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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 3, Issue 6, October 1980

Some Motives for the Colonisation of Nelson

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Some Motives for the Colonisation of Nelson

(This article is based on an address given by John Gerritson to a Seminar arranged by the Nelson Historical Society.)

I would like us to consider three questions on the Colonisation of Nelson Province. First what were actually the motives of those men and women, who between May 1841 and February 1842 left England and sailed all the way (12,000 miles or 19,200km) across vast oceans to a rather unknown island group called New Zealand, vaguely aware that there were native inhabitants who were cannibals? On no map or chart could they pinpoint a place called Nelson. What motives had they to sail under the direction of the young New Zealand Company which had just been founded in 1839, either as cabin passengers (high class colonists) or as deck-steerage emigants (lower class) to this uncertain place of destiny? Some clues to this may be found in diaries, letters and family papers of individual participants. We are indeed fortunate that some of these have survived and are available.

Secondly, why sail all the way to New Zealand, the most remote of the islands in the Pacific? Why not to Australia, South Africa or North America? Why had the prospects and promises of the New Zealand Company induced, perhaps seduced them as volunteers and pioneers to sail this way. Actually the New Zealand settlers were indeed exceptions! In 1841–42 246,926 people left as emigrants from England but only 40,534 left for Australia and New Zealand. In proportion it was roughly. New Zealand 1, Australia 5, Canada 9, U.S.A. 55. To Nelson there came about 2,500 which is 1% of the total for 1841–42.

Our third question: What motives had the New Zealand Company for promoting with Utopian optimism in 1840 the establishment of the "Second Colony" of New Zealand named Nelson, not as a rival but as the helpmate of the "First Colony" Wellington? Nelson was designed to be the "Model Colony"; its proposed size 221,000 acres (88.400ha) in town, urban and rural sections, larger than Wellington and New Plymouth together. In addition what motives drove the British Government, the thinking politicians, the expanding business world and various groups of people to accept "Colonisation" (up to now a dirty word) as a better way of progress for frustrated high-class and lower class citizens, as a way out of the general despondency to a better society with great and open opportunities?

I will tackle the last question first. What made colonization a "respectable" and systematic part of public policy? This change in appreciation occurred between 1812 when colonies were said to be "millstones round the neck of any Government!" and 1835 the foundation of South Australia.

The social-economic situation was chaotic and depressed. (I quote many facts from Asa Brigg's book: "The Age of Improvement") for example: The price of wheat fell from 63/- a quarter to 36/- at the end of 183. The run of good harvests came to an end, four years of harvest dearth started, so most page 16rural communities were in distress – landlords as well as labourers. There were obvious signs of a financial crisis which broke the trade boom. Banks were shaky depositories for money; by 1842 there were only 311 banks left, so 43% of the original banks were either discredited or bankrupt. Moreover from 1837–42 there was no expansion of railway lines and so no opportunity for investment of idle money of the business world and also less employment for the working man. By the summer of 1837 50,000 workers in Manchester were either unemployed or on short time causing serious social-political unrest which only the presence of army units could subdue. One-seventh of the lower classes were paupers, chronically under the "Poor Law" with its dreaded "Workhouses," nicknamed "Bastilles." Tennyson in "Locksley Hall" wrote: "Slowly comes a hungry people, as a lion creeping nigher."

Enough details have been given of this social misery, we consider now how did the ruling nation tackle these disturbing problems, if only to prevent social chaos or a "bloody revolution!" Carlyle wrote in gloom in "Past and Present" about the "Condition of England" – this became a cliche term. Disraeli said: "England is two nations between whom there is no intercourse nor sympathy." Engels, the friend of Karl Marx divides the nation in two: the Haves and the Have-nots. Thomas Arnold of Rugby speaks of a split society. Fortunately the ruling Whig Government tried various ways of creating better conditions: for example Political Reforms such as Parliamentary reforms in 1832 and, in 1838 Municipal Councils Reform – both granted political influence to the higher middle classes who were dominating in commerce and industry. There were also several practical reforms, such as that to the Penal Code (1824), to the Police Code (1829). There was the repeal of Acts against legal Trade Unions, the Poor Amendment Act and the Factory Act, there were pilot schemes for a production co-operative movement. Working classes also, both urban and rural, clashed with the ruling hierachy in the "Tolpuddle Martyrs Case" in 1834. There was great agitation under Lovett, Place and O'Connor for the political demands of the Chartist Movement (1830–48). Social conditions and relationships were amended and ameliorated by various reforms as for example the emancipation of non-conformists and Catholics while one million pounds was granted by the Government for the building of new churches (1818). Religion was promoted as a guardian of morality and charity by the Evangelical Movement to work with charity against many "social evils." Men like Wilberforce and Shaftesbury were prominent, while the Oxford Movement led by Keble, Newman and Pusey started to revive the established Church. The first Education grant and Act belong to this period.

Finally there was Economic Reform. Under the slogan Free Trade of the Anti-Cornlaw League, this was gradually accepted as an urgent policy change. Two important points were recognised: the necessity to move from agrarian protection to "Free Trade in Industrial manufactured goods" and the need for improved Public Finance with balanced budgets and better currency rates and banking systems.

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These various types of approach to the social problems were continuously applied in precarious situations not only in Britain, but also, later on in the new Nelson settlement. This practical pragmatic approach to social matters is an important part of the heritage the new Nelsonians brought with them. Yet one new creative idea broke through in political thinking and planning: the aims of a small group, the "Radical Imperialists" produced a new vision for great opportunities. No longer was the objective negative – how to save England from an alarming, destructive Revolution but positive – how to extend and expand English society overseas in free plantations, giving the surplus population a new fresh prospect for their future, not as an escape, but as an exodus. Colonies, long considered to be worthless liabilities become now valuable assets for the future. The man who was the tireless publicist, defender and promoter of this new motive was Edward Gibbon Wakefield, who wrote in 1829 a booklet: "Letter from Sydney" in which he summarised his theory of "scientific, systematic colonisation" as the best way, regulated and controlled of moving surplus population and surplus capital to new settlements. There is not time to enter fully into the greater detail of the personal motives of this enigmatic and remarkable man. "A horrible man" according to Mrs Charlotte Godley of Christchurch, a genius and the founder of New Zealand according to others.

He had had experience in the new field of "Colonial matters." for example in Canada where he was involved in the famous Durham Report (1838–9 and in Australia in the colony of South Australia (1834–6). After the failure of this venture because the colony had not adhered strictly to his principles, it became his life ambition and to achieve it he used all his shrewdness and energy to establish a model colony in unspoilt New Zealand.

As he was at that time forty three years of age he felt the Nelson project was his chance of a life time, so, from 1838 to 1840. he made use of all his connections: his family (his brothers), the City of London (bankers and shipowners), political friends in the Lords and Commons, Church leaders and even H.R.H. the Duke of Sussex. In the end E.G.W. got his way!

Of all Wakefield's pamphlets, books and other propaganda material his "Letter from Sydney" is the most persuasive argument for his system of voluntary colonisation, for the establishing of a self-supporting settlement based on English social conditions for all classes. His six principles, each making clear his motives, formed, according to his mind, one scientific logical unit. First and the Key of the matter: "A sufficient price" should be charged for the purchase of virgin lands. The price should be fixed on the basis of local conditions: Doubtful for speculators, just enticing for well-intentioned farmer-gentlemen (squires; wishing to establish an estate and too high in price for farm labourers who first had to work as farm hands in order to save the price of a small holding farm.

Secondly, proceeds of land sales and land tax should be used to pay for the free transport of British labourers. These labourers had been guaranteed page 18satisfactory wages by the Company agents (18 to 21 shillings) and rations for the first years. As the wages in England were about seven shillings this compared very favourably with their present position. Their motives were, therefore security of work, reasonable wages and an opportunity to better themselves in the future.

The third principle was to have systematic emigration of balanced groups with a variety of social classes. In haphazardly grown colonies such as convict dumps and garrisons many social evils became obvious such as prostitution, liquor abuse, violence and crime. There was also to be balance in sexes – young families with children, single men and single women. Not only were there to be gentlemen fanners (squires) and farm labourers but also professional men such as doctors, teachers, lawyers, and mechanics, artisans and craftsmen.

Fourthly, encouragement was to be given to all classes of society to use this new opportunity. For all groups there was to be economic progress to prosperity, and, moreover mutual stimulation to engage in cultural activities such as the establishment of institutions for art, music, technological knowledge and traditional religion.

Fifth, there was to be definitely no convicts, no slaves and no paupers thus keeping out the seamy fringe of the old decaying British Society. Convict colonies had had no success in New South Wales, at Swan River or in the West Indies. There were to be no slaves as slavery had just been abolished inside the British Empire, causing conflict in Cape Colony. No natives were to be shut up in Reserves but enticed to co-operate in many ways.

Lastly, as soon as possible self-government of the settlers was to be implemented on the basis of English political conditions. Not only did they want public political influence in social matters but, above all, control of possessions and purchase of the land, the main commodity and the basis of their new society. The newcomers did not contemplate breaking away from the far-off Motherland, but they felt the men on the spot did know better ways of tackling their own affairs than did the remote Colonial Office in London and the various humanitarian organisations which had continually opposed, obstructed, ignored and criticised the efforts of the New Zealand Company.

In effect these six guiding principles actually expressed the motives of the various settler groups. As for the British Government of those days, the question of New Zealand was, in fact, a very minor issue compared with the Colonial-foreign policy with its problems, confrontations and armed conflicts. In the jig-saw puzzle of decision-making the Government, either Whig or Tory, had to consider various factors such as constant pressure from New South Wales, for the inclusion of New Zealand in the British Colonial sphere of jurisdiction.

This agitation from 1817 to 1839 finally led up to the Treaty of Waitangi – an agreement, by the way, detested by E. G. Wakefield and the later page 19settlers. There was the possibility of competition by the French Colonial and Whaling Co. to settle and perhaps to annex part of New Zealand, thus bringing in more Roman Catholic influence. The Church Missionary Society and the Wesleyan Missionary Society were making continual demands for the protection of the natives and for the upholding of standards of Christianity and civilisation while the shipping routes to and from South East Asia, particularly from China, had to be safeguarded.

After this analysis of all the main motives are there any special reasons for the Nelson settlers? Out of the common reasons set forth we could summarise:

For the lower classes: The promised certainty of regular work with reasonable wages giving under the charter of the New Zealand Company a safe economic basis of life. There were new opportunities to escape their condemnation to a down-trodden existence at home with the prospect of betterment financially and socially. There was freedom from oppressive legislation, there were no Poor Laws, no game laws, no army constantly in the background as in England to maintain public law and order. They hoped for tolerance and mutual respect in matters of religion, education, organised institutions and race.

For the "better classes," gentlemen farmers, merchants and professional people there was the possibility of starting a new life on a new estate or in business and yet of belonging to the top well-educated groups interested in culture and later on in politics. There was opportunity for their younger sons to find a way to a good career as officials, surveyors or explorers. Even daughters might have better chances in this new growing society.

But unfortunately the difference between theory and practical reality was disappointingly great. The land-sales became in fact land speculation. Only 80 landowners settled on 109 sections. 235 greedy absentee landlords did a great deal of harm to the optimistically envisaged development of the Nelson region.

But those who stuck to their motives in spite of hardships could say with a later poet:

"Brave men and women are we, and be it understood
We left our country for our country's good.
And none may doubt our emigration
Was of great value to the British nation."