Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/McLean, Donald
McLEAN, Sir DONALD (1820–1877), New Zealand statesman, born on 27 Oct. 1820, at Kilmonaig, near Tiree, Argyllshire, was fourth son of John McLean and of Margaret his wife, the daughter of the Rev. D. McColl. Fresh from school at the age of seventeen—'an uneducated lad' (Rusden)—he emigrated to Sydney, and was employed in a merchant's office for two years. Thence he went to New Zealand, and after serving for a time as a seaman in the coasting craft became clerk in the office of protector of the aborigines, and was thus brought into contact with the Maoris. Himself saturated with Gaelic traditions and folklore, he seemed to find the ancient clansman reproduced in the Maori, and he devoted himself to mastering the Maori language and legends. He was soon appointed interpreter in the office, as well as clerk; and within four years became local protector for the Taranaki district, where his influence over the natives rapidly asserted itself.
From August 1844 McLean was constantly employed in difficult negotiations with the Maoris in different parts of the islands. His advice was always in the direction of peace, and to his good offices it is ascribed that war was avoided after Mr. Spain's award in 1845. Gibbon Wakefield, the promoter of the New Zealand Company, whose closing years were passed in the colony, was much struck by McLean's influence, and dubbed him 'the great Maori mystery man.' In 1845 he became inspector of police for Taranaki, and on 5 March 1847 he was appointed a commissioner for negotiating purchases of lands from the natives, with instructions to make every effort to acquire for the European population the land included in Mr. Spain's award. The policy which he thus represented was somewhat opposed to his own views, but he retained the natives' confidence. In 1850 he was appointed resident magistrate for his district.
In 1856 McLean opposed the claim of the legislature to entire control over the native reserves. A compromise was adopted, whereby native affairs were left under the governor's personal control, subject to review by the responsible minister, and McLean was chosen to be the first native secretary—the permanent head of a department only partially controlled by the legislature. He still remained chief commissioner for the purchase of native lands. In his new capacity the governor relied entirely upon him, but, partly owing to his own health, he could not prevent dangerous complications ensuing between the Maoris and the legislature, and these led to the war with the Maoris about the Waitara matter in 1860.
On 4 March 1863 McLean was elected to the provincial council and made the first superintendent of Hawke's Bay province, resigning his government appointment. In 1866 he was sent by the premier to reduce to order the natives of the eastern coast, and in the same year he entered the Legislative Assembly, and took an active part in the opposition to the Stafford ministry, which had incurred the distrust of the natives. Largely owing to his influence the Maoris were (in 1867) admitted to the Legislative Assembly of New Zealand, and added strength to the party with which he acted. In 1868 Stafford's government removed him from the post of government agent, and thus aggravated the opposition. In June 1869 the Stafford ministry fell, Fox came into power, and McLean was appointed native minister and minister for colonial defence. 'Great hopes were founded on McLean's accession to power.' One of his earliest acts was to bring about a final peace with the natives, and put an end to ten years of desultory warfare (1870).
From this time till his death, with the exception of one month, McLean was minister for native affairs. Fox's government went out on 10 Sept. 1872; Stafford attempted to form a ministry without McLean; but the Maori representatives resented it, and Stafford had to retire within a month. Waterhouse reconstructed the cabinet, and McLean had his old position in it. He carried important bills for constituting native councils, regulating native lands, and founding native reserves, although the last underwent alteration at the hands of the Maori members. In 1875 he held an important conference with King Tawhiao and the chiefs. All questions about the Maoris were absolutely in his hands, and his reliance on personal exertions rather than on the law was the source of his influence. 'He was rather opinionative in what he considered his specialty, and rather lax in matters of general administration, for which, as a member of the ministry, he was constitutionally responsible, but no man did so much for New Zealand in facilitating the peaceful union of both races' (Gisborne).
In July 1874 he was made a K.C.M.G. He resigned office in December 1876, issuing an address to the Maoris, in which he informed them that his policy would be carried out by his successor, and he died in the following month (January 1877). The Maori tribes paid him those marks of respect which their customs required on the death of a chief. McLean married the daughter of Mr. Strang, and left a son.
[Rusden's History of New Zealand, s.v. 'McLean' in Index; Gisborne's New Zealand Rulers and Statesmen, pp. 162 sqq.; Mennell's Dict. of Australasian Biography; New Zealand Times, 11 Jan. 1877.]