Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman

Chapter VII — Rolleston As Under-Secretary for Native Affairs, 1865-68

page 62

Chapter VII
Rolleston As Under-Secretary for Native Affairs, 1865-68

"Administration is to my mind above everything else"



The principle of responsible government existed in New Zealand from the year 1853 as to all ordinary colonial affairs. But it was not until 1863 that the control of Native problems and Native policy was taken out of the hands of the Governor, as representing the Imperial Government, and entrusted to the Ministry of the day. This final step in self-government was initiated by a notable despatch, dated 26 February 1863, from the Duke of Newcastle. In this despatch he issued instructions that, in future, the Governor would be generally bound to give effect to the Native policy recommended by his responsible Ministers.

Following upon this important change, when Sir Frederick Weld became Prime Minister at the end of 1864, he launched his famous "self-reliant" policy, under which the Imperial troops were to be withdrawn from New Zealand as soon as was reasonably possible. This no doubt led to the decision to create a new post, namely, that of Under-Secretary of Native Affairs. Hence it was that, soon after Rolleston returned from the West Coast goldfields, he received a letter from the Prime Minister, Sir Frederick Weld, which led him into this new sphere of work.

page 63
Wellington, May 11th, 1865.

My dear Rolleston,

I write in a great hurry to say that I hope to be able to find possibly an Under-Secretaryship for you, but when I visit Canterbury, as I hope to do in a fortnight for a day or two, I shall be able to speak more definitely. From what Stevens says, you want to take a more political office—so of course you will not be in the "Lords", as that would ban an Under-Secretaryship if I establish an extra one, which I am considering. Allow me to congratulate you on your marriage.

Yours very faithfully,

Fred. A. Weld.

During the short tenure of office of Sir Frederick Weld, the Maori War was still dragging on in desultory fashion in various districts; but under Weld's new policy the colonial troops were almost uniformly successful. Weld issued a proclamation of peace and amnesty to the natives, except in the district between Wanganui and Taranaki. There, owing to the fanaticism of some tribes, said Weld, we confiscated that territory, intending to put self-depending settlements upon it, and to induce as many as possible of the former owners to settle down between them on grants of land with individualised titles. We sent Mr Parris, a gentleman distinguished by his love for, and his knowledge of the native race, to negotiate with them to this effect. We had reason to anticipate success from his efforts, though the worst section of the fanatics treacherously murdered envoys bearing the proclamation of amnesty sent to them by General Waddy.


About the time Rolleston took office as Under-Secretary there was a change of Ministry, and Stafford became Prime Minister for the third time. Mr Sewell in his diary, dated 29 November 1865, says:

Met Rolleston, the Under-Secretary for Native Affairs, a new man imported by our late Government from Canterbury. He was page 64Provincial Secretary there and a very capable man; a great addition to the staff of the Government. He is a brother of Dr Rolleston, of Oxford. He tells me that Native affairs are being sadly mismanaged—and no wonder….Rolleston expresses great alarm at the probable effects of the mismanagement of Native affairs by the present Government and the real danger there is of a revival of war.

The opinion expressed about the mismanagement of Native affairs seems to have been well-grounded, for when he left office a few months later, Mr James Mackay, on his way to Tauranga, wrote to Rolleston:

I note what you say about writing less savagely—it is quite true. I fear another six months under R. would have made me hate the whole service. I know what you have gone through, and God forbid any of us ever go through another such ordeal. I know you have always tried to put things square when you saw any of us were doing our best for the service. I felt perfectly miserable, and as savage as any bear during the last few months. When I heard R. was out of office, I felt a millstone removed from my neck.

Mr Parris, who played a notable part for many years in Native affairs, was at this time what was called a Civil Commissioner.1

Rolleston's correspondence makes it clear that he soon won the confidence of the various Civil Commissioners, Native Agents, and missionaries. They wrote to him freely page 65on Native affairs. Their letters reveal the deep concern these officers felt at the political bungling and maladministration of successive governments, and it is clear that Rolleston fully shared their indignation.


A few extracts from Parris's letters will be of interest to those who have studied Native affairs, as they at least show that no charge of lack of sympathy with the natives can be laid at his door.

On 8 November 1865, Parris wrote to Rolleston:

I exceedingly regret that a change of Ministry should have been necessary at this momentous juncture of our relations with the Maori race, who do not understand our political institutions and believe such changes a sign of weakness and a defeat of the line of policy affecting themselves, and encourages them to renew their opposition…. I sent you some time ago a letter about the Moturoa Reserve through which the south road was taken, for which the native owners were never yet paid their compensation. The natives are constantly applying for it, and fancy they are never to be paid.

Again, on 7 February 1866, Parris wrote:

Truly may you say that the state of things is very disheartening. Never since the War began have I been so disheartened as I am at the present time, the cause of which my official letters will in great measure explain. You are no doubt well aware of the trouble I have taken in endeavouring to bring the natives back to their allegiance to the Government, never for one moment supposing that, by doing so, I should render them liable to the treatment they have received during the last fortnight. Whether the proceedings are sanctioned or not by the Government, of course I am not aware, but I should hope not. I have not mentioned in my official letters the fact of Te Ua having been made prisoner at Wanganui. I reported to your office about a month ago that I had been to Opunake and made arrangements for him and the Chief Hone Pihama to stop at or near Opunake, promising them that they would not be molested there. This will page 66now be regarded as treachery on my part, and that I knew what was to take place. I assure you I feel it most painfully. Had the Government wished to have Te Ua examined, I would have induced him to go even to Wellington, without making him a prisoner for the purpose and subjecting him to military parading. Should he be taken on to Wellington and liberated there, I should be glad if you could prevail on the Native Minister to send him back to me by steamer.

You will no doubt hear glowing accounts of the General's expedition, but pause before believing them all. It is true they drove the rebels out in several places, but, as to the number killed, it is very doubtful, for many said to have been killed were living a few days ago. I have heard to-day that, since the force left Ngatiruanui, the rebels have punished that part of the native contingent which was left at Waingongoro. Two are said to have been killed and several wounded. This does not look as if they were much cowed.

If ever persecution was in force, it is now in this district. I trust not with the sanction of the Government.

Parris (Wanganui) to Rolleston, 10 August 1866:

Since my arrival here, I have had a conversation with Hori King and Aperaniko about the late occurrence at Pokaikai, which they severely censure and denounce as treacherous murder, there having been a friendly communication with the same natives by which they were thrown off their guard and betrayed into the belief that an attack would not be made upon them, so much so that they were going to bring a present of potatoes into camp the next day. A white flag and a ball cartridge had also been sent for them to choose which they would prefer, when they kept the white flag and sent back the ball cartridge, after which there was further communication, and the natives sent in word to the camp to say that Matanahira had gone to New Plymouth for me. This appears to be the only pretext for the night attack. As to the report about an ambuscade, Aperaniko, who was present with the forces, assures me that nothing of the sort occurred. Mr Booth assures me that the natives regard it as the most disgraceful thing that has occurred during the War (but they don't know all).

Many other letters couched in similar terms might be quoted. But these would require a great many explanatory page 67notes to render them understandable even to students familiar with Maori history. Enough has been quoted to show how deeply concerned Mr Parris was to secure justice for the Maoris, and to keep faith with them.


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.


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.


Alfred Cox in his Reminiscences, p. 130, says:

When Rolleston was Under-Secretary in the Native Department, he was constantly to be seen hovering about the Speaker's Chair in the House of Representatives. He thus became well-known by sight to all the members of the General Assembly, and, being a capable man, he was utilised in many ways by the Government. He was commissioned to examine into and report on the condition of native schools in the North Island. He performed that work thoroughly after his accustomed fashion. He was sharply criticised in some quarters for what he had said in the Report, but he could see no reason to retract anything he had written…. When Under-Secretary, he was a splendid man to go to for information upon almost any question coming before Parliament. He seemed to have all Parliamentary records by heart, was, in a word, the most complete political encyclopedia within reach, and was always more than ready, as well as capable to give all information sought.

Enough has been said to show that Rolleston achieved a great success in the Native Affairs Department.

1 According to Fitzgerald (1865 Hansard, p. 579) these Commissioners were not appointed under any law or statute. In fact, the office was an anomalous one which arose out of the District Regulation Act. This Act divided the Colony into districts for the internal and social government of the natives. "He is an officer", said Fitzgerald, "who may be described, without meaning any slur, more or less as a sort of Government spy. He does all the Government work among the natives, communicates with them, and keeps the Government informed as to what is going on among the natives, friendly or otherwise. Some of these Civil Commissioners were nothing more or less than resident magistrates (I think on the change of Government in 1866 the office lapsed and they became resident magistrates)."