William Wakefield

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William Hayward Wakefield (1801[1] - 19 September 1848) was an English colonel, the leader of the first colonising expedition to New Zealand and one of the founders of Wellington. In 1826, he married Emily Sidney, a daughter of Sir John Sidney.

Early life[edit]

Born just outside London, he was largely raised by his elder sister, Catherine, who found him a difficult child. As he grew older he came very much under the influence of his older brother, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, who was not always a good influence on his life.

In 1825 he became formally betrothed to Emily Sidney but, before they could be married, Wakefield became involved with his brother in the abduction of a wealthy heiress and both brothers were arrested.[2] Then, while out on bail, Wakefield absconded to Paris, apparently to meet up with Emily who by now was three months pregnant. He returned to England when the baby was born and was promptly arrested and held in Lancaster Castle until his trial. He was subsequently sentenced to three years in jail. During this time his 'wife' died leaving him with a six-month-old daughter, Emily.

Upon his release from jail, Wakefield spent some time with his daughter at his sister Catherine's. Then in 1832 he travelled to Portugal and enlisted as a mercenary soldier in the service of Dom Pedro, the Emperor of Brazil. Although he had no military experience whatsoever he was apparently able to enlist as a Captain. He survived the siege of Oporto and the subsequent campaigning, but he gained little from it except experience and a handful of medals.

After the Portuguese Campaign he returned briefly to England and enlisted in the British Auxiliary Legion fighting for the infant Queen Isabella II of Spain in the First Carlist War. He emerged from the campaign as a major, re-enlisted and was promoted to Colonel. Among his junior officers was Henry Inman (police commander). Wakefield was one of the few officers to survive the campaign; he stayed until the Legion was disbanded in 1837 and returned to England the following year.

New Zealand[edit]

In early 1839 the New Zealand Company in London was hurriedly organizing its first expedition, because they were anxious to get it underway before the government stopped them. They already had a ship, the Tory. At the suggestion of his brother, Edward Gibbon, they appointed Wakefield as the commander of the expedition. The Tory sailed from London on 4 May 1839 with Wakefield as sole and unqualified leader of the expedition. However, he also had a very full and complete set of instructions about their activities in New Zealand. The instructions came under three headings: the purchase of land for the New Zealand Company, the acquisition of knowledge about New Zealand, and preparation for the formation of settlements. Wakefield was expected to treat the Māori with utmost fairness, to make certain they were fully aware of the nature of the transactions they were entering into. He had to make certain they knew what the Company intended in the long term, the number of settlers to be expected, and the extent of the proposed settlements. He was not to complete any purchase until he was certain that all the vendors were happy with the deal. Furthermore, he was instructed to be generous with the goods offered for the purchase.

Reading Wakefield's subsequent accounts of the deals he made with the Māori and also other accounts (such as that written by his nephew, Jerningham Wakefield, who accompanied him on the expedition as acting secretary), every effort was made to fulfil these conditions. This is an important point.

It has become an established historical "fact" that many Māori were cheated of their land. Some of the later purchases of the New Zealand Company may have been questionable. But for first purchase made of the area that is now Wellington and the Hutt Valley, every effort was made to be scrupulously fair and open. Afterwards both sides seemed to be very happy with the deal and lived together amicably, side by side, for many months.

Wakefield's first sight of New Zealand was not encouraging: successive ranges of formidable mountains. They took on supplies of wood and water at Ship Cove in Queen Charlotte Sound and met their first Māori, who were very interested in trading. One of the offers Wakefield firmly rejected was that of their wives and daughters for the comfort of the sailors. Later on, the missionaries tried to claim that some of the goods Wakefield gave the Māori were not payment for land but payment for the use of Māori women. When the nature of the missionaries' accusation became clear, it was literally laughed out of court, as Wakefield had established a very strong reputation for probity and correctness.

After five weeks in the Marlborough Sounds in the South Island, the Tory sailed over to Te Whanganui a Tara ("The Big Harbour of Tara") and Port Nicholson. Here he began serious negotiations for the purchase of land. The negotiations involved two tribes or iwi, Ngati Toa and Te Atiawa; it involved sixteen chiefs, and after five days a deal was made that apparently pleased everyone. It was subsequently endorsed by the paramount chief of the area, Te Rauparaha. Strong objections were raised by Te Rauparaha's nephew, Te Rangihaeata, although he reluctantly signed the deed eventually even while doubting its validity.

The purchase completed, Wakefield and the Tory set out to explore a bit more of New Zealand sailing up the west coast. They were impressed with the potential of the Taranaki area for further settlement. They then sailed up to the Hokianga, made contact with the traders, and looked at buying land in that district. However, the expedition was curtailed when the Tory ran aground in Hokianga Harbour. The ship was saved but it needed extensive repairs. Anxious to return to Port Nicholson and his appointed rendezvous with the survey ship, Cuba, Wakefield crossed the island to Kororareka, where he chartered another ship to take him south.

The trials of a colonist[edit]

Wakefield arrived back in Port Nicholson in early January, 1840. The first of the settlers’ ships arrived on 21 January with five others coming in over the next few weeks. However, as the settlers prepared to begin building their new homes it became apparent that the land around Petone was not suitable, being too swampy. A new site had to be selected and Lambton Harbour was chosen, a few kilometres further west. However the newly chosen site was already occupied by the Māori, being one of their residential areas. Wakefield was quite clear that he had bought and paid for the land on behalf of the New Zealand Company but it soon emerged that despite his efforts the Māori had not fully understood the nature of the deal. They had expected to share the land with the Pakeha and were most unwilling to move. It was a difficult situation for the Māori; while they had overwhelming numbers and military power they did not want a confrontation that might drive the Pakeha elsewhere. They probably suspected also that not only would they be fighting the settlers but also the other Māori in the area. Reluctantly, they moved. However this was the beginning of a resentment and anger that has plagued Māori-Pakeha relations right up until the present day.

To make matters worse the missionary Henry Williams appeared in the district with copies of the Treaty of Waitangi for Māori to sign. Furthermore, he was claiming some of the land the New Zealand Company had purchased. Wakefield was furious as he recognized that Henry Williams’s claims were made for selfish reasons but he granted him one acre (4,000 m²) of town land for his personal ownership. Henry Williams was soon to be dismissed and disgraced by the Church Missionary Society for defrauding the Māori. During this period Wakefield would have been extremely busy. He was not only the leader of the expedition and the colony and the principal agent for the New Zealand Company but he was also president of the Settlers' Council which had been formed to maintain law and order in the Colony.

Meanwhile, another problem was looming; the consequences of the furtive and hurried way in which the New Zealand Company had established the settlement ahead of the establishment of British Sovereignty. Naturally the new governor, William Hobson, resented their actions. The Settlers' Council was seen as an attempt to establish an illegal republic. The Acting Colonial Secretary Willoughby Shortland was dispatched with soldiers and mounted police to disband the illegal organization. Fortunately he stayed on to administer justice and the change-over happened smoothly, albeit with some resentment from the colonists.

Wakefield strongly believed that Port Nicholson's central position made it the obvious choice to be New Zealand's capital and seat of government. However Hobson chose Auckland, he probably recognized that Port Nicholson was dominated by the New Zealand Company. Meanwhile, Shortland was scrutinizing the details of the land purchase very critically. Inevitably he found a flaw, one of the Māori chiefs had sold land he did not own and without the consent of the owners.

Other problems arose. Many of the settlers were not happy with the land they had been allocated, others were not getting the land they had paid for. To satisfy its commitments the New Zealand Company needed about 500 km², which was difficult given the lack of arable land in the Wellington area. Furthermore, Wakefield's nephew, Edward Jerningham was causing concern, drinking heavily and fornicating with Māori women. Altogether Wakefield was beset on all sides, and seemed to withdraw into himself; one of the settlers described him as "the coldest mannered man they have met". Despite all the difficulties the Colony thrived, Port Nicholson or Brittania became Wellington and continued to grow. The death of his brother Arthur in the Wairau Affray (as it is now called, rather than Massacre) was a huge blow particularly as William felt partly responsible. Governor Hobson died and was replaced by Robert FitzRoy. Initially Fitzroy and Wakefield clashed seriously, particularly when FitzRoy declined to take any action against his brother's killers, as the settler party was acting illegally over a questionable land claim. But the situation gradually improved, as the two men recognized that they had to work together. The Wellington settlement was a fait accompli while the Governor was the most powerful man in New Zealand.

There was continuing criticism of the land deals the New Zealand Company had made. Wakefield felt he had been honest but very few of the government agreed with him. Several of the deals were renegotiated and the putative owners paid a second time. Gradually though the Land Claims Commissioner, William Spain, swung around. Initially he had appeared to favour the Māori, he became neutral and then began to support the claims of the New Zealand Company.

However over the next few years Wakefield was involved in disputes with the Crown, with the Māori and with his own surveyors. These disputes meant that the colonist land titles were delayed by months or years leading in turn to disputes with the various settlements. One of the undertakings of the New Zealand Company was that labourers going to the colony were guaranteed work. Because of the delays William had no work for them and this caused further anger, at one stage Nelson was almost in a state of armed rebellion against the Company’s agents. Wakefield and the Company simply did not have the resources to carry out their commitments. The situation was made worse by Wakefield's personality; he demonstrated no sign of any leadership qualities and was unwilling to take any initiative in dealing with the problems. His time was apparently spent writing letters back to London describing the wonderful progress being made. When confronted with problems he blustered, cajoled, and criticized, but he would not do anything. By April, 1844 he had alienated practically every colonist. One of them wrote "The baneful influence of Colonel Wakefield has ruined every settler and the colony of Port Nicholson."

Early in 1842 Wakefield had been joined in New Zealand by his daughter, Emily, then sixteen years old. Shortly afterwards she became engaged to Francis Molesworth but it was broken off when ill health forced him to return to England. Then in late 1845 she met Edward Stafford of Nelson and they were married the following year. From his surviving letters it is clear that William greatly missed his daughter, as he had enjoyed very little family life until she came to New Zealand.

In March 1847 Wakefield fought a duel with his doctor, Isaac Featherston over an editorial in the Wellington Independent newspaper which questioned his honesty. Featherstone fired first and missed then Wakefield fired into the air saying he could not shoot a man who had seven daughters. Just as well, the following year Wakefield had great need of his services.

Wakefield suffered a mild stroke early in 1848 and then a more severe one in August. On 15 September 1848, while at the bath house, he collapsed; there were soon three doctors on the scene but to no avail and he died four days later in a room at the Wellington Tavern (known as Alzdorfs after the proprietor Baron von Alzdorf). He was given what amounted to a State funeral, Governor Grey attended as did nearly half of Wellington, both Māori and Pakeha, The Māori Chief, Te Puni was one of his pall bearers. In death Wakefield was given the respect he seldom had gained in life. It was acknowledged that he had worked to the best of maybe limited ability at an impossible task and had probably contributed more than anyone else to the foundation of Wellington.

Soon after his death, his friends began to fund-raise for a memorial, but it was not until 1882 that the William Wakefield Memorial was unveiled at the Basin Reserve.[3][4] The memorial is registered as a Category I heritage structure by the Heritage New Zealand with registration number 1441.[4]


  1. ^ Temple and a number of British sources use 1801 while some New Zealand sources give 1803 as his birth date.
  2. ^ "Philip Temple: A Sort of Conscience, The Wakefields", review, NZ Herald
  3. ^ "William Wakefield Memorial". Cricket Wellington. Retrieved 25 May 2014. 
  4. ^ a b "William Wakefield". Register of Historic Places. Heritage New Zealand. Retrieved 25 May 2014.