Thursday, September 7, 2017

New Zealand’s first premier

‘My reasons for offering myself are, simply, that there are no persons at all fit, and I believe I may be useful; but the Assembly will doubtless be held at Auckland, a terrible undertaking, about as distant from Canterbury as England from Lisbon - a much severer work than going to America per Steamboat from England.’ This is Henry Sewell, a solicitor born on the Isle of White 210 years ago, explaining in his diary (written as a newsletter for his family) why he had decided to enter politics soon after arriving in New Zealand. Within three or so years, he would be elected the colony’s premier.

Sewell was born on 7 September 1807 in Newport, Isle of White. He was schooled at Hyde Abbey, then a fashionable school in Winchester, and after serving articles to qualify as a solicitor, he joined his father and brother in the family firm around 1826. In 1834, he married Lucinda Marianne Nedham, daughter of a retired general, and they had six children. As a result of a bank failure in 1840, his father lost money and when he died two years later he left the family in debt. The brothers, not wishing to go bankrupt, sold part of the business. When Lucinda died in 1844, Sewell left his children with his sister, and moved to London to seek business. In 1850, Sewell married Elizabeth Kittoe. Thereafter, he became involved in the Canterbury Association, an organisation dedicated to the colonisation of the Canterbury area in New Zealand, and he himself arrived there in 1853.

Sewell opened a solicitor’s office, and soon became involved in local politics, becoming a prominent figure in the first generation of colonial politicians. Initially, he represented Lyttelton on the Canterbury provincial council, then was an elected member of the house of representatives and, at different times, part of the legislative council. Three years after arriving in the colony, he was elected premier (colonial secretary at the time), a position he retained for a only few weeks being unable to hold a majority in the house. As treasurer in the first stable ministry, led by Edward Stafford, he was virtually deputy premier. Later he negotiated for the colony in Australia and England. He also served as attorney-general in three ministries between 1861 and 1865, and, after another break in England, he was briefly minister of justice. On retiring from politics, he returned to England where he died in 1879. Further information is available from Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, Wikipedia, and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB - log-in required).

Sewell kept a diary for some years, written as a newsletter to family and associates (and copied out by Elizabeth). However, he decreed that its contents should not be published or made public until after his death. The manuscript was held originally by successive bishops of Christchurch and was not passed on to the library of the University of Canterbury until the 1920s. In the 1970s it was painstakingly edited and annotated in two volumes by W. David McIntyre for publication in 1980 by Whitcoulls, Christchurch, as The Journal of Henry Sewell 1853-7. The first volume contains a substantial editor’s preface as well as a very long introduction. According to McIntyre (who also wrote the ODNB biography), Sewell was a pessimistic, lonely, snobbish man, who was never really committed to pioneering life. Nevertheless, his journal ‘provides the fullest private account of persons and places in early Canterbury and the beginnings of self-government in New Zealand’. The full text of the journal can be read online at Early New Zealand Books. Here are few extracts from Sewell’s journal, from his arrival and first months in New Zealand.

2 February 1853
‘About 2 in the morning was awoke by Wakefield. We were in sight of Banks’ Peninsula. Hurried on deck in Pilot Coat and trowsers - found the wind blowing fresh and cold from the S.W. with a considerable Sea. The morning sky cold and squally but with indications of clearing. Before us lay a shadowy outline of land with no distinct features. On our left stretching for a long distance a still more indistinct haze of mountain outlines topped with snow looking bleak and desolate. Presently one after the other passengers tumbled up half dressed and mightily excited. In truth it was impossible to resist the furor. Land after 4 months’ Sea voyage - and safe arrival at one’s destination with the prodigious interest about the future before us are sufficient excuses for mental intoxication. All the Telescopes were brought into use. The morning cleared up. Squalls wore off lighter and lighter leaving about 9 o’Clock a lovely day. The wind dropping gradually and the Sea going down. As we neared the land its features became more distinct and we sailed along the Peninsula at about 3 miles’ distance just as if it were an immense moving Panorama more beautiful than any thing I can remember. No doubt this was partly from the special beauty of the day - partly from the excitement. The South wester dropped away by degrees and left us entirely just off the Peninsula. Then the wind shifted as if on purpose to accommodate us and we worked round into harbour with a gentle North Easterly breeze casting anchor about 6 o’Clock. Boats came off very soon. Young Keele as one of the Custom House Officers with the Tide Waiter. I took him by the arm and walked him up and down the deck greedy for news. ‘Where was Mr Godley’ Gone - had left just before Christmas. All the people were gone off to the diggings. Every thing was stagnant. Godley was supposed to have gone to avoid a crisis - The Association was in the worst possible odour - Public meetings were being held about them particularly with reference to some law processes issued against labourers who had given notes of hand for their passage money. The news of Godley’s departure fell upon me like a Cloud. He had left Capt. Simeon his Successor but this was all I could learn about him. Presently Mr Cookson 5 came on board; had a long talk with Wakefield from whom I heard afterwards better accounts of things. Boat loads of people came on board. Some passengers went on Shore. Mr Raven and I among the rest. I went up to Capt. Simeon’s. Found him extremely kind and hospitable - wanting me to stay - Had no time to learn much from him, but what I did learn was far from encouraging. Got some fresh butter and a loaf of bread and set off to the Ship to regale ourselves with these almost forgotten luxuries - Altogether a day of singular excitement.’

15 April 1853
‘Yesterday prepared to set off to Lyttelton, but the weather was desperately bad. All Wednesday night it blew a hurricane. Yesterday wind and rain, and strong indications of a coming South Easter. So we make up our minds to stay where we are.

The Government gives us an indication of their mind by raising technical objections to our Writ of Injunction. It does not exactly agree with the terms in which the Judgment was delivered in Court. So they ask to have it altered; the object being to take advantage of a small opening to let the Government loose from the Injunction without meeting the case on its merits. What a dodge for a Government! and what a Government! However to be up to them called on the Registrar and with him on the Judge. He will not submit to any such shuffling quibbles, and will not loose the Injunction till the case has been heard and disposed of fully upon the merits. He complains bitterly of the attempt made to overbear him and to destroy his independence. He will not be a political partizan of the Government, so the Governor does all in his power to thwart and annoy him. He is absolutely fixed as to the illegality of the Proclamation. Spoke to Col. McCleverty about Simeon’s salary as Resident Magistrate and the hardship of reducing it for the sake of a merely temporary appointment.’

2 July 1853
‘Rain again. Simeon has resolved upon resigning the Agency forthwith which is a great relief. I shall consider him entitled to a quarter’s Salary in advance. I shall have a good deal to do with him after the formal termination of his office.

A good deal of talk with Raven about matters which become connected with one’s future views - but more of this hereafter.

In the evening comes Capt. Fuller dressed like a dilapidated Shepherd, in truth a great object. He seems to have cast off all care about personal appearance, and is a strange contrast to the neat trim Military gentleman at the Adelphi. He comes evidently to seek refuge and hospitality. Board we give him but lodging we cannot, Raven occupying our only spare room. I don’t like the fashion of people coming at all times, and disturbing your domestic privacy - but Hospitality is a necessary virtue in a Colony. Raven and Fuller talk the whole evening of bullocks and Sheep, breaking up land, potatoes and so forth. Fuller is afflicted still with that huge agricultural Family - the Russleys, who eat up his substance like locusts - still I think on the whole he is getting into the right way to do well for himself, but he is half daft. Queer anecdotes one gets of Colonial ways of living. There is the road to Kaiapoi, a never-failing topic of lamentation. Just after leaving Christchurch you enter the Papanui Swamp through which it is next to impossible to drag any vehicle formed for human use. Raven took his children across it the other day. He in advance carrying the eldest girl. Miss Burbidge the Governess and Johnny following on a Cart horse with a pack saddle. Presently there is a scream - the horse is down and Governess and child are in the midst of the Swamp, but with some exertion are safely mounted again. After clearing the Swamp the road becomes slightly better for a few miles, when you reach the banks of the River. Who in England would take the bed of a River for a Road? but so it is, the bottom is tolerably hard, barring a quicksand here and there which may possibly engulph the travellers. After some miles of this amphibious route they get to the Ferry - a ferry for man but not for horses, so the horses have to swim for it, getting thoroughly wet and of course transferring the acquired moisture to their riders on remounting, - then more quagmires and swamp and so home - fifteen miles up the country. Such is winter travelling in the settled District of the Canterbury plains. N’importe - people get on well enough, and on the whole seem rather to enjoy it than not. They are out of provisions up at Kaiapoi and have no sugar. Vessels cannot go round to the Waimakariri this weather.’

29 July 1853
‘Started with Stoddart for Christchurch. To the Land Office. First settled business with FitzGerald and Brittan; got their signatures to the Conveyances of Church Lands. Then talked to Brittan about my Electioneering plan; he highly approved; recommended me to stand for the Town in preference to the Country which was of course to get rid of me as a Competitor. Then he said his Brother-in-law one Mr Fooks who knew all the constituency should canvass for me at once. So I left, considering that Brittan at least would help me. My reasons for offering myself are, simply, that there are no persons at all fit, and I believe I may be useful; but the Assembly will doubtless be held at Auckland, a terrible undertaking, about as distant from Canterbury as England from Lisbon - a much severer work than going to America per Steamboat from England. Besides this, the work to be done is very responsible, and I have no doubt will be very disagreeable; all fighting with the Governor. Watts Russell is an amiable good kind of gentlemanly dummy, utterly unequal to such work. FitzGerald who will probably be returned for Lyttelton is scatter-brained. Brittan is untrustworthy, even if he is returned which is not likely. To undertake such an office has neither pleasure, honor nor profit in prospect. I could however manage to attend the first important Meeting, which will probably be about November. The Governor leaves the Colony in December. His plan is, doubtless, to pay a parting visit to the different Settlements, to hold a Session of the Assembly at Auckland in November - to smother the Southern Settlements by Auckland influence and if possible to get off with eclat. Doubtless he calculates on the Southern Members not coming up. I returned to Lyttelton Friday evening, Stoddart remaining to canvass for me.’

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