Page 1: Biography
Farmer, soldier, politician
This biography, written by Hazel Riseborough, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993. It was updated in March, 2022.
John Bryce was born in Glasgow, Scotland, probably on 14 September 1833, the son of Grace McAdam and her husband, John Bryce, a cabinet-maker. John junior, his father, an older brother and a younger sister arrived in New Zealand early in 1840 on the Bengal Merchant. They landed at Petone, then settled in Wellington where John Bryce senior worked for some years as a carpenter, before moving to a bush farm in the Hutt valley.
Bryce had little opportunity for formal schooling and was largely self-educated. Before settling to farming he had a variety of rural occupations, and in 1851 went to Australia and spent two years on the goldfields. He returned to New Zealand in 1853, settling at Brunswick, near Whanganui, where he farmed for the next 50 years. Even after he sold the property and moved into Whanganui in 1903, he claimed he was still a farmer since he also had 'a very good farm at the back of "Feilding" '. On 28 September 1854, at Brunswick station, Bryce married Elizabeth Ann Campbell; the couple were to have 14 children: eight daughters and six sons.
Bryce entered local politics in 1859 and served on various road boards. He was elected to the Wellington Provincial Council in 1862 as member for Whanganui and Rangitīkei, and fought hard for separate government for his district which he felt was largely neglected by the provincial capital. In 1863 he resigned from the council on a matter of principle – the first of many actual or threatened resignations from public office. He returned to the council in 1865, and in 1866 was also elected to represent Whanganui in the General Assembly. A year later, in February 1867, ill health compelled him to resign from both provincial and central governments.
When Whanganui came under military threat from Ngāti Ruanui leader Tītokowaru, the local settlers formed the Kai-iwi Yeomanry Cavalry Volunteers, and Bryce was commissioned as lieutenant. He was more proud, he said later, of that position than any other he ever held. In November 1868 troops from the cavalry, led by Bryce, encountered a group of 'Hauhau', who proved to be unarmed children – boys 10 or 12 years old – out chasing pigs and geese near William Handley's woolshed on the Nukumaru flats. The troop charged the boys, killing two and wounding others. The commanding officer reported that Lieutenant Bryce was 'prominent and set the men a gallant example'.
The Handley's woolshed affair had a sequel years later when G. W. Rusden published his History of New Zealand (1883), in which he stated that Bryce and Sergeant G. Maxwell had dashed upon women and children 'and cut them down gleefully and with ease'. Bryce sued Rusden for libel, and the case was heard in the High Court in London. It was soon proved that there were no women present at Handley's woolshed, and Bryce claimed that far from being prominent in the affair he had really taken no part in it. The verdict in the case went against Rusden and resulted in the suppression of his book and the award to Bryce of damages of £5,000. Bryce, who felt vindicated by the judgement, accepted a lesser sum merely to cover his costs.
In 1871 Bryce was returned unopposed to the General Assembly to represent Whanganui. He held that seat until 1882, and then Waitōtara until 1887. He was chairman of the Native Affairs Committee from 1876 to 1879, and minister for native affairs from 1879 to 1884. His views were hopelessly at variance with Māori aspirations, but were not unsuitable in a government committed to reducing expenditure on Māori affairs. As minister he began to dismantle the Native Department, transferring some of its functions to other government agencies. He rigidly enforced the law against Māori who resisted the alienation of their land, and greatly increased the power of the Native Land Court. The Māori were to be given 'the greatest facilities for…placing their land before the public for sale'.
When Bryce took office, Te Whiti and Tohu and their followers were engaged in a campaign of non-violent resistance to the survey of the Waimate plain in south Taranaki. Survey pegs were removed and lands ploughed up. There were already 200 ploughmen in gaol, supposedly awaiting trial. Bryce lost no time in introducing the Confiscated Lands Inquiry and Māori Prisoners' Trials Act 1879, the first of many pieces of controversial legislation which would enable him to keep ploughmen and fencers in prison without trial for up to two years. He was soon threatening to resign if his repressive legislation was not passed. In September 1880, because of 'the constant differences of opinion' which existed between himself and the cabinet over the conduct of affairs in Taranaki, he actually tendered his resignation; his colleagues preferred not to accept it and persuaded him to withdraw it. By January 1881, however, with questions being asked in the British parliament about the conduct of Māori affairs in New Zealand, it was expedient to allow him to resign and appoint in his place the more reasonable and moderate William Rolleston.
Bryce had a very different background from most cabinet ministers of his time, but was seen to be useful to the government in that he could be 'made a tool of by designing men of higher social standing and greater mental capacity'. As the stand-off in Taranaki continued, the government decided to call Bryce back to the cabinet to put into effect his 'vigorous policy' of breaking up the village at Parihaka, the focal point of resistance, arresting its chiefs and dispersing their followers.
On the night of 19 October 1881 Rolleston, in his last act as minister for native affairs, signed and 'published all over the colony' a proclamation giving the Parihaka people 14 days in which to submit to the law of the Queen or risk the loss of all their lands. Bryce was sworn in immediately as minister for native affairs and defence, and early the next morning was on the road with the proclamation. The governor, Sir Arthur Gordon, opposed to what he saw as Bryce's bellicose views, returned to Wellington later the same evening from a visit to Fiji; his earlier presence may have restrained the ministers.
On 5 November 1881 some 1,600 volunteers and Armed Constabulary, commanded by Colonel J. M. Roberts but under the direction of Bryce, marched on Parihaka. Bryce rode onto the marae and ordered the arrest of Parihaka's leaders. In the following days he ordered the destruction of the village and the dispersal of the bulk of its inhabitants. The press, banned from the field of action by Bryce, were ambivalent about the government's actions, but nine-tenths of the colony were reportedly in favour. Te Whiti and Tohu were detained without trial for 16 months. The government managed to suppress all official documents relating to these events, and their publication in New Zealand was delayed until 1883 and 1884.
The government had displayed a united public front over the events at Parihaka, but Bryce continued to act 'without consultation with his colleagues'. In April 1882 Premier John Hall telegraphed Frederick Whitaker, the attorney general, that he would not agree to remain in office 'unless Bryce turned over a new leaf'. Hall's telegram fell into the hands of Bryce who took umbrage and resigned. This precipitated the resignation of the entire ministry, but Bryce was appointed minister for native affairs in the Whitaker and Atkinson governments of 1882–83 and 1883–84.
He lost his seat at the 1887 election, but in November 1889 returned to the House, unopposed, as member for Waipā. Conservatives favoured him as a replacement for Premier Harry Atkinson. At the general election of 1890, again unopposed, he took the new Waikato seat, and was among those who encouraged the defeated Atkinson not to resign until he had packed the Legislative Council with opponents of the new Liberal government. Bryce was briefly leader of the opposition, but was censured by the House after refusing to withdraw words critical of the premier. In his typical uncompromising manner, and amid great controversy, he resigned his seat, and his parliamentary career came to an end.
In retirement Bryce devoted himself to farming, chess and bowls. He published, in 1903, his own version of the events at Parihaka in a series of newspaper articles on Māori fanaticism. He claimed that Māori unrest was not caused by dissatisfaction over land, but was the manifestation of a deeply superstitious culture. Te Whiti, he claimed, had maintained his power over his followers by exploiting their superstition. He stated, on the 25th anniversary of the invasion of Parihaka, that the incident was one on which he looked back with no regrets or misgivings.
During a long career John Bryce had been a severely practical man – stubborn and independent, a difficult colleague. He was variously described as a man of resolute will and sterling honesty; a persecutor and a tyrant; narrow-minded, opinionated and obstinate; and a man with embittered feelings on Māori questions. Bishop Octavius Hadfield reported that he was known to west coast Māori as Bryce kōhuru (Bryce the murderer). A grandson remembered him as 'peppery and frugal, kindly in a very paternal way, but not to be crossed lightly'. He died at his Whanganui home on 17 January 1913, three years after the death of his wife.