Convict transportation, whaling adventures, drunken sprees: a life lived and lost in Canterbury

During the early 1880s, as many of the original whaling settlers were in their dotage, the owner and editor of the Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser, Howard Charles Jacobsen, was collecting their memories and publishing their stories in a book called “Tales of Banks Peninsula“, and in his newspaper. [1] Resurrected by his daughter, Ethel, extracts of these appeared again under her editorship, as a numbered series in the newspaper in the early 1900s. [2] They provide a colourful account of Maori and early European life before the arrival of the first four ships. One of the subjects was a man called Jimmy Robinson, who lived as a ‘Pakeha Maori’ at Akaroa and helped raise the British flag. He was also believed to be the first European to travel by boat up the Avon as far as ‘The Bricks’.

Jimmy was very fond of telling yarns, and his memory was said to be sharp, his voice clear – even at over 60 years of age. He had in his possession a big sea chest, which over the years he had filled with a collection of ‘curiosities’ including many greenstone tomahawks, which he would give away to eager listeners. [3]

The accounts of his life published by the Jacobsons, numbered 16 and 17, were written are as follows below, (in italics). We have supplemented this story with our own research notes and reports from earlier historians who had the pleasure of hearing the words directly from Jimmy’s own lips. Collectively they tell a tale of convict transportation, whaling adventures, early settlement, drunken sprees and a life lived and lost in Canterbury – of a man reported to be one of the first Europeans to settle on Bank’s Peninsula.

Tales of Banks Peninsula – Jimmy Robinson

The subject of this number, James Robinson Clough, was a native of Bristol. How he came to drop his surname one cannot say, but he was universally known as Jimmy Robinson, or Rapahina, as the Maoris called him. When a boy he ran away from home and took to the sea, as is generally the case when a boy does run away.

Born and christened Robinson Clough, one story circulated was that ‘Jimmy’ – pronounced ‘Jemmy’ [4] – had dropped his surname because it was too difficult for Maori to pronounce. This is quite possibly true  – it proves a challenge for some Europeans too. However it seems more likely Jimmy was trying to cover up some of his past. He did most certainly take to the sea but his earliest voyage was ‘at her Majesty’s pleasure’. Prison records show that ‘Robinson Clough‘, a 15 year old errand boy from Lancashire (not Bristol as he claimed), standing 5 feet and 8 1/2 inches tall, with a fresh complexion, brown hair, hazel eyes, a cut on his left check and tattoos on his arms, was convicted of stealing stockings on 10 January 1827 and transported to NSW, on board the ‘Manlius,’. There he served a seven year sentence until he gained his Certificate of Freedom in 1834 – his ‘fresh complexion’ now scared with pock marks from years of hard labour in a harsh unfamiliar environment.

Robinson Clough had come to the attention of the ‘authorities’ a year or so before this conviction and transportation, on another charge of larceny for which he received a far lesser sentence of six months. This proved no deterrent and there were no second chances for this light-fingered lad. His transportation to the other side of the world, with little possibility of a return home, would change the course of his life.

The story of Jimmy’s life at sea continues…

After several years in the East India trade, he found his way across to America, and there joined a New Bedford whaler called the Roslyn Castle, which was bound south. On board this vessel he stayed three years, and met with many an adventure. Whales were much more plentiful in those days than they are now, so that at the end of this time the Roslyn Castle was a full ship.

She had some remarkably good takes off the Solanders, (small volcanic inslets to the west of Foveaux Strait) and for over three weeks her fires were never out. During one of these chases our hero very nearly lost the number of his mess. A large sperm whale, a cow with a calf, had been singled out, and the chief mate’s boat, in which Robinson was pulling bow oar, was the first to make fast to her. As soon as she was struck, the whale sounded, and the line ran out fast, but she came up almost immediately, and went straight for the boat. Turning close to it, she gave one stroke with her flukes, cutting it clean in two, and killing the two midship oarsmen, tossing the others up in the air. They dropped close to the wreck, and managed to hold on to the oars and wreckage until picked up by the captain’s boat. The same whale was taken two days afterwards. It was known by the iron in it, and turned out a large number of barrels. Calling in at Stewart Island for wood and water, four fresh hands (Maoris) were engaged who had been a trip before, and turned out good men at the oar.

After cruising about up the east coast of New Zealand, they ran into Akaroa, as their captain intended to recruit here for a month. It was blowing a gale of wind from the north west when they made the Heads, and it was as much as they could do to work the ship up the harbour. Some of the squalls were terrific, and as they had her under pretty small canvas, it was no joke working her, where the tacks were so short.

After getting about half way up, the wind was a good deal steadier and the harbour wider, and they dropped anchor abreast of the present town of Akaroa. This was in March, 1837.

The Roslyn Castle had left Sydney for the ‘whale fishery’ in New Zealand on 8 April, 1836 returning to Sydney 19 months later on 7 November 1837, in which time it procured 3,500 barrels of oil, 500 of which was sperm, and 15 tons of whalebone. At the time this was the largest cargo ever brought into port from the ‘whale fishery’. This part of Jimmy’s story fits in with the timing of his Certificate of Freedom, obtained on the 3rd of June 1834, [5] followed shortly after by his marriage to Catherine Wilson in August  – resulting in the birth of a daughter, Hendrica – and his subsequent abandonment of his Australian family, as his story later reveals.

Yarning to an acquaintance some time in the mid 1870s, Jimmy said:

“Perhaps I’d best begin from the time I sailed from Sydney harbor in the Roslyn Castle, (under) Captain Richards. What year was that? Why it was February, 1835. I’m quite positive about that. From then to April of next year we whaled off the Peninsula. Whales, yes. There were whales about there. You couldn’t go wrong on this coast. We filled in fifteen months. The Mary Ann Martha, a Yankee barque, was lying in Piraki harbour the same season. She filled in thirteen months; but the year after there were hundreds of whalers knocking about in the coast, and plenty of fish for all. The French barque Adele filled over 4000 barrels in Piraki without putting her fires out, and that in three months. She did so. They were proper times for whaling, believe me. What made me think of stopping there? Well, I couldn’t say. It was just a whim. I thought it over, and a day or two before the Roslyn Castle sailed we were lying in Akaroa harbor at the time full up. I  arranged with the captain for my discharge. He gave me for my share of the oil (lay we call it) a whaleboat and gear, and a full rig out of clothes and cetera. I pitched my camp at Onuka, near Akaroa Heads. How did I live? Why by giving a hand to the whalers, and did well too, only money was no good to me at that time. I took it all out in goods, or grog, or what not. Were there any English residents at all here? No, none when I landed; not what you call residents, only whalers,  who would stay ashore perhaps “trying out” while their ship was in harbor.[6]

Jacobson’s version continues:

There were three other vessels lying there at that time, two being French, and one a Sydney whaler. The skipper laid in a good stock of pork and potatoes, the Maoris being very willing to trade, taking principally tobacco and slops (sailor’s clothing) for their produce. The crew were allowed to go ashore a good deal, and it was here that our hero fell in love with a young Native woman, who proved as good and fond a wife to him as any of his own country women could have been. She was the daughter of a Native chief named Iwikau, a chief of the Ngatirangiamoa, and was about twenty years of age. To quote his own words: “I was about twenty three myself at this time, so we were about a match. As money was of very little use here in those days, I took all I had to draw from the ship in trade, and as we had been very lucky, my share amounted to over six hundred dollars. Amongst my purchases was a five oared whale-boat, which the skipper would not part with until after a lot of persuasion. I had a good stock of clothing, dungaree, coloured cotton and tobacco, so that I was looked upon as a Rangatira Pakeha. There was another white man living here at the time, known as ‘Holy Joe’ but how he came to be called that I cannot imagine, as he was anything but what the name implied. I always looked upon him as a runaway from Van Diemen’s Land, and such he afterwards told me he was.

An interesting comment from a former convict himself. The difference between Jimmy and Holy Joe was that Jimmy had served out his sentence and became a free man. Holy Joe’s surname was Angus, according to a couple of reports including one by Captain Stanley of the Britomart, on September 17, 1840 which stated that Angus and Cough had been squatting at Raumataki for four years. [7]

Abner Clough, son of Jimmy, who was described as 6ft 4" and weighed some 16 stone. His black hair and beard, swarthy complexion, beetling eyebrows, erect bearing giving him a leonine and commanding appearance. Source: Chatham Biographies, page 137. Abner Clough (1839-1910)
Abner Clough, son of Jimmy, who was described as “6ft 4 inches and weighed some 16 stone. His black hair and beard, swarthy complexion, beetling eyebrows, erect bearing giving him a leonine and commanding appearance”. [8]
Robinson’s second wife – Puai Makarena Tuhaewa – was the widow of Reka, one of the defenders of Onawe during the attack by Te Rauparaha in 1830. Her lineage isn’t known and it is doubtful that she was a Maori Princess as claimed in some reports [9]. Jimmy and Puai Robinson had three sons. Abner and George were named after Jimmy’s English family, and there was also Robert. George – also known as Robinson – lived in Little River and became a well known wrestler; Abner settled in Mount Peel and later moved to the Chatham islands; and Robert seems to have disappeared without trace.

“At this time there were over a thousand Maoris living round Whangaroa Harbour, for that was the Native name of it. There were also settlements in all the Bays round as far as Port Cooper, so that there must have been about three thousand Maoris on the peninsula, including those to the south of Akaroa.”

Jimmy Robinson was present and helped to hoist the English standard in Akaroa. His own version of it, as told to our informant, was as follows:

“It was in the year 1840, in August. I had been up to the Head of the Bay getting a load of pipis, of which the Maoris are very fond. I had in the boat with me my wife and her youngster, who was about a year old, and named Abner. ‘Holy Joe’ was also with me, as I found him more useful in handling a whale boat than the Maoris.

We were beating down with a light south west wind, when I noticed a ship come round the point with a fair wind. I said to Joe, “We shall get some tobacco at last,” as we had been out of it for some time. We then stood toward her, but when we got a bit nearer we could see her ports, and that, therefore, she was a man of war. I said so to my mate, and he said, “If she is, for God’s sake let me get ashore.”, I suppose his guilty conscience pricked him, or else he had not finished his time and thought he might be recognised. To satisfy him I said I would land him, and paid her head off for the shore. I had not got far when I heard a blank shot fired and saw some signals run up, so I thought I was wanted as a pilot perhaps, so hauled on a wind again and ran alongside.

George Robinson. Source: Press, 12 August,  1890.
George Robinson. Source: Press, 12 August, 1890.

She had come to an anchor by this time a little above Green’s Point, as it is now called. She turned out to be the British man-of-war Britomart, Captain Stanley, who came to the side and asked me to step on board, which I did. He asked me who the female was, and I told him, so be said, “Ask her to come on board” I could hardly persuade her, but she came at last, and squatted down on deck with the young one in her arms. The captain ordered the steward to bring her something to eat, so she soon had a good spread of pies, cakes and fruit in front of her, but she seemed so nervous that she could not eat them.

The captain asked me to come below, so I went down, and he asked me all about the place, how long I had been here, and how many vessels had called, and their names, and how many Maoris were living here. I gave him all the information I could about the place, so he told me that I must be sworn in as Her Majesty’s interpreter, as he intended to take possession of the islands in Her Majesty’s name, and wanted me to explain it to the Natives, I was given a bell and a small ensign to roll them up next morning, which I promised to do.

We got what we wanted in the shape of tobacco, and something to wet our whistles as well, and went ashore, I sent word all round to the Natives, and next morning there was a great muster on the sandy beach between the two townships. Three or four of the ship’s boats were ashore, and a party of them were sent with me to get a flag staff. We had not far to look, as we soon found and cut down a kahikatea as straight as a die and forty feet long. A block and halyards were soon rigged on and a hole dug, and it was very soon up.

After all the Natives were squatted down, and the chiefs set out by themselves on an old ensign, the captain commenced to read his errand here to the Natives, all of which I had to interpret; but there was so much of it, I forget what it was all about, I know, however, that it all ended up with “God, Save the Queen,” after which the British standard was run up and a discharge of musketry fired by the marines. A salute was also fired with the big guns on board, over which the Natives got into a great state of excitement.

The captain invited myself and several of the chiefs on board, where he gave us a grand spread, and I was presented with a lieutenant’s uniform, and each of the chiefs had a marine’s coat given to him. Next morning the French-vessel arrived, and landed her colonists, as is already known. The Maoris did not look upon their arrival with much favour, and, if it had not been for the presence of the ships, an attempt would have been made to drive them away.

After this several other white men took up their abode round Akaroa, so I thought I would shift my camp, and left for Ikeraki (a whaling station to the south of Akaroa Heads), taking all my possessions in the whale boat, including my three youngsters. I stopped there for over four years, but part of that time I spent in Peraki, where there were always one or two whalers, from whom I got plenty of work, and made a good bit of money in the way of supplying them with vegetables and potatoes.

On one occasion, during a drunken spree, while I was lying in my bunk, I was stabbed in the breast with a knife no less than sixteen times, and you can see the marks of them yet. (On exposing his chest, the marks could be distinctly traced.) I happened to have a thick monkey (sailor’s) jacket on at the time, or I should have been killed. It was the whaler’s cook who stabbed me, and the captain put him in irons and gave him bread and water for a month for it.

I made a good bit of money selling spars to the whalers. There were some nice silver pines growing in Peraki then, and I got as high as thirty dollars each for some of them. Drinking rum and working in wet clothes brought on a bad attack of low fever, and for three weeks I was in bed. As a last resource, my wife, who was a powerful big woman, carried me over the hills as far as Wairewa (Little River), where there was a Native doctor supposed to be very clever. Anyhow he cured me with Native herb, so as soon as I got better I left my wife and family for a bit, and went up as far as Kaiapoi, taking a couple of the Maoris with me as guides. There were several large pas in that district also, one up where Riccarton now is. I spent a month or two going about from one to the other, and then I returned and stayed a few years on the Peninsula again.

During this period I lost my wife, so I made up my mind to go round and live on the Plains. I left my two girls with their friend, and took my three boys round in the boat, with the assistance of a couple of Maoris I went right up the river Avon, and can say that my boat was the first ever taken up that river by a white man. We stopped at a small pa near the mouth of the river for a couple of days, and then proceeded right up as far as Riccarton, which took three days, as the boat was heavy and the river ran with great force. Shortly after this I met Mr John Deans, who had come to settle on the Plains, and took him up the river to the place where he is now living, and afterwards conveyed his family and goods the same way, I worked for him for a bit, helping him to put up his whare, and afterwards engaged with him as shepherd.”

In 1849 he went to the Deans’ Station Homebush. During his time there he discovered coal in 1852, when employed as a stockman on the Deans’ Malvern Hills station. [10]

But he found this sort of life too dull and solitary, so he left, and went north, where he engaged with Mr. Darby Caverhill, and managed his run for a bit. What is now known as Motanau was the place where they were living. He only stayed here about two years, and then went south again, and came across what is known as the Alford Forest. Being struck with the fine timber here, he thought it would be a fine place to settle, so he purchased the section where his house now stands, and he did very well out of it. He lived all alone here, his eldest boy being married, and living on Mr. Acland’s station, Mount Peel. He happened to save Mr. Acland’s life one time when he was crossing the Rangitata, and has been there ever since. His second son, George, he had not seen for some years. He went to live with the Maoris on the Peninsula; and his youngest he lost the run of altogether. He sent him down to Christchurch, about eight years ago, to get some tools and to get the horse shod, and he never heard a word from him since. He believed he got on the spree and sold the horse, and, being ashamed to come back, cleared off to sea.

Although living alone, Robinson’s house was a picture of neatness. It was situated on the edge of the bush, about half way between McCrae’s and Single Tree Point. There was a splendid garden of about two acres, filled with the choicest fruit trees, the sale of the produce of which brought him in a good bit of ready money. Living so close to a public house, most of it found its way there. When on the spree he would do almost anything for grog, and on one occasion, not having anything to raise the wind, he was seen endeavouring to sell a large family Bible for a couple of nobblers (an old Australian term for a serving of spirits). When away from drink be was a capital worker and a good bushman, and as there was always a good demand for fencing material, he sometimes did very well.

About 1872 his house was burned down, and everything in it destroyed. What grieved him most was the loss of a little pet dog in the fire, and for days he kept looking for it round the bush, thinking it had escaped, but he saw nothing of it. Several of the neighbours lent him a hand, and a fresh house was put up and the garden renovated a bit, but most of his best apple trees had got killed.

Jimmy Robinson outside his home in Alford Forest. Source: Private collection.
Jimmy Robinson outside his home in Alford Forest. Source: Private collection.

A bush fire raged for more than a fortnight in the back country behind Mount Hutt and made its way through the gorge, spreading rapidly through the plains and Alford forest. A long drought, which had dried up the underwood and scrub, made the it impossible to repress and the fire cleared all before it. Several other houses were burnt down as well as Robinson’s orchard, which was said to be one of the best in the province, stocked with the choicest trees, the product of sixteen years labour – it was said to have produced four and a half tons of apples during the previous season.[11]

He was persuaded to be a teetotaler for a bit, and tried it for a time, but he went to see the Ashburton races in 1873, and being so well known in the district, his acquaintances wished him to have a drink. He explained that he was a teetotaler, but he would have a drink with them, and put it away in a bottle, and this he did until he had several bottles of mixed spirits, which he took back with him, and then commenced to break bulk, and until all was finished there was no work done.

Drinking and hard living now commenced to tell on his once iron constitution, and a paralytic stroke, from which he suffered, seemed to hasten his end. He went down to see Mrs. Deans, who kindly offered to get him into the Old Men’s Home (in Ashburton), but he would not hear of it, so after staying in the Christchurch Hospital for three weeks, and feeling better, he set out home again to the Alford Forest. But he seemed past work, and lived, one may say, on the charity of the neighbours. He left the public house to proceed home one winter’s evening, and was found dead about half way, with a half empty bottle of spirits beside him. It was supposed that he sat down to have a drink, and, failing asleep, was frozen to death. Thus died penniless in 1874, James Robinson Clough, a man who, with the opportunities he had, should have been a second Rhodes. It may seem strange, but it is nevertheless true, that the end of the subject of this number and that of Walker, both men who were almost the first Europeans on the Peninsula, should have been so similar, both dying from the immediate effects of drink on the Canterbury Plains.

“Like most of his class, Jimmy had an unquenchable thirst for “wipero,” and with every opportunity for becoming another Millionaire Rhodes, he died miserably and in abject poverty.”  The New Zealand at Home, Otago Witness, 1890. [12]

“Jimmy had a good and comfortable house and a bush section at Alford Forest, Canterbury, and died in his house on a Sunday in January 1873 some 33 years after the hoisting of the flag. I was on business at Alford Forest at the time of his death, and saw him daily for a month previous to his death. I was also well acquainted with him many years previously.”
Richard Morris, Invercargill, September 16, 1890. [13]

“He was a victim of drink, and would sell the clothes off his back to get it; and he was found dead half way between his hut (his house was burnt down some time previously) and the public house, with an empty brandy bottle beside him.” Akaroa. September 22, 1890. [14]

Despite the opinions of others, the fact remains he appeared twice before the Resident Magistrate in Christchurch, for being drunk and incapable two months in a row in 1863. He pleaded that he could not resist the temptation to drink. [15]

When living with his two sons, Abner and Robinson (George), he used to make them read the Bible aloud to him every evening. He was working for a good while in the employ of Mr. Justin Aylmer at Malvern and other places, and bore the reputation of being an excellent bush man. His favourite book was a translation of Herodotus, which he was constantly reading. He told Mr. Aylmer that he had once resided in Sydney, where he had been employed in a store, fallen in love with his master’s daughter, and married her. He was wild in those days, and, having a dispute with his wife, cleared out one fine morning, and never saw or heard of her again.

Stories of the Peninsula by H. C. Jacobsen
Published: Akaroa Mail Office, 1914, Akaroa
Extracted from No. 16  an 17 – Jimmy Robinson

  1. ‘Stories of the Peninsula’ Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser, Volume VI, Issue 579, 31 January 1882, Page 2.
  2. Elisabeth Ogilvie. ‘Jacobson, Ethel May – Biography’, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 1-Sep-10.
  3. “Robinson Clough’s Yarn”  Star, Issue 5706, 25 August 1886, Page 4.’The Akaroa Flag’ Press, Volume LV, Issue 10063, 15 June 1898, Page 4.
  4. Source: Ship News. (1837, November 9). The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW : 1803 – 1842), p. 2. Retrieved December 11, 2012, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article2213875
  5. Classified Advertising. (1834, June 12). The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW : 1803 – 1842), p. 4. Retrieved January 4, 2013, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article2216348
  6. Recollections of Jimmy Robinson. ‘Canterbury Tales’. Press, Volume XXIII, Issue 2934, 15 January 1875, Page 3.
  7. Source: Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser, Volume LXI, Issue 3159, 4 December 1906, Page 2.
  8. Source: Chatham Biographies, page 137. Abner Clough (1839-1910). Image: Private Collection.
  9. Source: “Abner Clough” Dictionary of New Zealand Biography
  10. “Coal in the Malvern Hills” Lyttelton Times, Volume II, Issue 60, 28 February 1852, Page 3. ‘Canterbury Tales’ Press, Volume XXIII, Issue 2934, 15 January 1875, Page 3.
  11. ‘Local and General’. Star , Issue 1231, 1 February 1872, Page 2. ‘News of the Day’ Press, Volume XIX, Issue 2731, 1 February 1872, Page 2.
  12. The New Zealander at Home. Otago Witness, Issue 1909, 11 September 1890, Page 36.
  13. “The ‘New Zealander’ at Sea.” Otago Witness , Issue 1910, 18 September 1890, Page 19.
  14. ‘The New Zealander at Home’ Otago Witness, Issue 1912, 2 October 1890, Page 27.
  15. “Resident Magistrates Court” Lyttelton Times, Volume XX, Issue 1158, 17 November 1863, Page 4, Lyttelton Times, Volume XX, Issue 1177, 31 December 1863, Page 4.
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One Comment Add yours

  1. david JALFON says:

    Hi Wendy. very interesting record.
    Maybe you could help me with a couple of problems.
    JRC had a daughter Henrica born in 1835 at Sydney…I have a christening certificate from the Catholic Church showing she was christened at Onekakara Wed2.12.1840 by Bishop Pompallier.A five year old girl. daughter of John Robinson
    Also in the publication Early Hawkes Bay A-1 Copyright(c)2001-2008 A Whyte Auckland NZ in which is shown populations of Kapiti Island and hawkes Bay etc there is a Mr.JR Clough and a Mrs Clough.
    Have you any theories on the above.
    I am a four times removed Grandson of JRC coming down the Abner line.
    Regards david.

    Like

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