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Topic: The New Zealand Company

Edward Gibbon Wakefield's theories on colonisation were the driving force behind the New Zealand Company. Started in 1837 as the New Zealand Association, it was floated as a company in May 1839. The directors, including Wakefield himself, were influential men in London commerce.

Wakefield did not believe that Britain's colonisation efforts were being organised properly. He claimed that Britain had too much labour and capital, resulting in low wages and unemployment - a recipe for civil revolution. Meanwhile, the colonies had an over-abundance of cheap land for sale. This hindered their growth in two ways:
• Because large blocks of land were so readily available, the population was too widely dispersed for the settlement to become civilised.
• Everyone could afford to be a landowner, so there were no labourers to work for the landowners.

Wakefield believed that the above problems could be solved by selling colonial lands at a price high enough to prevent labourers from becoming landowners until they had worked and saved for a few years. Part of the money from land sales could be used to help selected labourers to immigrate, and with the availability of labour guaranteed, more capitalist-farmers would be persuaded to immigrate, and so the colony would grow. Once this happened, Wakefield said, Britain would benefit from the migration of its surplus capital and people: population pressure on resources would be relieved, wages would rise, and everyone in Britain would profit from new colonial markets.

Wakefield envisaged the creating of 'Little Englands' all over the world - each having the refinements and the social and economic structure of the Mother Country, but being free from its evils. The New Zealand Company was intended to turn this vision into reality in one particular country - New Zealand.

The Company had barely got off the ground when the Colonial Office of the British government decided to negotiate with Maori chiefs for sovereignty over New Zealand. And in March 1839 the Company heard that the government planned to forbid all private purchases of land once they had acquired sovereignty.

The Company organised its first settlement - Wellington - with great haste. Consequently the settlement of Wellington was disastrously disorganised. The Wakefield system involved selling land orders before buyers left England. The proceeds were then used to prepare the site for settlement, carry out public works, and pay the thousands of labourers employed by the land buyers. In 1839, the company sold 1,000 land orders before they had actually bought any land. The first New Zealand Company immigrants arrived in January 1840, but it wasn't long before they discovered that the Company's title to much of the land was questionable. Disputes with local Maori arose almost immediately.

The immigrants' dissatisfaction was compounded by the misleading propaganda that the Company's London office had put out. They had been told that New Zealand was a fertile Eden; that economic prospects were unlimited for the hardworking man; and that almost every form of agriculture, manufacture, and commerce was possible, and would yield high returns. The Company had depicted the Maori race as eager for the white man's ways and merchandise. They had glossed over the difficulties of pioneering, and suppressed all negative reports of New Zealand.

The Company pressed on. They founded another settlement in Wanganui that year. After some difficulties, they made their peace with the British government's Colonial Office. In fact, Lord John Russel, the colonial secretary, decided to recognise the Company as an instrument of government in the colonisation of New Zealand, and granted it a charter of incorporation and a generous land title. For every pound spent, it was to be entitled to four acres of land.

Buoyed by government support, the directors went on with plans to found two more settlements. Nelson was born in October 1841, and New Plymouth the following month. John Saxton and his family, who arrived in Nelson in 1842, were among the first influx of settlers. Saxton's panorama of Nelson, painted the year he arrived, was so much in keeping with the Wakefield view of colonial life that it was used to illustrate Jerningham Wakefield's Adventure in New Zealand (1845).

By the mid 1840s, the four New Zealand Company settlements all had similar problems. The immigrants were angry. Many regretted their decision to come to this country and damned the Company for its misleading propaganda. They began leaving the settlements in droves, and by 1848, only eighty-five of the original 436 Wellington colonists remained.

None of the Company's settlements fulfilled Wakefield's theory. Labour and capital were still unbalanced. The Company's methods of attracting land buyers had encouraged land speculation, and deterred genuine farmers. The many absentee landlords did not need any labourers, as they had simply bought the property as an investment, and so there was not enough work for the labourers who had arrived in their hundreds.

The New Zealand Company, its debts mounting, went into decline. In 1850, it ceased operating as a colonising body and surrendered its charters. It was finally dissolved in 1858.

Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database.

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