Sir George Grey

Sir George Grey (1812-1898) was a controversial British explorer and colonial governor. A trouble shooter in South Australia, in New Zealand, and in the Cape Colony, he was a liberal opportunist who expected more egalitarian societies to evolve in new colonial environments.

George Grey was born on April 14, 1812, in Lisbon, educated at Sandhurst, and after 1830 served in Ireland. Following Charles Sturt's exploration of the Murray River system, he obtained support from the Royal Geographical Society for an expedition to Western Australia to find a river leading into the interior. He landed at Hanover Bay in 1837 and explored the Kimberley district. In 1839 he entered Shark Bay and discovered the Gascoyne River. After losing its stores, the party made an arduous trip south to Perth. The expedition discovered little apart from aboriginal cave paintings.

In 1841 Grey was appointed governor of South Australia when the new colony suffered from economic depression. By a vigorous policy of retrenchment he forced settlers onto the land and recovery followed. By 1844 the colony no longer depended on annual grants from the British government, and the Colonial Office was so impressed that Grey was sent to New Zealand, another new colony on the brink of ruin.

After defeating rebellious Maori chiefs, Grey embarked on a policy of assimilation and controlled land sales. Land-hungry settlers objected, and when Grey persuaded the Colonial Office to defer the introduction of representative self-government, he was accused of despotism. In 1852 Grey introduced a federal constitution in which the governor retained responsibility for native policy and land sales.

From 1854 to 1861 Grey, who had been knighted in 1848, was governor of the Cape Colony and high commissioner for South Africa. In addition to preventing a Kaffir rebellion, he acted as arbitrator between the Free State Boers, who wanted more land, and their Basuto neighbors. For advocating confederation as the best way to secure peace and cheap government in South Africa, Grey was recalled. Later reinstated, he was sent back to New Zealand in 1861, following a Maori uprising.

This time Maori nationalism undermined Grey's efforts at conciliation, and he failed to pacify the natives. During a period of open warfare from 1863 to 1866, Grey assumed personal command at Weroroa. Because of their land policies Grey could not work harmoniously with local politicians, and he was dismissed in 1868 for insisting that British troops remain in the colony.

Grey returned to New Zealand as a private citizen in 1870. From 1874 to 1894 he was a member of the House of Representatives, and as premier in 1877-1879, he introduced a radical program which failed to gain sufficient party support. Some of Grey's objectives—manhood suffrage, triennial parliaments, and government purchase of large estates—were later realized. In 1891, as a New Zealand delegate to the Australian Federal Convention in Sydney, he advocated a "one man, one vote" policy. He returned to England in 1894 and became a privy councilor. His works on Maori language and customs brought him repute as a scholar. He died on Sept. 19, 1898.


Further Reading on Sir George Grey

The biography by George C. Henderson, Sir George Grey: Pioneer of Empire in Southern Lands (1907), portrays Grey as a successful colonial governor motivated by radical ideals. In a more comprehensive and critical assessment of this enigmatic character, James Rutherford, Sir George Grey, K. C. B., 1812-1898: A Study in Colonial Government (1961), shows how Grey's belief in human perfectibility and his inflexibility prevented him from moving with the times and achieving worthwhile results. See also James Collier, Sir George Grey, Governor, High Commissioner, and Premier: An Historical Biography (1909).