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Sir Donald Maclean

Chapter XXI — Maclean as Government Agent, East Coast

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Chapter XXI
Maclean as Government Agent, East Coast

A Review of Sir Donald Maclean's services as Minister for Native Affairs and also for Defence must be prefaced by some account of his political work for the cause of peace and settlement before he entered Cabinet. A brief period of quiescence succeeded the fighting of 1865–66, and then in 1868 there burst on the coast the storm of war that followed on the escape of Te Kooti and his armed disciples from Chatham Island in 1868. Mr. Maclean at this time was M.H.R. for Napier, and also Government Agent for the East Coast district. He had been Superintendent of the province of Hawke's Bay for several years. He was elected to that position in February 1863, shortly after his arrival from Auckland to enter on the management of his Marae-kakaho property. At the same time he was a member of the Hawke's Bay Provincial Council, representing first Napier County and then Napier town. In 1867 Maclean carried through its various stages in the House of Representatives a bill which enabled Maori members to sit in Parliament. The first native M.H.R.’s took their seats in the House in July 1868, and from that day to this the four Maori representatives of electorates have taken part in the proceedings of Parliament on terms of equality with their pakeha fellow members.

Maclean's position as Native Agent on the East Coast was one of peculiar responsibility in that era of turmoil in the Maori world and of uneasiness on the frontiers developing into raids and counter raids. The territory over which he exercised control extended from Southern Hawke's Bay to Poverty Bay, the East Cape, and round to Opotiki, in the Bay of Plenty, and inland as far as Lake Taupo. The numerous Ngati-Kahungunu tribe, the various Poverty Bay clans, that strong fighting tribe the Ngati-Porou and the Urewera mountaineers were within his domain, and dealing with them called for all his characteristic qualities of tact, persuasion and firmness. His great helper and coadjutor in his efforts for the peace and progress of the East Coast was his friend of many years, J. D. Ormond.

In his Parliamentary capacity Maclean, like Ormond, was a supporter of the Stafford administration, until the mismanagement of native affairs, and especially of the crisis of the East Coast, drove him into opposition. The policy of Mr. Rolleston, as Native Minister in 1868, and of his colleagues in the handling of the situation with regard to the deportees to Chatham Island was the reverse of the procedure counselled by Maclean and others thoroughly well qualified by experience of the Maoris to advise the Government. The facts were well summarised by Lord Granville (Secretary of State for the Colonies) when he wrote in a despatch in 1869: “I find it said that the escape of a large proportion of the prisoners from the Chatham Islands is to be ascribed to the fact that they had been taken there with the expectation or promise that they should be brought back to New Zealand after a given time; that it was only when this expectation or promise was left unfulfilled that they made their escape, and that on their return to their country they did not offer any violence to the settlers till attempts were made to hunt them down.”

Maclean had given it as his opinion that the long-continued detention of the East Coast prisoners of war at Wharekauri was a mistake, and he and Ormond both advised that they or most of them, should be brought back and permitted to settle in their old homes. In this way, they were convinced, the peace of the country would be assured. The friendly natives, too, were anxious that the exiles should be returned; they were willing to guarantee the good behaviour of the people now sufficiently punished for their revolt to the tenets of Pai-marire. But the Government was obdurate; the prisoners were held captive in the distant isle of mist and rain, longing with the intense page 93 longing of the homesick Maori for their pleasant homes of the North and their kinsmen and friends, but unable to learn how long their exile would endure. Moreover, some of their guards were brutal and drunken. It was little wonder then that a leader arose who promised to deliver them from captivity, and that under this spiritual and temporal leader, Te Kooti, they planned and successfully carried out a scheme for deliverance.

The story of that dramatic escape from the prison-isle in the captured schooner Rifleman and the landing of the escapees, to the number of nearly three hundred men, women and children, has been told in full in the histories of the wars.

The story of the events which followed the landing in the bay of Whareongaonga, south of Poverty Bay, would have been far less tragic had Maclean's sound advice been followed. He was of the opinion that the escapees should have been left alone, after landing, and permitted to rejoin their people. That their intentions were peaceful—at any rate the intentions of the great majority of them—was evident from the humanity with which they treated the white people on Chatham Island, and by their conduct immediately on landing. But they were followed up, by Government instructions, and two reverses to the pakeha forces quickly followed, and the massacre at Poverty Bay.

Maclean's disgust at the Government's mishandling of the first stages of the trouble after Te Kooti's landing and the succeeding indecisive campaign led him to support the movement for the overthrow of the Stafford Ministry, and on 28 June 1869, he joined the ministry formed by Mr. Fox (later Sir William Fox) once his opponent—and took the joint portfolios of Native Affairs and Defence.

A veteran of the wars said: “Had Sir Donald's advice been taken by the Government and the military authorities, the massacres at Poverty Bay in 1868 and Mohaka in 1869 would have been prevented. Maclean was kept well informed as to the movements of the hostile natives by his friend Captain Johnny St. George (killed at Te Porere, South Taupo, 1869) who said: ‘Never mind about Te Kooti getting through to Waikato; that is not the danger. Look to your coastal towns.’ Maclean accordingly urged the Government to make proper provision for the safeguarding of Mohaka, Turanganui, Wairoa, and other places on the East Coast, but through the jealousy of his political opponents in Wellington his advice was not acted upon. Wairoa was not attacked, but it was threatened, and we know what happened at the other places.”

Before he joined the Ministry, after the capture by the Government forces of Ngatapa, Te Kooti's hill-fortress, Maclean received information that the rebel leader meditated an attack on the Whakatane district. This was early in 1869. He telegraphed to the Government, conveying a warning of the intended raid. The pakeha troops—armed Constabulary under Colonel Whitmore—had been transferred to the West Coast after Ngatapa to carry out a campaign against Titokowaru in the Waitotara-Taranaki sector. The Government, notwithstanding Maclean's telegram, proceeded to denude the East Coast of its most dependable Maori troops by sending the transport steamer St. Kilda to the Coast to induce as many as possible of the Ngati-Porou tribe to leave for service in Taranaki. A large number of Ngati-Porou embarked, under Ropata and Hotene Por-ourangi, and left the East Cape for Wellington and Wan-ganui. On the way down the Coast the steamer called at Napier. There Ropata expressed a wish to go no further, as he feared he was leaving this district without sufficient support. Upon this Mr. Maclean gave him the latest news (from the Bay of Plenty) and expressed his opinion that it was unwise for him to leave. Ropata then stated that his men had been treated in an unfair way; they had been told that if they did not enlist for the West Coast they would be deprived of their guns and ammunition. Maclean agreed with Ropata and telegraphed to the Government that it would be unwise to take him away.

The Government replied that it was of great importance that he should go. Maclean again telegraphed, saying that Ropata was still of the same mind, most unwilling to go, and that he had expressed his dissatisfaction at the way in which his men were enlisted.

As no reply came, Maclean telegraphed to Wellington that under the circumstances he had advised Ropata to re page 95 main on the East Coast with most of his men. Hotene went on in the steamer with sixty or seventy of Ngati-Porou and served in the final operations against Titokowaru.

For thus advising Ropata to remain, Maclean's authority as General Government Agent was withdrawn. Events soon showed that he was perfectly right. He did his duty, and braved the displeasure of the Stafford Government. Other Agents were sent to the Coast, but a very few days convinced the Government that no good would result from their actions, and in their extremity Ministers turned to Maclean and asked him to accept the agency again.

Maclean accepted the offer, well knowing how reluctantly it had been made. But though he was back in his former office and position, he found himself without the power, his every step was obstructed or frustrated by the Government. How was this to be explained? Only on the supposition—it was declared in Napier—that an unpopular Government envied the popularity of their subordinate, and determined to undermine him, lead him into error, and then hold him up as a spectacle to the Colony.

Maclean was member of the House of Representatives for Napier at this time, and was regarded by his fellowsettlers as a tower of strength and the most capable man in the colony in the management of native affairs. There was great indignation in Napier at his treatment by the Government, and on 29 March 1869, a public meeting carried the following resolution:

“That in the opinion of this meeting the confidence reposed in Mr. Maclean both by the European settlers and the native tribes on the East Coast and Taupo districts, and his long experience and great success while acting as General Government Agent on the East Coast, mark him as pre-eminently fitted for the management of public affairs on the Coast during the present season of difficulty and danger; and that the withdrawal of the General Government Agency from him at the present crisis has given rise to a general feeling of insecurity, and is likely to jeopardise the friendly relations at present subsisting between the Colonists and many of the native tribes.”