A Toe-Hold at Akaroa
French Colonial Aspirations in Nouvelle-Zéalande
On August 2nd, 1838 Captain Jean François L'Anglois, then the master of the French whaler Cachalot, reportedly purchased a block of land on Banks Peninsula defined as "All Banks Peninsula, with the exception of the Bay of Hikuraki and Oihioa on the south, and Sandy Bay north of Port Cooper; the supposed contents 30,000 acres." Included within this block was the whole of the head of Akaroa Harbour and the site of the present township. Although two deeds written in French did exist and professed to disclose this cession of land, it is suspected that they were probably never executed. Other than these papers, no evidence of such a purchase agreement had been concluded in 1838 other than the transfer of certain items of European manufacture to local Maori Chiefs. Indeed one Georges Fleuret, present at the time and later to be one of the settlers arriving on the Comte de Paris, alleged that there had been no such agreement entered into with local Chiefs. He did say that Captain L'Anglois had shown him a "paper" which was supposed to have been a "contract signed by a native named Kikarori for the disposal of, or promise to dispose of, land to him (Captain L'Anglois) on his return to New Zealand."
Whatever the legitimacy of the agreement, Captain L'Anglois was of the belief that he owned this land and on his return to France he ceded his rights and title to it to the Nanto-Bordelaise Compagnie. This organisation consisted of two trading houses in Nantez, two in Bordeaux and three Parisian gentlemen who had associated themselves with the Captain to form a Société (with a capital of 1,000,000 francs) for the purpose of establishing a French colony in New Zealand. In return for ceding his "title" to the land and in place of his 6,000 franc subscription, Captain L'Anglois retained a fifth interest in the company for himself. The Nanto-Bordelaise Compagnie also attracted the attention of King Louis Philippe who took an interest in it, thus giving the organisation a higher profile and official recognition. To consolidate this recognition, the Company had agreed to cede to the French Government one fifth of its territory (accompanied by no small amusement from the English side of the Channel) for the establishment of a penal settlement. The New Zealand Journal of the day remarked; "If the French Government should send her political prisoners to British New Zealand, let it be clearly understood that they are free the instant they set foot on British land. France can exercise no jurisdiction over them there and supposing the "project" should ever ripen into action, which is very improbable - should the sons of France accept the hand of friendship, which we are quite sure will be held out to them, the New Zealand community will be the better of their peculiar intelligence and skill." It seemed that in France there was an acquired ignorance as to the actual state of affairs concerning British claims to the islands of New Zealand.
In August 1839, the Nanto-Bordelaise Compagnie began advertising for settlers. These advertisements offered free passage to New Zealand and a grant of five acres of land that would become freehold if cultivated inside five years and although all settlers were promised provisions sufficient to last 18 months following their arrival at Akaroa not much enthusiasm was initially shown. Expressions of interest were slow and it was not until early the following year that the offer began to gain some attraction. Prospective settlers began to arrive at Rochefort from Le Havre, Paris and other areas of France as well as further a-field in Germany. An old naval ship, the 550 ton Mahe a slow sailor which steered very badly, was acquired from the French Government and re-named the Comte de Paris. She was outfitted as a whaler in order, once her passengers had been safely delivered to their new home, to take advantage of the abundant pickings in the waters around New Zealand. By March 8th all preparations were ready and the Comte de Paris proceeded out into the channel in tow of a steamer at the beginning of her epic voyage. Unfortunately and unceremoniously it was here too that her voyage temporarily ended. The steamer missed the channel and ran Comte de Paris fast on a mud bank. In order to free her, part of the cargo had to be removed to lighten her load but within 10 days she was free and a fair wind took the vessel and her charges out into the Atlantic and out of sight of France.
Although the first part of the passage was not at all eventful, it was rather uncomfortable due to the somewhat erratic faculties of this old ship. All on board were no doubt glad of the short stay they made at St Helena where fresh provisions including a bountiful supply of fresh bananas were procured. It was here too that one of the settlers, Francois le Lievre, obtained cuttings from the willow trees at Napoleon's grave which he was to establish in the new settlement. Soon the Comte de Paris was again on her slow way south to the Cape of Good Hope. Unlike other immigrant voyages before and since, and much to the chagrin of the settlers, Captain L'Anglois forced them to work in the same manner as the crew with the exception of having to attend to the sails aloft. Four months into the voyage and off the coast of Tasmania, the ship found itself in a terrific storm. Lightning struck some of the masts carrying them away and causing the ship to broach to and almost capsize. Following the storm, they were able to cut away the tangled wreck of rigging and erect a jury-rig sufficient for them to proceed on their journey. A month later they found themselves off Banks Peninsula and almost at the end of their protracted voyage.
Shortly before their arrival at Banks Peninsula two of the settlers named Chardin and Jotereau had died on board and their friends were desirous that they be buried ashore. The ship put in to Pigeon Bay to the north of Akaroa where Chardin and Jotereau were interred on the beach. At this time Captain L'Anglois was anxious to find out if Commodore Lavaud, who had preceded him in the naval frigate Aube to ensure French territorial rights to the peninsula, had indeed arrived as planned. He despatched a whaleboat which returned four days later with the worrying news that the Aube was nowhere to be seen. On August 14th Comte de Paris sailed from Pigeon Bay and anchored at Akaroa Heads the following day where she despatched another whaleboat to scour the harbour for the missing Commodore. This time the news was good and the Aube's launch was despatched to tow Comte de Paris up the harbour which was achieved the following day. This was a fortuitous event for the sea was running heavy, causing Comte de Paris to drift dangerously close to the rocks and one of the flukes of her anchor had broken meaning she was unable to steady herself.
Several days before her arrival, and completely unknown to all on board, a dramatic last minute race between the French Naval frigate Aube and the British Naval sloop Britomart had been acted out down the length of the East coast of New Zealand. On his arrival in New Zealand, Commodore Lavaud had called at the Bay of Islands to honour the resident Lieutenant-Governor, Captain Hobson. That this was a mark of respect there can be no doubt, but it also drew attention to the purpose for his presence in the new colony. Whilst Commodore Lavaud remained in the Bay of Islands, Governor Hobson issued orders that Captain Stanley of the HMS Britomart make all haste south to Akaroa and "show the flag". This Captain Stanley achieved and saved both the French and British Governments embarrassment and potential awkward conflict. The events surrounding this time are well recorded on Captain Stanley's report to Hobson but there were certainly some uncomfortable moments, not the least of which occurred on board Comte de Paris. While it is believed that the French well knew the British sovereignty situation with respect to the whole of New Zealand, it seems that the new settlers were "in the dark" to this truth. Indeed they believed they were to set foot on French territory. As the ship was towed up the harbour past Green Point, several on board noticed a small group of men surrounding a Flagstaff from which flew not the French Tricolour but the British Union Jack. Such a sight naturally surprised and worried them but they were told that it was merely a vain-glorious show of patriotism by some English whalers in the vicinity. Indeed, and interestingly enough, it had been agreed between Mr C B Robinson the Resident Police Magistrate and Commodore Lavaud that, while the frigate Aube remained in the harbour, the British flag should not be hoisted and the fact of British possession before the arrival of the French should be kept secret. The secret was well kept and it was not until a number of years later that the settlers learned the real truth.
The pretty French settlement of Akaroa was thus established and flourished, becoming a successful New Zealand community. The new settlers had been issued their allotted land which they successfully cultivated. Mr W B Rhodes had landed some cattle there under the care of Mr Green. The question to the title to the lands claimed by the Nanto-Bordelaise Compagnie was not dealt with by the Land Commission but became the subject of protracted diplomatic negotiations with the British Government. Finally, in 1845, Lord Stanley directed the issue of a grant for 30,000 acres, the amount initially claimed to have been acquired by Captain L'Anglois. The Nanto-Bordelaise Compagnie disposed of their interests to the New Zealand Company, and upon the final settlement of that corporation's affairs the unsold lands became vested in the Government. Commodore Lavaud was relieved in 1844 by Commodore Berard, while Mr C B Robinson was relieved as British Magistrate by Mr John Watson. The settlers, on hearing the truth that they were now living in a British Colony, were offered passage and land grants in Tahiti or the Marquesas. None accepted.
Copyright Denise & Peter: 2000, 2001, 2002