Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/FitzGerald, James Edward

1385982Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement, Volume 2 — FitzGerald, James Edward1901William Pember Reeves

FITZGERALD, JAMES EDWARD (1818–1896), prime minister and native minister, New Zealand, son of Gerald Fitzgerald of Queen's county, was born at Bath, and educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated B.A. in 1842. In 1844 he entered the service of the department of antiquities in the British Museum and became under-secretary of the museum in 1849. Shortly afterwards, however, he fell under the influence of Edward Gibbon Wakefield [q. v.] and John Robert Godley [q. v.], who were then organising the church of England colony by which Canterbury in the south island of New Zealand was settled. He resolved to devote himself to the enterprise, and in 1850 sailed for Lyttelton in one of the four ships which carried the pioneers of the Canterbury settlement. A drinking song written by him on the voyage, 'The Night Watch of the Charlotte Jane,' expresses with some spirit the aims and feelings of the Canterbury pilgrims.

Arrived in New Zealand, Fitzgerald combined with humour and energy the various duties of editor of the settlement's first newspaper, 'The Lyttelton Times,' inspector of police, and immigration officer. His pen helped the agitation for a free constitution, and when this was successful and Canterbury became a self-governing province, he was elected in 1853 its first superintendent, and also member for Lyttelton in the first New Zealand parliament. Next year this parliament met, and on the invitation of acting-governor Wynyard, Fitzgerald, together with Sir Frederick Aloysius Weld [q. v.], formed a ministry. His cabinet was a hybrid body consisting half of elected members of the new legislature and half of the old permanent officials who had administered affairs while New Zealand was yet a crown colony. This singular arrangement broke down at the outset, Fitzgerald resigned, and responsible government was virtually postponed for two years, when the old officials were pensioned and retired. Meanwhile Fitzgerald, as superintendent of Canterbury, was active in maintaining the Wakefield land system there, under which the public lands were for many years sold without restriction of area to all purchasers able to pay 21. an acre in cash for them. He was also a warm advocate of national as opposed to clerical school teaching. From 1857 to 1859 he was in England as immigration agent for Canterbury, and on his return the province, in recognition of his work, gave him the Springs estate. In 1861 he founded 'The Press' newspaper, of which he was editor, and after a short time sole proprietor. He was a lucid and vigorous, indeed at times a brilliant, writer, and though journalism yielded him no money profit, 'The Press' quickly became, and still remains, one of the leading newspapers of the colony.

In 1862 Fitzgerald re-entered parliament, there honourably to distinguish himself by his eloquent pleading for the right of the Maori race to special representation in both houses a privilege which was granted, though not until after his retirement. For a few weeks in 1865 he was native minister under Sir Frederick Weld, but in 1866 he quitted politics to join the civil service, in which the last thirty years of his life were spent. At first controller-general, he was made commissioner of audit in 1872 and controller and auditor-general in 1878, and was throughout a vigilant and honourable public servant. On rare occasions he delivered public addresses, valued both for their thought and charm of style. The best remembered of these was the fine speech made in 1868 to the Canterbury pilgrims gathered in the council chamber in Christchurch to welcome George William, fourth baron Lyttelton [q. v.], one of their settlement's founders. Another address, given at Wellington in 1893, contained an appeal for bible-reading in the state schools; a third showed sympathy with Christian socialism. In earlier life he was perhaps the brightest and most attractive public speaker of his time in New Zealand, and undoubtedly displayed a rare combination of wit, dash, and emotional power. Able alike with tongue and pen, gifted with courage and kindly sympathies, cultivated,. high-minded by instinct, Fitzgerald only needed a greater measure of prudence, patience, and tenacity to have left a much deeper mark on the history of New Zealand, and to have held his place in the front rank of her active public men to the end of his days. As it was, duller men outstayed him.

In 1863 he edited the 'Letters and Speeches of John Robert Godley,' for which he wrote an introductory sketch. He married Fanny Erskine, daughter of George Draper, and had thirteen children, of whom four sons and three daughters survived him. He died at Wellington, New Zealand, on 2 Aug. 1896 (Times, 6 Aug. 1896).

[William Gisborne's New Zealand Rulers and Statesmen (1840-97), 2nd edit. London, 1897; The Press, Christ church, New Zealand, 3 Aug. 1896. obituary notice by Hon. W. Rolleston; W. P. Reeves's The Long White Cloud, London, 1898; G. W. Rusden's History of New Zealand, Melbourne, 1896; Philip Mennell's Dictionary of Australasian Biography, London, 1892.]

W. P. R.