Prized Resources of the Tohorā

Sept. 11, 2018, 2:19 p.m.

Māori were already familiar with the tohorā and it’s bountiful resources long before the first whaling ships came to hunt whales in the waters of Aotearoa. Because the tohorā is considered a whānaunga, Peter Kitchen says "they were given the same respect as a tūpāpaku (deceased)" when stranded on shore. Māori prized the teeth and jawbone of the whale above all. The strongest tools and weapons were fashioned from these.

The sperm whale was the most sought after of all the whales by the visiting whalers of the 1800's because its oil is the most prized of all the whales. The other resources that were routinely harvested from the whale are listed as follows:

Spermaceti - Finest of whale oil only found in Sperm whales. It was commonly used as a lubricant for machinery like clocks, watches, sewing machines etc. At the advent of the industrial age spermaceti was in high demand.

Blubber oil - The rich oil rendered from the blubber of the whale was used as an illuminant for street lamps and night lamps in the home also featured in soaps and cosmetics. Māori use it to preserve taonga and wood carvings.

Skin - Whale hide was stored in moisture after flensing to stop it from becoming brittle. The tanner would usually make protective aprons for the whalers among other things.

Teeth - The sperm whales ivory teeth was carved into such products as chess pieces, piano keys, or the handles of walking sticks.

Jawbone - The hardest and most dense bone of the whale. Generally used in the making of tools. It is still highly prized by Māori carvers that make taonga and weaponry.

Bones - The plastic of the 1800’s before plastic was invented. Used in many applications, toys mostly fashion in the manufacture of corsets, which fashionable ladies in the 1800s wore to compress their waistlines.

Sinew - The long thick tendinous sinew of the whale was used in bindings such as ropes also used for whips and tennis racquets but more commonly used for fishing lines and fishing nets.

Meat - In pre european times when a whale washes up Māori consider it a gift and none of it went to waste. Whale meat, if its fresh, is a source of food. Russian Inuits and Alaskan Eskimos still hunt and eat minke whale. Iceland and Japan still hunt fin whales for consumption.

Ambergris - A waxy substance made in stomach of sperm whales then expelled at sea. Depending on the whales diet and how long the ambergris has been floating around at sea before it’s found washed up on shore could make the difference between a few hundred dollars per kilo and 10’s of thousands per kilo. This easily makes it the most valuable resource of a whale and is illegal to use in most countries except France and Switzerland that use it for premium perfumes, fragrances and cosmetics.

Māori with knowledge of local waters were often recruited by whalers to set up stations on the shores usually in remote areas where the whaling ships can drop their catch to be flensed then harvested of its resources.

In 1910, nearly 60% of the whaling stations in Aotearoa were worked and managed by Māori and a few had their own fleet of whaling ships. These were mostly around the South Island.

From the 18th to the mid-19th century, the whaling industry prospered. By some reports, nearly 50,000 whales, including sperm whales, were killed each year. Due to studies showing that the whale populations were being threatened, the International Whaling Commission instituted a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1982.

The whaling industry is estimated to have accounted for 1.25 million whales weighing a total of 64 million tonnes.

 

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