, Dunedin, NZ: Port Daniel Press, 2005, pp. 84–87 and Samuel Fowler, in the Sydney Gazette2 December 1815 p.2b-c.
- The Creed mansucript cited above; Peter Entwisle, Taka: A Vignette Life of William Tucker 1784–1817, Dunedin, NZ: Port Daniel Press, 2005, pp. 88–97; James Kelly in Hobart Town Courier, 12 April 1858.
- Creed manuscript cited above; Peter Entwisle,Taka: a Vignette Life of William Tucker 1784–1817, Dunedin, NZ: Port Daniel Press, 2005, pp. 99–101;A.C. Begg & N.C. Begg, Port Preservation: the story of Preservation Inlet and the Solander Grounds, Christchurch, NZ: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1973, pp. 117–121.