NZ #11: Akaroa

By: | Post date: January 7, 2010 | Comments: No Comments
Posted in categories: Countries

Akaroa, “Long Harbour”, is a harbour on a crater on Banks Peninsula, 82 km from Christchurch. Captain Cook thought it was Banks Island, and that’s how he named it. Ten million years ago, as the volcano rose from out the sea, he would have been right. The volcano has done its rising now, and what’s left is an impossibly picturesque view from the hilltop, of grassland and holidaymakers and tongues of water against small seaside villages, in intense blues and whites and greens that are preordained for postcards.

A couple of those villages and tongues of water tell a history that could have been: Duvauchelle, Le Bons Bay, French Bay. Fifty-odd French settlers came to Akaroa in 1840, and founded a settlement there. German Bay would have told the story that German settlers came with them; but in a fit of Great War hysteria, that name was effaced from the map, and what was their bay is now Takamatua.

The French settlers would have founded a colony too, and New Munster would have become Nouveau Nantes, had the HMS Britomart not raced down from New Ulster to claim the island for Queen Victoria.

Mercifully, the North and South island are no longer called New Ulster and New Munster, although Auckland’s central railway station is named for the Britomart. In appointing itself as Middle Earth, however, the South Island is reverting to an older name, in a way. The tiny Stewart Island, 35 km south of Bluff, was originally called the South Island; and Aoraki’s Canoe was not the South, but the Middle Island.

I’m not going to Stewart Island this trip: the prospect of seeing kiwi birds in the wild would attract many a tourist, but I am not one of them. Instead, I’m going to see what a French-settled New Zealand Town looks like.

A lot more British settlers moved to Akaroa than French, once the French sold their land to the New Zealand Company. With that, and with seven generations elapsed, Akaroa is not terribly French anymore, except where it will help the tourist trade. The car mechanic announces his trade in French, the butcher’s is Le Boucherie du Village, and the local police station calls itself a Gendarmerie. But they’re not really fooling anyone. The memorial to the war dead has no time for such frivolity: it is dedicated to somberness and the anglophone Empire, and among the fifty or so dead are only a couple of French surnames. (The village now only has 660 permanent residents; the Great War had a rich harvest here.)

But the tourists are here for the French heritage, and the village will not disappoint. French flags are everywhere, and every second shop has a French title. Many visitors have a French accent. The good townsfolk don’t take it terribly seriously: I doubt they have sought out French embassy funding for the annual escargot race.

Still, they’re interested enough in their French history to do travels of their own. The Akaroa Mail has had a permanent enough Slow News Day that its latest issue breathlessly rereports the Metropole Hotel burning down—forty years ago. It also reports that there will be a slideshow on the 17th from a townsman’s recent visit to St Helens. Where the Christchurch willow trees came from.

Akaroa is very agreeable, but I was curious if the French and German settlers left anything behind that wasn’t just for the tourists. The local museum confirmed the settlement was French in 1840, and the restored cottage had furniture that came from the continent; but the museum’s coverage fast-forwarded from 1840 to 1900 pretty quickly, and there was little hint of how much and how long Akaroa stayed French.

The hints around the town say, not very. There is a Catholic church, but it’s St Patrick’s, not Saint-Denis. There is a French and an English quarter, and the street names reflect that: Rue Lavaud turns into Beach Rd, and on the French side it probably always has been Rue Lavaud: the couple of newspaper clippings in the museum show it wasn’t renamed for at least three generations. But the pubs in the French Quarter from the 1870s don’t have French names: Hotel Madeira is as close to the continent as they get. Conversely, the English quarter, where the wharf is, has more than its portion of French-named shops now. Just as the distinctive East German traffic lights are now turning up in West Berlin, in fact: they’ve spread there now, because they’re what the tourists expect to see there.

There is a Catholic cemetery in Akaroa, but the signposts are to “CoE Cemetery” and “RC and Dissenters Cemetery”. That dichotomy already tells you you’re in Church of England territory, which was the whole point of establishing Christchurch: not only did the Catholics get the other cemetery, but they got lumped in with the Protestants disloyal to the Church of England. That there even is a difference between Methodists and Anglicans is something most of the Anglosphere doesn’t bother to remind you of any more.

There was one further hint on how quickly the French past was discarded, before the tourists came looking for it. Up the hill behind St Patrick’s is the Old French Cemetery; the new Catholic And Dissenters cemetery is on the other side of the village, next to the CoE Cemetery. The trail up to the Old French cemetery is steep and windy, and barely footworn. And when you get to the top of the trail, all that’s left of the Old French cemetery is a small obelisk and a flat enclosure.

The sign next to the enclosure explains what happened. In 1925, the New Zealand Government came to restore the cemetery. It found most of the headstones missing, with only a few mounds and fallen crosses hinting that French settlers were buried here. The restorers put on the obelisk the dozen names they could recover from the crosses, along with the two surviving plaques.

Ci git le corps de Le Lièvre Edouard, Agé de 35 ans, Capne du navire Heva, décedé à Akaroa le 11 mai 1842. Priez pour lui.

Ici repose le corps de Mr Pierre Le Buffe Commis de la Marine age de 26 ans mort le 8 9bre 1842 a bord de la cte L’ Allier a Akaroa. Priez pour lui.

The local community restored the ground again in 1990. (A safe enough time after the Rainbow Warrior bombing.) A holiday house is being built next door.

Michael King’s History of New Zealand writes about both the Maori and the Pakeha life of the island, in separate chapters. King is defensive about the Pakeha side: he argues they had good intentions even if they did not always live up to them. He notes, with more resentment than he should be letting on, the contrast between the Maori, who can now successfully block freeways being built on their ancestral land, and the freeway about to bulldoze over the house and ashes of Frank Sargeson, one of the great Pakeha prose writers of New Zealand. (King died in 2003; I’ll assume they succeeded.) There is a sense among some Pakeha, he writes—again, letting on more than he should—that the pendulum has swung too far: that the Maoris’ mana and taonga and wahi tapu, their prestige and cultural treasures and sacred places, are honoured, and the Paheka’s are not.

A pendulum swinging presupposes that there is a zero sum game in cultural heritage; but the only people who should be tallying credit points that way are the people building freeways. For the rest, there is enough mana to go around, and enough to claim as taonga.

Some Maori may be surprised at the claims, given the stereotypes they have developed of the Pakeha over the years: greedy, cunning, dishonouring their dead. The state of the Old French Cemetery in 1925 fit that stereotype well enough. But if the Pakeha are now asserting that they too have a heritage that matters—then maybe they have learned something from the Maori after all.

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