French Explorers

During an ill-fated voyage in search of a fabulously rich island believed to lie in the direction of Peru, Jean François Marie de Surville (1717-70) was forced to sail south to the land discovered by Tasman in order to get food and rest for his scurvy-stricken crew. At Doubtless Bay, after 14 days of amity during which the hard-pressed French had made gifts of pigs, poultry and grain which they could ill afford, an incident involving a dinghy which broke loose during a storm ended tragically. De Surville set out to retrieve it but the Maori, possibly believing it to be theirs by reason of muru (the plundering of a person who suffered a misfortune), hid it from him. Relations had previously been amicable but now the enraged de Surville burned huts and other property and captured a chief, Ranginui. He sailed for South America taking Ranginui, who soon died of scurvy. Not long afterwards de Surville himself was drowned when a boat in which he was attempting to get ashore capsized in the surf.

Just over two years later, in 1772, the explorer Marion du Fresne (1714-72) with the Mascarin and the Marquis de Castries, called at the Bay of Islands. He knew nothing of de Surville’s visit and Cook’s account of his first voyage had not then been published. As Marion du Fresne had only Tasman’s charts and journals he was justified in concluding that he had rediscovered the country. Accordingly, it was claimed for France by Marion du Fresne’s officers. Marion du Fresne himself, and about 25 of his men, after five weeks of most friendly relations which had culminated in a ceremony interpreted by du Fresne as being his own elevation to chiefly rank, were unaccountably murdered at Assassination Cove. The killings were apparently premeditated and probably resulted from some inadvertent and inevitable breaches of tapu. Utu for de Surville’s outrages has been suggested as a motive, but this has generally been dismissed: it was a different tribe who had suffered at de Surville’s hands, and one with which the tribes at the Bay of Islands had frequently been at war. Marion du Fresne’s remaining crew exacted their own utu, burning three villages and killing numerous Maori before departing.

Scientific interest in the Pacific and popular interest in its ’noble savages‘ grew rapidly. Vancouver, who had sailed under Cook and whose charts of the north-west American coastline rank in excellence with those of his mentor, spent some time in 1791 at Dusky Sound and improved Cook’s chart of that region. Visits by D’Entrecasteaux and the Spaniard Malaspina foreshadowed the sealers who in turn proved the existence of Foveaux Strait. Further French expeditions came to New Zealand: Duperrey (1824), Laplace (1831), Céçille and Dupetit-Thouars (both 1838). But of them all, Jules Sebastien César Dumont d’Urville (1790-1842) in 1827 performed the most notable work.

Dumont d’Urville, who had sailed as Duperrey’s second-in-command three years earlier, on the Astrolabe both sought out and explored the areas Cook had left as doubtful, and replaced many of Cook’s names with those of the Maori – ‚[For] there will come a time when such names will be the only vestiges of the tongue spoken by the primitive inhabitants.‘ Dumont d’Urville’s sympathy and his ear for language flavoured his published accounts of the country and its people as had none other before him, but when in 1840 he visited New Zealand for the last time he found that the ’noble savage‘ had been debased and he could well deplore the activities of the British at the Bay of Islands.