Dictionary of New Zealand Bography logo

Story: Grey, George

Page 1: Biography

All images & media in this story

Grey, George


Soldier, explorer, colonial governor, premier, scholar

This biography, written by Keith Sinclair, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.

George Grey is believed to have been born in Lisbon, Portugal, on 14 April 1812. His father, Lieutenant Colonel George Grey, had been killed eight days before, during an attack by the Duke of Wellington's army on Napoleon's soldiers in the fortress of Badajoz, Spain. George Grey's mother was Elizabeth Anne Vignoles of County Westmeath, Ireland. George was educated in England at a boarding school at Guildford, from which he ran away. After being tutored by the Reverend Richard Whately, George entered the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, in 1826. In 1830 he was commissioned ensign in the 83rd Foot Regiment, in which he served for six years in Ireland. He was promoted to lieutenant and awarded a special commendation for excellence after further studies at Sandhurst, but he disliked army service. He was appalled by the poverty of the Irish people and shocked by the misery inflicted on them by the landlords. Always thereafter he was opposed to great landed estates. He reached the conclusion that emigration was the solution to Ireland's ills: new nations should be established, in lands of opportunity for the poor.

Grey proposed in 1836 to the secretary of state for the colonies, Lord Glenelg, that he and another officer should explore the country to the north of Perth, Western Australia, in the hope of finding a major river giving access to lands suitable for settlement. The government agreed and financed the expedition. Grey led two expeditions in western Australia in 1837–39, one to Hanover Bay, the other to Shark Bay. The expeditions were ill planned and badly executed. Little, if anything, of geographical significance was discovered. On the first Grey was speared and dangerously injured by an Aborigine, whom he shot. On the second their boats were wrecked and the party were lucky to get back to Perth. While in western Australia, Grey was promoted captain and appointed resident magistrate at King George Sound. Probably on 2 November 1839 he married Eliza Lucy Spencer, the daughter of his predecessor in that office, Sir Richard Spencer. Their only child, a son, born in 1841, lived only five months.

At this time Grey became interested in the cultures and government of indigenous peoples. In 1840 he wrote a report for Lord John Russell, the new secretary of state for the colonies, showing how the amalgamation of two races could be speedily effected. The Aborigines were to be converted, brought under British law, and employed by white settlers, while the children were to be educated in boarding schools. This theory of compulsory assimilation so impressed the secretary that he sent the report to the governors of the Australian and New Zealand colonies.

George and Eliza Grey returned to England. George Grey certainly impressed his superiors. Still in his 20s, this inexperienced and adventurous officer was offered the governorship of South Australia. He accepted and resigned from the army. South Australia had been founded in 1834. By 1840 the colony was facing grave difficulties and was, in effect, bankrupt. The governor, George Gawler, was spending large sums of money on public works and relief. This had been achieved by drawing unauthorised bills on the British Treasury. Both in a memorandum written at this time and in later dispatches, Grey managed to insinuate that the colony's troubles were of Gawler's making, a tactic he was to adopt again.

Grey was expected to cut expenditure to the bone. On reaching Adelaide he tackled this task with great energy. He cut public works heavily. He cut wages and relief payments, in the hope of driving the unemployed out of Adelaide and onto farms. He rigidly economised, even to the length of refusing 8d. to an office boy for sharpening pencils. By 1844 Grey had almost succeeded in balancing the budget, not, however, without incurring criticism from Treasury for, in his own turn, drawing bills on Treasury. That was not to be the last time he disobeyed instructions. Economically, Grey could feel that his governorship had been a success. There had been a great increase in the areas under cultivation and being grazed. The colony had begun exporting its products and no longer needed British subsidies to survive.

This success, however, did not carry over into his native policy. There had been much conflict, theft of stock, and murders on both sides, when parties of Europeans, coming overland from Sydney and Port Phillip, ran into Aborigines. Grey tried to stop the settlers from retaliating against Aboriginal thieves or murderers by appointing protectors of Aborigines and special police, but the murders continued. He helped to provide schools for Aboriginal children, but they generally rejoined their own people after a time, and refused to work for Europeans.

In 1845 Grey was appointed governor of New Zealand, where he faced even greater difficulties than in South Australia. The government was so short of funds that the first governor, William Hobson, had drawn unauthorised bills on the British Treasury and his successor, Robert FitzRoy, had, contrary to instructions, issued government debentures, a form of paper money. Even more serious, in several districts of the North Island, there had been violent disputes between settlers and Māori, especially over land claims. In Wellington, Nelson and Taranaki there had been conflict over disputed New Zealand Company land purchases. In Nelson the settlers tried to occupy the Wairau district in the face of opposition from Ngāti Toa. Twenty-two settlers and at least four Māori were killed when an armed party stupidly attempted to arrest the formidable chiefs Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata. In the far north Hōne Heke and his ally, Kawiti, had risen in revolt against British authority. Heke feared that the Europeans would take all their land. He was responsible for cutting down the British flag on four occasions; on the last, both sides sacked Kororāreka (Russell). Fortunately for the British most of Ngāpuhi sided with the government. Even so, the British had suffered a disastrous defeat at Ōhaeawai.

Grey was given the financial support and the troops that had been denied to FitzRoy, whose efforts Grey disparaged, thus praising his own. In the north the army occupied Kawiti's pa, Ruapekapeka, which had already been evacuated. Thereafter Grey left Heke and Kawiti severely alone, acquiescing in a partial Māori victory. Grey reassured the Māori that no land would be confiscated. In the south he seized Te Rauparaha and imprisoned him without trial. The fighting was at an end for more than a decade. Grey claimed that a main cause for disaffection in the north had been the enormous land purchases made by some of the missionaries, whom he regarded as no better than land-jobbers. He claimed that they could not be put in possession of their lands without 'a large expenditure of British blood and money'. Grey pursued a long vendetta against Henry Williams and other missionaries. It has never been clear that they committed any crime but some might have confessed to the sin of greed.

Grey's greatest success as a colonial governor was probably his management of Māori affairs in the years 1845 to 1853. He gave every appearance of scrupulously observing the terms of the Treaty of Waitangi, and assured Māori that their rights to their land were fully recognised. Under the chief land purchase commissioner, Donald McLean, procedures were evolved for negotiating a sale at a tribal meeting. The meeting had to agree to the sale. Often large numbers of Māori signed the purchase agreement. The land then became Crown land and was sold to settlers at a profit, which provided significant government revenues. In Taranaki there were great difficulties in obtaining land because of Māori reluctance to sell, but elsewhere Grey had considerable success. Nearly 30 million acres of Māori land were purchased (for £15,000) in the South Island, where few Māori lived, and about 3 million in the North Island. The European settlements expanded rapidly. Towards the end of Grey's governorship, as European demand for land increased, there is evidence that McLean was making secret deals with individual chiefs, so that land was bought from only a few of the owners. Grey may not have known this; however, he himself applied intense personal pressure on the Wairarapa chiefs in 1853 to set up extensive purchases before his departure.

Grey's efforts to 'civilise', that is to Europeanise, the Māori, were well-intended but less successful. He simply did not have the financial resources to put his ideas into practice. He appointed resident magistrates, assisted by Māori assessors, to introduce British laws in Māori districts. He subsidised mission schools, which were attended at any one time by no more than a few hundred Māori children. They were required to teach English, as a step towards assimilation. He built several hospitals to treat Māori patients. He encouraged Māori agriculture; for instance, by lending money for the purchase of flour mills. Most of this was admirable, but the total effect on Māori society was a small part of the total impact of 'culture contact' with Europeans.

Grey, who was made a KCB in 1848, enjoyed great mana among Māori. He often travelled with a retinue of chiefs. He induced leading chiefs to write down their accounts of Māori traditions, legends and customs. His principal informant, Te Rangikāheke, taught Grey to speak Māori. The chief wrote that he lived with Grey and his wife in their house: 'We ate together every day of the week; we talked together, played together, were happy together.' Nevertheless Grey certainly exaggerated the extent of his success when he wrote to the secretary of state for the colonies in 1852 that 'both races already form one harmonious community…insensibly forming one people.'

With the settlers his relations were often less happy. The secretary of state for the colonies, Earl Grey, sent out in 1846 a complex constitution, embodied in the first New Zealand Constitution Act, conferring representative parliamentary institutions on the settlers. The governor declined to implement it, on the grounds that it would give to a minority made up of one race power over a majority made up of another. The Māori were unlikely to accept such injustice peacefully. The constitution was suspended by an imperial act of 1848 and Grey continued to govern as a despot. In the same year he partially implemented the 1846 constitution by creating the two provinces New Ulster and New Munster; they lacked, however, any representative element in their governments. Nevertheless he was the chief author of the constitution of 1852 which did set up both provincial and central representative assemblies.

Grey was much criticised for arranging early elections for the provincial councils, all of which met in late 1853, without calling for the election of the central body, the General Assembly, which did not meet for another five months, in May 1854. It has been claimed that, as a result, provincialism was strongly entrenched, but this criticism has little force: provincialism was a fact of New Zealand life. To Grey, the governor and the provincial councils were the most important parts of the constitution. Moreover, he was talking sense when he said that, because many members of the provincial councils would also be in the General Assembly, and because the former were more easily summoned, the Assembly had to be delayed in order to avoid the difficulty of simultaneous meetings.

Late in 1853, before the General Assembly met, Grey departed to become governor of the Cape Colony and high commissioner for South Africa. In New Zealand it had commonly been thought that Grey could not work with representative institutions, but in South Africa he proved this wrong. The first Cape Parliament met in mid 1854. Grey secured the co-operation of Parliament, but he governed through his Executive Council; responsible government was not introduced at the Cape until 1872.

Grey's main problems, once again, were those of race relations. There were frequent wars on the eastern frontier, where some tribes, such as the Fingoes, fought for the British. Grey sought to convert the frontier tribes to Christianity, to 'civilise' them, and to break down the tribal structure. His interest in non-European customs did not extend to approving of their systems of government. Grey supported mission schools, a dozen or so among a huge African population. He built a hospital for African patients. He sent European magistrates to act as political agents; but there was no suggestion that European law should be administered at this stage. Grey hoped to bring thousands of European settlers into British Kaffraria. They were to provide employment for Africans and to act as agents of civilisation. This did not, however, occur; the region was already overcrowded.

In 1857 there occurred the extraordinary episode of the cattle-killing millenarian movement. A young girl prophesied that, if the Xhosa people killed their stock and destroyed their crops, their ancestral spirits would punish the Europeans and replenish their cattle and crops. In a terrible period of mass hysteria the population was reduced from 105,000 to 37,000. Grey had to provide relief and, with army and police units, keep control during widespread disorder. He had some of the leading chiefs arrested, tried and condemned to death or transported.

Grey's relations with the Colonial Office grew worse and worse. He was rebuked for over-spending his British Kaffraria account. The tone of his dispatches grew curt and truculent. In 1856, contrary to British policy, he embraced the cause of South African federation. He proposed a union of the Cape, Natal, Kaffraria and the two Afrikaner republics, Transvaal and the Orange Free State. During the Indian Rebellion of 1857 the authorities criticised him for keeping too many troops in South Africa. In 1858 he was recalled to London, but by the time he returned the government had changed and his supporter, the Duke of Newcastle, was the new secretary of state for the colonies. Grey was sent back to South Africa.

George Grey's relations with his wife, Eliza Grey, had not been happy. She accused him of committing infidelities, even in their own house. While at sea, returning to South Africa, she formed a romantic attachment, not believed to have been consummated, to Rear Admiral Sir Henry Keppel. Grey learned of this and had her put ashore at Rio de Janeiro. They were not to be reconciled until 36 years later.

In 1860 war had broken out in Taranaki, New Zealand, over the disputed purchase of the Waitara block. Grey offered to return to New Zealand, in the hope that his great mana would enable him to make peace. His offer was accepted, and he began criticising the New Zealand governor, Thomas Gore Browne, before he had left Cape Town. Responsible government had been introduced in New Zealand, but Browne had reserved Māori affairs for imperial control. Late in 1861 Grey informed the Colonial Office that he had arranged to act through his ministers in matters of native affairs as in other matters. That was not, however, a fact. Some months later he wrote privately that his ministers were responsible for everything except native affairs, and added that, 'This absurd system of Government is as trying to them as it is to myself'. From this time onwards Grey's wilful, self-centred and arbitrary conduct arouses the suspicion that he had lost his good judgement. Certainly he was constantly under great strain.

Browne had threatened to invade Waikato to put down the Māori King, some of whose supporters had joined in the fighting against the government in Taranaki. Grey determined to negotiate with the Waikato tribes. Beginning in 1861, he introduced there and elsewhere what were called his 'new institutions', a system of indirect rule whereby he hoped to co-operate with local rūnanga. He appointed civil commissioners and resident magistrates to represent the government and to introduce British law in Māori districts. But none of his new policies had noticeable effect in Waikato. The Māori were intensely suspicious of Grey's intentions. A major problem was that the Auckland settlers feared a Waikato attack. To forestall this, Grey, in 1863, built a military road directly threatening the Waikato tribes. It was built in case his new policies failed, and it ensured their failure.

In the same year, in Taranaki, Grey, after reoccupying the Tātaraimaka block, investigated the Waitara purchase, which had precipitated the war of 1860–61, and proposed the return of the land to the Māori. Before this could be done, however, Māori in southern Taranaki, offended by the reoccupation of Tātaraimaka, attacked a detachment of troops, encouraged by Rewi Maniapoto, a principal chief of Ngāti Maniapoto. After the army had inflicted a heavy defeat on the Taranaki 'rebels', Grey and the army returned to Auckland and, in July 1863, invaded Waikato. In a series of battles some of the main tribes supporting the King were beaten, although not without heavy loss to government forces, as when the British were defeated at Gate Pā in the Bay of Plenty.

In private letters Grey expressed his hope that after several engagements the Māori would admit defeat, but he was to be disappointed. Although some tribes submitted, the war spread. Both Grey and his ministers wished to confiscate land from the 'rebel' Māori and use it to place large numbers of military settlers in their midst. A tense dispute arose between the governor and two ministers, Frederick Whitaker and William Fox, about the amount to be taken. Under the so-called self-reliant ministry, led by Frederick Weld, however, Grey in 1864 agreed to confiscation of some three million acres.

Grey also became involved in a bitter dispute with the British general, Duncan Cameron, who was acting with great caution in his efforts to defeat the Māori in southern Taranaki. Cameron suspected the government of trying to use the British Army to acquire Māori land. On one occasion, at Weraroa, Grey took to the field himself and, with a small force of colonial troops and 'friendly' Māori, captured a Māori supply depot at the rear of the pā, which the Māori promptly evacuated. This was hailed, not least by Grey, as a famous victory.

In the later 1860s the British government determined to withdraw imperial troops from the colonies, and force them to accept responsibility for their own internal security. So numerous were the victories of Te Kooti, Tītokowaru and other Māori generals in 1868, however, that the government and the settlers were extremely alarmed. With the support of his ministers, Grey constantly evaded carrying out instructions to finalise the return of the regiments, which had commenced in 1865 and 1866. In the end the British government had little alternative but to terminate the appointment of so headstrong a governor in 1868.

Grey soon went to England, where he failed in an attempt to enter Parliament as a Gladstonian Liberal. He then returned to New Zealand, where he lived in his splendid home on Kawau Island, in the Hauraki Gulf. From there he emerged in 1874 to lead the fight against Julius Vogel's proposal to abolish the provincial governments set up under the 1852 Constitution. In 1875 Grey was elected superintendent of Auckland province and also to Parliament for Auckland City West. He fought vigorously in Parliament and in public to save the provinces, but without success. The Atkinson government persisted with abolition, but soon lost on a vote of no confidence over its lack of other policies. In October 1877 Grey became premier. His cabinet included some conservatives, as well as radicals such as John Ballance and Robert Stout. As he did not have a safe majority in the House, Grey asked for a dissolution, which was refused by the governor, Lord Normanby. Grey now stumped the country, stirring up considerable enthusiasm for radical causes, such as 'one man one vote'. However, in 1878 the country ran into a severe depression, which led to much unemployment. The next year the government lost a division in the House, and then failed to win a majority in the ensuing election. After the defection of four Auckland members, Grey resigned in October 1879.

Grey's ministry had introduced one or two important measures, such as Stout's Trade Union Act, but it was not a success. Within the cabinet there were deep divisions. One problem was the New Zealand Agricultural Company, in which Stout was deeply involved. Grey believed that Stout had brought the government into disrepute by his association with a speculative land enterprise. He became extremely hostile to this company and its promoters, who included Julius Vogel as well as Stout and Grey's own former treasurer, William Larnach. He attacked it relentlessly. Nevertheless, when Stout later became premier in 1884 Grey hoped that he might be invited to join the government. He was not and was embittered by the alliance of Stout with Vogel in this administration.

During Grey's first governorship he had constantly called for British imperial expansion in the Pacific Islands, to exclude potential enemies, notably the French. In 1848 he had informed the secretary of state for the colonies that the principal chiefs of Tonga and Fiji had applied to him to become British subjects, and wished those territories to be annexed by the United Kingdom. The British government declined the invitation. While premier, Grey pursued the same objective. Like other New Zealand leaders, especially Vogel, he saw New Zealand's destiny as being head of a Pacific empire. In particular, he wanted the annexation of the New Hebrides to keep out the French. In 1883 he introduced a Confederation and Annexation Bill as a means of promoting British annexations. The bill was passed but it led to no results.

Grey remained in Parliament as a back-bencher, often making extremely emotional speeches, and riding several hobby-horses, such as his demand for elected governors. He denounced the legal profession for requiring entrance qualifications, which would exclude the sons of poor men. He had, however, little political influence or standing. His enemies thought him mad, but he was still capable, on occasion, of effective action. Although autocratic by temperament, Grey was intellectually democratic and often made very radical speeches on the constitution. While premier, he had contributed to the introduction of universal, adult male suffrage. In 1889, while in opposition, he moved an amendment to an electoral act, abolishing plural voting; that is, the practice of property owners' voting in each electorate in which they possess property. All his efforts, however, to make the governor and the Legislative Council elective failed.

Grey delivered a final blow for democracy when he was chosen by Parliament to be one of the three New Zealand representatives at the Australian Federal Convention in Sydney in 1891. Grey opposed New Zealand's federation with Australia, favouring instead a loose federation of the Anglo-Saxon world. However, although old, recently ill, and frail, he played a prominent role at the convention. He moved an amendment in favour of an elected governor. It was defeated, as was his attempt to place a provision in the planned constitution to enable people in the states to alter their constitutions by a majority vote in referendums. Grey was given a tumultuous reception during a triumphant progress through eastern Australia.

While politics left him little time to devote to scholarship, he was a keen naturalist and an assiduous collector of manuscripts, incunabula and other rare books. He established important libraries at Cape Town and Auckland, presenting them with his collections of books. He was also a keen botanist and established extensive collections. He wrote books on Australian Aboriginal vocabularies and on his western Australian explorations. He took a scholarly interest in Māori language and culture. He was the author of Ko nga mahinga a nga tupuna Māori (the deeds of the Māori ancestors) (London, 1854); Kō ngā mōteatea, me ngā hakirara o ngā Māori (the songs, chants and poetry of the Māori) (Wellington, 1853); Kō ngā waiata Māori (the songs of the Māori) (prepared in Cape Town, 1857); and Kō ngā whakapepeha me ngā whakaahuareka a ngā tīpuna o Aotea-roa (proverbial and popular sayings of the ancestors of the New Zealand race) (Cape Town and London, 1857).

Although re-elected to the House of Representatives in 1893, Grey left for England in the following year and did not return. He resigned his seat in 1895. He and his wife were reconciled in 1897, but both died in 1898, he on 19 September in a London hotel. He was buried in St Paul's Cathedral. Grey was one of the most remarkable nineteenth century British colonial governors, and one of the most remarkable people who have lived in New Zealand.

How to cite this page:

Keith Sinclair. 'Grey, George', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1g21/grey-george (accessed 14 July 2024)