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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



The Wakefield Myth

The convention of historical myths demand heroes to balance and, eventually, to defeat the villains. They are not lacking, and the most notable mythic hero is Edward Gibbon Wakefield. In his person imperial destiny, checked by timid and unworthy men, and New Zealand, saved in the nick of time for a British future, merge harmoniously. In the light of legend Wakefield, in fact a man of sufficient stature to bear the weight of the myth, takes on heroic proportions. In the first place he becomes the great protagonist of imperial destiny, the man who successfully recalled Great Britain to a sense of mission in the world at large, the victor over timid politicians like Lord Glenelg, meddling and obstructionist officials like James Stephen, the anti-imperialist ecclesiastical pressure group headed by Dandeson Coates, of the Church Missionary Society, and those diabolical men who saw in colonies merely a fit place to dump convicts (as had been done in New South Wales) or paupers (as was advocated by Fowell Buxton). In particular, Wakefield and the Colonial Reformers whom he gathered around as the chivalric Arthur gathered his Knights, are represented as victors over those who made a pretended care for the welfare of native peoples their excuse for opposition to colonies of settlement, that is, as their pretext for anti-imperialism. Glenelg, Stephen, Coates, Buxton, can all be classified under this head.

Here one must exercise great care to separate the truth from the legend, the wheat from the chaff. It is indeed the case that an important body of opinion, itself a by-product of the Evangelical Revival and influential among politicians, officials and the missionary bodies, looked with horror at the past history of colonisation and, in particular, at the harm to native peoples this history recorded. The Evangelicals were not alone in seeing in the chance it afforded to spread Christianity and civilisation the main raison d'âtre of European expansion. Spanish Dominicans and Jesuits of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had held the same view. It is difficult to see why Christians should be condemned for a belief which springs so readily from their faith. Where the Wakefield myth errs is in supposing that this concern for native welfare was simply, or at best partly, an insincere disguise for cowardly anti-imperialism. The Evangelicals and their allies were successful and zealous imperialists, but their imperialism was other than that of the Colonial Reformers. It is at least an open question, and one that involves the historian in a value judgment, which of the two was the more noble concept. In the mid-twentieth century it is more than likely that historians will take an approving view of an imperialist theory which begins with a wish to safeguard the welfare of the people already living in the country about to be colonised.

Again, the myth errs when it supposes that the efforts of the Colonial Reformers were alone instrumental in converting British policymakers from anti-imperialism to imperialism. Their propaganda was certainly among those factors which led, first, to an accelerated pace of expansion in the mid-nineteenth century and, secondly, to that evolution of British colonial policy which saw the creation of the self-governing Empire. But other factors had a greater effect: first, the increasing stream of British subjects going overseas from the 1840s on, many to the United States, but a number to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand; and secondly, the prevailing laissez-faire liberalism of the age and the vital part played by Gladstone, Cobden, and Bright.

Further, the myth errs when it supposes that all the opposition which Wakefield's New Zealand enterprises, the New Zealand Association and the New Zealand Company, met from the Colonial Office was due to the Evangelical affiliations of Stephen, the permanent head. Stephen, on this view, was in the pocket of Dandeson Coates and the Church Missionary Society, was firmly opposed to the annexation and colonisation of New Zealand, and was a diehard enemy of colonial self-government. It is perfectly clear, on the contrary, that though Stephen was an Evangelical, he was in no sense a Church Missionary Society puppet; he thought, not without reason, that the association's original plans were designed by the promoters to combine opportunities for enrichment with a total absence of risk, and that the company itself was a dangerously speculative venture; that he and the Colonial Office were in fact planning for annexation, even as he was rebuffing Wakefield; that he saw the colonisation of New Zealand as inevitable and wished to see it proceed with safeguards; that, finally, he had no wish to prevent the introduction of self-government at what he believed to be the proper time.

Some of the more flamboyant details of the myth lead to the conclusion that only resolute action on the part of Wakefield personally and the company corporately saved New Zealand from annexation by France, a fate which the blindness and timidity of the Colonial Office made all too probable. Wakefield has been represented as dashing, in a post-chaise, variously to the London docks or to Portsmouth, to send the company ship Tory on its way before the officials could detain her, thus forcing the hand of the Colonial Office and saving New Zealand from the French. His dash, if it in fact occurred, had no effect upon the movements of the Tory. The Tory itself sailed, not because it had been learned that the Colonial Office had set its face against annexation, but because (according to a likely reconstruction) it had been learned that, in fact, annexation was at a mature stage of planning and would be accompanied by a Crown monopoly of land buying from the natives. The company, indeed, wished to present the British Government with a fait accompli; not that of a New Zealand irrevocably British (for the Tory was a survey, not an emigrant ship), but that of land bought in quantity, and cheaply, from the Maoris.