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Seal Shooting in Bass's Straits

Date: 1881
Overall: 200 x 270 mm
Medium: Ink on paper
Credit Line: ANMM Collection Purchased with USA Bicentennial Gift funds
Object Name: Engraving
Object No: 00014699

User Terms

    This engraving featured in the Illustrated Australian News depicts seal hunting in Bass Strait. A sail boat carrying four men are approaching a group of seals along the rocky shoreline. Some of seals are shown disappearing into the water, their tails only visible.
    SignificanceThis engraving is representative of the lucrative sealing industry in Bass Strait in the 19th century, which drew hundreds of British and American ships to Australian waters causing conflict with locals over sealing rights.
    History"The island of Van Dieman, the south-west coast of New Holland, and the southern parts of New Zealand, produce seals of all kinds in quantities at present almost innumerable. Their stations on rocks or in bays have remain'd unmolested since the Creation. The beach is incumber'd with their quantities, and those who visit their haunts have less trouble in killing them than the servants of the victualling office have who kill hogs in a pen with mallets" Sir Joseph Banks, 1806.

    Sir Joseph Banks and the survivors of the SYDNEY COVE wreck in 1797 reported of large colonies of seals in the Bass Strait. In 1800, Govenor King permitted colonists to catch seals on Furneaux' Island, and by 1803 five of the leading merchants in Sydney - Robert Campbell, John Palmer, Henry Kable, James Underwood and Simeon Lord - were engaged in sealing.

    However it was not just colonial entrepreneurs who began sealing in Bass Strait - an influx of British and American sealers, and to a lesser extent Indian and Mauritian, came to Australia waters in the early 1800s. At this time, a ship load of seal skins could sell for £10,000 in England, and even more in China, and American ships were already regularly visiting Australian ports hunting whales.

    After a clash between Australian and American sealers in 1803, and rising concerns of the international competition, Governor King forbade American ship building in Bass Strait in May 1804. In August, King ordered that Sydney was not to be a depot for foreign sealers, and that no foreign vessels were to be given clearance for sealing. Despite the regulations, American sealers continued to operate in Bass Strait, ignoring the instructions of local sealers to move on. By 1807, the lucrative and relatively unregulated industry had attracted around 200 sealers in Bass Strait alone.

    Sealers lived on the offshore islands of Furneaux and Kent, as well as the rocky and remote outcrops of the mainland - their camps lasting for as long as the seals did. The abundance of seals at breeding colonies along the coast ensured the animals were easy to hunt, and once numbers dwindled, the sealers moved on to the next colony. By 1810, the number of seals in Bass Strait had drastically decreased, and many sealers moved on to the southern islands of New Zealand. Sealing in Bass Strait continued slowly until 1832 when it was simply no longer profitable, and ceased.

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