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The Life and Times of Sir George Grey, K.C.B.

Chapter XXI. — Sir George Grey's Vindication—Honours at Oxford

page 162

Chapter XXI.
Sir George Grey's Vindication—Honours at Oxford.

"Censure is the tax a man pays to the public for being eminent."

"Truth crushed to earth shall rise again:
The eternal years of God are hers;
But Error, wounded, writhes with pain,
And dies among his worshippers."

"A jest's prosperity lies in the ear
Of him that hears it, never in the tongue
Of him that makes it."

On Sir George Grey's return to England, he found that the main object of that return was never to he accomplished. The mother whom he had fondly hoped to see once more was dead. Since the days of childhood he had seen but little of the one to whom he was so fondly attached. His regrets were vain. The delay in New Zealand which had prevented his presence at the death-bed of his mother had been caused only by the strong sense of duty which chained him to his post until his allotted task was finished.

He found himself regarded with extreme disfavour by the Colonial Office. He was, emphatically, in disgrace. The Duke of Newcastle, though a personal friend, would not see him, and it was some time before the permanent Under-Secretary, Herman Merivale, approached the subject of his disobedience to the Act of Parliament. The charges against him were formally made in both Houses of Parliament by Mr. Adderley, Sir John Pakington, and Lord Lyttelton. These accusations were met in the memorandum of Sir George Grey dated page 163the 6th of July, 1854. The principal head of his offence was that he had refused to pay to the New Zealand Company a sum of money lying in the Auckland treasury, although the Act of the Imperial Parliament, and the instructions of Her Majesty's Ministers had ordered him so to do.

The charge and his answer to it are stated thus by himself:—

(Charge inter alia.) "That I had refused to act according to the direction sent to me by the Superior Government at Home, by doing which I set an example which others might too readily form into a precedent in similar cases to act upon, and that therefore I am not a fit and proper person to retain in any office, or to receive any promotion in the public service.

"The facts of this case are as follow:—Under instructions from Her Majesty, or from Her Majesty's Secretary of State, formal promises had been made by the Representatives of the Crown to the native population of New Zealand that the sum realised from the sale of the lands which they had been induced to part with to the Crown, should be expended for their benefit and for that of the settlements in the northern part of New Zealand; and when the chiefs have objected to part with their land for the inconsiderable sums offered to them by the Government, or have complained that they have been defrauded, I and others have repeatedly assured them, under the authority and with the approval of the Home Government, that the sums which they had received or which were to be given to them were not the true payment for the land, but that the real payment would be the future expenditure of the fund realised from the sale of those lands upon certain objects specified to them, which would promote alike their own benefit and that of the European population.

"The European settlers in that district had also become purchasers of land there, and had invested large sums of money in the improvement of their lands on the faith of instructions of Her Majesty's signet and Royal sign manual, pledging the land fund to certain specified objects.

"Parliament apparently overlooking these circumstances, enacted in the 74th clause of the Constitution Act that one-fourth part of the sum realised from the sale of all lands in New Zealand should be paid over to the New Zealand Company, in liquidation of the page 164principal and interest of a debt of £268,370 15s. 0d. claimed by that body, this being in direct opposition to the frequent promises that had been made to the natives of the Northern Province, which is in no way whatever mixed up with the affairs of the New Zealand Company; and I was advised by the Lieutenant-Governor and Executive Council of the Northern Province that any attempt to bring this arrangement into practical operation would endanger the peace and prosperity of the colony.

"I therefore directed that one fourth of the land fund be remitted Home from every other part of New Zealand except the Province of Auckland, advised Her Majesty's Government of the amount due from Auckland under the arrangement made by Parliament (then about £9,000), directed that it should be retained in the chest to await their orders so that the Treasury in England could, if they thought proper, at once pay the amount in London and draw for it through the military chest, at the same time earnestly entreating that the subject might be reconsidered, which could easily be done, for Parliament had by the 74th clause of the Constitution Act authorised the New Zealand Company to release all or any part of the lands in New Zealand from the payment charged upon them by the Act.

"I contend that in adopting this course I set a good example— not a bad one. As a high British officer I had induced a simple people to let us into quiet possession of tracts of land by frequently and formally making them promises of direct future advantages. If because Parliament, with insufficient information before it, legislated in a manner which required me to break those promises, I had deliberately broken them, and a new war and rebellion had followed, involving a large loss of life and property, and great expense to Great Britain, I should have been deservedly deemed not to be a fit and proper person to retain in my office.

'I contend that it was my duty, at the risk of every consequence to myself, to decline to break those public promises, which, in order to obtain valuable lands for the Crown, of which we still had possession, I had in my character of a British Governor made to the people I was sent to rule over. When Parliament, for want of sufficient information, legislates wrongfully or unjustly for a distant nation subject to its laws—unless the high officers of the empire page 165will take the responsibility by delaying to act until they receive further instructions—the empire cannot be held together; for the moment such an Act of Parliament arrived in a country, the people, hopeless of that redress which ought to be afforded to them, would break out into revolt; whilst, could they have hoped that their complaints would have been listened to before the law was enforced, they would have continued loyal and dutiful subjects.

"In declining, therefore, to break promises which I had made as Her Majesty's representative, and in endeavouring to obtain a further consideration of the course which I feel certain Parliament had unadvisedly taken, of subjecting the lands near Auckland to the payment of so large a portion of the New Zealand Company's debt, I felt that I did my duty as a faithful servant of my Queen and country, and will cheerfully undergo every risk and punishment which may follow from my having adopted that course."

The attacks thus made, though backed by much of the influence of the old New Zealand Company and the Canterbury Association, completely failed. Sir John Pakington, on being more fully informed, withdrew his motion from the Order Paper of the House of Commons. Mr. Adderley's charge was only successful in eliciting from Sir Frederick Peel a spirited defence of the Governor of New Zealand, while in the House of Lords the accusation brought by Lord Lyttelton drew forth a long and complete vindication of Sir George Grey's character and conduct from the Duke of Newcastle, the principal Secretary of State for the Colonies. Both in the Lords and Commons the motions, when made, failed to find a seconder.

The bold defiance Sir George had shown to the command of Ministers and Parliament was not in itself to be commended, but his defence was admitted almost universally to be complete. The public faith of England had been pledged; the honour of the Crown had to be maintained. The true spirit of the English Constitution had been appealed to by him in his dignified reply. All political parties concurred in the decision that in the government of a distant colony, and under the peculiar circumstances in which that colony was placed, he had, by his bold and independent course, vindicated his claim to independent judgment and his assumption of authority, transcending even the power of Parliament itself.

page 166

His peace was soon made when full and personal explanation had been given. The public estimation of his conduct was shown typically by the University of Oxford. At all seasons of public excitement, especially when the conduct of individuals moving in the higher circles of political life is called in question, the great seats of learning show their appreciation of the merits of such personages irrespective of the success or failure which may attend their actions. So great was the sympathy aroused in favour of Sir George Grey, that Oxford tendered to him the highest honours which it is privileged to bestow, and which are reserved not to reward mere competition in learning, but the exemplification of those qualities which give lustre to private character or greatness to public life.

It was, therefore, with great pleasure that Sir George Grey received the notification that the University of Oxford proposed to confer upon him its honorary degree.

He proceeded to Oxford for the purpose of accepting this gratifying mark of public approbation.

The only other recipient of the highest honours bestowed by Oxford on that day was Prince Napoleon. It was popularly supposed in England that Prince Napoleon had been instrumental in obtaining that alliance with France which launched us into the Crimean War. The fear and hatred of Russia had for years been growing. Russian atrocities in Poland and in Siberia, her designs in the far East, and evident desire to take Constantinople, and thus dominate the Black Sea, and perhaps the Mediterranean, raised in the national mind a hatred at once deep and passionate.

The declaration of war against the great Northern Power was, therefore, almost universally hailed with rejoicing. John Bull was thoroughly roused, and he delighted to honour those who had helped to precipitate this gigantic strife.

Thus Sir George Grey found himself bracketed with the strangest possible companion in receiving honours at the oldest centre of learning in England or the world.

The French Prince was the first to be invested. During this process Sir George sat in a hall opposite the stage, listening to the alternate speeches and shoutings which made the theatre resound. The students were thoroughly in earnest. While the public orator page 167dwelt upon the merits of the Great Nephew of the Conqueror of Europe, the whole assembly burst out into acclamation. Cheer followed cheer, as the undergraduates gave voice to the popular enthusiasm.

The mind of the solitary listener was perplexed. He remembered long years ago, when he was a child, how the very name of Buonaparte was hated. His memory recalled the pictures which represented "Boney" swallowing children, and which in a hundred ways held up the First Napoleon to the public hatred. Now, in less than fifty years, the jeunesse dorée—the golden youth of England—were mad with delight at honouring his nephew.

There was but little time left to him for moralising. The Prince having been duly invested, Sir George was pushed and dragged upon the platform in his turn. The crush was great—so heavy, in fact, that his gown, itself historical, for it had been worn by Blucher on a like occasion after Waterloo, was nearly torn off his back before he was in that position necessary to enable the orator to address him, and at the same time to be visible and audible to the vast concourse in the body of the house.

At length the ceremony began. The public orator, in a learned Latin oration, enumerated the claims which Sir George Grey possessed to public honour. In flowing sentences he told how his subject had pierced the dim mysteries of unknown Australia, how he had pacified and blessed the first colony committed to his care, and how, in further performance of public duty, he had quelled the fierceness and civilised the spirit of the warlike and cannibal tribes of New Zealand. Young England, from the galleries of the Sheldonian Theatre, listened patiently till mention was made of the subduing of the "anthropophagi" of New Zealand.

Two thousand students, gathered within those walls which from time immemorial had echoed the free voices of English youth, heard that amid the sunny isles of the Pacific, and in New Zealand, Sir George Grey had made himself the ruler of savage, man-eating tribes. The hint afforded was amply sufficient. A stentorian voice in one of the galleries started that well-known song, "The King of the Cannibal Islands." Barely a line of this vulgar but popular melody had been sung, when with a roar of delight nearly the whole audience joined in. In vain the learned orator waved his page 168arms and implored silence. The Napoleon episode had raised an extraordinary excitement in the undergraduate mind, and following that, the aptness of the circumstances surrounding Sir George Grey's history gave zest to the music hall song.

The orator, alternately uttering his speech and endeavouring to still the tumult, continued to descant upon the merits of the Governor of South Australia and New Zealand. His lips moved, and his hands kept time with what were no doubt rounded sentences and eloquent appeals, but Sir George could hear no sound which proceeded from his lips amid the tremendous chorus which surged and echoed round them.