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Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast, N.I., N.Z.

Was Repatriation Unduly Delayed?

Was Repatriation Unduly Delayed?

Much discussion has centred upon the question as to whether any definite official statement was made to the rebels as to the period of their detention. When Colonel Russell reported to Parliament in 1866 on the exiling of the rebels, he used these words:

“… The hope of return has been held out to them as soon as the suppression of the rebellion and their own good conduct seem to justify the Government in restoring them to their own homes. My latest information says that they are so satisfied with their new abode that it seems unlikely that they will desire to return.”

W. L. Williams (East Coast, New Zealand, Historical Records, p. 50) says that Colonel Haultain stated at Gisborne, prior to the exiling, that it was contemplated that … the rebels would page 234 be brought back again in the course of about 12 months,” and, at page 51, he avers that Mr. McLean, whilst he was at Poverty Bay sorting out the prisoners who were to be taken away, told the loyal chiefs that the period of exile “might not be much more than 12 months.” F. J. Moss (School History of New Zealand) states: “A definite promise was made to all the prisoners … that they would be restored to their homes in New Zealand within two years, if the colony was then at peace.” Gudgeon (Defenders of New Zealand) claims that it was believed among the prisoners “that a latent promise had been made to some of them by Sir D. McLean that two years was to be the period of their imprisonment.”

Bishop Selwyn, in a speech in the House of Lords, stated:

“The rebels were told that, if they conducted themselves well, they would, at the end of two years, be set at liberty. They behaved in a most exemplary manner, but, at the expiration of two years, they were informed that they were not to be set at liberty, whereupon a look of despair came over them, as if every hope they had of life had been cut off.”

Rusden (History of New Zealand) says that some of the prisoners told Major Edwards [May, 1867] that they had been promised that, if they behaved well, they would be sent home, a few at a time, probably after they had been a year away, and that the remainder would be sent back upon the restoration of peace. Three months later, Colonel Haultain advised Captain Thomas that the prisoners need not be kept under such strict surveillance.

John Brooking (a member of the original guard) states, in Tales of Poverty Bay (Gisborne Times, October, 1913), that, shortly after the St. Kilda left Napier with the first batch of exiles for the Chatham Islands, she was caught up with by a small steamer. From its deck Mr. McLean told the prisoners that, if they behaved well, they would be permitted to return in three years.

Cowan (Sir Donald Maclean, p. 83) suggests that Mr. Rolleston and not Mr. Maclean (a spelling adopted by Cowan) was responsible for the prolonged detention of the exiles. He says:

“… Maclean, indeed, urged that the prisoners should be allowed to return and resume their old tribal life and their ancestral lands after a certain area had been taken as punishment for rebellion. But the Native Minister (Mr. Rolleston), although he visited the Chatham Islands in 1868, was deaf to the appeals of the exiles …”

On the other hand, Cowan (The New Zealand Wars, vol. 2, p. 496) places the blame on Major Biggs. “The proposed repatriation of the prisoners … was,” he says, “delayed on the representations of Biggs, who … wrote to the Government in page 235 1867 that it would not be advisable to permit the prisoners to return … until the land question was settled …”

When the Government was challenged, after the return of the rebels, it had to confess that it held no judicial warrant justifying its action in exiling them at the Chatham Islands. J. D. Ormond, M.H.R. for Clive (Hansard, 6 August, 1868) recalled that Mr. McLean had told the Government that he could not recommend that the prisoners should be brought back whilst the East Coast was in such an unsettled state. Mr. McLean (Hansard, September, 1868) said that he knew of nothing that had had such a powerful influence in restraining the natives from committing further outrages as the policy of exiling these rebels. Those who had been sent away had been selected out of 1,500 of the worst character. If they had been placed in gaol it might have led them to avenge their disgrace after their release. The Ministry could not have devised a better measure, and it was entitled to much credit for it.

During the debate on the question as to who was responsible for the weakening of the guard, Mr. McLean held that the prisoners had, at the outset, been kept under an efficient guard, but that, subsequently, as a sequel to what had been called a “cheese-paring policy”—but what he could only describe as “the most extravagant and reckless kind of policy that could have been adopted”—insufficient precautions had been taken. He added:

“Notwithstanding that information was given to the Government at different times that the prisoners were changing their religion; that a prophet had arisen among them; and that they were becoming more or less unsettled, nothing was done except that some men who had never seen service, and whom the police and people of Wellington were glad to get rid of, were enrolled at a cheap rate and sent over to the Chatham Islands to look after the prisoners of war. Policemen should have been sent to look after such a guard!”

It was pointed out by Mr. Rolleston that the Parliamentary Estimates for 1868 had provided for an A.C. guard of a lieutenant, ensign, sergeant and 22 privates, and that the total vote was £6,481. However, Premier Stafford admitted that the guard had been reduced and that, as matters had turned out, it had not proved adequate. “The Government,” he added, “was so influenced by reports—particularly that of Mr. Rolleston—as to the general good conduct of the prisoners and the absence of any intention to escape that we took his (Mr. Rolleston's) advice and largely diminished the guard.”

Only four guards were on duty at the time of the rising, but three others were also in or about the redoubt. The remainder—three married men—did not reside at the barracks. Neither Captain Thomas nor the sergeant was on the spot, and the former page 236 was taken completely by surprise. In a report upon the conditions under which the rising took place, G. S. Cooper told the Government:

“Upon looking back upon this extraordinary incident in the history of New Zealand it is difficult to say whether one's wonder is excited more by the precision, rapidity and completeness with which the enterprise was planned and executed than by the moderation shown in the hour of victory by a gang of barbarous fanatics, who, in a moment, found their former masters bound at their feet and their lives entirely at their mercy.”