Book Notes, Volume 1: Thomas White

Book Notes, Volume 1: Thomas White

A man and his harpoon

Thomas White and family, 1860s.
White-haired Thomas White and his family in the 1860s. Photo courtesy of Judith White.

In March 2006 we received an email from Judith in New Zealand regarding a fellow named Tom White, who she saw briefly mentioned in the March 15, 1884, edition of Sidney Rider's "Book Notes." Rider noted that Tom had been instrumental in capturing a Right whale off Conanicut in February 1828.

Judith believes she knows more about Tom White and sent the following information, including a photograph:

I read the story about the whale capture and Thomas White on your site. This is Thomas White, an American whaler born in Rhode Island in 1810, and maybe the Thomas in the article.

The picture was taken in the 1860s at Pigeon Bay in New Zealand, and shows Tom with his family in front of the house he built himself. Captain Tom is sitting on the right with a light-coloured jacket on. You will notice that he married a local dusky maiden, a Maori girl called Sarah. They were married by the very famous Bishop Pompallier from France whilst he was out in New Zealand to start a Catholic mission. The occasion was the engagement of the eldest girl, also named Sarah, to William Innes of Scotland. The younger girl is daughter Amelia and the young boy is son George.

Thomas White family and homestead, 1860s.
The complete photograph showing the White homestead, 1860s. Photo courtesy of Judith White.

Tom's parents are recorded as Job and Maria White, and his father's family were from Taunton, Massachusetts. It is written that Tom was orphaned young, went to sea in 1824 at fourteen years old, and sailed up the Thames on the day of the coronation of King William IV, September 8, 1831. Later he shipped in a London whaler called the Timor and was to serve on her for three years. His first port of call was the Bay of Islands in New Zealand. He then shipped on the William Wallace and Caroline, working all around New Zealand waters and the Pacific.

In 1849 he settled in Pigeon Bay, married Sarah (Maori name: Piraurau), and had nine children, all of whom led successful lives.

There is much about Thomas White's life here in New Zealand written in history books. He used his whale boat well into his eighties to ferry people around the bays. He also built ships and worked at times for the government building houses for the early surveyors, some of whom he assisted in their work. One such surveyor was Charles Heaphy, whom he assisted on his trek to the rugged west coast of New Zealand. One of the best and well-known tourist draws in New Zealand is the Heaphy Track, which people come from all over the world to walk.

It is believed Thomas White died in New Zealand on September 9, 1896.

Judith may be correct in her identification of the New Zealand immigrant with the young man who threw the harpoon. A note from A.H., included in the March 29, 1884, issue of "Book Notes" identifies Tom White as his co-worker in Newport in 1831. Lacking any contrary evidence, it's still possible this Tom White is the same who, that September, sailed up the Thames on the day of King William IV's coronation.

In May 2017 we received the following email from Helen in New Zealand, containing further information:

Yes certainly they are one and the same Tom White, though he was not a Captain. There was a Captain White in these waters at [the] time as well, hence the confusion.

In 2002 I published Piraurau and her Family, the life and times of a Ngai Tahu woman, her husbands and her family. It is still available. This was in response to family wanting all the stories in various history books an journals brought together in one volume for a large family reunion in 2002.

You mention Charles Heaphy. When Bishop Pompallier was on Banks Peninsula he performed the first mixed marriage on the peninsula, that of Charles Heaphy and a local Maori woman, Tom White a best man. The next day Heaphy did the honours for Tom White. Tom and Piraurau had an informal marriage up until then, (there being no clergymen in those parts before) my ancestor having already been born to them. Shortly Piraurau was baptised as Sarah, along with their daughter, also Sarah, though her mother was known as Hera, a transliteration of Sarah.

Following a challenge to research Tom in my book, a descendant did research Tom White's history back in Massachusetts. We now have genealogy and history back to the family's departure from England to the New World. Letters and more available online. Drop me a line if you would like some of the interesting timeline.

We still live in Christchurch, not too far from where the old couple lived. Some of his descendants live in the same bay where Tom White built this house. I have the photo of the full house.

If you have additional information linking these two Tom Whites, either pro or con, please drop us a line at

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