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Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast, N.I., N.Z.

“Tommy Short” and His Six Wives

“Tommy Short” and His Six Wives

Known to the natives as “Tame Puti” (“Tommy Short”), Thomas Halbert reached Poverty Bay in 1832. One of his land claims (4/11/1840) bears a declaration to the effect that he had then lived in the district for eight years. In the Harris Memoirs it is stated that, soon after Harris settled in Poverty Bay in 1831, Halbert arrived, and then some others, notably R. Espie and A. Arthur.

Thomas Halbert junior (born in 1863) told the writer that his father was born at Newcastle-on-Tyne; that he was of Anglo-Scottish descent; and that he landed at Poverty Bay from a three-masted whaler. He went to trade at Mahia for a short period before he settled permanently in Poverty Bay. [As Barnet Burns had cleared out from his trading post there, it is not unlikely that Halbert was sent by Harris to replace him.] Whilst his father was at Mahia he made the first of six matrimonial ventures. His initial spouse belonged to the Rongo-wahine tribe. They had a son who died in infancy. The first Mrs. Halbert did not accompany her husband upon his return to Poverty Bay.

Whilst Halbert was at Mahia he had for an assistant a pakeha who had landed from the same vessel. Cannibalism had not then been completely given up there. One day, they found portion of a human body which had been sent as a gift to their hosts by a neighbouring tribe, but they feared that, if they buried it and the grave was found, that method of disposal would lead to suspicion falling upon them.

Upon his return to Poverty Bay, Halbert set up as a trader in the locality now known as “The Willows.” Soon, he began to do a roaring trade in muskets as well as tobacco, blankets, etc., but, on account of giving too much credit, he had to give up business. On many occasions after his death, his son Wi Pere said to old customers: “Look here, you fellows! Pay me what you owed my father!”

It was probably in 1834 that Halbert took up his residence at Muriwai. He had married again, his second wife being Pirihira Konekone, who belonged to T'Aitanga-a-Mahaki tribe. They quarrelled after she had become an expectant mother, and she went to live with Lazarus (Raharuhi), who, having no children of his own, gladly adopted her infant at birth. The child was named Otene Pitau, and he became a leader among the natives at Pakirikiri. Otene married Mere Whiti Hone (a sister of Tom Jones). He died at Manutuke on 13 August, 1921.

Halbert then associated with Mereana Wero, also of T'Aitanga-a-Mahaki tribe, but she was quickly displaced by a rival named Riria Mauaranui. So disgusted was Mereana by being slighted in such a manner that she took a negro for husband; there was no issue of the union. In turn, she entered into another marriage to become the mother of Peka Kerikeri. Riria, who belonged to T'Aitanga-a-Mahaki, bore a son. Wi Pere, who was destined to play an important part in the political life of Poverty Bay and the East Coast. He told the Native Land Court (Gisborne minute book No. 26) that he was born on 7 March, 1837, and that date also appears in his own account of his life which was posthumously published in The Gisborne Times on 16 February, 1916.

When Halbert went to Turanganui in 1837 to assist Harris to operate his whaling station, he retained his home at Muriwai. Its position is shown on a marine survey plan of the East Coast which was compiled in page 105 that year by Captain Wing of the schooner Trent. His neighbours then, according to evidence given before the P.B. Crown Grants Commission in 1869, were William Morris, James Wilson and Peter Simpson.

Upon purchasing “Pouparae” in 1839, Halbert went to reside there for the purpose of rearing pigs for export. During the hearing of his claim to the property, he stated that Wi Pere was his only child at the time of the purchase. His omission of Otene Pitau can be explained only by the suggestion that, as Lazarus had adopted that child, he (Halbert) felt that he had no further claim to him. A statement by Halbert in 1859 with reference to Wi Pere: “Now that he is 21 years old” has been taken in some quarters to mean that Wi was not born until 1838. On the other hand, his father might have intended merely to indicate that Wi had attained legal age.

Halbert's fifth marital alliance was with Kaikeri, who belonged to Rongowhakaata tribe. This proved a much more durable marriage, the issue comprising several children: Keita (Kate), who became the wife of James Ralston Wyllie, and, after his death, the wife of M. J. Gannon; Mere, who became Mrs. Heany, and, later, Mrs. Donald Gordon; Maata (Mrs. Cuff); and Sarah (Mrs. Cunningham), who was the mother of Moana Paratene, a sister of whom married Reweti Kohere, of East Cape.

It fell to Halbert's lot to have still another wife, Maora Pani, who also belonged to Rongowhakaata tribe. [She had been married previously to Tiopira, and a child of that union became Mrs. J. Woodbine Johnson.] Their children comprised: Thomas Halbert junior; twins, who died in infancy; and Matewai (Alice), who became Mrs. Mataira, of Nuhaka. Maora lived until October, 1913. Upon Halbert's death, she had remarried, her second husband bearing the name Donaldson.

Death in a terrible form overtook Halbert one dark night in April, 1865. With two brothers named Yates, he had been drinking on board a schooner that was lying in the Taruheru River near Makaraka. On their way back to the landing-place, their flat-bottomed boat overturned in a shallow, but very muddy, spot. According to a correspondent of the Hawke's Bay Herald, all three were wearing heavy sea boots. One of the Yates brothers got ashore, but the other (George) and Halbert sank so deep in the silt that they could not extricate themselves, and had so to remain until the tide rose and death put an end to their sufferings.