Arthur Hamilton Gordon was born in London, England, on 26 November 1829, the youngest son of George Hamilton Gordon, fourth earl of Aberdeen, and his second wife, Harriet Douglas, daughter of the Honourable John Douglas and widow of James, Viscount Hamilton. Educated privately and at Trinity College, Cambridge, Arthur Gordon graduated MA in 1851. The following year he became private secretary to his father, the British prime minister (1852–55). In 1854 he entered Parliament as a Liberal, representing Beverley in Yorkshire, but lost his seat in 1857. When William Gladstone was appointed high commissioner extraordinary to the Ionian Islands in November 1858, Gordon accompanied him as private secretary. This mission developed Gordon's interest in colonial affairs and deepened his relationship with Gladstone.
Contacts made through his father and his friendship with Gladstone greatly assisted Gordon in his subsequent career. He owed his first colonial appointment to the duke of Newcastle who had been in his father's cabinet. Gordon served as lieutenant governor of New Brunswick (1861–66), governor of Trinidad (1866–70), governor of Mauritius (1871–74), first governor of Fiji (1875–80), high commissioner and consul general for the western Pacific (1877–83), governor of New Zealand (1880–82), and governor of Ceylon (1883–90). He was appointed a CMG in 1859, a KCMG in 1871 and a GCMG in 1878. On 20 September 1865, in London, he married Rachel Emily Shaw Lefevre, eldest daughter of Rachel Emily Wright and her husband, Sir John Shaw Lefevre. They were to have a son and a daughter.
Arthur Gordon arrived in New Zealand in November 1880 with an established reputation as one of the abler governors of his generation. His previous appointments had been mainly in Crown colonies where governors were both policy makers and administrators. Gordon relished power and was ambitious and autocratic. In Crown colonies his administrative gifts, his desire to promote public welfare and his humanitarian concern for the oppressed or exploited had had free rein. He was associated with land and educational reforms in Trinidad, the protection of Indian indentured labour in Trinidad and Mauritius, and especially with an experiment in indirect rule in Fiji which foreshadowed principles and methods employed later by F. D. Lugard in Africa. By contrast, his term in New Zealand was marked by frustration and discord.
Gordon had expressed a wish to hold Fiji in plurality with another Australasian government so that he could retain control of his experiment in indirect rule, but this was not to be. G. W. Des Voeux was appointed governor of Fiji and Gordon transferred to New Zealand. He did, however, remain high commissioner for the western Pacific and was given a general superintendence, but not control, over native affairs in Fiji. Gordon's disappointment was compounded by other factors. New Zealand enjoyed responsible government and the governor's role was limited. Gordon lamented that he would have no real power, and found the prospect of 'laying…stones…making little speeches…and entertaining large parties of stupid people' distasteful. In New Zealand he was, he wrote, being 'highly paid, well housed and well fed, for performing the functions of a stamp.' Moreover, he feared his name would be tarnished by association with the Hall ministry's Maori policy which alarmed him. He was soon seeking a transfer and his frequent threats of resignation earned him the name 'Abdicator' in his ministers' telegraphic code.
The Parihaka crisis dominated Gordon's term in New Zealand. The prophet Te Whiti-o-Rongomai's thriving Maori settlement at Parihaka in Taranaki lay on land officially confiscated in the 1860s. When the Grey government began opening up the area for European settlement in 1878 Te Whiti resisted, rightly claiming that Maori land reserves, promised in 1865, had not been set aside. The West Coast Royal Commission in 1880 confirmed that the government's failure to define these reserves constituted a genuine grievance. The situation was exacerbated when the road past Parihaka was laid unfenced through cultivated fields, stock damaged crops and Maori protests were ignored. Te Whiti sent his men to erect fences across the new road and to plough land already sold to Europeans. By September 1880 216 Maori fencers and ploughmen were in prison without trial, their detention legalised by the Maori Prisoners Act 1880 and the Maori Prisoners Detention Act 1880.
One of Gordon's first tasks was to report to the Colonial Office on this situation. In forwarding his ministers' explanation Gordon indicated that he would report separately after conducting his own inquiries. His report of 26 February 1881 supported the 1880 commissioners' contention that the trouble was caused by the government's failure to set aside Maori land reserves before opening the area for settlement. He did not, however, comment on his ministers' claim that attempts since October 1880 to inform Te Whiti of the government's subsequent offer to him and his people had been repeatedly rebuffed. Gordon criticised the government agents' handling of the fencing issue and maintained that the Maori, in asserting their rights of occupation, were 'substantially in the right, although undoubtedly wrong in the mode they took to assert their pretensions.' He concluded that both the arrest and detention of the Maori prisoners were justified, given local tensions, but found the various penal laws cumbersome and potentially dangerous: some of the powers granted were 'exceptional' and set precedents which could afford 'a cloak to acts of grave oppression.'
Gordon had been doubly unwise. Convention required a governor who disapproved of his ministers' policy or actions to convey his criticism in a confidential dispatch. Instead, Gordon wrote an 'open' dispatch which could be made public. Secondly, it took Gordon nearly three months to honour another convention, that of showing open dispatches to ministers, despite their repeated requests to see his 26 February report. When the premier, John Hall, finally saw it on 18 May he was furious. A series of exchanges took place in which ministers criticised the governor's reading of the Parihaka situation, and Gordon undertook further research. On 12 July he told his ministers that he would not modify his views. This was reiterated in another open dispatch four days later. But on 16 August in a confidential letter Gordon asked the secretary of state for the colonies, Lord Kimberley, to erase this dispatch as it was too contentious for publication. By these actions he undermined his influence. The ministers mistrusted the governor, and Gordon's contact with them was thereafter largely formal.
Gordon was visiting Fiji in September–October 1881 when his ministers resolved to settle the Parihaka affair. Whether they took advantage of his absence to force the issue is a matter of debate. They maintained that Te Whiti's changed attitude prompted their action; his speech of 17 September they interpreted as a clear signal that he was abandoning passive opposition in favour of violent resistance. Parliament voted £100,000 for increased military expenditure, and when William Rolleston, the minister for native affairs, failed to persuade Te Whiti to adopt a more accommodating stance, the cabinet issued an ultimatum. John Bryce, who favoured a more vigorous policy, replaced Rolleston and a proclamation gave the Parihaka Maori 14 days to accept the reserves offered or risk forfeiture of their lands. Gordon, alerted by his secretary, was hurrying back to New Zealand, but several hours before his vessel docked the ministry's measures were approved by James Prendergast, the administrator in the governor's absence. Hall later claimed under oath that while he knew Gordon was returning he did not know that his arrival was imminent.
Gordon strongly disapproved of his ministers' policy but was obliged to acquiesce, given their political and popular support. He questioned the legality of the proclamation, which he regarded as 'injudicious', 'disputable' and 'inequitable', but gained no support from the Colonial Office. Its view was that ministers knew what they were doing and 'fortunately' the office was not bound to comment on their conduct. Meanwhile, Te Whiti ignored the proclamation and 1,589 troops marched on Parihaka. Te Whiti was apprehended and over 1,500 Maori were either arrested or sent back to their homes elsewhere. The village was largely demolished, crops were destroyed and all weapons confiscated. Te Whiti's dignity throughout the proceedings and his advocacy of non-resistance won him a moral victory.
Gordon continued to criticise his ministers' handling of the affair and its aftermath. He scored points in dispatches and correspondence with ministers but failed to influence events. Sometimes ministers ignored him. Gordon learnt from the press, for example, that the premier of New South Wales, Henry Parkes, was to represent New Zealand in talks in the United States over trans-Pacific steamship services and a bid to reduce the American tariff on wool. He was unjustly criticised for informally consulting former premier George Grey when the Hall ministry resigned. The governor, uncertain of the strength of the various political groupings following elections, was merely taking soundings. There were also wrangles over the publication of papers relating to the Parihaka crisis.
Gordon left New Zealand on 24 June 1882. He had shown courage in opposing what he regarded as an unjust policy over Parihaka, but his manner and methods alienated ministers and left him without any moderating influence. The Parihaka affair haunted Gordon for some time. He had injudiciously provided G. W. Rusden with information critical of Bryce which was published in Rusden's History of New Zealand (1883). During Bryce's libel case against Rusden in London in 1886 Gordon was attacked, not only as the source of the libel but for supplying such information while Bryce was one of his ministers. This unfavourable publicity led Gladstone to defer his recommendation of Gordon for a peerage; he had to wait until 1893 for that honour, when he was created Baron Stanmore, of Great Stanmore, Middlesex.
After retiring from the colonial service Gordon published a short life of his father and a biography of Sidney Herbert, and edited his father's and his own papers. He served on committees in the House of Lords and was a member of the House of Laymen in the English ecclesiastical province of Canterbury. Arthur Gordon died in London on 30 January 1912, and was buried at Ascot, his home for many years. His wife, Rachel Gordon, had died in 1889 at Malta.