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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman



The experience gained by Rolleston in his new office as Under-Secretary gave him an intimate knowledge of many aspects of Native affairs. In 1867 one of his most important tasks was to visit all the native schools and report on them to the Honourable J. C. Richmond, who had now become Native Minister. This necessitated a great deal of travelling, and he visited schools as far north as that of Bishop Williams at Paihia, Bay of Islands, and various schools in Auckland, New Plymouth, Otaki, Maketu, and Wellington. These schools were controlled by various denominations, such as the Church of England, the Roman Catholics, and the Wesleyans,

Rolleston's Report was published in 1867, and is drawn up with his usual painstaking care. Indeed, it is still a valuable document as a study of a most difficult problem. In his opinion, the general results, after a large expenditure of public funds in subsidising native schools over a period of nearly twenty years, could not be regarded as satisfactory. Too much of the Government grants was being used to improve the property of private religious bodies. The early missionary school had spread through the country a knowledge of reading and writing in the Maori language; but, in the existing native schools, there was little success in giving even the most elementary English education. The Maoris were keen to have their children taught English, as they realised their handicap arising from their ignorance of our language. Hence Rolleston concluded that the Maoris would hail it as a great boon if they could have English teachers who knew enough Maori to enable the natives to learn English. He not only tested the knowledge of the page 68individual pupils, but he inspected their food, their dormitories, and their living conditions. In one school with fifty-three pupils only nine could write to dictation, and then very imperfectly, the most simple sentences of one syllable. In some of the better-conducted schools the pupils showed good progress and were clean and healthy, but he came across one school which was no better than an ordinary pah, with the children sleeping on mats spread on fern and having as their sole teacher a boy of fifteen.

All the knowledge thus gained by Rolleston left a lasting impression on his mind. When in 1868 he became a Member of Parliament, his speeches on Native Affairs show how deeply he felt the failure of successive Governments to establish friendly relations with the natives, and the rapid deterioration that was going on in the Maori character. In 1869 he moved to set up a Commission to inquire into the causes of the unsatisfactory relations between the European and native races, with a view to restoring harmony. He thought that one duty of such a Commission should be to report on the possibility of restoring part of the confiscated lands of the rebels. He claimed that in all previous wars with the Maoris we had been able to make prolonged peace because of the fact that we had not confiscated their lands. He quoted great authorities on native customs, such as Mr Clark and Mr Parris, in support of the doctrine that the natives in their own tribal wars had never confiscated land except where the conquered tribe had been exterminated. Hence the original proprietors in tribal wars look forward from generation to generation to retaking lands which had been won from them. They could not therefore be expected to understand our practice whereby the lands of the conquered tribe were permanently confiscated.

We found here (said Rolleston) a race uncivilised, but having great capabilities for cultivation of the mind, with all the reasoning and debating powers which in modern European nations was the result only of great labour and study, a race deeply imbued page 69with ancestral pride, with a love of military conquest, a keen feeling of disgrace and degradation, a love of their country which is surpassed by no nation in the world, a deep attachment to the soil on which they lived their daily lives, pervaded with religious sentiment and controlled even in minor details by customs of almost pharasaic stringency. And, Sir, how have we dealt with these natives? We have taken away their pride in martial conquest by the establishment of British law, we have destroyed their chieftainship, and we have made no provision to supply them with anything to take the place of the associations to which they are most closely bound.

The Prime Minister, Fox, complained that Rolleston had failed to realise the earnest and honest efforts made by successive Governments to establish friendly relations with the natives, and he described Rolleston as speaking "in the style of a young member of a debating society endeavouring to flesh his maiden sword". It was perhaps unfortunate that Rolleston brought forward his proposals at a time of crisis, indeed at a time when the Government was seeking to persuade the British Government to allow one regiment to remain in New Zealand owing to the threatening aspect of affairs, and it does seem to have been the case that the conflict then raging was unavoidable. Mr Maning, of the Native Land Court, and author of Pakeha Maori, was a great authority on Native Affairs. His view was that the natives were determined at all costs on trying their strength with us, and no possible action or line of policy could have had the slightest effect in averting the war. "As to the actual war itself, the natives knew that for years before it commenced they had themselves determined upon war, and that the long series of aggressions gradually increasing in seriousness which preceded the actual commencement of open warfare were deliberately planned and perpetrated with the set purpose of wearing out our patience and causing us to shed the first blood."

It will be seen later on, when we come to the Parihaka incident, that, had Rolleston's wise advice in 1869 been page 70followed, the lamentable conflicts of later years might have been avoided.