The governor’s island
In a succession of difficult postings—South Australia, New Zealand, South Africa—the energetic George Grey proved himself one of the British Empire’s most able governors. Yet when he returned to New Zealand in 1861 for a second term, the magic was fading. The colony was on the brink of civil war, and local politicians were unwilling to allow Grey his former power. As an escape from the increasing pressure and frustration of public life, Grey purchased Kawau Island, building a grand house there amid exotic gardens and filling it with treasures. On the centenary of the death of Sir George Grey—soldier, statesman, explorer, philanthropist—we pay a lingering visit to Mansion House.
It was late on a calm autumn evening in 1885 when, at the end of its 50-kilometre run, the weekly steamer from Auckland parted company with the red-sailed fishing boats drifting lazily homeward and cleared the headland of Kawau Island.
At the rail as the steamer nudged into Momona Bay was Englishman James Froude, the close friend and biographer of Thomas Carlyle and himself a hugely popular historian and essayist. Fresh from the heated muds of Rotorua, and on the last leg of an antipodean tour in the company of his son and a friend, the well travelled writer carried letters of introduction to governors and cabinet ministers. He needed none. As the most celebrated intellectual to visit New Zealand in the second half of the 19th century, Froude found every door open. He was followed by crowds, feted by the powerful and lionised by the press.
Yet Froude had forsaken visiting Dunedin and Christchurch, the seat of government and the Southern Alps, Lake Manapouri and Lake Wakatipu, to be here in the bay of this remote, deeply wooded inlet; to spend time in the company of someone he considered the most interesting person in the country—a man who was leading a “Robinson Crusoe kind of existence” on a solitary island in the Hauraki Gulf.
As Froude scoured the approaching jetty, his eyes found what they were searching for. Standing at the end of the pier, framed by his imposing two-storeyed house and parklike grounds, was a frail, white-haired man of 73—Sir George Grey.
The 14 years since their meeting in London had visibly aged this singular man, a former governor of three nations and New Zealand premier, a man who, more than anyone living or dead, had stamped his mark on the colony and moulded its destiny. His piercing blue eyes had lost some of their colour, his once-elastic gait had stiffened, and his movements were hesitant. Yet Froude, himself a lean 66-year-old, was to find Grey’s voice clear still, his mind agile and his memory sharp.
Alongside Grey stood William Aldis, professor of mathematics at Auckland University College, and his wife. They were just two among an endless stream of distinguished guests who over the years had been moved to seek out Grey’s company on this island retreat.
“From Ohinemutu and its tourists, from the Auckland Club and its politicians, we had passed into an atmosphere of intellect, culture, science, and the mellow experience of statesmanship,” Froude was later to write.
Entering George Grey’s kauri-lined drawing room, he discovered a veritable treasure house. The walls were hung with oil paintings and steel engravings. Greenstone mere formed decorative patterns with Aboriginal boomerangs and assegais and shields from Africa. Cabinets of curiosities stood beside loaded bookcases and tables stacked with London quarterlies and weeklies only a month or two old.
Froude was impressed: “Every important movement in domestic, foreign, or colonial politics could be studied as exhaustively at Kawau as in the reading-room at the Athenaeum.”
That first night, perhaps in deference to his new guest’s literary interests, Grey produced some of the jewels in his rambling collection: a 14th-century French illuminated manuscript, a Greek 12th-century volume of the four Gospels presumed to be from Mount Athos, early editions of Geoffrey Chaucer and William Blake, biblical texts in Māori by Colenso and Yate.
The next morning Froude swam and dined on homemade bread, cream and mullet, “silvery as salmon and almost as good,” that he had earlier seen Grey’s men haul from the bay with a seine.
He then took in the surrounding gardens, temperate as any in southern Italy and perfumed with orange blossom, citron and stephanotis. Scattered informally about the grounds were rare flowering shrubs from South America and Japan. In Grey’s earthly paradise grew magnolias, Brazilian palms and Indian rhododendrons, the coral tree and the Moreton Bay fig. On the shore stood massive pohutukawa, their lower boughs encrusted with oysters, while further up the valley and on the flanking hillsides a bewildering variety of exotics flourished alongside native kauri and rata. There were Indian ‘deodars, oaks and elms from England, South African silver firs, red gums, wattles and blue jacarandas from across the Tasman, Mediterranean oleanders and walnut, Fijian spider lilies, bamboos, bougainvillea.
Surveying the groves of laurel and bay in the grounds, the pines 80 and 100 feet high and the immense stand of cedars, Froude was struck by their collective beauty. “No landscape gardener could have spread his plantations with better art than Sir George,” he wrote.
As to the catalogue of animals that had made a home here, it almost defied belief. Indian peacocks strutted across the well-tended lawns while Chinese pheasants, emu, turkeys, guinea fowl and Californian quail went about their business. Rosella parakeets flashed in the greenery and kookaburras added a discordant note from the treetops. Less obvious were the larger and more wary creatures the wild hogs and elk, the Cape sheep, antelopes and wapiti, the kangaroos, possums and wallabies. Though his zebras, imported at great expense, had died shortly after arriving, monkeys thrived, taking a special interest in the fruit of the Chilean wine palms that grew near Sir George’s house.
Kawau impressed itself on Froude as a tranquil province of learning and refinement, an idyllic kingdom created by a towering statesman now in his sunset years, a well-loved patriarch surrounded by servants gardeners, shepherds, household help and one who had earned a degree of loyalty uncommon in the fiercely democratic colony.
The Aldises soon returned to Auckland, and Froude’s son and their companion headed inland with the keepers to shoot wallaby-a thing hateful to Sir George, but necessary to hold the island’s vigorous marsupial population in check. Froude seized on the chance to take the air with his host, discussing Carlyle, whom Grey had known in England, and mulling over the plight of the Boers in South Africa. Grey had 25 years earlier been governor of the Cape Colony, and had come to admire the hardy and independent Dutch farmers. Like Froude, he deplored their poor treatment at the hands of the British.
Froude the historian, who distrusted universal suffrage for its tendency to encourage what today would be called the “dumbing down” of politics, must have objected to Grey’s passionate determination to help create a truly egalitarian society. But in other ways—in their love of nature, their attachment to the British Empire, their Anglo-Irish ancestry and their strong Christian faith—they found much common ground.
In advanced age as in his prime, Grey was buoyed by an unshakable faith in Providence and by a simple evangelical piety. He said grace before all meals and held Sunday service for staff in his wood-panelled drawing room. His religion was that of a man to whom duty was the highest good. He radiated the calm of a person no longer plunged into the fray of things, yet often had pressing matters to attend to—and, as ever, when persuasion failed, he usually won arguments by thorough preparation, by a mastery of details his opponent had ignored.
So, while Grey pored over his facts, Froude was left to occupy himself—by hooking sharks, sketching or exploring the library. Froude, with the help of Grey’s boatmen, was perhaps most successful on the water. Once the three of them caught and clubbed 29 sharks in two hours. “Their livers are full of oil, and our afternoon’s sport was worth three or four pounds to the men,” wrote Froude. “But it was not a beautiful operation, and a single experience was enough.”
That was not the case with the visit itself, which he was to remember as one of the most interesting times in his life. In the 1886 account of his travels, Oceana—a runaway bestseller, with 75,000 copies sold in six months—Froude devoted one adulatory chapter and two of the volume’s nine illustrations to Kawau and Sir George.
Yet life on Kawau, regulated though it was by the soothing rhythms of nature, by the weekly arrival of mail and official despatches and by urbane conversation and uplifting pursuits, was not entirely what it seemed.
Froude had come in the evening twilight of the life of one of New Zealand’s most remarkable, and perhaps most impenetrable, 19th-century figures.
Soldier, humanitarian, administrator, explorer, champion of the poor, favourite of Queen Victoria and longtime friend of the Māori—a person who, more than any, could be said to have been the architect of the nation—Grey had reached the bitter end of his political career: an outcast, beached by history. Stubborn, energetic, audacious, wilful and often a brilliantly effective leader, he had worn himself out in unflagging service on behalf of the country and his beloved monarch.
Changing times demanded different hands at the helm—people more used to constraint and less animated by an uncompromising idealism. Grey—who had once, famously, told the commander of the British Imperial troops in New Zealand that he regarded Colonial Office orders to be no more than “general indications of a line of policy to be pursued”—was now out of step and out of favour. “A rogue elephant in the political jungle,” one biographer called him. Seven years had passed since he had been forced to resign as premier, and now, a mere opposition MP, he had little public influence and no followers.
Distanced from his estranged wife for a quarter of a century, and separated now also from his niece and her family of nine children who had for long coloured his days, he lingered on at Kawau with a remnant of his former staff and in a house fallen silent.
Dogged by ill health and visited often by moods of black depression, he was not long to remain in paradise. The books that Froude so admired had already been gifted to the citizens of Auckland, and the following year would be crated up and shipped to their new home in the Auckland City Library.
Within two years Grey would sell Kawau and follow his books to the city. Then a curtain would fall over the clipped lawns and unkempt wild places, over stately architecture and the riotous excess of exotic species.
The life of the man described as one of the greatest figures in the colonial history of Empire began on a tragic note. Eight days before his birth on April 14, 1812, in Lisbon, his father, a British army officer, was killed at the storming of Badajoz.
Early on, Grey showed a trademark impatience with the discipline and confinement of school life and with a classical syllabus he felt was railroading him towards university learning and a cloistered profession. He rebelled, and entered the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. At 18, he graduated and went to serve in Ireland.
His job there was to collect tithes from a resentful and suffering population, at the point of a sword if necessary. The experience affected Grey profoundly. Instead of being a stepping stone to a military career, it awakened in him a lifelong desire to serve common humanity.
“I saw enough there to give a bias to my mind for ever as to the necessity for change and reform,” wrote Grey. “It was really from a desire to find relief for that misery that I went to Australia. In all my walks on deck, on my first voyage, my mind was filled with the thought of what misery there was in the world.”
With Royal Geographical Society support, he had engineered Government backing for an expedition to northwestern Australia, where he hoped to find a sizeable river system and so encourage settlement in the vast open interior. There, freed from Old World ills and injustices, the downtrodden poor could be given new life.
Grey set out from England in 1837 as the Victorian age dawned—his ship, HM sloop Beagle, had lain provisioned and ready at Plymouth the day Victoria came to the throne. The hard-working Beagle had just the previous year returned from Darwin’s groundbreaking five-year voyage, and Grey, who later befriended Darwin, used the naturalist’s cabin on the first leg of his own journey of discovery.
The expedition, ill conceived and poorly equipped, was not a success, but it highlighted Grey’s leadership qualities. One incident threw these into relief. Less than two weeks into their trek, and away from the main party, he and two others were ambushed by Aborigines. Grey fired shots into the air to no effect. Advancing, he was struck almost simultaneously by three spears, one wounding him badly in the hip.
“As I fell, I heard the savage yells of the natives’ delight and triumph,” wrote Grey of the incident. “These recalled me to myself, and, roused by momentary rage and indignation, I made a strong effort… The spear was wrenched from my wound, and my haversack drawn closely over it, that neither my own party nor the natives might see it, and I advanced again steadily to the rock.”
Grey shot his attacker dead, and suddenly the fight was over. In stunned silence, the Aborigines withdrew. He had saved the others, but at the cost of killing, for the first and only time in his life, a fellow human.
“I already felt deeply the death of him I had been compelled to shoot,” Grey recorded in his journal. “And I believe that when a fellow-creature falls by one’s hand… it is impossible not to sincerely regret the force of so cruel a necessity.”
For another month, in the heat of Western Australia, Grey pressed on with his party, taking laudanum to dull the pain of a wound that was to trouble him all his life. It was to no avail, and to avoid killing himself through lack of proper treatment, he was forced to call off the expedition.
Neither in this nor in a second attempt months later did he discover a suitable river. But his report, notable for its descriptions of wildlife and of the life and language of the Aborigines, and more especially for its discussion of colonisation and the treatment of indigenous peoples, awoke the Colonial Office to his abilities.
In 1840, after a spell as resident magistrate at Albany near Perth, and when still just 28 years old, he was appointed governor of a bankrupt South Australia. He set about fixing the troubled colony with an audacity and confidence that even now seems scarcely credible. By cutting spending, discouraging land speculation and helping farmers he brought stability and, little by little, prosperity. His measures were tough and, to begin with, unpopular—”Dismal Jimmy” Allen’s Southern Star newspaper carried on every issue the line from Shakespeare’s Richard III: “Think upon GREY and let thy soul despair.” But they worked. Wheat farming and the discovery of lead and copper quickly brought economic success to the temperately managed young colony.
Lord John Russell summed up the gratitude felt towards Grey by both the settlers and the Colonial Office: “In giving him the government of South Australia I gave him as difficult a problem in Colonial Government as could be committed to any man… he has solved the problem with a degree of energy and success which I could hardly have expected from any man.”
In June 1845, while riding near Adelaide with his stepbrother, Grey was waylaid by a messenger and handed a despatch from England. The situation across the Tasman had got away from Robert FitzRoy, the former captain of the Beagle on Darwin’s voyage and now the Crown’s representative in New Zealand. Grey was to be appointed lieutenant governor of the colony in his place. Grasping the moment, he wound up his official business in Australia and, gathering up what money he could from Adelaide’s treasury, sailed for Auckland.
On arrival, Grey found everything in confusion. Poor FitzRoy, out of favour with settlers and missionaries alike, had an empty till and no policy worth talking about. War flared here and there through the country, with militant Maori becoming more confident with each success and less willing to talk peace with Pakeha newcomers whom they outnumbered more than ten to one.
Reluctant, as always, to rely on second-hand reports and the advice of others, Grey left town to parley directly with Maori. He reassured them that their lands were safe, but declared he would not tolerate neutrality among the chiefs. They must choose where they stood: with Britain or with the rebels.
Returning to Auckland, he then led troops and friendly Māori north to lay siege to Kawiti’s formidable pā, Ruapekapeka, the “bat’s nest”. After weeks of hacking tracks and hauling artillery through dense and rugged country, they bombarded the pā and ousted its wily defender. Though the British proclaimed it a great victory, the battle did little to subdue disgruntled Māori. Instead, by not confiscating land, by fair dealings in his government land purchases and by an instinctive empathy, Grey won the support and friendship of the chiefs through diplomacy. This first posting in the colony was, in many ways, the high-water mark of his career, and the many taonga given to him through his life bore witness to his mana among Māori. When at the end of his governorship in 1853 he left for England, the Otaki chiefs expressed their sorrow: “Forget us not; keep us in mind frequently. Look back upon us, and in kindness remember us.” “Friend, do not persist in going hence,” said Rotorua Māori. “Turn and reside amongst us.”
The autumn morning I set out for Kawau—just a few weeks more advanced in the season than Froude had been—the weather is crisp and clear. It is not yet eight, but even from Sandspit wharf the island, nine kilometres out, is sharply defined against the pewter plate of the sea. The ferry’s only other passenger is Rita Duytshoff, a Department of Conservation officer on her way to Mansion House, Grey’s former home. As the elegant residence swings into view around the point, wedding-cake white amid the trees, Rita gathers her things together. Manager of the DOC-administered historic building for 18 years, she has spent more time in the house as Grey knew it than anyone—Grey included.
We step ashore to a scene that would not have been unfamiliar to Grey, though east of the old wharf, the sea has chewed back the beach five paces, and his mighty Kaffir boom tree, said to have been the largest in the world until reduced to a stump by Cyclone Bola, is just a mass of thorny regrowth.
I draw attention to what is the most obvious change since Grey’s time—the ornate two-storeyed veil of a verandah, added by Eliza Thomson in 1888, the year she bought the island from him. Should it not have been removed during the extensive and otherwise accurate restoration of the building in the late 1970s? I can’t help the feeling, whenever I chance on a photograph of the house dating from Grey’s tenure, that there is the soul of the man made solid. Honest, forthright, haughty even, but with a dignity shorn of ornament.
“No,” says Rita with all the finality her Dutch accent can muster. “With the verandah gone the building would look like an institution.”
Exactly what Grey himself became, I manage not to say.
Rita unlocks the house and heads upstairs to polish and clean in the warren of rooms, leaving me to drift through the Governor’s life at my leisure. I think of George Herbert’s phrase: “A Box, where sweets compacted ly.” The previous day a television crew, here to film a short destination piece, had been cursed by poor weather. Today, motes lift serenely in the sun.
I enter the drawing room, so admired by Froude and now fitted out with bequest furniture and collected period oddments, yet still redolent of Grey. Most of his furniture, made by his workers from local kauri, has long gone. But the four honeyed kauri pillars, pitsawn on the island and sent to England for turning, still stand as they did when Grey was forced to prop the sagging ceiling 120 years ago. At the far end of the room a Bible lies open on the carved davenport where he corresponded with luminaries from the worlds of science and the arts, with explorers, politicians and men of the cloth.
Grey bought Kawau for £3700 in 1862, 14 months after he had returned from a seven-year stint as governor of Cape Colony. Despite a record tarnished in South Africa by wilfulness and disobedience—he persisted, for example, in attempting to reunite independent territories in South Africa, against clear Colonial Office policy, and upset the War Office by keeping the German Legion there on full pay—Grey had asked to be sent back to New Zealand. On the strength of his earlier successes, it was agreed and he was given a second crack at the job, especially at the task of bridging the deepening rift between Māori and Pākehā.
In his absence overseas, however, the office of governor had lost much of the autocratic power and freedom of action on which Grey thrived, and New Zealand was virtually self-governing. Moreover, the settlers, now three times more numerous, had developed a relentless desire for land, and Māori were in no mood to give it up. Unable to work his old magic, Grey embarked on what was to become an often-compromised 30-year rearguard action in defence of democracy, equality and racial harmony.
He also made some questionable judgments which undermined his principles, such as authorising the confiscation of over a million hectares of Māori land in 1864 to help pay for the war in the Waikato. Such actions have left historians wondering at his true motivations.
Perhaps as a distraction from what he saw as the cupidity and unprincipled infighting of colonial politics, Grey threw himself enthusiastically into constructing his island retreat. Kawau’s first industry, copper mining, had recently foundered, and he spared no expense turning the old mine manager’s cottage and adjoining assay house into a suitable residence. The original building was extended and a new wing added in the Colonial Georgian style by the highly adaptable Frederick Thatcher. Thatcher, an architect best known for the buildings of Bishop Selwyn in Auckland and Old St Paul’s in Wellington, was also a cleric—he often took the Sunday service when at Kawau—and sometime secretary to Grey.
Ironically, the oldest part of the house suffered most at the hands of later owners, and needed entire rebuilding during restoration work in the late 1970s. Not that anyone would notice straight off—authenticity extends to the replica waxed kauri panelling in the morning room, stained with ox blood in the 19th-century manner.
The morning room itself was the province of Annie Matthews, Grey’s niece and adopted daughter, who, even after her marriage to his estate manager, acted as his companion and hostess at Kawau. Grey, childless since the death of his five-month old son in Australia in 1841, had separated from his wife, Eliza, two years before buying Kawau. The circumstances are unclear, and Grey remained mute on the subject all his life, but it seems that while the pair were returning to South Africa from England Grey discovered his wife engaged in some indiscretion, and immediately asked the ship’s captain to turn to the nearest port, Rio de Janeiro, where she disembarked.
It was the sort of decisiveness that worked well enough for Grey in the field, and, who knows, perhaps it was in their best interests. Eliza, pinned like a colonial brooch to the fringes of Empire, had grown impatient with life so far from the heart of London society. More than that, she had had a serious nervous breakdown while in South Africa, and Grey’s own health had been battered by the strain of the job there. So she went back to her friends in London, and Grey got on with his solitary, often emotionally bruising, career.
Upstairs is one of the focal points of Mansion House, the room—more likely one of several rooms—that housed Grey’s library. Not the first collection of books on Kawau—miners had earlier got up a subscription library—nevertheless it dwarfed in size and reach what those autodidacts put together, containing some 15,000 volumes dating back to the 10th century. Over one bookcase, Grey had inscribed the words: “Learn from the Past. Use well the Present. Improve the Future.”
James Grey, a journalist who visited the island in 1878, reported it to be the finest private collection in the colony.
“A visitor to Kawau could spend quite a month in the library, and by the end of that time he would find that he had not exhausted all the objects of interest and curiosity which it contained.” Among his discoveries were letters by John Milton and a stack of recent correspondence from the missionary-explorer David Livingstone.
He might also have mentioned George Grey’s own labours with the quill. A lifelong lover of languages, he collected material wherever he went, in some cases leaving the only record of languages that are now dead. He put together vocabularies of the Guanches (the first inhabitants of the Canary Islands), of Mauritius and of the Aboriginal dialects of south-western Australia.
When Grey first set foot in New Zealand he realised that to govern effectively he needed fluency in Māori, so in his few spare hours he set about learning the language. His aim was to listen sympathetically to their stories of suffering, and “even if I could not assist them, to give them a kind reply, couched in such terms as should leave no doubt on their minds that I clearly understood and felt for them.”
He soon struck an obstacle. Māori chiefs often alluded to mythology and wove proverbs and poem fragments into their speeches, the meaning of which was largely lost on outsiders. To better understand what was being said, Grey began collecting traditional poems and legends, proverbs and myths wherever he went. Three years after his arrival, Government House in Auckland burned down and everything was destroyed. It was a bitter blow. Grey lost not only the narratives but, as he told the naturalist Richard Owen: “All my plate, china, linen, wine, and the most valuable of my books, collections of curiosities, objects of natural history, native songs of different countries which I have been many years collecting, these have all now vanished in the flames.” Undaunted, Grey began again.
Recording an incident late the following year, Grey’s private secretary described his method of accumulating his material during a journey through the roadless interior of the North Island. It was the summer of 1849, and they were making their way along the Thames River towards Rotorua when heavy rain barred their progress at Te Aroha. Taking advantage of delays caused by the swollen river, the governor, who travelled in a common shooting jacket, a Jim Crow hat and worn trousers, “amused himself all day in his tent surrounded by natives, learning their songs, proverbs and ceremonies.”
At length, having reached the hot lakes, the party paddled out to Mokoia Island. Grey was delayed at the landing place by a strong wind, and an old Māori began to tell him a story. At the very place where they now sat, he said, Hinemoa had rested after swimming from the shore. Under the branches of a pohutukawa Grey then took down, word for word, the lovely legend of Hinemoa, who “rose up in the water as beautiful as the white heron and stepped upon the edge of the bath as graceful as the shy white crane.”
After a labour of eight years he had the stories that appeared in his classic 1855 book, Polynesian Mythology, and Ancient Traditional History of the New Zealand Race, first published in Māori the previous year.
There, in one book, were the legends of Maui, of Rupe’s ascent into heaven, the adventures of Rata, Kae’s theft of the whale, the curse of Manaia, and many other stories recorded with an empathy which makes Polynesian Mythology richly rewarding even today.
Grey admired Māori from the start, writing to his friend Sir Samuel Davenport in 1846: “They are splendid warriors, very eloquent, very sensible of praise, very proud… and they have shown at times as much devotion to me as if I was one of their most highly prized chiefs. Indeed, they have won all my feelings and sympathies in their favour by their conduct to me.”
Such was the mana among them of the man they called “Kawana Kerei”—in the case of the Waikato, long after he had ceased to be “Governor Grey”—that he was invited to attend tribal assemblies throughout the country, and in return pressed chiefs to visit him in Auckland. When Government House was destroyed, a Māori work gang offered to rebuild it without charge. It was even rumoured that he had contrived the escape in 1864 of Māori captured in the battle of Rangiriri and held briefly on Kawau near the old smelting house. Grey, however, blamed the Government for the break-out. In a fiery memorandum to the premier, he claimed that no captured chief would have broken his word if he had been generously treated.
“He certainly managed to endear himself in a wonderful way to a population with whom it was his duty to be fighting,” wrote English novelist Anthony Trollope of Grey, whom he met six years later.
Yet Grey was not without guile. In his first governorship he had ended warfare in the lower North Island by the simple expedient of kidnapping the ostensibly neutral chief Te Rauparaha while he slept—a legally indefensible but effective act of political cunning which his Māori opponents would have appreciated. Later, he encouraged the ageing chief Te Rangihaeta to open up his roadless lands by the seemingly innocent gift of a pony and trap.
Even the well-attested strength of his public oratory revealed his manipulative skills, as the anonymous “Phiz” reported in 1892 of a speech by Grey about poverty: “He, the speaker, is for the moment himself a shivering, starving outcast, creeping foodless and homeless along the cruel wall of some great London dock, creeping through the bitter frost or driving sleet. It chills you to the bone to look at him! So we weep at the pitiable lot which is not, but might have been ours… and to do Sir George justice he weeps a little with us except when perhaps he smiles a little at his power and our weakness.”
If Grey responded warmly to Māori, and to the public platform, his love of children knew no bounds. After the marriage of his niece Annie to Seymour Thorne George in 1872, Grey had a new nursery wing built and he was eventually to indulge three grand-nieces and six grand-nephews. One of them, Zoe, recalled having chocolate in bed with Grey, and, along with her brother Sydney, being entranced by his stories, especially of big game hunting in South Africa with Prince Alfred. The only tale he would not tell was how he came by the terrible thigh wound with “a hole you could put your hand in.”
Whenever Grey descended into one of his “vampire moods”—the ill tempered fits, mostly at imagined wrongs, that visited him increasingly in his 70s—the children would be sent up to him in the knowledge that their innocent high spirits would invariably pull him out of his dejection.
Grey’s visitors were ignorant of such stratagems. Close friends and distinguished guests such as Froude had the use of a spacious upper bedroom next to his, both of which shared a spectacular view of the bay, and they seemed to spend their time on the island in a trance-like contentment.
A distant relative, William Grey—later the Earl of Stamford—recorded a typical day at Kawau in 1887: “6.45am: cup of tea. Exercise on the beautiful breezy promontory hard by wooded sides, grassy top with scattered trees. A little theological reading. Godet on Romans at present; 9am: Breakfast. Walk about ground with Sir George Grey. A little light reading and writing, study of NZ political history; 1pm: Dinner. Walk and talk with Sir George; 5pm: Cup of tea. A little more reading and walking; 7pm: Tea. Walk up and down the jetty with Sir George. Somewhat profound discussions; 9.30pm: Bedfordshire [Grey’s word for a hot drink prior to bed].”
To sample this cracking pace for myself, I abandon Rita to her work and step out into the afternoon light. The wind soughs in the pines. Birds chatter. I am the only one in the valley, the small party that arrived by the late ferry having set off on foot up the old Coach Road towards the copper mine. I decide to retrace Grey’s circuit that wound up through the trees towards Momona Point, then round to Lady’s Bay. He was fond of showing it to his guests—it was, said Froude, “his special pleasure”.
A track of sorts begins on the wooded slopes to the west of the house. Beyond a picket fence lie the bones of an old, well-made track reached by a gate which is jammed shut by undergrowth. Pine resin scents the air and dry needles spill down the bank. A taut spiderweb spans the path. Here and there are the massive trunks of fallen trees, lodged at the base of others which tower up 30 or more metres.
These are survivors, mostly, from plantings by Grey. He was an early champion of conifers, advocating sequoia as a kauri replacement and writing with Auckland nurseryman David Hay The Pine Tree in New Zealand, which predicted a great future here for radiata.
Out near the point, a clearing reveals the deep waters leading in to the Mansion House jetty. Way below, a yacht on its motor slices a path across the bays beyond, and up into Bon Accord Harbour.
“In the course of our progress we could not help reflecting how bountiful nature had been to this gem of the Southern Pacific,” wrote James Grey, who had accompanied his attentive host along this same path in 1879.
Turning south from the point, I startle a wallaby which thumps off through the scrub and saplings. Like the pines, it is another legacy of the governor, who introduced at least five species of the marsupial, four of which can still be found on the island.
A little further on, past a luxuriant patch of agapanthus, is a small wooden hut. On the lip of sandstone cliffs 25 metres above the heaving sea, it stands where Grey is said to have had a lookout—a rustic shelter where he came to brood, to scan the horizon for ships from the city, or just to feel the knock of the wind.
Here too are the remains of a coastal pā, all but obliterated by time and the bulldozer road pushed through in the 1980s—its deep defensive boundary trench a reminder of volatile days before the discovery of manganese, then copper, turned European eyes towards the island.
Not far off, Martello Rock squats in the water above its pencil of reef, a tempting target for every passing gunner until Grey put a stop to the practice. Taking the visible lid off Martello with cannonballs would, he reasoned, make getting to his door by sea that much more dangerous.
Lady’s Bay, when I get down to it, is something of a shock. Great chunks of golden cliff have cleaved off along its length, falling to the beach and taking big pines with them. The erosion has gathered pace since I was last here eight, maybe nine, years ago, and it’s hard not to blame the pines, which have self-seeded from shelterbelts, plantations and ornamental plantings, ousting karo, pohutukawa and other natives.
But then, in a way, the fast-growing exotics symbolise what Grey was all about on the island. True, he bought Kawau as a bolt-hole from the pressures of public life. Equally, he bought it because a temperate island would best serve his interest in acclimatising plants and animals.
Kawau wasn’t his first choice, though. His interest in the culture and traditions of the Māori had prompted him to look for a place with mana, saturated in the history of the people he loved, and he had originally tried for Kāpiti Island, near Wellington. Kāpiti, however, was considered too sacred to be sold, and he had no more success with Papaitonga in Lake Waiwiri, now known as Lake Papaitonga, near Otaki. Eventually he settled for Rakino Island, in the Hauraki Gulf, before hearing that Kawau, a larger and more suitable island some 30 kilometre away, was available.
Grey had by then bought Rakino, which he continued to farm. His niece even moved there briefly when she married, before the old man’s loneliness drew her back to Kawau.
He lost no time turning Kawau into a zoological park, importing animals largely from his former postings, Australia and South Africa, and separating the various breeds on smaller outlying islands to avoid interbreeding.
The plants, chosen for their economic potential, were more widely sourced. Grey grew Mediterranean carob and stone pine, arrowroot from the West Indies, coffee and liquorice. He and his nine gardeners experimented with hemp from Mauritius, Sri Lankan cinnamon, cork oak, camphor and mulberries, medicinal aloe and the castor oil plant.
With acacia trees in mind, he once told fellow parliamentarians: “My idea is to prepare what I call prospective industries. You might have these trees growing perhaps thirty years, and be of very little use; but the time will come when people will feel the want of the materials, and then instead of having useless shrubs you will have something growing which will give wealth to the country.”
“Grey’s role in introducing plants into New Zealand is not widely known,” Department of Conservation historic resources officer Robert Brassey told me. I had met Brassey, an archaeologist by training, before my visit. He had just released a two-centimetre-thick report on Grey’s Kawau Island gardens. A meticulous labour of research, the report includes a checklist of plants known to have been trialled there by Grey. Incomplete, the list runs to more than 30 pages.
Fold-out maps show trees Brassey and his team have identified as being planted by Grey. “There is a lot more surviving in the garden from his time there than we had hoped for,” he said.
From Kawau, Grey distributed plants and seeds widely, sending them as far as the Bell settlement on Raoul [Sunday] Island in the Kermadecs. To help speed their propagation, he invited nurserymen to take cuttings, which they then sold to the public. One of his more successful efforts was the isolation of the New Zealand grapefruit, which he called “poorman orange” for its heavy fruiting and which became widely grown throughout the northern North Island. The first budwood was given to nurseryman Edward Morrison, who won a gold medal for best citrus novelty at the 1890 Brisbane Citrus Exhibition for poorman oranges “five inches in diameter, with skins no thicker than a penny.” In 1883, The Thames Advertiser reported that the first olive oil pressed in the country had come from Grey’s five-hectare olive plantation.
Grey also helped enrich public gardens, gifting plants to Wellington Botanic Gardens, Auckland Domain, Albert Park and elsewhere.
The return walk from Lady’s Bay, back down the Coach Road to Mansion House, is tranquil. Hereabouts taro, planted by early Māori, still grows wild and here too arum lilies were cut for the Wellington market early this century. John Buchanan, a naturalist who in the 1870s catalogued the island’s flora, was taken by these same exotic plantings, framed by banks of native trees. He wrote: “the extreme beauty of the landscape… is very pleasing. There is seen to great advantage that scientific combination of nature and art, which is ever the aim of the landscape gardener.”
Near the house, the path crosses a flat sward punctuated by Phoenix palms. Though the scene looks to be a part of Grey’s original design, I know better, thanks to Brassey. The palms date from the late 1950s and 60s. When Grey moved here the central avenue was lined with some 19 buildings, including a stable, an assay house and old miners’ cottages retained by Grey to house workers and guests—and to satisfy the period vogue for injecting landscapes with a sense of history.
Grey needed those cottages, and more he had built else where on the island. At his most active, he employed some 25 helpers—gardeners, kitchen staff, shepherd, governess, dairyman, farm manager, a housekeeper. One who left a record of life under Grey was his factotum, Thomas Osborne. Carpenter, boatman, and handyman, Osborne was even pressed into service on occasion to “do the Butler business.”
The pages of his diaries are full of arrivals and departures, of the comings and goings of schooners, cutters, ketches and steamships. Of daily routines—sharking, curing “waleaby” skins, prayers in the drawing room. And of unusual breaks in routine. The entry for Tuesday, March 18, 1884 reads: “The Māori king, his two sons, Rewi, and Daughter and three other chiefs come to see Sir George Grey. A busy night.” In April 1884 a Japanese warship arrives. “A number out fishing, shooting,” notes Osborne in his big plain hand. Mostly, though, it is the weather that occupies him. “Fine.” “Very stormy.” “Wet and miserable.” “Moderate.” “Fine.” Every entry in the hand-ruled notebooks prefaced by whatever meteorology the gods have thrown down.
Then comes a change of focus. November 26, 1886: “Among the Books but getting along slowly… A dirty looking night blow hard wind East.” Grey is making good his promise to gift his library to the people of Auckland. Osborne’s packing is supervised by Grey’s old friend, professor Aldis.
In 1861, Grey had donated an equally impressive collection of manuscripts and early printings to Cape Town. Perhaps, as he languished on the parliamentary back benches, he felt the time had come for this long-awaited grand gesture.
Osborne’s diary charts the progress. December 10: “We pack History and Sciences to day.” December 17: “Book packing working at the Bibles.” It was a slow business. In April the following year, Osborne was announcing, between observations on wind and sun, that he had just finished packing case 52—a full month after the library housing the collection was opened.
Sorting through his vast accumulated correspondence, now part of Auckland City Library’s George Grey Collection, was even more troublesome. There were boxes of it. Grey was proud of this part of the collection. “As I have lived in an age of discovery and movement,” he said, “to do this was to preserve a record of the history of the world at a most interesting period, written in all the confidence of friendship by the men who made the history.”
The remark smacks of conceit, but sitting in the air-conditioned chill of Auckland Central Library’s new heritage floor, I have to admit Grey was right. There before me is a spread of letters originals that Grey had at one time or another got in the mail.
A sheaf of pages in David Livingstone’s generously rounded script dated February 1863. “We have been very much baffled in our work since you left and our prospects are far from bright,” says the doctor, who is engaged in transporting the steamer The Lady of the Lake past Murchison’s cataracts in the hope of doing “something effectual toward stopping a stream of 20,000 slaves from the Lake regions.”
Geologist Charles Lyell, a year earlier: “I am coming out with a volume on the ‘geological evidence of the antiquity of Man’ & shall treat of many subjects we talked over together.”
Charles Darwin suggests that Grey might profitably examine limestone caves for evidence of contemporaries of Dinornis, the giant moa, and “erratic boulders” for clues about climate change.
Florence Nightingale tells Grey: “If a child’s brain is forced, whose father’s brain has been free, the child dies.”
Then there are the letters of appreciation. Hundreds of them. From horticultural and geological societies, museums, botanical gardens, libraries, friends and acquaintances. Philip Sclater of the London Zoological Society thanks Grey for young lions, zebras, snakes, springboks, ostriches. Henry Ellis of the British Museum is pleased to have received sea leopard skulls, albatross eggs, various birds, the skin of a Māori rat.
Facts and artefacts. Grey stalked them tirelessly in tribal language, on medieval parchment, across the plains of Africa. Such things, he told the New Zealand Society: “may serve to fill up links… to the true clue to some mystery of nature, or to establish some truth which may prove of the greatest usefulness to the human race.”
By 1894, Grey must have felt at the end of his own usefulness in New Zealand. Holed up with his niece in Parnell after the sale of Kawau and almost friendless—his growing inability to admit past mistakes got him into arguments at Auckland’s Northern Club, or got him ignored—Grey longed to be gone. Intending only to travel to southern New Zealand, Grey, now a frail 82, arrived in Wellington to find a steamer, the Gothic, about to leave for England. On impulse, he took it.
Once there, he was reconciled to the Colonial Office against which he had wrestled for the best part of half a century. He became a Privy Counsellor. He was even reconciled, through the intervention, it was said, of Queen Victoria, to his wife. It was a sad, superficial affair. After 37 years of bitter separation, neither could muster much enthusiasm. Less than two years later, on September 26, 1898, Grey died. He was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral, where he lies in the company of Nelson and the Duke of Wellington, having outlasted Eliza by two weeks.
It is hard to fathom Grey at this distance. He has recruited admiring biographers and suffered at the hands of revisionist historians, becoming in turn either a saint or an oily-tongued scoundrel. Even his own memory began playing tricks. He fabricated or omitted. At Grey’s London fireside, journalist James Milne took down the much-embroidered story of this scarred veteran. How his quick support of Lord Elphinstone during the Indian Mutiny had averted disaster. How, when framing New Zealand’s constitution, he had gone up into the mountains as the prophets had done, camping on Ruapehu “in a little gypsy tent” and drawing inspiration from the snow-capped solitude. How, in his every dealing with the Colonial Office or colonial parliaments, Grey had been right and the city-bound bureaucrats or grasping politicians wrong.
Stretching my legs in the direction of Two House Bay while waiting for the ferry, I think over Grey’s acts of friendship with Māori in this place. King Tawhiao, at Grey’s suggestion, entering into a solemn pact here that bound them both to keep away from the alcohol that threatened Tawhiao with disgrace. The old chief Eruera Patuone, who settled north of the island to keep an eye on his friend, paddling across to see Grey once more before departing from this world. Patuone pressing into Grey’s hands a walking stick set with one of his teeth a token to remember him by.
On the eastern point, before following the track down into Two House Bay, I stop to look back. In the late afternoon sun Mansion House is brightly illuminated, as though played on by a torch through scalloped cloud. Around it, dark and majestic, stand the towering trees.
“What we have in this world is like so much stage property lent to us to play our parts with,” Grey had written. “Lent to us to see what good we do with that entrusted to us.” Grey had gladly given it all away. In the end, it is not the rare books, the fiery despatches or the hitter enmities which burn brightest in the memory but a few stories of friendship. These, and the lengthening shadows of the trees.