- Amassing Treasures for All Times: Sir George Grey, Colonial Bookman and Collector
Sir George Grey (governor of South Australia from 1841 to 1845, of NewZealand from 1845 to 1853 and again from 1861 to 1868, and of the Cape Colony from 1854 to 1861 and premier of New Zealand from 1877 to 1879) exemplifies the liberal idealism of Victorian Britain. The ruthless tactician who crushed Maori resistance to British occupation, Grey was also a sympathetic student of Maori culture. The list of his correspondents reads like an index to the intellectual life of the age: Charles Babbage, Thomas Carlyle, Charles Darwin, William Gladstone, John Gould, Alexander von Humboldt, David Livingstone, Sir Charles Lyell, Florence Nightingale, and more. His Journals of Two Expeditions of Discovery in North-west and Western Australia (1841) is a classic text of Australian exploration, notable for its color reproductions of Aboriginal cave art; his Polynesian Mythology (1855, 1885) also has retained its scholarly value.
An obsessive bibliophile, Grey donated two substantial collections to colonial libraries: 5,200 volumes to Cape Town in 1861 and some 15,000 to Auckland in 1887. He is held in lower esteem in Australia, more likely to be viewed critically when remembered at all, and this may well be connected with the fact that he left no such lasting legacy there.
Donald Kerr's book does not attempt to be a full-spectrum biography. The salient facts of Grey's political career and private life are well known: he is the subject of six book-length biographies as well as substantial entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and its Australian and New Zealand equivalents. Kerr focuses instead on the underexplored subject of Grey as bookman, and it is a subject that repays careful attention. The story of Grey's books is a thread that weaves into larger narratives about the making of the modern world: the dispersal of great libraries and the establishment of new ones, the spread of literacy, cultural imperialism, the rift between science and religion. To the extent that it is about the mechanics of importing cultural commodities from a metropolitan center into a remote colony, it might also be a footnote in a history of colonial transport and communications.
Kerr includes the full text of Grey's eloquent little essay on "Old Books" (257–58), but this rather obscures the point that in their time Grey's collections were a mix of old and new: medieval manuscripts and incunables, Greco-Roman classics, English literature, law, mathematics, science, and theology sat alongside collections of Australian Aboriginal, Maori, and African-language materials—the published works of explorers and missionaries as well as the manuscript fruits of Grey's own linguistic fieldwork. Grey was a colonial administrator, and his research served political ends as well as purely scholarly ones. Indeed, it is doubtful that Grey was capable of drawing distinct boundaries between these two aspects of his life.
Like the empire he served, Grey had many dark corners. He was born in Lisbon a week after his father was killed at the battle of Badajoz, Spain. His mother's second marriage, to a wealthy clergyman, secured him not just material comfort but also a home full of books, erudite conversation on tap, and that ruling-class mindset that authority is not something you aspire to but a role you must learn to perform. An intellectually gifted child, fluent in Greek and Latin at an age when most children are still clumsy in their mother tongue, the young Grey came across as arrogant [End Page 111] and lazy. Capable of stellar results with no apparent effort, he was so easily bored that he absconded from primary school. His adult career is likewise riddled with ambiguity. Faced with an economic crisis in South Australia, he blamed his predecessor (perhaps fairly); his corrective policies provoked angry demonstrations. During his first stint in New Zealand he undermined his lieutenant governor, Edward Eyre...