Premier, administrator, poet.
A new biography of Domett, Alfred appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Alfred Domett was born on 20 May 1811 at Camberwell, sixth of the nine children of Nathaniel Domett, who after a brief naval career became a merchant service captain and shipowner. Domett was educated at Stockwell Park House and St. John's College, Cambridge (1829–33), not taking a degree; from 1835 he read law (Middle Temple), being called to the Bar in November 1841. From 1833 to 1835 he travelled in the United States, Canada, and the West Indies, his experience in Upper Canada with land and surveying being a curious foretaste of his New Zealand career.
Domett published his first Poems in 1833, contributed much verse to periodicals (A Christmas Hymn, by which he was often represented in anthologies, Blackwoods, 1837), and his second collection Venice (1839). Robert Browning was a family friend, and Domett was associated with him in “The Colloquials”, a discussion club meeting in the home of his cousin, William Curling Young, who sailed for Nelson in 1841. This fact, together with other family connections with the New Zealand Company, may have turned Domett's mind to emigration. He made his decision with some abruptness (and, as Browning recorded in Waring, “gave us all the slip”), sailing in April 1842 for Nelson in the Sir Charles Forbes.
In Nelson, after half-hearted attempts at farming, Domett soon devoted his time to journalism and public affairs. A contributor to the Nelson Examiner, after the Wairau affray (June 1843) he became editor. Wairau was a turning point for him. The settlers sent him with Dr Monro to Auckland to represent their defence needs to the Government and he was their spokesman in dealings with the Administrator, Shortland and, from September 1843, Governor FitzRoy. In common with the rest of the settlers he was sharply critical of the Government's leaving unpunished the chiefs who had shed European blood after the Wairau surrender; for the rest of his life he was unsympathetic to the missionary (or “Exeter Hall”) advocacy of Maori interests. In November 1845 Domett drew up the pungent petition for the recall of FitzRoy. Earlier in the year he had refused a seat in the “nominee” Legislative Council.
Grey in 1846 persuaded him to join this body. In 1848 Domett began his long career of public service as Colonial Secretary for New Munster; he also became a Wellington resident. Domett had a strong interest in education. This, combined with his secular outlook (Thomas Arnold says he had lost his early faith) was largely responsible for the New Munster refusal to implement Grey's 1847 Education Ordinance giving grants to denominational schools. Domett's ideas—rating for education, compulsory schooling from six to 10 years, and no religious instruction—foreshadowed the policy of free, compulsory, and secular education of later years. In 1858 he became a governor of Nelson College.
In 1851 Grey also made Domett Civil Secretary to the General Government; he held the two posts concurrently until with the 1852 constitution he vacated them. In January 1854 he took up an appointment as Resident Magistrate and District Commissioner in Hawke's Bay, remaining until 1856; he laid out Napier and gave its streets their literary nomenclature. In 1855 Domett was elected by Nelson to the House of Representatives. In 1856 he took up an appointment as Commissioner of Crown Lands in Nelson. From 1857 to 1863 he served on the Nelson Provincial Council and was also Provincial Secretary. In 1860 he was re-elected to Parliament for Nelson City. In 1861 he moved the complimentary address on the retirement of Governor Gore Browne, whose Maori policy he approved. In July 1862 Grey, Governor for the second time, sent for Domett to form a ministry in succession to that of Fox, after both Stafford and FitzGerald had declined the task. Domett succeeded in recruiting many of the Stafford faction; his Government took office on 6 August 1862.
The crisis in Maori affairs which had brought down Fox was unresolved, and Domett's solution was to insist that the British Government retain responsibility for relations with the Maori people, the New Zealand Government acting in effect as its executive agent, offering advice but not bearing responsibility for the Governor's decisions even though it should carry them out. A corollary of this limitation was that the cost of the upkeep of a force to contain, if not to discipline, dissident Maoris would fall on Britain. Domett also advanced a scheme for military settlers to be financed by funds raised on land confiscated from the rebels. The delay in proclaiming the Government's abandonment of the Waitara purchase (which had already caused one war)until after a clash provoked by its occupation of the Tataraimaka Block (where the title was unclouded) made a new war inevitable. Domett's precarious ministry, kept together by his “nonchalance and a spice of humour”, ended on 29 October 1863.
Saunders (a hostile critic) claimed that Domett was “never really a premier”, but probably goes too far in regarding him as the mere mouthpiece of the hard-headed Aucklanders, Russell and Whitaker, whose business interests would benefit by war. His Government broke up as much as anything because he was not a docile tool of the war party. Certainly he was not adept at political manoeuvre. Too independent to be led, he was yet not strong enough to lead.
Domett's talents as an administrator of land laws were again found indispensable, and he resumed his administrative career in December 1863 as Secretary for Lands: in 1865 he was also appointed Registrar-General of Lands. In June 1866 he joined the Legislative Council, thus once again combining paid service with deliberative advice. The notion that a man who was a member of either chamber of the legislature should not hold paid office under the Crown was apparently of slow growth in New Zealand: in 1870 a disqualifying Act was passed but it specifically exempted Domett. In 1871 he retired on pension and returned to England.
Domett took a close personal interest in the formation of the General Assembly Library.
The last years of his life were devoted to literary and artistic society in London. He renewed his friendship with Browning, published his epic Ranolf and Amohia (1872, revised edition 1883) and in 1880 was created C.M.G. He declined an invitation to stand for Parliament as a Conservative. He died on 2 November 1887.
Domett had in 1856 married a widow, Mrs Mary George (one son; two stepsons).
Ranolf and Amohia was praised both by Browning and by Tennyson, but with some reserve because of its tedious prolixity. This romantic narrative poem about a white sailor and a Maori princess embodied an essentially artificial view of Maori society, idealising pre-European custom. Its chief strength is its descriptions of unspoiled nature; its weakness the fatal diffuseness which endlessly adorns and elaborates. It does not commend itself to a modern taste.
As a young man Domett made a strong impression on his contemporaries. Thomas Arnold felt the force of his “passionate, fiery nature; full of suppressed energy, as proud as Lucifer” (he had, Arnold thought, given up poetry and England, through disgust at his lack of recognition) “a fiery, resolute man of action, capable of making his weight felt and his will prevail”. To C. A. Dillon in 1850 Domett revealed his habit of mind as “all for inspiration, old prophets and Carlyle”. Charlotte Godley found him “quite a gentleman, and clever”, though his hat “would be considered shabby on any decently dressed scarecrow”. The “brown-eyed, lion-faced Domett” of another observer in 1859, completes a picture, with the protrusive lower lip and rather bulging eyes of his photographs, that seems to suggest a considerably stronger personality (Gisborne comments on his “slight ruggedness of character”) than the procrastinating dreamer of Saunders, the cypher ruled by baser men (echoed by Keith Sinclair: “As Premier, he was a mere figure of speech, a rhetorical flourish.”). So long a career as an administrator (in which field his work remains unchallenged even by those who, like Sinclair, are on the opposite side in regard to the Maori) and his close personal relations with men of the stamp of Dillon, Fox, and Grey himself argue solidity and quality. His purely material success in a Victorian world which abhorred his lack of faith and some irregularity in his private life is a further argument for his having been a man of considerable worth, though not more than a minor poet or a fumbling, uneasy politician.
by David Oswald William Hall, M.A., Director, Adult Education, University of Otago (retired).
- Passages in a Wandering Life, Arnold, T. (1900)
- The Diary of Alfred Domett 1872–85 (ed.) Horsman, E. A. (1953)
- Sir George Grey, K.C.B., Rutherford, J. (1961)
- Crown Colony Government in New Zealand, McLintock, A. H. (1958).