Edward Gibbon Wakefield was born probably in London, England, on 20 March 1796. His father, Edward Wakefield, was a farmer and land agent, who had married Susanna Crash in London in 1791. Edward Gibbon was the oldest son and second of nine children. After the death of Susanna Wakefield, Edward Gibbon's father, in 1824, married Frances Davies, daughter of the Reverend Dr Davies, headmaster of Macclesfield Grammar School.
The driving force in Edward Gibbon Wakefield's life was his appetite for power and influence. As a child he was brought up under 'extreme habits of liberty'. This lax environment fostered a love and an aptitude for bending the will of others through obstinacy, charm and fast talking. His father, a close friend of Francis Place and James Mill, was so wrapped up in his intellectual and philanthropic concerns, that he threw the burden of raising a young family on his wife. Stricken with chronic ill health to the point of semi-invalidism, she was not able to cope domestically, or control little Edward. To help out, the undisciplined child's grandmother, Priscilla Wakefield, took him and his elder sister into her London house for lengthy periods. Her influence, however, did little to curb the wilfulness of the boy. Priscilla Wakefield, an unorthodox Quaker, was preoccupied with her own literary and charitable interests; she wrote children's stories and invented the idea of savings banks, and was harassed by the many problems of her sons and downwardly mobile husband.
At his first school, Mr Haigh's in Tottenham, Edward was constantly in trouble, and was withdrawn in 1807; he went to Westminster School but in 1810 he refused to attend; finally he was sent to Edinburgh High School, from which he was removed in 1811 after causing trouble. He then spent two years at home with no occupation. Although admitted to Gray's Inn in October 1813, Wakefield did not practise law. Instead, in 1814 he became a messenger for William Hill, an employee in the diplomatic service, and travelled extensively on the Continent.
In 1816 Wakefield eloped with a 16-year-old heiress and ward of chancery, Eliza Anne Frances Pattle. They were married on 27 July 1816 in Edinburgh, and again in London probably on 10 August. With his formidable powers of persuasion Wakefield talked his way out of trouble and ended up with the most generous settlement the chancery ever made to a ward's husband (£1,500 to £2,000 yearly), and a job promotion (secretary to the under secretary of the legation in Turin). Eliza and Edward Gibbon Wakefield had two children: Susan Priscilla, known as Nina, born in 1817, and Edward Jerningham, known as Jerningham, born in 1820.
The death of Eliza Wakefield in July 1820 after the birth of Jerningham removed the one restraining influence on Wakefield. Appointed secretary to the Paris embassy, and then setting his sights on a parliamentary seat, Wakefield, in 1826, abducted a 15-year-old schoolgirl, Ellen Turner, the daughter of William Turner, a rich Macclesfield manufacturer and county sheriff. Wakefield wanted the girl as his wife so that her father would be obliged to help him enter political life. The girl, whom Wakefield had never met, was first lured away from school by a false message saying her mother was dangerously ill. She was subsequently deceived by Wakefield into marrying him, with the story that her father had desperate money troubles and that the marriage was the only means of solving them. Edward Gibbon Wakefield and Ellen Turner were said to have married at Gretna Green, Scotland, on 8 March 1826. Having fled the country after the ceremony, Wakefield was apprehended in Calais by agents of the frantic parents. In August he, along with his fellow conspirators, his brother William, his step-mother, and a servant, Édouard Thévenot, were indicted at the Lancaster assizes. Their trial in March 1827 caused a public sensation. Only the brothers, however, were sentenced. On 14 May each received a three year prison term. A special act of Parliament annulled the marriage, which had not been consummated.
Edward Gibbon Wakefield's public disgrace was the turning point in his life. While in prison at Newgate he read the classical economists, the utilitarians, and on social questions for the first time. From these sources he drew the material for his instantly acclaimed theory on colonisation, published anonymously in instalments, 'Letters from Sydney', in the Morning Chronicle between August and October 1829, and as a book, A letter from Sydney, appearing at the end of 1829. While he was still in prison, the Spectator in April 1830 published his 'Cure and prevention of pauperism, by means of systematic colonisation', and he wrote two tracts on crime and punishment which were published after his release. Although sympathetic biographers say these works were acts of a genuinely remorseful man rediscovering his Quaker background (Elizabeth Fry was a cousin), Wakefield showed no signs of a spiritual conversion and remained a nominal Anglican. It is more likely that he had semi-consciously assimilated his father's language of ideas and developed it to allow him to regain respectability and win important and influential friends once he was released.
His colonisation theory, later restated in England and America in 1833, and in A view of the art of colonization in 1849, had the 'sufficient price' as its governing category. The 'sufficient price' was the price at which the Crown needed to sell its colonial 'waste land' so as to restrict the speed with which colonial wage-earners could become proprietors, as well as to build up a fund which would permit the greatest possible number of wage-earners to emigrate free of charge to the colonies. Wakefield argued that the Crown's historical policy of giving away vast areas of waste land had created a multitude of colonial problems and prevented Britain from realising the huge potential of its overseas possessions. Immigrant workers in the new lands had been able to become instant landowners with the result that colonies, unless they imported slaves or convicts, had suffered grave shortages of labour, which blocked their economic advancement. The shortage also forced colonial capitalists to be their own workers, and, without leisure, they placed little value on its fruits. Civilised life thus had degenerated: 'money-getting' was 'the universal object; taste, science, morals, manners, abstract politics' were neglected; and the dire effects of the absence of 'liberal feeling and polished manners' were visible in the turbulence and crudity of colonial political life. The single mechanism of the 'sufficient price' for colonial 'waste land', he maintained, would resolve these problems by reducing the availability of land and increasing the amount of labour in a self-regulating fashion. In addition it would stimulate economic growth in the metropolitan society. Furnished with an adequate labour supply, the colonial economy would expand. As it did so, it would provide Britain with a profitable outlet for surplus capital investment, enlarge the market for manufactured exports, produce food grains and reduce the cost of living for the Home consumer, and draw off surplus labour through emigration, so improving wages and employment and lightening the burdens of pauper relief.
Some parts of the theory were not original: for example, he borrowed from a little-known work on Canada, by Robert Gourlay, the notion that excessive land supply retarded colonial economies. But as a whole it was innovative. It ran counter to the opinion of Jeremy Bentham and James Mill that outflows of capital weakened the Home economy and to the view of Adam Smith that free trade rendered colonies superfluous. It also challenged the pessimism of T. R. Malthus and gave imperial expansion a novel and dynamic economic rationalisation. It is incorrect that Wakefield visualised colonies as close-knit squirearchies where wage-earners were the servitors of individual landowners: he saw wage-earners moving to proprietorship after three or four years, and enjoying, during the interim, a social independence derived from a strong labour market; the colonial upper class was to be one of leisure, not paternalism; and although he wanted denser settlement, the only close-knit unit in the colony he explicitly talked about was the family, to which end he recommended that assisted immigrants consist of young married couples. Unfair, too, is the claim that Wakefield failed to stipulate what a 'sufficient price' was: he stated explicitly that it was to depend on local circumstances.
The real problem with the 'sufficient price', however, was that it had to serve two purposes which were not necessarily compatible; the costs of sustaining the appropriate level of free immigration may have required a 'sufficient price' quite different from that needed to keep the average labourer landless for the prescribed period. In practical terms, the linchpin of the scheme was its reliance on the willingness of investors to buy 'waste land' at a 'sufficient price', to improve it, and for it to make a decent return: Wakefield assumed that vigorous promotion of the colonies and their abundant natural resources would fulfil these conditions but experience frequently proved otherwise. Much criticism, too, has been directed at Wakefield's neglect of the rights and welfare of indigenous peoples. These deficiencies aside, Wakefield brilliantly anticipated the manner in which settler societies such as Argentina, New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia actually developed later in the century by importing investment capital and people from the Old World.
Wakefield's ideas secured the backing of Robert Rintoul, the editor of the Spectator, and it was through this connection that Wakefield, after his release from prison in May 1830, was introduced to a collection of young and reputable intellectuals, including Charles Buller and other MPs, whom he won over to his views. Later known as the 'colonial reformers', the men in 1830 formed the National Colonization Society, and devoted themselves to pushing officialdom into implementing the theory. The next two decades were the high point of his life. True, it was marred by the death of his consumptive daughter in Lisbon on 12 February 1835 and by his ill health after a stroke in 1846. The establishment also never forgave Wakefield for his past misdeeds; for example, after he joined Lord Durham's famous mission to Canada, Prime Minister Lord Melbourne intervened to prevent his holding a formal position.
Thus in England Wakefield was unable to use colonial reform as a vehicle to enter Parliament and take office in almost all the promotional associations he helped to establish (the one exception being his directorship of the New Zealand Company, 1840–49). Instead he was compelled to exercise power informally and anonymously. Even so this behind-the-scenes role must have granted him much satisfaction because his flair for manipulating and persuading important committees and individuals was extraordinary. Almost everyone who met Wakefield commented on the fascination of his personality, a possible sinister side to which was his great gift as a mesmerist. Later in New Zealand a political foe, J. E. FitzGerald, was to say that the only security against Wakefield was to hate him intensely.
Largely as a result of Wakefield's wire-pulling, the Colonial Office in 1831 abolished free land grants in New South Wales, and a select committee of the House of Commons was appointed in 1836 to investigate the subject of colonial lands. The foundation of South Australia in 1836 likewise owed much to his subterranean influence, as he played a crucial part in the setting up of the promotional body, the South Australian Association of 1833, and in lobbying the government to sanction the scheme in 1834, although he subsequently disowned it.
From June to October 1838 Wakefield was in Canada as Durham's unofficial adviser. The contemporary judgement on the ensuing report recommending self-government for Canada, that 'Wakefield thought it, Buller wrote it, Durham signed it', was in error. But Wakefield was responsible for the section on Crown lands and, when he returned to London, for leaking the report to The Times. Wakefield revisited Canada in mid 1841 and from January to November 1842 to pursue business interests and was elected to the Lower Canada Assembly. He went there again from September 1843 to January 1844 and acted as unofficial adviser to the governor during a constitutional crisis.
In between these forays into Canadian affairs, Wakefield was embroiled in plans to colonise New Zealand. He played a leading role in the setting up of the promotional body, the New Zealand Association, in early 1837 and in its battle with the Church Missionary Society and the Colonial Office, who thought colonisation was contrary to the well-being of the Māori. With the reconstitution of the association into the New Zealand Company in 1839, Wakefield, probably fearing that the Crown would annex New Zealand to protect Māori interests and shut the company out, organised the dispatch of the company's preliminary expedition to New Zealand on the Tory in May 1839. The tradition, fostered by Wakefield himself, that the sending of the Tory drove an unwilling government to annex New Zealand and so saved it from the French is now rejected by historians.
After the Wairau affray of June 1843, during which his brother, Arthur Wakefield, was killed, Wakefield took a major part in the public defence of the company. With J. R. Godley he formed the promotional body for the Church of England settlement in Canterbury. Under his auspices the Society for the Reform of Colonial Government was established in December 1849 to agitate for colonial self-government. From 1850 he devoted his energies towards obtaining self-government for New Zealand. Whether the sections on provincial government in the 1852 New Zealand Constitution Bill were Wakefield's inspiration is debatable: the secretary of state for the colonies did, however, closely consult him during the bill's drafting.
Wakefield's decision to leave England in late 1852 for New Zealand was a tragic mistake. Although he said he came in search of rest and peace and to observe the results of his labours it is more likely he saw himself taking up the illustrious political career barred to him in England. After landing in Lyttelton on 2 February 1853 he was coolly received in Christchurch. He journeyed to Wellington a month later where his offer to assist Governor George Grey to implement the New Zealand Constitution Act was disdainfully rejected, and where he helped initiate the abortive legal campaign against Grey's cheap land regulations. In August he was elected to the Hutt seat for the House of Representatives and in September to the Wellington Provincial Council, championing the rights of New Zealand Company labourers for free land grants as compensation for its failure to fulfil its promises to them.
Wakefield shone as the most able member during the inaugural session of the Wellington Provincial Council from October 1853 to February 1854, and, although without executive power, secured the formal enactment of the principle of ministerial responsibility. Prior to the long-awaited first meeting of the General Assembly in Auckland on 24 May 1854, he master-minded the lobbying of the newly elected members so that they would put up a united front in the demand for the immediate introduction of ministerial responsibility. It earned him much kudos; his fellow members decided that he should have the honour of moving the resolution in the House demanding responsible self-government during the address-in-reply debate. Although Wakefield urged in his speech of 2 June that only some of the positions on the Executive Council be filled from the House, Colonel R. H. Wynyard, the acting governor, was initially reluctant to concede this as it had not been explicitly permitted by the Colonial Office or the Constitution Act. Realising, however, that a unified House could block supply, the acting governor soon gave in. Three members of the House (J. E. FitzGerald, F. A. Weld, and H. Sewell) joined the three permanent officials on the Executive Council once FitzGerald had settled with Wynyard the details of an ambiguous power-sharing agreement.
The tragedy of Wakefield in New Zealand commenced from this point. Having led the House to its constitutional victory he made an about-face and wrecked the new constitutional and political arrangements. In the process he brought about his own political destruction. He may have been driven by a passion for revenge, a sense of wounded pride and grievance, aroused by FitzGerald's failure to consult him during the private negotiations on the power-sharing agreement. An additional compulsion was his desire to become the colony's political supremo either in office or out. As he had little sway over the new ministers he probably planned to construct an opposition group from the disparate elements in the House until he had enough support to defeat the ministry, force Wynyard during the consequent political crisis to take Wakefield's men into the Executive Council and from this position of strength, renegotiate the agreement on ministerial responsibility in order to entrench his ministers and his hold. Aiding Wakefield's strategy were the inexperience and incohesion of his fellow parliamentarians. But attacking the position of the ministers was an intensely dangerous game for Wakefield to play as it carried a high risk that Wynyard's permanent officials would seize the opportunity to wrest back the levers of power and leave Wakefield with nothing but the odium of those who formerly respected him.
At the inception of his campaign Wakefield courted back-bench opinion by proposing several measures favourable to Auckland interests (including the direct purchase of Māori land) and by advocating that every province be represented on the Executive Council. He also formulated amendments to the ministry's Waste Land Bill that would have placed the management of Crown land under central control and reserved one third of Crown land for sale to 'working settlers' on generous conditions. This last manoeuvre was designed to win the popular vote at the next elections for whatever grouping he was able to gather around himself. But it was ill judged. The majority of existing members, large landowners themselves or representing pastoral electorates, were alienated by it; the typical 'working settler', if enfranchised, was too apathetic politically to respond to class appeals; and it helped to trigger a political crisis before he had the slightest chance of building a power-base of any significance.
To strengthen their defences against Wakefield, the new ministers asked Wynyard to introduce at once full ministerial responsibility; this they considered Wynyard was bound to do under the terms of the ambiguous Wynyard–FitzGerald agreement. Because Wynyard refused to comply, on 2 August they resigned. Wakefield next took the fatal step of acceding to a request from Wynyard to act as the governor's sole but unofficial adviser during the crisis and help form another ministry. When Wakefield announced to the House on 3 August what he had agreed, they were enraged by his apparent betrayal of the principles of ministerial responsibility. His isolation in Parliament was sealed on 5 August when, as a message from Wynyard was being read to the chamber, Wakefield stepped over and altered it, an act which looked as if Wynyard was in Wakefield's pocket. Some thought was even given to Wakefield's impeachment. After Wynyard brought the disorderly parliamentary session to a hasty close on 17 August, Wakefield discovered that the acting governor did not intend to act on his advice so he resigned from this extraordinary position.
It is indicative of Wakefield's amazing strength of will that before the next session began on 31 August, he was able to talk Wynyard into proposing far-reaching measures (the working settler scheme and constitutional reform) and to set up another ministry drawn from Wakefield's few remaining supporters. All this came to nothing, however, for what quickly and inevitably emerged was that this ministry could not command a majority. It resigned on 4 September. Even then Wakefield did not give up. During the second session of the 1854 Parliament he put forward a variety of measures which were intended to appeal to the common man in the forthcoming elections. Moreover, after the end of the session on 16 September and his return to Wellington, he brilliantly defended his conduct at a series of constituency meetings in the Hutt over late November and early December.
Fortune, however, brought an end to this hopeless struggle. While driving south to Wellington after the third of these meetings Wakefield caught a chill and went down with rheumatic fever. It compelled him to resign from the House and the Wellington Provincial Council in 1855. Although he slowly recovered, he lapsed into a deep depression. Until his death on 16 May 1862 he took no interest in public affairs, seldom ventured out of the room of his Wellington home, and saw virtually no one except a young niece, two beloved bulldogs, his faithful German manservant, William Schmidt, and (occasionally) his disappointing son, Jerningham. Unable to tolerate noise, he could not journey back to England. Day after day he sat brooding on his remoteness from his London friends and the squalor of frontier Wellington, his creation and now his prison.
Assessments of Wakefield have always revolved around questions about his integrity and intellectual profundity. Sympathisers say he had both, the extreme critics say he had neither, moderate critics while condemning him for lacking the former claim he had something of the latter. Although the moderate critics are closest to the truth, they fail to see that the qualities which allowed Wakefield to deviate from the norms of acceptable conduct also enabled him to be an intellectual innovator.