Though he was a rather colorful fellow with questionable views on society, Edward Gibbon Wakefield is remembered today as a colonial reformer and advocate of systematic colonization. His writings and actions helped to reform British views on colonial development. He was one of the founders of New Zealand and much of the settlement was based upon his ideas for a model societal structure.
Wakefield was a London land agent’s son, born on March 20, 1796, and educated at Westminster. In 1826, he met Ellen Turner, the young daughter of a wealthy silk merchant. Wakefield spirited her away to Scotland where he pressed her into a quick marriage ceremony. When they were discovered, the wedding was annulled by Parliament and Wakefield was sentenced to three years in prison for kidnapping.
During his time in prison, Wakefield turned his thoughts toward corrective punishment and colonial development. From prison, he began to publish papers stating his position on these topics. He strongly promoted the colonization of Australasia and provided detailed plans for how he felt it should be accomplished.
His plan involved the New Zealand Company buying land at a pittance from the indigenous tribes, and then selling it at a high price to “gentleman settlers” and investors. Revenue earned through these land sales would finance the immigration of free settlers; however, since these newcomers would be unable to purchase land of their own, they would make up a laboring class to work for the landowners.
Many members of the New Zealand Company embraced Wakefield’s ideas and put them to use in the colonization of South Australia. While these supporters envisioned the creation of a “perfect English society,” Wakefield viewed their work there as a failure and instead turned his focus toward New Zealand.
In 1837, Wakefield chaired the first meeting of the New Zealand Association, where he was joined by a number of wealthy supporters. A bill was drafted detailing their intentions; however, it was strongly opposed by Colonial Office officials and the Church Missionary Society. The opposition was horrified by claims made in Wakefield’s pamphlets, where he declared his intentions to “civilize a barbarous people” who could “scarcely cultivate the earth.” They took issue with the unlimited power that would be wielded by the colony’s founders, and felt that the indigenous peoples of the region would simply be exterminated.
By the end of the year, however, Wakefield’s association was gathering favour throughout the government, and in December they were offered a Royal Charter which gave them responsibility over the administration of the colony of New Zealand. They soon merged with the New Zealand Company and continued under that name.
Before the government could impose further control, the Company set out to buy up as much land as possible. By the end of 1839 they had purchased land in Wellington and as far north as Patea, and intended to buy as much as 20 million acres in Nelson, Wellington, Wanganui, and Taranaki. Their ambitions were cut short though, when the government intervened with the Treaty of Waitangi. This treaty allowed only the government to make any further land purchases.
When the government began to question the land titles of the Company, Wakefield campaigned for self-government, though this was easily opposed by the governor, Sir George Grey. In 1853, Wakefield emigrated to Wellington and became involved in the political institution in New Zealand. Just one year later though, his health broke and he was forced to live in retirement until his death in 1862.
While Wakefield’s views were often impracticable due to his lack of first-hand knowledge, he was instrumental in the colonization and settlement of New Zealand. Due to his strong beliefs in modeling the settlements on the structures of British society, many New Zealand towns were established this way. While population growth wasn’t rapid by any means, many were attracted to life in New Zealand and colonies were quickly established. When the New Zealand Company arrived in 1839, there were a mere 2,000 immigrants in the country; by 1852 that number had climbed to 28,000.