Henry Sewell came to New Zealand in 1853 at the age of 45 as an official of the Canterbury Association and spent about 17½ years in the colony in three periods: 1853–56, 1859–66 and 1870–76. He became one of the leaders among the first generation of colonial politicians and was the first premier of New Zealand. He sat in the General Assembly for 11 years – 4 years as MHR for Christchurch, 8 months as MHR for New Plymouth and 7 years as MLC. He was a member of eight ministries and held numerous senior posts in government. Although Sewell regarded himself as an expatriate Englishman and hated New Zealand at first, by 1866 he was able to write from England: 'I find that my affections are more Colonial than English'.
He was born on 7 September 1807 at Newport, Isle of Wight, England, the fifth child of Thomas Sewell, a solicitor, and his wife, Jane Edwards. His was an upper middle class, provincial family, which had some slight connections with the landed aristocracy. The law, the Church of England and literary pursuits were important early influences. He was educated at Hyde Abbey, a fashionable upper class preparatory school in Winchester, served articles to become a solicitor and joined the family law practice about 1826. On 15 May 1834 he married Lucinda Marianne Nedham, with whom he had six children.
In 1840 Sewell's father lost over £3,000 in a Newport bank failure and died two years later leaving large debts. The family undertook to pay the creditors, but the task took 30 years and was to cast a shadow over Sewell's career. A second tragedy occurred in 1844 when Sewell's wife died. He then entrusted his mother and children to the care of his sisters, sold half the family law practice and moved to London to seek a living. In 1848 he was introduced to the Canterbury Association, probably by John Simeon, MP for the Isle of Wight, who was a founder member.
Aside from the prospect of financial gain, Sewell was excited by the possibility of establishing an improved legal system in a new colony. He had for some years been interested in reforming the English system of land transfer. In 1846 he published a pamphlet advocating a simple system of registration of title, supervised by qualified registrars. The Canterbury settlement seemed suitable for the experiment and he envisaged employment as a registrar. He married Elizabeth Kittoe at Chadwell St Mary, Essex, on 23 January 1850, and then made plans to emigrate.
However, it was three years before he set foot in the colony. The association's legal and financial problems prompted Lord Lyttelton (the chairman of the association) and Edward Gibbon Wakefield to invite Sewell to take a salaried position as deputy chairman of the management committee. In this capacity he was to make his greatest contribution to Canterbury.
The Canterbury Association was engaged in the most ambitious attempt at 'systematic colonisation' in New Zealand. It proposed to sell land at £3 an acre and devote two thirds of the proceeds to immigration, education and the church. Land sales were expected to yield a regular income of £50,000 a year.
Things went wrong from the start. The New Zealand Company, agent for the land, gave up its charter, so 10s. per acre of land had to be paid to the Crown. Land sales were slow, only a quarter of the initial target. The settlement went ahead with inadequate funds and had to borrow from bankers on the guarantee of Lord Lyttelton and his associates. Sewell was given the job of sorting out these debts – a task for which he was well fitted by personal circumstances. He tried various expedients such as begging forbearance from creditors, seeking a government loan and selling land to association members. Finally he hit upon the idea of 'recycling' the money in the ecclesiastical and educational fund. The endowment for a bishop was reinvested in land in the settlement; the sums guaranteed by Lyttelton and his associates were entered as land sales in the ledgers; and all surplus cash was used to buy land. For every £3 so expended the ecclesiastical and educational fund received £1 back, which could be used for further purchase. By the application of this ingenious plan, over 7,000 acres were acquired by the association in 1852. If the colonists did not get their schools and churches, clergy and teachers, at least the settlement had assets to offset its debts. Sewell was then sent out to wind up the association's affairs.
He reached Lyttelton on 2 February 1853 in the company of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, and found that considerable misunderstanding prevailed. John Robert Godley (the co-founder and first agent) had left for England, but not before abandoning plans for a college, stating that clergy stipends could not be paid and denouncing the land purchases. But between 1853 and 1855, after lengthy controversies with the pioneer clergy and with James Edward FitzGerald, the superintendent of the province of Canterbury, Sewell made a successful settlement. The province agreed to pay the association's debt of around £28,000 in return for its extensive public reserves. Sewell resurrected the plan for a college, and a third of the association's lands went as endowment for Christ's College in 1855. The balance (about 5,000 acres) was placed under the Church Property Trustees. By his financial and legal acumen Sewell salvaged many of the ecclesiastical and educational aspects of the Canterbury plan.
Inevitably, Sewell became involved in politics. In 1853 he was elected MHR for the town of Christchurch. He had a great capacity for legislative and financial detail and made himself indispensable during the achievement of self-government by the colony. He realised that the opposing pulls of centralism and provincialism were potentially destructive and he sought compromises to facilitate administration. However, he was hampered in the role of conciliator by his reserved, aloof manner and élitist views.
Like most of the colonial leaders he expected responsible government. Indeed, in 1851 he had, on behalf of Lord Lyttelton and others, drafted a proposal for turning the Crown colony Legislative Council into an elected constituent assembly capable of making a constitution. This was too radical for the Colonial Office, which under Governor George Grey's influence, produced the Constitution Act 1852. The act did not alter the executive but provided for a general assembly with a nominated legislative council and elected house of representatives.
Sewell was a member of the first Parliament when on 2 June 1854 Edward Gibbon Wakefield moved a resolution calling for responsible government. Colonel R. H. Wynyard, the acting governor, decided he could not remove the Crown-appointed official Executive Council without reference to the Colonial Office, but he summoned three members of the House of Representatives, one of whom was Sewell, as 'unofficial' executive councillors. This 'mixed ministry' served under a misapprehension. The 'unofficials' expected that full ministerial responsibility would begin; Wynyard saw it as a temporary measure while he consulted the Colonial Office. After seven weeks the 'ministers' resigned. Sewell, however, shepherded various financial and law bills through the House, and played the same role in a short third session in 1855.
Meanwhile Governor Thomas Gore Browne arrived in the colony and announced that after another general election responsible government would begin. In the second Parliament in 1856 Sewell (as sole survivor of the 'mixed ministry') was summoned at the age of 48 to form a government. He joined the Executive Council on 18 April 1856 and took office as colonial secretary on 7 May. But he was premier for only two weeks. His provincialist rival William Fox formed a ministry on 20 May, which in turn lasted just over a week. The first stable ministry was led by Edward William Stafford, with Sewell as colonial treasurer and virtual deputy premier. The 'compact' of 16 June 1856, effecting financial compromise between the colonial and provincial governments, was Sewell's major contribution to the inauguration of self-government.
On 21 October 1856 Sewell vacated the colonial treasurership but remained an unofficial member of the Executive Council and sailed to Australia and England as ministerial representative. In London he persuaded the Treasury to guarantee a £1/2 million loan, secured the passage of the New Zealand Constitution Amendment Act 1857, negotiated contracts with a steamship firm for a mail service to New Zealand, and sought advice on the question of a land registry system. Returning to the colony in 1859 he resumed the colonial treasurership, but resigned after two months.
The next six years were dominated by Māori affairs. Sewell realised that the key to further colonisation lay in the ending of Māori title to the lands of the central North Island. With the agreement of Governor Browne he drafted the Native Council Bill which proposed a new system of colonisation and Māori administration. In each block of Māori land purchased, two-tenths would be conveyed to the Māori occupants under Crown title and one-tenth held as reserves. Revenue from sales to settlers would repay the loans required for land purchase and provide endowments for Māori religious and educational purposes. Supervision would be by a 'native council' responsible to the Crown, not Parliament. The bill came before the British Parliament in 1860, but was abandoned because of opposition. Although this measure failed, the Land Registry Act was passed in 1860, and Sewell became the first registrar general of lands.
The outbreak of war in Taranaki during 1860 was a cause of distress to Sewell as he had pacifist inclinations and hated the use of force in Māori affairs. He sought rather to avoid conflict through compromise and persuasion. As a concession to followers of the King movement, he promoted the idea of Māori self-government. He suggested, in a resolution of 10 August 1860, that local rūnanga and a general Māori council should be encouraged. These proposals were drafted into a modified Native Council Bill which again was abandoned. In 1861 Sewell was attorney general in the Fox ministry and helped to initiate the rūnanga scheme or 'new institutions' for Māori self-government. However, he failed to obtain legislative ratification of the scheme. Sewell continued in the office of attorney general under Alfred Domett, 1862–63, but resigned in protest against the confiscation policy. He explained his views in a pamphlet entitled The New Zealand native rebellion, published in 1864. Frederick Weld called him back to office as attorney general in the 'self-reliant ministry' of 1864–65.
Between 1866 and 1870 Sewell lived in England. The suburban subdivision of his land at Addington in Christchurch was yielding good returns and he began to pay his debts. The British government's decision in 1869 to withdraw the last imperial regiment from New Zealand prompted him to join a colonists' delegation to the secretary of state for colonies. He also took a leading part in the unofficial conference of the self-governing colonies held in London from November 1869 to February 1870.
Back in New Zealand later in 1870 he served briefly as minister of justice in Fox's ministry, which launched Julius Vogel's public works and immigration scheme. However, he was unhappy about Vogel's contracts and resigned in 1871. He was in Stafford's brief ministry in October 1872, but he resigned from politics in 1873 and went home to England three years later. He died on 14 May 1879 at Cambridge and was buried at Waresley, Huntingdonshire.
Sewell's frequent changes of opinion and allegiance suggest that he was sometimes unsure of himself. His family's burden of debt made for insecurity and a contemporary complained he was 'too fond of doing things in a dodgy lawyer-like way'. He was lonely, pessimistic and snobbish. But he was a tireless correspondent, negotiator and committee man, a great drafter of bills and resolutions. He was the chief 'man of business' in the first New Zealand Parliament. As an Anglican churchman he was, with his wife, Elizabeth, always punctilious in attendance at worship. He was well read, and had the reputation of being a lettered wit. His Journal, written as a newsletter for associates and family in England, provides the most detailed and candid private account of places, personalities and events in early Canterbury, of the beginnings of self-government in the colony and of the politics of the 1860s.