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

Chapter LVI. — Retrospect Of Sir George Grey's Public Life

page 446

Chapter LVI.
Retrospect Of Sir George Grey's Public Life.

"Oh, good old man, how well in thee appears
The constant service of the antique world,
When service sweat for duty, not for meed!
Thou art not for the fashion of these times
When none will sweat but for promotion."

In the tumultuous sea of colonial politics, Sir George Grey's integrity was as firm, and his fixedness of purpose as unyielding, as it had ever been in the Imperial service. Gradually he lost the support of most of his contemporaries, not through any abatement in their belief in his rectitude or wisdom, but by reason of his unbending principle, which would not permit of any of the political tricks, intrigues, or compromises which seem necessary in party warfare. So marked and notorious had this desertion become, that at length it was said in one of the leading newspapers of the colony that Sir George Grey had but one political follower left, and he was not in Parliament. At the same time, public and private confidence in his uprightness, patriotism, and abstract wisdom was unbounded. His remarkable character was the theme of respectful comment. His generous liberality was awarded no stinted praise. Since the days when the Athenian citizen cast his vote for the banishment of Aristides, no stronger illustration of the inconsequential nature of public opinion has been afforded than the estimation in which Sir George Grey was held by the people page 447of New Zealand at the end of his public career, and his deserted position among politicians.

But in truth there is no great difficulty in tracing out the causes of such an incongruous and apparently strange result. George Grey was a man born to rule. As Dictator or Imperator he would have left a name which would have been handed down to the last generations of men as a symbol of wisdom, courage, and benevolence.

During the different stages of his public life his character never altered, his thoughts and purposes never changed. What he was when at five-and-twenty, filled with restless but honourable ambition, he started upon his explorations in Western Australia, he remained when with the snows of nearly eighty winters upon his head he stood before the vast audiences of Australia, waking a whole nation to its new birth.

Age had, indeed, tamed something of his fire. The frame once strong and vigorous had weakened beneath the hand of time. But the George Grey of 1891 in heart, in hope, in faith, was the same George Grey who, when Victoria ascended the throne of Britain, had gone forth, young, handsome, vigorous, to the commencement of life's busy work.

Naturally fitted for.. command, he found a suitable sphere for the development of a remarkable character in the perils and responsibilities of Western Australia, in the financial crisis and critical position of South Australia, in the wild turmoil and incessant struggles of New Zealand, and in the vast complications and unparalleled difficulties presented by South Africa and India between the years 1854 and 1860.

The renown of Sir George Grey attained its greatest height during this particular portion of his life. Not that he was in any sense different from the Grey of other times and other countries, but because the circumstances and developments of that period gauged his capacity and tested his genius. No page of history, either of ancient or modern times, contains a record more sound or brilliant than that of Sir George Grey in South Africa. Confronted by every form of opposition; menaced by dangers of every description; oftentimes not only unsupported but actually thwarted by his superiors: with means utterly inadequate to the ends to be attained; met by occurrences so peculiar as to be absolutely page 448without precedent; called upon to decide at a moment's notice questions, on the answers to which depended the fate of nations; with science, religion, and literature looking to him for guidance, and the usual cares of government resting upon his shoulders: not only acting for the present, bub fore-casting the future with almost prophetic wisdom, he never neglected one single iota of his duty, he never failed to achieve success.

It is said by Macaulay when speaking of Cromwell and his Ironsides, that no foeman ever saw their backs, that they never met an enemy without inflicting defeat, and that whenever they conquered, their opponents were crushed. No matter who the enemies were whom Cromwell and his Ironsides met, or how great their numbers, he always remained the master of the field. So long as Grey was in absolute command, a similar verdict may safely be passed upon his career. Especially may it be so stated of his work in South Africa. No conjunction of circumstances ever found him unready; no evil tidings stayed the hand which he stretched out to protect his people. In the storms and tempests which beat upon him at that time his courage never failed, his judgment was never wrong. No fear of consequences caused him to hesitate in the marvellous combinations which he thought out, and the wonderful steps which he took. He acted unconstitutionally, it is true, but he acted unconstitutionally to save the constitution. He levied troops without the sanction of Parliament indeed, and in defiance of law, but he gave to those regiments, standards which were to wave in distant fields, where their gleam and rustle would strike terror to the heart of mutiny, and bring hope and joy to the servants of the Queen. Wise to plan, swift to decide, strong to act, his capacity both moral and physical is brought into singular prominence by the strange and unexampled events of those few years.

In spite of the carpings of his opponents, and the detractions of smaller men, his Royal Mistress followed the record of his government with pleasure, and endorsed his unconstitutional actions with her approval. The hand of Providence was apparent in sending Grey at that time to that particular portion of the world. The Governor was fortunate in serving so wise a Queen; the Queen was happy in the command of so true a servant.

His return to New Zealand with limited power and discretion, page 449fettered upon all sides, hindered the free play of his genius, and reduced the possibility of his usefulness by exactly so much as his personal authority was lessened. His attempts to perform public service in England in 1869 and 1870 indicated indeed the grasp of his mind upon all subjects of importance to Great Britain, hut as he possessed no power to enforce his belief, he failed to accomplish practically those great measures which he advocated with singular skill and eloquence.

His Parliamentary career in New Zealand proved beyond a doubt that his influence in the management of men, and his tact in obtaining the acquiescence and the voluntary assistance of his fellows were by no means equal to his wonderful capacity for command. Here again the reasons are obvious enough. To his mind authority and influence were only desirable in order that they might be used for the happiness and welfare of others. His appeals to men for support were based upon the highest of all principles—self-sacrifice. No lust for place, or public money, or estates, or the petty greatness of official position, could offer to him any temptation whatever, or be supposed by him to offer temptation to others.

It was not, therefore, possible in the crowd, partly of selfish or ignorant men, with whom he was brought in contact, that either he, or his principles, could gain a large or permanent support. Even those who followed him for long periods of time at length fell away, because the objects they desired were not his objects and their ideas not his ideas. And so it happened that at last the press, with some show of truth, averred that all his followers, save one or two, had deserted him.

It is not given to the sons of men to be able always to command success, or at any rate, what the world believes to be success. The life of the greatest of all men ended in seeming failure. And so the seeming failure of Sir George Grey's later years will probably contain the germ of great future usefulness. For even when standing alone in the Parliament of New Zealand his mind was ever active on the side of justice and of humanity, and his tongue was always eloquent in the cause of the oppressed, and in vindication of the common rights of the whole people.