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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.



(c. 1796–1861).

Colonial Secretary and naturalist.

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

Andrew Sinclair was born about 1796 at Paisley, Scotland, of a middle-class family. From 1814 to 1816 he studied medicine at Glasgow University College and, in the following year, took a surgical course at L'Hôpital de la Charité in Paris. For the next two years he attended Edinburgh University where he gained his M.D. In 1822 he joined the Royal Navy as an assistant surgeon. From 1823 to 1833 he served at the Cape of Good Hope and in the Mediterranean. During this period Sinclair spent much of his spare time on botanical work and sent many specimens to the British Museum. In 1835 he joined HMS Sulphur and accompanied Beechey on his voyage to survey the Pacific coasts of North and South America. He continued his interest in botany and sent home specimens from Mexico, California, and other parts of central America, which established his reputation as a collector.

Towards the end of 1839, when his health broke down, Sinclair returned to England. He went to Australia in 1841 and visited the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, when Ross's Antarctic Expedition was there. At this time Sinclair accompanied Sir J. D. Hooker and Colenso on their botanical excursions. Later in the year he returned to Scotland where he published a paper concerning the opportunities for investment in Sydney. About this time Sinclair presented such a fine collection of shells and insects to the British Museum that Dr J. E. Grey was encouraged to begin his first systematic catalogue.

In September 1843 Sinclair came to Tasmania as Surgeon-Superintendent on the convict ship Asiatic. As this voyage marked the end of his normal term of service, he took his discharge in Sydney. He then offered to accompany Governor FitzRoy to New Zealand, free of charge, either in a medical capacity or to explore the natural resources of that country.

Shortly after his arrival in New Zealand, FitzRoy was faced with the problem of choosing a new Colonial Secretary to replace Willoughby Shortland; and, because he believed it would be extremely unwise to appoint anyone connected with local political factions, he pressed Sinclair to accept the position. At first Sinclair declined, pleading his lack of administrative experience as an excuse; however, he accepted finally in order to relieve the Governor's embarrassment. On 6 January 1844 he was appointed Colonial Secretary and, shortly afterwards, was given wide discretionary powers. He held office under Grey, Wynyard, and Gore Browne, until the granting of responsible Government in May 1856. Sinclair did not show particular ability as Colonial Secretary, but he acquired a reputation for being “honest, upright, scrupulous, and laborious”. He had to choose and train his subordinates. When he vacated office he left behind him the nucleus of an efficient Civil Service, with men like G. S. Cooper and William Gisborne holding the key positions.

During his term of office Sinclair devoted his leisure to botany and collected specimens in all parts of the North Island. He sent large collections to Kew Gardens where they provided Sir J. D. Hooker with much of the material for his volume on New Zealand flora. Sinclair maintained his connection with the British Museum, corresponded with the Rev. Richard Taylor, and in 1851 contributed some notes on the native vegetation of Auckland to Hooker's Journal of Botany. After his retirement he devoted his time to scientific exploration. He visited Scotland and Europe, where his name was already widely known among botanists. While in England he discussed scientific matters with Darwin and Thomas Huxley. Late in 1858 Sinclair returned to New Zealand to collect further material for Hooker. In the following year he was elected fellow of the Linnean Society. At this time, as his journals show, he was collecting in most districts. In February 1861 he joined von Haast at Mesopotamia Station, where the latter was surveying the Rangitata River system for the Canterbury Provincial Government. On 25 March 1861 Sinclair was returning to the homestead of Samuel Butler when he was drowned in the Rangitata River. His grave may still be seen on the flat, about a quarter of a mile from the river, in front of the Mesopotamia homestead.

Shortly after his death the Southern Cross summed up Sinclair's public career in the following words: “As a public character, Dr Sinclair had few opportunities of distinguishing himself. Ministers in his day were clerks, but we believe that his natural tastes would never have led him to a political career”.

by Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.

  • Sinclair Papers (MSS.), General Assembly Library
  • Samuel Butler of Mesopotamia, Maling P. B. (1960)
  • Manual of New Zealand Flora, Cheeseman, T. (1906)
  • Lyttelton Times, 3 Apr 1861 (Obit)
  • Southern Cross, 3 May 1861 (Obit)
  • Crown Colony Government in New Zealand, McLintock, A. H. (1958).


Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.