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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman



One of the most terrible atrocities in New Zealand history is known as the Poverty Bay Massacre. This occurred in the year 1868. A band of Maori prisoners of war had been shipped to the Chatham Islands in 1866 under an armed guard. In 1868, under the skilful leadership of the famous Te Kooti, they surprised and overpowered the guard, seized a schooner, and sailed for Poverty Bay. There they proceeded to massacre all the Europeans they could find, sparing neither man, woman, nor child.

An astonishing and painful echo of this tragedy occurred thirty-one years later. One night in Parliament in 1899, the Prime Minister, Mr Seddon, in the course of a heated debate about other matters, suddenly startled the House by declaring that Rolleston was responsible for the Poverty Bay Massacre. Indeed, he declared that Rolleston's name was execrated by widows and orphans because, while Rolleston was Minister of the Department, the guard on the Chatham Islands had been reduced, thus enabling the native prisoners to escape. In point of fact, Seddon was in error in alleging that Rolleston had been a Minister of the Crown in 1868. He did not attain office until the year 1879. On this being pointed out, Seddon very properly said he had made the charge hastily, and withdrew it. But this does not conclude the incident. Although Seddon withdrew his accusations, his colleague (Sir) James Carroll, a half-caste native, repeated them in another form. He alleged that Rolleston, as Under-Secretary of Native Affairs, had recommended the reduction in the guard in 1866, and that the Native Minister, Colonel Haultain, had acted on his advice. Now the fact is that the guard was varied on more than one occasion, so that a brief chronicle of the sequence of events is unavoidable if we are to know page 71whether Seddon or Carroll was right in his attack, though wrong in his facts.

Originally in 1866, one officer, two non-commissioned officers, and twenty-five men were sent with the first batch of prisoners. Some months later, Captain Thomas, the Government representative at the Chathams, was instructed to withdraw the military guard with the exception of four men, who should be assisted by the friendly natives. The instructions were sent by the Native Minister, Colonel Haultain, and the letter was merely signed by Rolleston as being sent by direction of the Minister.

Later on, another batch of prisoners was sent to the Islands, and the guard was increased. The prisoners were so well-behaved that they were treated as practically free men, and were allowed to take employment and payment from resident settlers. In 1868 the Government desired to grant an amnesty to most, if not all the prisoners, but Sir Donald McLean advised caution. It was thereupon decided to release the best-behaved prisoners if Rolleston, on visiting the Islands, was satisfied that they had earned this indulgence. Rolleston visited the Islands and selected those who were to be given their liberty. On his return, he furnished a report on the condition of the prisoners. Incidentally, he reported that the soldiers of the guard were a public nuisance, and were the chief support of the two public houses. He doubted if they would be any use in case of difficulty. He suggested that a smaller number of efficient, well-proved men would do the work better than the existing guard, which afforded no example of discipline or order. In fact, it was due to them that drunkenness and other lawless habits had sprung up in an otherwise quiet and orderly community. Rolleston was careful to add that he gave his opinion with diffidence, having no knowledge or experience of military matters. His advice seems sound enough, but was not acted on.

However, the fact that Rolleston was in no way to blame page 72for the reduction of the guard seems to be put beyond all doubt by the following evidence:

First, I find among Rolleston's papers a telegram sent to him by Mr J. Marshall, who had been Quartermaster-Sergeant of the guard in 1868. He was still living in Coromandel when Rolleston was attacked in Parliament in 1899, and sent the following telegram:

Just read report Chatham Island debate. Kindly read to House that guard was reduced to seven men and myself considerable time before your arrival.

Secondly, Sir John Hall also telegraphed saying that he had been a Member of the Cabinet in 1868, "and knowing all the circumstances intimately I am positive that the idea that you were responsible was never even suggested by any member".

Thirdly, a letter from Captain Thomas, the Resident Magistrate at the Islands, affords proof that it was, in fact, the failure to follow Rolleston's advice that made the revolt of the natives possible.

Captain Thomas, R.M., to Rolleston:

Waitangi (Chatham Is.) 17th December, 1868.

I have been so upset by the view the Ministry have taken regarding myself in regard to the escape of the prisoners that my private correspondence is largely in arrears. I am now getting a little reconciled to their imputation of blame, viz. want of judgment and carelessness. At one time so hard did I feel all this that I determined to request an investigation; but, after mature thought, have remained quiet.

By your visit here, you saw the link that was wanting, viz. another officer with me who should understand Maori. I verily believe, if your suggestion had been carried out, the prisoners would be here now, because then I should have received warnings, of which I received none—three letters were written by Te Kooti to another prisoner who was in the employ of Ritchie, the purpose of which was asking this other prisoner for money, and telling him to come into Waitangi, which exactly corresponded with the page 73instructions I had given for them all to come in and cultivate their crops. I had, moreover, no Non-commissioned officer worth a rap. Applied for an officer but was refused, and was in a helpless position.

If I had only received warnings, even with the small force I had, and calling on the settlers, I think I could have marred their plots. But what vexes me also is the successes the brutes have had since their escape. If they could have foreseen those successes, we should be none of us alive here now. It is sad indeed to hear of the losses of such good men as we have sustained, both on the West and East Coasts, but no doubt can be felt as to McLean's management now.

The unfair and belated political attack on Rolleston proved a fiasco, and its chief result was to win for him a widespread measure of public sympathy and admiration.