STEWART, Captain William W.
(c. 1776–1851). Whaler and sealer.
Captain William W. Stewart was born in Scotland about 1776. He served with the Royal Navy from 1793 till 1797 and saw active service in the West Indies under Admiral Jervis and General Sir C. Grey. In June 1801 he arrived at Port Jackson, from Calcutta, in the Harrington, which belonged to Messrs Chace and Co. As this ship carried letters of marque, it lends a certain amount of credibility to de Thierry's later assertion that Stewart had been prizemaster of a privateer. When he arrived at Port Jackson, Stewart had £1,500 which he used to purchase a partnership with John Palmer, the Commissary-General, in the Bass Strait sealing trade. Between 1801 and 1805 his name appears frequently in the sealing records, usually as commander of one or other of Chace and Co's. sloops, George or Edwin. In 1803 he was in command when the former went ashore in Bass Strait. Later in the year Stewart in the Edwin helped the authorities to apprehend a gang of runaway convicts led by the notorious Duce. Stewart joined Campbell and Co. in 1805 and, for several seasons, led their sealing crews at Antipodes Island. In 1809 he was first officer on the Pegasus (Captain S. Chace) when it visited New Zealand waters. On this voyage, the reason for which has never been satisfactorily explained, Stewart charted the harbour at Port Pegasus; determined the northerly points—which proved Stewart Island to be an island; corrected Cook's mistaken assumption that Banks Peninsula was an island; and completed the Admiralty chart of the Chathams, which Broughton had not finished during his visit in 1791. After this the Pegasus sailed for England, reaching Gravesend in August 1810. Stewart's chart of Port Pegasus, which was published in the Oriental Navigator in 1816, shows that he was an extremely capable hydrographer, while the place names he bestowed in the area suggest that he had been well educated. Little is known of his movements during the next 10 years; however, in 1824 he returned to England, where he succeeded in interesting Messrs T. and D. Asquith in a proposal to establish a timber, flax, and trading settlement at Stewart Island. In 1826, as a result of Stewart's negotiations, the Prince of Denmark and Lord Rodney were dispatched. Stewart himself made three trips to the island to further the scheme, his first coinciding with the arrival, on 25 March 1826, of Captain Herd's first New Zealand Company expedition, which was en route for Hokianga. On one of his trips Stewart brought from the Bay of Islands a party of sawyers who built the schooner Joseph Weller—the first ship known to have been built at Stewart Island. In 1827, as John Guard's descendants assert, Stewart sought refuge at Cloudy Bay following the failure of his settlement scheme. He appeared briefly at Mana Island in 1833; and, in the following year, as commander of the Bee, was the hero of a kidnapping incident in Hawaiian waters. By 1840 he was again living at Stewart Island and piloted HMS Herald when Bunbury arrived there to proclaim British sovereignty. Towards the end of 1849, or early in 1850, Stewart visited Captain J. W. Harris at his trading post at Poverty Bay. He died there on 10 September 1851.
In his own day Stewart was the subject of many sealers' tales, some fantastic. Thus he was credited, among other deeds, with taking the Jacobite Princess, Charlotte Stuart, a daughter of Bonnie Prince Charlie, to Campbell Island, a myth still revived from time to time. Although little authentic detail survives about Captain William Stewart, who gave his name to Stewart Island, it would appear that the experiences of at least three Captain Stewarts have become inextricably inter-twined.
by Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.
- Rakiura—a History of Stewart Island, New Zealand, Howard, B. (1940)
- Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast, N.I., N.Z., Mackay, J. A. (1949).