Saturday, 21 May 2011

The cradle of my family

The story of my family and the establishment of New Zealand’s only French settlement begins in 1840 on the banks of the Charente River, Rochefort, France.

Joseph and Madeleine Libeau and their children would have stood on the deck of the Comte de Paris watching the preparations for casting off. They would have seen the old naval buildings and the Corderie Royale and hoped the voyage of at least 3 months wouldn’t be a nightmare. But it didn’t start well.

Before they reached the open sea of the Atlantic the pilot stupidly beached the boat on purpose in order to get home, thinking the next high tide would refloat the boat, but it didn’t. The passengers and crew had to take everything off. A woman drowned herself in despair. Two weeks later they finally left France, arriving in Akaroa August 1840 only to discover that the South Island of New Zealand was now British. Along the way their family had increased by another child.

Joseph had two wives: his French one (who died as a result of a later childbirth) and then an English one who ended up in a mental institution. Eighteen children in total were born and seventeen survived. Oddly enough I am descended from both wives: Julie from his first wife was my maternal grandmother’s grandmother and Josephine from his second wife was my maternal grandfather’s grandmother.

Joseph and his first wife were both gardeners. This passion for growing things runs strongly through my lineage and is my strongest interest. The two pioneers did well in creating a successful new life for themselves at the end of the world, taking on market gardening, wine-making and dairying. I’ve known I had French ancestry all my life but that heritage was never very evident in my childhood. Still, there was a tug on my heart, even a subtle one, which saw me study French for five years at High School, one year at Canterbury University, three years at Teacher’s College and then initiate a programme of including French language into my teaching class at Tawhai School in Wellington.

The parents were so pleased with results that the inspectorate allowed my French lessons to continue the following year. And then my interest in France languished for many years while I changed careers and partners. It took off again as the 20th century drew to a close and was at fever pitch from 2008 onwards.

My tiny immediate family is dysfunctional and so my heart has crossed the oceans of the world in search of other family who might be interested in me. For almost five years I have been sending out emails to the Libeau Society and French family members in France to little avail. In the past month I received encouraging definitive responses from Alain Boussiron. He organised that I meet up with another of our mutual cousins Gilles and also Michel, yet another cousin living in the Charente area.

June 18 is the day I spent exploring the birthplace of Joseph Libeau and the neighbouring countryside. It’s also the day I spent with my two cousins Alain and Gilles along with Peter Tremewen, the New Zealand author of a well-published authoritative book on the French at Akaroa. What an amazing serendipity that we would all end up in the area on the same weekend.

In a two-car convoy we travelled north towards Nantes: Jean-Claude and I with Alain and Annick, Gilles and his wife Micheline with Peter Tremewan and his wife Christine. The countryside changed to viticulture (Muscadet) as we approached the tiny village of L’Elaudiere - birthplace of Joseph Libeau. We have no idea which ramshackle building he lived in as a child, maybe his home is just a pile of rubble or maybe it’s one of those still standing.

We looked through the gate at the only mansion and large garden in the village. Perhaps he tended the garden there? The main thing I noted was the excitement we three cousins felt to be together…there. My cousins are descended from one of Joseph’s daughters who returned with another French couple to France. She stayed in France and it is through her that I am related to these cousins. The French members are very small in number but the Kiwi members of the family number in the thousands.

I feel very proud of my very direct lineage to one of the founding families of Akaroa, a settlement which was established ten years before the English established Christchurch.

We wandered around the neighbouring town of Loroux Bottereau where we viewed one of only two surviving statues of Louis XVI in France, while a wedding was taking place.
We lunched together and set off to view the mighty Loire River and the destroyed fortified village of Chateauceaux (now Champtoceaux).

This was one of the most important fortresses during the Hundred Years War. It used to comprise 30 hectares but was constantly under siege from 1141 and was finally destroyed completely in 1420. It’s located 25kms east of Nantes and when you stand on the lookout you can see Ile de Neuve island in the middle of the Loire. The water level is rather low at present.

After some rather strenuous exercise we all departed back to Alain’s place for champagne and dinner. A wonderful family day.

If you’d like to know more about the French government’s attempts to settle and take possession of the South Island and the settlers from France and Germany who came with their hopes on the Comte de Paris you can read Peter’s book French Akaroa available from Canterbury University Press.


Carla Howarth said...

This is so cool! My name is Carla Howarth, a descendant of Mary Jane Libeau who married James Howarth. This is such a great blog :) I find it so fascinating learning about our heritage.

Anonymous said...

I am a descendant of Joseph Libeau junior and am planning to visit France in September/October. The "family seat" is on my list of places to see. Your journey and photos are really interesting, therefore. Do you know if it's possible to take pubic transport to visit Joseph senior's birthlace? Also, did you find out or see anything about the Gendrot side of the family? :) Juliet

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