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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 1 (May 1, 1933)

Famous New Zealanders — No. 2 Sir Donald Maclean “The Great Maori Mystery Man”

Famous New Zealanders
No. 2 Sir Donald Maclean “The Great Maori Mystery Man”

The greatest figure in the pioneer period of New Zealand, in special relation to Maori affairs and the progress of settlement in the North Island, was Sir Donald Maclean, K.C.M.G. (1820–1877). He was eight times Native Minister. The writer of this article has made a special study of the life and times of Maclean, who was dubbed by Edward Gibbon Wakefield, in the Fifties, “the great Maori mystery man.”

The little rugged islands on the West of Scotland, Atlantic-washed isles of mist and hard weather, have produced many a man who made abiding impression on the story of Britain, and especially of Britain overseas. The struggle with the gales, the granite soil, the seagirt character of the place, the stern patriarchal upbringing of the sons of the clan, all tended to produce men of courage, resolution, vigour and training for the life of the pioneer in new lands when the old isles and the old glens had become too small.

Leaders, statesmen, great sailors and soldiers and explorers are bred in such places. One of our famous men of light and learning, Sir Robert Stout, came from the remote Shetlands. A no less prominent man in his day, one whose public career began in New Zealand nearly a generation before Stout, was a son of the Western Isles. Kilmaluaig, on the island of Tiree (or Tyree), off the coast of Argyll, was the birthplace of Sir Donald Maclean, who for the greater part of his life was the chief intermediary between the pakeha Government and the Maoris.

Donald Maclean was born on the 27th October, 1820; he was the son of John Maclean, of Kilmaluaig. His grandmother was the eldest daughter of Campbell of Dunstaffnage, and the last Campbell born in the Castle of Dunstaffnage. Donald came from a long line of ancestors, from the founder, Maclean of Duart, to Ardgour, the first branch of which founded the House of Borrerae in Uist, and thence branched to Tiree and other of the Western Isles.

John Maclean, the father, died when Donald was very young, and the boy was brought up and educated by his mother's people, the McColls; the grandfather was a Presbyterian minister, the Rev. D. McColl. Young Donald's upbringing was a sound foundation for the life into which the hand of destiny presently led him. He was a boy of the out-of-doors, the hills and the sea, that lad of Tiree.

Before he was twenty he was in a new land, the world's width away, where his powers of body and brain were to be tried to the utmost. It was in 1838 that he bade farewell to the Highlands and the isles that he was never to see again. He sailed from Oban on November 15 of that year in the ship “St. George” for Sydney, and reached there on April 10, 1839. It was nearly forty years later that New Zealand mourned his death as one of its greatest statesmen. He never returned to Scotland, never had a rest from duty. “Lochaber no more, we'll maybe return to Lochaber no more,” the pipes wailed over his grave at Napier. A native race that he had come to regard with an affection akin to that for the clansfolk of his birthland, lamented him as their father and protector, their sheltering rata tree laid low.

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Sir Donald Maclean, K.C.M.G., Minister for Native Affairs and Defence. (From a photo about 1870.)

Sir Donald Maclean, K.C.M.G., Minister for Native Affairs and Defence. (From a photo about 1870.)

Early Colonial Days.

In New South Wales—he had come out at the suggestion of some relatives who had taken passage in the “St. George”—young Donald gained some practical experience of sheep-farming. He walked to a station near Bathurst, and presently was managing an out-station for some months. By this time, early in 1840, New Zealand was a greatly tempting field for young adventurers, and he decided to try his fortune here. The firm of Abercrombie and Co., of Sydney, who had kauri timber properties in the Auckland district, sent him across on business, and later he saw much pioneer life on the coast and became very friendly with the Maoris about the Hauraki Gulf, at a period when native law and custom still ruled, troubled little by the new dispensation under the pakeha.

The Young Protector.

It was Dr. Sinclair, the then Colonial Secretary, under Governor Hobson at Auckland, who first discovered that this stalwart young Scotsman had already acquired a considerable knowledge of Maori affairs and could speak the language well. That was in 1843. Maclean was given an appointment as a junior official in the Native Department, which was then styled the Office of the Protector of Aborigines—a title which was abolished by Governor Grey. Under the Chief Protector, Mr. George Clarke, a member of a mission family in the north, he received some preliminary training as interpreter and agent, and then, in 1844, he was appointed a sub-protector, with his quarters at New Plymouth, and his field the country from South Taranaki to Kawhia, and inland to Taupo.

Scotsman and Maori.

Physically Donald Maclean was well fitted for the heavy work of travel in those days of no roads, no bridges, no vehicles and few horses. Most of the travelling that fell to the officials and the missionaries was on foot; and Maclean must have walked some thousands of miles about the country in his time, carrying his swag as the Maoris carried their pikaus. The natives admired a big well-built man, and Maclean was just the type that filled their ideas of a warrior and leader—tall, burly, wide of shoulder, deep of chest.

For his part, Maclean quickly took a liking to the Maoris as a race. His love for the traditions and ways of his Highland and Isles folk predisposed him in favour of a people whose social life and methods of government so closely resembled those of his own people. The tribal pride, the intertribal jealousies and feuds, the readiness to fight at the slightest affront, the patriarchal rule of the Ariki and the rangatira, the popular passion for songs and chants and oratory, even the favourite working and fighting costume, the rapaki or kilt, all reminded the lad from Tiree of his clan and their neighbours, as they had been from time immemorial.

“Te Makarini,” as the Maoris called him, very soon came to enter into the Maori ways of thought. He became able to place himself in the position of the Maori, when occasion called, and to understand the often peculiar processes of reasoning that few pakehas could fathom. All this explains the often extraordinary hold he came to exercise over the tribes and the success that almost invariably attended his official dealings with a proud and often suspicious race.

In 1845 we find the 25-year-old Scot filling the role of official ambassador to the grand old chief Te Heuheu, of Taupo, the king-like Ariki who regarded Queen Victoria as a fellow-sovereign in no way superior to himself. Maclean reconciled rival clans, he carried the tenets of civilisation to savage places, he smoked the peace-pipe with dour old cannibals who rather despised the mild missionary, but who came to recognise in the Scot a chieftain of a fighting race like themselves.

Land for Settlement.

For many a year he was chiefly engaged in negotiations for land on which to settle the incoming shiploads of pakehas. He mended the mistakes made by the Wakefields in their page 27 defective purchases for the New Zealand Company. He bought in one district and another many hundreds of thousands of acres. He was the father of Napier and Hawke's Bay; he found it a vast waste country with a few Maori cultivations; he left it a land of pakeha wealth, of great flocks and herds, of great pastoral properties, the stage that preceded close settlement. He was never in a hurry; he never rushed the Maoris into bargains. His scrupulous fairness, his tolerance of the spirit of “taihoa,” gained confidence and the end desired where the importunities of other officials failed. Edward Gibbon Wake-field, who arrived in New Zealand in 1853, called him “the great Maori mystery man.” That described the popular view of his peculiar success in smoothing over native difficulties.

The Greatest Native Minister.

From the middle Sixties to the time of his death at the beginning of 1877, Maclean was engaged in politics, and also in the active direction of native affairs and in the organisation of the Government's military policy in the most critical era of the Hauhau wars. His right to fame will rest chiefly on his masterly handling of native affairs and defence in the dark hours when it seemed to many that white settlement in the North Island could not survive unless Imperial troops were once more called in to help fight the colonists' battles.

Maclean in three years (1869–1872) brought peace to the land, conciliated powerful Maori tribes, cleared the bush of irreconcilable rebels that haunted it, by using native contingents, with a few white officers; he made friends with the Maori King Tawhiao and his chiefs and people, made roads into the interior; opened new areas for white settlement. He was the man for that troubled day; he succeeded where others had failed. The Maori tribes, whether friend or foe, trusted his word. He neither bluffed them nor deceived them; his methods were characterised by simplicity, firmness, kindness once peace had been made, perfect straightforwardness. Unlike some petty politicians and rabid writers of the day, he did not wish to see the Maori extinguished as a strong and virile race.

Maclean was eight times Native Minister. It was an extraordinary testimony to his capacity as a master of Maori affairs. Short-lived Ministries rose and fell, but Maclean was the one man always needed. No one could take his place. He held office in one Cabinet after another, from the middle of 1869 until he resigned through failing health in the last days of 1876. That period set the crown on his life's achievements. He was only fifty-six when he died, worn out by work and care and the worry of political attacks, and the effects of exposure and hard travel in his early days.

The Farewell to Maclean.

The Maoris mourned for “Te Makarini” as for a parent. His faithful old ally, Major Ropata Wahawaha, leader of the fighting Ngati-Porou, said of him: “The affection of my own parents did not exceed his loving kindness to me. I grieve for my father. Who shall be a parent to me like unto him? He spread the sleeping-mat of peace for all the tribes of the island. Go, Te Makarini! Now that you have pointed out the path for us to follow, we will not be in doubt nor will our thoughts go astray.”

Major Ropata Wahawaha, N.Z.C. The fighting Chief of the Ngati-Porou tribe, who served under Sir Donald Maclean's instructions in the campaigns against the Hauhaus. (From a painting by G. Lindauer.)

Major Ropata Wahawaha, N.Z.C. The fighting Chief of the Ngati-Porou tribe, who served under Sir Donald Maclean's instructions in the campaigns against the Hauhaus. (From a painting by G. Lindauer.)

Another chief, at a Taupo meeting of lamentation, likened the departed white leader to the glowing sun vanishing in the west. Developing another poetic image, he compared the spirit of Te Makarini to an albatross, soaring above the storm-lashed capes, steadfastly keeping aerial watch over the coast of the land he loved.