Story: Wakefield, Edward Jerningham

Page 1: Biography

Wakefield, Edward Jerningham

1820–1879

Adventurer, writer, politician

This biography was written by Ronda Cooper and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 1, 1990

Edward Jerningham Wakefield, known as Jerningham, the only son of Edward Gibbon Wakefield and Eliza Anne Frances Pattle, was born in London, England, probably on 25 June 1820. His mother died 10 days after his birth, leaving Jerningham and his sister, Susan Priscilla (or Nina), to be raised mainly by their aunt, Catherine Torlesse. After study at King's College, London, Jerningham Wakefield's life was inevitably bound up in his father's colonial and political ventures. He acted as clerk and secretary, travelling with his father to Canada in 1838, and then with his uncle Colonel William Wakefield to New Zealand, arriving on the Tory in August 1839. As agent and explorer for the New Zealand Company, he was responsible for its land purchasing activities in Wanganui in 1840. Here his behaviour earned, from Governor Robert FitzRoy, the reproach that he was the 'devil's missionary' and the withdrawal of his magistrate's commission. He made extensive journeys in the Upper Rangitikei and Taupo districts, and in Nelson.

After FitzRoy's rebuke he returned to London, arriving in September 1844. For the next five years he worked in a desultory fashion for the New Zealand Company and the Canterbury Association. But he is remembered for the book he published in 1845 as propagandist and apologist for the company, Adventure in New Zealand. A lively account of his explorations and of the establishment of the first settlements at Wellington, Wanganui and New Plymouth, Adventure was a raging success. In 1848 he followed it with The hand-book for New Zealand, a practical book 'compiled for the use of intending Colonists'. Jerningham Wakefield was a restless traveller; New Zealand Company business took him to Scotland and Ireland, then back to New Zealand with the Canterbury settlers on the Lady Nugent in 1850.

In 1853 he was elected to the House of Representatives for Christchurch Country, and held the seat until 1855. For three days in 1854, in the turmoil that preceded responsible government, he was a member of the Executive Council. He represented Wellington City on the provincial council from 1857 to 1861. He persisted in standing for the House of Representatives, and suffered defeats in 1855, 1858 and 1861. Towards the end of his life, in 1871, he succeeded in Christchurch City East; he was defeated, however, by William Sefton Moorhouse in 1875.

He was marked throughout his life, and beyond it, by a damning reputation for flawed and wasted brilliance. Most commentators, including his own father, dismiss him as a wastrel and a failure, talented and intelligent, but reckless, weak-willed, contentious, promiscuous and generally unstable. The most acclaimed and most enduring achievements of his life are confined to a few years in his early 20s, when he lived and wrote Adventure.

The book was produced, with a companion volume of illustrations, both as propaganda to encourage new emigrants and as a public relations exercise. It sets out to celebrate and justify the New Zealand Company's grand enterprise. He has been accused of exaggeration and even of dishonesty, but within his own framework of loyalties, Jerningham Wakefield strives for complete accuracy and comprehensiveness. Basing his text on scrupulously kept journals, he records every interesting detail of his journeys, every impression and image of the new country. Significant events, such as the land purchase ceremonies or the Wairau affray, are reported with care. There are many digressions, including an analysis of the Treaty of Waitangi, and a chapter devoted to whaling. Innumerable facts are noted for their usefulness – botanical observations, geographical information, directions to the harbours, bays and channels, facts about winds, tides and sailing conditions.

Adventure is equally thorough in its account of the Maori. Jerningham Wakefield pays careful and respectful attention to the history, political background, tribal and family relationships, territory and status of the individuals and tribes he encountered. He describes everything from buildings and fortifications to cooking in a hangi and scraping flax. He explains points of etiquette, and records the oratory of great chiefs; he uses Maori terms and phrases with a natural smoothness.

His concern for thoroughness and concreteness does not however produce a dull book. Despite the formality of much of his language, the writing can be vividly colourful, fluent and fast-paced, full of drama and enthusiasm. Whatever its other qualities and objectives, Adventure is very consciously just that, a book of adventure. There is an irresistible exhilaration, a genuine delight in the strange and the exciting. Travelling through a wild new country, living off the land, trading and negotiating with flamboyantly exotic characters, both Maori and Pakeha – Jerningham Wakefield, still only in his early 20s, relishes the thrills and colour of pioneering: 'The whaling was at this time going on with great spirit; and I sailed away from Kapiti one morning in the midst of an animated chase, the whale and the boats having crossed my bows more than once.'

He communicates his feelings of the momentous importance of particular events – the Company's formal land purchases, their meetings with the most powerful chiefs – and conveys too a good appreciation of the dangers involved. There is real seriousness in his detailing of tribal wars and skirmishes, tense moments when weapons had to be kept close, the increasing insecurity after the Wairau affray, and the lawlessness of many Pakeha settlers. The difficulties and risks of travel are a constant concern, ranging from the sudden emergency of shipwreck to the excitement of running the foaming rapids of the Wanganui River. There are moments too of sheer romance – an overnight voyage to Wanganui with a Maori party: 'When I woke once or twice during the night, the canoe was lifting over the long swell, the moon and stars shining bright and clear, and a heavy dew falling on the sleepers coiled in their blankets, and the only sound to disturb the calm of the scene was the distant roar of the surf.'

Jerningham Wakefield is attuned to the romantic conventions and sensibilities of his time. The new country provides him with abundant opportunity for lyrical landscape description – the grandeur of mountains and forest, the clear beauty of coasts and harbours, the 'melodious chimes of the bell-bird' in the bush. Equally romantic is the glowing Utopian sentiment he applies to the yeoman farmers of Taranaki and the Hutt, or his tendency to view the Maori in the idealised colours of Rousseau's noble savage, or even in neo-classical terms: 'An old sage named Matangi now rose…. His silver-white hair and long beard, and benignant countenance, gave him the air of a Priam or a Nestor'.

There are strongly romantic qualities too in the rebelliousness and recklessness which eroded away Jerningham Wakefield's career. A pattern of controversy and scandal, of defiantly running counter to the orthodox respectabilities, shadows his life from early childhood, when his father was imprisoned in Newgate. After an extravagantly Bohemian lifestyle in the later 1840s as a celebrated young writer in London, his later career dissipated into good intentions, persistent failures and frustration.

Jerningham Wakefield married, on 3 October 1863 in Christchurch, a woman nearly 20 years younger than he, Ellen Roe, the daughter of a builder; they had two daughters. He published one more book, in 1868, an edition of Edward Gibbon Wakefield's letters titled The founders of Canterbury, and wrote several political pamphlets. His later life was clouded by alcoholism and disgrace, and he died in obscurity in the Ashburton Old Men's Home on 3 March 1879.

How to cite this page:

Ronda Cooper. 'Wakefield, Edward Jerningham', from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/biographies/1w5/wakefield-edward-jerningham (accessed 24 May 2017)