William Cargill


William Cargill

Often seen out in his blue bonnet and tartan plaid in early colonial Dunedin, Captain William Cargill was the leader of the Free Church of Scotland’s settlement in Otago, intent on maintaining a religious and orderly community in the most isolated corner of the earth.

Cargill was born in Edinburgh during the Scottish enlightenment, yet was imbued with the socially conservative views of his mother and the Free Church of Scotland. Following his father’s death, William was forced to leave school and accept an ensigncy in the 84th Regiment of Foot in 1802. There he rose to the rank of captain and served in India and in the Peninsular War against France.

During the 1830s Cargill, now struggling to support his ten children and make a living in London, became interested in emigration. By 1845 he held a leading role in the plan to establish a pre-industrial and exclusively Free Church of Scotland settlement in New Zealand. Despite the Colonial Office’s attempts to obstruct the scheme, inadequate funding, and the Scottish migrants’ reluctance to relocate to such a far-flung location, Cargill and 243 other settlers set sail for New Zealand in November 1847.

On 23 March 1848 the Free Church settlers established Dunedin at the head of the Otago Harbour. Cargill's tenacity and patriarchal style of leadership proved vital in helping the struggling settlement to survive problems of chronic isolation and the unsuitability of the land for arable farming.

Five years later he was elected as the first superintendent of the province of Otago, but proved to be autocratic, inflexible, nepotistic and intolerant of criticism or Anglicanism. Nevertheless, he dominated the politics of his province more completely than did any other early superintendent, and was vital to Otago’s early modest success. The city of Invercargill is named in his honour.

Adapted by Matthew Tonks from the DNZB biography by Tom Brooking

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