James Edward FitzGerald was a New Zealand politician. According to some historians, he should be considered the country's first Prime Minister, although a more conventional view is that neither he nor his successor (Thomas Forsaith) should properly be given that title. He was a notable campaigner for New Zealand self-governance. He was the first Superintendent of the Canterbury Province.
FitzGerald is believed to have been born in Bath, England. His parents, Gerald FitzGerald and Katherine O'Brien, were Irish, and FitzGerald is known to have cherished his connection with Ireland. Both his grandfathers, Colonel Richard Fitzgerald and Sir Lucius O'Brien, were MPsin the Irish House of Commons. He was educated first in Bath, and then at Christ's College of the University of Cambridge. He initially sought a commission in the Royal Engineers, but poor eyesight made this impossible. Instead, he began working for the British Museum's Antiquities department, and became the museum's Assistant Secretary.
FitzGerald gradually became concerned with the alleviation of poverty, an interest spurred by the problems of the Irish Potato Famine. His suggested solution to poverty was emigration to the colonies, where more opportunities might exist for prosperity. As such, he became heavily involved in the promotion and planning of new colonies. In 1849, he became secretary of theCanterbury Association, responsible for the Anglican settlement at Christchurch, New Zealand.
FitzGerald married Frances Erskine Draper on 22 August 1850, and soon afterwards quarrelled with her father. As a result, FitzGerald and his wife themselves left for Christchurch. They arrived in Lyttelton, the port of Christchurch, on 16 December 1850 on board of the Charlotte-Jane.
In Christchurch, FitzGerald had a number of roles. He continued to act as an agent for the Canterbury Association, but also became a sub-inspector of police. He later established a cattle and dairy farm, and became the founding editor of the Lyttelton Times. Gradually, FitzGerald became one of the prominent public figures of the area.
In July 1853, FitzGerald, Colonel James Campbell and Henry Tancred contested the first election for Superintendent of the Canterbury Province. They received 136, 94 and 89 votes, respectively. Campbell protested about the election, as the returning officer had indicated to the voters that he could not be elected, as he had been struck off the electoral list. But the protest came to nothing, and Fitzgerald was declared the first Superintendent of the Canterbury Province.
A major part of his work as Superintendent was an attempt to increase Canterbury's self-government, drawing the province's "cabinet" from the elected Council rather than appointing it himself. His goal was to make the province's executive responsible to its legislature.
Member of Parliament
When the 1st New Zealand Parliament was called, FitzGerald was elected MP for the Lyttelton electorate, and represented it from 1853 to 1857, when he resigned during the term of the 2nd New Zealand Parliament. Despite his election to Parliament, he chose to retain the Superintendency of Canterbury, a decision criticised by some. In Parliament, FitzGerald argued strongly in favour of "responsible government" once again, attempting to make New Zealand's executive responsible to Parliament rather than theGovernor. The acting Governor, Robert Wynyard, eventually agreed to appoint FitzGerald, Henry Sewell, Frederick Weld, and Thomas Bartley to the Executive Council. They were later joined briefly by Dillon Bell, a member of the Legislative Council.
FitzGerald was chosen to lead this delegation, which lasted from 14 June to 2 August, and is therefore sometimes said to have headed New Zealand's first "cabinet". He had no formal title, however, and did not have sufficient powers to actually govern. As such, most historians do not consider him to have been Prime Minister as the term is used today. FitzGerald accepted the position in the belief that full authority would later be transferred from Wynyard's appointees to the new cabinet, and was consequently angry when Wynyard claimed that royal assent (which had not been given) was necessary for this change to occur. Seven weeks after their appointment, FitzGerald's cabinet resigned, and was replaced by another cabinet of four persons headed by Thomas Forsaith.
Later, when the 2nd New Zealand Parliament managed to obtain the power that had eluded the 1st, FitzGerald was too ill to attend. Instead, Henry Sewell (one of FitzGerald's colleagues in the first attempted cabinet) was asked to form a government. Sewell is generally considered to be New Zealand's first real Prime Minister. In 1857, FitzGerald resigned from Parliament on the advice of his doctors, and also decided not to seek re-election as provincial superintendent. Instead, he left Lyttelton on 30 September on the James Gibson for Sydney and returned to England, where he resumed his work for the Canterbury Association. During his time in England, he was offered governorships of both British Columbia and Queensland, but his ill health prevented him from accepting.
1860, he had returned to New Zealand, and shortly afterwards won election to theCanterbury Provincial Council. He also founded The Press, which remains Christchurch's largest newspaper today. In 1862, he returned to national politics. The resignation of Thomas Rowley in the Ellesmere electorate caused the 12 July 1862 Ellesmere by-election, which FitzGerald won. He represented the seat until the end of the parliamentary term in 1866, and then successfully stood in the City of Christchurch electorate in 1866, from which he resigned the following year.
In Parliament, he strongly advocated peaceful negotiations in the New Zealand land wars, supporting Māori rights and condemning land confiscation as an "enormous crime". He also campaigned to have primary responsibility for relations with the Māori transferred from the Governor to Parliament. Other suggestions he made included reserving a third of Parliament for Māori politicians, recognition of the "Māori King" movement, and the withdrawal of British troops from New Zealand. FitzGerald strongly believed that if Māori and colonists did not make a deliberate attempt at reconciliation, one or both would eventually be destroyed.
In 1865, he had a two-month term as Minister of Native Affairs in the government of Frederick Weld (another colleague from the first provisional cabinet), but did not succeed in implementing many of his policies.
His brother Gerald represented the Hokitika electorate for one term in Parliament.
In 1867, FitzGerald retired from politics completely. He was subsequently moved toWellington and was appointed comptroller of the public account, supervising all government expenditures. Later, he also acted as Auditor-General. He retained these positions until his death. He was also seriously involved in the establishment of the Public Service Association, a union for all government employees.
FitzGerald was also active in the cultural life of the capital. He was known as a painter (mostly watercolours), public speaker, and debater, and also wrote poetry and drama.
FitzGerald died in Wellington on 2 August 1896, aged 78. He was buried in the Bolton Street Cemetery. Two of his children who both died in 1880 share the grave, as well as a female relative who died in 1886. His wife died on 8 July 1900 and is also buried in this plot. The grave forms is stop number 36 of the lower Bolton Memorial Trail.
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