Sir George Grey Pioneer of Empire in Southern Lands
Chapter II — Early Life — 1812-1837. ætat 25
1812-1837. ætat 25
Tragic circumstances of Sir George Grey's birth—Gallant conduct and death of his father at the siege of Badajoz—Aristocratic traditions of the family—George Grey's training and achievements at the Royal Military College—Service in Ireland from 1830 to 1837—His experiences among the Irish peasantry—Growing convictions respecting Home Rule and the Irish Land Question—Dissatisfaction with the political and social conditions of the Old World—Changing ambitions—Exploratory expedition to North-West Australia in 1837.
"My poor father fell on the night of the assault, and I was born on the 14th. My birth was hurried on, by his death, at Lisbon, where my dear mother would reside in order to be near her husband to nurse him if he were wounded." In such sorrow did Sir George Grey enter this life. It was in the year 1812, when Napoleon, like a storm-cloud, was careering over the face of Europe, launching thunderbolts in divers directions, and ready to discharge his hail and fireballs upon England if only the winds of fortune might carry him thither.
It was a time of acute anxiety for Europe, and the Duke of Wellington had been cautiously but vigorously conducting a campaign against the French in the vicinity of Lisbon. No sooner had the enemy retired from the depopulated country, immediately beyond the "Lines of Torres Vedras," than he struck two heavy blows at Fuentes d'Onoro and Albuera. His attempt to follow them up page 18with a third failed for the time, and he laid siege to the town of Badajoz.
In the spring of 1812 several assaults were made, and in one of them the unfortunate event transpired which hastened the birth of Mrs. Grey's son. On the night of April 6, Lieutenant-Colonel Grey led the storming party up to the walls of the town, and a sharp contest ensued in which the leader lost his life. In his dispatch Lord Wellington informed the Imperial authorities that six officers and one hundred and thirty-two men had been killed, and he specially mentioned Lieutenant-Colonel Grey, of the 30th Regiment of Foot, "for his gallant conduct during the assault." It was not the first occasion on which Colonel Grey had won the admiration of his superior officers for "gallant conduct," for he had already proved his valour by leading his regiment in the great bayonet charge at Alexandria, against the revolutionary troops of France.
The spirit of the father descended upon the son. Sir George Grey was absolutely without fear.1
1 It has been asserted that a commission was conferred on the infant in recognition of the gallant services rendered by his father; but no trace of such a commission was found among the records in the War Office.
Few of those who listened to the stirring addresses of the great Radical Chief in New Zealand and Australia dreamed that he was so closely associated with the aristocracy of England; hardly any of them knew that by temper and conviction he was a true representative of the Greys of Groby. During the great civil war in England Earl Stamford and his son, Lord Grey, were military commanders on the Parliamentary side, and Lord Grey was one of those who signed the warrant for the execution of King Charles I. Sir George Grey was not the first of his line who combined radical convictions with an aristocratic temperament. He inherited the graces of a gentleman; but the blood of the Puritans coursed through his veins.
Lieutenant-Colonel Grey's wife was the eldest daughter of the Reverend John Vignoles, of Coruaher, near Tyrrell's Pass, in the County of Westmeath, Ireland. She was chatting with the wives of some of Lord Wellington's officers on the balcony of a hotel at Lisbon when the melancholy report of her husband's death reached her ears from the street below. Unable to bear the shock she swooned away, and, soon afterwards, gave birth somewhat prematurely to her son. Five years later she married Sir John Thomas; and Sir Godfrey Vignoles Thomas, Baronet of Coruaher, is her grandson. Sir George Grey's mother was a gentle-page 20hearted, spiritually-minded lady, and the strain of evangelical piety in his nature must be accounted for, in some measure, by tendencies which he inherited from her, and the influence which she exerted on him in the early years of childhood.
George Grey was sent to school at Guildford in Surrey, where the boy proved father to the man—the "dangerous man" of 1867. He became impatient of the ordinary routine which prepared youths for the traditional tests at Oxford and Cambridge, and arranged with another lad to run away. They jumped over walls, journeyed across country on foot to Bournemouth, where Grey's parents were temporarily residing. Instead of being sent back, he was allowed to take a long holiday, and pay a series of visits to distinguished relatives in Gloucestershire, the most notable among them being a distant connection who afterwards became Archbishop Whately of Dublin. They took him afield to visit the remains of British and Roman camps that abound in the district, and the lad's imagination was fired by the stories of the heroic deeds of the great empire-builders in the ancient world.
1 In a letter to The Times, over date October 13, 1898, and signed by Thomas T. Gray, S.F.T.C.D., it is asserted that "Sir George Grey for some reason changed the spelling of his family name." In this certificate the surname is spelled Grey, and, through the courtesy of Sir F. Stopford, I am in possession of information from the War Office in London which proves that the same spelling was adopted in other documents at that time both by the military authorities and by Grey himself. On January 14, 1830, "Gentleman cadet George Grey" was appointed ensign, vice Watson, and the appointment was gazetted in London on February 3, 1830. A tracing of the ensign's signature in the record of the services of the 83rd Regiment has been sent me, and the spelling is Grey. It is clear, therefore, that if Grey altered the spelling of his name he must have done so before he had completed his eighteenth year. But there is the strongest evidence to prove that he did not: (1) In the Art Gallery at Auckland there is a letter from the Duke of York to Mrs. Grey covering medal for her late husband "Colonel George Grey" and the letter is dated November 12, 1813; (2) On the medal itself "Lieutenant-Colonel George Grey" is inscribed; (3) In Lord Wellington's dispatch recording the losses of the 30th Regiment at Badajoz he writes: "I must likewise mention Lieutenant-Colonel Grey," That dispatch is dated April 7, 1812.
Mrs. Grey. From a portrait in the possession of The Hon Seymour Thorne-George Auckland.
In the year 1830 there were popular risings in nearly every country in Europe. The wave of democratic thought which rolled over England in the nineteenth century was preceded by irregular gusts on the Continent that made the course of the old régime difficult and dangerous. The French dethroned Charles X and replaced him by Louis Philippe; the Poles were in open rebellion against the absolutism of Czar Nicholas; Italy and Germany had their own troubles; and there was open war in Belgium and Holland. It was a golden opportunity for Ireland, and Daniel O'Connell was not the man to let it pass. The Roman Catholic Emancipation Bill had been passed in 1829 page 22during the administration of the Duke of Wellington; but this only served to whet the appetites of the Irish people. They wanted more reforms. The Irish peasantry were Roman Catholics, yet they were called upon to pay tithes for the support of the Established Church of Ireland which was Protestant. So the Tithe War began and continued throughout the time that Grey was serving in Ireland. It was part of his duty to protect the officers who collected tithes.
There was another cause of discontent in Ireland. In the year 1800 the Irish Houses of Parliament had been induced, by very questionable methods, to vote for their own destruction, so that Pitt's scheme for uniting England and Ireland might be carried into effect. From that time Ireland was represented by thirty-two peers and one hundred commoners in the Parliament of the "United Kingdom." But the scheme proved eminently distasteful to the Irish, and while the Tithe War was being waged Daniel O'Connell was fighting for the "Repeal of the Union," which meant the same in 1830 as Home Rule means now. Daniel O'Connell was an able if a somewhat noisy party leader, and it remains to his credit that he endeavoured to attain his ends by constitutional means. But there were riots and insurrections, and it was part of Grey's duty to maintain order at political meetings.
The young soldier's political and social ideas were in the making. He listened; obeyed the instructions of his superior officers; but inwardly sympathized with the views of Daniel O'Connell. Before he left the country belief had taken hoJd of him so strongly that he yearned for some page 23sphere of action in which he might give effect to the ideas by which his life was henceforth to be dominated.
Those ideas were associated with two great questions—self-government and the tenure of land.
In the performance of his duties he had opportunities of visiting various parts of Ireland, and of coming into contact with the native Irish. He found a peasantry reduced to the last stages of destitution. Their houses were decayed, and in these they were herded together like animals. Rarely did one family have more than one room; sometimes three and even four families lived together in the same room; their furniture was of the most meagre description, and many of them were clothed in rags. Turning over the pages of history, he found that the native Irish had been dispossessed of their lands in order that Court favourites of Elizabethan and later times might be endowed with "princely properties." These "aristocratic owners of the soil" were in some cases possessed of extensive estates in England; some of them rarely if ever visited their lands in Ireland; and they did nothing whatever to develop the resources of the country. The result was, in Grey's opinion, that the Irish peasants had fewer domestic comforts than the peasants of any other European country, including Russia; and, as he affirmed at a later time, "all they or their children could hope for was to obtain, after the keenest competition, the temporary use of a spot of land on which to exercise their industry;" for "the tenant's very improvements went to swell the accumulations of the heirs of an absentee, not of his own." The ardent young soldier did not ask whether the peasant might not have improved his page 24condition by increased activity and foresight. He saw only the hardness of their lot; and he attributed all their miseries to the absence of any spur to ambition.
As with the land problem so with self-government. He discovered in the minds of English politicians a vicious tendency to confuse cause and effect. Given favourable opportunities for the exercise of their talents, he believed the Irish had as much capacity for legislation and administration as any other nation on the earth. It was true that in the thirties their faculties for organization were paralyzed, and many of them seemed to have lost the power of providing in any new emergency for their own wants; but this again was due to the fact that for years they had been kept in bondage, and deprived of any share in the management of their own affairs. The remedy was plain. Fitness would come by education, and the best education they could get in earthly matters would be the control of their own affairs. Therefore he would favour the establishment of a State Legislature and a State Executive in Dublin. There are those who in the contemplation of Irish affairs see only the danger of separation and the limitations of the peasants; Grey, with his overwhelming sympathy for the poor and the oppressed, saw only the tragedy of unrealized possibilities.
Meantime he was making progress in his profession. In 1833 he was raised to the rank of lieutenant. Soon afterwards he entered as a student in the Senior Department of the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, and in November 1836 was awarded a first-class certificate, recommended to the favourable notice of the Commander-in-chief, and "having not only acquitted himself with the page 25greatest credit in his examination in the prescribed course of studies, but having also extended his acquirements far beyond its limits into the highest branches of mathematical science," the Board desired, "by recording this fact in a special addition to their certificate, to mark their sense of his superior merits and talents." At the age of twenty-four there was every indication that the young lieutenant would make his way in the service, and attain distinctions that would do credit to the memory of his gallant father.
But his ambitions were changing. The Irish problem haunted him, and he could see no way of escape through the mass of tradition under which the countries of the Old World groaned. For a long time his soul was in labour, but at last it brought forth an idea. From the observations made by maritime explorers, it was believed that a great river entered the Indian Ocean on the north-west coast of Australia, and that extensive tracts of country adapted to the settlement of European people might be found along its course. Here was his opportunity. He submitted a scheme for the exploration of that territory which was recommended by the Royal Geographical Society, and favourably entertained by Lord Glenelg, who was then Secretary of State for the Colonies. At the close of 1837 Her Majesty's sloop of war Beagle sailed out of Plymouth Harbour, having on board the members of the Exploring Expedition with Lieutenant Grey at their head. They were bound for Hanover Bay, on the north-west coast of Australia, and the young leader's soul was aflame with generous anticipation. In imagination he saw new lands page 26under the Southern Cross rise into nations where the poor and the oppressed of the Old World might make a fresh start; and where the grievances of the United Kingdom might be more speedily redressed by offering a fair field to all and favour to none.