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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman



Early in 1870 Rolleston realised that Vogel had become the man of the hour and that Fox, a nominal Prime Minister, was too complacent to exercise any effective control. It was a curious trait in Fox that while in opposition he was merciless and aggressive, once in office he became apathetic and indifferent, except on rare occasions when he was forced to fight. He played a great part in New Zealand politics and we owe a deep debt to his memory for his magnificent and arduous labours in the early 'eighties as one of the Commissioners for the settlement of native land claims. But his persistent advocacy of unpopular views on total abstinence seriously handicapped him as a political leader.

On 28 June 1870 Vogel announced his great public works policy. But some months before that sensational development occurred Rolleston was already alarmed on other grounds.

Rolleston to Selfe (London Agent for Canterbury), 18 February 1870:

I don't like to close my letter without saying a word about Northern Island matters. I am told on very good authority that things are in a terrible mess. Vogel is a strongheaded, wrong-headed man who wants to get the Government into Auckland where he has an engagement as newspaper editor. He has always page 84been a separationist and no doubt sees that a double purpose may be served by the promoting or "sitting" of the Assembly in Auckland and the removal of portion of the Government there. His popularity and success depend on establishing good moorings in a new place, having failed to win any real respect in Otago. His postal arrangement is no doubt good and tends in this direction. Fox is malleable to the last degree, MacLean extravagant and without an idea except that of palavering people into peace. The day for that is gone by. I wish you understood me better, you would (excuse my vanity) understand better the real state of the native question. This perhaps is putting the cart before the horse. I only pray you to use your influence to prevent any reversal of the Imperial Policy. Lord Grenville's Dispatch is the most clear and statesmanlike view of our position which I have seen.1

The abandonment of untenable positions, the recognition of Maori authority and the maintenance of a good and effective force, small but well trained are the keys of the difficulty. We were told in 1862 the consequence of occupying territory we could not ourselves hold and ever since all disinterested lookers on have seen the evils which must follow on the course we are pursuing. The reoccupation of Patea is simple madness. There will be no massacres where they are not unnecessarily invited. What in the world Bell and Featherston are going to do I don't know.

Ministries are constructed as it seems not to govern by united council but to scatter themselves over the Colony and have one or two on a pleasure trip in England. I shall go in for supporting the next Ministry and getting a trip to England! I hope you will see that Lord Grenville's creed and that of our party in the Colonial Parliament are very similar. This is some comfort. We are the only people in the House who have any creed so far as I can

1 Lord Grenville's despatch is dated 7 October 1869. Grenville's patience had been exhausted by the grasping attitude of the colonists. Hence he refused to allow British troops to remain in New Zealand. He considered their employment by a colony possessing responsible government was objectionable in principle. He also objected to the extent to which confiscation had been carried and the alleged neglect of New Zealand Governments to raise their own forces to carry on the war. (Appendix to Journals, 1870, A.I.A. p. 10.)

page 85see. You will excuse my writing somewhat vaingloriously. I don't feel happy that you misunderstand my action in the Assembly. You must therefore excuse a little self-assertion on my part.

The proposal mentioned in the above letter to shift the Government to Auckland raises a side-issue. But it caused Sir George Bowen, the Governor, to seek the opinion of Rolleston, whose reply is of sufficient interest to warrant us delaying for a moment consideration of the main issue which was Vogel's public works policy.

In reality the efforts to remove the seat of Government from Wellington, where it had been located since 1865, never reached serious proportions. But what Rolleston saw clearly was first the growing jealousy of the North Island against the national wealth and progress of Canterbury and Otago, and secondly the growing confusion under a double system of government—central and provincial. At this stage he denounced the cry of separation—that is the idea of having a separate government for each Island—as "a futile and childish agitation". But within a year he became so alarmed at the growing signs of centralisation on the one hand or ultra-provincialism on the other that as we shall see later he began to favour the idea of a separate administration for each Island.

Rolleston to Sir George Bowen (Governor), 10 February 1870:

With regard to the question of the meeting of the General Assembly in Auckland, I wish I had had more time to think of what has come upon me somewhat suddenly, but as you are good enough to invite an expression of opinion from me I shall write my first impressions freely.

(1)With regard to the general principle that it is desirable that the Parliament should meet elsewhere than in Wellington with a view to the political education of the people. The Assembly has formally decided at its last session that a change should not take place at least to any place in this Island, and I am strongly of opinion that the witnessing the disorder of the Assembly page 86would have no good effect on the people generally. The remedy lies as I think, much deeper. The people of the Colony will never look upon the Assembly as anything else than a place in which to scramble for loaves and fishes by log rolling or other forms of purchase as long as the present double Government exists, and until a Minister boldly takes up the question and places the Provinces in a position which renders them incapable of doing the mischief they are doing. No amount of political education will do any good. I hear on all sides rumours of the Provinces coming up next session to get what they can out of the Colony. We shall shortly be borrowing to pay interest on our loans. The prospect is terrible.
(2)The argument that the native disturbances renders the presence of Ministers necessary in Auckland seems an argument in favour of Ministers remaining there permanently as we seem to be still pursuing our aggressive policy. I thought with regard to the late Ministers that their distribution over the country was most mischievous. If there should be alarms at Patea, which when the settlers become short of ready money there will be, Ministers will be required as much at Wellington as at Auckland.

Unless it is immediately announced that the session will be in Auckland a number of southern constituencies will practically be disfranchised, for I am satisfied that from here at least our members would not go to Auckland.

There may not be much in the above objections, but there is an objection of paramount weight with me and that is

(4)The removal of the Assembly to Auckland will most certainly revive the old cry of separation. Every argument in favour of the one tells in favour of the other. Members from the extreme south will support the measure in hopes of promoting this result and northern members with similar views. The Colony will again be torn with this futile and childish agitation. I do not write hopefully on the aspect of affairs generally, but I would rather throw up all connection with politics than lend any assistance to a step which would assuredly promote this result.

I have written hastily and I hope you will excuse my expressing my opinions very plainly. The personal question as affecting yourself is one in which of course I sympathise with you. The Colony is bound to see that you have proper accommodation and to provide for any extra expense entailed by your having it.

page 87

The reader has so far only seen Rolleston in his most serious vein. But that he was also capable of writing in a more amusing and whimsical way will be seen from this short note to J. D. Fenton, Chief Judge of the Native Land Court, who was at this time also a member of the Legislative Council. The subject is again the proposal to move the Government to Auckland:

Christchurch, February 17th, 1870.

My dear Fenton,

"My soul is even as a weaned child." "What peace so long as the whoredom of Jezebel continue?" Why tamper with my virtue? The heifers of Canterbury will not be ploughed with by the Auckland schemers or unequally yoked with unbelievers.

This move will revive the cry of separation and distract the Colony again from the real issue. Surely it is enough that you Aucklanders have carried on war at our expense these seven years and you must needs invite us to come and see the results.

Wellington is very damnable, but your company and the sweet counsel we shall take together will reconcile me even to this passi graviora dabit deus his quoque finem.

Remember me kindly to Carleton and all whom I love in the Lord. Things are going on well here. The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few.

Yours fondly,

W. Rolleston. 1

1 The squabble over the seat of government went on for some years. In 1871 a resolution was passed by the House of Representatives in favour of holding the 1872 session in Dunedin, but the Legislative Council turned it down. In 1872 there was a movement to have the capital removed to Christchurch as part of a scheme for separation—one government for each island.