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James Cook sighted the peninsula in 1770. Thinking it was an island he named it after the naturalist Sir Joseph Banks. The Ngai Tahu tribe, who occupied the peninsula at the time, were attacked at the fortified Onawe pa (Maori village) by the Ngati Toa chief Te Rauparaha in 1831 and their population was dramatically reduced.

In 1838 whaling captain Jean Langlois negotiated the purchase of Banks Peninsula from local Maori and returned to France to form a trading company. With French-government backing, 63 settlers headed for the peninsula in 1840. But only days before they arrived, panicked British officials sent their own warship to raise the flag at Akaroa, claiming British sovereignty under the Treaty of Waitangi. Had the settlers arrived two years earlier, the entire South Island could have become a French colony, and NZ’s future may have been quite different.

The French did settle at Akaroa, but in 1849 their land claim was sold to the New Zealand Company and in 1850 a large group of British settlers arrived. The heavily forested land was cleared and soon farming became the peninsula’s main industry.