George Grey was the only son of Lieutenant-Colonel Grey of the 30th Foot. His father was killed at the sack of Badajoz in the Peninsula War, eight days before he was born in Lisbon. He was educated at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, and granted a commission in the 83rd Foot in 1829. He left the army in 1839, by which time he had achieved the rank of captain.
In 1836, the Royal Geographical Society accepted his offer to explore Western Australia. Grey’s qualities of leadership surfaced and his compassionate care for the Aborigines was noted when his party suffered extreme hardships on this expedition. He was appointed Governor of South Australia, a position he occupied from 1841 until 1845, when he was appointed Lieutenant Governor of New Zealand. He ended the conflict between the settlers and the Maoris, who regarded him highly, and helped to draw up the free constitution granted to New Zealand.
When he arrived at the Cape in 1854, Grey succeeded Sir George Cathcart as Governor and High Commissioner of the Cape Colony. At this time, Britain was facing war in the Crimea (1853-56) and the Indian Mutiny (1857). His orders were to keep the peace on the frontier and in Natal, and to project tactful but firm diplomatic relations with the Boer republics.
Autocratic and stubborn, but with exceptional ability, charm and insight, he was the calibre of man the British colonial powers at the Cape had long sought. He was fortunate to come to office at a time of economic growth when it was easier to implement his ideas. Among the hard-bitten colonists of the legislature, race and colour were polarizing issues and most were out of sympathy with the group of English and Dutch 'Cape liberals' who lived mainly in Cape Town. Grey had a rapport with the English, Afrikaners and pre-colonial inhabitants. He had the reputation of being the best Governor of all time and travelled through the Cape Colony, the Orange Free State and Natal, making peaceful settlements with Moshesh and with Adam Kok.
Grey immediately turned his attention to the struggle for land on the frontier. He tried to promote goodwill among the Xhosa and the colonists by showing a willingness to share interests. He promoted a scheme of public works to open up the country, and he tried to uplift and develop the Xhosa and other tribes and promote the colonial power. He did so by establishing an effective administration, assisting missionaries, and building roads. Officials were told to put an end to the chronic instability on the frontier among the Xhosa by encouraging crop farming and ploughing. Irrigation furrows were introduced in an effort to raise the standard of living. Charles Brownlee, an administrator, bought sheep to distribute among them, and the holdings of the Xhosa and colonists were deliberately mingled.
After the 1850s, European culture began to be accepted. The government promoted education because it was seen as a means of pacification and incorporation into colonial society. The newly opened hospital in King Williams Town treated whites and blacks identically, and schools for blacks were founded and sponsored. Lovedale School became the best known. Evangelism was encouraged, and converts settled themselves around mission stations with their associated industrial schools. These provided instruction in carpentry, wagon-making and smithing, often offered a high standard of academic education. Some southern tribes changed radically in the manner of life they led, especially the Mfengu, the Gqunukwebe, and refugees who saw it as the door to a new society. They accepted education enthusiastically, adopted western dress and customs and began participating in the market-related economy as land tenants or sharecroppers.
However, the Xhosa saw education as an attack on their culture. Fearing the loss of their identity and custom, they wished to retain their traditional societies intact under the chiefs' power. They were so keen to retain their traditions, that sometimes they took aggressive action against those who tried to attend the mission schools. Consequently, the marked cleavage that already existed between Xhosa traditionalists, who scorned the missionaries as breakers of ancestral custom, and the Christians was exacerbated. The Governor appointed magistrates to assist chiefs and a monthly salary was offered to them for their services in court. Though Sandile argued that his authority was undermined, perhaps because of the monetary advantage, many chiefs agreed to the system.
Grey encouraged the commencement of the first railway at the Cape, gave large sums towards the founding of Grey’s College at Bloemfontein and erected hospitals for the indigenous inhabitants to combat the influence of witchdoctors.
The Xhosa National Suicide took place in 1856. Faced with the rapid disintegration of their traditional society the Xhosa turned to the supernatural, believing a prophecy that if they refrained from sowing and if they killed all their cattle, the whites would be driven into the sea. This 'Great Cattle Killing' initiated a devastating famine in 1857 that cost the lives of some 30,000 people and caused about 29,000 destitute Xhosa to seek work in the colony.
In the Transkei, preparations for future land annexation began in 1856 when an expedition was sent out to subjugate Chief Sarhili, who fled across the Mbashe (Bashee) River. The central government had established effective authority by 1858. Once the Xhosa chiefs lost their power, Grey was able to settle the depopulated areas with white colonists. The decimation of the land and its peoples caused by the Xhosa Cattle Killing gave Grey the opportunity to stabilize the area. He extended the magistrate's role, introduced white immigrants, and allowed loyal black allies like the Mfengu into the area, and German legionaries who had fought in the Crimean War were offered free passages for themselves and their families to the Cape. However, most of these left to take part in the Indian Mutiny in 1857. Grey then recruited German peasant families who were dispersed among the colonists, with whom they intermarried, soon losing their cultural distinctiveness. The hard-pressed Griqua under Adam Kok were allowed to settle in 'Nomansland'. They left Philippolis towards the end of 1861, and after an epic journey over the High Drakensberg, they settled in what is now known as East Griqualand. These measures were in accord with Grey's policy of integration and were influenced by a need to consolidate British Kaffraria and to safeguard the route to the north from East London via Queenstown.
As High Commissioner, Grey had certain powers of intervention beyond Cape borders, but British involvement was mainly confined to exerting diplomatic influence over cooperative Boer republics and black chiefdoms. Grey concluded that, so long as the white communities in South Africa remained economically unstable and politically divided, they would be unable to make progress and there would be no end to the cycle of violence with their African neighbours. His solution was to establish one policy throughout Southern Africa. Envisaging this as a single unified territory, he sought to reverse the policy of withdrawal laid down in the Conventions of Sand River and Bloemfontein. Instead, he reasserted British authority north of the Vaal River and actively tried to extend and consolidate imperial possessions in a federal association. He wanted to bring under white rule the whole area across the Kei right through to Natal, and to persuade the Orange Free State to federate between the Cape Colony. At this time the Free Staters were suffering at the hands of the Basotho whose stronghold they had attacked without success. Sotho raiders had penetrated a wide area of the Free State and the Free State Volksraad had since then grown receptive to the idea of federating with the Cape.
At this point Grey seriously overreached himself. Ignoring the more critical attitude towards colonial affairs held by British officials, in March 1859 Grey took advantage of distance and slow communications, and, without waiting to hear from London, laid his proposals for federation with the Free State before the Cape legislature. This indiscretion incurred the wrath of his superiors at the British Colonial Office, who were already dismayed at the high costs of his undertakings and alarmed about the financial deficit building up at the Cape. British officials refused to countenance his federation schemes and he was immediately recalled in 1859.
The colonists held Grey in high regard when he left the Cape in August 1859. On his arrival in London, however, he found there had been a change of government, and he was reappointed, on condition that he dropped his federation proposals. Grey was sent back to the Cape, but not for long (1860-1861). He was restored to office and sent out as Governor to New Zealand in 1861.
In 1894, he returned to England and died there, and was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral, London