James Edward Fitzgerald


James Edward Fitzgerald
James Edward Fitzgerald

In 1849 and while still in England, James FitzGerald became secretary of the New Zealand Canterbury Association and helped plan a Church of England colony in New Zealand. He arrived in Canterbury in 1850, and soon became a leading settler. He was made Superintendent of the province in 1852, and briefly represented Lyttelton in the House of Representatives.

FitzGerald returned to England in 1857, but was back in New Zealand in 1860, when he re-entered provincial and national politics. In 1862 he made an eloquent plea for equal civil and political rights for Māori. He suggested that Māori chiefs play a full role in running the colony - for example, by holding a third of the seats in Parliament. He later described the land confiscations as "an enormous crime", and felt that the Māori King should be recognised as "superintendent of his own province". Most European settlers did not share his views.

In 1865 FitzGerald served briefly as Native Minister in the Weld government. The announcement of his appointment was met with stony silence by his colleagues, who considered him an avowed "philo-Māori" (Māori-lover). He failed to reduce racial tensions, however, and the Native Lands Act 1865, passed while he was Minister, significantly speeded up Māori land alienation.

FitzGerald admitted that by bringing the Native Lands Act forward, and not including measures that might have softened its impact on Māori, he had 'given up some of the views that he had held'. Some historians have accused him of giving in to pressure from land speculators.

FitzGerald retired from politics in 1867, and lived in Wellington until his death in 1896.

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H J Rawstron MNZM, Chevalier de l'ordre des arts et lettres

Posted: 16 Mar 2022

FitzGerald was multi-talented, a gifted writer, water-colourist, orator, guitarist, newspaper editor and even architect. His most lasting contributions to New Zealand's written and artistic heritage are threefold: he founded the Christchurch newspaper, 'The Press'; he is the architect for Big School, the oldest stone building at Christ's College and the oldest educational building in New Zealand in continuous use; and he is the author and illustrator of the children's book, 'Seadrift', his artistic masterpiece and one of early New Zealand's most remarkable artworks.

FitzGerald wrote and illustrated the 64 page manuscript of 'Seadrift' in his house at Lyttelton, on and off, between 1851 and 1858, thirty-two pages of swift-flowing text opposite thirty-two full page, brilliantly-executed watercolours. The work tells the story of the building, launching, early adventures, modification, refitting, relaunching, later adventures and death of a little boat called 'Seadrift'. On one level, it is an exciting tale for a child, and on a second level it is an allegory for the emigrant's life-journey. The priceless bound, hand-written, hand-painted book spent nearly a century and a half in England, unknown to New Zealand art and literature historians, until 2000, when the manuscript was gifted to the Canterbury-based John Robert Godley Memorial Trust, and returned to New Zealand. 'Seadrift', New Zealand's first illustrated children's book, was finally published in facsimile in Christchurch in 2007, as the middle volume of the prize-winning, three-volume book set, 'Godley Gifts' (www.godleygifts.co.nz). The Rt. Hon. Helen Clark, as Prime Minister of New Zealand, wrote the foreword for the publication and, personally, accepted a book set of 'Godley Gifts', at a reception in Wellington, for placing in New Zealand's National Library, The Turnbull Library.