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.


GORDON, Arthur Charles Hamilton, First Baron Stanmore


Colonial administrator and Governor of New Zealand (1880–82).

A new biography of Gordon, Arthur Hamilton appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Gordon was born at Argall House, London, on 26 November 1829, the youngest son of George Hamilton-Gordon, Fourth Earl of Aberdeen and Prime Minister of Great Britain (1852–55), by his second wife, Harriet, who was the daughter of the Honourable John Douglas, widow of James, Viscount Hamilton, and mother of the First Duke of Abercorn.

Gordon, a delicate child, was educated privately at Haddo, his father's Scottish seat, and at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he matriculated in 1847. He was president of the Union, and graduated M.A. in 1851. Gordon had always been very attached to his father, and in 1852 he became his private secretary. In this period neither of them wrote nor received a letter that the other did not see, and Gordon came to know most of the influential people of the time. In 1854 Gordon himself entered the House of Commons as Liberal member for Beverley, Yorkshire, but he lost this seat three years later. In 1858 he became private secretary to Gladstone, and then High Commissioner Extraordinary in the Ionian Islands.

His career as a colonial Governor began in 1861, at the age of 32, and lasted until 1890. During these 29 years he was successively Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick (1861–66), Governor of Trinidad (1866–70), Governor of Mauritius (1870–74), the first Governor of Fiji (1875–80), and the first High Commissioner of the Western Pacific (1877–82), Governor of New Zealand (1880–82), and Governor of Ceylon (1883–90). He received the C.M.G. in 1859, was created K.C.M.G. in 1871, G.C.M.G. in 1878, and Baron Stanmore of Great Stanmore, Middlesex, in 1893.

Gordon was an outstanding success as a Governor of Crown colonies, but was less happy in New Brunswick and New Zealand, both of which enjoyed responsible government. He had a strong desire to participate in government himself, and was impatient both of the constitutional restraints imposed on the Governor of a self-governing colony, and of the low standards of education, morality, and competence he found among colonial politicians. The Crown colonies, however, gave him greater scope for his liberal paternalism, expressed in his land and educational reforms in Trinidad, and his Indian labour legislation both in Trinidad and in Mauritius. But perhaps his most enduring achievement was in Fiji, where circumstances offered him a unique opportunity to put into effect principles of native administration which anticipated those that became so much better known when applied to Africa by a later generation of colonial administrators.

Gordon so identified himself with his Fijian experiment that he could not contemplate handing it over to a successor. He was thus led to accept an expedient that was to have unfortunate consequences. He did not wish to be Governor of New Zealand; it is not too strong to say that he abhorred the prospect of heading a Government with a native policy of which he so strongly disapproved; yet he was prepared to go there if he could continue to have effective oversight of Fijian affairs and remain High Commissioner for the Western Pacific. It was an intolerable position for Des Voeux, his successor in Fiji, and Gordon's absence on a visit to Fiji allowed a serious crisis to develop in New Zealand native affairs.

Gordon arrived in New Zealand on 23 November 1880. His first task was to report on the dispute over confiscated Maori lands in Taranaki, which was causing some concern in Britain. Gordon's sympathies were with the Maoris, and he angered his Ministers by reporting to the Secretary of State his personal view that the Maoris were substantially in the right. The lands in question were nominally confiscated in 1863, but much that had happened in the succeeding 15 years. The Proclamation of 1865 exempting the land of loyal Maoris, speeches by Ministers, and the actions of officials of the Lands Department had led the Maoris to believe confiscation had lapsed. When, therefore, Sir George Grey decided in 1878 to sell the land to settlers, the Maoris systematically obstructed the survey, and Parliament passed measures sanctioning their arrest and detention. A commission, reporting in 1880, recognised the source of the trouble as the failure to define native reserves before the survey was attempted. Though the report was conciliatory in tone, the dispute continued, as the reserves proposed, particularly at Parihaka, the centre of the trouble, were not acceptable to the Maoris. Neither did the resignation of Bryce, the Minister for Native Affairs, who favoured strong action against Te Whiti, the Maori leader at Parihaka, lead to any improvement.

In September 1881 Gordon left New Zealand to visit Fiji, and it appears that the Government, using a provocative speech by Te Whiti as a pretext, took advantage of his absence to force the issue. Although Gordon was assured no new developments were expected, within two days of his departure the Government announced an increase in the constabulary in the Parihaka area, and eight days later Parliament approved an increase of £100,000 in the defence vote. Gordon heard of these developments only through his private secretary. He hurried back to New Zealand, but a mere two hours before his vessel docked at Wellington, a special meeting of the Executive Council under the Administrator, Prendergast, reappointed Bryce Minister for Native Affairs, and issued a Proclamation requiring Te Whiti to evacuate the surveyed area within 14 days. Though he doubted the validity of the Proclamation, Gordon took no action, as he believed his Ministers had the support of the Assembly. A month later the Government was confirmed in office at a general election. Gordon did, however, firmly resist his Ministers' claim to see and comment on his account of such controversial matters in his confidential dispatches to the Secretary of State.

Gordon finally left New Zealand on 23 June 1882, but this was not the end of his troubles. In 1886 Bryce appealed unsuccessfully to the Secretary of State to take action against Gordon for his part in supplying Rusden with information which Bryce had made the subject of his successful libel action against the author of the History of New Zealand.

In his retirement, after he was raised to the peerage in 1893, Gordon was an active member of the House of Lords Committees, and frequently spoke on colonial matters. He continued his writing begun by an account of an expedition he made while in New Brunswick, and published under the title Wilderness Journeys in New Brunswick in 1864. In 1893 he published a life of his father, The Earl of Aberdeen, and in 1906, Sydney Herbert, Lord Herbert of Lea: A Memoir. Between 1897 and 1910 he published privately several volumes selected from his own papers on Fiji and Mauritius.

Gordon was a High Churchman, and as a young man had worked with Samuel Wilberforce and Henry Phillpotts to restore convocation to an active part in church government. He remained a member of the House of Laymen in the province of Canterbury until his death.

A. P. Maudslay has given this character sketch of Gordon: “The Governor — A short man, dark, not good looking, careless of his appearance, shortsighted…. Nowhere has he been popular, since he has a very bad manner with strangers, and he is perfectly aware of it and regrets it very much. He is very determined, and puts aside all opposition when his mind is made up, but with people with whom he is in sympathy, though not agreeing, he is perfectly open to discussion and even diffident to subordinates. His personal staff have always been strongly attached to him; with them he is always on the most perfectly easy terms, and not in the least exacting. He is a High Churchman with strong religious opinions which he does not air. He professes to be a thorough liberal, but his aristocratic leanings come out insensibly. He is very proud of his family and descent. He is very large minded, and in some things almost an enthusiast. Well read, particularly in history and in some curiously odd subjects. Very fond of nature and scenery, he has a very artistic appreciation of light and colour. Active, a good walker, utterly careless of what he eats and drinks — or rather, I don't believe he ever knows what he eats and drinks. Often very preoccupied when there are difficult matters to settle or schemes to devise, he has a dreadful habit of putting off all writing until the last minute”.

In 1865 Gordon married Rachel, the eldest daughter of Sir John Shaw Lefevre, a distinguished lawyer and at that time Clerk of Parliament. They had one son and one daughter. Lady Gordon died in 1889. Gordon died in London on 30 January 1912. The funeral service was held at St. Paul's, Wilton Place, and he was buried at All Souls, South Ascot. He was succeeded by his son, George Arthur Maurice Hamilton Gordon, born 1871.

by Owen Wilfred Parnaby, B.A.(MELB.), D.PHIL.(OXON.), Associate Professor of History, University of Auckland.

  • Stanmore Papers (Add. MSS.) British Museum
  • History of New Zealand, Rusden, G. W. (1883)
  • Pacific Historical Review, May 1959, “Sir Arthur Gordon and New Zealand, 1880–1882”, Knaplund, Paul
  • Britain in Fiji, 1858–80, Legge, J. D. (1958)
  • Life in the Pacific Fifty Years Ago, Maudslay, A. P. (1930).


Owen Wilfred Parnaby, B.A.(MELB.), D.PHIL.(OXON.), Associate Professor of History, University of Auckland.