Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Whitaker, Frederick

WHITAKER, Sir FREDERICK (1812–1891), premier of New Zealand, eldest son of Frederick Whitaker, deputy-lieutenant of Oxfordshire, was born on 23 April 1812 at Bampton, Oxfordshire, and brought up to the profession of a solicitor. In 1839, soon after he had qualified, he emigrated to Sydney, and thence went on to New Zealand in 1840, settling down to practice at Kororareka, then the seat of government, and moving with the government to Auckland in the following year. In 1842 he was appointed a county-court judge; but in 1844 these courts were abolished, and he once more returned to the practice of his profession.

In 1845 Whitaker was appointed an unofficial member of the legislative council; and during the first native war of 1845 and 1846 he was called upon to serve in the militia, of which he was a major. In 1851 he was elected to represent Auckland in the legislative council for the province of New Ulster; but the council was superseded before meeting by the constitution of 1852. Under the new constitution he was elected a member of the new provincial council, becoming somewhat later provincial law officer and a member of the provincial executive council. In 1853 he was nominated a member of the legislative council, and in 1854 took his seat as such in the first general assembly of the colony. In 1855 he was appointed attorney-general in succession to William Swainson (1809-1883) [q. v.], and later in the year he became speaker of the legislative council. On 7 May 1856, with the introduction of responsible government, Whitaker became attorney-general in the Bell-Sewell ministry, and, although before the end of May he was out of office, he was during June again attorney-general under (Sir) Edward William Stafford; in this capacity he was leader of the government in the legislative council. The two main questions which this government had to face were those of the organisation of provincial administrations and of the adjustment of native rights. On 12 July 1861 they were defeated on the question of native affairs and the war of 1860. Whitaker was out of office till 1 June 1863, when he became attorney-general to the Domett ministry without a seat in the cabinet; in October the ministry resigned because of internal dissensions, and Whitaker became premier at one of the most stormy periods of the colonial history. His bills for the suppression of rebellion and native settlements were severely criticised. He was soon involved in dispute with the governor, Sir George Grey, as to the conduct of the Maori war, which was then at its height (see House of Commons Papers, 1864 and 1865). Eventually he resigned, November 1864 [see Weld, Sir Frederick Aloysius]. In 1865 he was elected superintendent of Auckland, and in the same year was member for Parnell in the house of representatives. He led the opposition to the change of the seat of government from Auckland to Wellington. His scheme for the administration of the land fund was one of the chief items of his policy.

In 1867 Whitaker retired from the assembly and the post of superintendent, and devoted himself to the practice of his profession, and to speculation in various businesses connected with timber and grazing as well as mining. He was for many years in partnership with Thomas Russell, and enjoyed a lucrative private practice, but his investments and speculations were unfortunate, and he died poor. A man of untiring industry and activity, he was a director of the Bank of New Zealand, the New Zealand Sugar Company, the New Zealand and River Plate Land Mortgage Company, and other local institutions or agencies. Some of his land claims, such as the matter of the Piako Swamp, came before the legislature and were the subject of acrimonious debate. In 1876 he once more returned to politics, and was elected for Waikato to the house of representatives; in September 1876 he became attorney-general in Atkinson's government, taking later the portfolio of posts and telegraphs. His land bill this year was strenuously opposed, and at last withdrawn. On 15 Oct. 1877 the government was defeated, and in the general election which followed he lost his seat. But the incoming ministry was short-lived, and when Sir John Hall formed his administration, Whitaker became attorney-general with a seat in the legislative council. It was during this term of office that he came into collision with Taiaroa, the Maori member, over his west coast settlements bill. On 21 April 1882, on Hall's resignation, he became premier and reconstructed the ministry; on 25 Sept. 1883 he resigned to attend to private affairs. He was created K.C.M.G. in February 1884. Again in October 1887 Whitaker resumed his old position of attorney-general under Sir Henry Atkinson, sitting in the council till his health began to fail in 1890; in December of that year the ministry resigned, and Whitaker decided to retire from public life. He died at his office on 4 Dec. 1891, and was buried in St. Stephen's cemetery with masonic honours and much sign of public mourning.

Whitaker has been described as 'probably the most remarkable public man in New Zealand' (Gisborne, op. cit. p. 71), yet he worked with greater effect in subordinate position than when holding prominent office. As a premier he hardly succeeded; as adviser to many ministries his influence was powerful and efficient. He was neither a good speaker nor correspondent, yet he was skilful in drafting bills in clear and simple language. Rusden utterly and perhaps too severely condemns his high-handed policy towards the Maoris. He was certainly prominent in instigating measures which on their face disregarded the natives' interest. Whitaker married, in 1843, Augusta (d. 1884), stepdaughter of Alexander Shepherd, colonial treasurer of New Zealand, and left four sons—one of whom was in partnership with him—and three daughters.

[Auckland Weekly News, 12 Dec. 1891; Mennell's Dict. of Australasian Biography; Gisborne's New Zealand, Rulers and Statesmen; Rusden's Hist. of New Zealand, vols. ii. and iii. passim.]

C. A. H.