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Captain Charles Francois Lavaud, the King's Commissioner for the French Settlement, arrived in the Bay of Islands on June 10, 1840, on his way south to prepare for the arrival of the first French colonists - only to find that the British had already proclaimed sovereignty over the whole of New Zealand.
That was merely the first of the challenges which confronted Lavaud: Langlois had not been too particular about those with whom he negotiated for the "purchase" of land, few of the Maori owners had received any payment, the British had already established civil authority at Akaroa in the form of a magistrate's court, and its land titles were of uncertain validity. Nevertheless, the settlement, while it remained small, enjoyed some success. The second and last King's Commissioner was A. Bérard: he held the post until April 1846.
Peter Tremewan has a long-standing interest in the history of the French efforts to establish a French colony at Akaroa. The first edition of French Akaroa was published in 1990. In the 20 years since, the author has conducted further extensive research and the result is a revised and enlarged study of the plans of the Nanto-Bordelaise Company, backed by the French Government, to colonise the South Island. Tremewan has clearly extracted a wealth of material from French sources.
The book is divided into four parts: part one deals with "French Ambitions", part two is entitled "Coming to terms with reality" and part three "A French Settlement", while part four deals with the existence of the Nanto-Bordelaise Company. Three appendices deal, respectively, with the French and German settlers. the Maori of Banks Peninsula, and Akaroa shipping. It is lavishly and helpfully illustrated with maps and photographs, and offers a comprehensive and well-ordered bibliography.
French Akaroa is an exhaustive study of a new settlement and the reader can only be impressed with the author's efforts to unearth all the relevant details. On another level, Tremewan suggests that the French efforts constituted "almost a major turning point in New Zealand history", that had it not been for some delays, New Zealand could have had a peaceful and prosperous South Island or New France while British settlers struggled to colonise the North Island.
After reading this exhaustive study, the reader is left wondering just how committed the French were to colonising the South Island: plans abounded but the resources devoted were few and the efforts made were modest. Konrad Adenauer, West Germany's first post-1945 chancellor, once famously remarked that history was the sum total of all that could have been avoided.
But history is also replete with many things that could have been.
• Dr Hearn is a Dunedin historian.