PARRIS, Robert Reid
A new biography of Parris, Robert Reid appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Robert Reid Parris was born in 1816 at Tatworth, Chard, Somerset, the son of William Parris, a local gentleman farmer. He farmed in Devonshire for some years before emigrating to New Plymouth, where he arrived in the Blenheim on 7 November 1842. About 1846 Selwyn asked him to take charge of the industrial and agricultural departments of St. John's College for Maori Boys. There he gained a knowledge of the Maori language, together with a smattering of their customs. He returned to Taranaki in the early 1850s and, on 20 August 1853, was elected to represent the Grey and Bell district in the first Provincial Council. For a few months in 1857 he served on Cutfield's executive, but resigned on 27 June 1857 to become the General Government's Land Purchase Commissioner for Taranaki. From 1859 until 1865 he was Assistant Native Secretary. In 1859 he was responsible for conducting the negotiations leading to the purchase of the Waitara Block and assured Gore Browne that Teira's claim was the only valid one. On the outbreak of war in 1860 Parris found himself in difficulties with his Maori friends.
In May of that year some Taranaki and Ngati Ruanui chiefs plotted to assassinate him; however, when the plot was disclosed by a Mokau chief and the Waikatos extended their protection, the plan miscarried.
During the Waikato Wars Parris served as an interpreter with the Imperial troops: he was given the rank of major in the Militia and commanded the Native Allies for a short time. Both Grey and Warre found him an able interpreter and competent adviser and he was mentioned in dispatches repeatedly. In 1865 he was appointed Civil Commissioner for Taranaki and cooperated with the provincial authorities in settling the difficulties arising from the war. His influence was decisive in preventing the tribes north of Opunake from joining the Hauhau uprising in 1868. In July 1875 Parris retired from the Civil Service and McLean took the opportunity of thanking him publicly for his services. A few years later he was recalled to assist Sir William Fox on the West Coast Commission.
In 1838, at Colyton, Somerset, Parris married Mary Whitmore, by whom he had three daughters. One of these, Emma, married Henry Richmond, Superintendent of Taranaki. Parris died at Dawson Street, New Plymouth, on 18 September 1904.
As the Government agent in the Waitara purchase, Parris bore most responsibility for the war which followed, although McLean and certain of the Taranaki provincial authorities must have urged him to the course of action he took. His error lay in accepting Teira's unsupported evidence of ownership without understanding that, according to Maori tribal law, others, including Wiremu Kingi Te Rangitake, possessed more valid claims. Parris did not investigate Kingi's claim, believing that it rested on nothing more than recent permissive occupancy. This error was not mitigated by the Governor's instructions which required him to ignore the complicated genealogical aspects of Maori customary tenure.
by Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.
- The Origins of the Maori Wars, Sinclair, K. (1957)
- Taranaki Herald, 19, 21 Sep 1904 (Obits).