Edward Gibbon Wakefield: Abductor and Mystagogue - Part B

Part B of Edward Gibbon Wakefield: Abductor and Mystagogue reconstructs his fantasy world and contends that his 'sufficient price' theory of colonial land sales was part of his self-centred fictional universe.




 To argue that Wakefield was a rogue is not necessarily to contest the claim that he was a genius. However, it may be possible to understand both the child abductor and the colonisation theorist through the biographical hypothesis that Wakefield inhabited a powerful world of fantasy, which he was not always able clearly to distinguish from reality. It was this inner world, over which Wakefield naturally exercised total dominance, that made him a dangerous person in his dealings with others. Practically everyone who came into contact with Wakefield was eventually anathematised for heresy or disobedience, largely because whenever fantasy and reality came into conflict, Wakefield dismissed the latter. This is a hypothesis, which by its nature cannot be conclusively proved. Wakefield is not available for psycho-analysis, and most biographers lack the necessary qualifications to penetrate his mental processes. Yet it is a hypothesis that is sustainable and certainly makes him comprehensible as a whole. It is also a little more subtle than the embittered conclusion of Henry Sewell that Wakefield was "utterly untrustworthy" or Manning's verdict "that he was upon occasion, when it served his purpose, a very accomplished liar".76

James Stephen of the Colonial Office regarded Wakefield not simply as a man who could not be trusted, but as someone incapable of distinguishing between truth and fiction. Although Stephen was anything but a neutral observer where Wakefield was concerned, he had painfully high standards of personal conduct. In 1845, Stephen explained why he had "deliberately preferred" from their first dealings to have Wakefield as a declared enemy. "I saw plainly that the choice before me was that of having Mr. Wakefield for an Official acquaintance whose want of truth and honour would render him most formidable in that capacity or for an enemy whose hostility was to be unabated."77 Bagot condemned Wakefield as "a vindictive as well as a subtle serpent".78 A subsequent governor-general of Canada, Lord Elgin, shrugged off one of Wakefield's journalistic assaults, saying "as in many other statements which I have seen from the same pen, there is just enough truth to make a lie and a good one".79 All three identified Wakefield as someone unable to locate himself in a borderland between truth and falsehood.
Wakefield occasionally gave clues to his fantasy world, and the way it protected him from reality. "I should have been in a lunatic asylum before now," he remarked in his last years, "if I had not been able to put a subject out of my mind, change the current of my thoughts."80 During his imprisonment in Lancaster Castle, he was held for a time in solitary confinement. "I and myself could always make company," he wrote to his step-mother, "... we walk, talk and laugh together, without a moment's lassitude".81 From his exile in New Zealand, he wrote to Henrietta Rintoul, daughter of his old ally, the editor of the Spectator, explaining how his fantasy life enabled him to "live in London still":
I pass hours every day, and some every night, in imagining all sorts of things as happening there .... not a day passes but I go with somebody, generally your father, to the Duke of Newcastle or Gladstone, to talk about New Zealand....82

He was equally capable of vividly imagined scenes involving other people. In 1849, for instance, he briefly hoped the Protectionist Tory, Augustus Stafford, would persuade the leader of his party, Lord Stanley, to support a parliamentary campaign for colonisation. "I imagine Stafford telling Stanley that he has undertaken and is committed to the work, and must proceed with it come what may", Wakefield wrote, describing vividly and at some length the arguments Stafford would use and the manner he would adopt.83 The problem was that Wakefield's inability to draw a line between fact and fiction led him to savage dismissal of those who failed to play the parts he assigned to them.

The hypothesis that Wakefield was entrapped in a world of his own imagining, a world in which "he had never attempted any thing he did not accomplish", offers some sort of explanation for the kidnapping of Ellen Turner. Wakefield was a great enthusiast for the novels of Walter Scott, whose stories were set in a heroic past. As he crossed the border into Scotland with his captive, "it was impossible to think and speak of any thing but Waverley and Walter Scott", and in his last years in Wellington he educated his niece by making her read the Waverley novels aloud to him. He also enjoyed Scott's poetry, and encouraged his niece to learn The Lady of the Lake off by heart. One of Scott's most dashing poetic heroes was the Border chieftain, young Lochinvar, who returned to his homeland on learning that the woman he loved had consented to marry an inferior suitor. In Scott's jaunty verse, Lochinvar boldly invaded the marriage feast and literally danced the bride away from under the noses of her protesting family and effete groom. Lochinvar made his appearance in Marmion, published in 1808, shortly before Wakefield had been sent to school in Edinburgh. The poem was set at Netherby, a few miles from Gretna, and it may not have been simply coincidence that Lochinvar's quarry was called Ellen. Possibly Wakefield felt that he was gallantly rescuing Ellen Turner from the jaws of what must have been an arranged marriage to the wealthy Thomas Legh. Sir Walter Scott, of course, is not to be blamed for the Turner abduction. Tens of thousands of admirers immersed themselves in his novels and poems without ever succumbing to temptation to abduct an heiress. Wakefield was unusual in his inability to appreciate that there were finite limits even to the romantic universe of Walter Scott.84

Further clues for the inspiration of the Turner abduction may be found in his enthusiasm for Oliver Goldsmith's novel, The Vicar of Wakefield. To a modern reader, Goldsmith's account of the misfortunes of the saintly clergyman, Dr Primrose, and his children who are confusingly described as "the family of Wakefield", is little more than an absurd plot accompanied by ludicrous moralising. After losing his fortune to fraud and his home to fire, the doctor is thrown in prison and his son faces the gallows for duelling - an offence which Wakefield himself came close to committing. More to the point, one daughter is secretly and illegally wedded to a charming bigamist while another is kidnapped by ruffians as part of a plot to trick her into marriage with her rescuer. These successive disasters are portrayed either as blessings in disguise or are speedily reversed through improbable coincidence. The uplifting qualities of The Vicar of Wakefield made the book recommended reading for young people, and we may guess that the young Edward Gibbon would have been drawn to its title.85 The Turner kidnapping perhaps owes its origin in part to the sheer unreality of Goldsmith's plot. What is more curious is the tradition recorded by Garnett that in later life Wakefield re-read the novel "regularly once a year".86 It might have been expected that the elements of the story would have been particularly painful to him. Was the annual rendezvous with the trials of Dr Primrose part of an attempt to deny the reality of his own crime and punishment?

Wakefield's imposition of a universe of his own imagining upon the world around him can also illuminate his theories of colonisation. Wakefield scholars have taken very much for granted the surely curious fact that he published his first book on the subject in the form of a fictional letter from a country he had never visited. It is not sufficient to argue that he needed to disguise the fact that he was in Newgate. Shortly after his release he drew on his prison experience to write tracts about capital punishment and both rural and urban crime, proclaiming himself "Edward Gibbon Wakefield Esq." on their title pages.87 It is surely revealing that two of Wakefield's three works on colonisation, the Letter from Sydney and the View of the Art of Colonization, were written in fictional form. Moreover, even in the third of them, England and America, which conforms to the turgid style of contemporary political economy, Wakefield included a bizarre account of a dream in which he explained the mechanism of wage rates to Robinson Crusoe after part of his island had been swept away in a storm.88

Wakefield's introduction to the View of the Art of Colonization is an example of the way in which he could slip across the boundary between fantasy and reality, between fiction and truth. The book was presented as a series of "letters between a Statesman and a Colonist". Wakefield insisted that the book was an edited version of a correspondence that had actually taken place, even though the actual letters were "very different from those which passed through the post-office". Thus they were simultaneously genuine and fictitious.89 There was speculation about the identity of the correspondent among early Wakefield scholars, until it became established that the entire book had been dictated by its author, almost without correction.90 Wakefield certainly did write minatory letters to various politicians, none of them in the front rank of statesmanship.91 Yet the correspondence in the View of the Art of Colonization is entirely fantasy, letters that Wakefield probably dreamed of sending to a leading politician - possibly Gladstone - and even more, replies that he would have wished to receive, deferential, admiring and slightly dense foils to his wisdom and patience. "The statesman ... is evidently merely put forward to allow Wakefield to advance what he wishes," Garnett commented, and even this admiring biographer noted that "the disciple almost disappears from the latter part of the correspondence".92 However, the Statesman did perform one very useful role in the correspondence. He was portrayed as having a country residence close to the home of "Mr Mothercountry", Wakefield's enemy James Stephen. He was thus the vehicle for relaying Stephen's objections to Wakefield's ideas, with such obsequious requests as "pray enable me to confound him if you can" - which Wakefield, of course, never failed to do. Eventually, Mr Mothercountry was routed. "I thought he would have wept with vexation," the Statesman reported, "such strange grimaces did he make, and gulping noises in his throat."93 "Practice has taught me much better how to receive hard knocks than gratifying compliments", Wakefield once wrote.94 His inner world gave him the one battle ground on which he was always victorious. What was unusual was his decision to proclaim his imagined triumphs to the world.

If Wakefield's colonisation theories are seen as the product of his unreal private world, it becomes possible to understand why they could never be applied in any actual colony. He claimed to be "justified" in identifying himself as the Colonist of the View of the Art of Colonization, "for I really was a colonist in Canada". In fact, his "residence and frequent sojourn in British North America" amounted only to a brief period as an adviser to Durham and some short visits as a lobbyist.  It was rather that Wakefield imagined himself to be a colonist, for he added that "if these are not sufficient grounds on which to call myself a colonist, then I would claim the title on the ground of sympathy with the class of our fellow-subjects who have the misfortune to be nothing but colonists".95

Although there are hints over two decades of plans to emigrate, it might be said that this imaginary colonist went to some lengths to avoid the intrusion of reality into his world of fantasy. It was not until 1852 that he left for New Zealand, and it is noteworthy that he survived only a few weeks in Canterbury, supposedly his special creation, before heading for a cottage on Wellington's Tinakori Road, where he led a rentier existence strangely similar to the life of the disillusioned settler of the Letter from Sydney. It was certainly true that Wakefield found little enthusiasm for his presence in Canterbury, but he had a quarter of century of experience of being unwelcome in many places. It may be that Wakefield could not cope with the intrusion of reality upon fantasy. Sewell was amused by his "intense excitement about the Colony" when they met at Lyttelton in February 1853. "Every thing was ultra couleur de rose". Even the carrots grown in Canterbury "were not like ordinary carrots, they out carrotted carrots - the beans perfumed the room etc. etc."96 Of course Canterbury, for all its good points, was nothing like Paradise. Just as he had walked away from the South Australian project as it had approached reality, so Wakefield could manage only a month in the colony that is most closely associated with his memory.

It is usually assumed that Wakefield became interested in colonisation while he was serving his three-year prison sentence because it was Newgate that gave him the opportunity to study the convicts who were being shipped to Australia. Yet that does not in itself explain why the author of the Letter from Sydney imagined himself as a free settler in New South Wales, at a time when the colony had attracted only a sprinkling of independent migrants. Rather, Wakefield chose to transport himself to the other side of the world as a way of coping with the ghastly experience of imprisonment, one from which he had to "change the current" of his thoughts as far away as possible.

Wakefield's incarceration began in Lancaster Castle, where one of his fellow prisoners was "a miserable Irishman ... who expects to be hanged for a violent highway robbery". Executions at Lancaster averaged about four a year, half of them for highway robbery. Wakefield made light of his plight in letters to his family, but -  at a time when the Turner camp was hoping to secure a capital conviction against him -  he was agonisingly close to the gallows without any hope of the miraculous turn of fortune that had saved Goldsmith's young George Primrose. After his conviction, Wakefield was moved to Newgate. Not long before, prison reformers, including his own cousin Elizabeth Fry, had been critical of the brutality shown to Lancaster convicts transferred to Newgate: in 1822, women prisoners had arrived handcuffed and bound together by heavy leg-irons that caused painful weals. Since Lancaster prisoners arrived in London at the docks, they were presumably conveyed either by sea or canal boat. They were then marched through the streets of London, a target for the derision -  and worse -  of bystanders.97

"Newgate Prison ... was not a pleasant place", one biographer remarked.98 This was an understatement. It was overcrowded and largely run by the inmates, "the exposure of the weak to the oppression of the strong" as the first prison inspectors put it in 1836. There was only minimal segregation of men, women, boys, the convicted, those awaiting trial and those in the death cells. "The Association of Prisoners of all ages, and of every shade of guilt, in one indiscriminate mass, is a frightful feature in the system". In May 1827, the prison chaplain noted "great complaints of bugs and vermin" from prisoners, and "one woman was observed to have them crawling about her in church". There were virtually no facilities for washing either people or clothing, the latter a significant point since there was "no prison dress for the convicted", and the stench must have been formidable. The prison surgeon implausibly claimed that Newgate was "a very healthy place" because "the prisoners generally become fat". If anybody put on weight in Newgate, it was because of the "utter absence of all employment".99 The boredom of the daily routine was relieved only by fights, prostitution, church services and the endless round of hangings. Wakefield bought himself some privileges, including the domestic services of an Irishwoman who called Newgate "this black place".100 Is it any wonder that he retreated into a fantasy world twelve thousand miles away?

It was the regular, gruesome round of hangings that dominated prison life.101 "Incredible scenes of horror occur in Newgate," Wakefield wrote in his Punishment of Death in the Metropolis, his most searing and moving work. There may be some dramatic exaggeration in his account, but this was no fantasy. Much of what he reported can be corroborated in official reports on Newgate prison, and as Wakefield himself put it, "it cannot be egotism that prompts a man to speak of himself in connection with that place". Every six weeks, a fresh batch of the condemned arrived at Newgate. Murderers were hurried to the gallows without ceremony within a few days, but the far larger numbers of thieves and forgers were left to await the review of their sentences by the King in Council. Only one in nine was "launched into eternity", a lottery in which the most guilty often escaped. Convicts facing death were herded into the condemned pew at the daily service, part of a process that convinced prisoners that the role of religion was "to break the spirits of the capital convicts, so that they make no physical resistance to the hangman".

As execution day approached, a sense of horror gripped the whole institution. Those whose sentences had been confirmed were sometimes driven out of their minds. Forgers, usually men of some education, were often driven by "the expected disgrace of a public execution" to attempt suicide. Thieves became reckless, defiant and blasphemous. The night before the hangings, prisoners were kept awake by the hammering of workmen erecting the scaffold outside the gaol. One young man made a desperate attempt to scale the prison wall on the morning of his execution, "probably with the wild hope of escaping". He fell, gashing his legs, and Wakefield was struck by the obscene solemnity with which the surgeon dressed his injuries, as if to help them heal. "He was carried ... to the scaffold, and in the struggle of death, blood flowed from his wounds". With rare exceptions, neither the crowd outside nor the convicts within seemed to draw any moral lesson from the grisly spectacle. Newgate, usually a cacophony of obscenities, fell silent during the tolling of the death-bell, but the uncharacteristic quiet was followed by "brutal oaths and other savage expressions" against all law and authority. Perhaps the most disturbing reaction was the response of the boy prisoners, segregated into their own section of the gaol. For days after each round of executions, their "common amusement" was "to play the scene over again", taking turns to play the chaplain, the hangman and the condemned criminal. "I have seen this done many times; and, on one occasion, before the bodies of the men just hanged had been removed from the scaffold."

Prisoners in Newgate could hear the voices, even the footsteps, of passers-by in the street outside, yet there was no escape from the horror of imprisonment. The only way out was within. Wakefield spent the long hours recalling events in his childhood, possibly comparing Newgate with his previous period of institutional incarceration in London, at Westminster School. Yet his chief device to save his sanity was probably a fantasy that he had emigrated to New South Wales. The prisoners who surrounded him in Newgate were really convicts transported to the penal colony. "I might have had them flogged", wrote Wakefield's settler alter ego of their refusal to obey him, but "some foolish sentiments of tenderness and respect for all my fellow-creatures" ruled out this form of control. Interestingly, the author of the Letter from Sydney was a single man. "What should I have done for a delicate woman, bound to me by sacred ties? ... I should have made my tender wife a drudge".102 It was as if Wakefield needed to deny that he had ever met Ellen Turner.

During the year-long legal manoeuvres in the Turner case, Wakefield probably became aware of the precedent of a former mayor of Cork, Sir Henry Browne Hayes, perhaps through his father, Edward Wakefield, whose authoritative Account of Ireland Statistical and Political had been published in 1812. Like Wakefield, Hayes was a widower who decided to recoup his fortunes by the abduction and forced marriage of an heiress. Hayes was sentenced to death in 1801, but was reprieved and transported to New South Wales, where his wealth and Masonic connections enabled him to live a gentlemanly life at Vaucluse House beside Sydney Harbour.103 It is likely that Wakefield's thoughts first turned towards New South Wales well before he saw convicts leaving Newgate when he was forced to contemplate the possibility that he might be transported himself.

Thus the Hayes story may have been the starting point for what Wakefield called, in the concluding passage of the Letter from Sydney, his "castle in the air". It is a tract that should be read not so much as a blueprint for colonisation but rather as a revelatory novel which enabled Wakefield to explain and inwardly assert a defensive control over his appalling surroundings. Removing himself in his fantasy world from a London prison to a convict colony enabled him to recover "the Sun which I learned to love in Italy", as he remarked in the closing words of the Letter from Sydney, immediately before the revealing admission that "Hope ... if you know how to indulge it, is more grateful than reality".104

Thus one reason why Wakefield's colonisation theories never worked in real colonies was because they were blueprints for colonies of the mind. At the core of Wakefield's theorising lay the idea of selling colonial land at what he called the "sufficient price". This was the price that would prevent labourers from acquiring estates too quickly - with the concomitant disadvantages of dispersed settlement - and also finance their emigration to the colony. Unfortunately, the sufficient price was never defined in pounds, shillings and pence. This was because it was a fantasy device for an imagined world. "I have been frequently and tauntingly required to mention what I deem the sufficient price," Wakefield acknowledged in 1849. "But I have hitherto avoided falling into the trap".105 What others might have had the humility to accept as criticism of a weakness in the argument, Wakefield dismissed as the obtuse trickery of interlopers in his personal universe. In reply to those who contended that more fertile land ought to be sold at a higher price, Wakefield, who was no feminist, claimed that they could only sustain their argument by "the 'woman's reason' -  'because it ought'."106 The gibe perfectly captured his own dogmatic dismissal of reality.


One of the reasons why Wakefield was able to sustain his fantasy world was because his disgrace ensured that he always worked "like the mole, in out-of-sight obscurity".107 In fact, he became so enamoured of his backstage role that he even attempted to institutionalise it in New Zealand, seeking to have himself installed as a sort of mayor of the palace to the acting governor, Colonel Wynyard, with the right to filter all advice from the colony's fledgling ministry.108 As John Manning Ward has pointed out, it was a role that enabled Wakefield to exaggerate his influence on success and disclaim his part in failure.109  On occasion, his need to assert that he was a secret wire-puller led him to extravagant assertions.  Charles Grey reported his response when news arrived of the disallowance in London of Durham's Bermuda Ordinance: "he could not contain his exultation, boasted of the share he had had in getting it, and said he had now accomplished all he wanted." Wakefield was claiming that he had engineered Durham into a breach with the Whigs "beyond the possibility of reconciliation", thereby forcing him to accept the leadership of the Radicals. As a rationalisation of events, this was obviously nonsense. It had been the lawyer, Turton, who had drafted the Ordinance, and it was utterly implausible that he would have intentionally made it defective. It was rather that Wakefield had to assert that he was in control over the people and events around him. Grey commented that Durham "would not be much flattered if he knew the manner in which these People boasted of making him their tool".110 Of course, Durham was much flattered by Wakefield, and much of the contemporary "evidence" for the impact of the Durham Report comes from Wakefield's unsubstantiated claims.111

There are many other examples where Wakefield's "large stock of brass and impudence"112 have written themselves into the historical record. One example is the tale told by Wakefield's son, Jerningham, of Sir William Bellairs, a Suffolk landowner who thought of taking his capital and his lineage to New Zealand. Bellairs wanted a baronetcy, and this Wakefield secured thanks to "his influence with Members of Parliament, and other persons having weight with the then Ministry.... The patent was actually prepared, and ready to be presented to the gallant old Knight on his arrival in the colony." Unfortunately, Bellairs demanded his baronetcy before he would leave England, and so the deal fell through. The story is in the highest degree unlikely: in the letters published by Jerningham, Wakefield himself bemoaned the impossibility of securing a mark of honour for Godley because any such recommendation would have to pass through the Colonial Secretary, Lord Grey.113

Similarly, Wakefield hinted that he had persuaded the Duke of Wellington to support the South Australian project by offering to name its capital in his honour, "but this intention was frustrated by some whom I abstain from mentioning". The possibility that Wakefield might have exceeded his authority was not mentioned.114 Often the mainsprings of opposition were secret as well as malevolent: the virulence of Wakefield's attacks on Stephen can be partly explained by his need for a Manichean rival working behind the scenes to frustrate Wakefieldian virtue and wisdom. Often, too, the crime of disobedience was compounded by the sin of ingratitude. In New Zealand, he attacked Sir George Grey, who "had remained his attached and faithful follower until he had procured him the Governorship of South Australia, which led to his appointment to this colony. Sir George then at once became a devoted creature of the Colonial Office".115 Had Wakefield ever held a formal position in any of the projects with which he associated himself, it would paradoxically have become much harder for him to have claimed such broad and unspecified influence.

Since individual examples of Wakefield's claims to influence are usually assessed against a background of an assumption of Wakefieldian influence derived from the totality of his assertions, it is as well to confront the process in its entirety. In the early 1920s, Ursilla Macdonnell noted similarities between Bagot's despatches and reports on Canadian politics in the Colonial Gazette attributed to Wakefield.116 Filtering this discovery through the received wisdom that Wakefield was an influential counsellor on imperial matters, she assumed that he was the real author of both the despatches and the policy, and even indulged in a Wakefieldian fantasy of him working away in a back room of the governor-general's mansion. This in turn reinforced assessments of Wakefield's role in New Zealand politics, with Peter Stuart interpreting his rebuffed attempts to establish himself as mentor to Sir George Grey as a ploy to create a second Bagot.117 The passage of years has dimmed the historiographical halo. In 1967, Helen Taft Manning offered the less pious speculation that any similarity between Bagot's despatches and Wakefield's articles might be attributable to the fact that as the representative of a heavily capitalised colonisation company, "Wakefield was really the only man in Montreal who had money to spend on hiring agents to do his dirty work".118

The truth was that Bagot went to considerable lengths to avoid association with Wakefield. The governor-general thought it useful to keep the Cacodaemon "in pretty good humour", but he was careful to keep him at arm's length.119 Although "well aware of his very superior talents", Bagot was annoyed when Wakefield decided to contest a by-election immediately after the governor-general had embraced responsible government and brought the French party into office:

by taking this step, at this particular instant, he will endanger the complexion of my whole measure, and give colour to the report that, notwithstanding the scrupulous care which I took to avoid all communication whatever with him during my negotiations with the French Canadians, he was the real mover, and contriver of them all.

Wakefield did indeed continue to give colour, high colour, to the story that he had persuaded Bagot "to adopt the seemingly desperate remedy of letting the rebel party into office".120 Bagot's testimony is a warning against accepting claims of Wakefieldian influence based on Wakefieldian assertion.

If anything, the evidence suggests that those over whom Wakefield did establish ascendancy were themselves marginalised as a result. Stanley refused to consider Lord Eliot, the Chief Secretary for Ireland, as a possible successor to Bagot in Canada. "The appointment of Eliot would be the appointment of Gibbon Wakefield, with whom he is now in frequent correspondence".121 Stephen was able to neutralise an attempt to give Charles Buller a role in the Colonial Office in 1846 by arguing that "he was in absolute bondage to Wakefield".122 Even Lord Grey was condemned by Disraeli for having "talked too much Wakefieldism out of office" and being too stubborn to abandon the "delusion" in office - "instead of more Wakefieldism, we want less".123

How, then, should we assess the influence of Wakefield's theory, and in particular the place of his overall statement of it in the View of the Art of Colonization, published in 1849 not long before his departure for New Zealand? Some aspects of Wakefield's theory can be directly attributed to his determination to assert control and his concomitant inability to recognise the existence of a potentially autonomous future.

As Miles Fairburn has pointed out, it was never explained why the sufficient price would perfectly regulate not only the distribution of land but also the flow of emigration.124   The Oxford professor, Herman Merivale, who succeded Stephen at the Colonial Office, confessed his inability to grasp the theory as a whole, but concluded that "the sufficient price of waste land, if it is to be estimated by the quantity of labour required, will be the highest price which any body thinks it worth to give." However, since Wakefield scornfully denounced the auctioning of colonial land, it did not seem that he believed that the sufficient price could be determined by free market economics. Indeed, Merivale noted that Wakefield adopted a rigid attitude to the amount of labour required to develop colonial land, although "nature admits of no such ascertained proportion of labourers to acres". Surely land would become more productive if a capitalist could employ more labour at lower wage rates, but more labour would mean more emigration, thereby destroying Wakefield's asserted balance between land price and flow of migration. In any case, since undeveloped colonial land had no active market value at all, what Wakefield was really talking about was a "uniform tax per acre" to be paid by the purchaser.125 Roebuck similarly objected to the insistence that the entire proceeds of land sales be applied to financing emigration rather than providing an infrastructure of government and communications.126 None of these objections addressed what was for Wakefield the central issue, his infallibility as - in the phrase of one agnostic - "the living mystagogue of the Sufficient Price-System".127 The fundamental answer to any objection to his theory was his own ex cathedra statement, "Because it ought."

Wakefield's inability to envisage any form of future dimension other than a continuation of the present was evident in one of the most notable weaknesses in his theory. Its core assumption was that "the price of 100 acres is to be spent in the importation of labour necessary for 100 acres". A subsidiary aim of the sufficient price was to slow down but not prevent the acquisition of land by labourers. As Merivale noted, Wakefieldians envisaged a delay "not exceeding three or four years in ordinary cases". Thus within a few years of the founding of a colony, labourers would be leaving existing farms to invest their own savings in wild land. "No provision is made at all for the land which will, every year, be losing its available labour by the conversion of its husbandmen into labourers." How could this problem be resolved? Merivale doubted that natural increase in population could fill the gap, at least in the early years of a colony.128 Mill talked vaguely of "a fund increasing by geometrical progression",129 an example of the "sort of conjuration solemnity" to which Roebuck objected in discussions of "the whole art of colonisation (as the matter has been termed with some affectation)".130 Once the Wakefield theory was considered within the dynamic context of a growing colony, it collapsed in the face of change. Either the sufficient price for wild land would have to rise in order to import not only the labour required for its development but also to service land already cleared, or established farms would fall in market value while a higher price was demanded for undeveloped land. Wakefield could not deal with the objection because he could not recognise the existence of any kind of future beyond his control.

Overall, it is difficult to sustain the conclusion that the publication in 1849 of the View of the Art of Colonization constituted the culmination of Wakefield's theory and the rebuttal of his critics. Such had indeed been the hope of John Stuart Mill:

I have long regretted that there does not exist a systematic treatise, in a permanent form, from your hand and with your name, in which the whole subject of Colonization is treated, as the express subject of the book - so as to become at once the authoritative book on the subject. At present, people have to pick up your doctrines, both theoretical & practical.131

Mill's statement casts some doubt on the effectiveness of Wakefield's previous writings but it did not prove to be a prediction of the impact of the book. Like many a long-unwritten book, it became something of a joke among Wakefield's friends. Godley nicknamed it "Mrs Harris" after a character in Martin Chuzzlewit who was "much talked about but never seen".132 Unfortunately, when this  Mrs Harris did emerge, she turned her face not to the future but to the past, Wakefield's past as he wished to write the record. "My object has been (having worked hard for twenty years without ever before claiming any rights thereby acquired) to now establish my claim to the real authorship of most of what has been done with respect to colonisation during that long period."133 "It would be an affectation to pretend", Wakefield wrote of the work of "the theorists of 1830" that "I have had any but the principal share".134 By no means the least curious feature of this strange book was that Wakefield chose to complete it at Boulogne, so close to Calais where reality had caught up with his attempt to capture Ellen Turner. As R.C. Mills once wrote: "The ghost of Wakefield's past ever stalked before him."135

The publication of a book by Wakefield after "a long silence"136 was certainly an event, but - despite his belief that agents of the Colonial Office were attempting to get hold of advance copies137 - its impact was muted, belying the trumpeted prediction of the Wakefield camp that it would "produce a deep and lasting impression, both in this country and the colonies".138 Samuel Sidney, long an opponent of "the great charlatan of Colonisation", acidly pointed out that there was no attempt at a balanced review of the colonising ventures of the past twenty years, still less the humility of admitting mistakes, for "this is not the Wakefield system. Facts, dates, and references to experience, would inconveniently trammel the flights of such genius."139 George Cornewall Lewis, a Whig minister who had written on colonial government, regarded the View of the Art of Colonization as "merely a re-hash of his old opinions, seasoned with some new abuse of the Colonial Office and Lord Grey".140 Wakefield, usually so skilled at news manipulation, failed to foresee that if he had nothing fresh to say about colonisation, attention would focus - and focus disapprovingly - on his "fierce personal attack"141 on Earl Grey. Few readers were likely to interpret Wakefield's venom as "reluctantly introduced" material "in self-defence against injustice and oppression".142 One reader who felt that Wakefield had gone too far was his elderly father. "I have read with great pain and regret the attacks made on your Lordship by my eldest son Gibbon", he wrote to Grey, informing him that Wakefield's sisters were demanding the removal of the abuse from a projected second edition (which did not materialise). Edward Wakefield at least was "fully sensible of the great debt which my family, owe you for much which you have done, and it is unaccountable that it was not named in the publication". Lord Grey replied with icy courtesy, acknowledging his correspondent's good intention. "I have not read your sons book (except for a few passages wh: have appeared in the Newspapers) nor do I intend to do so for reasons wh: in writing to yourself it wd be painful for me to state."143

Thus the evidence hardly supports the view that Wakefield achieved his apotheosis either in the View of the Art of Colonization or in his last years in New Zealand. It is only fair to recall that his health had broken down in 1846 and collapsed altogether at the end of 1854. Yet the extent to which Wakefield had influenced the development of colonial lands policy remains the subject of controversy. Merivale politely conceded that the idea "that the revenue which may be derived from the sale of wild land is the fund out of which the cost of introducing emigrants is best defrayed ... in reality forms the great discovery of Mr. Wakefield". However, Robert Gourlay in Canada and William Charles Wentworth in Australia had previously argued for the sale of colonial land to finance emigration, and free grants were being supplanted in both colonies before Wakefield took up the subject. Precisely because Wakefield was such an effective publicist, it would be difficult to write him entirely out of the record, but his role may have been overstressed. The accession of the Whigs to office in 1830 was partly the result of increasing public demand for a curb on the expense of privileged corruption. After the debacle of Swan River, it was unlikely that free land grants to favoured recipients would continue to operate in the Australian colonies.144 In Canada, the first colony in which Wakefield had the opportunity to try out his ideas on the ground, they failed altogether.145

In any case, the theory of Systematic Colonisation was something more than a simple notion of selling land to finance emigration, and Wakefield himself insisted that his theories had never been properly tested. "The sufficient price has never yet been adopted by a colonizing government."146 The faithful Mill believed that of all the colonies, New Zealand was "the only one in which his system has been faithfully executed".147 Reviewing the early years of Canterbury, William Fox agreed "that the original intention was to carry out the Wakefield theory, and there is no doubt at all that the basis of that theory is a high price laid on for the avowed purpose of preventing the labouring man from acquiring land too quickly". In practice, the system actually enabled working men to purchase land, since "if the price were low the whole would pass into the hands of large capitalists, speculating runholders etc.".148 Fox, even though he was an observer on the spot, may hardly rank as an authority to counter the judgement of John Stuart Mill. But we cannot overlook the fact that it was in New Zealand that Wakefield himself acknowledged that his theories would not work.

Despite her distaste for his personality and her relentlessly agnostic attitudes towards his claims, Manning could never entirely rid herself of the assumption that Wakefield was an influential figure in the shaping of Australia and New Zealand. "British statesmen, no matter how badly they thought of Wakefield as a person ... came almost unconsciously to accept his ideas and pass acts of parliament which embodied them."149  There is a case for arguing that ideas do lodge in the minds of policy-makers through a form of intellectual osmosis, but it is a process that makes it all the harder to attribute responsibility for them to any single individual.

It is sometimes worth making the experiment of seeing whether it is possible to tell a well-known story with the omission of one of its elements. We are used to the assumption that colonies were founded in South Australia and in New Zealand partly because Wakefield was an acknowledged authority on colonisation. We should recognise that there were plenty of high-minded people who saw emigration as a solvent for social problems, and take account of the possibility that they might have undertaken their colonising ventures without Wakefield, just as Wilmot Horton had experimented with emigration before Wakefield took up the subject and just as the South Australian projectors carried their scheme to fruition after he had broken with them. Indeed, it is possible to invert the familiar equation, and conclude that Wakefield became a recognised authority on colonisation partly because of his association with projects that required the involvement of many others for their success. In the immediate period after his release from Newgate, Wakefield sought to rehabilitate himself as a domestic social reformer, attacking the death penalty, offering a plea in mitigation for the downtrodden rural arsonists of the "Swing" outbreak and urging that the householders of London should protect themselves against burglars by buying guns and being prepared to use them.  His colonisation theories were not a natural by-product of this enthusiasm for social amelioration, since if anything he sought to restructure the colonies to prevent peasants and criminals from too easily improving their lot. It was not that Wakefield founded South Australia or Canterbury but rather that these projects offered opportunities for the re-founding of Wakefield. After 1826, Wakefield's objective could never lie in the future. He could only seek to recover from his past.


There may be an enduring echo of Edward Gibbon Wakefield in a very unexpected place. In 1838, a little-known writer called Lynch Lawdon Sharpe published a "mono-dramatico-political poem", entitled The Viceroy's Dream, or, the Canadian Government not "Wide-Awake". This short play in blank verse was a satire on Lord Durham's mission to Canada, and in particular on the illegal Bermuda Ordinance. The second scene was set in a dream, but the poem opened with the Viceroy's two confidential advisers taking advantage of his snores to issue an ordinance dissolving marriages. The advisers were of course Thomas Turton, the divorcee, and Gibbon Wakefield, who had been the subject of a special act of parliament. Sharpe called the two aides Turtle and Gibbon.150

There is no way of proving that a serious young mathematician, Charles Dodgson, ever read Sharpe's pamphlet. Yet it is surely plausible to suggest that the fictional names of the ridiculous pair lodged in his mind. He was, after all, a don at Christ Church, the Oxford college closely associated with the founding of Canterbury.151 Dodgson is better remembered by his pen-name of Lewis Carroll, the creator of Alice in Wonderland, another tale set in a dream. Is it possible that Thomas Turton and Edward Gibbon Wakefield were filtered through Sharpe's whimsical verse to re-appear in faint recollection as the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon of Alice's adventures in the nether world?152 The hypothesis cannot be proved, but it may be that a faint echo of the man who so ruthlessly terrified Ellen Turner may survive in the story told to amuse Alice Liddell, as a fleeting figure in a fantastical world.




Paul Bloomfield, Edward Gibbon Wakefield: Builder of The British Commonwealth (London, 1961)

Eng & Am  

[Edward Gibbon Wakefield], England & America: A Comparison of the Social and Political State of Both Nations (London, 1833).

Reference is made to the New York edition of 1834, reprinted in facsimile, New York, 1967.


Edward Jerningham Wakefield, ed., The Founders of Canterbury: Volume I: Being the Letters of the Late Edward Gibbon Wakefield...
(Christchurch, 1868, facsimile edition, ed. Peter Burroughs, London 1968)


R. Garnett, Edward Gibbon Wakefield: The Colonization of South Australia and New Zealand (London, 1898)


A.J. Harrop, The Amazing Career of Edward Gibbon Wakefield  (London, 1928)


A Letter from Sydney the Principal Town of  Australasia (London, 1829), reprinted in [R.C. Mills, ed.], Edward Gibbon Wakefield, A Letter from Sydney and Other Writings (London, 1929)


M.F. Lloyd-Prichard, ed., The Collected Works of Edward Gibbon Wakefield (Glasgow, 1968)


Peter Stuart, Edward Gibbon Wakefield in New Zealand: His  Political  Career,  1853-4  (Wellington, 1971)


Edward Gibbon Wakefield, A View of the Art of Colonization ... in Letters between a Statesman and a Colonist (London, 1849)

76. W.D. McIntyre, ed., The Journal of Henry Sewell (2 vols, Christchurch, 1980), i, p. 88 (September 1854); Manning,  "Wakefield  Studies",  p.  277.  Wakefield's intolerance of dissent is well portrayed by Pretty in Australian Dictionary of Biography, ii, pp. 559-562.

77. University of Durham, Grey Papers, Stephen to Howick, 16 June 1845.

78. National Archives of Canada, Derby Papers, microfilm A-30, Bagot to Stanley, private, 27 December 1842.

79. Elgin to Grey, private, 23 April 1849, in A.G. Doughty, ed., The Elgin-Grey Papers (4 vols, Ottawa, 1937), i, p. 346.

80. Quoted, Harrop, p. 190.

81. Quoted, Bloomfield, p. 59.

82. Letter to Henrietta Rintoul, 13 July 1853, quoted Stuart, p. 85. The Duke of Newcastle was Colonial Secretary. Gladstone's diaries, which give a detailed record of his appointments, suggest that he never formally met Wakefield, although the two men came face to face at the parliamentary enquiry on the disposal of waste lands in 1836.

83. Founders, p. 59, letter of 27 May 1849.

84. John Bull, 22 May 1826; Harrop, p. 188; Garnett, p. 364. The tale of "the fair Ellen of brave Lochinvar" is in Marmion (1808), Canto Fifth, xii.

85. Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield was first published in 1766. For its popularity, W. Allen, The English Novel (Harmondsworth, 1958 ed.), pp. 81-82.

86. Garnett, p. 323.

87. He is "Edward Gibbon Wakefield Esq." on the title pages of three publications of 1831; Facts Relating to the Punishment of Death in the Metropolis; Householders in Danger from the Populace and Swing Unmasked; or, The Causes of Rural Incendiarism. For attempts to rehabilitate Wakefield at this time, see Harrop, pp. 47-48 and F.E. Mineka, ed., The Earlier Letters of John Stuart Mill (2 vols, Toronto, 1963), i, pp. 87-88.

88. Eng & Am, "Note IV", pp. 76-79.

89. View, pp. vii-viii.

90. Garnett, pp. 282-283; Harrop, p. 157. Cf. Collier, "Editor's Introduction", A View of the Art of Colonization (Oxford, 1914 ed.), p. viii.

91. Cf. the tone and content of his letters to G.F. Young in Royal Commonwealth Society Library Notes, n.s.  105, September 1965. Disraeli called Young "a man of great energy and of equal vanity, but of ordinary abilities and no cultivation" - which, considering that they were members of the same party, hardly places Young in the category of a "statesman". The same can be said of other politicians to whom Wakefield wrote, such as C.B. Adderley, Lord Lyttelton and John Hutt. W.F. Monypenny and G.E. Buckle, The Life of Benjamin Disraeli Earl of Beaconsfield, iii (London, 1914), p. 214.

92. Garnett, p. 284.

93. View, pp. 430, 445.

94. Founders, p. 52, letter of 2 May 1849.

95. View, pp. ix-x.

96. McIntyre, ed., Journal of Sewell, i, p. 146 (February 1853).

97. Harrop. p. 42. Executions at Lancaster are chronicled in Dan Sailor, The County Hanging Town (Lancaster [1984]), esp. p. 152.  For Newgate, see A. Babington, The English Bastille (London, 1971), p. 162.

98. Harrop, p. 42. According to Bloomfield, p. 108, William Wakefield served his sentence at Lancaster.

99. Descriptions taken from Reports of Inspectors  of Prisons, Parliamentary Papers, 1836, xxxv, esp. pp. 79, 70, 32, 127-138. There is an extract from the Report in G.M. Young and W.D. Handcock, eds, English Historical Documents 1833-1874, xii[i] (London, 1956), pp. 506-510.

100. Garnett, p. 45.

101. Quotations are taken from Lloyd-Prichard, pp. 193-267. Much of what Wakefield wrote can be corroborated from the journals  of  the Ordinary [the prison  chaplain]  in Parliamentary Papers, 1836, xxxv, pp. 127-138.

102. Letter, p. 11.

103.  N.S. Lynravn, "Henry Browne Hayes",  Australian Dictionary of Biography, i (Melbourne, 1966), pp. 526-527. Wakefield's father was the author of An Account of Ireland Statistical and Political (2 vols, London, 1812).

104. Letter, pp. 86, 91. It is, however, implausible to compare the work with Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress as a triumph of prison literature, as in Garnett, p. 53.

105. View, p. 346.

106. View, p. 365.

107. Founders, p. 176 (letter of 24 December 1849).

108. Stuart, pp. 147ff.

109. John Manning Ward, Colonial Self-Government: The British Experience 1759-1856 (London, 1976), p. 230.

110. Ormsby, ed., Grey Journals and Letters, pp. 186-187 (letter of 8 February 1839).

111.  For examples of Wakefield's flattery, see  New, Durham, pp. 478-479, 493, 528

112. The comment of a fellow-passenger to New Zealand, quoted, Stuart, p. 16.

113. Founders, pp. xi, 127 (letter of 16 October 1849). It was another decade before British ministers began to think seriously about bestowing baronetcies in the colonies. Ged Martin, Bunyip Aristocracy (Sydney, 1986), pp. 164-167.

114. View, p. 48.

115. Quoted, Stuart, p. 65.

116. Ursilla N. Macdonnell, "Gibbon Wakefield and Canada Subsequent to the Durham Mission, 1839-1842", Queen's Quarterly, xxxii (1924-1925), pp. 119-136, 285-304. "You can always trace him in the Colonial Gazette", Bagot noted. National Archives of Canada, Derby Papers, microfilm A-30, Bagot to Stanley, private, 12 June 1842.

117. Stuart, p. 32.

118. Manning, "E.G. Wakefield and the Beauharnois Canal", p. 18.

119. National Archives of Canada, Derby Papers, microfilm A-30, Bagot to Stanley, private, 12 June 1842. Bagot believed that Wakefield was receiving "immediate and very accurate information" from a source in the Colonial Office.

120.  National Archives of Canada, Derby Papers, microfilm A-30, Bagot to Stanley, private, 12 October 1842; Wakefield to  Rintoul,  16  April 1853,  quoted,  Manning, "Wakefield Studies", p. 283n., with the comment: "This was perhaps the most spectacular boasting of Wakefield's career, and was totally without foundation."

121. British Library, Peel Papers, Add. MS 40467, Stanley to Peel, 26 December 1842, fos 343-344.

122. Cambridge University Library, Add. MS 7511, diary of James Stephen, 12 July 1846.

123. Disraeli to Lord Stanley, 28 December 1849,  in Monypenny and Buckle, Life of Disraeli, iii, p. 236. Assessments of Wakefield's historical importance need to take account of the fact that he failed to establish influence over most of the major British politicians of the era.

124. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, i, pp. 572-575.

125.  Herman Merivale, Lectures on  Colonization  and Colonies (2 vols, London, 1842), ii, Lecture XIV, esp. pp. 55-56. The Hudson's Bay Company claimed in 1850 that the twenty shillings per acre price of land on Vancouver Island really represented two shillings, "the remaining being in lieu of the taxes which would otherwise have to be paid by the settlers for the municipal government &c". Richard Mackie, "The Colonization of Vancouver Island, 1849-1858", BC Studies, no. 96, 1992-93, p. 6n. I owe this item to Dr Colin M. Coates.

126. J.A. Roebuck, The Colonies of England (London, 1849), pp. 129-133.

127. Globe (London), 14 May 1849.

128. Merivale, Lectures, ii, pp. 56-57. "Wages, therefore, will rise ... the imaginary equilibrium between land and labour will be disturbed, and the proposed test of a sufficient price will prove altogether inapplicable."

129. Mill to Gustave de Beaumont, 18 October 1839, in F.E. Mineka, ed., The Later Letters of John Stuart Mill (4 vols, Toronto, 1972), iv, pp. 190-193.

130. Roebuck, Colonies of England, p. 129.

131. Mill to Wakefield, [1848], in Mineka, ed., Earlier Letters of Mill, ii, p. 737, quoted from Garnett, p. xvii.

132. Founders, p. 32.

133. Wakefield to Rintoul, 24 December 1848, in Founders, p. 34.

134. View, p. 58.

135. Mills, Colonization of Australia, p. 77.

136. Sidney's Emigrant's Journal, i, no. 23, 8 March 1849.

137. Founders, p. 41.

138. Morning Chronicle, 9 February 1849.

139. Sidney's Emigrant's Journal, i, no. 23, 8 March 1849.

140. G.C. Lewis to Sir Edmund Head, 5 April 1849, in G.F. Lewis, ed., Letters of the Right Hon. Sir George Cornewall Lewis to Various Friends (London, 1870), pp. 201-202. Lewis had published An Essay on the Government of Dependencies in 1841.

141. Economist, vii, 3 March 1849, pp. 228-229.

142.  Wakefield to Lord Petre, 5 February  1849,  in Founders, p. 47.

143. University of Durham. Grey Papers, Edward Wakefield to Grey, 18 April 1849, and draft reply, 20 April 1849. Grey had not always been so critical of Wakefield: Mills, Colonization, pp. 166-167, but see Phillip, A Great View of Things, pp. 57-60.

144. Merivale, Lectures, i, p. 51. Lord Grey seemed to signal a rejection of Wakefieldian claims to have inspired the policy of selling land in Australia in his The Colonial Policy of Lord John Russell's Administration (2 vols, London,  1853),  i,  pp. 310-311,  313-314.  For  two interpretations of Wakefield's influence, June Phillip, "Wakefieldian Influence and New South Wales 1830-1832", Historical Studies Australia and New Zealand, ix (1960), pp. 173-180 and Peter Burroughs, "Wakefield and the Ripon Land Regulations of 1831", ibid., xi (1965), pp. 452-466. See also A.G.L. Shaw, "British Attitudes to the Colonies, c. 1820-c.1850" in Journal of British Studies, ix (1969), pp. 71-95.

145.  "Wakefield's plan of bringing out labourers by the sale of lands is utterly impracticable in these colonies," Sydenham reported in 1840. "There is no fear of people spreading too much. No man will go far into the woods if he can help it." In any case, the province received far more emigrants than it could settle. Quoted in G.P. Scrope, Memoir of the Life of ... Lord Sydenham (London, 1844), pp. 199, 201, and cf. Public Record Office, CO 42/500, Routh to Trevelyan, 12 January 1842, fos 36-37. Wakefield had accepted that it would be impossible to sell land at a high price so close to the United States, C.P. Lucas, ed., Lord Durham's Report (3 vols, Oxford, 1912), iii, Appendix B, pp. 109-110. The availability of cheap or even free land nearby was a major factor in the slow development of the Vancouver Island colony, the one significant attempt to apply Wakefieldian ideas in British North America. Mackie, "The Colonization of Vancouver Island".

146. View, p. 339.

147. Letter of 29 September 1856 to a South Australian settler, in Mineka, ed., Later Letters, ii, pp. 510-512.

148. Fox to Godley, 31 December 1858, in W.D. McIntyre and W.J. Gardner, eds, Speeches and Documents on New  Zealand History (Oxford, 1971), p. 34.

149. Manning, "Wakefield Studies", p. 285.

150. Lynch Lawdon Sharpe, The Viceroy's Dream: A Mono-Dramatico-Political Poem (London, 1838).

151. The association of Christchurch, New Zealand with the Oxford college dates back to 1850 when Wakefield playfully told Godley, a product of "The House", that "the name is associated in your mind with cricket, rowing, drinking, smoking, swearing, &c." (Founders, p. 287). It is worth noting that Christ Church is the dedication of Canterbury Cathedral. The naming of early settlements nearby after the Archbishop, John Bird Sumner, and in commemoration of Addington Palace may suggest that the Oxford association was accidental.

152. See also note in British Journal of Canadian Studies, i (1986), p. 153. It should be noted that Dodgson's interest in young girls did not lack ambiguity.