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

William Stewart, The Sea Rover — Adventurous Career Ends in Poverty Bay

William Stewart, The Sea Rover
Adventurous Career Ends in Poverty Bay

Captain William Stewart, who claimed to have made the first purchase of land on the East Coast (1825) and who brought the first permanent white traders from Sydney to Poverty Bay (1831), was born in Scotland in 1776. He joined the Royal Navy and served in the West Indies. It was stated by Baron de Thierry that he deserted and became the master of a privateer. On 12 June, 1801, he reached Sydney from Calcutta. T. Shepherd, a surveyor who accompanied the Herd expedition to New Zealand in 1826, met him at Stewart Island. He described him as “a stout, good-looking man.” Stewart was pilot on board H.M.S. Herald when she visited the island in 1840. E. M. Williams, who was the interpreter, says that he was “a straight-forward, true-hearted sailor, who lived a temperate life in surroundings in which sobriety was rare.” By some early writers William Stewart was confused with Captain John Stewart, who, in October, 1830, took Rauparaha and a party of his warriors in the Elizabeth from Kapiti Island to Banks Peninsula on a secret mission of vengeance against a chief named Tamaiharanui.

Thomson (Story of New Zealand, vol. I, p. 291) says that Stewart was a good specimen of the sealer class and that, by birth, he was a Scottish Jacobite, “who had seen the world and had drunk Burgundy.” After residing in New Zealand for many years he returned to Scotland to see his forlorn wife, but she, having conceived him dead, had remarried and denied his personal identity. As a consequence he returned to New Zealand. Stewart, he adds, was in a destitute state when he made his last home in Poverty Bay. Occasionally he might have been seen sitting among the natives, as they passed a pipe from mouth to mouth, relating tales of his adventures, which, in length and variety, resembled those of Sinbad the Sailor. Up till the end (which came in 1851) he wore the tartan of his Royal clan.

Stewart figured in a romantic story based on a conjecture that a grave on Campbell Island contained the remains of Charlotte, a daughter of Bonnie Prince Charlie of '45 celebrity and Clementina Wilkinshaw (sometimes spelt Walkenshaw), who followed him to France. Charlotte, it was stated, was believed by the Jacobites to have adopted the role of spy for the English Government, and they arranged with Stewart to carry her off to the South Seas. The facts, according to W. Pember Reeves (New Zealand, 1908), were that it was the mother who was suspected of being a spy, and she was driven away by Prince Charlie. Charlotte, who remained with her father till his death in 1788, died in the following year. Stewart did not find his way to the South Pacific until 12 years afterwards.

In Sir James Ross's account of the Antarctic expedition of 1840, mention is made of a claim by whalers that they had seen on Campbell Island a woman who appeared in the Royal Stewart tartan and with a sprig of heather in her bonnet. A woman and three men were left on the island by the New Zealander in 1835; they were taken off by the Enderbys' whaler Eliza Scott on 10 January, 1839. The only woman known to have been buried on the island is Elizabeth Parr, of Norfolk page 461 Island, who was drowned in November, 1810, when a jollyboat belonging to the Perseverance upset and Captain Hasselbourgh (the discoverer of the island) also lost his life.

How it came about that Stewart's name was given to Stewart Island is not clear. Captain Cook was uncertain whether the land which forms the island was insular. On the other hand, Parkinson, as well as some other co-voyagers, was satisfied on the point, and showed a strait on his map (1784) Scholefield (Dictionary of New Zealand Biography) says that Stewart took a sealing gang to the island in the Pegasus in 1803, but he does not mention any authority for a claim that Stewart was the first discoverer of the strait. The Alexander Turnbull Library has a sketch (supplied by the New South Wales Lands Department) which states that the strait was discovered and examined by Mr. O. F. Smith, an American, whilst he was searching for seals in 1804, and that he communicated his chart to Captain P. G. King (Governor of New South Wales) in March, 1806.

The “Smith” chart does not appear to have been wholly Smith's work. One of the legends upon it states: “In these stations Mr. Smith took meridian altitudes.” Another reads: “Mr. Smith speaks very highly of the excellence of the harbours, etc.” Port Adventure appears as Port Honduras (the name of a sealer). The Mitchell Librarian informed the writer (4/9/1940) that “no mention of the discovery of the strait is to be found in Governor King's dispatches, and that its existence was not reported in the Sydney Gazette until March, 1809.” There is no record that Stewart ever claimed to have been the first discoverer of the strait. Perhaps his name was bestowed upon the island in recognition of his work in surveying its coasts in 1809 whilst he was chief officer of the Pegasus, and because he compiled the first chart, which was published in London in 1815.

Heta, an elderly native of Muriwai, told the writer in 1912, that Stewart lived with Captain Harris at Opou for about two years. Harris—in fact, everybody—was very good to him. He was not addicted to spirits and did not touch ale. Claret was his favourite drink. His beard was massive, but it had turned grey. As he strolled around he kept on muttering, and natives who overheard him would whisper to one another that his state of mental unrest was due to an evil spirit troubling him. Harris informed Donald McLean on 10 September, 1851, that Stewart had died that morning after a severe illness lasting two months. E. F. Harris (Harris Memoirs) says that Stewart was buried “at the south-east end of Captain Harris's old garden at Tapatahi (Opou, Poverty Bay).” The spot might have been washed away by floods in the Waipaoa River. On the other hand, there have also been accretions in the locality.