Donald McLean (1820-1877)

Donald McLean (1820-1877) was arguably the most influential figure in mid-19th century New Zealand history. He was a dominant figure in relations between Māori and the Government during this tumultuous period.

Born in Scotland, McLean arrived at the Bay of Islands to seek his fortune soon after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. By 1844 he was working as a sub-protector in Taranaki in the Protectorate Department. It was the start of a stellar career. Later McLean drove the Government's land purchase activities, as Chief Native Land Purchase Commissioner. By 1856 he was the head of the Native Affairs Department: his support of the disputed Waitara purchase lead to the outbreak of war in Taranaki in the early 1860s.

In 1861 McLean temporarily retreated from central government to concentrate on building up his large and profitable estates in Hawke's Bay, and indulge in local politics. He was elected Superintendant of the Hawke's Bay Province in 1863 and returned to Wellington as an elected politician in 1866. Through the later 1860s McLean was in charge of the campaign against Te Kooti on the East Coast and from 1869 until just before his death in early 1877 he was the Minister in charge of Native Affairs. He married in 1851 but his wife died the following year, while giving birth to their only son.

McLean's biographer Ray Fargher shows McLean to be a person with much drive and ambition, extremely reluctant to share power or delegate, and with a very high opinion of his own integrity. At the same time he was markedly more willing than most of his settler contemporaries to allow Māori some limited say in the country's legislative and political structures. But ultimately he was at the heart of policies that led, as Fargher puts it, "to the political, economic and cultural marginalisation of the Māori within what had been their own country".

Further reading:

Alan Ward "McLean, Donald" Dictionary of New Zealand Biography volume one, Auckland University Press, Auckland 1990. Available online at

'Donald McLean', Ministry for Culture and Heritage

Ray Fargher The Best man who ever served the Crown? A Life of Donald McLean, Victoria University Press, Wellington 2007

Timeline of McLean's life

Donald McLean at Māori meeting, Wairoa, Hawke's Bay, 1865.

McLean was a fluent Māori speaker and was a confident participant at the many Māori hui (meetings) he attended throughout the country. In this meeting at Wairoa in 1865 he can be seen sitting under the tree on the left, clearly the centre of attention. Such meetings were an important part of his work, and they are well documented in his papers

Donald McLean at Māori meeting, Wairoa, Hawke's Bay, 1865. PA1-q-193-053
Beatrice Rhodes album
Photographic Archive
Alexander Turnbull Library