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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.


CARGILL, William


Otago coloniser.

A new biography of Cargill, William appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

William Cargill was born at Edinburgh on 27 August 1784, the eldest son of William Cargill, Writer to the Signet. He was a direct lineal descendant of the Covenanter leader, Donald Cargill, who suffered martyrdom at the Grassmarket, Edinburgh, in 1680. Cargill's early life was one of hardship. His father, a young man of some promise, died of intemperance and left his widow and children in difficulties. His mother was a woman of fine character and, by dint of careful management, was able to send William to the Edinburgh High School. On 21 May 1802, through the generosity of his maternal great uncle, Sir William Nicholson, he purchased an ensigncy in the 84th Regiment, then in Bengal. In the following year, after the battle of Assaye (23 September), he secured through his patron a lieutenancy in the 74th Highlanders and served with them during the remainder of the Mahratta War. In September 1805 the regiment was withdrawn and reached Portsmouth on 16 February 1806. After a period of home service in Scotland and Ireland, Cargill sailed with his regiment for the Peninsula and arrived at the Tagus in February 1810. At the battle of Busaco on 27 September 1810 Cargill was severely wounded in the leg and was invalided home for two years. He rejoined his regiment at Madrid and, on 31 December 1812, was promoted to a company. He served through all the subsequent operations of the Peninsular campaign and displayed outstanding gallantry at the hard-fought battle of Toulouse (April 1814). On 4 July 1814 the regiment embarked at Bordeaux for Ireland and was stationed at Galway. It was ordered to Flanders for the Waterloo campaign, but, before it could embark at Cork, news arrived of the victory. With the peace, Cargill served for several years in Ireland and Scotland, but the claims of a large family with attendant financial difficulties compelled him, on 1 June 1820, to sell his commission for £1,500.

Cargill now set himself up in business in Edinburgh as a wine merchant, an unsuccessful venture which ended in 1834. Emigration to Canada, with hopes of a land grant, was the next attraction, but nothing came of it. He thereupon turned his attention to banking and, in 1836, was appointed general manager of the East of England Bank at Norwich. Perhaps with the idea of bettering his prospects he went to London in 1841, where he secured a seat on the Board of the Oriental Bank Corporation, of which his son was general manager. By this time Cargill was in his late fifties, but, apart from his fine army record and the fact that he had brought into the world a family of 17 children, he had done little to distinguish himself in any way. At this juncture Cargill met George Rennie, the father of the New Edinburgh (Otago) colonisation scheme which had first been mooted in the Colonial Gazette of August 1842. Cargill was willing to emigrate, provided he could secure “some occupation suited to his condition”. During 1843 Rennie and Cargill worked hard to win the support of the directors of the New Zealand Company for the proposed New Edinburgh settlement, which was to be open to all classes of Scottish society. The Disruption of 1843, followed by the establishment of the Free Church of Scotland, brought them an ally in the person of the Rev. Thomas Burns, late of Monkton, who was prepared to act as spiritual leader of the project. Burns, however, wanted an “exclusive” Free Church colony, the upshot being that in October 1845 Rennie withdrew from what then appeared to be an unpromising venture.

Cargill was now the main agency in keeping the scheme alive, for Burns had little time to spare from his Free Church duties in Scotland, though his letters to his colleague were full of advice and encouragement. E. G. Wakefield, too, was a source of strength. Things took a turn for the better in May 1847 when Cargill published a pamphlet on what was then the Otago scheme. Like many other colonising theorists of the day, Cargill drew inspiration from the New England Pilgrim Fathers, whose “wise and holy example” would guide the Otago pioneers. Gradually a handful of supporters came forward; the New Zealand Company bestirred itself and, on 22 November 1847, Cargill was appointed their agent at Otago at a salary of £500 per annum. Two days later he sailed from Gravesend in the John Wickliffe which reached Otago Harbour on 23 March 1848, some three weeks ahead of the Philip Laing, which, with Burns on board, had sailed from the Clyde.

The safe arrival at Port Chalmers of the Free Church settlers gave Cargill the opportunity to magnify the occasion – “the eyes of the British Empire, and I may say of Europe and America are upon us”. If the hyperbole was meant to be a stimulus to action it was timely, for the infant settlement soon had more than enough of teething troubles. Although Cargill purged the body politic of some of its more undesirable elements by shipping them to Wellington, the tiny community was soon at loggerheads on two counts – Free Church dominance, and land-sales policy. Cargill's office of Resident Agent, with its high salary and light duties, was ridiculed by the malcontents and, when he unwisely suppressed their organ, the Otago News, the settlement faced much ill-deserved criticism both throughout the colony and abroad. Nor was the situation any happier when, in May 1850, the New Zealand Company surrendered its charter as a colonising body. Cargill, through the good offices of the Otago Association, was appointed Commissioner of Crown Lands. But a bitter quarrel with the Governor, Sir George Grey, over the elections of an Otago nominee for the Legislative Council led to his restricting Cargill's authority to the narrow limits of the Otago Block and appointing another Commissioner of Crown Lands for the province. This was the least impressive period in Cargill's Otago career. In some respects too readily influenced by the inflexible Burns, he quarrelled with the Anglican minority (the “Little Enemy”), the Methodist missionary at Waikouaiti, various Government officials, and even some of his strongest supporters, such as W. H. Valpy. While Cargill had some justification for his actions, he was more prone to browbeat than conciliate. Moreover, he was so obsessed with the idea of maintaining the “exclusive” character of the settlement that he was content to see the stream of immigration dry up.

Fortunately the coming of the Constitution Act of 1852 gave Cargill the opportunity to play a more fitting part in provincial and colonial politics. He was unanimously elected Superintendent for the province on 6 September 1853. But for all the lip service he paid to democratic principles, the old soldier was of too autocratic a temper to make concessions with a good grace. “Gentlemen”, he told his Provincial Council, “you may be liberal … but as for me I cannot afford to be liberal at the expense of a people's rights”. With equal bluntness he advised those who were not prepared to conform to the original plan to go elsewhere; the settlement would be the better without them. Before long Cargill's disregard for political conventions, together with the fact that his administration as Superintendent was not free from nepotism, led to open discontent, even among his band of sycophants. Certainly he was again elected unopposed for the superintendency in November 1855. But it was purely an expression of loyalty based on sentiment, a regard for old age and grey hairs. Thus there were few regrets when, in October 1859, Cargill announced his retirement from public affairs. He died at his home, “Hillside”, on 6 August 1860.

In the wider sphere of colonial politics Cargill was essentially a provincial representative concerned with safeguarding Otago's interests. In December 1855 he was elected a member of the General Assembly and served through the sessions of 1856 and 1858. He strongly opposed the disruptive New Provinces Bill; but made little impact in debate, for to the handicap of deafness was added a dull and obscure style of speaking. Consequently his influence was felt more out of the House than in, though here again, as a lone Otago representative, he had little in common with his fellow parliamentarians from the south, to whom he seemed an anachronism.

In appearance Cargill was somewhat under middle size, sturdily built. According to James Barr, Cargill trudged about the settlement in an undress of Ayrshire grey, a broad blue bonnet on his head, with a flaming red toorie in the centre, a stunted black pipe in his mouth, a stout walking stick in his right hand, and a shepherd's tartan plaid thrown over his left shoulder. Charlotte Godley thought him “a funny looking old man with a very large head covered with thick upright white hair, that has been red, which also forms a white frill under his chin”. Cargill was undoubtedly an oddity, in thinking, as in appearance.

From time to time Cargill's qualities of leadership had been assessed in terms of Sir George Grey's tribute of 1875, delivered during the course of his Dunedin electioneering campaign. “He possessed”, said Grey, “not only great sagacity but extraordinary wisdom…. He did not believe that a more wise or sagacious man than Captain Cargill had almost ever existed”. As an example of Grey's blatant art of flattery the statement is revealing; as an expression of truth it is arrant nonsense. Cargill lacked almost every quality essential to successful leadership, if we except the dour pugnacity of a Peninsular War veteran. His mind was too inflexible, his judgment too rigid to meet the challenge of changing conditions. He took himself and his office too seriously and his alliance with Burns led him into errors of intolerance a wise man could have avoided. To those who opposed him he was a relentless enemy and he aggravated unhappy situations by his flair for tactless comment. Nevertheless, in his early years at Otago and in his role as patriarch, he unquestionably won the respect and affection of the community. Had he died at that period it would have seemed a public calamity; as it was, he lived long enough to make his death a matter of little consequence.

Cargill was survived by his wife, Mary Ann (born London, 13 August 1790; died Dunedin 25 October 1871). She was the daughter of Lieutenant Yates, R.N. They were married at Oporto in the spring of 1813 and had 17 children, 12 sons and five daughters. Two of the sons were prominent in Otago affairs. John Cargill (1821–98) was a minor politician and an enthusiastic volunteer, being Colonel in Command of the Otago Volunteers and Militia. He became a leading runholder. Edward Bowes Cargill (1823–1903) was also a runholder. He had wide mercantile interests and played a part in civic and general affairs.

by Alexander Hare McLintock, C.B.E., M.A., DIP.ED. (N.Z.), PH.D.(LOND.), Parliamentary Historian, Wellington.

  • History of Otago, McLintock, A. H. (1949)
  • Otago Witness, 11 Aug 1860 (Obit).


Alexander Hare McLintock, C.B.E., M.A., DIP.ED. (N.Z.), PH.D.(LOND.), Parliamentary Historian, Wellington.