Banks Peninsula is located in the Canterbury region on the east coast of the South Island of New Zealand, partly surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, and adjacent to the largest city in the South Island, Christchurch, which has approximately 340,000 residents. The peninsula has a land area of approximately 1,000 km². The Banks Peninsula District Council has 7,833 residents (2001 census).
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The first European sighting of the peninsula was by Captain James Cook during his first circumnavigation of New Zealand in 1769, and he named it in honour of the Endeavour's botanist, Joseph Banks. It is famous as one of his two cartographical errors – unable to see the low plains adjoining the peninsula he charted it as an island. Distracted by a phantom sighting of land to the southeast, he sailed away before exploring any closer and never discovered the two good harbours.
By the 1830s, Banks Peninsula had become a European whaling centre, to the detriment of the Maori who succumbed in large numbers to disease and inter-tribal warfare exacerbated by the use of muskets. Two significant events in the assumption of British sovereignty over New Zealand occurred at Akaroa. First, in 1830 the Maori settlement at Takapuneke was the scene of a notorious incident. The Captain of the British brig Elizabeth, John Stewart, helped North Island Ngati Toa chief, Te Rauparaha, to capture the local Ngai Tahu chief, Te Maiharanui. The settlement of Takapuneke was sacked. Partly as a result of this massacre, an official British Resident, James Busby, was sent to New Zealand in an effort to stop such atrocities. The events at Takapuneke thus led directly to the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. Then in 1838 Captain Langlois, a French whaler, decided that Akaroa would make a good settlement to service the whaling ships and "purchased" the peninsula in a dubious land deal with the local Maori. He returned to France, floated the Nanto-Bordelaise company, and set sail for New Zealand with a group of French and German families aboard the ship Comte de Paris, with the intention of forming a French colony on a French South Island of New Zealand.
However, by the time Langlois and his colonists arrived at Banks Peninsula in August 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi had already been signed (the signatories including two chiefs at Akaroa in May) and New Zealand's first Governor, William Hobson, had declared sovereignty over the whole of New Zealand. On hearing of the French plan for colonisation, Hobson quickly dispatched the HMS Britomart from the Bay of Islands to Akaroa with police magistrates on board. While Langlois and his colonists sheltered from unfavourable winds at Pigeon Bay on the other side of the peninsula, the British flag was raised at Greens Point between Akaroa and Takapuneke and courts of law convened to assert British sovereignty over the South Island.
Historic harbour defenses dating from 1874 onwards may be found at Ripapa Island in Lyttelton Harbour and at Godley Head.
Banks Peninsula is the main volcanic feature of the South Island. Geologically, the peninsula is the eroded remnants of two large stratovolcanoes (Lyttelton formed first, then Akaroa). These were formed by intraplate volcanism between approximately eleven and eight million years ago (Miocene) on a continental crust. The peninsula formed as offshore islands, with the volcanoes reaching to about 1,500 m above sea level. Two dominant craters formed Lyttelton and Akaroa Harbours. The Canterbury Plains formed from the erosion of the Southern Alps (an extensive and high mountain range caused by the meeting of the Indo-Australian and Pacific tectonic plates) and from the alluvial fans created by large braided rivers, and are at their widest point where they meet the hilly sub-region of Banks Peninsula. The northern and western flanks of the peninsula are covered with a layer of loess, a layer of rather unstable fine silt deposited by the föhn winds which bluster across the plains. The portion of crater rim lying between Lyttelton Harbour and Christchurch city is known as the Port Hills.
It is estimated that 98% of the peninsula was once covered by native forest. However, Maori and European settlers successively denuded the forest cover and less than 2% remains today, although some reafforestation is under way. Many English trees, notably walnut, were planted by settlers.
A large Marine Mammal Sanctuary, mainly restricting set net fishing, surrounds much of the peninsula. The principal aim of this is the conservation of Hector's dolphin, the smallest of all dolphin species. Eco-tourism based around the playful dolphins is now a significant industry in Akaroa.
A relatively small marine reserve called Pohatu is centred on Flea Bay on the south-east side of the peninsula.
A notable feature of the peninsula is the Summit Road. Built in the 1930s, the road is in two sections – one along the crest of the Port Hills from Godley Head (the northern head of Lyttelton Harbour) to Gebbies Pass at the head of the harbour. The second section runs around the crater rim of Akaroa Harbour from 'Hill Top' – the junction with the main Christchurch-Akaroa highway to a point above Akaroa. Both roads afford spectacular views as well as providing vehicular access to many parks, walkways and other recreational features.
- Highest point: Mount Herbert (919m)
- Permanent population : 7600