COLEBROOKE, Sir WILLIAM MacBEAN GEORGE, soldier and colonial administrator; b. 9 Nov. 1787 in Charlton, Kent, England, son of Lieutenant-Colonel Paulet Welbore Colebrooke, Royal Artillery, and a Miss Grant; m. in 1820 or 1821 his cousin Emma Sophia Colebrooke, and they had three daughters; d. 6 Feb. 1870 at his home in Salthill, near Slough, Buckinghamshire, England.
Born to a family with a strong military tradition, William Colebrooke entered the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich and in 1803, at the age of 15, was commissioned a lieutenant in the Royal Artillery. His military career was distinguished but not outstanding. From 1805 to 1809 he served mainly in Ceylon and from 1809 to 1810 in India. The next year he went to Java, and in 1813 was a member of a mission to Sumatra. He served in Bengal in 1814 but then returned to Java until the island was restored to the Dutch in 1816. In 1817 he served with the Indian army in various campaigns and in 1818 and 1820 with the force sent to suppress piracy and the slave trade in the Persian Gulf.
In 1821 Colebrooke returned to England, and in January 1823 was appointed to the Commission of Eastern Enquiry. The work of this royal commission took Colebrooke to the Cape of Good Hope (Republic of South Africa) from 1823 to 1826 and to Mauritius in 1827 and 1828, but its most significant achievements were in Ceylon. After conducting extensive investigations there from 1829 to 1831, Colebrooke returned to Britain and produced in 1831 and 1832 a series of reports advocating far-reaching social, economic, and political reforms. His proposals, ranging from the abolition of the caste system and of all forms of legal discrimination to the destruction of any vestiges of mercantilism and the acceptance of a more liberal form of government, show clearly that Colebrooke was influenced by the liberal and humanitarian spirit of contemporary Britain. Colebrooke’s reports brought about sweeping changes in the administration of Ceylon and made the island a model for other British crown colonies. Probably for his work on the commission Colebrooke was awarded a knighthood and in September 1834 became lieutenant governor of the Bahamas, where he served from 1835 until 1837, when he became governor general of the Leeward Islands. In both positions Colebrooke’s main task was to deal with the problems created by the abolition of slavery, and through his concern for the welfare of the freed slaves he strengthened his reputation as an enlightened governor. In July 1840 he left Antigua and after an extended leave was appointed lieutenant governor of New Brunswick on 26 March 1841.
Colebrooke arrived in Fredericton in April 1841, but his reputation as a liberal governor had preceded him. “He came among us,” the Saint John Morning News declared, “as a ‘Responsible Government’ man, to carry out in spirit the system introduced by [Sir John Harvey*].” Under Harvey, Colebrooke’s predecessor, New Brunswick had been the most tranquil colony in British North America. By appointing to his Executive Council men who could command the confidence of the assembly, Harvey had introduced a rudimentary form of responsible government to New Brunswick, and by exchanging the revenues derived from the sale of crown lands for a permanent civil list, he had made himself extremely popular with the assembly. Yet New Brunswick was still a politically immature society, divided into a number of geographic interests with no overriding sense of community. Since under the Harvey system the provincial executive had no control over the vast revenues controlled by the assembly through its own appropriations committee, local and group interests took precedence over the general welfare and the colony’s financial resources were frittered away on purely local projects. “Your excellency will not probably be long in making the discovery,” the Morning News correctly predicted for Colebrooke, “that the boasted harmony existing between the different branches of the government, was the harmony of the leaders in each, banded together to advance their own power and interest, and in which the general interest had no concern.” While the timber trade flourished and provincial revenues were abundant, few voices were raised in opposition to the status quo. Harvey’s departure, however, coincided with the beginning of a two year depression. The widespread economic distress of the “hungry forties” brought a growing demand for fiscal reform and Colebrooke soon became the champion of the reformers.
Colebrooke’s programme of reform was modelled upon the policy pursued by Lord John Russell and Lord Sydenham [Thomson*] in the Province of Canada. To revive New Brunswick’s flagging economy through a series of large-scale public works, Colebrooke requested a loan from the British government, to be made conditional upon the assembly’s acceptance of financial control by the executive. While sympathetic to Colebrooke’s objectives, neither Russell nor his successor as colonial secretary, Lord Stanley, were prepared to follow the Canadian precedent and grant an imperial loan for internal improvements in the colony. Nonetheless, Colebrooke still held out hope for a loan if the assembly put its financial affairs in order and in his speech from the throne on 19 Jan. 1842 advocated the establishment of a system of municipal government, the creation of a provincial board of works, and the surrender to the executive of the authority to initiate money bills in the assembly. In spite of Colebrooke’s inducements, this programme ran into overwhelming opposition. John Wesley Weldon resigned from the Executive Council, leaving only Charles Simonds* to defend Colebrooke’s measures in the assembly. Although supported by Lemuel Allan Wilmot*, these measures had little appeal to the majority of its members, who were not prepared to abandon a system which placed patronage in their hands, and on 9 Feb. 1842 a motion of John Partelow, leader of the opposition to Colebrooke’s proposals, that “it is not expedient to make any alteration” in the existing system of appropriations was carried 18 to 12. A bill to allow for municipal incorporation was passed by the assembly, but rejected by the Legislative Council where the speaker, Chief Justice Ward Chipman*, opposed Colebrooke’s reforms. After adjourning the assembly, Colebrooke refused to authorize the expenditures it had passed and issued a circular outlining the financial difficulties faced by the province. Realizing the futility of another appeal to the existing assembly, he dissolved it, but the assembly elected in January 1842 was as intransigent as its predecessor. Its first act was to elect Weldon as speaker and on 14 Feb. 1843 it approved by 24 to seven a motion that “nothing should induce the House to surrender its undoubted and inherent right to initiate all Grants of Money for the Public Service.”
Colebrooke could see the weakness of his position and in March and April 1843 broadened the base of his Executive Council by adding Hugh Johnston*, Edward Barron Chandler*, John Montgomery, Robert Leonard Hazen*, and Wilmot. Although the reconstructed council was a coalition representing all factions in the legislature, the leading figures in the new government were Johnston, Hazen, and Chandler, who had opposed Colebrooke’s reform programme and who formed the nucleus of the compact which was to dominate New Brunswick politics for the next decade. Colebrooke had capitulated to his opponents and although in his dispatches he frequently castigated the assembly’s financial practices, he made no further effort to change them. Since 1843 also saw a revival of the timber trade and a return to prosperity, political harmony was restored to the province and the assembly showed its contentment in 1844 by passing a resolution supporting Sir Charles Metcalfe* in his struggle with the assembly of the Province of Canada.
Although Colebrooke was initially embarrassed by the assembly’s interference in the affairs of Canada, he soon found their defence of the royal prerogative useful. For several years Colebrooke had been seeking an appropriate official position, first in the West Indies and then in New Brunswick, for his private secretary, Alfred Reade, but had been able to offer him only a few comparatively ill-paid posts. Colebrooke’s concern for his protégé was undoubtedly strengthened by Reade’s marriage in October 1844 to his eldest daughter, Frances Elizabeth. An opportunity finally presented itself on Christmas Day 1844 with the death of the provincial secretary, William Franklin Odell*, and Colebrooke promptly appointed Reade to the position. No decision could have been more surely calculated to outrage native New Brunswickers than the appointment of an Englishman to one of the most lucrative offices in the colony. In 1834 the appointment of Sir James Carter*, an Englishman, as a puisne judge had led to an outburst of protest and a promise by the Colonial Office that patronage would thereafter be distributed to natives of the province. Reade’s appointment clearly contradicted this principle and led to the resignation of Johnston, Hazen, Chandler, and Wilmot from the Executive Council. The first three simply declared that Reade was unsuitable for the position of provincial secretary, but Wilmot took the broader constitutional position that the office of provincial secretary should become a political appointment made by the lieutenant governor on the advice of the Executive Council. The appointment was strongly condemned by the assembly which on 20 Feb. 1845 passed by 22 to nine a motion of non-confidence in the much weakened Executive Council.
Colebrooke justified his decision on the grounds that the provincial secretary, who had access to the lieutenant governor’s correspondence, should be free “from all party influences” and portrayed himself as a man above party defending the royal prerogative against the assembly’s encroachments. His argument did not convince the Colonial Office which realized that it was only Wilmot who had challenged the governor’s theoretical right to make the appointment and that Wilmot and his supporters had failed to carry in the assembly resolutions to that effect. Moreover, the Colonial Office objected to the appointment; James Stephen, the permanent under-secretary, felt it to be “injudicious and indefensible,” “a great job” that legitimately “provoked” the people of New Brunswick, “the model of loyalty and good order to all our North American possessions.” Sharing these views, Lord Stanley refused to confirm the appointment.
Although disappointed, Colebrooke immediately attempted to reforge the coalition of the previous year by inviting Hazen, Chandler, and Johnston, but not Wilmot, who had taken a more extreme constitutional position than the others, to rejoin the Executive Council. They declined to serve unless the existing councillors, who had upheld Colebrooke’s actions, resigned. For the rest of 1845 Colebrooke stuck by the councillors who had defended him, but, bowing to the inevitable, they resigned prior to the opening of the legislature in February 1846. Hazen, Chandler, Johnston, George Shore*, and Charles Jeffery Peters* formed a new council, which was, as the Morning News reported, “decidedly Compact.” After the election of October 1846, and the return of a large number of new members, Colebrooke even offered to reappoint Wilmot, but the latter demanded the right to nominate half of the council. Colebrooke would not agree. Alexander Rankin*, Thomas Baillie, and George Stillman were added to the council, and Wilmot and his followers remained in opposition to form the nucleus of the Liberal party of the future. In fact, the beginnings of a party system in New Brunswick were laid during this period.
For the rest of his tenure of office Colebrooke was careful not to disturb the status quo again. Even the decision of the 3rd Earl Grey to concede responsible government to New Brunswick in 1847 made little immediate difference, since the Executive Council was already, as Colebrooke reported, “virtually responsible to the Assembly in so far that its tenure must be understood to depend on its possessing the confidence of the Assembly.” Colebrooke hoped that before the principle of responsible government was fully implemented, the assembly would agree to create municipal councils and surrender to the executive the right to initiate money bills, but was dissuaded by his Executive Council from advocating measures that might “perhaps lead to embarrassment at the very close of His Excellency’s administration of the Government.” Colebrooke accepted this argument and left the details of the transition to a system of ministerial responsibility to be worked out by his successor, Sir Edmund Walker Head. In April 1848 Colebrooke left New Brunswick to become governor and commander-in-chief of British Guiana (Guyana), a post he held only briefly before transferring to a similar position in Barbados in August 1848. He served there with distinction until 1856 and then returned to service with the army, rising to the rank of general in 1865.
Colebrooke’s reward for his services in New Brunswick was his appointment as a cb (civil division) in 1848, but ironically he is remembered in the history of the province chiefly for the débâcle of the Reade affair. Few governors were more conscientious or better intentioned. Colebrooke had a fertile imagination and a plethora of proposals to improve New Brunswick society through better communications with Canada, an improved system of education, an immigration policy which would discourage paupers, and an encouragement of agriculture to replace the timber trade as the basis of New Brunswick’s economy. Few of Colebrooke’s proposals had positive results and his propensity for advocating reforms was not universally admired either by the very conservative colonial legislature or by his almost equally conservative superiors in London. James Stephen complained that Sir William “is greatly addicted to throwing out immature suggestions and impracticable schemes. This results from the sleepless activity of his mind, and his eminent public spirit. But it is a considerable practical inconvenience.” Nonetheless, many of the reforms Colebrooke advocated were sensible and were pursued more successfully by his successors. The more harmonious transition from imperial control to local self-government in New Brunswick than in either Canada or Nova Scotia was undoubtedly owing chiefly to the immaturity and fragmentation of New Brunswick society, the lack of organized political parties, and the colony’s economic dependence upon the timber trade; but the personal respect in which Colebrooke was held was at least partially responsible and he was subjected to far less criticism than contemporary governors in Canada and Nova Scotia. George Edward Fenety*, not an uncritical admirer of the colony’s governors, found Colebrooke “a thoroughly constitutional Governor and well-meaning man,” who was “highly esteemed by the people of New Brunswick.”
[There is no collection of Sir William Colebrooke’s papers but scattered letters are to be found in N.B. Museum, Edward Barron Chandler papers; Hazen coll.; Webster coll. The major primary source is PRO, CO 188/72–104. See also PRO, CO 54/121, Colebrooke to Goderich, 28 Jan. 1832; WO 76/361, “Statement of the services of W.M.G. Colebrooke”; and PANB, REX/mi/ex, draft minutes, 1841–48.
Among the contemporary printed sources are: Fenety, Political notes and observations; N.B., House of Assembly, Journals, 1841–48; Morning News (Saint John, N.B.), 1841–48; New Brunswick Courier, 1842–48. For biographical sketches of Colebrooke see: N.B. Museum, Ganong ms coll., box 37, G. B. Alleyne, “Sketch of the life of Colebrooke” (1923); Boase, Modern English biog., I, 672; The Colonial Office list for 1864 . . . , ed. A. N. Birch and William Robinson (London, 1864); DNB, which is largely based on the Times (London), 10 Feb. 1870; Wallace, Macmillan dictionary.
The essential secondary source is W. S. MacNutt, “The coming of responsible government to New Brunswick,” CHR, XXXIII (1952), 111–28. Also useful are the same author’s “New Brunswick’s age of harmony: the administration of Sir John Harvey,” CHR, XXXII (1951), 105–25; “The politics of the timber trade in colonial New Brunswick, 1825–40,” CHR, XXX (1949), 47–65; New Brunswick; and Atlantic provinces. Of some use are The Colebrooke-Cameron papers, documents on British colonial policy in Ceylon, 1796–1833, ed. G. C. Mendis (2v., [London], 1956); Hannay, History of N.B.; D. G. G. Kerr, Sir Edmund Head, a scholarly governor (Toronto, 1954); K. F. C. MacNaughton, The development of the theory and practice of education in New Brunswick, 1784–1900: a study in historical background, ed. and intro. A. G. Bailey (Fredericton, 1947); J. L. Miller, “A study of New Brunswick politics at the beginning of the era of free trade and reciprocity” (unpublished ma thesis, University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, 1950); W. P. Morrell, British colonial policy in the age of Peel and Russell (London, 1966); G. E. Rogers, “The career of Edward Barron Chandler – a study in New Brunswick politics, 1827–1854” (unpublished ma thesis, University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, 1953); V. K. Samaraweera, “The Commission of Eastern Enquiry in Ceylon, 1822–1837: a study of a royal commission of colonial inquiry” (unpublished dphil thesis, University of Oxford, 1969). p.b.]
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Cite This Article
Phillip Buckner, “COLEBROOKE, Sir WILLIAM MacBEAN GEORGE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 2, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/colebrooke_william_macbean_george_9E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Phillip Buckner|
|Title of Article:||COLEBROOKE, Sir WILLIAM MacBEAN GEORGE|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1976|
|Year of revision:||1976|
|Access Date:||June 2, 2023|