Colonial Mastermind: the story of Edward Gibbon Wakefield (part 2)

From Black Sheep, 7:00 am on 27 July 2020

In the first episode of this two part series about Edward Gibbon Wakefield we talked about the origins of the man once described as a ‘Founding Father of New Zealand’.

In this episode we see how his plans to colonise Aotearoa ran into some bitter realities.

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Clayton, Matthew Thomas, 1831-1922 :Settlement of Wellington by the New Zealand Company. Historical gathering of pioneer ships in Port Nicholson, March 8, 1840, as described by E J Wakefield.

Clayton, Matthew Thomas, 1831-1922 :Settlement of Wellington by the New Zealand Company. Historical gathering of pioneer ships in Port Nicholson, March 8, 1840, as described by E J Wakefield. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library

Edward Gibbon Wakefield believed Aotearoa was the perfect place to put his theories of "Systematic Colonisation" into practise.

Working with rich and influential allies he set up the New Zealand Company to promote his plans. He wrote thousands of books and pamphlets promoting colonisation.

Dr Phillip Temple, author of A Sort of Conscience, said much of Wakefield’s writing painted New Zealand as a “vision of paradise”.

Take this example:

“Great valleys occupied with the most beautiful rivers, their feet washed by the ceaseless south-sea swell, their flanks clothed with the grandest of primeval forests … The fertility of its soil, the amenity and salubrity of its climate, [makes for] the peculiar adaptation of the country for the residence of a great commercial and manufacturing people.”

Wakefeild was a master of propaganda. The New Zealand Company even arranged to ship a Māori man called Te Waiti to London so he could promote the planned colonies with statements like this:

“I like it. I do not know what my countrymen would like. I think they would like it too, because they like even the bad people now. I think they would like the gentlemen.”

It’s hard to know if Te Waiti (also known as "Nayti") really did think colonisation would be good for Māori, or if he was just saying what the New Zealand Company wanted him to say. 

Wakefield himself waved away concerns about the effects of colonisation on indigenous people. He claimed “the common effect … of mere colonisation has been to exterminate the aboriginal race. This, however, is not a plan of mere colonisation: It has for its object to civilize as well as to colonise.”

He said the settlers would “adopt” and “instruct” Māori. He argued the colonists would be  “civilising a barbarous people,” who could “scarcely cultivate the earth”. 

Part of the reason Wakefield felt he needed to paint his colonisation plans as a positive for Māori was to combat a powerful indigenous rights lobby group in Britain

It was partly a reaction to the horrific treatment of Native Americans in the USA. Around this time, in the 1830s, 60,000 Native Americans were forced off their land in the so-called ‘Trail of Tears’. About 4,000 of them died in the process. 

Some British people worried the same thing could happen in New Zealand. Particularly the Church Missionary Society and a group called the Aborigines Protection Society. 

They had the ear of senior figures in the British Colonial Office, one of whom warned that the New Zealand Company’s plans would lead to the “conquest and extermination of the present inhabitants”. 

In fact, part of the reason the Treaty of Waitangi was dreamed up in the first place was to block unscrupulous actors like the New Zealand Company from setting up colonies in Aotearoa. Particularly Article Two which includes the following clause:

“The chiefs of the United Tribes and the individual chiefs yield to Her Majesty the exclusive right of preemption over such lands as the proprietors thereof may be disposed to alienate.”

To put that in plain English - the Treaty would prevent Māori from selling land to anyone other than the British Government, particularly not private speculators like the New Zealand Company.

For Wakefield this was a disaster. His whole theory of ‘systematic colonisation’ depended on buying land cheaply from Māori, selling it at a high price to rich settlers and using the profits to ship labourers to the colony.

But Dr Phillip Temple said Wakefield still saw a narrow chance to make his vision a reality: “Get to New Zealand ... before the Treaty of Waitangi could be signed.”

Wakefield’s plan was to buy up as much land as he could before the Treaty made those kinds of purchases illegal. But Dr Temple said the New Zealand Company only had a few months in which to act. 

“Rushing the whole thing ... was a recipe for disaster.” 

Listen to the full episode to hear how the New Zealand Company’s efforts to buy land from Māori triggered the first conflicts of the New Zealand Wars, and how Wakefield’s theories of “Systematic Colonisation” ran into some bitter realities.