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WAKEFIELD, EDWARD GIBBON, author and politician; b. 20 March 1796 in London, England, eldest son of Edward Wakefield, statistician, and Susanna Crash; d. 16 May 1862 in Wellington, New Zealand.

Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s father, a man of radical and humanitarian views, was the author of a respected work on Ireland and a close friend of the noted Benthamites, James Mill and Francis Place. As a boy Edward Gibbon was apparently obstinate and wilful, produced by the unstable, financially pressed, early years of his parents’ marriage. His troubled education at Tottenham, Westminster School (1807–9), and finally Edinburgh High School ended with his expulsion in 1810. From 1814 to 1820 Wakefield was connected with the British legation at Turin. While in England in 1816 he eloped with Eliza Susan Pattle, a 16-year-old ward in chancery and heiress to a Canton merchant; she bore him two children before her death in 1820. Wakefield was left with the interest from a trust fund of £70,000.

From 1820 to 1825 Wakefield was a member of the British legation at Paris. Seeking further means so as to secure a seat in the House of Commons, Wakefield in 1826 abducted 15-year-old Ellen Turner, daughter of a Cheshire silk manufacturer, and persuaded her to marry him. The marriage was not consummated, and Wakefield, along with his brother William Hayward, his accomplice, was tried amid considerable publicity. He was sentenced to three years imprisonment from May 1827.

While in prison Wakefield read everything he could about the colonies and developed a theory of “systematic colonization.” His ideas were first advanced in A letter from Sydney, published anonymously in 1829. The heart of his argument was that colonial development languished because land was too easy to acquire and labour insufficient for development. Canada appears as an illustration of the effects of bad policy, on the evidence largely of Robert Gourlay’s Statistical account of Upper Canada . . . (1822). Gourlay had written that dispersed settlement in Upper Canada produced a people “who retrograded in civilization and moral worth.” Wakefield now stated that an abundance of land produced “a people like what the Canadians will be and in the United States Americans are – a people who, though they increase in number make no progress in the art of living.” Hence his solution: concentrated settlement achieved through the sale of land at a sufficient price. He explained, however, that the system would not work in Canada because an increased price for land would simply divert settlement to the United States.

Wakefield’s argument, masterfully presented, won converts in John Stuart Mill and other prominent economists and public figures. His authorship was acknowledged after his release from prison in 1830, and he kept up his interest in colonization. In 1834 his views inspired the South Australian Association, and its apparent early success gave a boost to Wakefield’s adherents, although Wakefield separated himself from the enterprise in 1836. He then threw his energy into the New Zealand Association, formed in 1837.

It was as a subscriber to his colonization theory and an associate in the New Zealand Association that Lord Durham [Lambton*] became acquainted with Wakefield. Expecting to be commissioner of crown lands, Wakefield followed Durham to Canada in May 1838. However, the notoriety of the Turner abduction made this appointment impossible. Charles Buller*, who had come with Durham also, was appointed commissioner and, although Wakefield did the work, he was unpaid and officially unrecognized.

Before he left Canada on 20 Oct. 1838 Wakefield completed the report on public lands and emigration subsequently attached as appendix B to Durham’s Report. He attempted here what he earlier had said could not be done: to fit his system to British North America. Past policy had alienated vast tracts without any comparable advance in settlement, thus undermining the market whatever the price of crown lands. Wakefield’s answer was a tax of 2dan acre on wild lands, and a programme of public works financed from the proceeds. He believed crown lands could be sold at $2.00 an acre although American lands were available at $1.25. Reform of the old system, he argued, should be the responsibility of the British parliament, the imperial government having created the problem. His recommendations bore no fruit.

While in Canada Wakefield established contact with French Canadian Patriote leaders. He had conversations with Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine, and made a secret trip to Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where he failed to see Louis-Joseph Papineau*. His purpose remains ambiguous. He later claimed that he had no mission from Durham and that he did not report the conversations to anyone. La Fontaine understood the opposite. Like Durham, Wakefield professed to see little future for French Canada except in assimilation. La Fontaine and his friends, Wakefield wrote, were “profoundly ignorant of their own position and thoroughly devoid of judgment . . . ”

Wakefield’s departure from Canada was a consequence of Durham’s decision, against the advice of both himself and Buller, to resign. Arriving at Liverpool ten days before Durham landed at Plymouth, Wakefield promoted Durham’s cause in Radical circles and wrote to Durham advising him to break with the government, advice that again Durham did not take. Durham’s Report was completed in January 1839; according to Lord Henry Peter Brougham, Durham’s great antagonist, “Wakefield thought it, Buller wrote it, Durham signed it.” Except for the ideas on colonization Wakefield’s influence cannot be demonstrated, but a rumour that he was the individual who leaked the Report to the Times is more plausible.

From 1839 to 1846 Wakefield became principal director in London of the New Zealand Colonization Company, which planted settlements in New Zealand. But his interest in Canada did not lapse. In 1838 he had visited the Beauharnois seigneury of Edward Ellice, the Whig politician and father of Durham’s private secretary, and in 1839 he negotiated its sale as agent for the North American Colonial Association of Ireland, a joint stock company. His connection with this company brought Wakefield to Canada briefly in 1841 to lobby for Beauharnois as the site of the next section of the St Lawrence canal system. In July he saw Lord Sydenham [Thomson*], who was wary of anyone of Wakefield’s reputation, but who adopted a favourable view of the association almost in spite of its agent. Sydenham died before the canal question was settled and in January 1842 Wakefield returned to Canada seeking to influence a new governor, Sir Charles Bagot*, and an assembly in which there was strong opposition to the Beauharnois route.

Wakefield now emerged as a champion of the French Canadians, cultivating the friendship of Denis-Benjamin Viger and Jean-Joseph Girouard*, and agitating for equal justice for French Canadians in a series of letters to the London weekly, Colonial Gazette. In June the Beauharnois route was approved by the Executive Council, but Wakefield’s activity had become an end in itself. He applauded Bagot’s conciliatory moves towards the French Canadians and castigated the negative attitude of the Colonial Office. Most remarkable in his letters, appearing in July and August, was his evident access to inside information about Bagot’s appointments. For example, his eighth letter, written on 10 August, correctly predicted that Bagot would bring La Fontaine into office within a month. There were embarrassing rumours that Wakefield was behind Bagot’s policy, although Bagot claimed he saw Wakefield on two or three formal occasions only. Wakefield had access to Dominick Daly, the provincial secretary, and to Thomas William Clinton Murdoch, the civil secretary, but they can be ruled out as sources. The likely explanation is that Wakefield was paying a minor official to leak documents to him.

In November 1842 Wakefield won a by-election in Beauharnois as a La Fontaine candidate on the strength of the French parishes in the riding. Wakefield then left for England and returned only for the session in September 1843. He then sought legislation to enable the North American Colonial Association of Ireland to operate as a mortgage and trust company in Canada and he tried to advance a major scheme of colonization. The ministry did not support him and he turned against them. When Robert Baldwin* and La Fontaine resigned over the patronage issue on 26 November, Wakefield threw himself in with Viger and Daly on Sir Charles Theophilus Metcalfe*’s side. In the ensuing constitutional debate he insisted that the principle of responsible government was not at stake, as Baldwin and La Fontaine claimed, and that they had deliberately forced a rupture because they had lost popularity and were afraid of being turned out by the assembly.

Wakefield wrote a pamphlet and an article on Metcalfe after he had left Canada for the last time in 1844. In his desire to show himself consistent in the Metcalfe crisis, Wakefield defined responsible government as narrowly as possible and asserted that, because a colonial governor was answerable to the imperial parliament, it was necessary for him “to take a far more active part in public affairs than the Sovereign.” He described Baldwin’s views as “peculiar,” but it was Wakefield who had misread the immediate future of colonial government in Canada.

Wakefield’s activity in Canada had embarrassed some and antagonized others, but it had produced a tidy income for himself: between 1841 and 1844 his agency on behalf of the North American Colonial Association of Ireland had earned him £20,000. In all his colonization ventures Wakefield was essentially a promoter and lobbyist and his theory a justification for schemes of speculation in colonial lands. His reputation among Canadians was no higher when he left than it had been when he first came.

During a serious illness in 1846, following increased work for the New Zealand Colonization Company, Wakefield was edged out of its management. He took up the project of an Anglican colony in New Zealand, based once again on his theories. In 1853 he emigrated to New Zealand where he spent his last eight years in complete retirement.

H. J. M. Johnston

[E. G. Wakefield’s A letter from Sydney, the principal town of Australia, ed. Robert Gouger (London, 1829), England and America; a comparison of the social and political state of both nations (2v., London, 1833; 2nd ed., New York, 1834), A view of Sir Charles Metcalfe’s government of Canada, by a member of the provincial government (London, 1844), and A view of the art of colonization, with present reference to the British empire; in letters between a statesman and a colonist (London, 1849; 2nd ed., Oxford, 1914) are included in The collected works of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, comp. M. F. L. Pritchard (Glasgow and London, 1968), which also contains a good representation of Wakefield’s work on colonization. His article, “Sir Charles Metcalfe in Canada,” Fisher’s Colonial Magazine and Commercial Maritime Journal (London), new ser., I (1844), is reprinted in [Charles Buller and E. G. Wakefield], Charles Buller and responsible government . . . , ed. E. M. Wrong (n.p., 1926). Biographies of Wakefield include Richard 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); Irma O’Connor, Edward Gibbon Wakefield: the man himself (London, [1929]; and Paul Bloomfield, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, builder of the British Commonwealth ([London, 1961]).  h.j.m.j.]

Colonial Gazette (London), 1842. Debates of the Legislative Assembly of United Canada, I-IV. Hincks, Reminiscences. [J. G. Lambton], Lord Durham’s report on the affairs of British North America, ed. C. P. Lucas (3v., Oxford, 1912). [E. G. Wakefield], “Edward Gibbon Wakefield and the Beauharnois canal,” ed. A. R. M. Lower, CHR, XIII (1932), 37–44. DNB. Dent, Last forty years, I. Gates, Land policies of U.C. C. D. W. Goodwin, Canadian economic thought: the political economy of a developing nation, 1814–1914 (Durham, N.C., and London, 1961). U. N. MacDonnell, Gibbon Wakefield and Canada subsequent to the Durham mission, 1839–42 (Kingston, Ont., 1925). Monet, Last cannon shot. C. W. New, Lord Durham; a biography of John George Lambton, first Earl of Durham (Oxford, 1929). Helen Taft Manning, “E. G. Wakefield and the Beauharnois canal,” CHR, XLVIII (1967), 1–25.

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Cite This Article

H. J. M. Johnston, “WAKEFIELD, EDWARD GIBBON,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 26, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/wakefield_edward_gibbon_9E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/wakefield_edward_gibbon_9E.html
Author of Article:   H. J. M. Johnston
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1976
Year of revision:   1976
Access Date:   February 26, 2024