Henry Sewell (1807 - 1879) was a prominent 19th century New Zealand politician. He was a notable campaigner for New Zealand self-government, and is generally regarded as having been the country's first Premier.
Sewell was born on 7 September 1807 in the town of Newport, on England's Isle of Wight. His family was relatively wealthy, and Sewell received a good education. He eventually qualified as a lawyer. In 1840, however, Sewell's father lost a staggering sum of money when a bank failed, and died shortly afterwards, leaving the family with a great deal of debt. This put considerable strain on Sewell. Not much later, Sewell also suffered from the untimely death of his wife Lucinda (whom he had married in 1834). Sewell remarried in 1850, and made plans to emmigrate to New Zealand, hoping for improved financial prospects in the colony.
Sewell's connection to New Zealand arose through the Canterbury Association, a British organization dedicated to the colonization of the New Zealand region known as Canterbury. Until his departure for New Zealand, Sewell was the Association's deputy director, and contributed greatly to its activities. The Association's plan for colonization encountered a number of serious problems, however, and considerable debts were incurred. Sewell was instrumental in solving these problems. Sewell personally arrived in Christchurch (the principal settlement in Canterbury) on 2 February 1853, hoping to sort out what remained of the colony's problems. Gradually, and despite conflict with provincial superintendent James FitzGerald, Sewell managed to get the colony back onto a reasonable course.
Early political career
Shortly after Sewell's arrival in New Zealand, the 1st New Zealand Parliament was convened. Sewell was elected as representative for the Town of Christchurch seat. His legal and financial skill was of considerable use in Parliament, although he was criticised as elitist and aloof. In terms of the political spectrum of the day, which ranged "centralists" against "provincialists", Sewell adopted a moderate position, although he later became gradually more centralist. With regard New Zealand self-rule, the other major issue of the time, Sewell was strongly in favour. When the Acting Governor, Robert Wynyard , appointed Sewell and several other politicians as "unofficial" members of the Executive Council, Sewell believed that self-government would soon begin. When it became apparent that Wynyard regarded the appointments as temporary, and that he did not believe Parliament could assume responsibility for governance without royal assent, Sewell and his colleagues resigned.
A new Governor, Thomas Gore Browne, subsequently announced that self-government would begin with the 2nd New Zealand Parliament. Sewell once again stood for election, and was successful. As a result of his previous service on the Executive Council, Sewell was asked to form a government. He was appointed to the Executive Council on 18 April 1856, and became Colonial Secretary (considered to be the equivalent of Prime Minister) on 7 May. Dillon Bell became Colonial Treasurer (Finance Minister), Frederick Whitaker became Attorney-General, and Henry Tancred became a minister without portfolio.
Later political career
Sewell's government was short-lived, however, due to its strong centralist tendencies. The leader of the provincialist faction, William Fox, defeated Sewell's government less than two weeks after it took office. Fox himself, however, did not retain office for long, being defeated by Edward Stafford, a moderate. Stafford invited Sewell to become Colonial Treasurer in the new government. In this role, Sewell was instrumental in drafting a financial compact between the central and provincial governments.
In late 1856, Sewell stepped down as Treasurer and returned to England, where he negotiated a number of deals for New Zealand. William Richmond became Treaurer in his absence. Later, when Sewell returned to New Zealand, he became Treasurer once again, but stepped down again after only a month, leaving Richmond to resume the role.
When fighting broke out with Maori over land greivances, Sewell attempted to promote negotiation and compromise. Sewell, who was a mild pacifist, believed that conflict with Maori could only properly be resolved by introducing a fair method of land purchase, one which did not involve coercion. To this end, he twice proposed a Native Council Bill, which would have created Maori-run institutions with the authority to supervise all Maori land deals. Both attempts failed. Sewell later resigned from a post as Attorney-General over the government's land confiscation policies. Soon afterwards, he published a pamphlet entitled The New Zealand native rebellion, in which explained his views on the causes of (and solutions to) the conflict with Maori.
Later in his political career, Sewell briefly held positions as Attorney-General, Minister of Justice, and Colonial Secretary (the latter being distinct from the Premiership by this time).
In 1873, Sewell, he retired from politics, and returned to England shortly afterwards. He died in Cambridge on 14 May 1879.