The pommie twit and the puppetmaster, Tom Brooking

Hobson Governor of New Zealand 1840–42
Paul Moon
David Ling, $49.95,
ISBN 0 90899 054 5

To Be A Hero: A Biography of Sir George Grey, 1812–1898
Edmund Bohan
HarperCollins, $49.95,
ISBN 1 86950 279 5

It is hard to imagine two more contrasting careers than those of George Grey and William Hobson. Grey, twice Governor (1845–1853 and 1861–1867) and Premier (1877–79), bestrides 19th-century New Zealand like a colossus. He is arguably the most important 19th-century Pakeha individual. His own puffery combined with the adulation of earlier historians to inflate his reputation even more. A powerful myth of “good governor Grey” became entrenched by the school textbook Our Nation’s Story from 1919. Two generations of New Zealand schoolchildren (that is, those attending school down to the late 1950s, when a serious debunking occurred) knew him as our greatest governor and most important coloniser. In stark contrast, Hobson, who served as Governor for only three years between 1840 and 1842, remains a shadowy figure of slight reputation about whom little is known. Even the intense focus of the last fifteen years on Hobson’s partial creation, the Treaty of Waitangi, has failed to add much to our understanding of the highest official involved in devising this extraordinary document. Consequently, Grey remains a Gulliver to the Lilliputian Hobson.

This contrast makes Paul Moon’s long overdue assessment of Hobson (Guy Scholefield wrote the last biography back in 1934) even more welcome than Bohan’s timely reassessment of Grey. These two authors had the opposite problem: how could Moon find enough to write more than a very slight essay? how could Bohan hope to contain within one relatively small volume the story of someone who lived in New Zealand for so long and about whom there is a superabundance of documents?


Our first governor is known to most New Zealanders only as the pale figure in various paintings of the Treaty signing. Some portraits show him in heroic mould. Others inaccurately depict him shaking hands with Hone Heke while wearing his ornate naval hat (actually he arrived in a terrible hurry on 6 February and left both his jacket and hat on board the HMS Herald). Guy Scholefield tried to firm up this notion of the dashing and decisive young naval officer in his hagiography. Other representations impart a more fragile quality. The television series The Governor (and the handful of plays written about the Treaty signing) debunk all this romantic nonsense by presenting him as bumbling pommie twit unable to pronounce Maori very fluently.

The common thread to these two versions of our founding governor is historical marginality. Most historians imply that he was not especially important, attributing most responsibility for the Treaty to James Busby and the missionary Henry Williams. Poor Hobson consequently receives only passing reference in most general histories. Moon challenges this judgement by suggesting that Hobson made a more significant contribution than is generally realised.

The book begins promisingly by discussing Hobson’s Anglo-Irish background (he was born in Waterford in 1792) and telling us more than any previous study about his early naval career. Moon makes it clear that although Hobson joined the Royal Navy at the remarkably young age of ten, he received a solid education in between chasing pirates around the West Indies. The young sailor rose to the rank of captain in 1828 in reward for bravery rather ability, before becoming involved in New Zealand from 1837 when he reported to the Colonial Office on how the territory might best be governed.

Unfortunately, Moon fails to sustain this promising beginning and the rest of the book adds little to our knowledge of either Hobson the public figure or Hobson the private man. It simply repeats what we already know from the work of earlier writers such as A H McClintock, Alan Ward and Claudia Orange. Moon can be forgiven to some extent given the paucity of sources available to him, especially of a personal nature, but surely he could at least have attempted a fresh reading of the story of the Governor and the Treaty?

According to the dust jacket, the author wrote a Masters thesis on the Treaty in comparative perspective and he is also author of a book entitled The Origins of the Treaty of Waitangi. This background placed him in an ideal position from which to say something new and interesting because, despite the deluge of Treaty books in the early 1990s, such comparisons have not been followed up adequately. Instead Moon rushes through this material and returns to the tale already elaborated several times in other works.

Another solution to his difficulty would have been to fill in the context in which Hobson operated. One way of doing this would be to incorporate the exciting insights emerging from the work of scholars such as Dorothy Urlich and Manuka Henare on Maori dynamics and agency involved in the Treaty story. These suggest that many iwi had a reasonably clear sense of what Hobson was up to and made informed judgements about signing the Treaty. None of this fascinating dimension emerges in Moon’s book. This is surprising, given his earlier book and the fact that he teaches in a Maori Studies Department where he should have ready access to this material, and the omission seriously reduces the study’s usefulness.

Equally disappointing is Moon’s naive understanding of the role of the New Zealand Company in early New Zealand. Revisionists writing in the 1950s, such as John Miller and Ian Wards, and more recently Patricia Burns, all made it abundantly clear that the Company were expert “puffers” who manipulated evidence, the media and politicians for their own advantage. Even the more generous reconsideration that emerged from the 1996 Alexander Turnbull conference on Edward Gibbon Wakefield, revealed that the Company behaved nearly as badly towards Hobson as it did towards Maori.

At least Moon ends more convincingly by engaging in a sensible discussion about the rapid decline in Hobson’s health. Here he achieves a level tone missing in his account of Hobson’s relationship with the New Zealand Company. It must have been tempting for a new author to follow Laurie Gluckman’s potentially sensational suggestion that Hobson died of tertiary syphilis, but he resists this temptation and discusses this possibility as just one of several explanations. Hypertension seems to be a more likely candidate but the evidence remains annoyingly inconclusive.

Perhaps Moon, as a relatively new biographer, can be forgiven his sins of omission. It seems to me that his publisher is equally to blame because if the manuscript had been sent to a professional reader, the more glaring gaps could have been filled with relative ease. If this had happened, Moon’s study could have constituted a significant contribution to our historical literature. As it stands, however, it is little more than a slight essay, albeit one that contributes the perfectly reasonable conclusion that “Hobson succeeded in keeping the tides of anarchy at bay”, and prepared the way for “the more glamorous careers of subsequent governors” with his “silent and sometimes almost invisible toiling”.


Edmund Bohan cannot hide behind a defence of inexperience. Indeed I came to his study with high expectations, because his biography of Edward Stafford is very good, and the follow-up book on Edward FitzGerald is a solid study. In undertaking this research, he has gained a deep understanding of both the personalities and the dynamics involved in colonial New Zealand politics. Bohan also knows much about the complex constitutional, intellectual and psychological relationship of our early Pakeha leaders with Britain. Furthermore, his biographies of Stafford and FitzGerald, both pro- or philo-Maori politicians, have acquainted Bohan with the Maori reaction to the manoeuvrings of their frequently self-serving and duplicitous settler peers. The Christchurch-based historian and novelist seemed ideally suited, therefore, to undertake a long overdue consideration (James Rutherford’s somewhat hagiographical study of Grey appeared back in 1961).

What an opportunity to undertake exciting research into such fascinating aspects of Grey’s life as his racial views; his relationship with major scientists like Darwin; and his ongoing correspondence with intellectuals as important as J S Mill. Younger historians still fantasise about retirement projects based around studying just one of the components of the multifaceted Grey. What an opportunity also to reveal Grey as much more than the dull, bungling Imperial puppetmaster as portrayed by some Maori radicals and Corin Redgrave in The Governor television series. Furthermore, what an opportunity to incorporate the findings of research carried out since 1961 on race relations and intellectual history and so reveal a complex man who emerges as very different from the earlier “good Governor Grey”, or the equally unbelievable representative of the “evil Empire”. Such a nuanced and contextualised study would have had the potential to help late 20th-century New Zealanders better understand this enigmatic servant of Empire and self. Grey’s complexity, subtlety and duplicity – expressed in the gaping gap between his noble-sounding rhetoric and high-minded intentions and his often dubious actions (Sir Keith Sinclair described him as having “only a nodding acquaintance with truth”) – seems disturbingly contemporary.

Sadly, my expectations were soon dashed because Bohan eschewed these opportunities in favour of writing a very old-fashioned political biography. The advantage of this approach is that it keeps his subject in sharp focus and provides a strong and clear narrative drive. The disadvantage, however, is that such an approach does not add enough new material to satisfy the specialist reader, nor enough explanation of context and background for the general reader. Even worse, Bohan races over far too much fascinating material and is altogether in too much of a hurry to bury Grey.

Bohan relates the story with only the most cursory explanation of the often confusing constitutional and political context in which Grey operated. He needed, for example, to spend more time talking about how the Colonial Office in London and officials on the spot determined the administration of the vast British Empire. Without this background information, most readers, I fear, will flounder in the complexities of this tale that ranges across British, South African and Australian, as well as New Zealand history. Bohan never bothers comparing the young Grey of South Australia, the middle-aged Grey of South Africa and the young, middle-aged and doddery Grey of New Zealand.

Rather than discussing how Grey differed in these shifting contexts, Bohan seems determined to engage in some gossipy, even salacious, speculations on his unhappy marriage with Lady Eliza. This aspect of his life will intrigue some readers but adds little to our understanding of the man except perhaps in terms of explaining his morbidity and moodiness. But little time is spent discussing Grey’s extraordinary work as ethnographer and anthropologist, much of it carried out from his island home of Kawau. Grey corresponded actively with Darwin, Thomas Huxley and J S Mill, and collected Maori lore and story on such a grand scale that Maori scholars who have utilised this material – like Buddy Mikaere – praise him lavishly for saving such taonga. In total, these endeavours have persuaded the leading historian of anthropology, George Stocking, to rank Grey as a major figure in the development of this discipline.

In his rush to bury Grey, Bohan also fails to say much about Grey’s ambivalent relationship with the Maori world. Some rangatira attributed to him great mana while others made more derisive judgements. But there is little doubt that Grey won the respect of many rangatira for his military success, political guile and long commitment to the colony. Keith Sinclair alluded to this multi-layered relationship in his fine essay in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, and Bohan should have followed up this aspect of the Governor’s legacy.

It is surprising that Bohan passed over the chance to make more of the marvellous apocryphal story in which Richard Seddon carried Grey down the stairs to his carriage after Grey called to pay his respects when Seddon visited London during Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. The symbolism was potent. Here was irrefutable proof that the so-called “father” of New Zealand Liberalism had given his blessing to the rough upstart from the West Coast. Certainly Seddon turned the tale to his advantage, inferring that he had also inherited the mantle of New Zealand’s greatest 19th-century leader. This example again suggests that Bohan would have made his interpretation more convincing if he had stopped to examine the powerful mythologies that developed around Grey, both during and after his lifetime. James Belich’s Making Peoples provides an obvious model of how he might have done this.

The most serious problem of all is the absence of a proper conclusion. Bohan should have at least compared his version of Grey with that of other historians. It would also have been useful to have compared him with other New Zealand governors and famous governors elsewhere in the Empire (a task made relatively easy by Mark Francis’s book on this very subject). Such an assessment would have satisfied academic readers and whetted the appetite of the “intelligent lay reader” for similar studies of other important 19th-century figures.

Tom Brooking teaches history at the University of Otago.

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Posted in Biography, History, Non-fiction, Politics & Law, Review
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