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

Robert Espie: Pioneer Coast Whaler

Robert Espie: Pioneer Coast Whaler

Robert Espie (born in County Tyrone, Ulster, in 1811) migrated to Tasmania with his parents—some accounts say with an uncle—in 1817 and was trained as a carpenter. He reached Poverty Bay in the year 1837. His first wife was Ani Umutapua (or Kato) of Whanau-a-Tao hapu of Waima (Tokomaru Bay). There were three children—Margaret (Mrs. Lockwood), Hannah (Mrs. Arapeta Rangiuia) and a boy (who was drowned in the Uawa River). Numerous were the descendants of the alliance.

page 150

When the Rev. W. Williams and the Rev. R. Taylor passed down the East Coast in April, 1839, they called at Espie's whaling station at Mawhai. Mr. Williams states that the station was located at Motukaroro—“motu,” an island and “karoro” a seabird. The name has long since gone out of use. In his journal Mr. Taylor says that the station was at “Marphi” [Mawhai] in a picturesque setting on a promontory and that Mr. Espy's [Espie's] abode is near a promontory close to which is a remarkable rock like a pyramidical column; a small part joins the promontory.”

It deeply shocked Mr. Taylor to find that a man of Espie's upbringing was content to adopt such a primitive mode of living. “Mr. Espy,” he says, at page 99 of his journal, “is the son of a naval surgeon of great respectability in Van Diemen's Land [Tasmania]. [His father was Robert Espie, R.N., at one time surgeon at Port Dalrymple and, earlier, surgeon-superintendent of convict-carrying vessels.] Mr. Taylor adds: “But he lives here like every other trading European, with a native woman and in the native fashion.” The Espie abode is described as “a wretched one.” Three European assistants were employed at the station. When the clerics reached Tolaga Bay, they found, “at a place about three miles from Uawa pa,” two Englishmen sawing wood for Espie for casks.

In 1841, Espie was married to Ethel [? Downes]. It was common gossip, in later years, that his bride, who was only sixteen or seventeen years old, had been left at Poverty Bay by a vessel which had had to put in for a re-fit. In strict fact, the young woman was among the passengers whom Captain A. Campbell brought in the Minerva in June, 1841, after an uneventful voyage. The marriage ceremony was conducted by the Rev. W. Williams and they were the first European couple to be married by a clergyman in Poverty Bay. Their children were: Emma (Mrs. Walsh, who was slain in the massacre), John Edward (born at Te Arai in 1848 and died in January, 1933) and Mary Jane (who became Mrs. Alexander Robb).

A third venture into matrimony was made by Espie, but, after three children had been born of the union—once again two girls and a boy—this wife ran off with the master of a schooner which came into the Taruheru River to lift a cargo of wheat. As Espie suspected that his wife was on board the vessel, he armed himself with a gun and went down to the loading-bank at sailing time. The skipper popped Mrs. Espie into a cask. Invited to search the craft, Espie neglected to examine the cask! Espie told the skipper that, if he had found his wife on board, he would have shot him. This was the schooner's last visit to Poverty Bay. Espie died on 4 April, 1868.