ELIZABETH, INCIDENT OF BRIG
Towards the end of February 1830 the merchant brigantine Elizabeth (236 tons), of Yarmouth, sailed from London on a trading voyage to Australia and the South Seas under the command of Captain John Stewart, of Southdown, Sussex. After visiting Sydney Stewart left on 19 August 1830 for Kapiti Island, where Te Rauparaha promised him a cargo of flax in return for transporting a large Ngati Toa party to Akaroa. On their arrival there Stewart concealed the presence of the Ngati Toas for several days while he endeavoured, “by every possible artifice”, to lure Tamaiharanui, the principal Ngai Tahu chief in the district, to visit the Elizabeth. At length Tamaiharanui came aboard with his daughter, Nga Roimata, a girl of about 11 or 12 years of age. They were escorted to the cabin where Clementson, the mate, put the chief in irons. Later in the day the chief's wife, Te Whe, came on board and was also taken prisoner. That night Te Rauparaha and his party went ashore in the ship's boats and sacked Takapuneke kainga, killing every Maori they found. Altogether about 100 of the Ngai Tahu were killed, their flesh taken on board the Elizabeth to provide a feast for the victors. About 50 prisoners, including Tamaiharanui and his wife and daughter, were taken to Kapiti. Expecting little mercy from Te Rauparaha, Tamaiharanui succeeded in strangling his daughter and disposing of her body at sea. Te Rauparaha was greatly incensed by this act and, upon his arrival at Kapiti, caused the prisoners to be tortured to death. After this episode the Elizabeth sailed for Sydney, arriving there on 15 January 1831.
Early in February 1831 one of Tamaiharanui's nephews went to Sydney and reported Stewart's activities to Governor Darling. As a result of this information the authorities seized the Elizabeth and charged Stewart and Clementson with murder. On 16 May 1831 Stewart appeared before the Sydney Court, but the case against him was abandoned when it was discovered that all the Crown witnesses had disappeared. Moreover, the Crown Solicitor offered the opinion that “the New Zealand tribes, having been engaged in what may be regarded as legitimate warfare according to the usages of their own country … the captain and crew of the Elizabeth could not be charged as accessories to murder”. On 10 October 1831, shortly after Stewart and the Elizabeth had left the colony, Darling informed Lord Goderich that the details of the Banks Peninsula crime were worse than had been supposed. On 28 May 1832 the Colonial Office overruled the Crown Solicitor of New South Wales and indicated legal grounds upon which Stewart could be tried, but by this time the Elizabeth had returned to England under a new captain. The ship's owners declined an official request to furnish the names of any crew members. Although nothing is known of Stewart's fate, the early whalers maintained that he died shortly after leaving Sydney. According to this story “he dropped dead on the deck of the Elizabeth rounding the iceberg promontory of Cape Horn, and his body, reeking with rum, was pitched overboard by his own crew with little ceremony and no regret”.
The Elizabeth incident was seized upon and embroidered to suit the various “parties” of a later day, and in the course of time many gory details were added. In addition to the account given in Governor Darling's dispatches, there are also Ngati Toa, Ngai Tahu, and whalers' versions which all differ on material points, including Stewart's part in the affair. It is also not true, as has been sometimes claimed, that Captain John Stewart of the Elizabeth was the Captain William Stewart of Stewart Island.
by Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.
- Historical Records of Australia, Series I, Vol. XVI, 1831–32 (1923), (Darling's version)
- The Story of New Zealand, Thomson, A. S. (1959), (the whalers' version)
- Lore and History of the South Island Maori, Taylor, W. A. (1950), (Ngai Tahu version)
- The Stirring Times of Te Rauparaha, Travers, W. T. L. (1872), (Ngati Toa version)
- Australian Almanack (N.S.W.) 1831, 1832.