Baguettes, brasseries, even a shop, Acaroa bears its French history on its tri-colour wrapper. Video/film Frank
Frank Film: Stories from the South
Baguettes, brasseries, even a shop, Acaroa bears its French history on its tri-colour wrapper. Street names start with “street”. The biannual French Festival draws crowds to scenic boulevards, and a monument to early French settlers stands on the hill above the stunning blue waters of Banks Peninsula Harbour.
It is a vibrant story of colonial rivalry, “a story that speaks volumes,” as the Star correspondent wrote in 1919, about a British and French warship racing from the Bay of Islands to annex the peninsula. From the banks to their respective kings. Because of frequent retellings, this story has been embellished, says Linda Wallace, director of the Akaroa Museum.
She told Frank Film: “Akaroa almost became a French colony, but the popular notion that there was an Akaroa race is an exaggeration.”
The French chapter of this colonial tale began in 1838 when French whaler Jean Langlois sailed to the port of Lyttelton and negotiated the purchase of most of the Banks Peninsula from the local Māori for 1,000 francs. Langlois does not negotiate with anyone else in the neighborhood, but to show his commitment he sends a deposit of 150 francs paid – “hats, shirts, trousers – and a gun,” says Wallace. On his return to France, he consolidated his financial support for his colonial project and gathered a group of 63 settlers, mostly French but with a few Germans, eager to establish an isolated French colony in New Zealand.
The Count of Paris embarked at the beginning of March 1840. He was accompanied by the French Navy ship, the Aube, commanded by Charles Lavaud, to keep an eye on the interests of the settlers and to watch over the French whalers already active on the New Zealand coast. .
What they don’t know, Wallace says, is that just over a month earlier the Treaty of Waitangi had been signed and British sovereignty over all of New Zealand’s Aotearoa was declared.
Lavaud had an initial idea of this when he set up L’Aube in the Bay of Islands and met Lieutenant-Governor Hobson.
Upon hearing of LaVaud’s colonial aspirations, Hobson decides to send a British naval vessel, the Britomart, to the Banks Peninsula to ensure, as Wallace explains, that any foreign nationals entering the port of Akaroa would have no suspicion of the British presence. Firstly.
“It was this voyage from the Bay of Islands to the Banks Peninsula that gave rise to the idea or exaggeration of the Race for Akaroa because these two chiefs were going down the Banks Peninsula as fast as they could.”
Britomart sailed to the port of Akaroa on August 10, 1840. Five days later, Loup sailed into the deep bay, and then, two days later, on August 17, the Comte de Paris finally dropped anchor. Wallace said that the small group of mostly poor settlers with few possessions had no idea they had reached a land where they had no hope of settling. Says Wallace, “As the travelers of the Earl of Paris were sailing through the port, they must have been very disappointed to find the Union Jack flying from the flagstaff.”
But the promised allotment of five acres (two hectares) of property—long, thin sections extending over the surrounding hills—was subsidized to each family, and for several short years the settlers, supported by a staff of men from L’Aube, made up the majority. From the people of Akaroa.
British settlers and Bach landowners soon took control of the town, which today has a population of about 750, but the French connection remains. The street names – Rue Jolie, Rue Lavaud, Rue Benoit – are the result of a promotional program in the 1960s to attract more tourists to the city and ‘play with its French’, but the most obvious detail of French history in Akaroa is the 12-meter-wide Rue Lavaud – a congress in France at the time – and the exterior shutters and hipped roof of the historic Langlois Etevenux house, the last surviving French colonial building, now attached to the Akaroa Museum.
As Wallace says, “French history has always been very important to Akaroa. It is unique to New Zealand. There is no other city in New Zealand where there has been an attempt at French settlement.”
Watch the full story here www.frankfilm.co.nz