Skip to main content
Browse the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.


EYRE, Edward John


Explorer, Colonial Governor.

Eyre was born at Hornsea, Yorkshire, on 5 August 1815, the third son of Anthony William Eyre, incumbent of Hornsea and Long Riston. He was educated at Louth and Sedbergh Grammar Schools and intended to enter the Army. Signs of a weak chest and delay in obtaining a commission decided him to take up a popular alternative career for the younger sons of English gentlemen — farming in one of the colonies. With £400 in his pocket he arrived at Sydney in March 1833 and went to live with a settler in order to learn something of farming. He then bought a farm of his own on the Hunter River.

This was an insufficient adventure for him; soon after South Australia was founded he drove 1,000 sheep and 600 cattle from Monaro, New South Wales, to Adelaide, thus becoming the first of the “Overlanders”. His taste for exploration being whetted, he conducted expeditions between 1836 and 1840 from the Liverpool Plains to the Murray, from Sydney to Port Phillip and thence to Adelaide, and from King George Sound to the Swan River. He also explored the interior from Port Lincoln and Adelaide. In 1840, however, he began the greatest and most difficult of his journeys, taking charge of an expedition to open communication between South and West Australia. The party which left Adelaide on 18 June 1840 consisted of himself and five white men and two aborigines, together with some horses and sheep. After the most terrible privations he managed to reach Albany, Western Australia, with one surviving companion, an aboriginal, on 7 July 1841. He clearly proved that land communication between the two parts of Australia was not a practical proposition, and to this extent the expedition was a failure, but his determination, skill, and endurance had placed him in the forefront of Australian explorers.

On his return to South Australia Eyre took up land near the Murray River and at the same time was appointed Resident Magistrate and Protector of Aborigines. Serious conflicts between the settlers and the aborigines had taken place in this district, but during Eyre's three-year tenure of office he managed by exceptional kindness, combined with firmness, to pacify and win the confidence of the aborigines and to establish peaceful relations with them. In 1845 Eyre returned to England where he undertook the publication of Expeditions into Central Australia and Overland from Adelaide to King George's Sound, 1840–1.

Eyre arrived in England with a strong letter of recommendation to the Colonial Office from George Grey, then Governor of South Australia. The Constitution Act of 1846 for New Zealand being recently passed, Earl Grey assumed that Grey, now Governor of New Zealand, would be glad to receive his protégé as Lieutenant-Governor — a position created by the Act. Eyre was accordingly commissioned in November 1846, and set sail for Wellington, where he arrived on 7 August 1847. His appointment, however, was not welcomed with much enthusiasm by Grey; although the two men admired each other's energy and achievements they were evidently antipathetic. Eyre started off on the wrong foot by taking an inflated view of his position, which was, in fact, to be strictly subordinate to Grey's. In spite of this having been explained to him at the Colonial Office and in spite of Eyre's experience under Grey in South Australia, which should have taught him that Grey was a man determined to be complete master in his own house, Eyre attempted to take up an independent line. The settlers, also, misled by the title of Lieutenant-Governor, expected Eyre to be more than a resident agent of the Governor-in-Chief, Grey. Notwith-standing early, sharp lessons from Grey to the contrary, Eyre obstinately retained an exalted view of his functions; from feeling frustrated he became resentful and embittered. Eyre made a few attempts to explore New Zealand. With one exception these were unceremoniously cut short by Grey; this was his successful ascent of Mt. Tapuaenuku (9,460 ft) in the Kaikoura Range.

The Wellington settlers soon decided that Eyre was a pretentious nincompoop, and having done so, ignored him, while the local officials took little trouble to hide their contempt. Eyre plunged on from blunder to blunder, almost every move earning a reprimand from Grey. He opposed Grey's Provincial Councils Ordinance, he crossed swords with Grey over the calling of the New Munster Legislative Council for a second session, he complained to the Colonial Office behind Grey's back. Grey took a simple but effective revenge for this show of independence; he moved from Auckland to Wellington, thus displacing Eyre in the administration, but instead of transferring Eyre to Auckland (as was provided in the Constitution Act) he appointed Major-General Pitt to be Lieutenant-Governor in Auckland. Eyre was thus left to kick his heels and fume, jobless and despised, in Wellington. The correspondence between the two men vividly illustrates their different temperaments and abilities: Eyre's lengthy, tedious, self-justificatory dispatches; Grey's neat, unanswerable, incisive, snubbing epistles. Grey lost no opportunity of gently but unmistakeably informing the Colonial Office that Eyre was far more of a hindrance than a help.

In 1853 Eyre returned to England and in 1854 was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of St. Vincent in the West Indies, followed by his appointment in 1859 to Antigua as acting Governor-in-Chief of the Leeward Islands. After 18 months' leave in England, he was commissioned in 1862 to administer the Government of Jamaica during the absence of Sir Charles Darling. In 1864 Darling relinquished the appointment and Eyre was confirmed as Governor-in-Chief of Jamaica.

Jamaica was then passing through a depression caused partly by a lengthy drought and the economic disturbances due to the American Civil War. There was much intense poverty among the negro inhabitants, who were at the time being excited by a religious revival. The constitutional arrangements for the island were causing dissatisfaction and the administration was impaired by graft and corruption. For the first two years of his administration Eyre felt his position to be merely that of a caretaker, and he was reluctant to alter radically the arrangements made by his incompetent predecessor, despite the apparent danger signs. These were forcibly pointed out in a report written in early 1865 on the state of the island by Underbill, the Secretary of the Baptist Missionary Society, who, in addition, suggested how they might be improved. In his misguided attempt to refute this well-meant and constructive report, Eyre erred in making it a public issue, and to make matters worse published the curt and heartless reply of the Colonial Office to a humble petition addressed to the Queen by some distressed negroes. The “Queen's Advice”, as this reply came to be known, added fuel to the smouldering fire. G. W. Gordon, a negro politician, published a manifesto calling attention to the people's wrongs. Although inflammatory, this was hardly seditious, but it was one of the immediate causes of a serious riot at Morant Bay. Here property was destroyed and 28 persons, white and negro, were killed.

Eyre then proclaimed martial law as the riot had grown into a rebellion, gathered military forces, and crushed the rising. The suppression of the rebellion was attended by many terrible barbarities: 354 persons were executed after summary trials, 85 were executed without trial, and many were savagely flogged without trial. All that can be said in extenuation is that many of the Army officers were young and inexperienced, and the memory of the Indian Mutiny was still vividly fresh in their minds. Gordon, who gave himself up in Kingston, which was not under martial law, was handed over by Eyre to the Army. He was then tried, after a fashion, and hanged.

Public outcry in England led to the appointment of a Royal Commission to inquire into the events on the island. This vindicated Eyre and commended him for his skill, promptitude, and vigour in suppressing the rebellion, but found that martial law had been continued too long and that the punishments given had been excessive. Eyre was then superseded. Passionate feelings for and against him were roused in England: J. S. Mill, T. H. Huxley, and Herbert Spencer were prominent in the anti-Eyre faction, while Carlyle, Kingsley, Tennyson, and Ruskin supported him. Attempts were made to bring Eyre to trial for murder, succeeding in 1868 in his being charged with a long list of misdemeanours. He was found not guilty, but was then harrassed by a series of civil suits. In 1872 Parliament voted Eyre £4,133 to defray the costs of these prosecutions, and he was given a pension as a retired Colonial Governor.

Eyre then lived in quiet retirement in Yorkshire, where he died on 30 November 1901. He left a wife, Adelaide, daughter of Captain Ormond, R.N., four sons, and a daughter. He married Miss Ormond in New Zealand in 1850; her brother J. D. Ormond was his private secretary.

Eyre was stubborn, obstinate, and unteachable. These qualities, however necessary for the explorer of parched continents, were positive disqualifications for an administrator. In New Zealand he could not do much harm — in fact, he was merely a rather pathetic figure of fun — but in Jamaica nemesis overtook him and he played out his tragedy with the world for his audience. But Carlyle's view of him as a “hero” possibly penetrates further to the truth than his opponents' conception of him as simply the villain of the piece.

by Michael Wordsworth Standish, M.A. (1920–62), late Dominion Chief Archivist, Wellington.

  • Eyre: Governor-General's Archives, Dispatches, Eyre/Grey, Grey/Eyre, Grey/Colonial Office, 1847–1853 (MSS), New Zealand National Archives
  • Parliamentary Papers (Great Britain), 1846–53
  • Crown Colony Government in New Zealand, McLintock, A. H. (1958)
  • The Sugar Colonies and Governor Eyre, Mathieson, W. L. (1936)
  • The Myth of Governor Eyre, Oliver, Lord (1933).


Michael Wordsworth Standish, M.A. (1920–62), late Dominion Chief Archivist, Wellington.