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A great coloniser : the Rev. Dr. Thomas Burns, pioneer minister of Otago and nephew of the poet

Chapter V. — The Tide of Emigration

page 45

Chapter V.
The Tide of Emigration.

Ships, colonies, and commerce."


(The Motto of the New Zealand Company.)

As is well known, New Zealand became a portion of the British Empire in spite of, rather than with the assistance of, the Home Government, although for years before the decision was actually reached very strong moral obligations lay upon the British Government to intervene in New Zealand in order to take action to put a stop to outrages committed by some of the lawless white settlers of early days. The objections of the Home Government were based to some extent on the knowledge that the presence of British troops would be neces sary were New Zealand to become a portion of the Empire, and there was reluctance to undertake this obligation. It was not until the hands of the Government were forced by the action of the New Zealand Company, under the guidance of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, that the action was eventually taken, which resulted in New Zealand coming under the British Crown.—Earl Jellicoe.

Of the historical background of the events which have thus far come under our notice, little or nothing has been written in the foregoing pages, but the time has now arrived when we should look over the face of the world and observe some of the circumstances which were destined to place the foundation of a Scottish colony in New Zealand within the realm of contingency. Leaving aside for the moment the crisis which was rapidly approaching in the Church of Scotland, we turn our attention to the great movement of migration which was taking place, and which included within its far-flung range the most distant and the least developed of the islands of the Southern Seas.

From the time of the establishment of the British colonies in North America at the beginning of the seventeenth century, the story of overseas settlements has been a page 46somewhat chequered one, for the law of the survival of the fittest has been exemplified on the broadest human scale. The successful colonies became the foundations of prosperous communities, whilst those which perished by the way gradually sank into oblivion. Among the most unfortunate enterprises of the latter sort was the illfated expedition to Darien in 1698, which was organised in Scotland. The tragical failure of that colony, which was named New Caledonia, and included sites bearing the titles of New Edinburgh and New St. Andrews, sadly dashed the hopes of Scotsmen, and touched their national pride to the quick. Their enthusiasm for colonisation never quite recovered from the dreadful blow. The planting of colonies in Australia on an initial basis of a penal settlement, followed by a growing influx of free emigrants, opened up further colonisation in the southern hemisphere, along the enormous coastline of the continent, and subsequently prepared the way for British settlement in New Zealand.

Emigration became the dominant social theme in Great Britain towards the middle of the century. The need for an outlet for the surplus population was becoming more and more evident. The terrible poverty of workless multitudes in the period ensuing upon the Napoleonic wars, the introduction of machinery, and contemporary changes in the world's markets, gave urgency to the impulse to seek a livelihood in a new land under more promising conditions. It is hard for us to realise the immensity of the exodus which took place from the Homeland about the time we are now considering. From 1815 to 1852 nearly 3,500,000 left Great Britain and Ireland for other lands; and, of these, about half took their departure in page 47the 'forties. During the period of 1841-1850 the emigrants to Australia numbered 127,124, and those to other places, excluding America, 34,168.1

It is mainly due to one man, the greatest colonial statesman of the age, that the subject of colonisation was lifted to a higher level, and applied to the unique opportunities which were presenting themselves to the British nation in remote portions of the globe. That man was Edward Gibbon Wakefield. He was born in London in 1796, three weeks before Thomas Burns saw the light in Mossgiel. His "amazing career" should be familiar to every student of colonial history. His imprisonment for abduction of a young heiress from a boarding-school gave his thoughts a turn in the direction of colonisation. As his biographer, Richard Garnett, says:

A disgrace which would have blasted the career of most men made Wakefield a practical statesman and a benefactor to his country. Meditating, it is probable, emigration upon his release, he turned his attention while in prison to colonial subjects, and acutely detected the main causes of the slow progress of the Australian colonies in the enormous size of the landed estates, the reckless manner in which land was given away, the absence of all systematic effort at colonisation, and the consequent discouragement of immigration and dearth of labour.

The books of Wakefield—his "Letter from Sydney" (written really in Newgate prison), and his "England and America," which included his work on "The Art of Colonisation," placed before the British public his theories of the subject, which had in the meantime become the chief interest of his life. Many of his shorter writings appeared anonymously in the Spectator, and also in the Colonial Gazette (which was started through his influence in December, 1838), and undoubtedly his publications helped to mould opinion in the Empire regarding the page 48best mode of establishing the colonies. His visit to Canada as private secretary to Lord Durham, and the subsequent publication of the Durham Report, which has been called "the charter of constitutional government in the colonies," extended the scope of the new ideas regarding the Britain which was growing up overseas.

But the part which "Wakefield took in founding the South Australian Company, by means of which the colony of South Australia was established in 1834, did even more to prepare for his work on behalf of New Zealand than his multifarious publications. In 1837 the New Zealand Association was started with Wakefield as managing director. On his return from Canada he threw himself with great zeal into the promotion of the New Zealand Company, which succeeded the earlier association on May 2, 1839. Among the directors were Lord Durham (chairman), Lord Petre, Charles Buller, and Joseph Somes, who became chairman after the death of Durham. The object of the New Zealand Company, which was destined to play such an important part in subsequent history, was to promote the colonisation of New Zealand on the lines of Wakefield's system, and as an integral part of the British Empire.

The theories propounded by Wakefield were partly derived from some suggestions contained in Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations."2While clearly recognising the value of emigration as a means of relieving over-population and distress at home, Wakefield and his friends rightly maintained that the welfare of the infant colonies must be considered. They were not to be regarded as mere dumping-grounds for criminals or paupers, but as component parts of the British Empire, with a great page 49future before them. Wilmot Horton had spoken of the "shovelling out of paupers" to places "where they might die without shocking their betters with the sight or sound of their last agony."3Wakefield's view was the antithesis of this inhuman policy. The greatest care, he said, ought to be given to the selection of emigrants, who should be young, strong, and healthy, preferably newly married, and of good character. The colony should reproduce the main social features of the Homeland, with a proper balance of capitalists and labourers. Land should not be given away, but purchased at a price sufficiently high to ensure that there would be no easy way of ownership of land, and no shortage of men willing to work for others. Without labour the land was valueless. On the other hand labourers should be able to buy land for themselves after they had rendered the necessary service in developing the community. This was Wakefield's doctrine of "the sufficient price," which figures in all contemporary and later discussions of the subject. The proceeds of the sales of land were to be devoted to bringing out fresh emigrants as the colony continued to advance. Politically, the colonies should be free to govern themselves. It was the height of folly to endeavour to rule them from the Colonial Office situated 10,000 or 12,000 miles away from the settlement, and separated by about a year's interval between the outgoing and the returning mails.

There was still another feature of Wakefield's theory of colonisation which was to have an even greater influence upon the foundation of Otago and Canterbury than the aspects which have just been described. It is known as the "class settlement." A colony is vastly helped in establishing, itself on a sure basis if there is a bond of racial and religious sympathy uniting its members. The page 50environment of civilisation should be carried with the settlers to their new home. Just as in transplanting a shrub we convey the soil which clings about the roots to the prepared place in the garden, so, in planting colonies, the amenities of life, church, school, and social customs should accompany the early settlers to their future abode. This suggestion appears in the following statement of Wakefield:—

In colonising North America the English seem to have thought more about religious provisions than almost anything else. Each settlement was better known by its religion than by any other mark. A careful inspection of their doings leaves the impression that their object was, each body of them respectively, to find a place where its own religion would be the religion of the place; to form a community the whole of which would be of one religion, or at least to make its own faith the principal religion of the new community. I am in hopes of being able, when the proper time shall come for that part of my task, to persuade you that it would now be easy for England to plant sectarian colonies; that is, colonies with the strong attraction for superior emigrants of a peculiar creed in each colony. 4

Although the foregoing principles of Wakefield were never carried out in their entirety and to the letter in any of the colonies founded during his lifetime, the new teaching and practice gradually changed the policy of the Empire in relation to settlement overseas. Emigation ceased to be a haphazard affair. The welfare of the thousands who sailed from British shores was studied with fresh interest. The arrangements on board ship were carefully investigated and improved, and undoubtedly the New Zealand Company performed a great work in this direction. But, as has been said above, Wakefield's system of colonisation was never realised in all its details. The South Australian colony was disowned by its chief promoter.page 51Wellington, New Plymouth, and Nelson were but stepping-stones on the way to success. It was reserved for Otago and Canterbury to approach most nearly to Wakefield's ideal of colonisation as class settlements, and they were privileged to benefit in many respects from partial failures in other places.

It would lead us too far from our main theme to endeavour to trace the history of New Zealand during the period under consideration, or even to describe the conditions of anarchy which existed there at the time of the rise of the New Zealand Company. It must suffice to state that "Wakefield and his supporters, disappointed in the trend of events in Australia, turned their attention to these beautiful islands as the most suitable territory remaining for colonisation. Although they were inhabited by Maori tribes, whose ferocity had often been described in greater detail than their other remarkable characteristics, although the white population consisted mainly of a few missionaries and settlers in the north, and small groups of whalers, sealers, and traders scattered all round the coasts of the three islands; although the future possession of New Zealand by the British Crown seemed to be a matter of grave uncertainty, the colonisers presented with zeal and resolution their case for speedy settlement by citizens of the United Kingdom. It is not too much to say that, whatever may be the defects of Wakefield's doctrine of "the sufficient price," he and his followers did invaluable service to the British Empire in peopling New Zealand with colonists of our own blood, and in securing the present Dominion as one of the best colonies of the Imperial connection. We may be content to echo the verdict of W. Pember Reeves, when we quote his saying about Wakefield, that he "found colonisation a by-word, and left it a branch of statesmanship."5

1 Encyclopedia Britannica, Eleveth Edition, Art. Migration.

2 "England and New Zealand," by A. J. Harrop, page 27. On the debt of Wakefield to Robert Gourlay, of Canada, for fruitful ideas, see Harrop's "England and New Zealand," pp. 28 and 32.

3 Quoted from "A Speech of Charles Buller, M.P., in the House of Commons on Tuesday, April 0, 1843. Appendix No. 1 of E. G. Wakefield's "Art of Colonisation" (London, 1849), p. 492.

4 "Art of Colonisation," p. 158ff.

5 W. P. Reeves, "State Experiments in Australia and New Zealand."