From the Back of the Class | Issue 7

From the Back of the Class | Issue 7

The New Zealand Company

From a very narrow nineteenth-century British perspective, Edward Gibbon Wakefield might be described as the father of New Zealand, though a strange father he was. The driving force in his life was a hunger for wealth and influence.

Wakefield took his first step towards this by eloping at the age of 20 with a wealthy heiress, 16-year-old Eliza Pattle. The two were married in Scotland in 1816 because you could marry 16 year olds in Scotland without their guardian’s consent. The marriage brought him a tidy $2000 a year and a promotion. After Eliza’s untimely death, Wakefield tried it all again. He lured a 15-year-old schoolgirl away with a false message that her mother was dying. He subsequently abducted and married her, in Scotland again. Although Wakefield immediately fled the country, he was caught and sentenced to three years in prison.

While in prison, he took the time to catch up on some reading, brushing up on the classical economists, the Utilitarians and the social questions of the times. From this he developed his theory of systematic colonisation. By 1830, Britain was suffering the ills of rapid development and expansion: rural industry had been undermined by industrialisation, and the cities were heaving with the poor and hungry. The focal point of Wakefield’s idea was the “sufficient price” at which the Crown or a private entity would sell colonial “waste land”. If the price was sufficient, it would attract semi-wealthy migrants who would then employ waged labourers. In turn, these labourers could then one day rise to be landowners too, which was a key part of the “New Zealand myth”.

Thus Wakefield set up the New Zealand Company in 1837 in defiance of the Colonial Office, which thought colonisation would be contrary to the interests of Māori. The New Zealand Company attracted migrants by propagandist land agents and by pamphlets that advertised NZ as a balmy Britain of the south where the soft rolling hills of Wellington need only be tickled for plants to grow and where it only rained at night (seriously, they said that).

Needless to say, when the first impoverished and seasick migrants set eyes on the forest-covered swampy shores of Petone they were understandably pissed. Wakefield was one of the 18,000 settlers who came from Britain between 1840 and 1852, and about 14,000 were brought in by the New Zealand Company — it shaped patterns of immigration for 100 years to come.

This article first appeared in Issue 7, 2015.
Posted 2:51pm Sunday 12th April 2015 by Finbarr Noble.