Cabinet Minister, farmer, and soldier.
A new biography of Bryce, John appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
John Bryce was born in Glasgow on 14 September 1833, the second son of John Bryce, a bootmaker and cabinetmaker, and Grace, née MacAdam. He came to New Zealand with his father, elder brother, and sister on the Bengal Merchant in 1840. He had little formal schooling apart from what was offering at Petone where his father first settled. Later, the family began farming in the Hutt Valley. In 1851 John Bryce went gold mining in Australia for two years. On his return to New Zealand in 1853 he took up land at Brunswick, 9 miles from Wanganui, where he farmed until 1903.
Bryce entered local politics as early as 1859. From 1862 to 1863 and from 1865 to 1867 he was a member of the Wellington Provincial Council, although in fact he favoured the abolition of the provinces and the establishment of municipal councils. In 1866 he was elected a member of the House of Representatives but he resigned in the following year. He served under General Cameron in the early stages of the Maori Wars and in 1868 helped to raise the volunteer force known as the Kai-iwi Yeomanry Cavalry in which he was given a lieutenant's commission. His service in a minor incident at Handley's woolshed, Nukumaru, later led to a famous libel case, Bryce v. Rusden.
In 1871 Bryce was elected unopposed by Wanganui to the House of Representatives; he was returned again in 1876 when he led Julius Vogel at the polls by 19 votes, and in 1879 when he and Ballance were returned with 560 and 547 votes respectively. On 8 October 1879 he became the Native Minister in the Hall Government. In that year Vogel termed him “an excellent Native Minister”. Noted throughout his career for his insistence upon what he himself termed “a vigorous policy” in dealing with the Maoris, Bryce was determined to deal firmly with the Parihaka prophets, Te Whiti and Tohu, who had encouraged their followers to pull up survey pegs, erect fences across roads, and plough European-owned farms in an attempt to reassert Maori rights. When Cabinet did not stand by him, he resigned in January 1881 but by October he was back in office with the support he demanded. On 5 November 1881, mounted on a white horse, he led-a force of 959 Volunteers and 630 Armed Constabulary into the Parihaka settlement to arrest Te Whiti and Tohu. Although greeted by chanting boys and skipping girls instead of by hostile warriors, and offered bread by the women of the settlement, the force proceeded to arrest the prophets who continued to counsel passive rather than active resistance. The force also pulled down the whares of Maoris from other districts temporarily congregating in Parihaka. In 1882 Bryce was reappointed Minister of Native Affairs in the Whitaker Ministry and again in 1883–84 in the Atkinson Ministry. He was responsible for the West Coast Peace Preservation Bill which enabled the Government to hold the prophets as prisoners without trial. Bryce also secured a pardon for the chief, Te Kooti.
The criticism aroused by his use of physical force against the pacifists of Parihaka earned him the hostility of the aristocratic but radical Governor, Sir Arthur Gordon (later Lord Stanmore). G. W. Rusden, in his three-volume History of New Zealand (1883), blackened the name of Bryce largely on information supplied by Governor Gordon on hearsay from Bishop Hadfield who had drawn his impressions mainly from Dr Featherston. Inter alia Rusden claimed that Bryce and his sergeant had cut down Maori women and children at Handley's woolshed in 1869 “gleefully and with ease”. In March 1886, at the Queen's Bench Division in the High Court of Justice in London, Bryce proceeded against Rusden and was awarded the verdict with £5,000 damages. Of this sum only £2,531, the actual costs to Bryce, were claimed because full payment would have ruined Rusden. In 1887 Bryce, and in 1888 Atkinson, tried to persuade the Colonial Office to rebuke or in some way punish Sir Arthur Gordon, but the Secretaries of State felt that justice had been done.
Bryce re-entered the House of Representatives as member for Waipa in 1889 and at the general election in 1890 he was re-elected without a contest for the new Waikato seat. He became Leader of the Opposition when Atkinson transferred to the Legislative Council. In August 1891, however, when asked to withdraw words critical of the Premier, he said: “I shall not withdraw them, and I shall take the consequence.” When the House censured him, he withdrew not only from Parliament but also from politics for all time.
On 28 September 1854 Bryce married Anne Campbell from whose father's origins in New Brunswick, Canada, the district near Wanganui derived its name. John and Anne Bryce had 14 children and over 50 grandchildren. He died at 1 Guyton Street, Wanganui, on 17 January 1913.
Bryce was the type of man who excited strong emotions among all who knew him: his friends were absolutely loyal in their support of “Honest John”; his enemies regarded him as stupid and crude. He was perfectly sincere, always taking his stand on principles in a way which can only be characterised as stubborn. His appeal to voters as demonstrated by his many electoral successes arose largely from the degree to which he was typical of his generation. His background and experience meant that he felt keenly for white settlers' needs and was incapable of understanding the grievances of the Maoris or of dealing with them in a sympathetic and conciliatory manner. No man in public affairs could have been more uncompromising or more certain of the rightness of his principles and practice.
by Angus Ross, M.C. AND BAR, M.A.(N.Z.), PH.D.(CANTAB.), Professor of History, University of Otago.
- Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1883, A. 4
- 1884, Sess. II, A. 5;The Defenders of New Zealand, Gudgeon, T. W. (1887)
- The Parihaka Story, Scott, Dick (1954).