At a distance of more than 18 000 km New Zealand and France are almost as far apart as it is possible to be. Visit the little town of Akaroa on the South Island of New Zealand however and you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve somehow ended up in France.
On the drive south from Christchurch to the Banks Peninsula your first view of Akaroa and its harbour is breathtaking. The harbour was formed 9 million years ago in a volcanic eruption and is one of the world’s best examples of an eroded crater.
Maori people were the first to settle on the Banks Peninsula about 700 years ago. In 1769, Captain James Cook and the crew of The Endeavour were the first Europeans to sight land here although they continued on their voyage without stopping. They were followed by European whalers in the 1830s. In 1838 Captain Jean François Langlois persuaded the local Maori to sell most of the peninsula to him for 1000 francs. He returned to France and established a company with the purpose of setting up a French colony on the peninsula. By January 1840 the ship Comte-de-Paris set sail from Rochefort with 53 French and German colonists on board. A naval warship L’Aube, under Captain Charles François Lavaud, sailed from Brest to provide protection for the settlers.
The colonists arrived in Akaroa on 17 August 1840 only to find that their plans for a French settlement had been thwarted by the English, who had claimed the South Island of New Zealand as a British colony under the Treaty of Waitangi. Captain Owen Stanley of the Britomart had raised the Union Jack at Green’s Point just six days before.
The colonists were undeterred and decided to stay, and Akaroa became the only town in New Zealand to be settled by the French. Today their influence is evident in the names of the streets and businesses in the town.
The old French burial ground on L’Aube Hill is marked by a plaque which acknowledges these pioneers and their contribution to the town.
So as you wander along Rue Lavaud munching on your freshly baked baguette, or sip a coffee at one of the many cafés, close your eyes and for a moment you might just be transported to a tiny village in the heart of France.