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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 9 (January 1, 1934)

A Memorable Speech

A Memorable Speech.

Then it was that he delivered in Parliament an appeal to reason and justice, an oration which Sir Robert Stout once described as “perhaps the ablest and most eloquent speech that was ever delivered in the New Zealand Parliament, or in any Parliament.”

This speech I give here in full, because not only is it an example of Fitzgerald's style at its best, but it deserves to live as an exposition of the highest principles of administrative policy in the relation between two races, the fine ethics of peace in an age of war-fever.

“The present state of things cannot last,” said Fitzgerald. “The condition of the Colony is not one of peace; it is a state of armed and suspicious neutrality. If you do not quickly absorb this King movement into your own Government, you will come into collision with it, and, once light up again the torch of war in these islands, and these feeble and artificial institutions you are now building up will be swept away like houses of paper in the flames. Tribe after tribe will be drawn into the struggle, and you will make it a war of races. Of course, you will conquer, but it will be the conquest of the tomb. Two or three years of war will eradicate every particle of civilisation from the native mind, and will elicit all the fiercest instincts of his old savage nature. The tribes, broken up, without social or military organisation, will be scattered through the country in bands of merciless banditti. The conflagration of Taranaki will be lighted up again in every border of the Colony; and in self-preservation you will be compelled—as other nations have been compelled before—to hunt the miserable native from haunt to haunt till he is destroyed like the beasts of the forest.

“I am here to-night to appeal against so miserable, so inhuman a consummation. We are here this evening standing on the threshhold of the future, holding the issues of peace and war, of life and death, in our hands. I see some honourable friends around me whose counsels I must ever respect, and whose tried courage we all admire, who will tell me that you cannot govern this race until you have conquered them. I reply, in the words which the poet has placed in the mouth of the great Cardinal, ‘In the hands of men entirely great, the pen is mightier than the sword. Take away the sword! States may be saved without it.’ I know well that evil days may come when the sacred inheritance of light and truth, which God has given to a nation to hold and to transmit, may only be saved by an appeal to the last ordeal of nations—the trial by war; but I know, too, how great the crime which rests on the souls of those who, for any less vital cause or for any less dire necessity, precipitate that fatal issue.

Forty years after. James Edward Fitzgerald as he appeared in later life.

Forty years after. James Edward Fitzgerald as he appeared in later life.

“I grudge not the glory of those who have achieved the deliverance of a people or the triumph of a cause by any sacrifice of human life or human happiness; but I claim a higher glory for those who, in reliance on a law more powerful than that of force, and wielding spells more mighty than the sword, have led the nations by paths of peaceful prosperity to the fruition of an enduring civilisation. I claim a higher glory for those who, standing on the pinnacle of human power, have striven to imitate the government of Him who ‘taketh up the simple out of the dust, and lifteth the poor out of the mire.’ And I claim the highest glory of all for that man who has most thoroughly penetrated that deepest and loftiest mystery in the art of human government, ‘the gentleness that maketh great.’

“I have stood beside a lonely mound in which lies buried the last remnant of a tribe which fell—men, women and children—before the tomahawks of their ancient foes; and I sometimes shudder to think that my son, too, may stand beside a similar monument—the work of our hands—and blush with the ignominy of feeling that, after all, the memorial of the Christian law-giver is but copied from that of the cannibal and the savage. I appeal to the page 28 House to-night to inaugurate a policy of courageous and munificent justice. I have a right to appeal to you as citizens of that nation which, deaf to the predictions of the sordid and the timid, dared to give liberty to her slaves. I appeal to you to-night in your sphere to perform an act of kindred greatness. I appeal to you not only on behalf of the ancient race whose destinies are hanging in the balance, but on behalf of your own sons and your sons' sons, for I venture to predict that, in virtue of that mysterious law of our being by which great deeds once done, become incorporated into the life and soul of a people, enriching the source from whence flows through all the ages the inspiration to noble thoughts and the incitement to generous actions—I venture to predict that among the traditions of that great nation, which will one day rule these islands, and the foundations of which we are now laying, the most cherished and the most honoured will be that wise, bold and generous policy which gave the Magna Charta of their liberties to the Maori people.”

Early immigrant ships at Lyttelton.

Early immigrant ships at Lyttelton.

The times have changed; the very speech of Parliament has changed; the Fitzgerald manner has vanished from our Legislative deliberations. The root of the matter may be there; but the mode of expression has deteriorated. Where or when can such a moving piece of oratory be heard to-day? Fitzgerald was far more than a speaker of polished English, of finished sentences, of lines that went like a poem. His utterances were inspired by a generous and lofty spirit, he breathed the soul of charity, he looked into the future, he saw more clearly than most men the deadly criminal folly of rushing into war. Is there not a wider application to be given to his words to-day? Our domestic strife has long been ended; we are one people now, but the scarcely imaginable horrors of strife threaten the outer world, unless the Fitzgerald spirit informs the councils of the nations.