Review: Fitz: The Colonial Adventures of James Edward FitzGerald

FITZ biography coverFitz: The Colonial Adventures of James Edward FitzGerald. By Jenifer Roberts [Otago University Press, 2014.  $NZ40.00 paperback. ISBN 978-1-877578-73-1]

In 1850 James Edward FitzGerald became the first of the New Zealand Company’s immigrants to set foot in Canterbury.  He had the luck to be on the Charlotte Jane, the first of the company’s four ships to arrive in Lyttelton harbour, and he outsmarted the equally eager ship’s surgeon by leaping ashore ahead of him. It is an anecdote that captures some of the essence of ‘Fitz’s’ personality as described in this hugely interesting biography by his great-great-grandaughter: he was dynamic, at times quite manic, ambitious, clever, a wit, a schemer, a fantasist, a controversialist and a man of action, and altogether one of the most contradictory and interesting of the early settlers.

‘Fitz’ dabbled seriously and enthusiastically, but erratically and often near bankruptcy, in public life and politics, as well as business and farming. His oratory was impressive, he was more far-sighted than most of his contemporaries, especially in the matter of race relations, but his engagement with the machinery of power was inconsistent, and his lasting legacy turned out to be in journalism, especially as the founder of the Christchurch Press. He was plagued throughout his life by an illness and instability that the author plausibly suggests was a bi-polar disorder. In this matter he had the good fortune to marry the diminutive Fanny, a truly amazing woman, who bore him thirteen children, nursed him through his many crises and supported him with genius, character and the resolve of a giant.

One of the great pleasures of the story of this colonial marvel and maverick is its incidental account of the day-to-day struggles of the European settlement of Canterbury. It is a well-researched history packed with splendid intimacies from family and other archives.

Kevin Ireland