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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.


McLEAN, Sir Donald


Land Purchase Commissioner and Native Minister.

A new biography of McLean, Donald appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Donald McLean was born on the Hebridean island of Tiree on 27 October 1820, the son of John McLean of Kilmaluaig, and of Margrette, née McColl. While Donald was still a child his father died and the boy was brought up by his mother's people, the McColls, his grandfather being a Presbyterian clergyman. A well-grounded but frugal upbringing awakened ambition for which, as so often in the Highlands, emigration was the only opportunity and, with a cousin, McLean arrived in Sydney in April 1839. He spent some months in New South Wales, but crossed to New Zealand in 1840 as an agent for the timber-trading firm of Abercrombie and Company, later working around the Hauraki Gulf and on Waiheke Island. He quickly saw that a knowledge of Maori and an understanding of Maori culture would be an invaluable qualification for success. Of commanding physique, adaptable, discreet and even cautious, but of inflexible perseverance and determination, he soon acquired an excellent working knowledge of the language. In 1843 he came under the notice of the Colonial Secretary, Andrew Sinclair, on whose recommendation he was appointed by Governor FitzRoy to a position in the office of the Protector of Aborigines. Following a period of induction he was transferred to New Plymouth as a Subprotector in August 1844.

His first testing responsibility was an attempt to reconcile the Taranaki Maoris to an acceptance of Commissioner Spain's award to the New Zealand Company of a considerably greater area in the district and elsewhere than its Maori owners were prepared to recognise. Soon after he assisted in the purchase of the FitzRoy, Bell, and Tataraimaka Blocks. In 1845, following the abolition of the Protector's office, his title was changed to that of Inspector of Armed Police. In the course of his duties as mediator between the two peoples and as conciliator in tribal differences, he undertook many arduous and lengthy journeys through the interior of the Island. Noteworthy among these were the visits to Mokau, Tuhua, and Taupo in April and May 1845, from where he returned by the Wanganui River, and a second journey to the same area in the reverse direction during the last three months of 1845.

The increasing orientation of McLean's duties to land-purchase operations reflected the Government preoccupation of the period. In May 1848 he completed the Wanganui land purchases which, in common with the New Zealand Company purchases elsewhere, had been a difficulty from the formation of the settlement. His first major success, however, was the acquisition in 1849 of the Rangitikei Block of some 200,000 acres between the Rangitikei and Turakina Rivers. Two years later, in Hawke's Bay, the purchase of the Waipukurau, Ahuriri, and Mohaka Blocks of approximately 630,000 acres opened the future province to pastoral settlement. The Wairarapa had resisted the efforts of several earlier negotiators, but, in 1853, following Sir George Grey's personal intervention, McLean was able to obtain several key blocks which, again, lead eventually to the European acquisition of much of the district. The Wairarapa purchases marked the high-water level of McLean's success. Growing Maori concern at the effect of the sales, particularly the subsequent sharp appreciation in land values and, soon after, the growing strength of the King movement, markedly slowed down the pace of these transactions except in the far north. McLean's methods involved close and prolonged rapport with the key chiefs, the exercise of endless patience in what might be regarded as the softening-up process, and the generous promise of specific reserves.

In 1853 he was appointed Chief Land Purchase Commissioner in the newly established Land Purchase Department. When Gore Browne succeeded Grey as Governor, his position and authority were greatly enhanced. In McLean's view the best interests of the Maori were to be served by rapid land purchases at roughly 1d. to 3d. an acre, which would open the way to European settlement, with a consequent improvement in Maori living standards. Haste, departmental and immigrant pressure, together with the underlying expectation of the early extinction of the Maori race, caused officers to ignore Maori occupation rights and the more subtle aspects of Maoritanga. When the offices of Native Secretary and Chief Land Purchase Commissioner were amalgamated, the reality as well as the appearance of an administratively disinterested concern for Maori welfare, as distinct from land purchasing, was destroyed. McLean supplanted F. D. Fenton as Native Secretary and tacitly opposed the introduction of measures which savoured of indirect rule.

McLean's part in the critical Waitara purchase which led to the Taranaki War has recently been examined by historians. It is clear that he was at fault in not briefing Gore Browne more fully regarding the implications of the Governor's acceptance of the offer of Te Teira to sell the block in which other non-sellers were interested. At the same time it was unfortunate that a critical attack of rheumatic fever at the end of 1859, the penalty of some 15 punishing years in the field, virtually incapacitated him throughout the critical period. His already unrivalled knowledge and judgment could have prescribed caution before both the Crown and Wiremu Kingi, the chief who opposed the sale, had irrevocably committed themselves to positions from which retreat without loss of face was extremely difficult. McLean's last major act before resigning from the secretaryship in May 1861 was the organisation of the Kohimarama Conference at the end of 1860, an attempt to win support for the Government's Waitara policy.

Temporarily free from office, McLean proceeded to develop and extend his station properties. He had purchased Maraekakaho Station in Hawke's Bay, was slowly acquiring Akitio on the Wellington provincial border, and for a time held Run 333 in Central Otago – assets which by judicious sale of the last two were to give him an estate valued at over £100,000 on his death.

In 1863 he was elected Superintendent of the Hawke's Bay Province and in March 1866 defeated Colenso in the election for a seat in the House of Representatives. With J. D. Ormond, he virtually ran the province until the abolition ten years later. His local prestige, together with his knowledge of native affairs, led to his appointment as Government Agent on the East Coast in 1868. The escape of Te Kooti and his followers from the Chatham Islands provided a difficult and testing period both for Government and McLean. In the exchanges between them there were clashes over the competence of individual officers, the wisdom of putting Maori auxiliaries under Col. Whitmore, and finally over the proposal of the Government to send the Ngati Porou chief Ropata and his followers away from their home area to Taranaki. When McLean supported Ropata in his reluctance to leave his tribal territory undefended, McLean's appointment was terminated.

Three months later, following the resignation of the Stafford Ministry, McLean joined Fox as Native Minister and, except for the brief interregnum of the September-October 1872 Stafford Ministry, he was in office under successive premiers until a month before his death, eight years later. He was also Defence Minister until 10 September 1872. The policy which he vigorously applied was directed to ending the war and reaching an understanding and reconciliation with the Maori. The unofficial return of Wiremu Kingi to Waitara in 1872, meetings with the Maori King, and the exercising of restraint at the seeming provocation of a murder on the aukati were generally acclaimed examples of its success. At the same time land purchasing was resumed at an increased tempo, some millions of acres being acquired, chiefly in the Auckland and Wellington Provinces. Results were achieved by the same exercise of personal authority as had characterised his administration as a civil servant in earlier years. The pacification set the stage for the free play of the public works policy of the decade, but McLean himself did not build up an efficient, enduring administration, nor in a number of instances did he exercise judgment in the selection and promotion of subordinates. His K.C.M.G. in 1874, however, was a well-merited tribute to his part in the European occupation of New Zealand. In a political reaction against certain purchases he, with Ormond, was attacked in the House for his own transactions. The resulting anxiety, the cumulative burdens of office, and premature ageing from the hardships of earlier years led to his resignation in December 1876 and death on 5 January 1877.

In 1850 McLean married Susan, the daughter of R. R. Strang, Registrar of the Supreme Court in Wellington. Their tragically brief marriage ended with her death shortly after the birth of their only son Douglas in 1852.

In October 1877 Douglas McLean established the Te Makarini Trust for Te Aute Maori College and endowed it with £3,000 in memory of his father. The income has since provided annually a series of scholarships for gifted students from the primary native schools attending Te Aute College.

by Austin Graham Bagnall, M.A., A.L.A., Librarian, National Library Centre, Wellington.

  • McLean MSS, Turnbull Library
  • McLean MSS, Hawke's Bay Museum and Art Gallery, Napier
  • Sir Donald Maclean – the Story of a New Zealand Statesman, Cowan, J. (1940)
  • The Chief of Hawke's Bay, Turnbull, M. (1960).


Austin Graham Bagnall, M.A., A.L.A., Librarian, National Library Centre, Wellington.