John Sheehan

Biography

John Sheehan

John Sheehan was born in Auckland in 1844, and trained as a lawyer. In 1869 he was involved in a lengthy Native Land Court case about land at Ōrākei (Auckland), and as a result he developed close links with a number of Ngāti Whātua chiefs. He took part in local politics and held administrative jobs in the Auckland province.

In 1872 Sheehan was elected to the House of Representatives. He was the first European New Zealand-born parliamentarian. He also acted as counsel for the Repudiation movement in the 1870s. This movement, led by a number of prominent Hawke's Bay chiefs, claimed that Māori had been swindled out of their land by unscrupulous Europeans, including Donald McLean, a senior government land purchase agent. Sheehan was an impressive advocate for the repudiationists, but did not succeed in undoing any land purchases.

When George Grey became Premier in 1877, he chose Sheehan as his Native Minister and Minister of Justice. Sheehan pushed for the reintroduction of Crown pre-emption (the Crown’s monopoly on purchasing Māori land), on the grounds that this would get rid of ‘middle men’ and speculators, simplify Māori land laws, and end the corruption involved in many Native Land Court hearings, especially those held at Cambridge. He also believed that the wars of the 1860s had been a mistake, and attempted to open a dialogue with the King Movement and Taranaki Māori in an effort to open up these districts to European settlement. He had many powerful enemies, however, and because of this, and his own increasing incompetence, Sheehan failed to carry out virtually all his initiatives. He bungled his negotiations with the pacifist Parihaka prophet Te Whiti-o-Rongomai, whom he regarded as a fraud and fanatic. He also lost a chance to peacefully resolve grievances over the confiscated land in Taranaki. The Taranaki difficulties contributed to the fall of the Grey ministry in 1879 and to the end of Sheehan's political career. In 1881 the Constabulary Field Force, led by his successor as Native Minister, John Bryce, occupied the Parihaka settlement. A dissolute lifestyle led to Sheehan's early death in 1885.

Adapted from the DNZB biography by D. B. Waterson

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