Allons creuser! Let’s go digging!

Working in archaeology here in New Zealand we most often encounter the material remains of Māori settlement and colonisation by the British Empire in the 19th century. Groups such as the New Zealand Company and the Canterbury Association laid out the blueprint for the shape and style of British colonisation, particularly in urban centres. So the opportunity to examine a different cultural context in Canterbury using archaeological techniques doesn’t come along that often, and when it does we jump at the chance! This weekend the Underground Overground Archaeology team are heading out to Banks Peninsula to help the Akaroa Civic Trust record and preserve an important site related to the French colonial effort in New Zealand.

French Farm house. Image: Jan Cook.

French Farm house. Image: Jan Cook.

French Farm Bay is situated across the harbour from the town of Akaroa on Banks Peninsula. Akaroa, the site of French settlement in the 1840s, is well known for its distinctly French character and several 19th century buildings still survive. In contrast the settlement at French Farm, once more populated than Akaroa, is now represented by a single structure. French Farm house was constructed in the early 1840s by the French navy. Its early date and unique context makes it a special site on Banks Peninsula. Archaeological recording techniques can be especially useful for this kind of site, combining meticulous examination of the built structure with an understanding of the surrounding landscape and the potential for below-ground archaeological remains.

Akaroa in 1866. Image: Buick 1928: 256.

In the 1830s Akaroa Harbour was a frequent stop-over point for European whaling ships.[1] In 1838 Jean François Langlois, the captain of a French vessel, acquired Banks Peninsula from some of the local Ngai Tahu chiefs. Returning to France he campaigned for the formation of the Nanto-Bordelaise Company for the purpose of establishing a French colony in the South Island. The company was given financial backing  by the French Government in the hope that it would help curb British expansion in the Pacific. And so in 1840, 59 colonists set out for New Zealand under the protection of the French navy.

Arriving at Banks Peninsula the French colonists discovered that the British had claimed sovereignty over the South Island under the Treaty of Waitangi, and their dreams of an independent French Colony were shattered. However, they decided to stay and the civilian settlement at Akaroa was established on the east side of the harbour.

 Figure 4. A French map of Akaroa Harbour in 1843. French Farm is shown on the west side of harbour, Akaroa (“Principal établissement français”) on the east side, and English, French and Māori settlement around the harbour

A French map of Akaroa Harbour in 1843. French Farm is shown on the west side of harbour, Akaroa (“Principal établissement français”) on the east side, and English, French and Māori settlement around the harbour.

At the outset of the expedition the French government had agreed that the navy would help to feed the colonists until their settlement was self-sustaining. The Nanto-Bordelaise Company purchased 300 acres in French Farm Bay for use as a farm. Approximately 16 sailors were sent by the navy to clear the land for cultivation. Potatoes, beetroot, cabbages, trees, vines and barley were all planted, and livestock was purchased from Hobart to supplement the farm’s crops. By 1843 the farm had buildings for housing and storage, and a jetty and roads had been constructed. At this time the farm settlement had grown to outnumber Akaroa, with around 150 French naval officers engaged in farm work and scientific research (NZHPT 2007). One of these men recorded details of the farm’s buildings in a letter home. He noted that the farm consisted of two large huts (one for housing crew and the other for an observatory) and 8-10 smaller houses for the officers. French Farm house is probably one of the officers’ residences mentioned in this letter.

French Farm house is the only surviving building in New Zealand built by the French navy. An architectural examination of the building has suggested that it was constructed using a technique known as poteaux en terre, meaning “post-in-ground” (Bowman 2007). This technique was commonly used by French colonists in Canada and the United States of America in the 17 and 18th centuries. Other aspects of the house, such as the use of plain weatherboards, are evocative of 19th century farm buildings in Normandy. Part of our focus this weekend will be examining the construction of French Farm house using buildings archaeology methods. This will allow us to further explore unique building techniques and consider them within their cultural and historical context.

Detail of poteaux en terre construction at Vital St Gemme Beavais house in Missouri, built in 1785. Image: Marsh 1985.

In 1846 the French navy left Banks Peninsula and the farm was entrusted to Emeri de Malmanche, one of the original French settlers. However, in 1849 the Nanto-Bordelaise Company’s interests were purchased by the New Zealand Company and in 1850 the Canterbury Association included the farm in Rural Section 100 of their survey. The section was sold to Joseph Dicken, a settler from Staffordshire. Over the years French Farm was used for dairy farming, timber milling and even a private boy’s school. French Farm house was probably occupied as a residence until c. 1900, and today it is the only structure from the once bustling naval settlement to survive.

This weekend we will be examining and recording the French Farm house and surrounding site using archaeological techniques. We will be posting photographs and videos of our work on the Underground Overground Archaeology facebook page, so check it out if you’re interested in the work we’re doing at this fascinating and important site.


Akaroa Civic Trust, n.d. Langlois-Eteveneux House (Museum) [photograph]. [online] Available at: Accessed July 2014.

Anon, 1843. Croquis de la baie d’Akaroa. – Nouvel Zelande. [map]. In: “Les Europeens a la Nouvelle Zealande”, Le Magasin Pittoresque, XI, 47 (November 1843), p. 376. [online] Available at: Accessed March 2014.

Bowman, I., 2007. Conservation plan: French Farm house. Unpublished report.

Buick, T. L., 1928. The French at Akaroa. Wellington: New Zealand Book Depot.

Marsh, J. Q., 1985. Drawing of Poteaux-en-Terre in the Beauvais House in Ste Genevieve MO [drawing]. Historic American Buildings Survey; Record MO-1121. [Online] Available at: Accessed July 2014.

New Zealand Historic Places Trust, 2007. French Farm House, French Farm Bay, Akaroa Harbour, Banks Peninsula, Canterbury: registration report. Unpublished report.

[1]This history of French Farm is summarised from Bowen 2007 unless otherwise stated.


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