BOWEN, Sir George Ferguson, G.C.M.G.
Governor of New Zealand.
A new biography of Bowen, George Ferguson appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Bowen was born in Ireland on 2 November 1821, the eldest son of the Rev. Edward Bowen. He was educated at Charterhouse, obtaining a scholarship at Trinity College, Oxford, where he graduated B.A. with first class in classical honours and was twice president of the Union. He became a member of Lincoln's Inn but did not practise, becoming president of the University of Corfu in 1847. He held this post for four years, acquiring a thorough knowledge of the islands and of Greece and the Greek provinces of Turkey. He soon made a reputation with his books on his studies and travels. In 1848 he was in Vienna at the time of its capture by the Imperial troops. Next year he journeyed across Hungary just before the close of the civil war. At some danger to himself, he conveyed a letter from Kossuth and the other refugees held at Vidin to the British Ambassador at Constantinople, and thereby prevented their being handed over by the Turks. Bowen was appointed chief secretary of the Ionian Islands in 1854. When Gladstone was sent out in 1858 to consider the union of the islands with Greece, he recommended that Corfu be retained but that the southern islands be surrendered. All were given up in 1864.
On the separation of Queensland from New South Wales, Bowen was appointed first Governor, landing at Moreton Bay on 10 December 1859. He set up the necessary administration and toured the interior to gain further knowledge of the colony. He encouraged exploration, local defence, and the importation of kanaka labour for work in the sugar plantations. He earned temporary unpopularity by refusing to allow the issue of unconvertible paper currency during a financial crisis.
At the end of 1867 Bowen was appointed Governor of New Zealand in succession to Sir George Grey, assuming office at Wellington on 5 February 1868. New Zealand was passing through a very difficult period. As there was a lull in the Maori War, almost all the British troops had been withdrawn, leaving the colonists, to their dismay, to carry on the war with their own resources. Towards the end of the year there was a great change for the worse. Te Kooti and his fellow prisoners escaped from the Chathams and took their revenge by massacring isolated settlers and friendly Maoris in Poverty Bay and the Bay of Plenty districts. Titokowaru, the Hauhau cannibal, was still a source of anxiety, and the settlers on the edge of the Maori heart of the North Island were in a state of alarm. The colonial forces had improved considerably, but were inadequate for a full-scale war.
Bowen, in his first dispatch, informed the Colonial Office that the colonists' ill feeling towards the British Government was due more to the tone of the dispatches rather than to their actual substance. He used the Fenian riots in Hokitika to retain the remaining regiment. In November 1868, when speaking at Wanganui where Titokowaru was active, he told the settlers that they must rely on their own stout hearts and strong arms.
While native affairs since 1862 had – in theory – been a ministerial responsibility, Bowen did everything possible to bring a solution to the war. In a dispatch of 7 December 1868 he advocated that the troops be left to hold the chief towns and keep up the imperial prestige in the eyes of the Maori. Despite the New Zealand offer to pay the cost of maintaining the troops, the Colonial Office refused, stating that it did not believe that 220,000 whites, aided by the loyal natives, were incapable of defending themselves against a few thousand natives, only a few hundred of whom were in arms. For various reasons the troops were held until February 1870.
Fighting took place throughout the North Island and the only thing that saved many of the isolated settlements was the revulsion which the Hauhau barbarities raised in the King tribes and in the wronged Wiremu Kingi and his friends. There was, however, a realisation that further fighting was not in the best interests of either the colonists or the Maoris. The New Zealand Government adopted a more conciliatory policy. Land reserves were promised for those who had rebelled, while the prisoners were treated fairly, and hanging was only carried out when murder or some other atrocity had been proved in a Court of law. It was also agreed that the Kingites would be left undisturbed in their own territory so long as they remained peaceful. The government began building strategic roads and forts, using Maori labour wherever this was possible without provoking ill feeling. By the summer of 1869–70 all fear of a general rising was over and the uneasy peace of the seventies had begun.
Bowen made visits to many of the tribes, receiving expressions of goodwill and doing his utmost to reconcile the two races. He presented swords of honour sent by the Queen to the friendly chiefs who had assisted in the war, and in 1870 appointed to the Legislative Council two Maori representatives. Before leaving New Zealand he granted a general amnesty for political offences.
In his dispatches Bowen defended New Zealand from the many charges made against that country in Great Britain, especially in the long-debated question of settler-Maori relations. On the other hand he managed to prevent the widespread feeling that the colony was being abandoned from developing into a major issue. This could easily have happened as there was open talk – mainly irresponsible – that the time was opportune for an approach to the United States. His representations led to the British Government's guaranteeing a loan of £1,000,000 to soften the blow of the troops' withdrawal, and as a result a better feeling prevailed. Over all, the colony received very fair treatment and certainly got the best or the bargain.
Bowen was Governor during the two visits of the Duke of Edinburgh, Queen Victoria's second son and New Zealand's first royal visitor, in 1869 and 1870. On the second occasion Rotorua was visited, and the Duke took the submission of Te Waru and 46 of his followers at Maketu. Bowen issued the Order in Council instituting the New Zealand Cross for conspicuous service to those serving in the colonial forces. This was entirely irregular as the personal sanction of the Queen was necessary. In the circumstances, however, she gave her approval. He also conducted the correspondence relating to the use of the term “honourable” by retired members of the Executive Council in the colony. He was interested in education and endowed the Bowen prize for an essay on British or British colonial history for a university student. His last weeks as Governor were marked by a series of ministerial crises, but eventually Fox assumed the premiership until the return of Vogel, and Bowen left on 19 March 1873 to become Governor of Victoria.
In Victoria, Bowen's greatest problem was the controversy in 1877 between the two Houses over a clause about payment to members included in a finance Bill. The Council (appointed for life) rejected the Bill which it could not amend. Bowen believed the question to be purely local and accepted the advice of his Ministers for the wholesale dismissal of public servants to reduce expenditure. He was much criticised for his action, but was appointed in turn Governor of Mauritius (1879–82) and of Hong Kong (1882–85). He retired in 1887 but late in the same year was appointed chief of a Royal Commission to determine the electorates under the new Malta constitution. He died at Brighton on 21 February 1899.
Bowen was tactful and interested in the people he governed, as is shown in the very informative dispatches he wrote. He could be firm and, though criticised, did not lack able support. He proved himself a sound Governor and led New Zealand successfully through some of the darkest years of its early history.
Bowen married twice, his first wife, who died in 1893, being Diamantina Roma, the daughter of the President of the Ionian Senate. There was one son and four daughters by this marriage. Honours he received included C.M.G., 1855, K.C.M.G., 1856, and G.C.M.G., 1860.
by James Oakley Wilson, D.S.C., M.COM., A.L.A., Chief Librarian, General Assembly Library, Wellington.
- Thirty Years of Colonial Government – A Selection from the Despatches and Letters of Sir George Ferguson Bowen, G.C.M.G.
- (ed.) Lane-Poole, S. (2 vols., 1889);
- History of New Zealand, Rusden, G. W. (3 vols., 1895)
- The Times (London) 22 Feb 1899 (Obit).