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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman



I have said that Bryce resigned early in 1880 and Rolleston took his place. Rolleston consulted his old friend, J. C. Richmond, who had been at one time Native Minister, and had a long experience of Native affairs. Richmond strongly page 157advised that it would be premature to adopt Bryce's policy. It would be better to see what attitude Te Whiti would adopt towards the proposals of the Fox-Bell Commission. Rolleston agreed with Richmond that delay was wise, but that, if no success was achieved by that means, he thought Bryce's policy ought to be adopted.

Ormond to Rolleston, 26 January 1881:

…Bryce's resignation astonished everyone, but it is not fair to express an opinion without knowing all the circumstances. The general opinion is he resigned in consequence of interference on the part of the Governor … another version is that he did not agree with some of Fox's acts as Commissioner…. However, as Te Whiti puts it, "the potato is cooked".

I see you have taken over Native Affairs, and think your colleagues very fortunate in having got you to do so. I have always known you had a special fitness for the position, and I think the natives believe in you. You would have had a much better field open to you had you taken Native Affairs when Bryce did. As it is, I consider the position full of difficulty. Bryce, in my notion, has not been a success as Native Minister. I know the general opinion is different…. Your great difficulty now is Bryce has entirely neglected to keep up any communication with the natives, and has got that to be looked on as "the policy".

As time went on, Te Whiti became more and more difficult. He declined to put his claims before the Commission. The new Governor, Sir Arthur Gordon, who had dealt successfully with Native troubles in Fiji, invited Te Whiti to come as his guest to Wellington and discuss his grievances, or to meet him in Taranaki. Te Whiti declined, and used his famous phrase: "The potato is cooked." All attempts to approach him through friendly emissaries met with similar refusals. The fact was that Te Whiti, having placed himself at the head of a body of malcontents, dare not recede. His vanity and mana were at stake, and his mana, in his view, covered the whole country. In fact, he asserted his sovereignty against that of the Government. When Parliament rose, Rolleston himself went up to the page 158district and put himself in communication with Te Whiti through a lifelong friend of Te Whiti, and finally personally interviewed him. Te Whiti was friendly and courteous, but absolutely declined to admit the right of the Government to share the lands with him. "He took my hat in his hand", said Rolleston, "and said: 'What is the good of your hat if it cut in two? If you have come to ask me to share the blanket with you, I am not the man to help you.'" Rolleston formed the opinion that Te Whiti would have been glad to come to some arrangement with the Government if he had dared to do so in face of his people. If he gave way, his whole power and influence would vanish. Finally, Rolleston not only informed Te Whiti that, if there were any lands for which he had a predilection, he had only to point them out and the Government would meet him liberally. But he wrote on 10 October 1881 that the present confusion and uncertainty could not continue. "Our meeting is over. Whether it is for good or evilis yet unknown. If it brings good to both races, we shall have the blessing which belongs to peacemakers. If no good comes of it, the blame will not rest with me and the Government. It will be with you."

All these efforts were perhaps taken by Te Whiti as signs of weakness. But at least they show the patience of the Government. The illegal fencing still went on. No other course seemed open but to adopt Bryce's policy and to allow him to carry it out. Rolleston, however, chivalrously insisted on signing the famous and much-debated proclamation of 19 October 1881, under which Te Whiti was informed that he must now yield or he would forfeit all claim to consideration, and all the reserves now set aside for them would be withdrawn. The Queen and the law must be supreme at Parihaka as elsewhere. On the same day Bryce became once more Native Minister. He decided that the position was so critical that the only way was to make an overwhelming display of force, otherwise war was page 159almost inevitable. He and Rolleston assembled a large armed force, marched on Parihaka, and arrested Te Whiti and some of his followers. There was no resistance, and everything passed off quietly.

Attempts have been made to treat the armed march on Parihaka as a fiasco and a farce. It is true that Bryce and Rolleston and the armed forces that accompanied them met with no resistance. Much fun was made by critics of the fact that some hundreds of young children singing and dancing were sent out to meet them. "Mr Rolleston, who was on foot, showed by his happy, expressive face how completely he appreciated the humour and pathos of the whole design; but Mr Bryce, who was mounted on an old white horse which looked as careworn and unhappy as his rider, was evidently more annoyed than mollified by the clever exhibition of humanity before him."1

Te Whiti ordered his people to offer no resistance, and in due course he and the Chief Tohu were arrested.

Now all these and other incidents afforded the enemies of the Government great scope for ridicule. They pictured Te Whiti and his followers as peaceable Quakers invaded by a ridiculous army in a theatrical comedy. But most people in New Zealand considered that a dangerous situation had been handled with great skill and firmness. The settlers who were living in an acute state of tension and alarm breathed sighs of relief. In Parliament, many tributes were paid to Bryce, although there were voices to the contrary. Perhaps the best evidence of the wisdom and necessity of the Government's action came from Sir George Grey, who was in opposition. He declared that we had just come through a great historical crisis, and that Bryce had had as great difficulties to meet as any one could have had to meet in New Zealand. "His hands are unstained by blood," declared Grey, "he committed no act of cruelty, he has done nothing to cast a slur on the name of the Colony, page 160and he has brought the difficulty to a peaceful conclusion." Finally, Grey did not hesitate to say that Te Whiti was "an impostor or dupe of his own imagination", and had embarked on a very dangerous career, which might have led to enormous disasters and loss of life. In his view, it was entirely proper to confine him till the crisis had passed.