Page 1: Biography
Whaler, trader, founding father
This biography, written by Elspeth M. Simpson and K. M. Simpson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 1, 1990.
Thomas Halbert, known as Tame Poto (Tommy Short) because of his short stature, was born at Newcastle upon Tyne, England, probably in 1806. His parents were probably William and Sarah Halbert, of Anglo-Scottish descent. Thomas Halbert arrived in New Zealand in 1831 and spent the rest of his life as a whaler, trader and farmer. Through his alliances with six Maori women he was connected with three East Coast tribes: Ngati Kahungunu of the Mahia peninsula, Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki and Rongowhakaata of Poverty Bay. Eight of his children survived to adulthood and founded families well known today in Poverty Bay.
Halbert's six alliances with Maori women of high standing made him famous locally, and earned him, among Europeans, the nickname of 'Henry VIII'. His life was a fascinating combination of commercial and matrimonial ventures. Around 1831 he took over a trading post at Nukutaurua on the Mahia peninsula, and lived there with his first wife. Within 18 months he had moved to Poverty Bay, where he opened a trading post at Matawhero. He did a brisk trade mainly in muskets, tobacco and blankets, but, because of his generosity in giving credit, the business soon failed. He moved to Wherowhero (Muriwai), probably in 1834, where there was a large Maori population and other European traders.
His next three wives, all belonging to Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki, were alliances of short duration. Pirihira Konekone, his second wife, left him after she became pregnant, and went to live with Raharuhi Rukupo of Ngati Kaipoho, the master carver. Raharuhi adopted Pirihira's son, Otene Pitau, who became a leader of the Pakirikiri people.
A third wife, Mereana Wero, was soon displaced by a rival, Riria Mauaranui, who had a son in 1837. The Reverend William Williams married Thomas and Riria on 21 April 1839, and baptised the son. This was Wiremu Pere, who became an important figure in local and national politics.
In 1837 Halbert assisted Captain J. W. Harris in operating the first whaling station at the mouth of the Turanganui River, and continued whaling for some years. In 1839 came his first land ventures. He purchased a number of small blocks, and for £315 a large block of land called Pouparae, near Waerenga-a-hika. Riria's hapu, Te Whanau-a-Kai, who sold the land, assumed that it was a future provision for Wi Pere. Halbert declared that he intended to rear pigs for export. His interest soon faded, and in 1841 he sold Pouparae to Captain Harris and William Williams. This transaction became the subject of an important land claim in 1859, when Wi Pere tried to regain his inheritance by legal process. In 1867 Wi Pere withdrew his claim and Pouparae was awarded to William Williams.
During the 1840s Halbert entered a fifth, more stable marriage, with Keita Kaikiri of Rongowhakaata, a close relative of Raharuhi Rukupo. The eldest of four daughters of this union, Kate Wyllie, became a successful advocate in the land claims of the 1860s. A sixth marriage, to Maora Pani, also of Rongowhakaata, produced one boy and one girl who survived to adulthood, The marriage lasted until his death.
In 1851 Halbert figured in the first court hearing in Poverty Bay. By this time discontent was growing among Maori over land sales, and the European settlers were becoming nervous. Influential residents accused others of selling gunpowder to the Maori. Halbert was the unfortunate one to be apprehended and found guilty.
Halbert lived through lawless and violent times. As a trader he was a link between Maori and Pakeha. Leading Maori often exchanged a daughter and a piece of land for a European husband who was a steady contact with the new economy. The early traders and whalers were happy with this arrangement. Settlers with sharp entrepreneurial skills grasped the opportunities and favours that were available and became wealthy. But Thomas Halbert was not one of these.
The colourful Halbert met a terrible death. On the night of 12 April 1865 he was returning from a drinking session on board a schooner berthed in the Taruheru River, when his boat overturned in the shallow muddy water. Halbert sank deep into the silt and was drowned by the rising tide. He was buried in the old Makaraka cemetery, Gisborne.