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Life of Sir George Grey: Governor, High commissioner, and Premier. An Historical Biography.

Chapter I. — His Early Life

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Chapter I.
His Early Life.

Few colonial governors have excited such enthusiastic admiration and ardent devotion as Sir George Grey; few have, in an equal degree, aroused passionate hatred, stern disapproval, and even angry contempt. Now that these partial feelings have passed away, a historical interest must still be inspired by the spectacle of his governing force, the variety of the stages on which he played so considerable a part, the very magnitude of his errors, and the dramatic vicissitudes of his chequered career. To his contemporaries he was a myth; to his oldest acquaintances his character was a mystery. Like many a greater and many a lesser man, he was pronounced "inscrutable." Yet few have sought, to few have been given, more opportunities of self-disclosure. For over half-a-century he lived in the public eye. His acts were known to all the world. He was easy of approach and drove none away. His conversation was largely autobiographical. His addresses turned on his ego as on a pivot, and even his despatches have a personal flavour rare in State documents. As if apprehensive of posthumous misconstruction, he took care that the story of his life should be told from his own point of view. Sixteen years ago he authorised the publication of a skilfully composed biography, so evidently inspired by the subject of it that it may be accepted as his apologia pro vitê suê. Due allowance being made for the distortions produced by the illusions of old age, the book must be the foundation of all study of his character. If, with this central blaze page 2and so many collateral lights, that character remains an enigma, the fault is surely our own. At all events, the problem is a challenge. We believe that it can be solved, and in the process of solution we shall be brought close to a remarkable personality, full at once of fascination, instruction, and warning.

His Ancestry.

George Grey was born at Lisbon on April 14, 1812. The place and the time were alike significant. His mother was one of a group of wives of English officers who tarried in the Portuguese capital while their husbands were in the field. Born out of England, George Grey was destined to spend almost all the years of his manhood and old age in distant lands. The place was prophetic. The time was no less notable. Genius often rises in constellations, and the year of the great governor's birth was that also of a great poet, Robert Browning, of a great chancellor, Lord Selborne, of a great humanist, Mark Pattison, of a great apostate, William George Ward, and of a great abolitionist, Mrs. Beecher Stowe, while it was also or nearly that of two great novelists, Thackeray and Dickens. If his claim to Huguenot descent through his mother was well-founded, he was a notable member of a remarkable group—the Newmans, the Martineaus, the Mialls, Herbert Spencer, and many others—through whom a foreign infusion enriched the public life and the culture of England. Whether a certain disloyalty of character of which we shall have more to say may be justly ascribed to the Huguenot strain in his blood, it would be hazardous to speculate. To his less problematical Irish extraction Grey probably owed the winning manner that made him liked by men and adored by women, and the eloquent tongue that led all hearts captive. The vindictive passions that played so large a part in his life may have had the same origin, or they may have been the natural outcome of the imperious temper that bore him to eminence and was also the source of all his reverses.

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His Patronymic.

All through his public life he bore the name of Grey, but he was believed to have changed it from the common (and Irish) orthography, Gray. Many men have changed their names, with or without the royal license. Grey himself told (with evident consciousness) how the Duke of Wellington's family transformed the democratic Wesley into the aristocratic Wellesley. The eminent French Sinologue, Noël Jullien (already well-enough named, it might seem) surreptitiously assumed the name of a deceased elder brother and was ever afterwards known to the world as Stanislas Jullien. Others have pardonably substituted an unobjectionable or a distinguished for an offensive cognomen. Others still, like Richard Hengist Horne, have interpolated an imaginary aggrandising name between their Christian and their surnames, or redeemed a too common name by interposing a real but unused baptismal name. Many have completely changed the appearance of their names by turning an i into a y or appending an e. Grey would therefore have had abundant countenance for the innovation he is alleged to have made in the orthography of his patronymic. While he was Governor of New Zealand, he was openly charged with having so altered his surname as to suggest that he belonged to one of the most distinguished aristocratic Whig houses of last century. The charge exposed him to the insults of the scurrilous pamphleteer, who publicly addressed him as "Sir George Gray." After he was in his grave, it was pitilessly revived. In a volume of reminiscences published three or four years ago Admiral Sir George Keppel brought it again to life. Some years earlier the Senior Fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, a Gray himself, who doubtless felt that Sir George had deserted the Irish clan and deprived it of its rightful share in its fame, repeated the accusation. It is not the least of Professor Henderson's services to the memory of a great man that to this malignant fiction he has dealt the deathblow. He has conclusively proved that Grey had every possible right to spell the name as he did. It was the orthography of his father's name. In a despatch of 1812 the Duke of Wellington laments the death at page 4Badajoz of Lieutenant-Colonel Grey. In a letter of the year 1813 the Duke of York writes to Mrs. Grey of her late husband as "Colonel George Grey.'' And the medal then sent to her by the Duke bears the name, Grey. There was therefore no need for the son to throw a false glamour over his personality by wearing a borrowed plume. In any case, it is false to assert that he did change it. All the records at the War Office show that, from his seventeenth year onwards, he was consistently gazetted under, and that he himself as consistently used, the orthography he ever afterwards retained. The reflection the whole matter suggests is that he must have borne much in silence. When he was falsely charged with a petty fraud, he might have produced his father's medal, or the Duke of York's letter, or pointed to the Duke of Wellington's despatch, or referred his traducers to the archives of the War Office. He spoke never a word, and he took no action. Was it pride or contempt?

Of the Grey family his latest biographer states that it was descended from Lord Grey of Groby, and he adds that Sir George was a cousin to the present Earl of Stamford, who bears also the title of Lord Grey of Groby. Sir George Grey and he saw much of one another, when the future Lord Stamford visited New Zealand in 1886. At that time Sir George said that Mr. Grey (as he then was) claimed relationship with him, but he did not seem to claim it himself, or at least he spoke lightly of it. The connection was possibly a Highland cousinship. In any case, he did not belong to the Irish Grays.

He was, however, of Irish blood, though not necessarily a Celt, on the maternal side. His mother was the daughter of an Irish clergyman in Westmeath, the Rev. John Vignoles, whose name betrays his French origin. A portrait of her adorns the last biography. It is a pleasing figure. A lady truly, handsome and refined in appearance, with the suggestion of much beauty of character. From her he must have inherited some of his superior qualities of mind and nature. The portrait of the father expresses native strength, as his life betrayed ardent courage. We have evidently got far on the way towards explaining the peculiar attributes of the son.

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His Education.

He spoke little of his early education, and little is known of it. Five years after her husband's death, his mother had married again, this time an Irish baronet, Sir John Thomas, belonging to her father's parish— possibly an old lover; and she gave him a step-brother, Sir Godfrey Thomas, who afterwards lived with him in South Australia and New Zealand, and step-sisters, of whom he sometimes spoke. All that we know of his early schooling is that, in company with a schoolmate, he ran away from the school at Guildford, in Surrey, where he had been placed by his parents, and returned to their home at Bournemouth. It is apparently the habitual act of the rebel. Both Lamennais and Herbert Spencer fled from school; and was not Landor a rebel there? Impatience of restraint was in all four cases at the bottom of it, and in all four the boy, as thus revealed, was the father of the man. In Grey's case the age is not given, but he must have been about thirteen years old. Herbert Spencer, on his flight, was of the same age.

As a consequence of his defective schooling, his education was not classical, and he thus missed the restraining influence that such an education often imparts. In later years, indeed, he professed to have some knowledge of the Latin and Greek languages, but it was probably slight, and he gave little evidence of being intimately acquainted with the Greek and Latin classics. Once, I remember, he read in Ammianus Marcellinus, with the object of ascertaining certain facts, and he contributed to a New Zealand journal in 1884 a humorous article, comparing Carlyle's account of his own and his wife's usage at the hands of the imperious Lady Ashburton with Lucian's account of the domestic philosophers whom great families in the Roman Empire retained as members of their households, as in the eighteenth century French noble families kept pet abbés. In both cases it was doubtless translations that he used.

Designed for his father's profession, he was enrolled at the military college at Sandhurst in his fifteenth year, and there he received all that he ever acquired of the page 6higher education. He remained there for three years, till 1829, when he entered the army. In 1833, after he had gained a lieutenancy, he returned to Sandhurst for three years more in order to complete his military studies. To this later period, perhaps, rather than to the earlier, belong his acquisitions in "the highest branches of mathematical science," when the Board of Examiners desired "to mark their sense of his superior merits and talents." Then, too, it probably was that he learnt the German language, and he used to relate that he and many of his brother cadets busied themselves in translating the poems of Schiller. At Sandhurst he seems to have received the literary and scientific bent that afterwards distinguished him. Plainly, he was no officer of the conventional type—ignorant, prejudiced, perhaps dissipated, lacking broad views and high ends. As we shall see, the purposes of a lifetime lay germinating in his mind.

His Profession.

At the end of his first period at Sandhurst, in 1829, Grey qualified to become an officer by passing the examinations with special distinction. Next year he was gazetted an ensign and was appointed to the 83rd regiment. He accompanied it to Glasgow and then to Dublin. In both cities he saw things that made an ineffaceable impression on his mind. Seven years he remained connected with the army, but, in those days of "the forty years' peace," without ever seeing active service. In 1833 he was made a lieutenant. In 1839 he was raised to the rank of captain, but rather as a compliment to the explorer than as a step upwards in military rank. At the end of the same year, having been appointed Governor of South Australia, he sold his commission, but his connection with the army had been virtually dissolved in 1837. A very different career was to be opened up to him. In that year he was appointed commander of an expedition sent out by the Colonial Office to explore the coasts of Western and North-Western Australia.