Monday, January 25, 2010

Venice and Akaroa

It’s a long bow to compare Venice with Akaroa. The high, comforting hills of Akaroa Harbour define a different landscape, but the light reflecting off salt water is a uniting factor. I count myself fortunate in that I spent three years as a student at Akaroa District High School. The historic town skirts a bay off the harbour, the crater of a dead volcano.

In a constant aroma of salt sea, in those days as it does now, it moved slowly in time to tidal rhythms. Denis Glover speaking about the "calendar beauty", says "the Akaroa hills are best in dawning/ or forgiving evening light." He's too harsh on the midday hills, their purple tint with lazy haziness contrasted to the sparkling water. The light reflected from the sea - brilliant turquoise, translucent green, turgid grey.

The town consisted of two distinct parts, a curved promenade linking them ran around the beach with its fringe of pebbles, debris and quarrelsome gulls, except for one little spot of sand near the old bathhouse. Inland, up three steep valleys small houses hugged the hillsides. It was less Frenchified then than it is now. What is now Rue Lavaud was Lavaud Street and the shops were unashamedly small town New Zealand. But it carried mementoes of a more glorious past, a large war memorial surrounded by gardens, the Gaiety theatre, the post-office with its mock Tudor panelling, swimming sheds, wharves, five large wooden hotels and many guest houses. Tourism was important, taking the waters. So was fishing - there was a crayfish factory.

The similarity with Venice was that the town then was decaying. It was kept going by tourism and absentee landlords who bought old houses or built a new bach. In the 18th century as Venice lost its imperial empire it turned to tourism and revelry as a means of survival. It became the centre of a cultural pilgrimage. Napoleon’s capture and destruction of the Venetian republic saw the end of an era and the intensification of tourism. Now the depopulation of the city means its livelihood depends entirely upon the seasonal influx of curious sightseers and foreigners buying property. City and small town depend upon the same factors.

Akaroa cannot boast, however, the same history. But it had its one dramatic moment. Our teachers stressed the town's history. In August 1838 a French whaling master, Captain L'Anglois purchased Banks Peninsula from the local Maori. Back in France there was talk of establishing a penal colony, but eventually this faded and 63 settlers, including a few Germans, (two of whom are ancestors) set sail in February 1840. They arrived on 13 August, two days after the French frigate L'Aube under Commodore Lavaud, but importantly three days after the British, Captain Stanley on the H.M.S. Britomart.

To us students it was presented as a dramatic race, the British just arrived in the nick of time to prevent the French claiming the South Island. According to Miss Greenwood, Lavaud had let slip to Governor Hobson and his Bay of Island luminaries the frigate's destination and his nation's plans. "In his cups," she seized the opportunity to elaborate on the perils of the demon drink. Otherwise we would be speaking French. Historically the race is not true, but it makes a good tale and a clever way of gaining attention. There was an added dimension, the whole town knew that Miss Greenwood liked her gin and tonics.

Though the French settlement had all the problems of all first landings - land to be cleared, no grain or vegetables for a while, and even when crops were mature seed had to be kept for the next planting - it was a safe anchorage for whaler and sealer. Once the settlers got established they could supply passing ships. This led to shipbuilding. In fact timber became the main industry. Venice may be old and built of stone. Akaroa was new and built of wood. Old weatherboard houses still reveal pit-sawn timber

It was a capital place for a shy country lad to develop a bit more confidence before he faced the challenges of Christchurch city – large by his standards. It was a stepping stone for the adult man who years later saw the Grand Canal with such delight.

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