This review was originally published in Your Weekend.
Was Donald McLean, the nineteenth century New Zealand politician, a courageous statesman or an elected crook? Did his land buying practices generate prosperity or war? Is it true he was a pious Christian or was he actually a sly adulterer? To McLean’s allies he was one of the architects of the New Zealand colony, to his enemies he was an immoral politician making personal gains off government power. The truth, as historian Matthew Wright reveals in Man of Secrets: the Private Life of Donald McLean, is more complicated than either his allies or enemies would admit.
Donald McLean arrived in New Zealand in 1840, “a stranger in a strange land”. Born in 1820 the young McLean exchanged the harsh upheavals of nineteenth century Scotland – including an early separation from his parents – for the promise of the colonies. After a brief stint in New South Wales the restless McLean landed his first job in New Zealand as a purchase agent for a Sydney-based timber company. Perceptive enough to realise that te reo Māori would be essential to any future success – Māori held the balance of power in the emerging colony and would continue to do so for at least another decade – McLean quickly acquired a working knowledge of the language.
It was the beginning of rapid rise. In 1843 Governor FitzRoy appointed McLean to a position in the Office of the Protector of Aborigines. The focus of McLean’s work would become land purchasing. The hungry colony needed land and, with knowledge of Māori and their language, McLean was uniquely suited to the role. A decade later he would be appointed Chief Land Purchase Commissioner. Part of McLean’s success was that although he understood the Māori mind and sympathised with their struggles in the new colony, he was comfortable in his own superiority complex and was not beyond using sly tactics to secure a purchase.
The effects of those sly tactics are still felt today. The Waitangi Tribunal notes that McLean’s purchasing methods were not always “transparent” and, in the case of the Waitara Purchase in the Taranaki, McLean’s methods “brought disaster”. Yet Wright takes regular swipes at this “post-colonial” history accusing some historians of “presentism” and condemning their efforts to recast history “to suit changing contemporary ideals”. It is an embarrassing distraction from an otherwise good book and it ignores the fact that Wright’s own book is an effort to recast the history of McLean.
And, for the most part, Wright succeeds in doing so. Far from being the source of all evil – or a benevolent colonial founder who did no wrong – McLean is revealed as a complex man struggling with the residue of an emotionally abusive childhood, the early loss of his beloved wife and a relentless drive to succeed. That drive to succeed would take McLean all the way to Native Minister where he would cement himself as one of the most influential figures in the history of Māori-Pākehā relations.