Edward Gibbon Wakefield

Edward Gibbon Wakefield (1796-1862) was a British colonial reformer, promoter, and advocate of systematic colonization.

Edward Gibbon Wakefield, a London land agent's son, was born on March 20, 1796. He was educated at Westminster and entered the Foreign Service in 1814. Two years later he eloped with a ward in chancery, and Parliament condoned the offense. In 1826, six years after the death of his wife, Wakefield abducted a 15-year-old heiress from school; this time Parliament annulled the marriage, and Wakefield spent three years in Newgate Prison. In prison he became interested in both corrective punishment and colonial development. He advocated the abolition of transportation on the grounds that it had no deterrent effect and attributed the slow development of the Australian colonies to a policy based on free land grants and convict labor.

In A Letter from Sydney (1829), England and America (1833), and The Art of Colonisation (1849), Wakefield propounded a theory of systematic colonization: he wanted to transplant British society without the many social evils evident at home. Colonial land sold at a high, uniform price would produce revenue to pay for the immigration of free settlers. Newcomers unable to afford land would constitute a laboring class. Economic growth would result, and by concentrating settlement, a civilized society capable of self-government would evolve.

The Ripon Regulations (1831) discontinued free land grants in Australia, and a land fund assisted immigrants. But when the price of land was raised from five to 20 shillings an acre, pastoralists began to squat farther afield, and settlement became more dispersed. In 1838 Wakefield accompanied Lord Durham to Canada, and his influence on the Report on the Affairs of British North America, recommending local self-government, is evident in the sections on public lands and migration.

Wakefield was intimately involved in many private schemes to promote new colonies. In 1834 the South Australian Company secured a parliamentary act whereby control of a proposed colony was shared by the Colonial Office and a board of commissioners responsible for land sales, immigration, and public finance. Settlement began in 1836, but Wakefield, disapproving of various details, transferred his interest to New Zealand.

In 1837 the British government refused to charter the New Zealand Association because New Zealand was not then part of the Crown's dominions and because missionaries sought to protect Maori land rights. Nevertheless, before the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, a reformed New Zealand Land Company had managed to establish settlements, after acquiring land on easy terms and dispatching immigrants without parliamentary sanction. When its land titles were subsequently questioned by the government, Wakefield campaigned for local self-government, a proposal which the governor, Sir George Grey, successfully opposed.

In 1853 Wakefield emigrated to Wellington and was elected to the colony's first General Assembly, following the New Zealand Constitutional Act (1852). After 1854, when his health broke, he lived in retirement until his death on May 16, 1862.

Doctrinaire and uncompromising, Wakefield frequently quarreled with his disciples. Lacking firsthand knowledge, he often had impracticable ideas. Nevertheless, at a time when new colonial policies were being devised, his writings and actions helped to reshape British attitudes toward colonial development.


Further Reading on Edward Gibbon Wakefield

After a long period of relative neglect, Wakefield has been resurrected as an architect of the British Commonwealth. The best account, by Paul Bloomfield, Edward Gibbon Wakefield (1961), attempts to bring into focus the magnitude of Wake-field's achievements as an empire builder and analyzes his extraordinary personality. Older biographies include Richard Garnett, Edward Gibbon Wakefield (1898), and Irma O'Connor, Edward Gibbon Wakefield: The Man Himself (1928). Two studies which include important discussions of Wakefield's work are Donald Winch, Classical Political Economy and Colonies (1965), and Peter Burroughs, Britain and Australia, 1831-1855: A Study in Imperial Relations and Crown Lands Administration (1967).