WA History

The Māori Whaler

It was the people who knew him best who, after he had passed, recounted the early years of William Parr, also known as Butty. While it was likely that they knew these details because he had told them the tales of his life, it was also possible that there were some inaccuracies due to the second-hand nature of the telling of the story.

Butty was born circa 1813 and was said to be from Tāmaki Makaurau (Auckland) in Aotearoa (New Zealand). He was the son of a Māori chief and was given the names Pah or Putty, which later became Butty. In the 1820s, during the musket wars, he was captured by another Māori tribe from the Bay of Islands. He lived with them for many years until, at age 16, he joined a church mission and sailed on their schooner Columbine.

…his face and chest were scarred with tatoo markings.

The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954); 22 July 1933; Page 4; Old Colonial Days

Butty eventually left the missionaries and joined an English whaling ship as their third mate. After 23 months at sea, he arrived in Fremantle on 24 February 1845 aboard the barque ‘Merope.’

The barque was anchored off the coast of Fremantle when, during a fierce thunderstorm, it parted from its bower anchors, was damaged on Scotts Reef, and stranded on the Parmelia Bank. An agent offered the vessel and its contents for sale. While Captain Hogg and the rest of the crew departed for South Australia later that year, Butty opted to stay in Western Australia.

Butty continued working on whaling ships. He next appeared in a Perth newspaper dated 29 July 1848. Patrick Marmion had obtained a whaling licence for Fremantle and provided a list of his whaling party. Butty (recorded as William Parr) was one of four headsmen (the commander of a whaling vessel). They started auspiciously, capturing a whale days after the advertisement appeared.

Whaling circa 1860. Courtesy of the US Library of Congress.

The following year, he was no longer working for Marmion and was instead part of Daniel Scott’s whaling party at Fremantle. Again, he was recorded as a headsman. That year, the whaling season experienced little success. Scott’s party was the only one that “broke the spell which appeared to hover over their exertions,” yielding four tuns of oil. It was welcome news at a time when the London market was experiencing high oil prices.

In 1854, the word ‘gold’ reverberated around the colony. Quartz found at Cardup sparked interest among groups of men who left Fremantle to start prospecting. Four different parties arrived at the location and began digging. Butty was one of ten men who were part of Sloan’s party. They sank a shaft thirteen feet and brought up large quantities of auriferous quartz. The reporter specifically noted that Butty had found a small nugget.

One of the party, a New Zealander, known as “Butty,” (a whaler we believe in Mr Harwoods employment) picked up a piece of quartz, with a small nugget imbedded in it; its size about that of a barleycorn.

The Perth Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News (WA : 1848 – 1864); 31 March 1854; Page 2; Discovery of Gold!!!

His foray into gold prospecting was short-lived. The Cardup goldfield was not as profitable as hoped, and Butty returned to whaling.

On 12 February 1856, Butty brought a civil case against Captain Isaac Tompkins to recover wages of £86 due to him while working as the second mate aboard the American whaling ship ‘Young Phoenix.’ He testified that in December 1850, he had entered into an agreement with Tompkins to work on the ship and “to be discharged in some port in the Indian ocean.” The ‘Young Phoenix’ arrived at Mauritius, and Butty demanded his discharge. Before it was granted, a new agreement was entered into. They then proceeded to the Vasse, and Butty left the ship.

Tompkins argued that Butty had joined the whaling voyage and was contracted to remain aboard the ship until it was full of oil. Only at that point was he to be discharged at a port in the Indian Ocean. He was not permitted to leave any earlier. Having heard the evidence from the Captain and the first mate, the Commissioner of the High Court, William Mackie, dismissed Butty’s case as a non-suit.

The same year, John Bateman established a whale fishery at Fremantle and Bunbury. In August, he published a notice of men that he had employed. At the top of the list, as a headsman, was Butty. He would go on to become the Bateman brothers’ “principal man in the whaling business.

He was still working for Bateman in November 1859 when a correspondent provided ‘Local and Domestic Intelligence’ for the southern district. Whaling was not going as well as they hoped, but they did note that at Bunbury, Butty’s party killed a right whale that yielded 8 3/4 tuns of oil and a humpback whale that yielded 1 3/4 tuns.

In the following year’s whaling season at Bunbury, Butty experienced similar success, but not without loss. He and his party captured a four-ton humpback whale, but during the process, it damaged the boat causing it to sink. Bateman’s party secured the whale, but they also suffered damage. Butty’s vessel was later recovered and was able to be repaired.

Butty established his own whaling parties in 1861. He organised one at Bunbury and managed another (along with George Bridges) at Castle Rock in Geographe Bay. A reporter noted that Bateman planned to send his boats to either station.

His work as a whaler sent him all along the coast of Western Australia. He “possessed undaunted courage, with an even temperament and generous disposition.” His visits left a lasting impression. His time whaling at Esperance resulted in Butty Head and Butty Harbour being named after him, while other places were named due to his association with them.

Before Lieutenant Commander John Combe renamed it after himself, Combe Island (today’s Westall Island) was initially known as Monkey Jacket Island. Sailors dubbed it that after Butty left his monkey jacket there during a sealing expedition. On another occasion, he made a plum pudding while on a beach west of Esperance. It must have been a memorable moment for the sailors with him. They presumably dubbed it Plumpudding Beach, and it is still called that today.

Combe Island (bottom left) southwest of Cape Arid. Today it is called Westall Island. Courtesy of State Library Victoria.

Another story occurred at Champion Bay (Geraldton) in the early 1860s. It was a cold morning, and Butty was one of a group of people standing on the jetty. Peering into the water (about two fathoms deep), he saw something at the bottom.

Peeling off everything save his pants, and in bated breath saying, “I see ‘em!” he motioned the bystanders to remain quiet and thereupon slid down the pile into the sea and soon found his way to the bottom.

The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1955); 21 July 1888; Page 3; Our Open Column

Everyone watched curiously. Butty swam and pushed his way through the thick seaweed for two or three minutes. He reemerged, barely showing any exhaustion and “blowing like a grampus he motioned for help.” In each hand, he held a crayfish, while there was another between his teeth! The writer, ‘An Old Bay Resident,’ had never seen a crayfish at Geraldton before that day. They claimed that “Poor old ‘Butty’s’ example was the signal for obtaining a supply of that relished crustacea, which has ever since been kept up to the full demand of the Geraldtonians.

Whalers were known for participating in regattas and eagerly competed in races. Butty competed in a race involving sailing boats over 17 feet on the keel on New Year’s Day in 1874. The weather was “beautifully clear and bright” at Shark Bay, and everything “passed off without a hitch.” Up for grabs were 15 bags of pearl shells with a sweepstakes of two bags added. Butty, sailing a boat named ‘Gumsucker,’ came third.

It was inevitable that tales of whaling would result in stories of sharks. The writer sharing the story referred to Butty as a “well-known and much respected old whaler,” who often talked about the time he encountered a 12-foot shark. He was out whaling and finally got the whale ashore. While he was dealing with it, a shark continually tried to get at the blubber. After one too many attacks and feeling uncomfortable, Butty picked up his spade and brought it down upon the shark’s head. In response, the shark launched itself out of the ocean, missing Butty by inches. He considered it “a most providential escape.

When he was not whaling, Butty went fishing with his mate, Richard Maxworthy. Together, they caught tons of snapper and carefully dried them at Safety Bay. All the fish they caught were sold to John Bateman, who then exported them to China and Mauritius.

As the years passed, Bateman tried to encourage Butty to live on land, but he was uninterested. He preferred being near the ocean. In the late 1880s, he obtained work as a ship’s husband. The job involved living on vessels that were out of service and attending to any repairs and management they needed. In 1888, aged about 75, he was living on the schooner ‘Bessie.’ It was there, on 13 July 1888, that those who boarded the ship found that Butty had died. ‘Bessie’ was anchored near Garden Island, and they brought his remains ashore in a whaleboat. Having been “ailing for some time,” his death was not wholly unexpected.

The funeral took place on the following day. In a decorated hearse, Butty’s remains were conveyed to the old Skinner Street Cemetery (Fremantle) for burial. He was followed on foot by his whaling comrades.

As news of his death trickled around the colony, many people who knew him expressed sadness and recalled their stories. While writing a eulogy, an author providing Fremantle news turned to John Bateman. It was Bateman who shared his memories and what he knew about Butty’s life.

The deceased was an expert whaler, and with him in charge of the steer-oar his comrades were never known to lose confidence, however dangerous might be their pursuit of the fish they sought to capture.

The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1955); 16 July 1888; Page 3; Our Fremantle Letter

Over the years, he was employed by George Chapman, Daniel Scott, Patrick Marmion, Joshua Harwood, Hugh McKenzie, John Thomas, Thomas Sherratt, and John and Walter Bateman. Ever respectful and cautious with his employers’ funds, he was often generous with his own. John Bateman recalled that he once paid Butty over £100, his share for a whaling season. In a few days, it was gone. He regularly enjoyed spending his money by giving presents and entertaining his friends.

Mr. Bateman says the deceased had a prayerbook, which he seemed to very much prize, and he believed him to have been a man possessed of considerable piety.

The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1955); 16 July 1888; Page 3; Our Fremantle Letter

Butty’s name was synonymous with whaling in Western Australia. He was well-respected and “well liked by everyone.” For years after his death, whenever an old sailing identity was asked to recall people from the past, they usually mentioned Butty. David Butchart was 94 in 1933 when he was interviewed by a reporter. He was not a sailor, but he remembered the whaling days and the best-known harpooners. Among the names listed was Butty’s. According to David, he was “the champion of the lot.

Butty Head and Butty Harbour circa 1897. Courtesy of State Library Victoria.

Sources:

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