Book Review: Whaler by Providence: Patrick Norton in the Marlborough Sounds, by Don Wilson

Available in selected bookshops.

cv_whaler_by_providenceThis book is an example of the painstaking research of the family historian, and the frustration of having a lack of written records of a key ancestor. Patrick Norton was a petty thief in Ireland, who was convicted and transported to Australia in 1810. He eventually escaped and ended up in the small whaling settlement of Te Awaiti on Arapaoa (Arapawa) Island in the Marlborough Sounds, in 1831. Norton seems to have arrived there in the company of the legendary sailor/whaler Jacky Guard.

The author Don Wilson is a descendant of the Patrick Norton, and of the other key Te Awaiti pioneer William Keenan. Keenan was in fact born in Australia, and was thus a ‘currency lad’, one of the terms that the author helps to clarify in the book. Indeed, most of the text is based on archival research and contextual material provided by authors researching Jacky Guard and the other whalers in the area, Guard being based at Port Underwood, in proximity of Cloudy Bay. One of the main sources is the diary of whaler James Heberley, which is quoted frequently (in italics without referencing).

Wilson’s text is divided into three parts, or ‘books’. The first is based on the transportation to Sydney via Brazil, and life in the wild colonial days of Australia. The second book, ‘Sealers and Whalers’, takes up the story as Norton’s sentence expires and he rejects taking up land in Sydney, instead going to sea with Jacky Guard. Apparently Guard had promised James Heberley that there was already a settlement at Te Awaiti, but when he arrived a year after Norton there was still nothing there. The third book provides the detail on how Te Awaiti was built up.

In the third book there is probably less detail about whaling than one would expect. It is concerned in particular with how a small whaling station would fit in an area dominated by Māori tribes and the conflict between Te Rauparaha’s Te Atiawa and Ngāi Tahu. The key aspect to survival in this pre-colonisation period was integration by marriage with Māori women. Wilson provides a key chapter on the complexity of the inter-racial marriages, both because of the tribal links created, and the relative status of the Māori wives. Patrick Norton ‘married’ Makareta Tingitu, a woman of high position in Ngāi Tahu; whereas the other whalers co-habited with Te Atiawa women. Wilson can only speculate on how they met and managed potential conflicts.

The book doesn’t shy away from dealing with the more difficult aspects of the era, whether that be cannibalism, or the reports of orgies among the whalers and their Māori companions. Of course, once the official colonisation had come, and the clergy had arrived in the South Island, the whalers made sure they were officially married, often a number of times. Patrick Norton died in 1854, and so most of the third book is really about his descendants, and their relationships with the other whalers and settlers in Marlborough and Kaikoura. In fact, the Nortons end up whaling and shearing sheep as far away as Campbell Island, far off to the south, before whaling ended in 1964.

This is certainly a good read for those interested in the whaling stations and in the Marlborough region. Maybe a lot will be familiar for those that have read about the exploits of Jacky Guard and his wife Betty, who was held captive by Māori. It is certainly a very professional production, with extensive footnotes, and maps and other illustrations. In particular, the reproduction of the old photographs is excellent.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Whaler by Providence: Patrick Norton in the Marlborough Sounds
by Don Wilson
Published by River Press
ISBN 9780994123442

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