Early history of Bass Strait - the sealers
- Bass Strait is the sea passage between mainland Australia & its
southern island, Tasmania
which had been explored by George Bass and Matthew Flinders in 1798 and had
reported seeing vast numbers of seals.
Captain John Brabyn's only son, "Boy" Brabyn, at thirteen,
was a member of the Lieutenant Murray's crew
on the Lady Nelson, possibly as a mid-shipman, which, in 1802, discovered
the entrance to Port Phillip Bay (the entrance to the bay on which the city
of Melbourne was later founded).
The 1st attempt at colonisation in the region was at present
day Sorrento in Port Phillip Bay in 1803 but this was a failure and it was
moved to the estuary of the Derwent River, Tasmania & marked the
beginning of Hobart.
- Tasmania (then called Van Diemen's Land), was first occupied by the
British in 1804. The main reason for this occupation was to ensure the
French did not get a foothold in Australia as France and England were at
war, struggling for world supremacy. Another consideration was the sealing
industry, which was growing rapidly.
- At the same time Governor King was ordered to resettle the occupants of
Norfolk Island, which was to be abandoned, to the northern coast of Van
Diemen's Land. These settlements were initially at Port Dalrymple and
then at Launceston but struggled with limited supplies and food, surviving
mainly on the plentiful kangaroo meat, although this impacted the food
supply of the indigenous Aboriginal peoples and with encroachment on their
lands creating conflict. Aboriginal women were taken as "sooty
wives" as slaves for the free European settlers and sailors.
- By March 1808, Port Dalrymple consisted of 14 civil officials (including
my ancestor, Peter
Mills who had arrived with Captain Bligh at Port Jackson, NSW in 1806
and had sailed to Port Dalrymple to become harbour master and in Jan. 1810,
he married Jennyfer Brabyn, the daughter of my great, great, great, great, great
John Brabyn, the commandant of Port Dalrymple 1808-10), 96 military
personel, 19 settlers and free people, and 115 prisoners.
- Ongoing conflict between the Tasmanian Aborigines and the European
settlers resulted in attacks by Aborigines on farms protected by the wives
with their guns, but the barbarity of the early European settlers here on
the Aborigines resulted in the Tasmanian Aborigine population falling from
some 5,000 to only 200 by 1830!
- Van Diemen's Land was built on the labour of convicts who provided all the
labour for public works & most for private works. The convicts were
treated brutally and their work inefficient despite a highly organised
structure developed by Governor Arthur. The convicts at the bottom of the
hierarchy were sent to the harshest of the penal stations at Maria Island,
Macquarie Harbour & Port Arthur. The "top" 50% of convicts
were assigned servants to farmers, householders or businesses (one of these
was my ancestor, James Glare, who was transported there in 1821 & may
have been assigned to the Mills family, as he later married their daughter).
- the 1st industry in Van Diemen's Land with the 1st major sealer being
Capt. Bishop, who in only a few weeks on Cape Barren Island. brought back a
load of 5,000 seal skins & 300 gallons of seal oil to Sydney. By 1802,
there were 200 sealers in Bass Strait as there was a ready market for oil
& skins in England & China as the oil was used for cooking, lamps
& as a general fuel while the fur was greatly prized for its high
quality & used in making hats, shawls & other goods. Furs could be
sold for 5-10 shillings each in China, and 25-30 shillings each in England,
while oil sold for 4 shillings a gallon. A shipload was worth more than
£10,000 in England - a fortune considering how easy they were to catch.
- the effect of sealing on the small settlements such as Launceston were
enormous with many industries being developed to outfit & refit ships
for the voyages. Two men who made fortunes out of sealing were Henry Reed
& John Griffith, for whom two sons of the Mill's family (John
& Charles Mills) worked as sailors. These brothers were to become
local legends spending much of each year from 1826 onwards in the Port Fairy
region & thus effectively becoming Victoria's 1st settlers.
- despite letters to newspapers protesting against this uncontrolled
slaughter, no action was taken to curtail it, and by 1830, the seals were
virtually wiped out, resulting finally in the Government legislating for
- Southern Right whales migrate from Antarctica in the Southern hemisphere
winter with their pods to escape the killer whales which cannot make the
long journey. The migrating whales reach the Great Australian Bight and then
either pass west to the west coast of Australia, or eastwards into Bass
Strait past Portland, Port Fairy then to Eden before passing up the east
coast of Australia.
- although whaling had been an established enterprise since the 1790's, it
was not until the end of the sealing industry that whaling really took off
in Bass Straight, and it was the Reed-Griffiths partnership which dominated
the scene, building bay whaling stations at Kangaroo Island, Twofold Bay in
Eden, Portland (from 1833), and one at Port Fairy from 1836.
- the unique whaling pattern in Eden - a symbiotic relationship
between killer whales and man:
- before the British arrived in Eden, the indigenous peoples had
developed a rapport with the local killer whales which would
systematically force the migrating whales into Two Fold Bay and then
attack the whale cubs - the "Killers of Eden" - ABC
broadcasting in Australia have a documentary about this.
- when the British came and started whaling, they employed the local
indigenous people who assisted with hand-harpooning the whales and
passed on to the whites, the "Law of the Tongue" - by
leaving the killed whale to float for a day in the bay before
bringing it ashore, the killer whales would get their reward by
eating the whales tongue region. In return the killer whales rounded
the whales up into the bay, alerted the whalers and had a very close
rapport with them which extended to stories that killer whales saved
a drowning whaler by bringing him back to the surface as well as
circling a smashed whaleboat to keep the sharks away from the
whalers in the water. When the whales had diminished in number
causing starvation of the killer whales and perhaps the killing of a
stranded killer whale by a white man, the trust and food supply was
lost and the killer whales left and have not assisted the locals
- without this symbiotic relationship, neither the killer whales nor
the humans with their hand spears would have been able to kill the
adult whales alone which were able to dive deeper and for longer
than the killer whales in the bay.
- catching Right whales could be done from land bases rather than the long
voyages in deep sea needed to capture Sperm whales, thus this was called bay
whaling & bay whaling stations were set up wherever Right whales were
plentiful, and at one stage there were 35 stations in Van Diemen's Land
- the bay whaling season lasted from May to November, but the stations were
usually partially manned for the whole year & many became permanent
- the whaleboats were 9m long made of cedar wood, pointed at both ends and
low in the middle. They held 5-8 oarsmen, a harpooner & a steerer. A
rope of 200 fathoms would be wound carefully around a pole - sometimes it
was pulled out so fast by a harpooned whale that water had to be poured over
the woodwork to prevent fire. The crews waited onshore until a whale was
spotted in the bay or as was the case in Twofold Bay where the killer whales
had been trained to round up the Right whales into the bay for the whalers
and if it was at night, they would splash their fins on the shore to signal
to the whalers who would then reward them with some of the kill.
- whaling stations were often so close that several competing whaleboats
would take after the same whale.
- an unexpected flick of the whale's tail could overturn or smash the boat.
- one whale could give 5.5 tons of whale oil & 5.5 hundredweight of
whale bone (which was used as fertiliser).
Port Fairy & Portland in the 1830's & 40's:
- the Mill's brothers had joined the whaling teams in Port Fairy and
Portland in the late 1820's and in 1835, John Mills went on a Sperm whale
voyage off the coast of New Zealand as First Mate to Capt. Alexander
Campbell (after whom Port Campbell at the Twelve Apostles is named). John's
brother, Charles Mills stayed in Portland in 1835, second in command to
Griffith at the whaling station and worked for the Henty brothers who had
just arrived in Portland & soon built their own whaling station, making
4 rival stations there in 1837.
- Griffiths set up a whaling station in Port Fairy in 1836 and made John
Mills his right hand man. By 1840, there were some 100 people living in Port
Fairy at the height of the whaling season.
- war against the Aborigines (1837-c1855):
- inland pastoral expansion by the Henty's and others from 1837 onwards
resulted in a fight for the land with the indigenous Aborigines who
retaliated with guerilla-style warfare of raiding parties consisting of
100-150 men, raiding pastoral properties, stealing & killing sheep,
cattle & horses and at the height in 1842 of the war, killing 4
- In 1847, an Aboriginal "guerilla" hideout in Mt Eccles was
discovered and more than 30 were killed including their babies. In Port
Fairy, 9 Aborigines were poisoned by arsenic-laced flour given out by
pastoral station holders. But in the end it was diseases such as
influenza & syphilis, the increasing white numbers and decreasing
birth rates of the Aborigines that caused much of the decline in
Aboriginal numbers while the introduction of Aborigines as "Native
Police" was effective at ending this war in the 1850's. Thereafter,
the attitude of the European settlers towards the Aborigines softened as
their threat was diminished and they became valued for their labour
which cost nothing, especially during the gold rushes of the late 1850's
when labour was sometimes very scarce.
- In 1843, radical changes took place in Port Fairy with Australia in a deep
depression, Right whales becoming scarce & the Special Survey System
introduced which was to affect Port Fairy life for decades. This System was
a tool by the British Government devised to end the independence of
illegally settled areas of Victoria. This forced the land to be bought in 8
sq. mile lots (5120 acres) at £1 an acre, meaning only rich men could have
any chance of acquiring it. All of Port Fairy and a radius of several square
miles was sold to James Atkinson, and another 8 sq. miles, including rich
farming land around Tower Hill, went to William Rutledge. This alienation of
land, coupled with the depression, meant the financial ruin of John Griffith
& most other Port Fairy entrepreneurs. Griffith closed the whaling
station & went back to Van Diemen's Land. Charles Mills took up a
grazing licence on 416 acres on land which he had already worked for several
years but in 1846, the govt cancelled his licence and sold the land to
Atkinson who then leased it back to Mills. In 1846, his sister Eliza
& her husband, my great,
great, grandfather, the ex-convict James Glare, came from Launceston to join
him & Charles sub-let half of his land to them & this was called
"Woodbine" - the farmhouse still stands today.
- Under the direction of Atkinson & Rutledge financial empires, the town
became a trading port for the expanding pastoral & agricultural
interests of the surrounding area. Capt. John Mills became master of one of
these trading vessels, the "Essington", and so brought his family
across to Port Fairy to live.
- in 1852, John Mills' 'Essington' struck its anchors and sprang a leak
& had to be beached with considerable financial loss to Mills who then
took up the appointment of harbour master of Port Fairy from 1853 to his
retirement in 1871.