30 Apr 2018

Honest Murderer: the story of John Bryce

From Black Sheep, 1:00 pm on 30 April 2018

Pākehā settlers in Taranaki knew John Bryce as “Honest John” but Taranaki Māori had another nickname. They called him “Bryce Kōhuru” - Bryce the Murderer. In this episode of Black Sheep William Ray investigates the life of the infamous Native Affairs Minister.

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John Bryce

John Bryce Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library Reference: 1/4-006754; G

John Bryce has gone down in history as an arrogant sometimes brutal man, with harsh attitudes towards Māori, even for his time.

But nobody is born racist, so where did it come from? The earliest hint comes when Bryce was just six years old, living in Glasgow in 1839.

John Bryce’s mother had recently died from tuberculosis and his father decided to take the family from their home in Scotland to New Zealand. While they were waiting to depart on their ship this poem by Poet Laureate, Robert Southey was read:

On Zealand’s hills, where tigers steal along,

And the dread Indian chants a dismal song,

Where human fiends on midnight errands walk,

And bathe in brains the murderous tomahawk.

Along with that slightly bloodcurdling poem, six-year old John Bryce would have heard the passengers and crew telling stories of the Boyd massacre, where around 60 Europeans were killed and eaten by Māori at Whangaroa.

John Bryce was among the initial Wellington immigrants celebrated by this commemorative stamp.

John Bryce was among the initial Wellington immigrants celebrated by this commemorative stamp. Photo: CC 2.0

Bryce and his fellow passengers were among the very first colonists to settle in the Wellington region at Pito-one (now called Petone) under the protection of a local rangatira, Puakawa. But, just three weeks after the settlers arrived in Petone, Puakawa was killed in a raid by followers of Te Rauparaha from the Kapiti Coast.

When he turned 13 John Bryce had another foundation experience of Māori. 1846 saw the outbreak of the Hutt War, between Māori and Pākehā in the Wellington region.   

A romanticised painting of bugler William Allen by Arthur McCormick

A romanticised painting of bugler William Allen by Arthur McCormick Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library Reference: A-004-044

50 years later John Bryce related the story of Bugler William Allen a young man who, according to popular legend, spotted a raid and continued to sound the alarm despite axe wounds to both arms. The story goes that he held the bugle between his knees and kept blowing until he was struck in the head and killed.

This incident “made a lasting impression on Bryce,” says historian Moyra Cooke, who researched John Bryce for her masters thesis.

A few years after the end of the Hutt War John and his older brother went to Australia to become diggers in the Victorian gold rush. They must have struck a good lode because when they returned they were rich enough to buy land for farming at Brunswick, near Whanganui.

Unfortunately that area of the country was not a particularly safe place to live at the time, either for Māori or settlers, thanks to the outbreak of the Taranaki Wars.

“It got very close to Whanganui and certainly through the Kai Iwi District, a lot of settlers had their houses set on fire,” Moyra Cooke says. “This lead to the country people getting together to discuss how they could protect their families and protect their property. This resulted in the formation of the Kai Iwi cavalry in 1868.”

John Bryce was selected to lead the Kai Iwi cavalry, a militia made up of self-equipped volunteer farmers.  A letter from Bryce's commanding officer, George Whitmore, paints a dismal picture of the unit:

“A motley group of horsemen from fourteen to sixty years of age, a perfect pack of devils and most uncontrollable. If they smell natives they follow Bryce like a pack of hounds and cut, slay and destroy the poor natives before you have time to look around you.”

The most infamous incident of the Kai Iwi cavalry’s ill discipline and bloodthirstiness came after their first mission on 25 November 1868. A group of Māori were spotted near a woolshed and the order was given to charge.

“And as soon as they did, they realised the Māori they were chasing were young, unarmed boys,” says Moyra Cooke. “The officers tried desperately to regain control of them …  Bryce got ahead of [Sergeant] Maxwell who was leading the charge and ordered him and the rest of his men to retire.”

Maxwell and the other troops refused and two boys were killed, aged 10 and 12.

Rightly or wrongly this incident earned John Bryce a nickname among Taranaki Māori: Bryce Kōhuru - Bryce the Murderer.

Even before the Taranaki Wars John Bryce had a keen interest in politics and a reputation for arrogance and stubbornness in pursuit of his goals. On four occasions he resigned in protest rather than back down from a fight.

“He was not popular,” explains Moyra Cooke. “He had no finesse, he had no subtlety about him at all.”

In spite of his frequent and heated clashes with fellow politicians, Bryce eventually rose to become Native Affairs Minister in 1879 and inherited the issue of Parihaka.

Bryce was among those who wanted strong action taken against the leading figures of the pacifist village; Te Whiti, Tohu and Tītokowaru. On November 5th, 1881 he got his chance.

Mounted on a white charger he personally led 1600 armed police and volunteers to arrest its leader and evict “strangers” who’d come to live in the village, which at the time was the largest Māori settlement in the country.

Armed Constabulary units at Parihaka, 1881

Armed Constabulary units at Parihaka, 1881 Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library, Parihaka Album Reference: PA1-q-183-19

It’s unclear whether Bryce was aware of, or tried to prevent, some of the worst crimes at Parihaka (including looting, sexual assault and rape). However it’s certainly true he ordered the burning of homes and the destruction of crops. This caused significant hardship for the people later in the year.

Bryce had many other roles in his time as native affairs minister, one of his most difficult tasks was negotiating with King Tawhiao to “open-up” the King Country so a railroad could be built.

George Rusden whose book, History of New Zealand, caused John Bryce to sue for libel

George Rusden whose book, History of New Zealand, caused John Bryce to sue for libel Photo: Public Domain

But he put this work on hold to deal with a personal matter. In 1883 a controversial book called History of New Zealand was published. It’s author, George Rusden, was highly critical line of the colonial government’s relationship with Māori and in one passage it took direct aim at John Bryce, referencing his actions while leading the Kai Iwi cavalry:

“Some women and young children emerged from a pa to hunt pigs. Lieutenant Bryce and Sergeant Maxwell of the Kai Iwi Cavalry dashed upon them and cut them down gleefully and with ease.” - History of New Zealand

This passage was not accurate. There were no women present and John Bryce actually tried to stop the pursuit rather than taking part in the killing.

Bryce was furious about the way the book portrayed him and traveled to London where he successfully sued Rusden for libel. He was supported by most of his peers in Parliament as well as the vast majority of white New Zealanders who saw Rusden’s book as an attack on the reputation of the colony as a whole. However that support didn’t last long after he won the case.

“He returned to a succession of banquets and illuminated addresses but they didn’t really do him any favours with his electorate,” Moyra Cooke says. “He lost the next election in Waitotara because his electorate felt they’d been neglected while he pursued his own interests”

From this point John Bryce’s star seemed to wane. He eventually resigned from parliament for the final time in 1891 after being censured for saying that “the premier should be ashamed” during a heated debate in the house.

He lived for 22 years in retirement and died of a stroke in 1913.

Listen to the full Black Sheep podcast to hear the full story of John Bryce, including his strong advocacy for the “settlement” of New Zealand, and for more about his actions at Parihaka.