James Stephen


The son of a prominent abolitionist, James Stephen was a lawyer and public servant, whose own humanitarianism influenced colonial policy during the mid-19th century.

In 1813 the recent law graduate acted as part-time counsel to the Colonial Office in London, beginning a career with the government department that would last 34 years.

In 1836 Stephen was appointed permanent under-secretary of the Colonial Office, holding this position until his retirement in 1847. During that time successive ministers depended upon him as 'the depository of all that knowledge of which the Secretary of State must daily avail himself'. In this role, Stephen not only helped to communicate ministers’ policies and instructions but also to shape them.

Stephen’s Christian faith and social reforming attitudes led to a pronounced humanitarian emphasis in his work and an active desire to see indigenous peoples such as Māori treated properly. He believed they should be allowed to develop into British citizens rather than destroyed or enslaved, and insisted that England had a duty to guard indigenous peoples against the greed of colonial settlers in search of a quick profit. This accounted for his opposition to Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s planned settlement of New Zealand.

When it was decided to replace James Busby, the British Resident in New Zealand, with a Consul, Stephen began drafting the Royal Instructions to Captain William Hobson. The early drafts were strongly influenced by evangelical humanitarianism but by mid-1839, the final versions were mostly concerned with the pragmatic issues surrounding the acquisition of sovereignty. However, they provided neither a draft treaty nor provision for military backing other than what the Governor of New South Wales might be prepared to release.

Stephen resigned his post in 1847 due to ill health, but continued to be consulted on colonial matters. In his later life he took on a less rigorous role of academic historian at the University of Cambridge and then at the East India Company College.

Adapted from the Australian Dictionary of Biography entry by J. E. Egerton

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Posted: 04 Mar 2014

Thanks Rhonda, Angelene and Joanne - we've now updated this page with the correct James Stephen details! Please let us know if you feel anything else needs correcting. Kind regards, Jamie Mackac


Posted: 04 Mar 2014

What I forgot to mention is that James Stephen (1758-1832) is the uncle of Sydney/Sidney Stephen (1796-1858) who was a Judge and Lt Governor in New Zealand. He died in Auckland in January 1858 and is buried in Symonds Street Cemetery.


Posted: 03 Mar 2014

Angeline Goodman is correct. James Stephen (1758-1832) is the Abolitionist. His son, also James Stephen (1789-1859) was the Permanent Colonial Under Secretary (1836-47). James Stephen Senior is my husband, Andrew's 4th great uncle and I have researched this family as part of doing both my husband and my family trees. There is a photo/picture of James Stephen Jnr. on the net, along with bios on him.

Angelene Goodman

Posted: 29 Nov 2011

I did my thesis on the Stephen family.Some of the information above is incorrect as it is mixing together information about James Stephen (1758-1832) who was friends with Wilberforce and his son, also James Stephen, who worked in the Colonial Office. The picture is of James Stephen Snr and I don't think there are any available pictures of the son.