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.




Navigator, meteorologist, Colonial Governor.

A new biography of FitzRoy, Robert appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

FitzRoy was born on 5 July 1805 at Ampton Hall, Suffolk, the second son of General Lord Charles FitzRoy by his second marriage. He was a grandson of the Third Duke of Grafton and a descendant of King Charles II. His half-brother was Sir Charles Augustus FitzRoy, Governor of New South Wales, 1846–55, and on his mother's side he was nephew to Lord Castlereagh, to the Third Marquis of Londonderry, and to Field Marshal Lord Hardinge.

After entering the Navy in 1819 FitzRoy was appointed in 1828 to command HMS Beagle, then on a hydrographic survey of Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, and the Straits of Magellan. This survey ended in 1830, but in 1831 FitzRoy was reappointed to HMS Beagle to continue the survey of these coasts. He sailed from Portsmouth in December 1831 and remained at sea until his return to England in October 1836. During his time at sea FitzRoy completed the survey of the Straits of Magellan, charted a great part of the coasts of South America and fixed the longitude of many secondary meridians. The results of his work were completely successful and proved that, despite his youth, he possessed outstanding qualifications as a navigator, commander, and scientist. The voyage's interest was increased by the presence of Charles Darwin as naturalist, with whom FitzRoy collaborated in the Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of HM Ships “Adventure” and “Beagle”, FitzRoy being responsible for the first two volumes and Darwin for the third. In 1837 FitzRoy was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society for his achievements.

When HMS Beagle made a brief visit to the Bay of Islands in 1835, FitzRoy paid close attention to the work of the Anglican missionaries and what he saw confirmed his predisposition in favour of the operations of the Church Missionary Society. He had strong evangelical beliefs and had for some time been closely interested in the welfare of native races, as was shown by his activities among the natives of Patagonia. His favourable impression of the missionaries' work in New Zealand appeared in his evidence to the Select Committee of the House of Lords appointed in 1838 to investigate the state of New Zealand. There can be no doubt that this testimony by an influential and knowledgeable witness earned for him the lasting gratitude of the Church Missionary Society.

In 1841 as the nominee of the Marquis of Londonderry, FitzRoy made a brief excursion into politics as Conservative member of Parliament for Durham. In 1842 he was appointed Conservator of the Mersey, a post he resigned on his appointment to be Governor of New Zealand on 7 April 1843.

His appointment owed much to the support he received from the Church Missionary Society which, at this time, exerted considerable influence on the Colonial Office. Apart from this, however, FitzRoy seemed to possess all the qualifications for a colonial governor: leadership, ability, intelligence, integrity, and an enlightened attitude towards native races. Others concerned with the welfare of New Zealand, notably the New Zealand Company, welcomed his appointment, which appeared to offer a chance to make a fresh start after the disappointments, mishaps, and misunderstandings that had occurred under Hobson and Shortland.

FitzRoy landed at Auckland on 26 December 1843 and at once took over from Shortland, Administrator since the death of Hobson in 1842. The situation was worse than he had been led to expect: the finances were in a desperate state, discontent among the Maoris was widespread and deep-seated, and many of the settlers had lost confidence in the Government. He summarily dismissed Shortland and appointed Dr Andrew Sinclair as Colonial Secretary in his place. He then almost immediately sailed for Wellington and Nelson, where he judged his attention was most urgently needed.

Here the settlers had been in a state of alarm and excitement since the Wairau “massacre”. They clamoured for protection, and for vengeance if possible, and to occupy the land they had persuaded themselves they had fairly bought. The Maoris, notably Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata, were apprehensive of the settlers' aggressive talk and remained resistant to further occupation of what they considered to be their territory. It was soon obvious to FitzRoy that the settlers were in the wrong, both in their general case for occupying the land and in the particular matter of the Wairau affray. It took moral courage to announce a decision that he knew would be unwelcome, and the settlers' disappointment was not assuaged by FitzRoy's unsparingly candid comments on their intemperate behaviour, by his clear implication that they could not be trusted with arms, and by his refusal to allow them military protection. His decision was just and wise, and he was fully supported by the Colonial Office, but he earned for himself the enmity of the leading southern settlers, such as Domett, and of the New Zealand Company and its powerful English supporters, although he had acted in the settlers' own best interests.

This enmity was soon increased by his handling of the company's land claims, which concerned territory in Wellington, Nelson, Taranaki, Wanganui, Manawatu, and Porirua. These had already been investigated by Land Claims Commissioner Spain, who reported adversely on all the claims except Taranaki, where he awarded the company 60,000 acres. FitzRoy persuaded the reluctant company officials that additional payments for Wellington and Nelson were essential, and on these being made he issued Crown titles to the company, though for amounts of land very much less than what was hoped for. In the case of the Taranaki claim he quashed Spain's award altogether (in August 1844) on the grounds that certain tribal rights had been ignored. These proceedings were a serious blow to the company which, by this time, was in serious financial difficulties, and reinforced the settlers' impression that FitzRoy was more sensitive to Maori grievances and claims than to their own distress. FitzRoy had justice on his side, and his actions averted serious trouble with the Maoris in Taranaki, but he was unconciliatory and appeared unsympathetic to the settlers, whose distress was real and considerable.

FitzRoy then turned his attention to the Government's finances. When he arrived the total assets amounted to only £2,770, and the liabilities to about £24,000, while the revenue for 1844 was expected to fall short of the expenditure by about £8,000. He made attempts to borrow or to secure advances, but on these proving unsuccessful his only alternative to stopping payment was to issue paper money. In doing so he trusted that the current depression would pass and that the development of the country's resources would in the end enable it to maintain itself unaided. The first issue of currency debentures was made in April 1844; by November 1845 debentures totalling £37,000 had been issued. FitzRoy took a serious risk in issuing such a large amount, but his confidence was justified – inflationary tendencies were not seriously noticeable and the most grave distress was averted. This did not prevent local grumbling, and in issuing the debentures FitzRoy was fully aware of the British Government's inevitable disapproval, despite the fact that it had given him no practicable alternative.

Before he left England FitzRoy had been warned of the difficulties surrounding the question of the “old land claims”, i.e., claims made by persons who had bought land direct from the Maoris before the acquisition of British sovereignty. Attempts had been made to settle the claims but these were not wholly successful and the long delays and legal wranglings were upsetting the Maoris. The question was seen as a major cause of unrest and FitzRoy was determined to settle it. His zeal to do good, however, ran away with his judgment and confusion was worse confounded. As in a number of other cases, much of the trouble lay in the lack of able local officials, who were not, with a few notable exceptions, men of high calibre.

Most of these claims, apart from the New Zealand Company's, were for land in the northern parts of New Zealand. It was here that another, but connected, aspect of the land question was becoming increasingly perplexing – the inability of settlers to buy land and of Maoris to sell it. By the terms of the Treaty of Waitangi land could not be bought directly from the Maori owners but only from the Government, which possessed the right of pre-emption. The profit from land sales had been a major source of revenue, but now the Government had no funds with which to pay even the small price it gave for its land purchases, consequently it had no land to sell to impatient would-be buyers. In addition, the Maoris had become resentful of the profits made by the Government and were eager to sell land on the open market for what it would fetch. To settle these grievances FitzRoy, in March 1844, made the experiment of waiving the Crown's right of pre-emption and permitting direct negotiations with Maori owners, provided the purchasers paid a fee of 10s. an acre to the Government for every acre thus bought. The results were disappointing. To appease the increasingly impatient Maoris FitzRoy took the risk, in October 1844, of lowering the fee to 1d. an acre. This boosted sales, but it gave FitzRoy's critics a good deal of ammunition. It was of more than questionable legality; it opened the way to charges of pandering to speculators and surrendering to Maori threats, and it offended still further the New Zealand Company settlers, whose property it tended to devalue.

As part of his financial measures FitzRoy had increased the Customs duties, but these remained unfruitful and he was beginning to favour their abolition and the substitution of direct property taxation when events in the Bay of Islands decided him. Since 1840 trade here had declined due to the development of other ports; Maori prosperity declined, and for this they blamed the Government and the Customs in particular – symbolic significance was attached to the flagstaff at Russell which was regarded as a sign of British injustice. This distorted view was encouraged by irresponsible local traders who shared in the depression. The general discontent, aggravated by the imposition of higher duties, led many of the local Maoris to support the ambitious Hone Heke, who, in July 1844, cut down the flagstaff as a gesture of defiance. FitzRoy recognised that a crisis in Maori-Pakeha relations had arisen; he mustered what few troops he had but these were insufficient to overawe, much less to overcome a sizable group of determined men aware of the Government's weakness, and he sent urgently to Sydney for more. These were sent on the understanding that they would be immediately returned unless active operations became unavoidable. Lacking a permanent body of troops for defence, FitzRoy fell back on diplomacy and the enlistment of Maori allies. At a meeting at Waimate in September 1844 he secured the allegiance of numerous important chiefs and a promise of their alliance in exchange for the abolition of Customs duties and the reduction of the pre-emption fee from 10s. to ld. an acre. The crisis was averted but FitzRoy recognised that his diplomacy had brought him only a breathing space. It was now clear to him that a large, permanent military force was essential and that day-to-day expedients, conciliation, and appeasement could not bring a lasting settlement of New Zealand's troubles. He requested the Colonial Office urgently to dispatch a force to New Zealand.

Heke remained a centre for disaffection, the Maori allies were not wholly reliable, while the property tax did little to fill the Treasury, due chiefly to the stubborn resistance of the settlers. The feelings of disgruntlement, suspicion, and alarm were inflamed by the arrival in early 1845 of the report of the House of Commons Committee on the state of New Zealand. It supported the New Zealand Company, deplored the Government's failure to assert its right to unoccupied land, and urged the exertion of authority by armed force. This alarmed the Maoris with fears of dispossession and encouraged the attacks on FitzRoy by the company settlers, notable among which was the petition from the Nelson settlers for his recall. Despite an exceptionally sympathetic dispatch from Lord Stanley, the British Government failed to offer any practical help and FitzRoy's position became well nigh impossible. The flagstaff was again cut down and FitzRoy once more sent to Sydney for troops, but before they could arrive in sufficient numbers Heke, on 11 March 1845, sacked and burnt Russell. In April martial law was proclaimed and, troops having arrived, a campaign against Heke was begun. Through inexperience and incompetent leadership, for which FitzRoy cannot be blamed, this failed and demonstrated to the Maoris that British troops could be successfully resisted. In the crisis FitzRoy did not appear at his best, giving way to fears of assassination and Popish plots, all of which were wild exaggerations or completely untrue.

Already the Colonial Office had resolved to replace FitzRoy. This was due to a strong agitation in England led by the New Zealand Company, culminating in an attack on Colonial Office policy in the House of Commons in March 1845. The Government bowed to the storm and in May announced FitzRoy's recall, giving as their reasons his failure to keep the Government fully informed of events, his neglect to raise a militia (which in fact he had done in March 1845), his contempt for instructions in issuing paper money, and his waiver of the Crown's right of pre-emption. He was also charged with lack of judgment and firmness in handling the native question.

Captain Grey arrived in New Zealand in November 1845 and, until their departure on 10 January 1846, FitzRoy and his family lived in Auckland in discomfort and embarrassment. FitzRoy's father-in-law, General O'Brien, had added lustre to the simple FitzRoy ménage in Auckland, and their departure was regretted by those who knew them best. Their uprightness and piety were mocked at by the uncouth, but such high-mindedness was for some time to be rare at Government House.

On his return to England FitzRoy was made Superintendent of the Woolwich Dockyard and for a time commanded HMS Arrogant. In 1850 he retired and settled down to his scientific interests, becoming in 1854 chief of the new meteorological service of the Board of Trade. In this field he did outstanding pioneer work. He was elected fellow of the Royal Society in 1851, promoted to Rear-Admiral in 1857, and to Vice-Admiral in 1863. During a nervous breakdown brought on by overwork he took his own life on 30 April 1865. He was survived by his second wife, Maria Isabella, daughter of J. H. Smyth, a son, Robert, and three daughters. His first wife, Mary Henrietta, daughter of Major-General E. J. O'Brien, died in 1852.

No one could have succeeded in New Zealand if placed in FitzRoy's circumstances. For a start, the instructions he received before leaving England indicate the negative approach of the Colonial Office to an urgent problem – he was not to expect any increase in naval or military forces, and he was not to involve the British Government in any increased expenditure. A vague benevolence and humanitarianism, the difficulties of finding money, troops, and ships, the problem of reconciling the powerful evangelical interest on the one hand and the New Zealand Company party on the other, all combined to prevent a firm line being taken by the British Government.

FitzRoy himself took up an evangelical, missionary approach to his functions – to “do good” was his ambition – but this did not blind him to the need to administer in the light of what was reasonable and possible. He was no doctrinaire. His generous solicitude for the Maoris and his wholesome respect for their strength tended to obscure the needs of the unhappy settlers and the necessity to act with discretion among so many strong conflicting interests. The accusation that he became hysterical in the face of disaster may be true, but, if so, it was nothing to the hysteria shown by the mass of the settlers. He took grave risks and opened himself to the charge of being rash and impulsive, but most of these were inescapable and many were justified. That disaster did not overtake New Zealand long before owes much to his moral courage, fairmindedness, and ability.

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

  • Official Papers, MSS, etc., National Archives, Wellington
  • Crown Colony Government in New Zealand, McLintock, A. H. (1958)
  • Hone Heke's Rebellion, Rutherford, J. (1947)
  • A History of New Zealand, Sinclair, K. (1959).


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