Beche-de-mer beach-side manufacturing process

In 1829 the Glide brought six Maoris from New Zealand to help in the beche-de-mer work. The beche-de-mer trader’s shore plant and equipment… were few, and of a kind easily put up by natives, with bush materials;

•  the “fish” were taken by …divers working from canoes, and without any special gear. When they were received from the .. collectors, they were weighed and counted, and dumped into large casks filled with sea water, or into pools dug in the sand and having channels communicating with the sea at high tide.

In these pools the slime with which the creatures were covered was removed, and they were slit open and cleaned; and, though the intestines contained little but sand and water, the process was responsible for the “ancient and fish-like smell” characteristic of the traders’ camps.

• Though exposure to the air had little effect upon the live “fish, when cleaned they had to be cured without delay or they would coalesce into a glutinous mass of which no use could be made.

Off to the pot house: They were taken to the pot house – an open shed with a thatched roof, which housed large iron pots similar to those used by whalers. In these the “fish” were parboiled, in salt water; and for better results, the boiling was done twice, for about ten minutes each time.

Then to the smoke house: They were then removed to the smoke house, called in beach parlance the vala house, which was a long building, of native construction, with an earth floor. It was fitted with two sets of racks or shelves (vala), one on each side, with a passage between. The racks were built of thin sticks and reefs, supported on a framework of poles, and on them the “fish” were laid. Trenches were dug in the earth floor, under the racks, and in these, fires were made with green wood, to provide smoke and heat for curing. The slit “fish” were spread by means of short sticks, to prevent curling, and were smoked for several days, being turned at least once. When properly cured they were hard, of the consistency of sole leather, and would rattle like clips when handled. Thorough curing was necessary if the beche-de-mer was to reach its destination in good condition.

For building the houses, gathering the beche-de-mer, cutting and carrying firewood, cleaning and handling the “fish” during treatment, and bagging and loading the finished product, … labourers were needed.

High risk of fires; The shore processes were messy and exacting, and constant vigilance was necessary to prevent loss from over-heating or fire. the heat of the fires made the reeds and thatch of the vala house as dry as tinder, and little more than a spark was needed to sent the whole plant up in flames and smoke. It was temptingly easy for any native with a grudge against the owner, or with an eye to loot, to put a fire-stick to the wall as he worked, and, taking advantage of the confusion, to make off with the riches of the trade chest.

Arson a very regular event: Captain Wallis of the Zotoff, who was deservedly well-liked ….and probably suffered less than other captains, had six houses burnt in seven months; and during the whole period of that one voyage his losses were at least a round dozen. Visiting ships found it convenient to employ the beach-combers as their shore agents; and men who lacked the initiative or the capital to engage in the trade on their own account were glad to earn a little money in this way, for tobacco, arms, and ammunition.


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