Frederick Whitaker was born at Manor House, Bampton, Oxfordshire, England, on 23 April 1812, the son of a magistrate, Frederick Whitaker, and his wife, Susanna Humfrey. He married Jane Augusta Griffith, stepdaughter of Alexander Shepherd, the colonial treasurer, at St Paul's Church, Auckland, on 4 March 1843. They had four sons and four daughters. Whitaker died while working at his desk in his legal office, at Auckland, on 4 December 1891.
He descended from a solid old county family. His father, an attorney of some eminence in Oxford, put young Frederick to law, to which he was admitted in January 1839 to practise as a solicitor. In October of that year he went to New South Wales, but left in March 1840 for New Zealand. He settled in the Bay of Islands to practise his profession. He also went into partnership with the surveyor John Kelly in a profitable land speculation business. When the seat of government moved to Auckland in April 1841 Whitaker went there too. The following year he was appointed county judge. When, on 27 June 1844, a Court of Requests was substituted for the County Court, he declined a commissionership because he would not have been permitted to practise privately. Once again he resumed his profession but he was not content to subsist solely on its earnings. For the next 15 years, generally in partnership with Theophilus Heale, he pursued a series of ventures, mostly unprofitable, mining copper or manganese at Great Barrier and Kawau islands.
When Governor Robert FitzRoy appointed him to the Legislative Council in 1845, Whitaker, a superb legal draftsman, began an association with Attorney General William Swainson and Chief Justice William Martin which continued through the Crown colony period and beyond, framing a new code of statutes. In 1848, after a two year visit to England, he resumed legal practice, and extended his speculations in land, mining and timber.
By the 1850s Whitaker had been drawn heavily into politics and administration. In May 1853 he was appointed to the first Legislative Council set up under the new constitution. In 1854 he was appointed provincial law officer in Auckland, and became a member of the superintendent's executive. Twice in 1855 he stood, unsuccessfully, for the superintendency. His failure mattered little. He was now a colonial rather than a provincial politician. In the period of ministerial instability during the birth pangs of responsible government, 1855–56, he was attorney general on three occasions, the last continuing until July 1861.
Until his final retirement from the political arena in January 1891 Whitaker was attorney general on seven occasions, and without doubt was more successful in that office than any incumbent of the last century. He was an indefatigable administrator. Colleagues attested that he did a lion's share of the work in any cabinet of which he was part. But his forte was bill drafting, his common sense in matters of law enabling him to put into clear, unambiguous language precisely the meaning to be conveyed by a statute. Whitaker's emerging political reputation in the provincial period was all the more remarkable for being acquired while he was caught up in multifarious private legal and business commitments, and also winning high eminence in that most competitive aspect of his profession – common law pleading. C. W. Richmond remarked in 1863 that although Otago had 'by far the best bar' in the colony, nobody there was 'Whitaker's match…as an advocate.'
In 1861 he went into partnership with a lawyer 18 years his junior, Thomas Russell, a man of great ambition and masterful personality, already the founder of powerful financial institutions. Each partner complemented the other: Russell's strength was in conveyancing and commercial affairs; Whitaker had an extensive chamber practice as consulting counsel. Their legal partnership was soon reputed to be among the most lucrative in the colony.
At a time when business and politics were tightly interwoven, the partners were drawn into affairs of state. Russell became minister without portfolio (but with great influence) in the Domett ministry (August 1862 to October 1863); and then Whitaker himself became premier (October 1863 to November 1864) with Russell as his minister of colonial defence. These two represented the viewpoint of the 'war party' in Auckland: that in the name of civilisation and progress, settlers must have easier access to Māori lands; that war against Māori 'rebels' must be ruthlessly prosecuted; and that, after unconditional surrender, there must be large confiscations of land, and military settlements to enforce the peace of the Pākehā. Governor George Grey, outraged by the extent of the confiscations Whitaker envisaged (often of lands of Māori not in rebellion), exploited a financial crisis to topple Whitaker's ministry in late 1864. Whitaker then resigned his seat in the Legislative Council. Grey's suspicion of Whitaker and his wily partner remained unsleeping over the next two decades. He was forever denouncing them as despoilers of Māori lands, and spokesmen of a clique of Bank of New Zealand directors bent on land monopoly.
During 1865, when there was much soreness in Auckland because of the shift of the capital to Wellington, Whitaker resumed political life on a programme of separation from the south. He won uncontested elections for superintendent in October and as Parnell MHR in November. He became leader of the Auckland 'Phalanx' in the House, where he advocated rule for Auckland under a lieutenant governor, a provincial assembly and the rescinding of the 'compact' of 1856. Discouraged by failure, he resigned in March 1867 as superintendent and from the House, to devote his undivided attention to his profession and, it was openly said, to recoup the losses he had suffered by accepting political office.
His next nine years were characterised by entrepreneurial activity. Between 1867 and 1871 he and Russell invested heavily in a number of Thames gold mines. They were promoters and leading directors of the Thames Goldmining Company and the Thames Investment Company. Whitaker had substantial interests in the Thames Gas Company, an extension of his activity in the highly successful Auckland Gas Company, which he had helped to launch in 1862 and of which he was chairman almost continuously for just on 30 years. He developed his interests in timbermilling, coalmining and land speculation. Although a large shareholder in the Bank of New Zealand, he did not become a director or president of it until the 1880s. Overseas companies which appointed him to their New Zealand boards were the Colonial Sugar Refining Company (New Zealand Sugar Company), the New Zealand and River Plate Land Mortgage Company, and the Equitable Life Assurance Company of New York.
His major investment interest after 1874, however, was as a member of a small syndicate led by Russell which bought the Piako swamp from the government on such favourable terms it was denounced as an outrageous 'job'. But heavy costs of drainage and development forced the syndicate to float a company in London in 1879, the Waikato Land Association, to enable the swamp syndicate to draw in debenture loans secured on the lands of the company, and on its uncalled capital.
Shortly after Whitaker's return to the House in 1876 he became attorney general in the Atkinson ministry, holding this and other posts until the ministry fell in October 1877. When Whitaker failed to win Eden in the 1879 election, the new premier, John Hall, who wanted him as attorney general, called him to the Legislative Council where he led for the government over the next four years. His authority within the Hall ministry was extraordinary. The premier privately called him 'the wise old man of the North', travelling to Auckland to see him when Whitaker could not spare the time to sail to Wellington. The venerable Whitaker's mastery of the Council was little less than absolute. He was said to be 'a Triton among minnows', and such was his tact and authority that four fifths of his fellow councillors, it was reported, allowed 'him to have his own way as a matter of course'. It was not surprising that when Hall resigned, Whitaker became, albeit reluctantly, the new premier. He remained so, until at the end of the 1883 session he resigned, compelled by the demands of private business to live permanently in Auckland.
In 1884 he was awarded a KCMG. But his political career did not end with this honour. Once again he served as attorney general, in the Atkinson ministry of 1887–91. He died shortly after, on his return to private life.
Whitaker's declining years brought him little joy. His eldest and favourite son, Frederick, committed suicide in the Auckland Club in June 1887, depressed by his losses from land speculations. Whitaker could not assist him financially. He himself faced financial ruin. During the 1880s, as a major shareholder in the Waikato Land Association, whose lands had been made unsaleable by depression, he was being bled white by massive calls on shares, which forced him to sell every unencumbered asset he had, and brought him to the brink of poverty.
He who failed financially has not even won the regard of posterity. Many historians see him as arrantly ethnocentric, for was he not said to believe that 'any man who gets land out of the hands of the natives and cultivates it is a public benefactor'?
Yet it is a travesty to depict him solely as an unprincipled devourer of Māori lands, a stereotype settler-conservative. His contemporaries did not: they discerned ambiguities and contradictions. He was cynical, yet optimistic and cheerful. He was an unabashed speculator, yet served the colony well as a pioneer of industry, mining and swamp reclamation. That he was a superb practitioner within the legal profession is beyond dispute. And there was little vainglory about him. 'A man of the simplest tastes and habits', the New Zealand Herald called him; his private character (another paper testified) was 'sans peur et sans reproche'. Further, if he was reactionary in his Māori policies, he was liberal in other causes. In the early provincial battles of Auckland he was proclaimed the people's champion, as he advocated closer settlement of the land and set out to thwart the well-to-do merchant clique so powerful in the settlement. As late as 1878 he was advocating, to Grey's chagrin, manhood suffrage, proportional representation, and more equal electoral districts.
Perhaps it is Whitaker's fate that his reputation has never really passed out of politics into history.