Akaroa, a quaint town on Banks Peninsula in the Canterbury Region of the South Island of New Zealand, carries a unique blend of Maori and European influences. However, what sets it apart is its distinct French flavour.
Founded in August 1840 by French settlers, Akaroa stands out as a unique testament to French ambition and resilience. But why did the French settle in Akaroa, a place immensely far from France, in the first place?
Luckily for you, we can answer that!
Why did the French settle in Akaroa?
Economic and political reasons drove the French to settle in Akaroa. They saw a golden opportunity in this far-flung corner of the Pacific, particularly in its port and location.
Three crucial economic drivers for the French settlement in Akaroa were the lucrative whaling industry, the potential for economic gain from Akaroa’s abundant natural resources, and its location as a fishing port.
However, it’s important to note that the French settlement in Akaroa was not just about immediate economic gains. It was also part of a larger geopolitical game.
In 1839, both France and Great Britain were studying ways of asserting their authority over Maori territory. The French settlement at Akaroa was a move in this direction for France, an attempt to establish a foothold in New Zealand before other European powers could do so.
The French saw the potential for significant economic gains from whaling in Akaroa. The French colonists flourished briefly, enjoying trade with the whaling ships.
The Banks Peninsula in particular was a hot spot for French whaling ships. The sheltered harbour provided safe anchorage and the sea teemed with whales, a highly prized commodity at the time.
Whales were hunted for their blubber, which was processed into oil and used for lighting lamps, lubricating machinery, and making soap and candles. Whalebone or baleen was also a valuable resource for corsets, buggy whips, and other products.
Despite the eventual decline of the whaling industry due to overhunting and the rise of petroleum-based products, the impact of French whalers on Akaroa remained significant.
Abundant Natural Resources
What about Akaroa’s natural resources appealed to the French settlers of the 19th century?
One of the main attractions for the French was Akaroa’s fertile soil. This was particularly evident in French Farm Bay, aptly named for the agricultural potential the French settlers saw in it.
The fertile land, created by volcanic activity, provided an ideal environment for farming and viticulture. With their deep-rooted appreciation for fine food and wine, the French would have found this aspect of Akaroa particularly appealing.
They recognized the potential for cultivating crops and establishing vineyards, providing sustenance and economic opportunities.
Akaroa’s strategic location as a fishing port was another key attraction for the French. Its sheltered harbour has long been used by coastal ships and fishing boats.
This accessibility would have made it an attractive base for the French, facilitating easy transportation of their catches and supporting the development of a robust fishing community.
In the 18th century, European powers were embroiled in a global race to claim colonies. New Zealand was a prime target, with its strategic location and abundant resources.
France sought to stake its claim on New Zealand—targeting the South Island—like Britain and other countries. Establishing a small settlement in Akaroa was part of this broader strategy.
However, by the time the French arrived in New Zealand, the British had already claimed the South Island. So while they (the French) didn’t manage to claim the South Island, Akaroa did become the only successful French settlement in New Zealand.