The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 9 (December 1, 1937.)
France in New Zealand Historic Akaroa
One of the principal beauties of New Zealand harbours is the aspect they sometimes present in the early morning: mist-enshrouded, the hills wet, but lighted in great patches glowing to life in the morning sun and a long dully shining expanse of water, just ruffled and no more, like a metal mirror cooling ready for the burnishing.
It was so I first saw Akaroa ten years ago, coming over the hill from Purau, across Lyttelton Harbour from the port. A good long pull it is over the hill, with a hotel at 1,650 feet, from which one gains one's first sight of the Akaroa Harbour.
So down to Wainui, and round past Barry's Bay, Duvauchelles and Robin-son's Bay, to the quaint old town, one of the most romantic in the Dominion's history. Most people have read of Captain Stewart, who took Te Rauparaha in his brig to Whangaroa, when the old chief was spoiling to get at the Ngaitahu. The Whangaroa of the story was Akaroa, and it was from Akaroa that the Chief of the Ngaitahu enticed on board Stewart's brig, was shanghaied to Kapiti, where he was tortured and despatched.
Only a little time later Te Rauparaha, never a man to do things by halves went back and massacred the tribe at the Onawe promontory near Duvauchelles.
But it is all peaceful to-day, a great expanse of water, with those brown hills we know so well sprawled lazily about.
So round the harbour until finally one enters the little town of Akaroa, half French, half English. Lord Lyttefton, in the late 'sixties, described it as more like a Swiss or Rhenish village, of small extent, and almost all separate houses, embedded and half-concealed in trees, and the wooden spire, of the church peeping up among them:
“In the afternoon they came unto a land
In which it seemed always afternoon.
All round the coast the languid air did swoon,
Breathing like one that hath a weary dream.”
Akaroa is still a Sleepy Hollow, still a Land of the Lotus-Eaters. The original French strain among the settlers is very strong and these people, and their forebears have been there many years. Their delightful old cemetery, with its touching inscriptions, was the first in Canterbury, and was consecrated by Bishop Pompallier in 1847.
The story of how the French came to be mixed up with Akaroa is well-known. Louis Philippe of France gave his approval to the acquisition of land in New Zealand for the assistance of French whalers. The Nanto-Bordelaise Company had acquired some sort of claim to land, and sent a colonising expedition which arrived on August 16th, 1840, a day after a French frigate, L'Aube, under Captain Lavaud, had slipped into Akaroa Harbour. However, the projected sailings had not been kept quiet in Paris; the British Embassy had got wind of what was happening, the New Zealand Company was informed, and Edward Gibbon Wakefield found in his hand the very card he needed to force the British Government to proclaim sovereignty over the whole of New Zealand, and formal annexation of the South Island had taken place two months earlier, and H.M.S. Britomart, under Captain Owen Stanley, had been in Akaroa since August 11th, and the British flag was already flying.
Fiction-mongers have dressed the tale up as a race between the Britomart and L'Aube, but there is no need of fiction. The story of how we got our French settlers, who were allowed to remain and chose to do so rather than go to Tahiti, as their own Government offered, is romantic enough without embellishment.
The “race” is commemorated by an obelisk on what is known as Green's Point.
The French population is still very considerable: indeed, it is one of the most delightful sights New Zealand can produce; this charming old-world town with its people from another land and another century. It is as close as anywhere to the New Zealand of the early days. The hand of progress has touched Akaroa, but lightly. Let it remain a Sleepy Hollow—there is balm in such places.