19 Apr 2021

Governor: the story of Sir George Grey - Part 1

From Black Sheep, 7:00 am on 19 April 2021

RNZ's Black Sheep Podcast presents a two-part episode on Sir George Grey, the colonial governor who led Aotearoa into many of the worst conflicts of the New Zealand Wars in the 1840s, 50s and 60s.

In this first episode, we look at how Grey gained a reputation with the British Colonial Office as an effective administrator with supposedly "progressive" attitudes towards indigenous people (at least by their standards). Some Māori also embrace Grey as a potential ally against the settlers’ hunger for land and power. However, Grey's "progressive" reputation is undermined through unfair land deals and unjust wars in his first governorship.

In the second episode, Grey becomes governor of Cape Colony, South Africa, where his ruthless, authoritarian streak grows wider. By the time he returns for his second governorship of New Zealand he is a changed man who leads Aotearoa into the largest conflict of the New Zealand Wars, the Waikato War.

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George Grey photographed by Daniel Louis Mundy

George Grey photographed by Daniel Louis Mundy Photo: Te Ara / Public Domain

At 27 years old, George Grey was an ambitious young officer in the British Army who had survived two brushes with death in the past two years.

The first came when he was put in command of an expedition to explore Western Australia. He was seriously wounded in a skirmish with local aboriginal people (probably members of the Worrorra, part of the Wanjina Wunggurr cultural bloc).

Grey's expedition trespassed on sacred land and ignored multiple warnings to turn back. This ended with a violent confrontation where Grey was hit by two spears, one lodged deep in his hip and left him with a lifelong limp. He responded by shooting and killing an aboriginal leader. 

The next year he led a second disastrous expedition. He and his men were marooned by a storm and forced to trek 700 kilometres overland to Perth. One man died in the process.

A lot of the failings of these expeditions should have fallen on Grey’s shoulders. However, he managed to spin the story as a rip-roaring adventure rather than a chaotic disaster. He published his version of this story in what became a best-selling book.

“[It] was compared to Robinson Crusoe!” says historian Edmund Bohan, author of To Be A Hero: A Biography of Sir George Grey. “That sort of set him off as the coming young man who was strong, physically brave and all the rest of it.”

Grey’s book took some heavy liberties with the truth, but it won him friends in high places. Its influence helped get him a job as Resident Magistrate of Albany, a town in southwestern Australia. 

But what really turbocharged George Grey’s career was a 37 point report which he wrote after his first year in that job.

He sent this report to the head of Britain’s Colonial Office, Lord John Russel. Lord John loved it so much that he sent it to Parliament, and Parliament loved it so much that they appointed Grey as Governor of South Australia. 

He was just 28 years old, the youngest governor in the entire British Empire 

So what was in this 37 point report? Well here's how it begins:

“I have the honour of submitting to your Lordship a report upon the best means of promoting the civilisation of the aboriginal inhabitants of Australia…”

This report is basically a manifesto for Grey’s future career, not just as governor of South Australia, but of New Zealand and South Africa as well. It also reveals a lot about Grey’s personal beliefs about indigenous people. 

The report can seem self-contradictory. At one point Grey describes aboriginal people as “hopelessly immersed in their present state of barbarism”, but a few lines later he says they are “as apt and intelligent as any other race of men I am acquainted with”.

What gives? Well, Grey believed all races were equal in terms of intelligence and morality; no-one was born inferior by dint of their race. Throughout his life he had no time for believers in pseudo-Darwinist theories of racial hierarchy. 

But he was also totally convinced that the cultures of indigenous people were inherently inferior to his own. He believed the British Empire should forcibly assimilate indigenous people into British culture - destroying their way of life in the process.  

Professor Jeff Peires, a historian at Fort Hare-Alice University in Grahamstown, South Africa puts it like this:

“[George Grey’s] attitude was that Africans are just as good in every way as Europeans ... but they are trapped in a dead end culture. In that dead end culture there is nothing good, nothing praiseworthy. Therefore, we need to destroy their culture root and branch in order for the human being to realise his or her full potential.”

Grey’s ideas had all kinds of problems. Arguably they rate as a form of cultural genocide. But he and the Colonial Office convinced themselves that their cultural imperialism was in the best interest of indigenous people. They saw themselves as humanitarian heroes helping to “uplift” supposedly “barbaric” people.

But as we’ll see in this episode of Black Sheep, George Grey’s supposed idealism hid a ruthless, authoritarian streak. In his first term as governor of New Zealand he presided over two wars with Māori, and the Canterbury Purchase: An unfair land deal which swept up eight million hectares of Ngāi Tahu land for just two thousand pounds. 

In our second episode, the story of Sir George Grey gets even darker.

This article has been edited from an earlier version due to inaccuracies. RNZ apologises for these errors.