John Sheehan

Could have been a pivotal politician

Instead John Sheehan became an "erratic comet" and "brilliant failure."

John Sheehan (5 July 1844 – 12 June 1885) was a 19th century New Zealand politician. He was the first New Zealand-born Member of the New Zealand Parliament and the first to hold cabinet rank, as Minister of Justice, and Native Minister. He was a fluent speaker of Te Reo Māori since childhood, and was educated at St Peters College.

He served as a part-time sergeant and paymaster of the Auckland Troop of Royal Cavalry Volunteers 1863-64, guarding Government House.

In 1871 he stood out as one of two colonial politicians who supported the Ngāti Kahungunu movement in Hawkes Bay, which tried to overturn unfair sales of land.

A lawyer, Sheehan was an early advocate of breaking up large runholder monopolies (giant farming concessions), which he believed created a social elite which disadvantaged ordinary people.

His political career was marked by his failure to negotiate with the Te Whiti, a prophet of non-violent Māori resistance. Te Whiti said that Sheehan was “governed by the basest of Māori women and stupefied by swallowing the strongest fire-water.”

Te Ara, the online encyclopedia of New Zealand notes; “a luminous forerunner of a new breed of colonial politician. Acute, personally charming and sociable, invariably persuasive, fluent and florid, a great public orator as well as a superb political organiser and numbers man, Sheehan was a brilliant failure.

“In the most difficult portfolio of an unstable ministry, he lacked the opportunity and also the application which might have ensured him a lasting historical reputation. As it is, he resembles a comet which flashed, briefly and erratically, across the colonial firmament before being snuffed out.”

Where is the grave?

Sheehan is remembered in the Catholic Memorial. Site 7 in the Rose Walk Trail Guide.
  • <p>John Sheehan, date unknown.  <em>Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, Ref: 1/2-004918-F.</em></p>
  • <p>Due to development of the Auckland Southern Motorway during the 1960s, many bodies were moved from the Catholic cemetery and re-interred into a memorial at the cemetery. Many of Auckland's early Catholic colonists are amongst those remembered on the memorial, including John Sheehan.</p>
  • <p>Looking across the Catholic cemetery to St Benedict's church, c1880s. <em>Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 589-163.</em></p>