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Sir George Grey (1812–1898)

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Sir George Grey (1812-1898), explorer, governor and politician, was born on 14 April 1812 at Lisbon, Portugal, the only son of Lieutenant-Colonel George Grey and his wife Elizabeth Anne, née Vignoles, a week after his father was killed at Badajoz. In 1817 his mother married Rev. Sir John Thomas, baronet of Wivenhoe. In 1820 Grey was sent to boarding school at Guildford but ran away and after some tutoring by the liberal idealist, Rev. Richard Whately, entered the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, in 1826. In January 1830 as an ensign he joined the 83rd Regiment in Ireland. He was promoted lieutenant in 1833 but disliked his fellow officers and his harsh military duties. Through sympathy for Irish peasants he became interested in systematic colonization as a cure for their distress, and his attention was drawn to Australian exploration by Charles Sturt's discoveries. In 1836 he left Ireland and wrote to the Colonial Office offering to lead an expedition to seek a site for settlement in north-western Australia.

With support from the Royal Geographical Society, Grey's plan was approved and he sailed with Lieutenant Lushington and seven men in the Beagle in July 1837. At Cape Town he engaged five more men, chartered the schooner Lynher and loaded her with livestock. In December they reached Hanover Bay (near Collier Bay) and after several short excursions started inland on 29 January 1838. Leader and men were totally inexperienced, progress was delayed by flooded country, many stores were abandoned, and the party was constantly split up despite the presence of large numbers of hostile Aboriginals. On 10 February Grey was speared and became critically ill, but after two weeks continued the exploration. The party named the Glenelg River, Stephen Range and Mount Lyell before returning to Hanover Bay in April. There they were picked up by the Beagle and Lynher and taken to Mauritius to recuperate. In September Grey went to Perth hoping to resume his 'adventures'. In February 1839 he sailed in an American whaler for Shark Bay where he and his ten men were landed on Bernier Island with three whale-boats in which he intended to explore northward to North-West Cape. After the whaler departed, the party was delayed by gales and found the island waterless. In desperation they crossed to the mainland but one boat was smashed and most of the provisions were spoilt before they reached the mouth of the Gascoyne River. The northern journey was abandoned and in March Grey decided to go to Perth by boat, although he knew there was no landing place for 100 miles (161 km). In heavy surf at Gantheaume Bay both boats were wrecked and the party faced a 300-miles (483 km) forced march, sustained by what little food and water they could find. Grey reached Perth on 21 April and all except one of his men straggled in later.

Grey's journals of his 1839 exploration expedition in the north west also indicated the nature and extent of traditional land tenure involving the Nanda people, a Yamatji sub-group whose country is in and around Kalbarri. The 1841 Journals dealing with this part of his expedition suggest that the Nanda had a well-developed agriculture and had built substantial, even permanent, settlements. On 28 November 2018 at Kalbarri foreshore – near where Grey and his companions were wrecked – the Nanda people were formally recognised by the Federal Court as native title holders, after a 24-year legal process. Grey's journals had formed a major part of their case.

In June 1839 Grey was promoted captain and in August appointed resident magistrate at King George Sound at £100 a year, in place of Sir Richard Spencer, whose daughter, Eliza Lucy, he married on 2 November at Albany. After four months in office he published Vocabulary of the Dialects spoken by the Aboriginal Races of South-Western Australia. In 1840 it was reprinted in London and his 'report on the best means of promoting the civilization of the Aboriginal Inhabitants of Australia' was circulated by the Colonial Office to the governors of other colonies. Grey argued that the only way to save native peoples from extinction was to wean them from their tribal customs by bringing them under British law, making them Christian, educating their children in boarding schools and employing the adults among the white settlers. Grey disregarded practical difficulties but he never deviated from this dream of compulsory assimilation.

In 1840 Grey was ordered to return to England. He left Albany with his wife in March and went by way of Perth to Adelaide. There for three weeks he was entertained at Government House by Governor George Gawler, who expounded his policies and proudly exhibited his public works and the flourishing condition of the colony. As one matron commented 'Grey met everyone and saw everything'. He arrived in England in September with an agreement to sell subdivisions in the Mount Barker special survey.

At Brighton Grey completed the two volumes of his Journal of Two Expeditions of Discovery in North-West and Western Australia During the Years 1837, 38, and 39 (London, 1841). He also created a panic among the shareholders of the West Australian Co. by insisting that its Australian settlement at Port Leschenault be moved to 'superior land' 300 miles (483 km) north of Perth, which he claimed to have seen, but no one else could find. In October he was offered and accepted the governorship of South Australia, and resigned from the army. When he heard that the Colonization Commission was bankrupt and that parliament was to be asked to pay the colony's debts, he sent a cunning memorandum to the secretary of state, condemning all he had learnt in Adelaide from Gawler but without mentioning his name, and promising to maintain the strictest economy and to work in full harmony with the Colonial Office. He arrived in Adelaide on 10 May 1841 and a month later his only son died, a five-month infant.

Grey's immediate announcement that without approval from London he could not recognize the claims of government creditors alarmed Adelaide businessmen, who thought it confirmed his change of front. One editor called him anguis in herba, and Gawler accused him of usurping office by malicious falsehoods in London. Grey retaliated with plausible dispatches to the Colonial Office that created the myth of Gawler's sole responsibility for the colony's bankruptcy, though he knew that his task of retrenchment was made easier by Gawler's policies. This condemnation of the past to justify his own irregular actions became a habit. His subtle insinuations and half-truths were long accepted by the Colonial Office, and they were also designed to convince posterity of his unique ability.

The economies already begun by Gawler were continued by Grey with restless zeal. He probed departmental expenditures and made big reductions all round. With troops borrowed from Sydney he halved his police force. He condemned the 'ruinous improvidence of special surveys' and reduced the Survey Department by refusing to recognize unused land orders. He found fault with many of the old officials and cut their salaries and allowances. No item was too trivial for his scrutiny: he disallowed 2s. 6d. for a pane of glass in an office window, refused 8d. to an office boy for sharpening pencils, and called the emigration agent to account for using mustard at the public expense. Although immigration had stopped and Gawler's surveys had enabled farming to expand and increase the rural population, Grey suspended work on Adelaide's public buildings and reduced the scale of relief in hope that the unemployed would be driven out to the farms. Against this 'economic bondage', angry demonstrators twice invaded the grounds of Government House. One newspaper correspondent proposed to burn the governor in effigy, and each reader of the Southern Star was urged to 'think upon Grey and let thy soul despair'.

Grey affected to ignore the press and public protests, but he steered clear of disaster and took some risks to protect the interests of property owners. In 1842 he ignored Stanley's suggestion that destitute persons should be packed off to New South Wales and he defied orders by drawing bills on the British Treasury for £25,000 for poor relief. He claimed that the people's sufferings so moved him to pity that he spent two-fifths of his first year's salary in private charity. 'It was only by acting thus', he told Stanley, 'that I could encourage myself to proceed in my official capacity with that fixity of purpose which I felt to be necessary'. When he learned that parliament had authorized payment of the Colonization Commission's creditors in London, he hastily assumed that he might honour the government's debts in Adelaide; he admitted claims for some £50,000, but was sharply reprimanded and threatened with personal liability for the total sum. The Colonial Office later relented, and James Stephen minuted that Grey had 'great cause to complain of the language of the Treasury … They are so much accustomed … to contend with unreasonable and importunate Suitors as to have fallen into a style of writing habitually ungracious'. The worst of the crisis was over by 1844 when for the first time Grey nearly balanced the colony's budget. Wheat cultivation and mixed farming made the colony self-sufficient in food, the pastoral industry developed rapidly, and by 1845 the government had ceased to be dependent on British grants.

In his dealings with Aboriginal people Grey had little opportunity to act on the principles of his 1840 report. He tried to prevent racial friction on the River Murray by organizing police escorts for the overlanders and he ordered that Aboriginals were to be brought to trial before punishment. He also sent Edward John Eyre to Moorundie as protector of Aborigines, but serious clashes continued until the overlanding of sheep and cattle was stopped by low prices. Grey also tried to provide for destitute native children by encouraging schools for them near Adelaide, but at adolescence they drifted back to their tribes. His efforts to induce adults to work for white settlers were rarely successful and his own attempt, on a journey to the south-east of the colony, to make contact with Aboriginal people, resulted only in a few paintings by one of his companions, George French Angas.

In spite of his reputed liberalism, Grey did little for the colonists who wanted representative government. He made no effort to save the Adelaide City Council from extinction and, although he established a nominated Legislative Council in June 1843 and opened its debates to the public, he yielded nothing to the demand for reform. His increased departmental charges and customs tariff were met with a strongly supported public petition denouncing taxation without representation as `a frightful enormity'. In his report to the Colonial Office Grey dismissed the petition as unimportant: 'I am, therefore, prepared, most good-humouredly, to undergo the customary amount of odium'. In 1844 Grey forwarded a petition to the Queen for 'an infusion of the element of popular representation into the local legislature', but recommended that the step be taken with great care only after the civil list was placed beyond popular reach. With rising prosperity from copper-mining next year, he abolished some shipping charges but fell foul of Jacob Hagen and other council nominees over payment of an old government debt. Through pressure from their friends in London Grey was appointed governor in New Zealand, but temporarily permitted to retain his title in South Australia so as to have immunity from threatened litigation over the debt.

In November 1845 Grey arrived in New Zealand, another distressed young colony. He suppressed Maori rebellions in the Bay of Islands and near Wellington, but gained the goodwill of the principal chiefs and was able to buy enough of their unused land to meet the immediate needs of the colonists. Old land claims were roughly sorted out, though Grey treated some missionary purchases harshly. Agriculture, sheep farming and trade revived but, as in South Australia, he ruled as an autocrat, and was largely responsible for deferring representative government. Most New Zealanders thought him an unscrupulous tyrant: William Fox condemned his native policy as 'all humbug', and Sir Frederick Aloysius Weld called him 'the artful Dodger of governors'. The British government, however, held him in high esteem and he was knighted in 1848; but his increasing wilfulness over land policies and the payment of government debts led to his recall in 1853, and he returned to England.

In June 1854 Grey was appointed governor of Cape Colony and high commissioner of South Africa. He arrived in Cape Town obsessed with a visionary native policy that would end all Xhosa wars, bring the tribes between Cape Colony and Natal under control, penetrate their lands with broad settlements of white immigrants capable of defending themselves, and finally unite all South Africa in a self-sufficing, self-governing federation. In attempting to crowd these idealistic projects into a five-year term, he alienated his Legislative Council and the colonists and Xhosa as well as the War Office, the Treasury and the Colonial Office. He ignored his orders, once boasting they that were merely suggestions to be set aside at his discretion, but he was reproved for detaining troops in South Africa during the Indian mutiny/first war of independence in 1857 and censured for initiating discussions on confederation contrary to instructions. On his way to England in 1859 his recall was cancelled, and his confidence was restored by a cordial reception at the Colonial Office. While returning to South Africa next year he quarrelled with his wife and they separated.

Grey left Cape Town in August 1861 and in October was sworn in as governor of New Zealand for the second time. The Colonial Office hoped that his influence with the Maoris might restore peace, but his plans became suspect when he insisted on white settlements in Maori areas. When war broke out in 1863 Grey became nervously depressed and inconsistent in his decisions. He abandoned benevolence for military coercion, then sickened of the unequal war, quarrelled with his advisers, and nearly wrecked responsible government. In an even more unseemly dispute Grey violated all military canons by taking personal command of colonial troops and capturing Weraroa, after General Cameron had refused to order an assault. Grey also insisted on retaining British troops in the colony long after they had been ordered home; this defiance led to his curt dismissal in 1868. Next year he went to England and tried without success to enter parliament as a Gladstonian Liberal.

Grey returned to New Zealand in 1870 and retired to Kawau, but in 1874 re-entered the political arena to fight a losing battle against abolition of the provincial governments which he had set up in 1853. He continued in the House of Representatives for the next twenty years, and had one term as premier (1877-79), but his ministry was a fiasco. His ideas were too radical, he was impractical in promoting bills and could never organize effective party support. An impressive orator, he inclined too much towards declamation, became querulous when thwarted, and bickered with the governor and his cabinet colleagues as well as with his political opponents. As the Marquess of Normanby, whom he had once insulted, gleefully told Sir Henry Parkes, 'Grey seems to have made a pretty mess of it … and I am delighted that he has got his deserts'.

Nevertheless Grey contributed much to liberal and socialist thought in New Zealand. He taxed the unimproved value of land in 1878 and later supported bills for breaking up large estates in the interests of the smallholders. He thought that the state should guarantee employment, adequate wages and fair working conditions, and championed trade unions and voluntary industrial arbitration. He nursed a morbid hatred of landlordism and aristocracy, and wanted both the upper house and the governorship to be elective. For years he fought against plural voting and finally had it abolished in 1889. He sought to eliminate 'the imperial factor' in colonial government, but urged British expansion in the Pacific, and wanted Britain to forestall the French in New Caledonia in 1853 and the New Hebrides in 1886. He also advocated imperial federation, but visualized it as a loose association of Anglo-Saxon communities, which might even embrace the United States of America. When Australasian confederation was mooted, Grey was not keen for New Zealand to join lest she lose her national identity. Moreover he thought Australia could only be developed by non-European labour, and preferred to keep New Zealand pure and undefiled for 'the unborn millions' of the mother country. In 1891 he attended the Australian Federal Convention and with senile garrulity championed the principle of 'one man one vote', and then toured the main eastern towns preaching pure democracy and social equality. In 1894 he returned to London, and was formally but unhappily reconciled to his wife. He died on 19 September 1898, and was buried in St Paul's Cathedral.

All his life Grey was a keen naturalist, ceaselessly collecting geological and biological specimens for the Kensington Museum, Kew Gardens and elsewhere. He experimented in acclimatization, and made Kawau a botanist's paradise. His African collection was unique and he gained scholarly repute for his studies of native languages and customs, and for his published collections of Maori and Polynesian legends. An ardent book collector, he gave valuable libraries to both Cape Town and Auckland. A patron of education, he founded and developed many schools and colleges in South Africa and New Zealand. He was a devout Anglican, and helped to form the New Zealand Church Constitution. His long career left a deep impression on three great colonial areas. His abilities were great, but in the final analysis he fell short of greatness for want of that power of self-control and detachment which might have enabled him to recognize and correct his own mistakes.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Rutherford, Sir George Grey (Lond, 1961), and for bibliography.

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Citation details

'Grey, Sir George (1812–1898)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

George Grey, c1855

George Grey, c1855

State Library of South Australia, b20479967

Life Summary [details]


14 April, 1812
Lisbon, Portugal


19 September, 1898 (aged 86)
London, Middlesex, England

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