Capitalism, Colonization, and Contractual Dispossession: Wakefield's Letters from Sydney

56 Pages Posted: 13 Jul 2012 Last revised: 3 Sep 2012

See all articles by Onur Ulas Ince

Onur Ulas Ince

Singapore Management University

Date Written: 2012


Edward Gibbon Wakefield (1796-1862) is principally known for his historical role as a colonial entrepreneur involved in the colonization of South Australia and New Zealand. Less acknowledged and analyzed is his position as a British political economist. Wakefield edited annotated volumes of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, corresponded with Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill on matters of political economy, and received Karl Marx’s critical praise in Capital.

This paper examines Wakefield’s writings on colonial political economy for excavating some of the social and cultural problems that attended British settler societies in the early Victorian period. Situating these problems at the intersection of imperial political economy and post-Enlightenment categories of civilization, I maintain that Wakefield’s schemes of “systematic colonization” presented an attempt to resolve the famous problem of “falling profits” in England, while at the same time ensuring “civilized” colonial settlements. Profitability could be restored, Wakefield argued, by exporting excess labor and capital to newfound colonies and establishing an imperial division of labor that would seal the prosperity of the empire as a single economic unit. However, spontaneous settlement of the colonies suffered from social dispersal, economic stagnation, and civilizational relapse characteristic of “frontier” communities. Under the centrifugal tendencies of free-for-all colonization, the social division of labor collapsed, and Britons, once members of the most advanced commercial society ever known, gradually descended into a semi-nomadic, rude, and barbarous state. In response, Wakefield advocated public-private partnerships in promoting colonization, strict government regulation of colonial settlements, and the imposition of an artificial, “sufficient” price on colonial lands. I contend that these policy measures coalesced into a grand plan for alleviating the economic troubles of the British metropole and making sure that such alleviation did not come at the price of barbarizing British subjects in the colonies. Political and legal power would be mobilized for transposing Britain’s distinctly capitalist civilization to the colonies in an orderly fashion, or put differently, the domain of capitalist civilization would expand to the colonies without a frontier. In the process, Wakefield justified imperial intervention in the economy by recasting it as simply the enforcement of a utilitarian settler contract he imagined to exist between colonial capitalists and colonial laborers. The paper concludes by drawing out the broader implications of this analysis for conceptualizing the constitutive role of political power in the history of capitalist economic relations, our present moment not excepted.

Keywords: Capitalism, Colonialism, British Empire, the Scottish Enlightenment, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, Political Economy

Suggested Citation

Ince, Onur Ulas, Capitalism, Colonization, and Contractual Dispossession: Wakefield's Letters from Sydney (2012). APSA 2012 Annual Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN:

Onur Ulas Ince (Contact Author)

Singapore Management University ( email )

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Singapore, 259756

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