And three quite unrelated events occurred to arouse a special interest in the said Mr Wakefield. Firstly a New Zealand commentator noted that NZ students heard endless stories from primary school history classes where Wakefield was the founder of their nation. Secondly I was already fascinated by the development and collapse of a different Utopian dream. Thirdly a Canadian involvement came to light, and I love Canadian history.
Wakefield did not come into adulthood with clean hands. Seeking a decent income to secure a seat in the House of Commons in 1816, Wakefield abducted a VERY young daughter of a Cheshire silk manufacturer, and married her. Worse still, he had two children, but dumped the babies onto a relative when his wife died in childbirth. He later tried to marry another child bride and this time the girl’s father ensured that Wakefield was tried in court. In May 1827, Edward was sentenced to three years gaol.
In 1831 Wakefield became involved in projects that advanced the colonisation of South Australia. He believed that many of Britain's social problems were caused by over crowding, and he promoted the concept of emigration to the colonies as a solution. Wakefield’s colonisation scheme was not based on involuntary convict labour as New South Wales had had – rather he was promoting a voluntary labour force of workers, artisans and capital, working in unison.
The South Australia colony started slowly. Although Wakefield had created the original dream, he found he was being pushed out of the decision-making. Why was this so - a lack of interpersonal skills on Wakefield’s behalf? A utopian dream not shared with the other commissioners? Religious conflicts? Eventually, when the conflict was intolerable, Wakefield took his bat and went home.
As quickly as possible, in 1838, some of the colonisation commissioners approached Dr Gregory of the Royal Military College to recommend a different, more godly man as governor of South Australia, and Gregory advised George Gawler to apply. The task was to concretise the experiment in systematic, self-supporting colonisation, devised by our very own Edward Gibbon Wakefield.
Edward Wakefield, Builder of Empire
Wakefield was still very interested in colonisation as a way to resolve Britain’s overcrowding, of course, so he set his sights on a new dream - the New Zealand Association. In 1837 Britain’s Colonial Office gave the New Zealand Association a charter to promote settlement in New Zealand. It has been suggested that the government wanted New Zealand to become a full British Colony, in which case land sales would become a Government monopoly. Wakefield, on the other hand, wanted the NZ Association to be a commercial company. In the event, the Colonial Office and the NZ Association failed to come to an agreement, so Wakefield turned his fertile mind towards Canada instead.
The union of Upper and Lower Canada in 1840 was no mean achievement, especially since Durham’s adviser Edward Wakefield had proved what a skilful diplomat he could be, when required. Yet Durham suddenly resigned; he and Wakefield returned to Britain together. What happened?
Back at home, Durham presented to Parliament a report on his years in Canada (1837-9); this report became the basis for British Colonial policy.
By 1839, Wakefield was invited to become the director of the newly formed New Zealand Company. This time around he was smarter; he stacked the board with his relatives. Their first ship sailed for NZ in mid 1839 and within six months he had sent eight more ships. This was a brave (or foolhardy) experiment, since the NZ colony was an uncertain entity. More and more Wakefield siblings were thrown into the project.
While active with the New Zealand Co, Wakefield still watched Canadian affairs. The North American Colonial Association of Ireland sent him back to Canada as their very well paid representative in Jan 1842 and he stayed in Canada for another year. During that short period, he had got himself elected to the Canadian Parliament. Yet again, he pulled up his wickets and sailed for home. What happened??
By 1846 Wakefield was focusing entirely on NZ, but I don’t think the 50 year old was a well man. In May 1847 the British Government agreed to take over the debts of the New Zealand Company and to buy out their interests in the Colony. The directors accepted the offer!
Poster advertising for emigrants to New Zealand in 1839
During 1851 and 1852 Wakefield continued to work for the Canterbury Association and also to work towards making New Zealand a self governing colony. The New Zealand Constitution Act was passed in June 1852. New Zealanders liked the idea, of course, although they did not like that their new government had to absorb the remaining debts of the defunct New Zealand Co.
At last Wakefield personally sailed from Plymouth in Sept 1852 for New Zealand. Within a very short time Wakefield was completely disenchanted with Canterbury. He claimed the citizens were far too parochial in their outlook; they were far more concerned with domestic issues rather than national politics. Clearly they were not worthy of Edward Gibbon Wakefield so he soon sailed for Wellington.
But Wellington was a disaster - Wakefield went on the attack almost as soon as he landed. He took issue with Governor George Grey on his policy on land sales. Grey, who thought Wakefield was a speculator and hustler, was in favour of selling land very cheaply to encourage the flow of settlers. Wakefield, who thought of himself as an ideologue, wanted to keep the price of land high so that the growth of the colony could be financed by land sales. This had been a core principle of his colonial theory since 1831.
Governor Grey did not quietly give in to Wakefield’s beliefs; Grey drew attention to the generous fees that had been paid to Wakefield as a Director of the New Zealand Company at a time when the company was reneging on its debts in New Zealand. It was an ugly struggle.
After decades of political battles, Wakefield withdrew from all public life. This very difficult man died in Wellington in 1862, still annoyed at all his plans that had been frustrated by other, more powerful people. However he was very pleased to see that the Wellington settlement was successful.
Real Gold, Treasures of Auckland Libraries and
Philip Temple, A Sort of Conscience: The Wakefields, Auckland UP, 2002.