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HIGGINSON, Sir JAMES MACAULAY, soldier, office-holder, and colonial administrator; b. in 1805 in Ireland, son of Major James Higginson and Mary Macaulay; m. first Louisa Shakespear and secondly Olivia Dobbs; d. 28 June 1885 in County Wicklow (Republic of Ireland).

James Macaulay Higginson was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, before entering the Bengal army in 1824. He served in several campaigns and came to the notice of Sir Charles Theophilus Metcalfe* at the siege of Bhurtpore in 1825–26. When Metcalfe was appointed deputy governor of Bengal in 1829 Higginson became a member of his personal staff; the association lasted until Metcalfe’s death in 1846. Higginson acted as military secretary to Sir Charles on his various postings in India, 1833–37, and by 1838 had risen to the rank of captain in the Bengal army. Although his later appointments in the imperial service were civil ones, he continued to use his military title until 1846.

Higginson sailed from India for Bristol with Metcalfe on 15 Feb. 1838 and spent the next year in England. When Sir Charles was made governor of Jamaica on 11 July 1839 Higginson, accompanied by his family, went along as his private secretary; the governor formed affectionate and long-lasting ties with Higginson’s children. After his return to England with Metcalfe in 1842, Higginson was at “loose ends.” Although he seems to have continued to be involved in Metcalfe’s affairs, he was also engaged in a commercial venture in India on his own; it was unsuccessful and Metcalfe made good his losses.

Sir Charles accepted the governorship of Canada in January 1843 and early in March Higginson was appointed his civil and private secretary. After their arduous winter journey overland from Boston to Kingston, Canada West, in part in horse-drawn sleighs, Metcalfe began a tenure of office in Canada which was to be unhappy, not only because of his differences with the Reformers about the implications of responsible government but also because of his constantly worsening cancer of the cheek. He resigned in the autumn of 1845 and returned home in December.

Metcalfe’s illness caused a heavy administrative load to fall upon the shoulders of Higginson, who had to conduct government business almost single-handed. His correspondence for 1843 covers a wide range of subjects: the disturbances on the Welland Canal, the St Lawrence ice-bridge at Quebec City, measures pertaining to quarantine ships, furnishings of the provincial lunatic asylum at Toronto, the land grant for King’s College in Toronto, civil service pensions, and projects of the Board of Works. Higginson became the governor general’s adviser, political spokesman, and messenger, often dealing with disgruntled Reformers. As early as May 1843 Higginson had a long conversation with Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine* on the nature of responsible government. One of their chief disagreements arose over patronage; Higginson maintained that some appointments were the prerogative of the governor general while La Fontaine argued that patronage “ought to be bestowed exclusively on us.” Higginson’s report of this conversation to Metcalfe did not endear him to the Reformers. When in November a crisis arose leading to the resignation of La Fontaine, Robert Baldwin,* and the other ministers, except Dominick Daly*, Higginson received some of the odium bestowed on Metcalfe. Reformers suspected Higginson of misleading Metcalfe and derisively labelled him “the everlasting secretary.”

Higginson’s other major concern in Canada was the Indian Department. On 22 Jan. 1844 the report of a royal commission established by Sir Charles Bagot* in 1842 recommended major administrative changes in departmental structure and personnel, including the suggestion that “the management of the Indians be placed under the Civil Secretary.” Higginson became superintendent general of Indian affairs on 15 May. Under him the recommendations made by the commissioners “were for the most part carried into effect,” including, on 1 July 1845, the abolition of the office of chief superintendent for Canada West. At that time this office was held by Samuel Peters Jarvis*, who had been suspected of having mismanaged department monies.

Scurrilous rumours began to circulate about the nature of the relationship between Higginson and Metcalfe; one even suggested that Higginson’s wife, Olivia, was Metcalfe’s illegitimate daughter. He survived these innuendoes and remained in Canada until the spring of 1846 when he departed for the West Indies. After Metcalfe’s death in September gossip-mongers doubtless took pleasure in the terms of his will: his former secretary was one of its chief beneficiaries, inheriting £20,000. Higginson served as governor of Antigua and the Leeward Islands, 1846–50, and of Mauritius and the Seychelles, 1850–57. He retired to Ireland in the autumn of 1857, living there until his death. He was made a cb in March 1851 and raised to a kcb in 1857.

The career of James Macaulay Higginson, at the second or third level of the imperial service, is typical of those of thousands of men who worked diligently and unobtrusively throughout the 19th century to run the far-flung empire. The study of such careers casts clearer light not only on events but also on the nature of colonial relationships during this important period.

Douglas Leighton

J. M. Higginson papers are in the possession of T. B. Higginson (Scarborough, Ont.). BNQ, mss-101, Coll. La Fontaine (copies at PAC). MTL, Samuel Peters Jarvis papers. PAC, MG 24, A33; RG 7, G1, 405; RG 8, I (C ser.), 60, 79; RG 10, A4, 508–9; A5, 263, 510–12, 622–23, 752–53; A6, 116–18; B8, 766–67. [T. T. Higginson], Diaries . . . , ed. T. B. Higginson (London, 1960). J. W. Kaye, The life and correspondence of Charles, Lord Metcalfe (rev. ed., 2v., London, 1858). Times (London), 7 July 1885. T. B. Higginson, Descendants of the Reverend Thomas Higginson (London, 1958). S. [B.] Leacock, Baldwin, LaFontaine, Hincks; responsible government (Toronto, 1907). J. D. Leighton, “The development of federal Indian policy in Canada, 1840–1890” (phd thesis, Univ. of Western Ontario, London, 1975). E. [J.] Thompson, The life of Charles, Lord Metcalfe (London, 1937). C. B. Sissons, “Ryerson and the elections of 1844,” CHR, 23 (1942): 157–76.

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Cite This Article

Douglas Leighton, “HIGGINSON, Sir JAMES MACAULAY,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 28, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/higginson_james_macaulay_11E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/higginson_james_macaulay_11E.html
Author of Article:   Douglas Leighton
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1982
Year of revision:   1982
Access Date:   September 28, 2023