1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Wakefield, Edward Gibbon
WAKEFIELD, EDWARD GIBBON (1796–1862), British colonial statesman, was born in London on the 20th of March 1796, of an originally Quaker family. His father, Edward Wakefield (1774–1854), author of Ireland, Statistical and Political (1812), was a surveyor and land agent in extensive practice; his grandmother, Priscilla Wakefield (1751–1832), was a popular author for the young, and one of the introducers of savings banks. Wakefield was for a short time at Westminster School, and was brought up to his father's profession, which he relinquished on occasion of his elopement at the age of twenty with Miss Pattle; the orphan daughter of an Indian civil servant. The young lady's relatives ultimately became reconciled to the match, and procured him an appointment as attaché to the British legation at Turin. He resigned this post in 1820, upon the death of his wife, to whom he was fondly attached, and, though making some efforts to connect himself with journalism, spent the years immediately succeeding in idleness, residing for the most part in Paris. In 1826 he appeared before the public as the hero of a most extraordinary adventure, the abduction of Miss Ellen Turner, daughter of William Turner, of Shrigley Park, Cheshire. Miss Turner was decoyed from school by means of a forged letter, and made to believe that she could only save her father from ruin by marrying Wakefield, whom she accordingly accompanied to Gretna Green. This time the family refused to condone his proceedings; he was tried with his confederates at Lancaster assizes, March 1827, convicted, and sentenced to three years imprisonment in Newgate. The marriage, which had not been consummated, was dissolved by a special act of parliament. A disgrace which would have blasted the career of most men made Wakefield a practical statesman and a benefactor to his country. Meditating, it is probable, emigration upon his release, he turned his attention while in prison to colonial subjects, and acutely detected the main causes of the slow progress of the Australian colonies in the enormous size of the landed estates, the reckless manner in which land was given away, the absence of all systematic effort at colonization, and the consequent discouragement of immigration and dearth of labour. He proposed to remedy this state of things by the sale of land in small quantities at a sufficient price, and the employment of the proceeds as a fund for promoting immigration. These views were expressed with extraordinary vigour and incisiveness in his Letter from Sydney (1829), published while he was still in prison, but composed with such graphic power that it has been continually quoted as if written on the spot. After his release Wakefield seemed disposed for a while to turn his attention to social questions at home, and produced a tract on the Punishment of Death, with a terribly graphic picture of the condemned sermon in Newgate, and another on incendiarism in the rural districts, with an equally powerful exhibition of the degraded condition of the agricultural labourer. He soon, however, became entirely engrossed with colonial affairs, and, having impressed John Stuart Mill, Colonel Torrens and other leading economists with the value of his ideas, became a leading though not a conspicuous manager of the South Australian Company, by which the colony of South Australia was ultimately founded. In 1833 he published anonymously England and America, a work primarily intended to develop his own colonial theory, which is done in the appendix entitled "The Art of Colonization." The body of the work, however, is fruitful in seminal ideas, though some statements may be rash and some conclusions extravagant. It contains the distinct proposal that the transport of letters should be wholly gratuitous— the precursor of subsequent reform— and the prophecy that, under given circumstances, "the Americans would raise cheaper corn than has ever been raised." In 1836 Wakefield published the first volume of an edition of Adam Smith, which he did not complete. In 1837 the New Zealand Association was established, and he became its managing director. Scarcely, however, was this great undertaking fairly commenced when he accepted the post of private secretary to Lord Durham on the latter's appointment as special commissioner to Canada. The Durham Report, the charter of constitutional government in the colonies, though drawn up by Charles Buller, embodied the ideas of Wakefield, and the latter was the means of its being given prematurely to the public through The Times, to prevent its being tampered with by the government. He acted in the same spirit a few months later, when (about July 1839), understanding that the authorities intended to prevent the despatch of emigrants to New Zealand, he hurried them off on his own responsibility, thus compelling the government to annex the country just in time to anticipate a similar step on the part of France. For several years Wakefield continued to direct the New Zealand Company, fighting its battles with the colonial office and the missionary interest, and secretly inspiring and guiding many parliamentary committees on colonial subjects, especially on the abolition of transportation. The company was by no means a financial success, and many of its proceedings were wholly unscrupulous and indefensible; its great object, however, was attained, and New Zealand became the Britain of the south. In 1S46 Wakefield, exhausted with labour, was struck down by apoplexy, and spent more than a year in complete retirement, writing during his gradual recovery his Art of Colonization. The management of the company had meanwhile passed into the hands of others, whose sole object was to settle accounts with the government, and wind up the undertaking. Wakefield seceded, and joined Lord Lyttelton and John Robert Godley in establishing the Canterbury settlement as a Church of England colony. A portion of his correspondence on this subject was published by his son as The Founders of Canterbury (Christchurch, 186S). As usual with him, however, he failed to retain the confidence of his coadjutors to the end. In 1853, after the grant of a constitution to New Zealand, he took up his residence in the colony, and immediately began to act a leading part in colonial politics. In 1854 he appeared in the first New Zealand parliament as extra-official adviser of the acting governor, a position which excited great jealousy, and as the mover of a resolution demanding the appointment of a responsible ministry. It was carried unanimously, but difficulties, which will be found detailed in W. Swainson's New Zealand and its Colonization (ch. 12), prevented its being made effective until after the mover's retirement from political life. In December 1854, after a fatiguing address to a public meeting, followed by prolonged exposure to a south-east gale, his constitution entirely broke down. He spent the rest of his life in retirement, dying at Wellington on the 16th of May 1862. His only son, Edward Jerningham Wakefield (1820–1879), 'was a New Zealand politician. Three of Wakefield's brothers were also interested in New Zealand. After serving in the Spanish army William Hayward Wakefield (1803–1848) emigrated to New Zealand in 1839. As an agent of the New Zealand Land Company he was engaged in purchasing enormous tracts of land from the natives, but the company's title to the greater part of this was later declared invalid. He remained in New Zealand until his death on the 19th of September 1848. Arthur Wakefield (1799–1843), who was associated with his brother in these transactions about land, was killed during a fight with some natives at Wairau on the 17th of June 1843. The third brother was Felix Wakefield (1807–1875), an engineer.
Wakefield was a man of large views and lofty aims, and in private life displayed the warmth of heart which commonly accompanies these qualities. His main defect was unscrupulousness: he hesitated at nothing necessary to accomplish an object, and the conviction of his untrustworthiness gradually alienated his associates, and left him politically powerless. Excluded from parliament by the fatal error of his youth, he was compelled to resort to indirect means of working out his plans by influencing public men. But for a tendency to paradox, his intellectual powers were of the highest order, and as a master of nervous idiomatic English he is second to Cobbett alone. After every deduction it remains true that no contemporary showed equal genius as a colonial statesman, or in this department rendered equal service to his country.