Story: European discovery of New Zealand

Page 8. French explorers

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The French became interested in the Pacific at about the same time as the English. Louis Antoine de Bougainville crossed the Pacific on his 1766–69 voyage, in the wake of British explorer John Byron.

De Surville

As James Cook was rounding the top of the North Island in a storm in December 1769, just 40 km to the south-west a French explorer was battling the same heavy seas. Captain Jean François Marie de Surville had left India on the St Jean Baptiste in March 1769 for a voyage of trade and exploration to the South Pacific. Sailing via Malacca and the Solomon Islands, he reached the western coast of New Zealand (he was the first European to see it since Tasman) on 12 December 1769. His crew was drastically diminished by scurvy. After just missing Cook off the top of the North Island, he anchored in Doubtless Bay for two weeks. There, in a storm in late December, the St Jean Baptiste lost three anchors. After some Māori were seen with a ship’s boat that had been lost in the storm, de Surville took reprisals which included kidnapping Ranginui, a Ngāti Kahu rangatira. This incident has marred his reputation in New Zealand. From Doubtless Bay de Surville sailed east. Ranginui died during the voyage, and de Surville drowned while trying to land on the coast of Peru.

Marion du Fresne

Not far behind Cook and de Surville came another Frenchman, Marc Joseph Marion du Fresne, who had served on French India Company ships. He undertook to return a Tahitian, brought by Bougainville to Paris, to his home island. He was also to seek out the legendary southern continent. His ships Marquis de Castries and Mascarin sailed from Mauritius in October 1771, called at Cape Town, then headed east. After making landfall at New Zealand’s Cape Egmont, he sailed around the top of the North Island.

A long stay in the Bay of Islands was necessary in order to repair his ships, which had been damaged by a collision in the Indian Ocean. They were anchored in the bay from 4 May to 12 July 1772. Many of the initial encounters with Māori were friendly, and the expedition left an extensive record of Māori life.

However, the situation in the Bay of Islands was volatile, as Ngāpuhi tribal groups were gradually displacing the Ngāti Pou inhabitants. The French presence destabilised the situation further, and misunderstandings were rife. In mid-June, Marion du Fresne and 24 others were killed by Māori. His fate seems to have been sealed by an inadvertent violation by the French of a rahui placed by Māori on a particular bay. The French took savage revenge for their captain’s death, killing several hundred Māori before returning to Mauritius via the Philippines.

D’Entrecasteaux and Duperrey

In March 1793 Antoine Raymond Joseph de Bruni d’Entrecasteaux, commanding the Espérance and the Recherche, sailed past New Zealand while searching for another French explorer, Jean François de Galoup, Comte de la Pérouse. La Pérouse had sailed from Botany Bay in 1788 and not been seen since. D’Entrecasteaux had brief contact with Māori off far northern New Zealand, but he did not land. On his way to Tongatapu he named the Kermadec Islands, discovered previously by a homeward-bound British convict ship.

Louis Isidore Duperrey sailed from Toulon on the Coquille in 1822. By 3 April 1824 he had reached the Bay of Islands, where he stayed until 17 April before continuing his circumnavigation.

Dumont d’Urville

Duperrey’s second-in-command on his 1822–25 voyage was Jules Sébastien César Dumont d'Urville. The expedition that Dumont d’Urville led in 1826 is considered to be the last important voyage in the story of the European discovery of New Zealand.

Dumont d’Urville came with the intention of completing Cook’s chart of New Zealand. Having left Toulon on 25 April 1826 in the Astrolabe (the Coquille renamed), he sighted the west coast of the South Island on 10 January 1827. After exploring Cook’s Blind Bay (now Tasman Bay), he made his celebrated passage of French Pass into Admiralty Bay.

He went on to examine the east coast from Cape Campbell to Whangārei Harbour, a journey that took in Coromandel Peninsula, the Hauraki Gulf and Waitematā Harbour. He spent a week in the Bay of Islands before leaving New Zealand.

Dumont d’Urville returned to the east coast on his 1837–40 Astrolabe and Zélée voyage to Antarctica, without adding significantly to knowledge of New Zealand’s coasts.

Danger and discovery

One of the most dramatic events in the European exploration of New Zealand’s coast was Dumont d’Urville’s passage through French Pass. On the eastern side of Tasman Bay he found a channel which, he wrote, resembled ‘a gorge between two ranges of high mountains’. It was blocked by reefs which created ‘whirlpools of incredible violence’. Dumont d’Urville decided the passage ‘could be navigated if great precautions were taken’, though the enterprise ‘might have sinister consequences’. It did not, and the names French Pass and D’Urville Island are reminders of the commander’s skilful seamanship. 1

Explorers of the 1830s

Other Frenchmen called at the Bay of Islands in the 1830s, including Cyrille Pierre Théodore de Laplace, Jean Baptiste Thomas Médée Cécille and Abel Aubert Dupetit-Thouars. The decade also saw a similarly brief visit by the Beagle, a British naval ship which was circumnavigating the globe after surveying southern South America.

  1. Jules Sébastien César Dumont d'Urville, New Zealand 1826–27, from the French of Dumont d’Urville: an English translation of the Voyage de l'Astrolabe in New Zealand waters, with an introductory essay by Olive Wright. Wellington: Wingfield and Olive Wright, 1950, p. 98. › Back
How to cite this page:

John Wilson, 'European discovery of New Zealand - French explorers', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 July 2024)

Story by John Wilson, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 1 May 2016