Page 1: Biography
Fergusson, Bernard Edward
Governor-general, soldier, writer
This biography, written by Sarah Burgess, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2021.
Bernard Fergusson was the country’s tenth governor-general and the last in a long line of British representatives in the imperial tradition. Cheerful and friendly, he was immensely popular and admired for his willingness to meet people from all sections of society. His pursuit of greater Māori–Pākehā unity, his warm and respectful relationship with Māori and his knowledge of te reo Māori were unique features of his term in office.
Bernard Edward Fergusson was born in London, England, on 6 May 1911, the third son in the family of four sons and one daughter of General Sir Charles Fergusson and his wife, Lady Alice Mary Boyle. The family lived at Kilkerran, their estate in Ayrshire, south-west Scotland. Fergusson was educated at Eton College, and as a 14-year-old took several months out from his schooling to visit his parents in New Zealand, where his father was governor-general from 1924 until 1930. The experience was a happy one, and left Fergusson with a deep affection for New Zealand. Both his grandfathers, Sir James Fergusson and David Boyle, Earl of Glasgow, had also served as governors of the then-colony in the late nineteenth century.
Military and writing career
Fergusson followed his father into a military career. He attended the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, and in 1931 was commissioned into the Black Watch, a Royal Highland infantry regiment. He served as an aide-de-camp for Major-General (later Field Marshal) Archibald Wavell (1935–37), in Palestine (1937) and as an instructor at Sandhurst (1938–39). His service during the Second World War included a brief stint with the Black Watch in Tobruk, Libya, and periods in neutral Turkey as a liaison officer and in India as general staff officer for joint operations. He also commanded a column of Chindits during the Burma Campaign, part of Brigadier Orde Wingate’s long range penetration expeditions behind Japanese lines. Fergusson later described the first expedition as something of a ‘spiritual watershed’ for him personally; of the 318 men under his command, only 95 came out alive.1
Fergusson’s post-war career included a period as assistant inspector-general of police in Palestine, where he was involved in counter-terrorism efforts in 1946–47. One of the men under his command, decorated war hero Roy Farran, was accused of murdering Alexander Rubowitz, a Jewish youth who had disappeared mysteriously. The resulting scandal, inquiry and trial nearly ended Fergusson’s career. He left Palestine and was put in command of the 1st battalion of the Black Watch in Germany.
On leave in Scotland he met Laura Margaret Grenfell, the younger daughter of Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Morton Grenfell; they married in London on 22 November 1950. They had one son, George (Geordie). Various other appointments followed, including two years as colonel (intelligence) at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe in Paris and a brief period as director of psychological warfare during the Suez crisis of 1956. Fergusson ended his active military career in 1958 in command of the 29th infantry brigade at Dover, having attained the rank of brigadier.
He next took up a position as special correspondent for the Sunday Times, travelling abroad for three months of each year. The remainder of his time was spent at home, writing books. Fergusson cultivated a successful career as an author of military histories and biographies; his books included Beyond the Chindwin (1945) and The wild green earth (1946), accounts of his experience of the Burma campaign. Later works included Wavell: portrait of a soldier (1961), his military autobiography The trumpet in the hall (1970), the light verse collection Hubble bubble (1978), and Five addresses on church unity (1967) on ecumenism.
Term as governor-general
Fergusson’s appointment as New Zealand’s next governor-general was announced in late 1961; he joked at the time that he was taking up ‘the family racket’.2 He had long quietly hoped for the role, but was still surprised when he was appointed. He took office in November 1962, stating his intention to travel the length and breadth of the country and ‘go in and out among you as friends’.3 He was immensely popular, drawing large crowds to his official engagements throughout his five years in office. He carried out his duties conscientiously and enthusiastically, delighting in meeting people from a wide range of backgrounds. Highlights of his term included a royal tour by Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh in 1963, the first vice-regal trip to Antarctica the same year, and a visit by American President Lyndon Johnson in 1966. The Queen made him a Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order (GCVO) during her visit.
Tall, with a bristling moustache, monocle and strict military bearing, Fergusson appeared a caricature of a typical British army officer, but his gregariousness and relaxed manner endeared him to the public. He always had a ready quip and was quick to strike up conversations, be it with school children, hospital patients, factory employees, or waterside workers at a union meeting. Lady Laura Fergusson shared the vice-regal duties and was equally gifted at putting others at ease. During her tenure she established the Laura Fergusson Trust to assist people with disabilities to lead independent lives.
Fergusson pursued the twin aims of church unity (he was a faithful Presbyterian) and greater unity between Māori and Pākehā during his term. In addition to publishing his collection of speeches on church unity, he attended joint church services and gave readings from the Bible, putting his weight behind the longstanding movement then at its zenith. At a time when Māori were increasingly settling in towns and cities, Fergusson called for greater inclusion of Māori at events and in urban, civic and political life. He also supported language revitalisation and viewed the proper pronunciation of Māori words as ‘ordinary good manners’, reprimanding Pākehā for improper and offensive use of the language.4 On matters of tikanga he was equally stern, expressing his surprise and dismay at the cultural illiteracy of many Pākehā. His public appeals for Māori–Pākehā unity were much remarked upon and provoked widespread discussion on the state of the relationship.
He was careful not to comment publicly on political matters, something he found particularly difficult in relation to the Vietnam War; he was disappointed at what he considered the government’s minimal contribution. As a result, his term was largely free of controversy, save for one minor incident in 1966 when several hundred students demonstrated against the University of Canterbury awarding him an honorary degree. Though aimed at criticising the system of honorary degrees rather than Fergusson himself, the demonstration hinted at a slowly growing opposition to the monarchy and the vice-regal office.
Relationship with Māori
Throughout his term Fergusson demonstrated a genuine interest in Māori people, their language and culture. In 1962 he gave a New Year’s Eve radio address to Māori, with a portion in te reo Māori, in which he expressed his desire to meet Māori across the country. It was the first time a vice-regal representative had spoken the language at length in a broadcast.
Fergusson’s interest in te reo Māori dated from his visit to New Zealand during his father’s governorship. His mother, Lady Alice Fergusson, had studied the language as a child during her father’s governorship, and she arranged lessons for her son at Government House. She later gave him a Māori-language bible which he used at Eton. Fergusson rededicated himself to learning the language during his term in office, and sought advice and coaching from the secretary to the Minister of Maori Affairs, W. T. Ngata, who provided tape recordings to assist Fergusson’s study. He spoke Māori both on marae and when conversing informally at official engagements. Many Māori appreciated his genuine efforts to master their language; not since George Grey in the nineteenth century had a governor spoken Māori with any degree of fluency.
His standing in the Māori community was perhaps best demonstrated by the warm reception he received at marae around the country, and in the heartfelt farewells at the end of his governorship. Ngāti Raukawa gifted his son Geordie the name Raukawa (which he took as a middle name), in recognition of his status and lineage, which mirrored that of their ancestor and chief Raukawa. Geordie was only the second child of a governor to be gifted a Māori name; Huia Onslow, son of Lord Onslow, was gifted his in 1891.
Yet despite his support for Māori culture, Fergusson remained a proponent and representative of the empire which had colonised New Zealand. Though he acknowledged the imperial project’s self-interested motives, he defended the outcomes, believing that good had resulted from colonisation, remarking that, ‘wherever we went we did bring complete freedom, far greater than those countries had had before’.5
Later life and death
Fergusson’s governorship ended in October 1967. After saying their farewells, he and his family returned to Auchairne, not far from the Fergusson estate at Kilkerran. He was offered the governorship of Northern Ireland but turned it down, preferring to remain at home where he continued to write and kept busy with multiple other commitments.
In 1972 he was made a life peer, taking as his title Baron Ballantrae of Auchairne and The Bay of Islands, the latter the place where his family had happily spent their summers during his governorship. He endeavoured to maintain links with New Zealand, and occasionally spoke in the House of Lords on matters concerning the country. He chaired the London board of the Bank of New Zealand, and chaired the British Council from 1972 to 1976. His devotion to his faith was rewarded with a position as lord high commissioner to the general assembly of the Church of Scotland. For a time he was also chancellor of the University of St Andrews, and he was part of a team of international observers during the Nigerian civil war. But it was his term as colonel of the Black Watch from 1969 to 1976 that he cherished most of all.
Bernard Fergusson died of cancer in London on 28 November 1980, aged 69; Laura had died a year earlier, when a tree hit their car during a gale on their estate. He was survived by his son Geordie, who was British High Commissioner to New Zealand from 2006 to 2010, continuing the family’s long association with the country. Obituaries in New Zealand affectionately characterised Fergusson as a hard-working governor-general, who was exceptional for the time he gave to the many New Zealanders who had never before met the queen’s representative.
With his aristocratic heritage and military background, Bernard Fergusson is often considered New Zealand’s last truly British governor-general. His term in office marked another step in the country’s gradual transition away from imperial Britain towards a more independent identity. His strong and highly visible support for Māori language and culture was unique for a vice-regal representative at the time and foreshadowed a shift in Pākehā attitudes towards Māori that would gradually gain currency in the decades following his departure.