WAKEFIELD, Edward Jerningham
Pioneer, explorer, politician, and writer.
A new biography of Wakefield, Edward Jerningham appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
E. J. Wakefield was the only son and second child (born London, 25 June 1820) of Edward Gibbon Wakefield with whose interests he closely identified himself. Educated at Bruce Castle School and King's College, London, he later travelled abroad, acquiring a knowledge of French, which he put to good use when at the age of 18 he went to Canada as secretary to his father, who was a member of Lord Durham's famous mission.
Jerningham Wakefield sailed in the New Zealand Company's advance ship Tory, which left England in May 1839, and reached New Zealand in August. He acted as secretary to his uncle, Colonel William Wakefield, the leader of the Wellington settlement. Jerningham made a number of independent journeys throughout the colony, and was the Company's agent in the purchase of land at Wanganui. He also engaged in trading with the Maori. In the forties he played a considerable part in the affairs of the Company in Wellington, entering into controversy with successive Governors to uphold the settlers' viewpoint, and earning a harsh rebuke from Governor FitzRoy. His graphic description of these and other episodes helped to make his Adventure in New Zealand, published by John Murray soon after his return to England, via Valparaiso, in 1845, a very effective piece of Company propaganda. In England he busied himself with Company affairs and acted as his father's liaison with the Otago Association in Edinburgh. In 1850 he returned to New Zealand in the Lady Nugent with J. R. Godley and his party going out to found Canterbury. Charlotte Godley puzzlingly describes him as “half a foreigner”, perhaps on account of his swarthy appearance and his having lived abroad; she found him serviceable to herself and her husband, although “he has so little tact that he does sometimes offend people”.
Jerningham Wakefield settled in Canterbury. He paid a visit to Dunedin in 1851 where he and Macandrew upheld the case for representative government at a public meeting. In 1855 he was called to Wellington where his father lay stricken with the illness which removed him from public life. He was elected to the Wellington Provincial Council in 1857, retaining membership until 1861. As a member of the Council he engaged in vigorous controversy with the Superintendent, Dr Featherston, over constitutional matters. He was elected to the first Parliament in 1853 and in the following year was a member of Forsaith's short-lived “ministry”. He lost his seat in 1855 and again failed to secure election in 1860. He did not re-enter Parliament until 1871, representing Christchurch East until 1875, when he was again defeated at the polls. By this time he was, as Stout puts it, “a wreck of his former self”. None the less his speeches during his last membership were interesting because of his historical reminiscences from the forties.
Jerningham Wakefield married Ellen Roe in 1863. He died in Ashburton on 3 March 1879 “in obscurity and adversity”.
As a writer Jerningham has an assured place in the literature of this country. His high-spirited narrative of the events surrounding the early Company settlements of Wellington, New Plymouth, Wanganui, and Nelson in Adventure in New Zealand is valuable for its colour and vigour despite its transparent prejudice. In it he caricatures nearly everyone connected with the colonial government or missionary interests and, although he knew the Maori intimately, he shows little respect for their finer qualities. McCormick remarks on his “Victorian novelist's habit of grouping his characters into blacks and whites, villains and heroes”, and again on his “novelist's disregard for fact”. Indeed, this narrative has many of the qualities of fiction, but its value as social history should not be underestimated, especially for its authentic detail of life in the most picturesque phase of early settlement. The book was based on the diary-letters Jerningham sent home, and it is fair to view it as written for the peculiar delectation of Edward Gibbon Wakefield; it is shaped to fit his point of view and almost exaggerates Edward Gibbon's own characteristics. It also reflects the character of its author, impetuous, partisan, talented – above all, enjoying life to the full. Adventure in New Zealand (which does not respond well to abridgment) was a remarkable production for a young man in his early twenties.
Although father and son shared many qualities, Edward Gibbon regarding Jerningham as his “faithful and diligent lieutenant”, he none the less fully realised Jerningham's weaknesses and commented in 1853 on “his habits of desultory application under inordinate excitement only, and of localism with respect to thought, as well as somewhat of a turn for wrangling”. Jerningham also suffered, as his father put it, from “colonial habits”, the worst of them being intemperance as a result of which, as Richard Garnett wrote, “what might have been a very brilliant career terminated in disappointment”. But even if he failed to fulfil the precocious promise of his youth, Jerningham Wakefield has established a considerable claim on the esteem of posterity, by his journeys and explorations, by his whole-hearted support of Company enterprises and, above all, by the liveliness and colour of his book.
by David Oswald William Hall, M.A., Director, Adult Education, University of Otago (retired).
- Adventure in New Zealand from 1839 to 1844, Wakefield, E. J., 1908 ed. (with introduction by Robert Stout)
- Edward Gibbon Wakefield, Garnett, Richard (1898)
- New Zealand Literature, McCormick, E. H. (1958).