The French at d’Akaroa

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What would have happened to this country’s place names if the British hadn’t claimed these isles?

French colonisers, spying the land through their portholes last century, would dearly have liked to claim southern Nouvelle Mande for King Louis Philippe. They failed, but Banks Peninsula still carries vestiges of past battles for occupation and control. The place names around Akaroa Harbour reflect a melting pot of cultures, languages, and personalities, and the resulting comedy was described by one French­man as “a theatre open to all sorts of ambitions.”

Maui was the first on stage, according to Maori legend. Having fished up Te Ika a Maui (the North Island), he was having a rest when a giant tried to attack him and his family. Maui pushed the monster to the bottom of the sea and piled rocks upon him. The monster moved, cracking the land, and the water that rushed in formed Akaroa Harbour.

Maori place namer Rakaihautu was quick to recognise the volcanic crater’s potential as a retirement resort. After naming the lakes of the South Island, he set his digging stick at the top of the jagged crater summit, called it Tuhirangi, and lived out the rest of his days in Akaroa.

Captain James Cook thought the peninsula was separated from the main­land, and named the “island” after the Endeav­our’s naturalist, Joseph Banks, in 1770. Twenty thousand years earlier Cook would have been right: the two landmasses were not joined at that stage. How­ever, the great navigator did not stay long enough to investigate, and his error was not corrected until 1810, when Stewart Island explorer and cartographer Captain Chase of the Pegasus showed that island and mainland were con­nected. For a time the isthmus was called Cook’s Mistake before it was changed to Banks Penin­sula.

Errors were common in the recording of Maori names when explorers and whalers charted the area in the early 19th century. Many names were lost, and those that survived were often corrupted. Hakaroa, Wongaloor, Wageroa and Woonaloa were all given as variants of Akaroa, itself a South Island derivative of Whangaroa, meaning long harbour.

In 1838, at the peak of the 30-year whaling boom that all but eliminated whales from New Zealand waters, French whaling captain Jean-Francois Langlois decided to follow the example of New South Wales land speculators,and made a down payment on 12,150 hectares of Banks Peninsula land. Back in France he used his Freema­sonry connections to generate support from businessmen and the government for the idea of a settlement, naval base and penal colony in a temperate climate. The Nanto-Bordelaise company was formed, and in 1840 Langlois left France on the Comte de Paris with 69 emigrants and the naval corvette L’Aube to set up Philippeville. It was going to be the starting point for French colonisation of the South Island.

When the French arrived at the Bay of Islands they discovered that the Treaty of Waitangi had just been signed, and the British had claimed the South Island a month earlier. The disap­pointed French carried on to Akaroa, where they began their settlement on allocated land under the watchful eye of the HMS Britomart and the suspi­cious looks of residents of the English town.

The main street of the French town remembers the diplomatic captain of L’Aube, Charles Lavaud, who claimed that some of the settlers had arrived without even a change of underwear, while Rue Pompallier commemorates the Catholic Bishop who visited in 1840, concerned about the poor emigrants and their loss of faith.

Auguste Berard, who took over as commandant of the French settlers from Lavaud, is honoured in the name of a hill which overlooks the township that he helped to develop with public works.

The French influence extended across the harbour to a plant nursery in a bay named after Freemason Duke Decazes, a prosperous industrialist and politician who sup­ported the settlement of Akaroa. Today it is called French Farm Bay, and its fertile soil supports a protea nursery and winery. Nearby Petit Carenage Bay means “little careening”, and was a place for boats to be cleaned and scraped before there was a slip at Duvauchelle. It supplied firewood for ships up until the mid-1860s.

French influence was not limited to place names. In 1849 Captain John Stokes of the Acheron noted the “unmistakable Frenchified carriage” of the Akaroa Maori. Stokes, who charted much of the South Island and named Mt Cook, has a bay named after him on the peninsula.

Duvauchelle was named after two French brothers who traded at Akaroa from 1843, but never lived there. English magistrate Charles Robinson, who arrived on the Britomart, lived at Robinson’s Bay for several years before selling up and returning to England. He said he had done his best to ensure that civilisation was maintained.

Over the crater rim, Le Bons Bay is believed to have been named after the first European to land there. However, some think it means “good bay”, while it is possible the name is a corruption of Bones Bay,because the whalers used  to dry out whalebone there.

Maori, English and French names are not the only ones to last. North of Le Bons Bay Okains Bay has a questionable origin. A trading captain was appar­ently reading a book by an Irish naturalist as he passed the inlet. However, no naturalist of this name has ever been traced.

More credible is Menzies Bay, a nearby bay named after the Scottish family that has lived there from 1878.

Six Germans were among the passengers on the Comte de Paris to arrive in 1840. They were allo­cated land in the bay next to the French. At the request of the residents, German Bay reverted to its Maori name of Takamatua during the First World War.

Many of the descriptive names, such as Flea, Pigeon, Stony, Long, Red House and Whaler’s Bays, remain. However, some of the Maori place names have been altered, despite efforts by the settlers to preserve them. Hickory Bay is a transliteration of Waikerakikari, while the Maori settlement now known as the “Kaik”, a contraction of the South Island form for kainga, was referred to as the Caique.

Places named after incidents give an insight into what life was like in the mid-19th century.

Historians believe Goashore was dubbed following a skirmish over an iron cooking pot where a party of Maori were told to “go ashore” by a boat’s crew.

On the south-west coast of the peninsula, Tumble­down Bay was christened in 1842 following an episode in which George Hempelman’s trusted hand Bill Simpson was returning from a whaling station with a case of spirits. The fellow rested under a tree on the hot day and opened the cargo to quench his thirst. His balance impaired, he later rolled down the hillside, breaking the bottles and his reputation.

The French whalers are remembered in a reef dubbed the Frenchman’s Whale after the eager visitors mistakenly har­pooned a reef early one morning in 1839.

French influence in New Zealand spreads beyond the planned settlement at Banks Peninsula, for several French navigators sailed these waters. One was explorer Dumont d’Urville of the Astrolabe, who in the 1820s named numerous features around Nelson and Marlborough such as French Pass,Torrent Bay and d’Urville Island.

Today French surnames and architecture as well as “Rue” street names are common around Akaroa. Day trippers and weekend commuters can ponder over a croissant and café au lait what would have happened if the French had colonised the south seas Riviera and beyond. Would Geographique Nouvelle Mande be writing about Club Med Philippeville or documenting a nuclear test site in the Southern Alps?

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