Wakefield’s Systematic Colonisation and Cultural Improvement in the ‘New World’

In 1829, while still incarcerated in Newgate Goal for abducting an underage heiress, the political economist and social reformer Edward Gibbon Wakefield anonymously published his speculative Letter from Sydney, The Principal Town of Australasia, a compilation of eleven anonymous letters previously published in the Morning Chronicle. Wakefield was, of course, nowhere near Sydney, but he adopted the genre of “observational fiction” deployed by his Quaker grandmother Priscilla Wakefield, whose virtual tours for children synthesised the direct observations of others into didactic and often epistolary narratives (Curtis 32; Ballantyne 92-3).

Wakefield’s Letter culminates in the striking image of three “great men”—Walter Scott, Humphrey Davy, and Robert Malthus—who would not be valued as much by the “new people” of colonial New South Wales, the fictional emigrant contends, as “three brawny experienced ploughmen” (40). Here Wakefield’s agricultural metaphor puns on the etymology of the word “culture,” which as Raymond Williams points out in Keywords (1976) derives from the Latin words colere (to inhabit or cultivate), and coulter (to tend, plough or till the soil). Williams explains that by the sixteenth century, the “tending of natural growth was extended to a [metaphoric] process of human development,” to the culture and maintenance of minds, although it was not until the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that culture “as an abstract process or the product of such a process” became common and imbued with ideas of civility and civilisation (Williams 77-8).

Also in 1829, Samuel Taylor Coleridge posited an alternative understanding of culture in his On the Constitution of the Church and State, which followed the German idealists in identifying “the permanent distinction, and the occasional contrast between cultivation and civilization,” adding that “a nation can never be too cultivated, but may easily become an over-civilized race” (47-8). The word “cultivation” was therefore used by Coleridge in “a lexical distinction from civilisation,” drawing on “a Rousseauian counter principle of internality, authenticity and autonomous self-formation,” in which what came to be described as “culture” was seen as relatively distinct from state and market coercion (Sartori 29, 30).

As Andrew Sartori has pointed out in his brilliant examination of the rise of culture in global concept history, the culturalist imagination—or the Herderian idea that culture could be a discrete category of autonomous meaning—was constituted alongside and within the global structures of capitalist society. Indeed, the modern notion of culture emerged as a necessary analogue to the particular forms of alienation that are part of the condition of labour under capitalism (Sartori 257). In this context, the three brawny ploughman who Wakefield would have stand in for Scott, Davy, and Malthus are not quite so ludicrous as they might first appear. As a literalisation of the principle of cultivation, the ploughman are a necessary first step towards the project of agrarian capitalist transformation of the imperial peripheries that lay at the heart of Wakefield’s theory of “systematic colonization.”

A “new people” and cultural degeneration

How, then, could these three brawny experienced ploughmen be converted into the three representative geniuses of Scott, Davy, and Malthus? For Wakefield, this was not likely to happen automatically. Merely settling emigrants on colonial waste lands would not do it, he argued. This was not colonisation but rather “pauper shoveling.” Left to their own devices, settlers would remain precapitalist subsistence farmers or “earth-scratchers” rather than the “new” men and women envisaged by the utopian impulse in settler colonialism (Wakefield 1833 493).

Understanding “newness” as something “quite independent of time,” Wakefield’s emigrant goes on to argue that a “new people” are not defined by the period of their establishment but are rather those who have “degenerated from their ancestors,” who “continually increase in number” but “make no progress in the art of living’, becoming “rotten before they  are ripe” (Wakefield 1829 148, 149).  According to this sense of the word, “the Canadians will probably be a newer people fifty years  hence  than  they  were  fifty  years  ago,  and  the  United  States’  Americans  are  a  newer people now, in 1829, than they were in 1779” (149). While the Australian colonists are currently “too young” to be “barbarians,” Wakefield’s emigrant concludes that “our grand-children will be a race of unmixed barbarians more ungovernable even that the white savages of Kentucky” (68; emphasis in original).

Wakefield was (and still is) a controversial figure, particularly in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand where his schemes were actually put into place, but I want to argue that Wakefield’s re-temporalisation of “newness” should be taken seriously as a means of interrogating the cultural conditions of the expanding Anglophone world of the 1820s and 1830s. While typically understood in the contexts of political economy, labour theory, and demographic discourse, systematic colonisation can also be viewed as part of a circulating discourse relating to cultural degeneration and improvement, itself closely tied to the idea of agricultural improvement or rending land productive and profitable by enclosing and reclaiming “waste land.”

Using America as his primary counter-study or negative index, Wakefield partly borrows his degenerative terminology from the so-called quarelle d’Amerique, which dates back to the mid-eighteenth century when naturalists such as Buffon contended that the new world had only recently emerged from the waters but that dangerous miasmas had caused its organic life to degenerate from an earlier more perfect state. The intellectual movement from biological devolution and climatic determinism to cultural degeneration is generally attributed to the second half of the nineteenth century (where it exists in a complex relationship with scientific racism), but it was in the Romantic-era settler colonies that the implications of social and cultural degeneration first became apparent. 

Wakefield maintained that colonial societies were prone to spontaneous degeneration and commonly fell “back into the primitive state—to that backward state when every one, or nearly every one, is a cultivator on his own account,” and where kinship and other social ties fail to develop (Wakefield and Ward 7). The economic individualism of independent smallholders in settler colonies particularly worried Wakefield because it destroyed the capitalist division of labour and threw the colonies back to a form of agrarian primitivism (or primitive accumulation). What at first appears to be a colony’s greatest asset—its limitless expanse of “waste land”—is in fact its greatest weakness. Indeed, Wakefield argued that it was because the emigrants all had access to free or cheap land that they failed to produce cultured societies.Everyone had land but everyone also had to work, producing no leisure class, no knowledge, and no culture (Olssen 209). The  resultant flattening  of  the  class  structure  prevented  the  colony  from  developing  the  cultural  refinements  supposedly  produced  by  the bourgeoisie in imperial metropoles.

For Wakefield, people in new societies demonstrated anti-social and even pathological behaviour. Their “opinions  are  only  violent  and  false  prejudices,  the  necessary  fruit  of  ignorance.” Their “character is a compound of vanity, bigotry, obstinacy, and hatred most comprehensive, including whatever does not meet their own pinched notions of right.” They take pleasure in “a forced equality,” which is against nature, and such equality “rewards the mean rather than the great, and gives more honour to the vile than  to  the  noble” (Wakefield 1829 148).  Thus, “whilst in old countries, modes and manners flow downwards from the higher classes, they must, in new countries, ascend from the lowest class” (107).

Wakefield thus  understands the settler as an atomised—even savage—figure with a propensity for violence, disorder, and social regression: one requiring systematic forms of intervention, surveillance, and social engineering at the aggregate level of qualitative population change. As Olur Unur Ince has pointed out, Wakefield “did not shrink” from calling Americans “white savages,” the British settlers of Australia “Tartars,” white South Africans “the most ignorant and brutal race of men,” and Argentines “the savage descendants of Spaniards” (Ince 131). The settler, then, potentially represented a degenerative turn to the ethnographic temporality of the “primitive” and uncultivated state—the ultimate act of Indigenous erasure which disavowed Indigenous existence even to the extent of denying Indigenous peoples the status of “primitive savages.”

The social pathologies that Wakefield diagnosed stemmed, he believed, from the mixing of convicts, enslaved peoples, and free settlers; from a disproportion between population and territory; from a lack of cheap labourers; and from an imbalance in the numbers of men and women: “We are in a barbarous condition like that of every people scattered over a territory immense in proportion to their numbers” (Wakefield 1829 53). In Wakefield’s analysis, the availability of free or cheap land resulted in “dispersion” (69). This was not a minor problem since dispersion prevented the development of what he called “capitalist civilization” (Piterberg and Veracini 462). For one thing, it encouraged land speculation and tended to “inflame the country with a gambling spirit.” For another thing, it prevented the development of leisure and thus of cultural pursuits: “Wealth will bestow leisure; and leisure will bestow knowledge. Wealth, leisure and knowledge mean civilization” (94). Wakefield thus ascribes to population density a key cultural and social function: “CONCENTRATION produce[s] what never did and never can exist without it – CIVILIZATION” (98).

Returning to Scott, Davy, and Malthus, what allowed genius to emerge from a population was therefore not the size or age of the population but rather the kinds of social relations it encouraged. It was population density and the division of labour that made possible leisure and knowledge.  It was thus not so much the organization of formal institutions of learning that would reproduce imperial culture in the colonies. Such institutions were useless unless they were preceded by the proper relations between land, labour, and social classes (Curtis 28, 42).

It should be noted that Wakefield’s theory was developed during the so-called “ameliorative decades” of the 1820s and 1830s when abolition was at its highpoint and the looming problem of alternative cheap labour had already reared its head (Lydon). Beyond its obvious economic benefits, Wakefield’s fiction emigrant posits that slavery (or at least cheap labour) is necessary for civilisation: “I began to hanker after, what till then, I had considered the worst of human ills – the institution of slavery … I deliberately state it as my opinion, that a permission to obtain slaves from Africa would be most beneficial to these settlements with a view only to wealth and civilization” (Wakefield 1829 34, 38-9). 

While he rejected both chattel slavery and white indentured labour or what he called “white slavery” as a solution to colonial labour shortages, Wakefield was prepared to consider Pacific Islander, Indian, and Chinese indentured labour (201-2). He also planned for the creation of a legally free but structurally dependent white colonial labour force (or “bondsmen” as he put it) based on the principle of wage labour. This would be achieved by artificially inflated land prices (what he called the “sufficient price” mechanism), which would prevent working-class emigrants from becoming landowners by denying them access to the means of subsistence and forcing them to work for colonial capitalists. Wakefield thus proposed a model of  “state-led, preemptive proletarianization” in the settler colonies, which would render working-class emigrants “structurally dependent” on capital owners (Ince 9). Without fully formed capitalist social relations, he believed that the settler colonies would fail to prosper.

Capitalism, culture, and utopia

As Angela Esterhammer has recently argued, the 1820s was a period of intense speculation with a distinctively and self-consciously performative episteme (7). Wakefield’s utopian thought experiment was itself intensely speculative, “a castle in the air” as he put it, but it was also conceived as a means of stabilizing huge population movements, the looming loss of slave labour, and the social unrest caused by the bank crisis of the mid-1820s. On the one hand, Wakefield’s schema presupposes the reduction of human beings to functional utilities within a bureaucratic division of labour. On the other hand, it is a theory of optimization designed to maximize desired qualities and minimize undesirable qualities at the aggregate level of entire populations. It is an attempt to regulate globe-spanning flows of people and to control population movement on a global scale. 

Karl Marx recognized the significance of Wakefield’s project and explicitly set out to critique it both in the Grundrisse (wr. 1857-8) and in the final chapter of the first volume of Capital (1867). Like Wakefield, Marx recognised that settler colonialism aimed to reproduce the steps leading on from capitalism’s agrarian history, which began in the sixteenth century with enclosure and the subsequent “separation of producers from the land that was the precondition for the establishment of a wage-earning proletariat” (Tribe 35). In other words, the origin and evolution of capitalist relations could currently most clearly be seen in the settler colonies.

For Marx, Wakefield’s chief (albeit inadvertent) insight was that “capital is not a thing, but a social relation between persons which is mediated through things” (Marx 514). In other words, Marx recognized the extent to which Wakefield understood that the value of capital is predicated on a social relation, one that rests on the separation of workers from their means of subsistence (Piterberg and Veracini 467): “So long, therefore, as the labourer can accumulate for himself—and this he can do so long as he remains possessor of his means of production—capitalist accumulation and the capitalist mode of production are impossible” (Marx 515). As Michael Lebowitz has put it in relation to Marx’s understanding of capital in the Grundrisse, “capital does not merely seek the realisation of its own goal, valorisation; it also must seek to suspend the realisation of the goals of wage-labour. Capital, in short, must defeat its workers; it must negate its negation in order to posit itself” (122). Yet as both Marx and Wakefield were well-aware, labour constantly exceeds capital’s attempt to contain and control it. 

Wakefield’s attempt to control the spatiotemporal dispersion of labour was utopian in its dream of total stabilisation of the capital-labour relation. As Shane Chalmers has pointed out in a study of the utopian tendencies of Wakefield’s schema, “Wakefield thus gave form to the fears and desires that underlie and drive the reproduction of capitalism, in its broadest sense. He represented, through his writing, the very object of capitalism, which is to say, its desired end, its future-perfect state.” The utopian impulse of capitalism was underscored by the utopian impulse of settler colonialism itself: “The utopic act of negating a given place, and projecting onto the emptied space another “better” one, a future-perfect one, is the settler-colonial move” (Chalmers). 

If “utopias” can be said to “embody desire” what Wakefield showed more clearly than any other political economist of the period is the extent to which culture is a capitalist phenomenon. His understanding of the culture-capital nexus or “capitalist civilization” shifted the emphasis of cultural discourse from the kind of idealism associated with “reflexive inner self-formation or bildung” described by Coleridge, to a form of power “whose normalizing function was strategically directed to the production of a manageable population” (Sartori 41). Systematic colonization was not, therefore, simply a demographic or territorial project. It was also a cultural and moral project concerned with reproducing imperial class hierarchies and cultural achievement in the colonies.

Believing that “newness” would sever the bonds between metropole and colony, and limit rather than reinvigorate cultural achievement across the emerging settler empire, Wakefield’s schema had a profound impact on the qualities of derivativeness and belatedness that were said to characterise Anglophone colonial literary culture from the 1820s onwards. Facilitated by a book market unreceptive to colonial originality, derivativeness was actively encouraged as means of discouraging speculative ventures and producing societies based on the principle of reproduction. As Wakefield put it, the settler colonies “would no longer be new societies, strictly speaking. They would be so many extensions of an old society” (1829 165; Steer 58-9).

Jason Rudy has pointed to an ongoing “crisis of authenticity” in colonial culture, which was “already associated in the British mind” in the Romantic period “with crimes of unauthorized replication” such as forgeries, plagiarisms, and hoaxes (44). Botany Bay print culture was thus, from the first, constructed both as “a satirical marker of the limitations of the metropolitan public sphere” and as an “inferior imitation of the imperial centre,” with the metropole ultimately treating colonial literature and print culture as “curiosities” (Scobie 20). 

In this view, the colonies are not just peripheral places marked by distance but also places of uncanny replication. Many scholars have pointed to the “peculiarly citational” quality of the colonial literary aesthetic, which they argue must be situated within the context of the uneven regimes of cultural capital and (il)legitimacy that defined colonial culture (Dixon 6; McCann 5). The vast pulsations that staged imperial metropolitanism are therefore understood to be re-staged in Melbourne, Sydney, Cape Town, and Auckland in accelerated but ultimately derivative forms. This was very far from the case, but Wakefield’s theory was instrumental in shaping ongoing understandings of colonial culture as derivative and reproductive.

Works Cited

Ballantyne, Tony, ‘The Theory and Practice of Empire-Building: Edward Gibbon Wakefield  and “Systematic     Colonisation”, in The Routledge History of Western Empires, ed. Robert Aldrich and Kirsten McKenzie (London: Routledge, 2013), 89-101

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, On the Constitution of the Church and State (1829; London: William Pickering, 1839)

Chalmers, Shane, “The Utopian Law and the Literature of Systematic Colonization,” Law and Literature (2022): doi.org/10.1080/1535685X.2021.2011046

Curtis, Bruce, “Colonization, Education, and the Formation of Moral Character: Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s A Letter from Sydney”, Historical Studies in Education 31, no. 2 (2019): 27-47

Dixon, Robert, “Before the Nation: Rolf Boldrewood and the Problem of Scale in National Literatures”, Australian Literary Studies 30, no. 3 (2015): doi: 10.20314/als.c93f1b250e

Esterhammer, Angela, Print and Performance in the 1820s: Improvisation, Speculation, Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020).

Ince, Onur Ulas, Colonial Capitalism and the Dilemmas of Liberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018)

Lebowitz, Michael, Beyond “Capital”: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1992)

Lydon, Jane, “‘Mr Wakefield’s Speaking Trumpets:’ Abolishing Slavery and Colonising Systematically”, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 50, no. 1 (2022): doi: 10.1080/03086534.2021.1956834

Marx, Karl, Capital, trans. David Fernbach, vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1992)

McCann, Andrew, Marcus Clarke’s Bohemia: Literature and Modernity in Colonial Melbourne (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2004)

Olssen, Erik, ‘Mr Wakefield and New Zealand as an Experiment in Post-Enlightenment Experimental Practice’, New Zealand Journal of History 31, no. 2 (1997): 197-218

Piterberg, Gabriel and Lorenzo Veracini, “Wakefield, Marx, and the World Turned Inside Out”, Journal of Global History 10 (2015): 457-78.

Rudy, Jason R., Imagined Homelands: British Poetry in the Colonies (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017)

Sartori, Andrew, Bengal in Global Concept History: Culturalism in the Age of Capital (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008)

Scobie, Ruth, Celebrity Culture and the Myth of Oceania in Britain, 1770-1823 (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2019)

Steer, Philip, Settler Colonialism in Victorian Literature: Economics and Political Identity in the Networks of Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020)

Tribe, Keith, Genealogies of Capitalism (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1981) 

Wakefield, Edward Gibbon, England and America: A Comparison of the Social and Political State of Both Nations, 2 vols (London: Richard Bentley, 1833)

— Letter from Sydney, The Principal Town of Australasia, ed. Robert Gouger (London: Simpkin and Marshall, 1829)

— and John Ward, The British Colonization of New Zealand (London: John W. Parker, 1837)

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