Alfred Domett is said to have been born on 20 May 1811 at Camberwell Grove, Surrey, England, and was baptised on 4 November 1812 at Bermondsey. His father, Nathaniel Domett, was a ship owner of naval and merchant service background; he and his wife, Elizabeth Curling, had nine children, of whom Alfred was the sixth child and the fourth son. Educated at Stockwell Park House, Alfred then attended St John's College, Cambridge, from 1829 to 1832 but did not take a degree. From 1833 to 1835 he travelled in the United States, Canada and the West Indies, gaining some experience of surveying and conveyancing in Upper Canada during the winter of 1833. In 1835 he started to read law at the Middle Temple, while also beginning to establish a minor literary reputation, his first volume of poetry being published in 1833 and the second in 1839.
Domett was called to the Bar in 1841 but did not pursue a legal career, for in April 1842 he emigrated to Nelson on the Sir Charles Forbes. Domett's literary and administrative talents ensured a rapid rise to prominence in colonial society, his long and valuable career as a public servant being combined with periods of provincial political involvement and parliamentary service, the latter in both the House of Representatives (1855–66) and the Legislative Council (1866–71). On 3 November 1856 at Wellington he married Mary George, a widowed Wellington schoolteacher with two sons. There was one child, Alfred Nelson Domett, from this marriage. In September 1871 Alfred Domett retired; he returned with Mary Domett to England in October or November and devoted his last years to his long-standing literary interests. In 1880 he was created CMG. He died in Kensington, London, on 2 November 1887.
Despite initial setbacks, which included the death of his cousin William Curling Young, an unsuccessful farming venture, and a broken leg, Domett readily involved himself in the public affairs of the Nelson settlement. After the Wairau affray of June 1843, he and David Monro were sent as a deputation to Auckland to represent the feelings of the Nelson settlers. The experience was such that Domett became a long-time critic of the humanitarian policy in general and of Governor Robert FitzRoy in particular. Domett compiled the special supplement to the Nelson Examiner of 23 December 1843 on the Wairau affair. He succeeded Francis Jollie as editor of the paper but resigned in the latter part of 1845 as the paper's proprietor, Charles Elliott, could pay his editor only £5 for eight months' work. Domett refused the offer of a seat in the nominated Legislative Council and in November 1845 published in the Nelson Examiner a masterly petition calling for the recall of FitzRoy; news of FitzRoy's recall had already reached New Zealand, but the document was nevertheless influential as a cogent and comprehensive criticism of the local administration and, by implication, of the policy of the Colonial Office.
Governor George Grey's blandishments were to prove more persuasive, the new governor having early identified Domett as 'a man useful to have on one's side'. In 1846 Domett accepted nomination as a member of the Legislative Council and served throughout the remainder of the Crown colony era. More significantly, Domett took up the post of colonial secretary for New Munster (1848–53), a position which entailed membership of the New Munster Executive Council. In November 1851 Domett was gazetted as civil secretary to the general government, holding the two administrative offices concurrently until the implementation of the Constitution Act 1852.
The two valuable reference works which emerged during Domett's term as colonial secretary belie his reputation as a dilettante. In the year following his assumption of office in 1848, Domett compiled and published, with the assistance of the receiver general, Henry Petre, the comprehensive Statistics of the province of New Munster, New Zealand, from 1841 to 1848. An extensive memorandum accompanied the tabulations, one of the most significant sections being that in which Domett expressed his vision of a free, secular and compulsory elementary education for the colony's children. Even with the advantages of his legal training, it took Domett much longer to sort through the morass of ordinances enacted during the 1840s: the invaluable catalogue, The ordinances of New Zealand passed in the first ten sessions of the General Legislative Council, A.D. 1841 to A.D. 1849, was not published until June 1850.
During his period as colonial secretary Domett showed considerable interest in land questions, gradually collecting information on the land policies proposed in the new settlements. Although he was not averse to accumulating a fair degree of property himself, mostly in the Nelson region, Domett deprecated the system whereby wealthy men could choose large tracts of land for speculative rather than productive purposes. This interest in land issues provided Domett with an opening for new employment after the dissolution of the Crown colony administration.
In February 1854 Domett arrived in Hawke's Bay to take up his position as commissioner of Crown lands and resident magistrate in the Ahuriri district. The appointment was not a satisfactory one. Aware that he had been downgraded, Domett found it difficult to reconcile his inclinations to autonomy with the insistence that he should be accountable to the senior commissioner of Crown lands in Wellington. The resolution to an impasse which severely disrupted the efficient survey of the districts was provided by Nelson residents who elected him to the House of Representatives in 1855. In September 1856 he was appointed commissioner of Crown lands in Nelson. The most enduring record of Domett's period in Hawke's Bay was his insistence on naming Napier and its principal streets after men whom he admired in British Indian history. When his list of Indian names was exhausted, Domett resorted to commemorating Victorians eminent in the scientific and literary fields.
Although his years of residence in Wellington had made Domett a very occasional visitor to Nelson, his election by voters there was a measure of his reputation in that province, a reputation which he soon enhanced by his professional contribution. After assuming his parliamentary seat, Domett took up his appointment as commissioner of Crown lands in Nelson. From 1857 to 1863 he also served on the Nelson Provincial Council and was provincial secretary. He resumed the editorship of the Nelson Examiner for a short period in 1857 and in November 1857 became a member of the first council of governors for Nelson College. In 1860 he was re-elected to Parliament for Nelson City, a seat which he held until January 1866; in June of that year he was appointed to the Legislative Council.
Domett's parliamentary career was a brief but significant phase of his public service to the colony. As colonial secretary (premier) from 6 August 1862 until 30 October 1863, he held office during the crucial months when responsibility for native affairs was a major point of contention between imperial and colonial authorities. Domett's attitude towards the Taranaki conflict reflected the long-term legacy of his involvement in the aftermath of the Wairau affray. He applauded Governor Thomas Gore Browne's handling of the Waitara purchase in 1860 and consequently opposed Governor George Grey's subsequent efforts to redress that injustice. The Domett ministry's hard-line approach and political tactics were both made apparent in Domett's suggestion early in 1863 that funds voted by the imperial government for the 'civilisation of the natives' might properly be spent on their conquest. Far more damaging, however, was his ministry's policy of punitive land confiscation. Domett's official recommendation in October 1863 that all the lands of the Waikato and Taranaki tribes that were best adapted for European settlement should be taken for that purpose revealed rather too much of his ministry's intentions, especially when the minute also disclosed calculations of the more than £2 million to be derived from the sale of confiscated land. Although colleagues disclaimed the document as a private expression of the premier's views, the indiscretion brought to a head dissension within what had always been a precarious ministry. Domett clashed with Thomas Russell and Frederick Whitaker in particular, the two Aucklanders having vigorously opposed Domett's eventual concession over the return of the Waitara block in May 1863. The resignation of his colleagues forced Domett's own.
Domett promptly resumed the administrative career he had never fully relinquished, for during his premiership his only additional portfolio had been that of Crown lands. So effectively did he administer affairs in this capacity that the post of secretary for Crown lands was changed from a political to a civil service position by the succeeding ministry and Domett took up the appointment in January 1864. During the next eight years he effected an administrative revolution. In mid 1864 he became land claims commissioner and then, in 1865, registrar general of land, thus centralising most of the general government's land concerns in his office. In June 1866 he also took up his seat in the Legislative Council, the combination of paid service and deliberative advice to the Crown not being seen as contradictory. By 1870 the general Crown Lands Office had been transformed into an efficient regulatory agency for overseeing the implementation of government land policies. In one administrative objective alone Domett was foiled: his office did not acquire responsibility for Maori lands, although he did succeed in having the administration of confiscated lands transferred to the general Crown Lands Office in 1869. The value of Domett's contribution to the efficient administration of the public estate was made apparent in 1870. The Disqualification Act to prevent any member of either the lower or the upper House from holding paid office in the service of the Crown specifically exempted Domett.
Although his 30 years of public service in New Zealand had given Domett little opportunity for sustained creative writing, he had never lost his literary inclinations. He made occasional contributions to the Nelson Examiner and worked consistently on the epic Ranolf and Amohia, which was published in London in 1872, with the subtitle A south-sea day-dream, shortly after his return to England. He produced a small volume of poetry in 1877 and a revised edition of Ranolf and Amohia, with an altered subtitle, A dream of two lives, in 1883. As a man of letters, however, his most significant contribution was his involvement, while still in New Zealand, in the establishment of the General Assembly Library. Both in the selection of the collection and in its organisation and classification, Domett laid the foundations for the successful development of that institution.
Alfred Domett's reputation has not been well served by twentieth century writers, who have focused on his premiership and prolix poetry. Contemporaries viewed him much more generously, applauding his intellectual calibre and readiness to contribute to the public weal: 'a man of that stamp is a great boon to a young colonial community'.