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|The French Whaling
Ship 'Jean Bart' arriving off Waitangi in the Chatham Is. 1838
Oil on canvas (1200 x 850)mm
The 'Jean Bart' arrived at The Bay of Islands in New Zealand on 16 February 1838. While there the Captain committed suicide and 3 of the crew deserted. Under the command of her 1st. Officer, on 23 March she left The Bay of Islands bound for the Chathams, hunting whale on the way. She seems to have arrived off Waitangi on Chatham Island in early May as the local Maori recalled that the karaka berries were red. Working in to anchor off Waitangi the ship appears to have got in to what was thought to be shoal water. An account said that she stirred up the bottom but also kelp beds were common about the Chathams, many of them in relatively deep water up to 10 and 11 metres.The wind was from the north and she would have been making her approach on the port tack. It was necessary to bring the ship about but it seems that she could not stay and it was necessary to launch two whaleboats to tow her head around using lines from her jibboom. In the painting waka (canoes) from Waitangi are waiting for the 'Jean Bart' to get to anchor so they can board and trade. The large waka in the left foreground belonged to the Ngatitama people whose chief was Nga Tuna. Locals in other smaller fishing canoes are also waiting to board. Out of the field of the painting, coming in from the north (right) would be another large waka belonging to the Ngatimutunga people from across the bay who were rivals to the Waitangi tribes. The prow carving of the large waka in the painting is now in the Rouen Museum in France.
The exact sequence of events which followed is uncertain but it seems that when the Maori boarded the ship there was some dispute between the tribes, and with the Maori propensity for dramatic display, this would have appeared very threatening to the crew. The French, thinking they were to be attacked decided to take the initiative and prempt the threat by attacking, first arming themselves with firearms and whaling tools such as the razor sharp blubber spades. About twenty or so of the Maori had been invited to go below to the main cabin of whom some were killed and several wounded. All the Maori on deck were either killed or driven overboard apart from a few who were allowed to join the others in the cabin. It seems that the French were prepared to allow the survivors ashore but the Maori considered this a trap to get them to leave the refuge of the cabin. Now there was a stalemate with the Maori under seige in the cabin while the crew held the deck. The anchor had been either weighed or slipped by the crew and the ship was now drifting out to sea but the ship could not be brought under command as the Maori, in the cabin aft, had found firearms and ammunition in the lazeret and prevented any approach to the wheel.
Around dusk the Mate was shot and killed trying to gain the wheel. The crew then secured the cabin, fitting the skylight shutters and passing chains over them. All through that night the Maori were menaced by attempted attacks. One of these attacks was by the cooper who cut through the bulkhead into the cabin, but as soon as he became visible to the beseiged Maori he was shot and killed. Early the next morning there was a loud noise on deck and then it fell quiet. The Maori, looking out of the stern windows saw the French pulling away in three or four boats so they rushed on deck and fired a volley at the French with apparently little effect. The boats steered off to the west and it was supposed they were making for New Zealand. They were never heard from again.
By now the ship was out of sight of land. The Maori considered chasing the boats but had too much difficulty handling the ship. Luckily there were four among them who had some experience and they began to work the vessel back to the island. A favourable slant on the third day enabled them to come to anchor off Pohauta Bay on the opposite side of Petre Bay from Waitangi. One account claims that the sails were left unfurled and the ship drifted ashore while another says that the old dispute between the two tribes resurfaced after Nga Tuna stated his intention to take the ship over to Waitangi. One of the Ngatimutunga people knocked a shackle pin out of the anchor cable causing the ship to go ashore. Whichever story is true, the ship was subsequently looted and burned and her remains are still there on the bottom off what is now Ocean Bay.
Captain Cécille of the 'Héroine', a French warship lying in the Bay of Islands came to hear of the attack and sailed to the Chathams on a punitive expedition during which he caused all the waka to be destroyed, the village shelled and Nga Tuna's wife killed, while Nga Tuna was taken prisoner. He commited suicide while the 'Héroine' was in Chile on her way back to France.
The above account of the events on the 'Jean Bart' is largly based on Maori recollections and thus could be considered biased. However many details 'read' true as regards the detail of the ship and the seamanship involved and it can be well understood how the whole sad chain of events came about by a misunderstanding.