Swainson, William (1809-1883) (DNB00)

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SWAINSON, WILLIAM (1809–1883), first attorney-general of New Zealand, born in Lancaster on 25 April 1809, was the eldest son of William Swainson, merchant. He was educated at Lancaster grammar school, and, entering at the Inner Temple in 1835, was called to the bar in June 1838. He practised as a conveyancer, and rarely attended the Lancaster sessions.

In 1841 Swainson was appointed attorney-general of New Zealand, partly on the recommendation of his friend (Sir) William Martin (1807–1880) [q. v.], who had just become chief justice. During the voyage out he assisted Martin to draft the measures required to set the new legal machinery in motion. He brought out with him the framework of the house in which he took up his residence at Taurarua, Judge's Bay. The legislation which he carried through the council between December 1841 and April 1842 was comprehensive, lucid, and compact. In 1842 he advised the governor, Willoughby Shortland [q. v.], that in his opinion the jurisdiction of the British crown did not ipso facto extend to the Maoris. This opinion drew a severe rebuke from Earl Grey.

In 1854, on the introduction of an elective constitution, Swainson became the first speaker of the legislative council, encountering rather a stormy political period. In 1855 he paid a visit to England, and took several opportunities of lecturing on the attractions of New Zealand in London, Bristol, Lancaster, and elsewhere. In May 1856, when responsible government was demanded, he relinquished the office of attorney-general; and, though he became a member of the new legislative council, he was no longer active in politics. He devoted much of his energy to the furtherance of Bishop Selwyn's work in the foundation of the church in New Zealand [see Selwyn, George Augustus]; he was a member of the conference of June 1857 and of the first general synod, taking a large share in framing the organic measures introduced to the synod. He was also chancellor of the diocese of Auckland. He had been from the first a great friend to the Maoris, learning to know them by long expeditions on foot through the bush. He opposed the war of 1862 as impolitic.

After 1866 Swainson lived in comparative retirement, though his keen interest in the colony's welfare gave him much public influence; he was a member without portfolio of Sir George Grey's ministry from April to July 1879. Swainson died unmarried at Taurarua on 1 Dec. 1883, and was buried in the cemetery at that place. Estimates of Swainson's character and influence in New Zealand vary greatly; Rusden praises him highly, while Gisborne as strongly condemns him, more particularly as a politician.

Swainson wrote the following works on New Zealand: 1. ‘Observations on the Climate of New Zealand,’ London, 1840. 2. ‘Auckland, the Capital of New Zealand and the Country adjacent,’ London, 1854. 3. ‘Lectures on New Zealand,’ London, 1856. 4. ‘New Zealand and its Colonisation,’ London, 1859. 5. ‘New Zealand and the War,’ London, 1862.

[Mennell's Dict. of Australasian Biography; Lancaster Guardian, 17 Jan. 1884; Gisborne's New Zealand Rulers and Statesmen, 2nd ed. 1897; Rusden's History of New Zealand, i. 274, 339, sqq.]

C. A. H.