‘British Colonial Policy in the Age of Peel and Russell’ by W.P. Morrell

First edition 1930; reprinted 1966, 554 p.

When you change the government, you change the country” Paul Keating once said.  You mightn’t detect it from the title, but this book is not only about colonial policy but also about the ramifications of a change of government on an issue of such importance to 19th British politics and imperial identity.

You’ve got to hand it to the historians of the 1930s when they chose their titles- there’s no tricksy double-barrelled postmodern titles with colons and parentheses here.  What you’re promised is what you get- British colonial policy under the conservative Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel (1841-1846) , and then under the Whig Prime Minister Lord John Russell (1846-1852).  There is some slight blurring of the lines though because the cabinet responsibility for the colonies rested with the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, rather than the Prime Minister .  Although the Secretary of State  position was a bit of a revolving door during the 1830s with Secretaries coming and going in quick succession,it was more stable under the Peel and Russell administrations.  Lord Stanley acted as Secretary of State for nearly all of Peel’s time as Prime Minister, and Earl Grey was Russell’s Secretary of State for nearly the whole Russell government as well.  So the title could just as easily have been ‘British Colonial Policy in the Age of Stanley and Grey’, although of course the Prime Ministers held the ultimate authority.  Then of course, there was the Under-Secretary of State in the Colonial Office, Sir James Stephen, the civil servant who worked behind the scenes during both administrations.  Perhaps the title could expand to encompass Peel, Russell, Stanley, Grey and Stephen- but try fitting that onto the spine of the book!

Morrell identifies two main lobby groups who also exerted pressure on colonial policy. The humanitarians are well known because of  their influence on indigenous policy, and their anti-slavery and later anti-transportation activities. But the second lobby group, the Wakefieldians or the ‘Colonial Reformers’,  is less visible, and probably less appealing to 21st century activists.  Their systematic colonization cause is tied up with land policy, immigration and labour supply, and their intermixing of commercial and altruistic motivations is problematic for us today.  Their figurehead, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, was controversial and enigmatic then and now.  He had particular influence over a string of British politicians, including Earl Grey, Goderich, Molesworth, Gladstone and Lord Stanley, and because of their positions at the heart of the colonial debate in both conservative and Whig governments, his ideas were promulgated throughout the empire and especially in South Australia and New Zealand.

Structurally, the book is divided into two parts: Peel and Russell.  Within each part  there are chapters  devoted to a single colony- New Zealand, Australia, North America, South Africa, the Sugar Colonies, interspersed with more general chapters dealing with economic policy and transportation. Reflecting the author’s admiration for Earl Grey, the book closes with one chapter on his relationship with the Colonial Reformers and another on Grey’s place in imperial history.

Both Peel’s and Russell’s  administrations were united by a bipartisan acceptance of free trade economic policy, and this thread runs throughout the book.  It was a striking feature of the Peel administration, and it continued during Russell’s time as well.  So was Paul Keating right about a change of government changing the country? Yes, in that Peel’s administration strongly resisted self-government for the colonies and generally took the side of the plantation owners in the sugar colonies, and the Loyalists in Upper Canada.  Russell’s administration, on the other hand, was receptive to Wakefieldian ideas and amenable to discussions of representative and then responsible government,  even though Wakefield and the Colonial Reformers later turned against Earl Grey who had been their great hope as a fellow Colonial Reformer.  The analysis of colonial policy under the two administrations is a nuanced one that recognizes continuity but also detects difference, even if it is a matter of degree rather than stark contrast.

William Parker Morrell was a New Zealand historian, and he died in 1986. I sometimes wish that it was possible to take a book written many decades earlier- (and remember that this book was written in the 1930s) – and using the same structure and question, revisit it again in the light of more recent scholarship and interests.  Not rewrite the original, mind you, but just to look again from a different perspective, to see what has changed and what parts have taken on even more significance.

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4 responses to “‘British Colonial Policy in the Age of Peel and Russell’ by W.P. Morrell

  1. Nice post. When i first did Australian history, I must say to my shame that I did not pay sufficient attention to Imperial history. In my defence, so old am I that we actually did some of its at school!

    Your reactions to Canada were very similar to mine, a sense of difference but also familiarity. In terms of my own writing whether at family or broader level, i now feel the need to understand the broader context. But with changing fashion, so many of the books are now out of print!

    • Our one hope is that some of these books are so old that they will be out of copyright and end up on Google books! It intrigues me that there was such a long time between the first edition of this book and the reprint- and how closely the publication history of this book and Roberts parallel each other. He mentions Roberts several times.

  2. Amen! I was interested in Morrell because it looked like he overlapped my father. However, Dad was nine years younger and Canterbury and then Auckland rather than Otago. Still, you have generated another companion post!

  3. Pingback: ‘James Stephen and the British Colonial System 1813-1847′ by Paul Knaplund | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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