Later Career, 1868–98
After a short retirement to Kawau Island and a visit to England, where he failed in an attempt to enter Parliament as a Gladstonian Liberal, he re-emerged in New Zealand politics in 1874, as Superintendent of Auckland Province and member of the House of Representatives, in an unavailing effort to prevent the abolition of the provincial system of government. He continued in the House of Representatives for nearly 20 years, and was Prime Minister (1877–79), but his administration was defective and his leadership poor. He announced many of the principles of the later Liberal and Labour Parties (electoral reform, land tax, breaking up of large estates, regulation of wages and hours, education, etc.), but his ideas were too radical for his contemporaries and he failed to build up a party to implement his programme. His oratory was impressive, but often unduly maudlin and petulant, and too much given to declamation. “This,” he said, “is a revolt against despotism…. What I am resolved to maintain is this, that there shall be equal justice in representation and in the distribution of land and revenue to every class in New Zealand … equal rights to all — equal rights in education, equal rights in taxation, equal rights in representation … equal rights in every respect.” He would utter bitter personal recriminations against his political opponents, whom he was forever accusing of land jobbery, and he defied parliamentary etiquette by making personal attacks upon the Governor and the Secretary of State. “Keep your rank; keep your wealth; but do not send us out men who care nothing for us, with high titles, to make great fortunes out of us, and who refuse us dissolutions when constitutionally we are entitled to them. I say that of the Secretary of State we absolutely know nothing — for the Secretary of State we absolutely care nothing … He could confine himself to his own business.” His frequent lack of self-restraint earned for him Tancred's famous description of “a terrible and fatal man”.
In the realm of world affairs, Grey entertained visions of New Zealand expansion in the Pacific islands, and forecast with uncanny accuracy the development of the modern British Commonwealth as a group of autonomous States in friendly association with the United States of America.
He had a shrewd insight into the Maori mind, and his published collection of Maori legends is a classic. He bequeathed his large collection of writings on the African language, together with his library of incunabula and manuscripts to Cape Town in 1861, and later donated a second valuable collection to the city of Auckland. An amateur natural scientist of repute, he sent thousands of specimens of the flora and fauna to the British Museum and to Kew Gardens. His island domain of Kawau became a botanical and zoological experiment in the acclimatisation of plants and animals. Always keenly interested in education, his name is connected with many schools and institutions whose foundation and advancement he assisted, including Bloemfontein College, Auckland Grammar School, and Wanganui Collegiate.
Grey died in London on 19 September 1898, and was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral. He was a strange mixture — a philanthropist impelled by altruistic motives, a visionary and a prophet, and a man of resolute, often dramatic, action. He made a real impression on those colonies in which he lived and ruled, especially in New Zealand where he spent the greater part of his life. In the final analysis, he fell short of greatness because he was too autocratic and egotistic in manner, lacked true self-control, and could never recognise his own mistakes. He pronounced judgment upon himself when, in November 1845, he boasted to the Maori chiefs assembled at Kororareka, “I never alter what I once say”. Yet, for all his failings, he earned the affection and respect of the colonists over whose destinies he presided, and especially the love of the Maori people, whose farewell message at his death was, “Horei Kerei, Aue! Ka nui matou aroha ki a koe” (“George Grey, alas! Great was our love for thee”).
by James Rutherford, M.A.(DURHAM), PH.D.(MICH.) (1906–63), Historian, Auckland.
Grey Collections (MSS), Cape Town, South Africa, and Auckland, New Zealand; Sir George Grey, K.C.B. (1812–1898), Rutherford, J. (1961); Crown Colony Government in New Zealand, McLintock, A. H. (1958); Origins of the Maori Wars, Sinclair, K. (1957).