Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thurston, John Bates

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THURSTON, Sir JOHN BATES (1836–1897), colonial governor, eldest son of John Noel Thurston of Bath, and Eliza West, was born in London on 31 Jan. 1836. He was educated at a private school in the south of England. Rejecting the offer of his uncle, Sir Augustus West, to bring him up as a doctor, he entered the merchant service in 1850 on an Indian liner belonging to a relative. In 1855 he became first officer, but shortly afterwards was struck down by cholera and ordered to Australia for his health. He started sheep farming with a friend at Namoi, New South Wales, but, losing his partner suddenly, about 1859 removed to Liverpool, near Sydney. Here his farm was ruined by a flood about 1862. He was then for a short time employed under the government of New South Wales, but his health broke down again. He then undertook a botanising expedition among the islands of the Western Pacific. In 1864 he was wrecked on Samoa, then an island where the European was hardly known, and by his great swimming powers was the means of saving the crew. For eighteen months he lived on Samoa, and laid the foundation of his wide knowledge of the natives of the Western Pacific. In 1866 he was rescued by the Wesleyan missionary ship and taken to Fiji, where he obtained a post in the British consulate for Fiji and Tonga. In 1869 he became acting consul, and shortly afterwards his remarkable influence over the natives became manifest. Fiji had one of those quaint imitations of a parliamentary constitution which are still found in some of the Pacific Islands. Such a constitution is not always a success, and in 1872 that of Fiji went to pieces. In May 1872 the king, Thakombaw, saw that there was only one chance of safety, and called in Thurston to be chief secretary and minister for foreign affairs. This led immediately, in 1874, to the transfer of the islands to Great Britain, which had only a few years previously refused to accept them; the negotiations were conducted through Thurston, and on the accomplishment of the cession (October 1874) he became colonial secretary and auditor-general of the new crown colony. In 1877 the high commission for the Western Pacific was created, and in 1879 Thurston became the secretary to the high commissioner. In 1880 he acted as governor of Fiji, and at the end of the year went on a special commission to the Friendly islands in order to negotiate a treaty.

In October 1882 he was appointed deputy governor of Fiji, and in November 1883 consul-general for the Western Pacific. His varied duties required him to move constantly about the islands of those seas, and he established his reputation both with the natives and the European traders by the judgment and wisdom with which he treated the former, and the firmness with which he upheld the dignity of British jurisdiction. So great was his reputation with the natives that in 1883, when the great Fijian chief was dying, he installed Thurston as chief of all the Fijians.

In March 1885 Thurston came to England as British commissioner to the Anglo-German commission appointed for the purpose of discussing the question of land claims in Fiji and conflicting territorial claims in the South Seas. He showed a profound knowledge of the affairs of that part of the world, and he fittingly returned to Fiji as lieutenant-governor in 1886. He became governor and high commissioner of the Western Pacific in 1887.

In 1895 Thurston's health gave way, and he came to England on leave. Returning to his post in 1896, he died at Suva in February 1897. He became C.M.G. in 1880, and K.C.M.G. in 1887; he was a fellow of the Linnean and Geographical societies.

He married, first, about 1866, a French lady, Madame de Lavalatte; secondly, on 14 Jan. 1883, Amelia, daughter of John Berry of Albury, New South Wales, who, with three sons and two daughters, survived him. The British government granted Lady Thurston a civil list pension in consideration of her husband's services, and the government of Fiji a pension of 50l. to each of the five children during minority.

[Information given by Lady Thurston; Mennell's Dict. of Australasian Biography; Times, 9 Feb. 1897; Colonial Office List, 1896; Handbook to Fiji, 1886, p. 14; official information.]

C. A. H.