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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.


FITZGERALD, James Edward


First Superintendent of Canterbury, journalist, and politician.

A new biography of FitzGerald, James Edward appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

James Edward FitzGerald was born at Bath in 1818 of Anglo-Irish gentry stock, the youngest son of Gerald FitzGerald, of Kilminchy, Queen's County. He was educated in schools around Bath, entered Christ's College, Cambridge, in 1839, graduated B.A. in 1842, became a clerk in the department of antiquities in the British Museum in 1844 after deciding against a military career, and was promoted to an undersecretaryship in 1849, a post which was abolished in 1850.

By this time he had become interested in colonial affairs and in emigration – as was also the case with John Robert Godley, his knowledge of Irish conditions turned his mind towards emigration. Vancouver Island interested him as a possible colony and he published pamphlets on the matter in 1848 and 1849. He became secretary to the Society for the Reform of Colonial Government, through which he met many members of the Canterbury Association, notably Godley, a major influence upon his life. About this time he resolved to seek a more active career in a new country. In 1849 he met Edward Gibbon Wakefield, and became emigration agent for the association, rather to Wakefield's displeasure; Wakefield also opposed his resolve to emigrate. Nevertheless, in September 1850, he departed with the main body of Canterbury settlers on the Charlotte Jane, not long after his marriage to Fanny Erskine, daughter of George Draper, a London merchant. He was an idealistic colonist, leaving a secure career behind as well as a circle of notable acquaintances, including Charles Kingsley and W. E. Gladstone. But he saw the change as a liberation.

On arrival he threw himself into affairs with the restless energy which characterised his whole active life, becoming immigration agent, sub-inspector of Police, and editor of the Lyttelton Times. In 1851 and 1852 he showed himself strongly anti-Governor and anti-Colonial Office, supporting Godley in his efforts to evolve voluntary local self-government. He was not well to do; journalism and politics were his chosen routes to affluence and influence. His attempt to buy the Lyttelton Times in 1850 failed; but in 1853 he was elected Superintendent, defeating James Campbell, a cheap-land advocate, significantly enough supported by FitzGerald's future enemy, W. S. Moorhouse. On the hustings he took a pro-settler, anti-Association stand – a reflection of the breach between Godley and the Association – and so earned Sewell's condemnation as “shallow, impetuous and dangerous”. In the same year he was elected to the House of Representatives for Lyttelton.

This antipathy did not prevent him from working with Sewell, both provincially and colonially. In the Parliament of 1854 he moved the Address-in-Reply asking for ministerial responsibility (holding this to be implied in the 1852 Constitution Act) and, with Sewell, Bell, and Weld, joined the officials briefly on the Executive Council. Lack of effective power led to their resignation; rumours of a possible Wakefield ministry intensified the existing antipathy between the two men. He was greatly cast down at the failure to achieve responsible government in 1854 and devoted his attention almost wholly to provincial affairs in the 1850s, though he again represented Lyttelton in the House from 1855 to 1857.

He was a notable Superintendent. His characteristically high-flown address to the first Council laid great stress upon education and is remarkable for its express disavowal, alien to the spirit of the association, of the principle of religious establishment. The hard work of transferring functions from the association to the province fell to Sewell, but FitzGerald presided over the process. He also reduced the price of rural land from £3 to 2 in an effort to serve both the squatter and the small agriculturalist; he had a large part in establishing Christ's College (naming it for his Cambridge College and later even designing the schoolroom); he saw the completion of the Sumner Road to Lyttelton and (ironically as it turned out) suggested a tunnel through the hills to Lyttelton; he backed, in 1857, the plan for assisted immigration passed by the Council.

By the end of his first term he was again afflicted with fears for his health and, instead of seeking re-election, went to England as emigration agent for the province. He also collected money for Christchurch Cathedral and for Christ's College and was involved in negotiations for the projected Lyttelton tunnel and rail. In 1859 he declined offers of governorships in Queensland and British Columbia.

On his return in 1860, full of vigour and confidence, he plunged into politics, both provincial and colonial. Again, journalism was the course chosen by this impecunious idealist. With greater vehemence than consistency he declared war on the Superintendent, Moorhouse, especially opposing the scheme to borrow £300,000 to finance the tunnel. From a whirlwind of speeches and pamphlets emerged the Press, today a leading national daily. His slashing manner offended his associates and provoked a stern rebuke from Godley in England, but in 1862 he assumed full control and confidently expected to make his fortune. But the paper went deep into debt and, in the later 1860s, he was forced out by his creditors, leaving substantial debts behind him.

Meanwhile he had been active in politics. From 1861 to 1862 he represented Akaroa in the Provincial Council; from 1862 to 1866, Ellesmere, and from 1866 to 1867, Christchurch, in the House of Representatives. He was prominent, if ineffectual, in the disturbed politics of the Maori War period. Upon the fall of Fox in 1862 Grey, the Governor, invited him to form a ministry, but he declined; for two months in 1865 he was Native Minister in the Weld Ministry. His speeches and his diagnosis of the cause of Maori distress were more notable than his administration. He was among the very few who held that the war was neither necessary nor desirable, and almost alone took the much proclaimed “self reliant” policy quite seriously.

In a major speech of August 1862 he advocated full-scale amalgamation, to the extent of Maori representation in the House and on the Courts, and condemned previous policy, including Crown pre-emption of land sales, for its tendency to separate the two races. Though he advanced the (by now) outmoded view that the wars originated in a Maori desire for good government, which successive administrations had failed to satisfy, he also made two assertions which subsequent scholarship has supported. He held that the Maori initially felt superior to the settler and treated him as “a sort of useful stranger … inferior to himself in all qualities which he most admired….”; and, further, that “before the war broke out the Natives were in a state of retreat from a condition of civilisation”. He was later, again with Sewell, opposed to the 1863 policy of coercion, land confiscation, and borrowing; he argued that the Suppression of Rebellion Act was likely to provoke wholesale confiscation and the Loan Act to benefit Auckland moneyed interests. As Native Minister he passed a declaratory Native Rights Act and started a Maori newspaper, but a Bill to settle the administration of native districts lapsed. He had no time to do more than earn considerable popularity among the Maoris.

In 1867 he retired from politics on appointment as Controller-General. He held this post, later designated Comptroller and Auditor-General, until his death in 1896. He was created C.M.G. in 1870. He lived in Wellington for the last 30 years of his life, and literature was the main interest of this period. He had always been an active writer and, at the same time, had dabbled in painting, sculpture, architecture, and music. He published nothing of considerable length, but from the 1840s to the 1890s there was a constant stream of pamphlets, articles, and verses on a wide variety of topics – emigration, land settlement, Maori affairs, defence, politics, the future of democracy, religion, art, evolution, university education, imperial federation, public finance, and literature. Little of it is remembered, but the outpouring of ideas is not without significance; he grappled, for instance, with Darwin's importance for theology, and in discussing university education he looked forward to eventual local autonomy and devolution. His verses, collected in 1893, do not lack grace, and “The Night Song of the Charlotte Jane” is still known.

FitzGerald is among the more endearing characters of the nineteenth century, on the one hand impulsive, undiscriminating, and inconsistent, on the other, talented, generous and idealistic. He cannot be said to have been entirely selfless; his finances were chronically insecure and his establishment of the Press, together with the hardly consistent campaign against Moorhouse, owed a good deal to personal ambition and calculation. His attitudes were customarily too unremittingly idealistic to make much impact upon his fellows; he was not heeded, though, such was his eminence as an orator, he was normally listened to. But his idealism did not preclude a certain clear-headedness, notably on the questions of race relations and education. Generally speaking, his ideas were better than those of the men who had more effect upon the course of events. Of his many writings little, apart from his memoir of Godley (prefixed to the collection of Writings and Speeches which FitzGerald edited in 1863), retains interest, though he holds a firm place in the histories of literature. Above all he is to be honoured as a man of parts and a man of taste; in a utilitarian century he was among the few who insisted that ideas, art, and literature should count, even in a colony, and that notions of right behaviour should be heeded, even by a colony at war with its racial minority.

A bronze statue of FitzGerald, by F. A. Shurrock, stands at the Hagley Park end of Rolleston Avenue, Christchurch.

by William Hosking Oliver, M.A.(N.Z.), D.PHIL.(OXON.), Professor of History, Massey University of Manawatu.

  • Letters of J. E. FitzGerald (MSS), Turnbull Library
  • A History of Canterbury, Vol. 1., Hight, J., and Straubel, C. R. jt. eds. (1957)
  • New Zealand Rulers and Statesmen, Gisborne, W. (1897)
  • Notable New Zealand Statesmen, Scholefield, G. H. (1946)
  • Press (Christchurch), 25 May 1911, 25 May 1961.


William Hosking Oliver, M.A.(N.Z.), D.PHIL.(OXON.), Professor of History, Massey University of Manawatu.