John Bryce was Minister of Native Affairs in New Zealand during the early 1880’s. Perhaps the first note-worthy point about him is his comparative obscurity, but when his name is recognised it is usually in connection with the leading role he played in the invasion of the Maori village of Parihaka in 1881. Later generations have come to regard that episode as cause for regret and even shame on the part of the Pakeha, and as evidence of the harshness and injustice which seems to have characterised so much of the colonists’ treatment of the Maoris. Some of Bryce’s contemporaries, especially those in England, also saw the Parihaka affair in this light, none more so than George William Rusden. His History of New Zealand, published in 1883, was a savage and lengthy indictment of the colony’s native policies over forty years, in particular of those policies pursued by John Bryce. Some of the aspersions made by Rusden against “the bully of Parihaka” were to result in the libel action of Bryce v. Rusden which was fought in London in 1886.
When John Bryce sailed for England to vindicate his good name before a British judge and jury, he had behind him the moral support of his fellow colonists in New Zealand. They saw Bryce as being on a mission to defend not only his honour but also the honour of the colony as a whole; his cause was theirs also.
This essay attempts to demonstrate the extent to which Bryce was regarded as a spokesman for all the colonists in New Zealand, and an effort has been made to determine just how successful he was in removing a stigma from the colony. It is also hoped that in the course of the essay some better understanding may be reached of John Bryce as a man and as a colonist and not merely as the plaintiff in the action. For, as both his detractors and his admirers would concede, John Bryce was a man who probably came closer than any of his political colleagues to typifying the ordinary colonist of his day. He was, in fact, the settler personified.||