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Story: McLean, Donald

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McLean, Donald


Administrator, runholder, politician, provincial superintendent

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

Donald McLean was a Scottish Highlander, born on 25 October 1820, the third son of Margaret McColl and her husband, John McLean, at Kilmaluag on Tiree, one of the Inner Hebrides. John McLean was a tacksman, holding a large lease from the Duke of Argyll, probably with sub-tenants of his own. The young Donald was born into gentry not peasant life, with a nurse and a tutor. But Argyll subdivided his estate and John McLean was dispossessed. From the age of about 11 Donald was educated by his mother's brother, the Reverend Donald McColl, for the Presbyterian ministry. Donald studied history, literature and divinity until 1838 when he sailed for New South Wales, accompanying relatives who had government connections. After a brief attempt at squatting near Bathurst, he took employment with the Sydney merchants Abercrombie and Company, the position carrying a modest salary and a house.

This firm sent him to the Auckland area, New Zealand, in 1840. He stayed on, cutting timber and managing a schooner on the Waihou River and the Firth of Thames for the trader John McLeod. Here he acquired a good knowledge of Māori, perhaps helped by his being already bilingual in Gaelic and English. In March 1844, through the influence of Andrew Sinclair, colonial secretary and a Scot, he was appointed to the Protectorate of Aborigines. Posted as sub-protector in Taranaki, McLean had to mediate in a diverse range of conflicts between Māori and settler, notably those caused by the damaging of Māori cultivations by settlers' stock. He had to calm the Taranaki tribes, angered by the land claims commissioner's recognition of the New Zealand Company's crude purchase of Taranaki land. At the meeting he convened for Governor Robert FitzRoy he would first have heard the vehement opposition of Wiremu Kīngi Te Rangitāke to the sale of land at Waitara. But McLean had also begun to develop a rapport with Taranaki settler families angered by FitzRoy's refusal to confirm the commissioner's award.

McLean acquired standing among Māori for his knowledge of their language and his respect for rank and protocol. He was also industrious and accessible, putting aside social engagements if Māori callers wanted his attention. He enjoyed bush travel, comparing the wild valleys and streams with those of Scotland and extolling the pleasures of a tent camp after a hard ride – the encircling fires and the songs and storytelling of his companions, Māori and settler.

He also clearly enjoyed the sense of being able to 'arrange' matters among Māori and between Māori and settler. When Governor George Grey abolished the protectorate in 1846, to bring about a more direct 'amalgamation' of Māori into British institutions, he recognised McLean's skill and retained him as a police inspector in Taranaki. McLean and his troop of Māori police administered firm and by and large fair justice, working with tribal leaders. He identified closely with hard-working bush settlers but was contemptuous of the 'drunken blackguards' and 'scum of the earth', who offended his Calvinistic morality or his gentry susceptibilities. He insisted on settlers' honouring agreements with Māori and making recompense for injury. But he also shared the settlers' loathing of Māori 'bounce' – the tendency of some to extort goods and services from settlers under threat of violence – and their aspiration to freehold title, not mere 'tenancy on sufferance' as McLean called the usual arrangements made with Māori.

For, notwithstanding his occasional romantic comment about robust Māori independence, McLean also considered their culture to be primitive and in need of improvement through the influence of British civilisation. He enjoyed meeting with other Highland settlers, swapping stories and songs and practising his Gaelic. But such touches of nostalgia, like his romanticism about the bush, were minimal compared with a more generally 'British' view of progress. He foresaw a time when the New Zealand 'waste' would be replaced by 'cottages with their smiling cheerful inhabitants gratefully acknowledging the advantages they and their smiling red faced healthy urchins may derive from the early pioneer of the land of their adoption'. This was also an exercise in self-glorification, for the 'early pioneer' was McLean himself.

Indeed McLean adapted himself quite strenuously to the conventions of patrons like Peter Wilson, colonial surgeon in New Plymouth, and his wife, Helen Wilson, who looked on the handsome young official as her son and tutored him in the manners of the society in which she was a leader.

In town McLean enjoyed the round of balls and dinners and the company of young ladies. He courted and on 28 August 1851 in Wellington married Susan Douglas Strang, daughter of Robert Strang, the registrar of the Supreme Court in Wellington and a lowland Scot. McLean's letters to her show the usual stiff formality of the Victorian gentry but also a degree of censoriousness and didacticism unusual even in a husband of those times. Yet her independent-mindedness and affection softened him and before long the earnest, self-righteous McLean loved her in a way which surprised himself. Her death in December 1852, soon after giving birth to their son, Douglas, robbed him of a humanising influence. Although he occasionally courted women with 'good amiable prudent qualities and some money in the bargain', he never remarried. About his son he wrote in terms of genuine affection, although to the boy himself he showed caring and concern rather than warmth. Only with his young sister, Annabella, whom he brought out to New Zealand in 1862 (following brothers Alexander and John and accompanying another sister, Catharene), did he display real affection. Shrouded in a generalised religiosity and a sense of duty, he was a lonely, self-reliant man.

Meanwhile his career prospered. In 1848 Grey began to use him in land purchase negotiations in Taranaki and Hawke's Bay. In 1854 Grey formally established a Land Purchase Department (although informally it had existed since 1850). In 1853 McLean had become chief land purchase commissioner on a salary of £600. He set about his task vigorously, prosecuting settlers holding extra-legal leases and pressing Māori to sell the freehold. His early acquisitions showed care to gain the consent of hapū in open dealings. But the rangatira knew the advantages of leasing and, by the mid 1850s, as their resistance to selling grew, McLean developed the practice of making payments to some hapū leaders, promising them Crown grants as individuals if the purchase was completed, and hoping that they would persuade a majority of the rightholders to sell. The practice provoked mounting tension and finally physical conflict between sellers and non-sellers.

When later his methods were denounced by Samuel Williams and William Williams, and McLean was called upon by Governor Thomas Gore Browne to explain his methods, he admitted the practice but wrongly attributed Māori resistance solely to the influence of a land league in Taranaki, or to the emissaries of the King movement. In the 1850s he himself became deeply involved in runholding and began to use his own staff for personal acquisitions of land; he saw no impropriety in this, since it was all part of the advancement of settlement.

McLean's dangerous complacency was reinforced by the confidence reposed in him by Governor Browne. In 1856, impressed by his expertise and apparent integrity, Browne made him native secretary as well as chief land purchase commissioner, not from any sinister motive but to bring Māori administration under one office and to avoid confusion among the Māori themselves. Together Browne and McLean withstood the pressure of the settler parliament and ministry to establish their authority over native policy, and secured the disallowance of the Native Territorial Rights Act 1858, which would have introduced direct purchase of Māori land by settlers, subject to buyers' paying a tax to the government.

But if such paternalism brought benefits in some areas, in Taranaki it brought disaster. McLean clearly carries the responsibility for permitting Browne to accept the offer of land at Waitara from Te Teira and to set aside Wiremu Kīngi's objections to the sale on behalf of Te Āti Awa. Previously, if established leaders like Kingi had intervened, he had backed off, leaving the purchase uncompleted. He had acknowledged in 1856, and even after war broke out in Taranaki in 1860, that senior rangatira did have 'a right of seigniority or mana' in such transactions. But he argued that Kingi had lost the right when he and other Te Āti Awa had fled the land in the 1830s after the attack by Waikato tribes. This is specious, because the Waikato tribes had not followed up conquest by occupation, and Te Āti Awa had begun to reoccupy, under Kingi's leadership, soon after British annexation. When in 1860 Browne and McLean convened a large meeting of Māori leaders at Kohimarama to rally support for the government's position, McLean's resolution placing the responsibility for the war directly on Kingi was greeted with embarrassment and confusion. But at no time did McLean admit error over Waitara. His letters in 1860 reveal smugness about compliments from Browne or the Duke of Newcastle on his zeal and ability.

McLean's intransigence over Waitara reflects his sharing of the attitudes of the settler community, of people like Helen Wilson, who abhorred the 'insolence' of 'ignorant savages' defiant of the Queen's authority. He was not as cavalier as those who cared not whether the government's title at Waitara was good or bad, but wanted the issue of sovereignty tested by force if necessary. As the designated expert, McLean could not admit error on the question of title. He saw the situation before 1860 as 'a smouldering volcanoe', with the Māori ready to resist further settlement 'by every means' and to reduce the settlers 'to submission or to recognition of the [Māori] King's rule'. He harped on the theme of the King movement (or the mythical land league) as the cause of the war, and hoped that a sharp lesson to those 'so infatuated as to hope that they can set up an independent nationality' would soon teach them the 'necessity of submitting to British rule'. He strongly supported Browne's policy of demanding submission from both Taranaki and Waikato.

But with the Anglican clergy and the settler ministry condemning his actions and Browne making room for other advisers on a proposed 'native council', McLean began to feel tired and isolated. Following an attack of rheumatic fever in late 1859 he had begun to think about taking leave in Britain. The war, arguments about his pension, and his increasing preoccupation with his Hawke's Bay sheep runs made him delay. When Grey returned to the governorship in December 1861 McLean hoped for renewed preferment, but Grey kept him occupied on specific tasks, notably the opening of the Thames goldfield against Kingite objections. Grey's decision to relinquish the Waitara purchase opened a rift between the two, which never healed.

In his Hawke's Bay land acquisitions McLean was heavily dependent on mortgages held by an English capitalist, Algernon Tollemache, who also became a mentor to Douglas McLean. In turn McLean advanced capital or backed the debts of smaller settler clients and rangatira such as Te Hāpuku. His associates in Hawke's Bay urged him to take the superintendency of the province and he was elected early in 1863.

When war was resumed in mid 1863 he was made general government agent, Hawke's Bay, an appointment which involved him in the East Coast war. McLean wrote, 'I am not bloodthirsty but I hope our enemies will now begin to feel our power and soon see the necessity of yielding to British prowess and skill'. McLean was skilful in diplomacy with the East Coast Māori leaders, working against Kingite influence. He also marshalled settler defence corps effectively. But he could not stop the incursions of Hauhau in 1865 and his response was again a hard one: to demand submission and cession of land. The adamant pursuit of this policy in Poverty Bay and the detention of Hauhau prisoners on the Chatham Islands led to their subsequent escape under Te Kooti and his onslaughts on the East Coast settlements.

In 1866 McLean was elected MHR for Napier. In his autocratic way he deplored democracy and hated going to the hustings, but he enjoyed parliamentary life. It was largely his political support and his reputation as a 'practical man', not a mere 'theorist', which led in 1867 to the provision for four Māori members of Parliament, the Native Schools Act (to set up primary schools teaching in English in Māori communities), and the clauses of the Resident Magistrates Act that continued the system of Māori assessors and police working with settler magistrates in rural districts.

The renewed fighting in 1868 and the realisation that the Māori could still threaten most North Island settlements brought a popular outcry against the Stafford government and calls for McLean to take charge of Māori affairs. He was at first reluctant to do so, because of his involvement with his sheep runs. Nevertheless, in 1868 he moved an opportunistic resolution against E. W. Stafford, made an opportunistic alliance with his old adversary, William Fox, and entered the Fox–Vogel government of 1869 as native and defence minister.

There was no real distinction between McLean's public and private lives. His heavily mortgaged estate, like many others, depended for its wellbeing on the peace and progress of the colony. He did not seek either the premiership or a lengthy political career. He sought only to pacify the Māori and expected to do so within a short time and then return to his Hawke's Bay estates.

However, he held almost unbroken office until December 1876. Three changes underlay his success in securing peace. First, McLean had at last learned the folly of land confiscation. In late 1869 he accepted the submission of Horonuku Te Heuheu Tūkino IV of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, without land confiscation, a step which, years later, bore fruit in the gift by Horonuku of the Tongariro area as a national park. Second, he secured from his network of resident magistrates and 'native agents' a constant and detailed flow of information about both Māori and settlers, and replied to them in equal detail, using the new telegraph service. Third, he streamlined the fragmented military command, using the Armed Constabulary and British regiments to garrison the frontier and to build roads rather than wage campaigns. McLean also agreed with the Kingite leaders not to pursue Te Kooti or other fugitives into the King Country, a policy he maintained despite periodic popular outcry. The colony was allowed to 'glide into a state of peace'. McLean hoped to ensure 'that outrage and crime may be repressed and the bitter feeling of race that is growing up arrested'.

McLean, like many settler leaders, considered that military action was directed only against those of the Māori people captious and misguided enough to take up arms. As he believed that European dominance was inevitable, he held that the best chance of the Māori (whom in 1868 he already considered to be 'fast passing away') lay in co-operation with settlement. He dealt with the Kingite leaders, but was careful not to recognise the King movement in a way which would entrench Māori separatism. In 1860 he had considered the movement 'too distinctive and national in character to admit of its being at present blended into any form which would recognize European direction or ascendency'. He still considered it so in 1870 when William Martin again proposed its recognition. He genuinely worked for the day when, in the words of his son, Douglas, 'the Māori race might become as one with the European, governed by the same laws, employed in the same occupations, using one common language, and sharing alike with the Europeans all the benefit of civilization'. His administration saw the rapid advance of native schools, of Māori involvement in public works and sheepfarming, and the participation of Māori leaders in local administration.

But the 1870s also saw the inexorable advance of the Native Land Court and irresistible pressure on those named on certificates of title to sell their signatures to deeds of transfer. McLean's Native Land Act 1873 required that all grantees, not just 10 trustees, be named on certificates of title, and it increased the checks on outright fraud. But his response to heated demands from Rāpata Wahawaha and other kūpapa that the whole system of Native Land Court awards exposed the Māori to pressure from 'the man with money in his hand', was to say that Māori were to be on the same footing as Pākehā and it was up to them to resist that pressure. Unfair pressure, or actual fraud, was alleged against McLean by the Repudiation movement in Hawke's Bay and then by Grey. However, the deeds to his Maraekakaho property were in order, and the Hawke's Bay commission of 1873 cleared him and his agents, though the Māori members of that commission submitted a dissenting report.

Though made KCMG in 1874, and fêted on a tour of south-east Australia, McLean was worn down by the struggle to keep the peace and advance settlement. He resigned ministerial office in December 1876 and talked again of going 'home'. However, an influenza attack threw further strain on a weakened heart and he died in Napier, aged 56, on 5 January 1877. His funeral reflected something of the ambiguity of his career, marked as it was by confusion about the role of the settler militia, by a wrangle between the English and Irish chapters of the Masonic Lodge, of which McLean had been a district grand master, and by complaints about 'the confusion of laws' in the eulogies delivered by Māori orators. He remains a controversial figure, denounced for his part in the Waitara purchase and the origins of the wars of the 1860s, and eulogised as the architect of peace after 1869. In the tradition of the Ringatū church he is remembered as 'Pharaoh', the one who held them in bondage and took away their lands.

On one plane McLean's career was highly successful. He left an estate worth over £100,000; his son and Scottish kinsfolk were well provided for. But his dedication to work had moulded an authoritarian and cold personality. Duty had prevented his attending his sisters' landfall in 1861 or seeing his son off to England in 1864 or welcoming him back in 1870. His letters are rich in practical detail about business matters, cliché'd and censorious on personal ones. In public life his ability to relate to Māori leaders through language and respect for Māori social conventions helped them to achieve in part the selective interaction they sought with the settlers. McLean stands in sharp contrast to the crassness and arrant racism of many settlers. Perhaps his Gaelic heritage contributed to this result.

But McLean too was strongly culture-bound. When Māori rejected his paternalistic programme for goals and methods of their own, McLean emphasised his Britishness, became as aggressive as any, and cloaked his aggression with self-righteousness. In the last resort, though a very senior official and politician, he was a servant of British colonisation, and his career depended on securing Māori land. Although in the 1870s a reformed McLean managed to keep the peace while supervising the leading kūpapa, he was still denounced at his death by the main Auckland daily newspaper for failing to open the King Country to settlement. This was a measure of the essential intransigence over the struggle for land, and for sovereign authority, between Māori and Pākehā which both established McLean's reputation and killed him.

How to cite this page:

Alan Ward. 'McLean, Donald', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1m38/mclean-donald (accessed 18 June 2024)