James Carroll was born at Wairoa, northern Hawke's Bay, probably on 20 August 1857, one of eight children of Joseph Carroll and his Ngāti Kahungunu wife, Tapuke, a woman of mana. His father, a Sydney-born Irishman, had come to the Bay of Islands in the early 1840s and began whaling, timber-cutting, blacksmithing and coastal trading in northern Hawke's Bay in association with the local Māori communities. He eventually turned to sheep and cattle farming on the property known as Huramua (Hurumua).
The Carroll children's upbringing was bicultural from the outset. James Carroll later recorded that his birth was accompanied by traditional Māori ritual, he was suckled by midwives, and he passed some of his earliest childhood among Tapuke's kin in inland communities. Māori was his first language, and he referred also to whare wānanga instruction, although in later life he apparently believed in the Mesopotamian origin of the Māori.
His parents sought for their children what European-style education was available. At the age of eight James attended the native school at Wairoa, then a school in Napier, but he abhorred confines and left after two or three years. He loved horses and began to work on stations and ride in local race meets.
In 1870, when 12 or 13, he joined a 300-strong Māori force in pursuit of Te Kooti in the Urewera. Courageous under fire, he was mentioned in dispatches and paid £50. His father was able to secure him a cadetship in the Native Department under his friend Samuel Locke in Hawke's Bay. This gave Carroll his first experience of land transactions on the East Coast. He first visited the East Coast with Donald McLean, the minister for native affairs, who, impressed with his abilities, transferred him to the Native Department in Wellington. However, still restless, Carroll returned in 1875 to station life in Hawke's Bay and Poverty Bay, and to the enjoyment of all kinds of sports; he was a big man and a natural athlete.
Meanwhile, he was reading whatever books he could get his hands on. He later paid tribute to the influence of university-educated sons of English gentry, with whom he shared camp for months at a time. He returned to Wellington as interpreter to the House of Representatives from 1879 to 1883. This experience was highly formative. His eloquence in Māori and English steadily grew, as did his gifts of tact and mediation in the service of the Māori members. He became thoroughly familiar with parliamentary procedure and his interest in a political career was awakened.
Carroll was also visiting Gisborne regularly, becoming part of the horse-racing fraternity there and increasingly involved in the complex land deals on the East Coast. He was proving to be an effective mediator in disputes and helped Ngāti Porou leaders to form committees and lease and farm their own land. On 4 July 1881 Carroll married Hēni Materoa (Te Huinga). Her father was Mīkaera (Mika) Tūrangi, son of Rongowhakaata chief Paratene Tūrangi; her mother was Riperata Kahutia, the daughter of Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki chief Kahutia. Riperata apparently disapproved of her daughter's marriage to the restless, fun-loving Carroll, and so the young couple eloped to Wellington where they were married in the Registrar's Office. His marriage to Hēni Materoa drew Carroll closer to Gisborne and they made their home there.
In 1884 Carroll contested the Eastern Māori seat in Parliament, narrowly losing to the sitting member, Wī Pere. In the 1887 election, land issues dominated. Wī Pere became heavily involved in the affairs of the New Zealand Native Land Settlement Company, led by W. L. Rees. On the national level the major issue was John Ballance's Native Land Administration Act 1886. This act provided for committees of Māori owners to vest blocks of land in land boards and a government commissioner to lease on their behalf; but Māori, ever suspicious of paternalistic controls and officials, wanted more direct control of their land and Carroll vehemently voiced their objections to the act. In the Eastern Māori election Carroll had the support of Hēni Materoa's kin and, although Ballance campaigned for Wī Pere, Carroll won.
Carroll's ebullient and successful bicultural lifestyle led him firmly to believe that Māori could succeed very well in European society; his fear that they were being cast by the settlers in a passive role of suppliers of land for Pākehā entrepreneurs convinced him that they must aim to do so. Consequently, in 1887 he put on the order paper a number of resolutions to the effect that all unnecessary distinctions in law and administration on the basis of race should be removed, that the same laws of property and rights of citizenship should apply to all, and that a select committee should be appointed to consider means 'by which equalisation may be expedited'. These resolutions were hurled back at Carroll by the opposition throughout his parliamentary career whenever he proposed special provisions for Māori.
Essentially, Carroll aimed at empowering Māori within modern economic life and securing their equality with Pākehā. He accepted that the burgeoning flow of settlement would not be denied access to undeveloped Māori land, especially in the central North Island, but he sought a place for Māori to lease land and use the revenue to invest in their own farming, just as settlers did. To this end he opposed Crown pre-emption, which denied Māori landowners full access to the market and left them exposed to manipulative Crown land agents paying derisory prices.
However, the Atkinson government's Native Land Act 1888 did not give Māori the control over their land which Carroll and other members sought. The government was seeking to encourage an inflow of private capital, by enabling investors to acquire the freehold of Māori land cheaply, whereas Carroll was reflecting the Māori preference for leasing. Following the formation of a Liberal government in 1891 Carroll's standing on land questions earned him appointment, along with W. L. Rees and Thomas Mackay, to a comprehensive commission of inquiry into native land laws.
The commission's principal report bitterly criticised the individualisation of titles, favoured a hapū title where the land was unsuitable for subdivision and close settlement, and proposed a remodelling of the Native Land Court to make it more locally based, with a role for Māori block and district committees in settling title. It also favoured alienation of the land only through land boards with 50 per cent Māori representation, and restoration of Crown pre-emption. Carroll dissented from this last recommendation and strongly criticised the lack of training and other support given to assist Māori to become farmers.
The Rees–Carroll approach was delayed by the appointment as native minister of Alfred Cadman, who favoured the purchase rather than leasing of Māori land. As a backbencher still, Carroll launched a flow of awkward questions about the government's actions, sometimes citing the Treaty of Waitangi in support of Māori rights. Carroll's personal skills and his knowledge of the complex area of Māori land tenure nevertheless led to his appointment in March 1892 as member of the Executive Council representing the native race.
In accepting this office, and with Richard Seddon taking the native affairs portfolio in 1893, Carroll had to concur publicly in the Liberals' drive to purchase Māori land. Crown pre-emption was restored, and the Validation Court was created to ratify the many titles with technical defects. Carroll also supported the Native Land Purchase and Acquisition Act 1893, which enabled the government to declare areas of uncultivated Māori land for compulsory sale or lease. He considered that leasing, together with compulsory investment of the rent on behalf of the beneficial owners, would produce development and diminish the squandering of payments that usually occurred.
He was subject, however, to sharp criticisms from Māori members of Parliament who supported Te Kotahitanga, or the Māori parliament movement. Suggestions from Hōne Heke that Carroll might not continue to hold the Eastern Māori seat against Wī Pere, a strong Kotahitanga supporter, contributed to his decision to contest the general (European) seat of Waiapu in 1893. He won it by 497 votes against another Liberal, C. A. de Lautour, and held it until 1908 when, following a boundary change, he took the seat of Gisborne, holding that until 1919.
By the mid 1890s the Kotahitanga movement had succeeded in organising an effective boycott of the Native Land Court. One wing of it supported a demand for a separate law-making assembly for Māori under clause 71 of the 1852 Constitution Act. Hōne Heke, MHR for Northern Māori, introduced a Native Rights Bill into Parliament in 1894 to this end. In the Urewera district physical resistance to surveys engendered a sense of crisis over the land question. Carroll worked closely with Seddon on these matters, twice touring remote Māori settlements with him.
Carroll consistently opposed the more separatist tendency within Te Kotahitanga, not only as being beyond practical politics but as drawing the Māori apart from advancement within the mainstream, which was always Carroll's primary objective. He debated fiercely with Hōne Heke. It would be better, he said, to free Māori from the delusion that they could have a separate constitution. Even local Māori committees could have only limited judicial powers, in Carroll's view, because of their tendency to become centres of dispute and opportunism. He understood the sensitivities of the Māori, he said, under the impositions of the new order – the burdens of rates and taxes and the severance from old institutions; yet 'it was better that he should feel the momentary pain, in order to enjoy the lasting benefit'. In this context he believed that separate Māori representation in Parliament should be abolished, not only because Māori could win general seats but because the importance of Māori voters in marginal electorates would oblige settler candidates to heed Māori opinion.
Nevertheless, Carroll fought hard to win acceptance for Māori institutions which he considered would help Māori to advance. In the 1880s he had worked with Paratene Ngata and Rāpata Wahawaha to develop management committees for blocks with multiple owners. In 1893 he collaborated with Rees and Wī Pere to introduce a private member's bill to constitute the owners of the 100,000-acre Mangatū No 1 block, north-east of Gisborne, as a body corporate, empowered to manage the land through an elected committee. Carroll had to confront the usual settler complaint that this was perpetuating Māori communism and would leave the land undeveloped. Carroll held to his view that Māori should gain individual titles where the land was suitable for subdivision, but not in the high country. Thus the classic East Coast model of land incorporations gained ground.
Because the Urewera land was not wanted for settlement, but rather left under bush to prevent erosion and flooding in the Bay of Plenty, Carroll was able to secure the passage of the Urewera District Native Reserve Act 1896. This allowed the title of the area to be settled by a special commission of five Tūhoe and two Pākehā, with the land managed by committees. In return the government was allowed a right of access, and gold prospectors could enter the area. Carroll's great skills of mediation were fully called upon to secure this outcome. In December 1899 he was rewarded for loyal co-operation with Seddon by at last being given the native affairs portfolio. The first Māori to hold this office, he did so with unsurpassed authority until the Liberals fell from power in 1912.
In 1900, with the support of emerging young leaders like Apirana Ngata, Carroll was able to persuade Kotahitanga and other Māori leaders to accept a compromise between their objectives and the government's, in the form of the Māori Councils Act and the Māori Lands Administration Act. The former empowered local Māori committees to deal with health, sanitation and liquor control; the latter established Māori land councils with a majority Māori membership, which could sell or lease land voluntarily placed under them. Block committees were empowered to assist the Native Land Court in determining title. Carroll travelled and toiled to set up the councils in the following years; his standing among Māori at this time was very high.
However, his greatest hopes were frustrated by continued Pākehā distrust and opposition. The Māori councils were starved of funds and unable to develop into effective institutions of local Māori self-management. The Māori land councils were effective in helping to settle title, but very little land was placed under them. In consequence, the opposition began to mount enormous pressure on the Liberals, baying for an end to 'Carroll's blot' of undeveloped land in the central North Island. Carroll was forced into concession after concession. In the Māori Land Settlement Act 1905 the Māori land councils, with three elected Māori members and one appointed Māori member out of seven, were replaced by wholly appointed land boards of only three members, one only required to be Māori. Piecemeal purchase of individual interests by the Crown resumed, except in the Tokerau (Tai-Tokerau) and Tai-Rāwhiti districts, as did private leasing.
Still Carroll sought to keep control by appointing board chairmen who tended to favour leasing. He also secured the appointment of a commission comprising Robert Stout and Apirana Ngata to consult hapū and recommend which land should be sold or leased and which developed by the owners. When only a low proportion was offered for sale Carroll had to bend further. The Native Land Settlement Act 1907 provided that the governor in council could vest unoccupied land in the boards. When Māori owners proposed to alienate land they could not do so wholly by lease; half the land was to be sold. Yet the 1907 act at last provided that boards should sell or lease only through public tender. The era of secretive purchasing for trivial prices was largely ended. Carroll also adopted proposals by Ngata to enable Māori to borrow on the security of land they rented for the development of land they retained.
In 1909 Carroll oversaw the drafting of the consolidating Native Land Bill. Introducing the bill, he was proud to announce that less than half a million acres remained under customary Māori tenure. The bill removed existing restrictions on alienation of Māori land and enabled Māori to deal with their land freely, subject to a check by the Native Land Court on adequacy of payment and the provision that no Māori could part with all of their freehold land. It contained the important provision that Māori customary tenure could not prevail against the Crown. This, said Carroll, would prevent a rush of litigation; in fact, it was the government's response to a Privy Council decision which held that, under common law, native customary title could not simply be set aside or extinguished by Crown grants. The 1909 act provided that Māori could deal with their lands directly or through the Māori land boards as they wished. Land incorporations and the Māori land development provisions of 1907 were strengthened. The Native Land Act 1909 determined the shape of Māori land administration into the 1960s. It facilitated rather than retarded the continued alienation of Māori land, but it also facilitated the development of Māori farming where owners were determined and fortunate enough to retain land.
In 1910 Carroll lost an important battle to retain the leasehold system in the native townships, such as Te Kūiti and Taumarunui, which he had carefully negotiated with Ngāti Maniapoto leaders. With the Liberal-held seat of Taumarunui at stake, he was obliged to grant perpetual lease and the right of tenants to purchase, in order to hold off an opposition proposal to compulsorily convert leases to freehold; such were the complex shifts of policy Carroll was obliged to make.
The Tohunga Suppression Act 1907 reflected Carroll's impatience with what he considered regressive Māori attitudes. It was aimed at 'so called prophets' such as Rua Kēnana of Maungapōhatu. Carroll respected the Tūhoe people and took a legitimate pride in having protected Tūhoe land in 1895, but he wanted Tūhoe to 'improve themselves in the scale of civilisation' and it infuriated him that Rua, whom he regarded as a charlatan, could apparently draw them off into isolation again.
Many Māori felt that Carroll made too many concessions to Pākehā. In negotiations with the King movement he won agreement that Māori land boards would be set up in Waikato, but only on the basis that the owners, not the boards, would determine which blocks would be sold, leased or reserved. In 1912, on the death of Mahuta, the Māori King, Carroll suggested that the title of King be dropped, but Waikato and Ngāti Maniapoto conferred the title on Te Rata nevertheless.
Despite his opposition to tendencies which he thought likely to turn Māori aspirations away from the mainstream, Carroll was emphatically and sometimes passionately Māori. In the long-running battle with William Herries, opposition spokesman for Māori affairs, Herries alleged that Carroll's policy was to destroy individualism, leading to the 'gaol of communism that will keep the Māori a separate race for ever'. Carroll fiercely denounced Herries's arguments as based on the Pākehā lust for land. To achieve settlement of the land on a wide and public basis, Carroll said, he had to 'stand against the critic, the political enemy, the private intriguer and speculator, the free-trader and a host of others so as to shield the Māori from immediate spoliation'. With reference to Māori leaseholds he stated: 'I will always approach these questions on broad and humane lines and, in keeping with my most genuine aspirations, do the best I can for the people of New Zealand; but…in doing that I can never forget the race I represent'. In Te Kūiti in 1920 he enjoined his audience to 'Hold fast to your Māoritanga'.
On the East Coast James Carroll, known to Māori as Timi Kara, was regarded with increasing affection as well as respect. In 1892 he had reluctantly joined Wī Pere as trustee for the heavily mortgaged lands of the New Zealand Native Land Settlement Company. Lacking sufficient powers, the trustees had a hopeless task and Carroll was repeatedly attacked in the Validation Court by disaffected Māori led by the rising lawyer W. D. Lysnar. Carroll used his influence discreetly with Seddon to prevent forced sale of the land. He was heartily relieved to shed the incubus in 1902 when Joseph Ward legislated to set up the East Coast Native Trust; but he continued to support development of land by Māori owners on the East Coast.
Carroll's stature in the Liberal party was marked by two periods as acting prime minister in 1909 and 1911, and by his appointment as KCMG in 1911. He supported the war effort and visited Māori troops on the Western Front in 1918. In 1919 he was defeated at the election by his old adversary, Lysnar. In 1921 the Massey government appointed him to the Legislative Council. As elder statesman, he supported the efforts of Ngata and his colleagues against those who criticised Māori leaseholds and against the government's tendency to allow trust and reserve land to be sold.
Carroll impressed all he met with his physical stature and his unabashed enjoyment of games and sports, his sagacity and knowledge, his oratory and wit, his bonhomie and warmth of personality. His wife, Hēni Materoa, a much more private person than James, nevertheless entertained visiting parliamentarians in the couple's Gisborne home. The Carrolls adopted several children, having none of their own. Hēni Carroll worked among the local Māori community, notably during the influenza epidemic of 1918, raised funds and gifted land for the children's home named for her. She was made an OBE in 1918.
In early October 1926 Carroll gave a eulogy at the unveiling of a memorial to his longstanding political opponent, William Herries, the two having become friends in later years. Ten days later, in Auckland, Carroll himself suddenly became ill from kidney failure, having suffered from nephritis for many years. He died within a few hours, on 18 October. Following a memorial service at St Patrick's Cathedral, his body was taken to Gisborne for a tangihanga to which Māori came from the length of the East Coast. He was buried at Mākaraka. Hēni Carroll died four years later, on 1 November 1930.
Carroll had fought hard for the preservation of Māori land. In one sense he failed: the combined forces on both sides of Parliament demanding the purchase of Māori land were too great for him. Yet he had for a time stemmed the rush, begun to secure support for Māori farming, established the system of Māori incorporations, and had secured recognition, from Māori elders and the Pākehā establishment alike, for a generation of young leaders such as Ngata. At Carroll's funeral Ngata praised the breadth of Carroll's humanity and his poise and dignity deriving from his Māori ancestry. At a time when racist attitudes were intensifying and the Māori were at great risk of being contemptuously brushed aside, Carroll's political and personal skills secured for his people as well as for himself permanent respect and standing in New Zealand.