Myth-busting, Nicholas Reid

A Sort of Conscience – The Wakefields
Philip Temple
Auckland University Press, $69.95,
ISBN 1869402766

Myth one about the Wakefields (enshrined in colonial textbooks of long ago). The Wakefields were a great founding family of New Zealand, and Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s judicious planning ensured that the process of colonisation here was more orderly and just than it was in any other part of the British Empire. True, there were whispers about the man’s personal caddery and bounderism, and sometimes a defensive tone had to be adopted to protect his reputation. But Wakefield’s doctrine of the “sufficient price” meant that none but the best were attracted here from England. It explained (especially to Anglophiles in Canterbury and Nelson) why New Zealanders were so many cuts above those dubious Australians with their criminal forebears. Thanks to the Wakefields, we were the best of British stock, and a very superior people indeed.

Myth two about the Wakefields (forged in the new sensitivities of our postcolonial age). As even some socialistic Victorians understood, the Wakefields were self-interested entrepreneurs, and intent on transplanting to New Zealand all the evils of the British class structure. Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s theories on colonisation were pure moonshine. He had never actually seen the lands he proposed to transform. His first effusion, the “Letter From Sydney”, was written from a British jail, and his “View of the Art of Colonisation” was simply vindictive point-scoring against his political enemies.

Besides, the supposed orderliness of the Wakefieldian New Zealand Company rapidly fell apart. In practice, no settlement developed the way Wakefield envisaged, and the whole Wakefieldian enterprise was a dead letter within a few years of the first mass Pakeha immigration. Worse still, all schemes for colonisation, including the Wakefieldian, were based on ignoring and overriding the wishes, beliefs, culture, and land-tenure system of the indigenous people. The way was open for the Wakefields to be caricatured as mere exploiters of the Maori, albeit a bit more pompous and sententious than others in the field.

Thus the myths. Philip Temple, with admirable thoroughness and forthrightness, is able to subvert both of them.


Temple is intrigued by the Wakefields enough to chronicle most of their deeds over two or three generations. But he is as dismissive of the old hagiographies as any postcolonial ideologue could wish. If you wanted to prove that the clan really were mere cads and bounders, this book would give you all the ammunition you needed. Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s brothers are caught out in their dishonest dealing, careerism, and lies. Colonel William Wakefield is a mercenary soldier and then a spectacularly unpopular land speculator in Wellington. Felix Wakefield is the deserter of his wife, the failed blackmailer of the Canterbury Association, and (to the outrage of today’s ecologists) the man who introduced red deer into the virgin bush. Dan Wakefield gives his wife syphilis, defaults on huge gambling debts, and sneaks into New Zealand under a false name. Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s son Edward Jerningham Wakefield writes one good (if propagandistic) book, but indulges in sexual promiscuity, makes an ass of himself by idle threats against some Maori leaders, and dies a hopeless drunk. Even Arthur Wakefield, admired by Temple for his selflessness and physical courage as a naval officer, is seen to have a murky part in the Wairau affair that killed him. It might have been his own pig-headedness, and refusal to see the justice of Te Rauparaha’s and Te Rangitaeata’s claims, that set the whole affair off.

Nor does the star of the show escape censure. Temple exposes Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s Machiavellian duplicity and betrayal of his own declared principles when it suited him. Early and late in his career, he could cast off faithful allies when he thought it would deliver him power, as a rueful Henry Sewell discovered in New Zealand. In his account of the 30-year-old Wakefield’s abduction of the 15-year-old heiress Ellen Turner, Temple really confirms all those negative anti-Wakefield rumours that dogged the old hagiographic version. True, Temple does argue that Ellen’s family were as mercenary, and as intent on protecting their investments, as they were concerned for the girl’s welfare. But Wakefield’s jail sentence was still richly deserved.

As for Wakefield’s lofty theorising on lands he had never seen, it is interesting to note that he was the grandson of a righteous Quaker woman, Priscilla Bell, who wrote “improving” travel books for children without ever leaving home. To take a totally New Zealand-centric view of things, Wakefield did not set out for this country until most of his theorising was done and he was already 56 (in another reckoning, on page 473 of this 541-page text). Once here, he had a brief political career vigorously opposing George Grey and all his works. But he rapidly disappeared into ill health and seven final years of ineffectual obscurity in Wellington. This is hardly the life-description of a founding father.


How easy, then, for a very selective reading of A Sort of Conscience to present it as the ultimate demolition of the Wakefields. And that, of course, is the exact opposite of Temple’s intention and effect. The hagiography was never serious history anyway, and rejecting it did not require a work as well-documented and inclusive as this one. More urgent, as the book’s introduction and epilogue both insist, was the task of rescuing the Wakefields from postcolonial contempt.

Temple goes about this not by re-erecting the shaky pedestal, but by showing just how complex the clan’s situation and motives were. There are two main prongs to his attack. One is a careful psychological analysis of Edward Gibbon Wakefield himself. The other is close attention to the broader (English and world) social context, which places most of this book outside New Zealand.

In this reading, Edward Gibbon Wakefield emerges like the hero in the Aristotelean conception of tragedy – thoroughly “mixed”, admirable in parts but very flawed, the vices and genuine virtues inextricable from one another. He is the son of an arriviste father. As eldest son he has to take a leading part in ordering his many siblings’ lives (causing some of them, like his little brother John Howard, to thoroughly detest him). He is trained early in deviousness by his role as a junior member of Britain’s diplomatic service. He is touched by the reformism of the evangelical movement, but even more by the moral rectitude of his Quaker inheritance. He genuinely wants to do good. But the will to do good is in strife with the opportunism, self-promotion, and love of hard cash. To put it another way, his righteous grandmother is in strife with his raffish father, who urged all his boys to marry for money. Frustration is a major part of his story. He never has quite enough money to buy his way into a political career and win the influence which he thinks is his due. And after his imprisonment for the abduction of Ellen Turner, parliament is closed to him in England anyway. This is one of the main reasons for his interest in distant foreign parts.

Yet for all his flaws and caddishness, argues Temple, he is often on the side of the angels, even if only by accident. He has “a sort of conscience”. His Newgate experience leads him to write vividly against the worst aspects of the English judicial system. He is a British chauvinist, but he at least sees the justice of Québecois claims when he is involved in Canadian affairs. He conceives of himself as a gentleman and one of the natural elite, but in New Zealand (for demagogic motives as much as anything) he usually takes the part of the lower (British) classes. And before any postcolonial critics discovered the theme, he has the vision to undertand that ultimately British colonies cannot and will not develop as facsimiles of the Mother Country. In short, for a bounder he has much to commend him.

It is true that Philip Temple presents his character analysis with the insight and care of a good novelist. But this is not to say that he indulges in irresponsible flights of Freudian speculation. Yes, Temple is a novelist, but his inferences are all drawn from very solid evidence, copiously quoted. A Sort of Conscience is a treasury of diary entries, letters, committee minutes, government reports, parliamentary debates, propaganda leaflets, and the imaginative literature of the period. If it sometimes reads like a Victorian novel, that is because nearly all the Wakefields (with the exception of Edward Gibbon Wakefield himself) produced large broods, and the names of siblings, children, in-laws, grandparents and cousins give it the density of a three-decker family saga. To distinguish all the Edwards in the family, Temple takes to calling Edward Gibbon Wakefield “EGW” and his son “Jerningham”.


As for the second prong of Temple’s attack, the delineation of a broad context, this is probably the book’s greatest strength. There has been the tendency for some general histories of New Zealand (including very recent ones) to “talk up” their subject, so that readers are left to assume that New Zealand was the cynosure of all British hopes, aspirations, and planning in the colonising period. Temple places this distant group of Pacific islands in a more just perspective. Certainly the House of Commons debated the affairs of the New Zealand Company and the Canterbury Association. Both Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill noticed the projections of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, even if they didn’t necessarily approve of them. But Treasury and the Colonial Office didn’t cease to function because private investment in New Zealand ran into trouble. New Zealand was only one of many imperial concerns at the time, and not as urgent as, say, the Irish famine, the affairs of Europe or the Crimean War. Even for Wakefield, plans for New Zealand did not loom large until he was over 40 and had already been deeply involved in the affairs of Canada (where he had a major influence in drafting the form of settler self-government) and South Australia. By a cat’s whisker the capital of South Australia missed being called Wellington, which was Wakefield’s choice for it, and with which his clan later lumbered New Zealand.

Context also means the context of those uneasy English intellectual middle classes to which Wakefield belonged. Unsure of their status. Meaning well to the orders beneath them, but invariably paternalistic. Drawing up great plans to improve the world, but in ways that would not hurt their own position. At once running with the hares of privilege and hunting with the hounds of reform. To describe this class in detail, as Temple does, is like writing Edward Gibbon Wakefield large. He, after all, was the man who in one pamphlet could sympathise with rebelling English farm-workers in the “Captain Swing” outbreaks, and in another advise householders to shoot the rebellious brutes down.

Does this book indulge in any special pleading to dignify its protagonists? I suppose so. The saving concept of a “sort of conscience” is invoked sometimes when Edward Gibbon Wakefield has just done something dodgy. Temple shows particular distaste for those missionaries and “protectors of aborigines”, such as Governor FitzRoy, Dandeson Coates, Henry Williams, and James Stephen (of the Colonial Office), who ventured to criticise the Wakefields for ignoring Maori interests. Thus Temple frequently reminds us that missionary effort was just as destructive of indigenous culture as planned colonisation was, and that some missionaries were hypocritical in their own acquisition of land. This line of argument really fails to grapple with the concerns the humanitarians raised, for all their undoubted personal shortcomings.

Yet, even in this area, Temple scores some palpable hits. Colonel Wakefield’s land deals around Port Nicholson were hastily cobbled together and involved very imperfect consultation with local iwi. But, argues Temple, the revered Treaty of Waitangi was even more hastily cobbled together and involved even less consultation. If the one is to be subject to postcolonial criticism (or written out of the record), then why is the other regarded as fundamental to our national identity? In fact, why are these morally imperfect, but very influential, Wakefields the butt of current academic prejudice, when equally flawed Maori leaders of the period are canonised?

The case Temple makes for a more balanced view is unanswerable. It will be a long time before this spacious book ceases to be essential reading in 19th-century New Zealand historiography.


Nicholas Reid is an Auckland historian and reviewer, whose The Bishop’s Paper: a History of the Catholic Press of the Diocese of Auckland was reviewed in our March 2002 issue.


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