Monday, June 9, 2014

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“FITZ – THE COLONIAL ADVENTURES OF JAMES EDWARD FITZGERALD” by Jenifer Roberts (Otago University Press, $NZ40)

            As all serious New Zealand historians know, there was a time, say up to about the 1960s, when our nineteenth-century Pakeha past was told only in terms of the “best” people – the titled or otherwise eminent colonists, preferably English, who settled this part of the country, ran that sheep-station or filled this government position. Local histories had the dire tendency to talk about the people who owned most of a given area, without considering all the social classes who settled there, let alone what the indigenous Maori population thought about it. So out poured fat and uncritical biographies of this governor, that colonist, this bishop, that sheep grandee. Pot-shots at this sort of “top-down” or “top-only” history have been taken by more recent historians, who busy themselves with questions of social class, gender, economics, ideologies and constructed “mythologies” even when they are writing biographies.
            When I began reading Jenifer Roberts’ Fitz – The Colonial Adventures of James Edward FitzGerald, I thought I was in for a reversion to the old, uncritical and Anglo-centric school of New Zealand biography, and I began making some (inaccurate, as it turned out) assumptions about the author and her mindset.
Jenifer Roberts is English, lives in England and is a direct descendant of James
Edward FitzGerald – his great-great-grand-daughter. In her Preface, she clearly announces herself to be an Englishwoman when, writing of FitzGerald and his wife, she declares “These two ‘unusual’ people are remembered in New Zealand as among ‘the best and the bravest of the band of pioneers who came to a wilderness and founded a nation’. In doing so they played their part in the expansion of the British Empire around the globe.” (p.14). True, she does go on in her Preface to say that nowadays we do not see colonisation and empire in the same way, but a tone is struck. This will be the admiring biography of a plucky chap who helped civilise New Zealand on British terms.
Now frequently this is indeed the tone that Roberts adopts. FitzGerald is being written about as an eminent person. But as the biographical evidence (that she herself has compiled) mounts up, the author is forced to admit not only FitzGerald’s shortcomings, but also his general ineffectualness as both pioneer and politician. In short, this biography, for all its Anglo-nostalgia, is not uncritical.
The man’s career, as told by Roberts, goes something like this: FitzGerald was born in 1818 into the Anglo-Irish landowning Protestant gentry but (despite lies he later told) he never visited Ireland until he was about 30, and then only fleetingly. At Cambridge he was acquainted with some notable men (like Walter Savage Landor) but he muddled through his degree and failed to become a Wrangler. He also failed in his scheme of marrying into greater wealth. He dabbled here and there looking for a respectable job and finally, at 26, got a position at the British Museum. But it didn’t last many years, as it was soon found to be redundant.
According to Roberts, FitzGerald made the best decision of his life when, at the age of 32, he married the 18-year-old Fanny Draper, over the strong objections of her family. She proved to be a loyal (and long-suffering) wife.
Like many others of his age, he was caught up in the enthusiasm for designing schemes for colonisation. At the time of the 1840s famine in Ireland, he cooked up a scheme (never realised) to ship the Irish to Vancouver Island. His future was sealed, however, when he became chief emigration officer for John Godley’s Canterbury Association, anxiously finding the “best” people to be part of this Wakefieldian scheme to populate part of the South Island of New Zealand with Anglican gentlefolk and their servants.
FitzGerald and Fanny sailed for New Zealand in 1850 on the Charlotte Jane, one of the Canterbury Association’s “pilgrim” ships. Fitzgerald at once became the association’s immigration officer, arranging accommodation for the new arrivals in the “barracks” at Lyttelton before they took the Bridle Path over the Port Hills to the undeveloped swampy site where Christchurch would soon be.
For a while FitzGerald dithered about his future career. He briefly ran a sheep-station and thought about making this his focus.
But in 1852 he achieved the first of his two chief claims to fame when he was elected the first Superintendent of the Province of Canterbury. Remember, this was when a system of provincial government had just been set up and it was assumed that it would be permanent. Later, Fitzgerald was elected to the House of Representatives (then sitting in faraway Auckland) and became an MP. Particularly disliking Sir George Grey, he opposed the almost “dictatorial” powers that Governors then had. But he botched the elected body’s attempt to have executive authority conferred on it. He resigned from both the general assembly and his superintendency. His political career seemed over. For a while he was an emigration agent in London. For a while he tried, very unconvincingly, to put himself forward as a suitable candidate to become Governor.
Then in 1861, back in Christchurch, he achieved his second claim to fame when he founded the Press newspaper, which still survives 153 years later. (He had earlier founded the Lyttelton Times.) Like so many newspapers in the 19th century, the Press was founded (first as a weekly, only later as a daily) specifically to be the mouthpiece for its proprietor’s views. FitzGerald opposed Moorhouse, the Provincial Superintendent who succeeded him, and he especially opposed the scheme to build a tunnel under the hills to Lyttelton.
In the 1860s, FitzGerald was again elected to parliament. He did speak up for Maori to some extent, when he condemned in parliament the “enormous crime” committed by confiscation from “a race to whom we have refused the right of representation in this House, and who are not able to appear at the bar of justice to plead their own cause…” (p.232). He spoke of the bravery of Maori resistance to the invasion of the Waikato, and earned boos and jeers from Auckland audiences who were keen to “open up” Maori territory for settlement. Admirable though this may have been, however, FitzGerald’s second period in parliament was no more illustrious than his first. He was Minister of Native Affairs in the ministry of Frederick Weld, which was so short-lived that he had no time to make any impact. He lasted a relatively short time as an MP under Stafford. Later, he gave himself the credit for having proposed the successful motion to have the seat of government shifted from Auckland to Wellington.
FitzGerald’s management and direction of the Press was no more illustrious than his parliamentary career. There is in this book the heroic story of FitzGerald and his family saving the newspaper office and all its contents from destruction by fire, when neighbouring buildings caught alight. But FitzGerald’s poor management drove the newspaper near to bankruptcy and as the debts piled up he had to sell it, as well as the land-holdings he had acquired around Christchurch for speculation. He moved to Wellington with his family and ended his career as a senior civil servant, first as “comptroller-general” and then as “auditor-general.” (Interestingly, the first Wellington home he occupied, in Karori, was later the childhood home of Katherine Mansfield. His second Wellington home was later demolished when it became the site of the Redemptorist monastery.)
He died in 1896, aged 78, an opponent of this new-fangled and silly notion of giving women the vote.
When reading a book like this, it is important not to judge its subject too harshly for having the values and attitudes of his time and place. It is well to remember that FitzGerald’s New Zealand was a country where it took over nine days to travel by ship from Christchurch to Auckland (pp.134-137). Immense pleasure was derived from what we might now see as patronising pats on the head from Mother England – as when the Times of London commended editorially FitzGerald’s Lyttelton Times, a copy of which FitzGerald had sent them. “It is difficult to glance at the first number of the Lyttelton Times and associate its existence with a community not a month old… So far from being ashamed of our namesake, we are positively proud of his acquaintance,” said the London Times. (p.92)
From the speaker’s chair, when introducing himself as first Superintendent of the Province of Canterbury, FitzGerald orated: “There is a certain solemnity about every event which can occur but once in the life of an individual, or the history of a people: of such a character is the act which it falls to my lot to perform, in addressing from this chair the first legislative assembly of the Province of Canterbury. You will feel with me that the language of ordinary congratulation falls far short of the dignity of the occasion.” (p.129)
Given that we now see the whole provincial system as an historical curiosity, which did not last even to the end of the nineteenth century, there is something pompous about these words. But obviously, that is not how they would have been heard by people who thought they were inaugurating the permanent institutions of a new nation. And in a way, we must now envy people who had such a high sense of their own achievement and destiny.
Allowing for all this, however, it is still hard to accommodate or sympathise with the class-bound ideas that constrain so much of the thought of FitzGerald and his peers. Fitzgerald’s early plans for removing the starving Irish to the colonies were as intent on replicating British class structures as Wakefield’s plans were. In his 1848 letter on ‘Irish Migration’, FitzGerald wrote: “The great emigration which must sooner or later take place from Ireland ought to be the formation of a new state – a New Ireland… it should be headed by the gentry in person, going out in a body, along with all their servants and retainers who might be willing to follow them, to some new land, there to carve out for themselves new destinies, new names, and new fortunes… I am not supposing any partial emigration. That which I contemplate should be the migration of a nation – of a race. From the noble to the serf; from the peeress to the peasant girl, all should join….” (p.43)
More damaging to our view of FitzGerald, however, were the man’s own obvious deficiencies. All sources quoted by Jenifer Roberts show that he was renowned for his oratory and in his early manhood was widely believed by his contemporaries to be destined for great things. But by the time I was about halfway through this book, I had formed the clear impression that FitzGerald was a dabbler and a dilettante, who did a little of this and a little of that, and advanced only so far in a number of fields before he grew bored with each. Certainly he was talented (including being talented as a watercolourist – a generous selection of his work is reproduced here), but he rarely stuck with things, started more than he finished, and gradually squandered the good opinion others had of him. He dissipated his early promise.
Clearly Edward Gibbon Wakefield found him a bit of a jackanapes, writing to John Godley:
He is nearly the most provoking man I ever had to do with: for he combines with great and quick ability in writing and talking, and very agreeable companionable qualities, a perfect incapacity for doing business. He is immensely presumptuous, believing himself that he can do everything better than anybody; and when it comes to the doing, he is a very child.” (p.90)
Wakefield may have been a biased source, but the latter part of Chapter 15 makes it clear that FitzGerald was intensely disliked by many members of the Canterbury Provincial Council and even friends recognised that he was mercurial and unreliable. This is also shown (Chapter 19) in the vituperative tone of his Press editorials, and his habit of changing his mind even in mid-sentence. At one point, the author herself is driven to comment:
Fitz was now writing letters in which he changed his mind almost by the sentence. The topics were – in no particular order – farming, politics, money and complaints about other people. He wrote as thoughts occurred to him, outpouring free from any editing process. He never read his letters through and soon forgot what he had written. One day, he would not resign as superintendent until the end of his term of office; a few days later, he would do so ‘as soon as I can without desertion’. One month he planned to give up politics altogether; two months later, he was enthused by the prospect of political success.” (pp.158-9)
In the 1880s an English political essayist, William Gisbourne, wrote of him in a book about New Zealand politicians “ [FitzGerald’s] expectations were not fulfilled. In politics Mr FitzGerald has been a brilliant failure; his parliamentary career has been the flash of a meteor – dazzling for the moment, but leaving no lasting trace behind…. He would not give, and he could not command, confidence… He was rash, impetuous and inattentive to good advice; he had too much faith in himself and too little in others….” (p.322).
This still seems a just judgment.
There was another side of the man that now seems unlovely to us and earns the author’s rebuke. Fanny genuinely loved her husband and he was strictly faithful to her. They had a total of 13 children, many of whom pre-deceased them, so that in the latter part of this book there are a number of sad funeral scenes. This number of children should not scandalise or surprise us in its Victorian context and, writing as a philoprogenitive husband, I am in no way critical of the nature of the FitzGeralds’ parenthood. But it is clear that, even by the standards of his times, James Edward Fitzgerald laid a heavy burden on Fanny for most of her married life. Taken up with his schemes and his variable moods, he seems never to have noticed that she was forced to drudge. When we first hear of Fanny’s migraines (p.131), we sense that not all of her husband’s demands are capable of being told. In the latter stages of his career, writes Jenifer Roberts,  “Fitz was oblivious to Fanny’s distress. He had no concept of the efforts involved in cooking, washing and ironing; in giving birth and looking after children. While Fanny wore herself out in Chesney Wold, he spent long hours in his office in Wellington and socialised with friends in the evenings. Ten days after Fanny’s confinement he attended ‘a very jolly dinner party’ where he drank whisky toddy and sang Irish songs till midnight.” (p.293)
So the author’s Postscript (pp.348-350) revises the worshipful view of the man she once had as his uncritical descendant. She suggests that, had he lived today, his unproductive “mood swings” could have been “controlled by medication” and he might have had a more productive career. But she does admit that FitzGerald “was not the legendary hero of my youth”; she notes his habit of making up heroic stories of himself – and especially of his youth – which had no basis in fact; and she deplores his unthinking attitude towards his wife’s travails, even though Fanny loved him always.
            What, then, does Fitz add up to? It is not the portrait of a “great man” in the antiquated sense of that term. It is not even the story of a particularly significant figure in New Zealand history. But – in the assumptions made by FitzGerald and his associates – it is a fascinating mirror of the way a certain group of people once thought, of their class instincts and their priorities and their idealistic views on colonisation and the British Empire. In effect, I am reading it as a time capsule of another age and as a book written with a judiciously-modified tone of admiration.
It is the biography of a man who thought more highly of himself than he had any right to. But it is still an enlightening read.

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