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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 2 (June 1, 1933)

Famous New Zealanders — No. 3 Sir George Grey — Some Impressions of a Great Administrator

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Famous New Zealanders
No. 3 Sir George Grey
Some Impressions of a Great Administrator

Sir George Grey, K.C.B., soldier, explorer, governor, politician, orator, scholar and philanthropist, New Zealand's most commanding historical figure, is the subject of this sketch by a writer who knew him in his later days. No personality in the story of these islands was stronger or more enigmatical than Grey, who made many friends and many enemies, and none made more lasting impression on the country, for he framed its Constitution and in great measure shaped its future.

Sir George Grey whom a young man. (From a miniature in the N.Z. General Assembly Library.)

Sir George Grey whom a young man.
(From a miniature in the N.Z. General Assembly Library.)

On a leading Auckland daily newspaper, in the days when Sir George Grey lived in retirement after his life of activity and turmoil, the practice held of sending a member of the staff to obtain the veteran's opinion on current political events of moment. It was tradition there that Sir George's sage views were of considerably greater value than those of most men, and certainly the journalistic practice usually was justified by results, for the old man seldom failed to say something interesting from a point of view that perhaps could not be expected from other public men of the day. His was the long sight; always he peered into the misty future. He drew from his great experience of the past lessons and warnings that he applied to the coming days. He could have said, with the poet, “The sunset of life gives me mystical lore.” More than once on newspaper duty, I had the opportunity of meeting the grand old man, and one occasion in particular is still vivid in memory. It was not long before Grey's final departure for England, and some development in New Zealand politics called for a talk with him and a request for his opinion on the situation. So this then youthful interviewer was despatched by the editor, who was a great friend of Grey and a supporter of his liberal principles in politics. Whatever the subject was, it was of lesser importance than that to which Sir George straight-away switched the conversation when I called on him at his home in Parnell. White of hair and of closely-cut crisp beard, stooped of shoulders (not so much the stoop of infirmity, as what is called the scholar's stoop, that always marked Grey), the great man sat there in his study looking out on the green lawns and the trees and through the trees, the sparkling Waitemata, the scene he loved more, I suppose, than any other on earth. When the first question was put, an expression of mild amusement gave a quite whimsical quirk to his lips and a gleam to his eyes. The sage was not to be drawn so easily. With perfect courtesy he put the subject aside for the moment and took up a new book he had just been reading and gave it to me for a glance. It was the Rev. Dr. Paton's book on the New Hebrides.

A South Sea Dream of Empire.

With that subject as a text he entered upon a fascinating exposition of his long ago scheme for a confederation of the islands of the South Pacific. He went back to the days of the first page 18 Bishop Selwyn, when he and that man of fine courage cruised to the Western Pacific, and he told how it had been his ardent wish that all the Southern groups, from the New Hebrides eastward to Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Rarotonga should be banded together into a kind of oceanic empire, under the British flag, with New Zealand as the administrative centre. It was now over forty years since he had suggested such a federation to the Imperial authorities, but no one in Britain then cared twopence for all the isles of the great South Sea, and Grey learned that he must concern himself only with New Zealand, which was considered quite enough trouble to the Mother Country.

The grey old statesman, his usually low, rather quavering voice strengthening and steadying as he discussed the subject that had always been of great concern to him, spoke of his ideal, of those long-ago days of his first governorship in New Zealand—an all-British expanse of island-dotted ocean, all British except for the French who had already got a footing in the Eastern Pacific; a federated constellation of tropic states in which civilised government should replace political chaos and intertribal bloodshed, in which trade should be stimulated by a fleet of vessels trading from Auckland to every group, and in which the approaches to New Zealand and Australia should be guarded by these chains of coral outposts.

That was the outline of his dream: a dream that had it then won the approval of the British Government, at the beginning of the Fifties, would have saved these colonies, and Britain too, a vast amount of anxiety and international complications and would have improved the condition of all the Island peoples.

This interviewer returned to the office with very vague ideas of Sir George's views on the political situation of the hour—naturally so, for the diplomatic veteran had said not a word that would give a handle to either faction; “a plague o’ both your houses” was no doubt his private opinion. But a far more spacious subject had been opened before him; he had had the rare opportunity of hearing the Pacific Confederation ideal expounded by its originator; a scheme that has been elaborated, in theory at least, by many a later publicist, and that some of our last generation of politicians liked to have the world imagine was quite a clever notion of their own. Grey's fine conception of the oceanic empire has to some extent been given effect to, for New Zealand's mana and flag now cover many Pacific islands; but there would have been a wide-extending homogeneity of government and corresponding peaceful progress among most of the groups south of the Equator had such a man as Grey been enabled to devote his personal influence and statecraft to the execution of such a plan of empire.

The First Governorship.

However, Grey's work in New Zealand is the known and visible measure of his greatness. His career here is a matter of familiar history at any rate the main features, and so need not be detailed in this brief sketch. What impresses one most, in a mental review of the man's capacity and achievements, successes—and failures—is his many-sidedness, his multiplicity of interests and accomplishments. He was a well-skilled soldier before he came out to “the Colonies,” he was an explorer of proved courage and enterprise, a scientist, and a writer, and a successful governor in South Australia before he saw New Zealand shores. He reduced administrative chaos to order at Auckland, and he carried through the North Auckland military campaign with success within a few weeks of his arrival. He was then only thirty-three years of age. He had two other little wars on his hands in the Islands, following on Heke's; these he disposed of; and then began the uninterrupted progress of the country. He found it distracted with war, he left it in peace at the end of his first governorship. It was in that first governorship that he established his character for statesmanship; it is the period by which we like best to remember him.

Grey's Maori People.

It was in those rough but golden days that he won the hearts of the Maoris by his interest in their customs and beliefs, legends and poetry, by his sympathy with their wishes to acquire civilised habits, and his practical assistance to the native farming communities. It is pleasant to recall the stories of Grey in camp on his long inland journeys, long before there were roads or bridges in the land, making light of all the little discomforts which annoyed his pakeha staff, and finding keen enjoyment in learning Maori and in listening to the endless folk-tales of the old chiefs, and with his faithful interpreter Piri-Kawau taking them down for future record. That was Grey's delight; he loved to recall with mingled pleasure and regret those days on the bush trail and in primitive Kaingas.

“Aroha” for the Governor.

Never was any ruler of a land with a native race so greeted and so lamented as Sir George Grey was when he was leaving New Zealand in 1853 on the completion of his first term of governorship. Deputations of chiefs and addresses of farewell from all over the island expressed the grief of the people at his departure. I would like to quote many of these poetic mihis of sorrow, but those from a Waikato district in which he had taken particular interest will indicate the sincerity and depth of the Maori esteem and gratitude. The place was Rangiaowhia, which under missionary and official guidance and help became a garden of cultivation and fruitfulness in the days before the war. Here came Grey in 1848 and 1849 visiting his loyal wheat-farmers and giving them practical encouragement in the arts of civilisation. An Englishman, Tom Power, was sent to instruct the people in ploughing and other farm work.

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Hoani Papita Kahawai and other chiefs of Rangiaowhia, in their address of farewell to Kawana Kerei, recalled the great kindness which he had manifested towards the people of the place and the gifts of ploughs, horses, carts and other property, which had enabled the Maoris to assimilate some of the usages of the pakeha.

“You have made our lands important,” they wrote. “Our love to you and our remembrance of you will not cease; no, never. Go hence, O friend, go to the Queen and carry with you our love to her in return for the gifts which we have in our possession. If the Queen should send another governor, let his love for the Maoris be like yours, and we will repay him with our love.”

Another farmer chief, Hori te Waru, wrote: “Our love for you is great because you have shown us much kindness. You have elevated us and provided teachers to instruct our children and implant good principles in their hearts.”

The Tragedy of War.

And ten years later the Governor was launching an army against those once so loyal folk of Rangiaowhia, and presently Hoani Papita and his people were flying for their lives to the swamps and the ranges, leaving their beautiful village a ravaged and bloodstained ruin, and never again were they to worship in their pretty churches (that old Selwyn church of Rangiaowhia still stands there) or gather the fruits of the good soil. Land and cultivations, churches and all passed to the pakeha. For in Kawana Kerei's absence in South Africa, Rangiaowhia had become the centre of Maori Kingite politics; and gun and tomahawk displaced the peaceful age symbolised by Tom Power's plough.

The scene had changed indeed when Grey returned for his second governorship. Profound distrust had succeeded the olden confidence. Governor Grey was no longer the gladly hailed benefactor. Some of the Maori descriptions of him and his officials in the critical period just before the Waikato War were excellently apt and terse and to the point. The chief Patene told young John Gorst, the Government Commissioner at Te Awamutu, that the officers of the Government were worms, bait that Governor Grey was fishing with, and if they were suffered to remain some tribes of Waikato would inevitably be caught. It was a common saying that Governor Browne was a hawk who came swooping down on the Maoris from a clear sky, whereas Kawana Kerei was like a kiore, a rat; he would burrow underground and come out when and where least expected. A Ngati-Haua chief said that the usual way of catching a ruru (owl) was for one man to shake some object before it to attract its attention, while his companion slipped a noose over its head from behind; so Governor Grey had sent his companion (Gorst) to dazzle them with laws and regulations while he was waiting a chance to entangle them in the meshes of the Queen's sovereignity.

Sir George Grey (1812–1898), Governor of New Zealand, 1845–1853 and 1861–1868. (From a photograph about 1860.)

Sir George Grey (1812–1898), Governor of New Zealand, 1845–1853 and 1861–1868. (From a photograph about 1860.)

His Island of Retreat.

Perhaps the happiest time of Grey's life was when he was playing the squire on his beautiful island home the Kawau. That natural park of the Hauraki Gulf he made a kind of botanical museum; he had a staff of gardeners for the grounds of his mansion-house (it cost him £5,000), and from the island he sent many plants to stock the Albert Park in Auckland. He grew trees and flowers from all parts of the world; he even had coconut palms, under glass; they grew but there were no “milky-nuts.” There with his books and all manner of treasures about him, he lived a leisured cultured life and often played the hospitable host to famous men from abroad. It was from this quiet retreat, among the great pohutukawa groves and the products of many a foreign land, that he was called forth to lead a party and shake up the dry bones of politics in Wellington. He was an inspiration to reform; his presence, his eloquence, and his magnetic mana carried all before them—for a time. But that great burst of popularity, which followed on the successful appeal of a deputation which waited on him at the Kawau, was chiefly confined to Auckland, where Grey always was a hero. He was Premier of the Colony for two years, 1877–79. There is no space here to narrate the ex-Governor's career as a fighting politician; but it may be summed up as a page 20 meteor-like life, full of fire and thrust. The veteran's last few years in politics were a miserable dragging out of a great career; wiser of him had he retired before his reputation and his popularity waned. He alienated his supporters by his too-autocratic methods, his obstinacy, his secretiveness, his unreliability, his indifference to the views of others of his party.

Grey and Robert Louis Stevenson.

But the sidelights on Grey as humanist; his literary and artistic interests, his splendid bequests to Auckland City, his friendship with scholars and scientists, are the most pleasant things in retrospect. One remembers how he and Robert Louis Stevenson met in Auckland; two men with a great deal in common, particularly in their regard for the native races of the Pacific. Stevenson passed through Auckland in February, 1893, on his way to and from Sydney; it was his last voyage, for he died in Samoa the following year. Those two eloquent greathearts, how they delighted in each other's company for the brief time R. L. S. had to spare while the mail-ship was in port. I have a treasured memory of that last passing through of Stevenson, for I met him there, on board the Mariposa, and he talked of his books (he told me he was busy on “The Schooner Farallone,” a title which later he changed to “The Ebb Tide”) and of Vailima, but most of all of Samoa's troubled politics. Presently Sir George Grey came down in his carriage, and took Stevenson off to his Parnell home, Stevenson recorded that visit in “Vailima Letters.” He wrote that he had seen a good deal of Sir George Grey:

“What a wonderful old historic figure to be walking on your arm and recalling ancient events and instances!
The Bombardment of Ruapekapoka Pa. Sir George Grey (then Captain Grey), Governor, virtually directed the operations in the siege of Ruapekapeka Pa, the final scene in Hone Heke's war in the North. This picture, from a soldier's drawing, shows the attack on the stockade with artillery and war-rockets, on January 10, 1846. The Governor is in the group of officers in the middle of the picture.

The Bombardment of Ruapekapoka Pa. Sir George Grey (then Captain Grey), Governor, virtually directed the operations in the siege of Ruapekapeka Pa, the final scene in Hone Heke's war in the North. This picture, from a soldier's drawing, shows the attack on the stockade with artillery and war-rockets, on January 10, 1846. The Governor is in the group of officers in the middle of the picture.

It makes a man small, and yet the extent to which he approved what I had done—or rather have tried to do—encouraged me. Sir George is an expert, at least he knows these races: he is not a small employé with an ink-pot and a Whitaker.”

Stevenson hotly championed the cause of the Samoan people and assailed with all the indignation of his chivalrous soul the mismanagement of affairs there by the Powers. Grey understood all that, and he had a keenly sympathetic listener when he sketched his early-days dream, the federation of the South Pacific Islands which would have prevented the more than half-a-century of raruraru, to use an expressive Maori word—turmoil, botheration, distraction—in Samoa, for had he had his way the group would have been under a British protectorate in the Fifties.

The Last Days.

Of the flickering out of a great spirit, much that would be moving could be written—his prophet-like last speeches in Auckland, his pact with his old political antagonist Rewi Maniapoto to be buried both in the same grave at Rewi's old home, a pathetic covenant that was never fulfilled; his voyage to England and his reconciliation to the wife of his youth. Hori Kerei's bones lie in St. Paul's Cathedral, not in a township on the Old Frontier of Waikato. But the story of New Zealand is his real monument; his work as a nation-builder, a lawgiver; his benefactions to the citizens of Auckland, his salving of Maori legends and poetry. His “Polynesian Mythology” alone assures him lasting fame.