Edward Gibbon Wakefield and the Colonial Dream: A Reconsideration
GP Publications in association with the Friends of the Turnbull Library, Wellington,
ISBN 1 86956 204 6
In William Gisborne’s revised and enlarged edition of New Zealand Rulers and Statesmen (1897), Edward Gibbon Wakefield, senior statesman memorialised in marble, occupies pride of place as the frontispiece illustration. Eyes focus on a distant horizon; the set of the jaw is determined. For the 1997 Reconsideration, the youthful blue-eyed visionary and radical is portrayed as he himself arranged at the time of his trial in 1826. Respectability and self-possession exude: this skilled publicist had no need of spin doctors. Contributor Ged Martin records that notable contemporaries were wary of Wakefield’s facility with words. Senior official James Stephen was one who preferred to have Wakefield as a “declared enemy”, believing that “want of truth and honour would render him most formidable” in any other capacity.
The polarity of viewpoint which Wakefield inspired during his lifetime continued after his death. Both of the two biographies produced in 1928, one by Wakefield’s great-granddaughter, Irma O’Connor, and the other by A J Harrop, were uncritical. Subsequent studies of Wakefield and the New Zealand Company were generally quite the reverse. In more recent historical writing, his role has been discussed in brief rather than at length. The August 1996 commemorative seminar marking the bicentenary of Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s birth was therefore both timely and provocative: the quality of the published proceedings indicates that the challenge issued by the Friends of the Turnbull Library was welcomed by those who took part.
Five broad themes provide the basic structure of the book. In Part I, which discusses Wakefield’s life, Ngatata Love provides a Maori perspective on the man whose ambition for a land he could not create in his own homeland is perceived to be the foundation for all the painful consequences that followed for Maori in the path of land sales. Philip Temple demonstrates the importance of placing the activist and theorist firmly within the context of a “chaotic indulgent childhood” in a dynamic yet dysfunctional family; while Ged Martin cleverly explores his subject’s past, futures and fantasy world.
Part II focuses on Wakefield’s thought. The legacy of Adam Smith’s writings is richly documented as Erik Olssen examines the connections between the Scottish Enlightenment and Wakefield’s ideas of systematic colonisation and civilisation. Graham Butterworth goes beyond the usual passing reference to Wakefield’s Quaker background and suggests four areas of activity which may have been influenced by these beliefs. Raewyn Dalziel’s exploration of the dynamics of gender in Wakefield’s theoretical and political writings demonstrates the advantage of approaching familiar material from a feminist perspective. Comparative dimensions are reinforced in Part III as Eric Richards examines Wakefield’s historical influence within the Australian colonial experience and notes a parallel pattern within the historiography. John Martin investigates the position of labourers within the theory and practice of systematic colonisation, and finds the origin of unemployment relief provided by central government in the social contract between the New Zealand Company and its working class emigrants. Utopia eluded those who emigrated to Otago but, Tom Brooking contends, settlers in the South “managed to recover something of the organic quality of the relationship between community, religion and nature which they dreamed about”.
There is remarkably little repetition or overlap between these individual essays but one theme is apparent throughout: that this complex individuals intellectual strengths need to be taken seriously and his ideas appraised within the context of his time. The publications of the 1950s generation of Wakefield scholars, valuable as they have been, can no longer serve as an adequate basis for evaluating Wakefield’s role in our past.
The organising committee’s belief that a greater understanding of the formative colonial period would result from the seminar has been well-founded, and all who teach and research in this area will find a wealth of fresh insights in this volume.
In Parts iv and v, “Views of the Land” and “Wakefield’s Cultural Legacy”, the value of encouraging interdisciplinary perspectives for this seminar is particularly apparent.
Conservation ecologist Geoff Park exposes the destructive impact of the orthogonal grid plan, “the key spatial organisational element in Wakefield’s concept of settlement”. Yet there were contemporaries, landscape designer Thomas Shepherd amongst them, who recognised the intrinsic value of New Zealand’s natural ecosystem. The development/destruction debate has a long history in this country, and Park reminds us yet again that the fate of life on earth depends upon our ability to moderate our quest for power over our environment, and the indiscriminate use of such power, a point which many developers in present and past generations have been reluctant to appreciate. Grahame Anderson’s complementary analysis of the town-planning ideas that can be discerned from a study of the plans for Adelaide, Britannia/Wellington, New Plymouth, Wanganui, Nelson, Dunedin, Christchurch and Beavertown/Blenheim, shows the grid concept in action, modified only when surveyors on site had to rested local contours. The imperial legacy is also evident in the nomenclature as Anderson demonstrates that the naming of a landscape is “as much a political act as a geographic one”.
Marion Minson’s critique, “Promotional Shots: the New Zealand Company’s paintings, drawings and prints of Wellington in the 1840s and their use in selling a colony”, is a superb introduction to the visual propaganda which was so crucial a part of the advertising. When used alongside Judith Johnstone’s earlier analysis of the written materials, “Information and emigration: the image-making process”, published in the New Zealand Geographer in 1977, the persuasiveness of the Company’s publicity becomes apparent, and not least because they also understood and applied the mechanisms of damage control when confronted with adverse publicity. For any educator wanting to introduce students to skills of reading visual evidence, Minson’s selection of images and careful analysis is an invaluable case study.
“Scholars, Gentlemen and Floppy Disks” also has obvious application in senior classrooms. Appropriately enough, since the Friends aimed also to promote the importance of the Alexander Turnbull Library as a research institution, Susan Butterworth’s contribution stems from her work as the 1994 National Library Research Fellow. In outlining the process through which she developed a database on the first generation of New Zealand politicians, Butterworth provides both guidance and stimulus for others contemplating similar projects. Family history researchers with a Wakefield-era politician in their ancestry can now consider that individual’s political involvement, education, membership of learned societies, religious affiliation, professional qualification, literary activity and military experience within a comparative context. Butterworth emphasises that her findings on the intellectual and educational background of these first generation politicians are still provisional but the insights to date confirm the value of the project.
Of the three final contributions, those by Lydia Wevers and Linda Hardy explore aspects of the Wakefield literary heritage while Matiu Rei argues, from a Ngati Toa perspective, that Wakefield’s legacy for generations of New Zealanders is the relentless pressure by a Crown seeking to acquire Maori resources, thereby rendering unattainable effective and practical expression of tina rangatiratanga. The seminars proceedings conclude with the list of suggestions which emerged from a panel discussion on further areas for research, grouped under the general headings of milieu, Wakefield’s life and thought, and the application of Wakefield’s ideas in New Zealand.
Clearly the variety of approach and topic area within this volume should ensure that it has wide-ranging appeal, to political economists and genealogists, teachers and art historians, environmentalists and tribal researchers, for instance. Student essay writers, tempted to rely too heavily on the work of earlier generations of scholars, may not find it easy to revise their views in the light of this more recent work but they will be well rewarded intellectually ii they make that effort. Unquestionably, the seminar has provided a much fuller understanding of the complex individual whose name is synonymous with the foundation colonial era of our past. Yet the experience of the past two decades in New Zealand does suggest that an exploration of personality and ideology needs to be accompanied by at least some sustained analysis of the social consequences for those whose lives are directly affected.
Thousands of individuals emigrated in response to Wakefield’s ideas: does their subsequent experience matter so little that it does not merit research? We know something of the immediate difficulties for settlers in the Nelson and Wellington regions, for example, but relatively little beyond the first decade. In that sense, and given the example provided by Butterworth’s paper, it is curious that none of the research trajectories proposed contemplates interconnecting with the case study insights which may be gained from a constantly expanding number of family, iwi, local and regional or tribal histories. While the Historical Branch immigration database project will eventually supply accessible information on the nineteenth century migrants’ background, we need a more detailed understanding of what happened to individuals in the two decades after arrival before we can evaluate the full impact of Wakefield’s theories in action.
Jeanine Graham teaches history at the University of Waikato.