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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 9 (January 1, 1934)

Famous New Zealanders — No. 10 — J. E. Fitzgerald — Pioneer, Statesman, Writer, Orator

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Famous New Zealanders
No. 10
J. E. Fitzgerald
Pioneer, Statesman, Writer, Orator

Among the founders of the several British settlements in New Zealand there were many men of great intellectual gifts, culture and statesmanlike outlook, and the most brilliant of all, probably, was James Edward Fitzgerald. He arrived in the first of the “Pilgrim Ships” at Lyttelton. in 1850, helped to form the Canterbury settlement and Christchurch City, and established and edited the first newspapers in Canterbury. In politics he was an active figure for many years. He was the first Superintendent of Canterbury Province; he was Premier of the first (and short-lived) representative Ministry in the colony, and he was Native Minister in the Weld Cabinet. He was an orator of grace, force and fire, the most enthralling speaker of his day among the many eloquent men in New Zealand's early Parliaments.

James Edward Fitzgerald (1818–1896).

James Edward Fitzgerald (1818–1896).

The Irish have played a leading part in the making of New Zealand. There were more Irishmen than English in the British regiments which did most of the fighting against the Maoris. It was the lads from Inneskillen and Cork, the Wicklow Mountains, and the glens of Antrim, who enforced with rifle and bayonet the mana of the English flag in our war days. Turning to more peaceful scenes, it is in the nature of a paradox also that three Irishmen were the foremost figures in the pioneering and shaping of that most English of settlements, the Canterbury Province and the City of Christchurch. These three were John Robert Godley, Charles C. Bowen, and James Edward Fitzgerald. They were foundation-layers and builders, carrying out the plans drawn by the Canterbury Association, with Lord Lyttelton at its head, for the establishment in the new raw land of a complete cross-section of English society. Godley was the advance agent of the Association; Bowen (who came from County Mayo), and Fitzgerald, landed from the first of the Four Ships of 1850. The three worked together in the construction of the Canterbury colony; they gave expression to the ideas of the great Englishmen who schemed out this little bit of the Homeland overseas, and they made, or helped to make, Christchurch the leading town of young New Zealand in the cultivation of the arts and the amenities of life which redeemed the primitive places from the roughness of newly broken-in wilds.

Fitzgerald came of an Irish family on both sides, and although he was born in England he was a true Irishman in temperament and sympathies. He had the impulsive heart, the ready wit, the fervid oratorical manner, and the poetic taste of his forebears. His father, Gerald Fitzgerald, was a man of Queen's County, his mother was an O'Brien, from County Clare. His education was in England, but he travelled much in Ireland, and he always remained a worshipper of the Irish traditions. He was a graduate of Cambridge; he studied at Christ's College for three years, and after taking his degree he joined the staff of the British Museum and attained the position of Under-Secretary of that institution.

Fitzgerald and the Canterbury Settlement.

While holding that post, and engaging in scientific and literary research, he became acquainted with several leading spirits in the new science of colonisation. He met Edward Gibbon Wakefield, Lord Lyttelton, John Robert Godley, and other enthusiasts in the cause of extending page 26 British settlement overseas, and when the Canterbury colony was planned, he threw himself with zeal and energy into the fascinating project. He gave up his quiet secure post and became emigration agent in London for the new settlement, and when all was ready he took passage with his young wife in the first of the ships, the “Charlotte Jane.” He was thirty-one years old, a gallant adventurous spirit, a capital leader of all those activities on board ship which went to make the long, tedious voyage endurable.

The Song of the “Charlotte Jane.”

He edited a shipboard journal, he wrote causerie and verse. He wrote that cheerful anthem of the pioneers which more than anything else that came from his pen keeps his name in memory, “The Night-watch Song of the ‘Charlotte Jane.’” These are two verses from the poem that voiced the sentiments of the high-spirited nation-builders:—

“‘Tis the first watch of the night, brothers,
And the strong wind rides the deep;
And the cold stars shining bright, brothers,
Their mystic courses keep.
While our ship her course is cleaving
The flashing waters through,
Here's a health to the land we are leaving
And the land we are going to!
* * *
But away with sorrow now, brothers,
Fill the wine cup to the brim.
Here's to all who'll swear the vow, brothers,
Of this our midnight hymn:
That each man shall be a brother
Who has joined our gallant crew,
That we'll stand by one another
In the land we are going to!

They were small and crowded ships, those “Mayflowers” that brought the founders of Canterbury round the curve of the world, the square-riggers with their single topsails like the Navy ships, their studding-sails like wings on each side—fine-weather dress—their high-steeved bowsprits, and other old-time detail of rig. The largest of the first four ships was only 850 tons (the “Sir George Seymour”). The “Charlotte Jane,” with the leaders of the expedition on board, was a ship of 720 tons; she had 154 passengers. The other three brought 592 immigrants between them.

The “Charlotte Jane,” the “Randolph,” and the “Sir George Seymour” anchored in Lyttelton Harbour on September 16 and 17, 1850, within a few hours of each other. Eagerly the oceanweary pilgrims set foot on solid land and gazed at the craggy heights that divided them from the land of promise. The “Charlotte Jane” had been 99 days at sea.

Life in the New Land.

Lyttelton was Fitzgerald's home for the first few years of his life in the new land. Lyttelton was the official headquarters and there Fitzgerald carried out the duties of Immigration Agent, to which he soon added those of editor of Canterbury's first newspaper. The first number of the “Lyttelton Times” (now the “Christchurch Times”) came out with the New Year of 1851; the plant and staff for the paper had been brought out in the “Charlotte Jane.” For two years he conducted the “Times;” he made it from the start a fount of inspiration as well as information; he gave it the impress of leadership and its formative influence on public opinion which it has maintained ever since.

Later, after some experience of politics and a visit to England, he settled himself in Christ-church and it fell to him to establish another newspaper. So came into being Canterbury's second journal, the “Christchurch Press,” of which Mr. Sale was the first editor. Fitzgerald was manager and the principal writer from the beginning, and he gathered a brilliant little band of writers about him. It was in his day that famous Samuel Butler, the author of “Erewhon,” first entered the pages of the “Press.”

Those were spirited days in Christchurch journalism. Crosbie Ward, on the “Lyttelton Times,” was a witty and vigorous antagonist of the “Press” and its hurlers of editorial thunderbolts.

Fitzgerald in Politics.

It was natural that from the very first days of the Canterbury Settlement Fitzgerald should be concerned with politics, and that he should be in the forefront of the agitation for local and Colonial self-government. When the Constitution was granted to the Colony and Provincial Councils were set up, he became the first Superintendent of Canterbury Province, and in the following year (1854) he entered the first General Parliament as member for Lyttelton. He was Premier of the first Representative Ministry, under Acting-Governor Wynyard, at Auckland, but the position was a temporary compromise; Fitzgerald and his colleagues found that their powers were extremely limited, and they resigned in a few weeks.

He went to England for the sake of his health, acted as Emigration Officer for the Province while he was there, and returned in 1860, full of his old enthusiasm for the advancement of colonisation and of the Province he had assisted to establish. He re-entered politics in 1862, and he plunged into the thick of the wordy battles over the Maori Wars problem.

Champion of the Maoris.

The first Taranaki War had just ended, and more trouble was brewing in Taranaki and Waikato, presently to culminate in a fiercer war involving the two Provinces. Fitzgerald, being a South Island member, was able to take a more detached and impersonal view of the war and its causes than the North Island members of the Assembly who were for the most part determinedly anti-Maori. Those were the days when the more intemperate newspapers and colonists demanded a war of extermination.

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Fitzgerald's chivalrous soul revolted at the crude arguments and the undisguised hate sentiments of the pro-war party, and particularly at the high-handed policy in Taranaki which had involved the country in war over a miserable little block of land, and he became a vigorous champion of peaceful methods and fair adjustment of Maori grievances.

A Memorable Speech.

Then it was that he delivered in Parliament an appeal to reason and justice, an oration which Sir Robert Stout once described as “perhaps the ablest and most eloquent speech that was ever delivered in the New Zealand Parliament, or in any Parliament.”

This speech I give here in full, because not only is it an example of Fitzgerald's style at its best, but it deserves to live as an exposition of the highest principles of administrative policy in the relation between two races, the fine ethics of peace in an age of war-fever.

“The present state of things cannot last,” said Fitzgerald. “The condition of the Colony is not one of peace; it is a state of armed and suspicious neutrality. If you do not quickly absorb this King movement into your own Government, you will come into collision with it, and, once light up again the torch of war in these islands, and these feeble and artificial institutions you are now building up will be swept away like houses of paper in the flames. Tribe after tribe will be drawn into the struggle, and you will make it a war of races. Of course, you will conquer, but it will be the conquest of the tomb. Two or three years of war will eradicate every particle of civilisation from the native mind, and will elicit all the fiercest instincts of his old savage nature. The tribes, broken up, without social or military organisation, will be scattered through the country in bands of merciless banditti. The conflagration of Taranaki will be lighted up again in every border of the Colony; and in self-preservation you will be compelled—as other nations have been compelled before—to hunt the miserable native from haunt to haunt till he is destroyed like the beasts of the forest.

“I am here to-night to appeal against so miserable, so inhuman a consummation. We are here this evening standing on the threshhold of the future, holding the issues of peace and war, of life and death, in our hands. I see some honourable friends around me whose counsels I must ever respect, and whose tried courage we all admire, who will tell me that you cannot govern this race until you have conquered them. I reply, in the words which the poet has placed in the mouth of the great Cardinal, ‘In the hands of men entirely great, the pen is mightier than the sword. Take away the sword! States may be saved without it.’ I know well that evil days may come when the sacred inheritance of light and truth, which God has given to a nation to hold and to transmit, may only be saved by an appeal to the last ordeal of nations—the trial by war; but I know, too, how great the crime which rests on the souls of those who, for any less vital cause or for any less dire necessity, precipitate that fatal issue.

Forty years after. James Edward Fitzgerald as he appeared in later life.

Forty years after. James Edward Fitzgerald as he appeared in later life.

“I grudge not the glory of those who have achieved the deliverance of a people or the triumph of a cause by any sacrifice of human life or human happiness; but I claim a higher glory for those who, in reliance on a law more powerful than that of force, and wielding spells more mighty than the sword, have led the nations by paths of peaceful prosperity to the fruition of an enduring civilisation. I claim a higher glory for those who, standing on the pinnacle of human power, have striven to imitate the government of Him who ‘taketh up the simple out of the dust, and lifteth the poor out of the mire.’ And I claim the highest glory of all for that man who has most thoroughly penetrated that deepest and loftiest mystery in the art of human government, ‘the gentleness that maketh great.’

“I have stood beside a lonely mound in which lies buried the last remnant of a tribe which fell—men, women and children—before the tomahawks of their ancient foes; and I sometimes shudder to think that my son, too, may stand beside a similar monument—the work of our hands—and blush with the ignominy of feeling that, after all, the memorial of the Christian law-giver is but copied from that of the cannibal and the savage. I appeal to the page 28 House to-night to inaugurate a policy of courageous and munificent justice. I have a right to appeal to you as citizens of that nation which, deaf to the predictions of the sordid and the timid, dared to give liberty to her slaves. I appeal to you to-night in your sphere to perform an act of kindred greatness. I appeal to you not only on behalf of the ancient race whose destinies are hanging in the balance, but on behalf of your own sons and your sons' sons, for I venture to predict that, in virtue of that mysterious law of our being by which great deeds once done, become incorporated into the life and soul of a people, enriching the source from whence flows through all the ages the inspiration to noble thoughts and the incitement to generous actions—I venture to predict that among the traditions of that great nation, which will one day rule these islands, and the foundations of which we are now laying, the most cherished and the most honoured will be that wise, bold and generous policy which gave the Magna Charta of their liberties to the Maori people.”

Early immigrant ships at Lyttelton.

Early immigrant ships at Lyttelton.

The times have changed; the very speech of Parliament has changed; the Fitzgerald manner has vanished from our Legislative deliberations. The root of the matter may be there; but the mode of expression has deteriorated. Where or when can such a moving piece of oratory be heard to-day? Fitzgerald was far more than a speaker of polished English, of finished sentences, of lines that went like a poem. His utterances were inspired by a generous and lofty spirit, he breathed the soul of charity, he looked into the future, he saw more clearly than most men the deadly criminal folly of rushing into war. Is there not a wider application to be given to his words to-day? Our domestic strife has long been ended; we are one people now, but the scarcely imaginable horrors of strife threaten the outer world, unless the Fitzgerald spirit informs the councils of the nations.

In Weld's Ministry.

James Edward Fitzgerald's force and ability in Parliamentary debate presently won for him Cabinet rank. There was another high-minded pioneer of colonisation with whom he became associated in Parliament, Mr. Frederick Weld (afterwards Sir Frederick), partner of the Cliffords in early sheepfarming enterprise in Marlborough. He and Weld found themselves in general agreement on questions of Maori policy, and when, at the end of 1864, Weld became Premier, Fitzgerald consented to join him as Native Minister. This association lasted for nearly a year, and it was during the Weld-Fitzgerald regime that the self-reliant policy in Colonial defence matters was established. The Colony was no longer to rely on British regiments to fight its battles; New Zealand was to train and arm its own men. It was in 1865 also that the Government, on Fitzgerald's initiative, carried the Native Rights Act, which gave the Maori his rightful status as a citizen of the Colony.

Two more years of Parliamentary life, and then Fitzgerald left the arena of political strife page 29 for the more serene field of the Civil Service. For very nearly thirty years he was Comptroller and Auditor-General, a post to which he devoted himself with the powers of concentration and the sense of duty which had characterised all his varied undertakings.

When he died in 1896 he was an all but forgotten figure of pioneer Parliamentary life, but his speeches and writings remained, to be quoted now and again by those of his contemporaries such as Sir Robert Stout, who knew and appreciated the white fire of great enthusiasms which animated his utterances.

A Tribute to the Brave.

I shall quote in concluding this sketch of a truly statesmanlike moulder of New Zealand life from a noble and touching article written by Fitzgerald for the Christchurch “Press” of April 16, 1864, when the news arrived of the taking of Orakau Pa, after the Maoris' heroic defence for three days:—

“…. No human situation can be conceived more desperate or more hopeless—their lands gone, their race melting away like snow before the sun, and now their own time come at last … There will be men in after times whose pens will narrate the causes and outcomings of this contest and who will seek in the objects of the war the key to its disasters [to British arms]. They will say it was not a war for safety or for law, or for truth or liberty, but it was a war dictated by avarice and prosecuted for spoilation. It was a war to remove a neighbour's landmark, to destroy a race that we might dwell in their tents. No doubt these critics of the past will be wrong. They must be so, for is not the whole voice of the age against them? An enlightened, Christian, money-making people, we are quite satisfied with the morality of our own conduct; but still the events of the war remain unexplained. Still it will remain to be solved why more money, time and life should have been sacrificed in this war against a feeble foe, for a smaller result than in any war in which England has yet engaged. For our own parts, we have long ceased to speculate on the causes of these things; we wait and wonder. But if there be anything in the whole miserable story to excite the admiration of a generous mind, it is this sad spectacle of those grim and tawny figures, gaunt with the watching and weariness, the wounds and nakedness of a long campaign in the bush, staring over their ragged palisades on the hosts of their conquerors from whom escape was impossible, and wailing out their last chant of death and defiance, ake! ake! ake! —for ever! for ever! for ever!”

(Rly. Publicity photo.) A winter scene, Lake Wakatipu. South Island, New Zealand—a popular tourist resort reached from the rail-head at Kingston or Cromwell.

(Rly. Publicity photo.)
A winter scene, Lake Wakatipu. South Island, New Zealand—a popular tourist resort reached from the rail-head at Kingston or Cromwell.

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