France’s true intentions for the South Island are a matter of contention, but it is clear that French interest speeded up Britain’s decision to annex New Zealand.
In 1838 Jean François Langlois, commander of the whaling ship Cachalot, embarked on a grandiose scheme for a French colony at Akaroa. After a dubious land purchase from Māori he established the Nanto-Bordelaise Company in France in 1839 to carry out the project. King Louis-Philippe agreed to provide assistance.
Still smarting from the missed opportunity to colonise Akaroa, the region’s French governor wistfully observed its advantages:
‘The wheat seems better than in France. All the vegetables are growing well. It is truly regrettable that we arrived here after the British.’ 1
The French representative for the settlement, Captain Charles François Lavaud, sailed for New Zealand in February 1840. A month later, the Comte de Paris set off for Akaroa carrying 59 emigrants.
Meanwhile, the British government had bowed to pressure to colonise the country and sent out William Hobson in 1839. He signed the Treaty of Waitangi on 6 February 1840, and claimed sovereignty over the South Island on 21 May.
When Lavaud reached the Bay of Islands in July, he learned that New Zealand had already become British. Hobson was friendly, but sent the Britomart to observe the French in Akaroa. Lavaud accepted that France could not create a colony without causing hostility. When the Comte de Paris arrived in August, the Union Jack was flying over Akaroa.
Geoff Cush’s 2002 novel Son of France imagines New Zealand as it might have been had France colonised New Zealand instead of Britain. Christchurch is re-cast as Sainte-Chapelle, set in the Normandy Plain. The nation’s capital is New Lyon (Auckland), while Wellington is the only part of the country in British hands. The middle of the North Island is National Park, where Māori sovereignty prevails. The book was translated into French as Graine de France.
The French colonists flourished briefly, enjoying trade with the whaling ships. In 1843 they numbered 69 (including eight Germans), intermingling with 86 British as well as Māori. At first life was tough, but they replaced the original tents with houses, and began to grow fruit and vegetables. The French navy built roads, bridges and wharves, and French priests taught the children. Shops, hotels, bakeries, and cafés opened. The British government eventually granted the settlers official ownership of land. Until 1845 Lavaud and his successor administered French law within the settlement. By the mid-1840s there was a decline in whaling, and the French navy left in 1846. Most settlers stayed and became naturalised, but numbers were always small. Today, some architecture, the cemetery, and names such as Rue Balguerie and Rue Benoit, French Farm and Duvauchelle, along with thousands of descendants, are testament to the original colonists.
There were no other French settlements on the scale of Akaroa, but French people are known to have settled in other parts of the country. The eccentric Charles Philippe Hippolyte de Thierry arrived in Hokianga in 1837 and unsuccessfully attempted to found a French colony with himself as sovereign. In the early 1840s sailors Emile Borell and Louis Bidois settled in Bay of Plenty and married Māori women. Many of their descendants still live in the region.