FEATHERSTON, Dr Isaac Earl
Physician, politician, first Superintendent of Wellington Province, first Agent-General for New Zealand in London.
A new biography of Featherston, Isaac Earl appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Isaac Featherston was born at Durham on 21 March 1813, the fourth son of Thomas Featherston, of Blackdian, and Cotfield House in County Durham, England. Educated at a private school in Tamworth, he took his M.D. degree at Edinburgh in 1836, later touring extensively on the continent and in Italy. On 10 December 1839 he married Bethia Campbell, daughter of Andrew Scott, a Baillie of Edinburgh, and by her had four sons and eight daughters. Mrs Featherston died at Wellington, New Zealand, on 16 March 1863.
In December 1840 Featherston sailed for New Zealand in the Olympus, one of the New Zealand Company ships, and was surgeon-superintendent in her on her first voyage. On arrival at Wellington Featherston settled down to practise medicine, a calling he followed until his political career necessitated full-time devotion to politics. From the outset Featherston took a leading part in the cultural and political life of the infant settlement. In 1842 he was both a committeeman of the Mechanics Institute and secretary of the Wellington Horticultural and Botanical Society. In 1845 Featherston became the first editor of the Wellington Independent, in which capacity he was responsible for its strong antipathy to the policies of the Governor, Sir George Grey. In 1846 Featherston was one of the prime movers in the setting up of the Wellington Savings Bank, being elected to the board of managers and responsible for drafting the institution's first temporary rules of association.
During these years Featherston played a leading role, along with Clifford and Fitzherbert, in the many public meetings held in the Britannia or Aurora Tavern, at which local affairs were discussed. In 1844 he served on the abortive second deputation of Wellington landowners which asked FitzRoy either to complete the settlers' land titles or to award them compensation. At a public meeting of landowners in August 1845, Featherston took a leading part in putting forward a proposal to petition Parliament for the recall of Governor FitzRoy. The original proposal was made by Domett in Nelson, and Featherston was elected to the committee of 18 charged with preparing a petition to be forwarded from Wellington. When the new Governor, Sir George Grey, visited Wellington in February 1846, Featherston led the deputation which presented an address to His Excellency, and also placed a statement of the settlers' views before him. From 1847 Featherston strongly espoused the Wellington Land Purchasers' cause against the New Zealand Company, and personal differences on this issue led to his celebrated pistol duel with Col. W. Wakefield. This question amicably settled, Featherston sustained a decisive role in having the company's land claims recognised by the Governor. Between 1851 and the granting of responsible Government, Dr Featherston was prominent in the Wellington Settlers' Constitution Association, and refused a seat in Grey's nominated Council when this was offered.
When the Wellington provincial offices were to be filled, Featherston stood out as the sole contender for the Superintendency – “a proved man” – and one whom “the colonists know they can trust”. He was elected unopposed, and thereafter ruled, with but one brief intermission, until his retirement from politics in 1870. Featherston brought to his new post a long experience of local public service, together with an unbounded admiration of British governmental institutions. He opened the first session of the Provincial Council with all the ceremony of an Imperial Parliament. His first action was to pass an Executive Act which gave the province a fully responsible Cabinet Government. This worked admirably until 1858, when, after his second election as Superintendent, he discovered a hostile majority facing him in the Council. The Executive resigned and Featherston sent for E. J. Wakefield to form a new Government. Wakefield complied, but his choice proved legally unacceptable. Featherston thereupon resigned, hoping the Council would do likewise. He was again elected and, the Council continuing intractable, he carried on virtually without an Executive until 1861 when the question became shelved by the war. Thereafter he remained more quietly, but none the less completely, master of Wellington Province.
Dr Featherston represented Wanganui in the first New Zealand Parliament in 1853, and the city of Wellington from 1855 till 1870. He held office for a month in Fox's ministry in 1861 as Colonial Secretary, retiring at the end of session to continue the Superintendency. He again took office, without portfolio, under Fox, from 1869 to 1871. In 1856, when Dr Logan Campbell carried a provincialist motion in the House which unseated the Sewell Government, he was unable to form a ministry. Sewell thereupon advised the Governor to send for Featherston, as the leader of the next strongest provincial group. A very subdued Featherston met the House next day to admit similar failure. “It will make me,” he said, “more cautious in voting for a majority not prepared to give that only legitimate effect to their votes.”
Native affairs provided the great question which exercised the ingenuity of colonial politicians in the 1860s. As early as 1856 Featherston had shown in Parliament that he held the view (in common with many colonists) that the Maoris, as a race, were doomed to extinction and that the most Europeans could hope to do would be to “smooth down their dying pillow”. By 1860 Featherston supported Fox's “peace at any price” policy as against Stafford's endorsement of the Government's war policy. His able expression of these sentiments earned him great influence among the Maoris. In Wellington Province Featherston travelled widely, often at extreme personal risk, conciliating doubtful tribes and raising native auxiliaries to serve alongside European troops. Such was his mana that these auxiliaries made it the condition for their aid that he alone should lead them. Thus it was that Dr Featherston led the native allies throughout the West Coast campaigns of 1865–66, accompanying General Chute on the march round Egmont. In recognition of his “noble example, stimulating the courage of the Native Allies” at the siege of “formidable Otapawa Pa”, Featherston was awarded the New Zealand Cross.
Thrice during his political career Featherston undertook diplomatic missions overseas. As Superintendent of Wellington he negotiated, in Australia, the Panama Mail Steamer Agreement. Again, in 1869, he led a deputation to Australia to persuade General Chute to accept responsibility for retaining Imperial troops in New Zealand pending further reference to the British Government, and he later accompanied Bell to England on a similar mission. They failed in this, but induced the British Government to guarantee a £1,000,000 loan for roading native districts as a measure of security against further wars.
On his return to New Zealand in 1870, Featherston was offered by Fox the newly created Agent-Generalcy in London. He assumed this office in March 1871, and his first task was the organisation of the immigration machinery created by the Public Works and Immigration Act 1870. Between 1871 and his death, Featherston arranged for the selection and dispatch of over 71,000 immigrants to the colony, thus swelling the European population by nearly a quarter. In December 1872, Featherston and Clifford were appointed Commissioners to represent New Zealand at the International Exhibition held in Vienna, and for this the Austrian Emperor created him a Knight Commander in the Imperial Francis Joseph Order. Dr Featherston died at Brighton on 19 June 1876.
As one of the earliest immigrants, Featherston quickly threw himself into Wellington political and cultural life. As physician and runholder (he owned land blocks in the Wanganui and Hawke's Bay districts), he moved among the exclusive inner circle of colonial society, being closely associated with Bell, Fitzherbert, and Clifford. On the introduction of the 1852 Constitution he ardently espoused the cause of provincialism. For many years the “three F's” dominated Wellington politics, Fox in the national sphere, Featherston in the provincial, and Fitzherbert from time to time understudying both.
Successive Governors found Featherston highly insubordinate. He saw New Zealand as a confederation with the parts (provinces) being more important than the whole. To this concept he stuck. As Superintendent he casually assumed the prerogatives and practices of a monarch, elective but absolute, and the repercussions reached even to the Colonial Office. As he was the chief New Zealand politician to put all his faith in the provincial institutions, his appointment as Agent-General removed the provinces' strongest champion and thus paved the way for their eventual abolition. Although he inherited a weak constitution, and perennially suffered ill health, Featherston's integrity, immense personal popularity, administrative ability, and courage were never questioned. By his personal ascendency alone he held all the native tribes of the Province of Wellington loyal to the British Crown during the critical years of the Maori Wars. No matter what we may think of the narrowness of his provincialism, or the rigidity of his constitutional assumptions, there can be no doubt that for 30 years the slight figure of Isaac Earl Featherston, smoking his eternal black cigar, is the history of the city, district, and province of Wellington.
by Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.
- Featherston Papers (MSS) (General Assembly Library)
- Maori War File/982 (MSS) (National Archives). The Spectator, 24 Jun 1876 (Obit)
- NZ Times, 14 Jul 1876 (Obit).