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Story: Cargill, William

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Cargill, William


Soldier, merchant, coloniser, provincial superintendent

This biography, written by Tom Brooking, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.

William Cargill was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on 28 August 1784, the son of James Cargill and his wife, Marrion Jamieson. His father, who died of chronic alcoholism when William was 15, was a lawyer of some standing. His death reduced the family to straitened circumstances and ensured that William's mother became the major influence in his life. A woman of strong character who managed to give her four sons a grammar school education and launch them on successful careers, she came from a well-to-do family who helped her through her difficulties. She passed on to her son William an enthusiasm for the preaching of Thomas Chalmers, a man whose conservative social views shaped, by Cargill's own account, his thinking more than any other influence.

William was brought up in the Edinburgh of the Scottish enlightenment, and was never an enthusiastic evangelical. He looked back to the Puritan fathers of the seventeenth century for inspiration. By repute he was a direct descendant of the Covenanter martyr Donald Cargill – who had in fact died without issue. This association proved to be to William's advantage. Later, in Otago, he cultivated a traditional Scottish manner and appearance. In his blue bonnet and tartan plaid he reminded Charlotte Godley of an old Covenanting father out of a Scott novel.

After his father's death had ended his formal education at the Edinburgh High School, his mother's uncle, a colonel on the staff of the commander in chief in India, secured him an ensigncy in the 84th Regiment of Foot in 1802 and saved him from the lot of a weaver's apprentice. In his army career he did not rise above the rank of captain, perhaps because of his limited means. But his critics took this as evidence of modest ability. He served under Arthur Wellesley (later the first Duke of Wellington) in the 74th (Highland) Regiment of Foot during the Maratha wars, and in the Peninsular campaign against France. He was seriously wounded at the battle of Busaco, and after his recovery promoted to captain.

Probably on 18 April 1813, at Oporto, Portugal, William Cargill married Mary Ann Yates, the daughter of an English naval officer and a London actress. The marriage was extremely fruitful; there were 17 children, of whom 10 survived infancy. Cargill sold his commission in 1820 for £1,500, but continued to use the title Captain for the rest of his life. He was a wine merchant in Edinburgh from 1820 to 1834, but the main support for the burgeoning family appears to have been the eldest son, William Walter. In 1841 Cargill joined the Oriental Bank Corporation in London.

During the 1830s Cargill had become interested in emigration, perhaps prompted by his financial plight. In London he was well placed to pursue this interest. He approached George Rennie, the Scottish politician, sculptor and dreamer, who had been drawn to Edward Gibbon Wakefield's proposals for 'systematic colonisation'. Rennie promised him a leading role in any Scots settlement planted in New Zealand. The Disruption of 1843 – the Free Church secession from the Church of Scotland – identified a body of prospective colonists. On Wakefield's prompting, Rennie and Cargill approached the Free Church leaders. The proposal was endorsed in October 1843 when Thomas Burns was appointed minister to the proposed settlement. Rennie's more liberal views gave way to a vision of an exclusive Free Church settlement; Cargill was undisputed leader of the venture by 1845.

Extraordinary setbacks occurred during the next two years as the Colonial Office tried to obstruct the scheme, the New Zealand Company refused to produce adequate financial backing, and Scots proved to be reluctant migrants to such a far flung location. It was during this time that Cargill's tenacity proved most critical. Even Burns had to resign for a time while Cargill battled on alone. Yet somehow he kept the scheme alive, accepted the shift in site from Port Cooper in Canterbury to Otago Harbour, and supported Burns in changing the name from New Edinburgh to Otago. Finally, on 24 November 1847, Cargill brought the scheme to fruition when he sailed from Gravesend with 96 others on board the 622 ton John Wickliffe. The promised salary of £500 as New Zealand Company agent had apparently ended his financial worries for good.

The relaxed tone of the voyage was in marked contrast to the rigour of life on board the other founding ship, the Philip Laing. Thomas Burns converted this ship into a virtual floating theocracy, whereas once at sea Cargill proved to be a relaxed and tolerant leader, better suited to coping with the demands of the secular world.

The John Wickliffe arrived in Otago on 23 March 1848 without any loss of passengers. After the only really impressive oration of his career, in which Cargill compared the Otago pioneers to the pilgrim fathers, the work of colonising began in earnest. Numerous problems beset the new settlement, especially after the arrival of the Philip Laing with its 246 passengers on 15 April. In spite of Rennie's advocacy little had been done to prepare the way, and the fledgling settlement was almost crippled by the absence of a wharf and adequate roads. A harsh, wet winter compounded these problems. Progress was further stifled by constant bickering between the Scots majority, many of whom were orthodox Presbyterians rather than Free Church adherents, and the English minority. Even though Cargill had married an Anglican and most of the landowners were Anglican, the old Captain never seemed to forget that the episcopal church in Scotland was tainted by its Jacobite associations. Consequently he waged a bitter war of words on the supposed 'little enemy', the very group who should have been his main allies and natural leaders of the settlement.

William Henry Valpy, for example, a former judge in India, arrived with an annual income of £2,000 in 1850 and immediately built a sawmill which employed 50 Scots labourers. This mild Anglican also attended Free Church services and gave generous sums to assist its work. Yet Cargill hounded this badly needed capitalist instead of wooing him. Valpy joined the English opposition.

Cargill also could not bear the criticism of Dunedin's first newspaper, the Otago News, run by another Englishman, H. B. Graham. A constant stream of satirical gibes infuriated Cargill and he withdrew funding for the paper. It was replaced by the Otago Witness, an official mouthpiece for the Free Church leadership. The voice of heresy had no place in the new Geneva.

Little physical advancement occurred, in fact, until the arrival of the younger and more adventurous James Macandrew in 1851. Still, Cargill's tenacity and patriarchal style of leadership proved vital in helping the struggling settlement to survive problems of chronic isolation, the unsuitability of the land for arable farming and the withdrawal of New Zealand Company support in 1850. His election as foundation superintendent of the province in 1853 reflected the respect in which the majority of settlers held the crusty old soldier. His very Scottishness and his personal style which so amused English observers and infuriated government officials only added to his appeal among the Scots settlers.

Cargill proved to be an autocratic, inflexible and nepotistic superintendent. Nevertheless he dominated the politics of his province more completely than did any other early superintendent. Predictably his age, lack of skill as an orator, narrowness of vision and local orientation rendered him an ineffective member of the General Assembly between 1855 and 1858.

The lengthy, slow journey to the second sitting of Parliament in Auckland in 1856 seemed to drain the 71-year-old of much of his energy. He said little in either that session or that of 1858. In all he only spoke eight times on five related subjects: provincialism, the breakaway of Southland, electoral reform, banking reform and repayment of the New Zealand Company's debts. Cargill was an unabashed provincialist, who wanted the maximum degree of autonomy for Otago. He favoured the establishment of full-scale trading banks within New Zealand and, as a disciple of Thomas Chalmers, advocated free trade in all things. His conservatism was revealed in 1858, however, when he supported continuance of the old system of voting in public. Predictably he opposed the breakaway of Southland, and argued that the whole of New Zealand, including Auckland, should be liable for the New Zealand Company's debts.

Within Otago Cargill promoted his own sons and sons-in-law to high office in a blatant manner, and was intolerant of criticism. The provincial council was prorogued whenever it questioned the superintendent's policies. Most criticism focused on his reluctance to lower the price of land. This was unfair, as Cargill tried to maintain a balance between agricultural and pastoral interests and so prevent the ascendancy of the big runholders. When a financial crisis forced him to open more land to pastoralists in 1856, Otago experienced much more rapid progress and his earlier policy appeared to be obstructionist and reactionary rather than principled and responsible. The question of land revenues and Cargill's own insensitivity also contributed to the unnecessary and impractical breakaway of Southland in 1861.

The Otago of the late 1850s was a far cry from Wakefield's ideal of a class settlement based on intensive grain farming. Pastoralism provided the engine of development as in the other Wakefield settlements. Many labourers but few middle class persons of capital came to the settlement. There was also a rough, boozy, proletarian element, who paid no heed to Cargill's condemnations of their far from genteel behaviour.

On the other hand Cargill was successful in maintaining a reasonable balance between men and women, and between families and single people. As a result Otago was law abiding by colonial standards and many migrants improved their position. Similar settlements in New Zealand and Australia struggled much longer or failed altogether. Cargill's tenacious leadership was vital to Otago's modest success. It was already a functioning settlement with established political structures by the time that the discovery of gold accelerated the pace of development.

Cargill died on 6 August 1860, of a stroke. Two of his sons, John and Edward Bowes, became successful pastoralists. John married a daughter of Johnny Jones, the Sydney based whaler and pastoralist, but was eventually ruined by rabbits, and migrated to British Columbia in 1887. Edward Bowes stayed on and became a successful businessman, entrepreneur, local notable and mayor of Dunedin. He is most remembered, however, as the builder of a grand folly known as Cargill's Castle, just as John is known as the man who created Tunnel Beach by putting a tunnel through a rock wall to allow his daughters ready access to a private swimming spot. One of Edward's daughters, who swam on that beach, shocked the Presbyterian establishment by marrying the talented Catholic architect F. W. Petre. Cargill's sons-in-law, especially John Hyde Harris and W. H. Cutten, also became prominent Otago citizens. His wife, Mary Ann Cargill, lived on until 25 October 1871. His large family became something of an Otago dynasty.

Cargill's death before the advent of the goldrushes was fortunate. He would not have died content had he seen thousands of rough, democratically minded miners arrive to dismember the Wakefield ideal. Macandrew, a man imbued with nineteenth century entrepreneurial ideals, was much better suited to lead a province caught up in the rush to be rich, than a man intent on founding a religious and orderly pre-industrial community in the farthest corner of the earth.

How to cite this page:

Tom Brooking. 'Cargill, William', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1c4/cargill-william (accessed 24 July 2024)