Jean François Marie de Surville was born on 18 January 1717 at Port-Louis, Brittany, France. He was the son of Jean de Surville, a government official of Port-Louis, and his second wife, Françoise Mariteau de Roscadec, a ship owner's daughter.
Surville went to sea at the age of 10 for the French India Company and served mostly in the Indian Ocean and the China seas. During the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years' War he served in the French navy. He was taken prisoner in 1745 and again in 1746, and was wounded and received the Cross of St Louis in 1759. On 24 September 1750 he married Marie Jouaneaulx at Nantes. They had two sons, both of whom became officers in the army. There are no recorded descendants.
In association with the French administrators of the Indian cities of Chandernagore and Pondicherry, Surville began a series of trading ventures in Indian waters from 1766. In late 1768, on the basis of confused reports about Samuel Wallis's discovery of Tahiti, he received financial backing for a voyage of combined exploration and trade to the central Pacific.
He sailed from India in the Saint Jean Baptiste, a ship of 650 tons, on 2 June 1769, making for the Strait of Malacca, Trengganu and the northern Philippines, and entered the Pacific on 24 August. His course took him through western Micronesia, but he failed to sight any islands, and veered east before he reached New Guinea. Finally, on 7 October, his crew already seriously affected by scurvy, he made his first landfall at Choiseul Island in the Solomons. He anchored for a week in Santa Ysabel, where his crew were attacked by a party of islanders. Between 20 and 30 islanders were killed in the affray, and as a consequence Surville was unable to stop at Port Praslin. He continued eastwards, surveying the coast, a work which made a major contribution to the eventual European discovery of this complex island group. But the condition of his men forced him to put off further exploration and seek supplies in New Zealand.
He arrived off Hokianga on 12 December, went north in search of a suitable anchorage and rounded North Cape on 17 December, in a storm which had blown James Cook, then sailing north up the east coast, just out of sight of land. The two navigators probably passed within 20 or 25 miles of each other. The French spent 14 days, from 18 to 31 December 1769, at anchor in the north of Doubtless Bay. Plants found along the shore helped to restore the health of the crew, although seven men died of scurvy in New Zealand waters.
For most of the time relations between Māori and French were amicable. Surville endeavoured to respect what he understood to be Māori etiquette, asking permission to cut trees and on one occasion giving his sword up to a chief. The local Māori people brought him supplies of greens, and he presented them with hogs, a cock and a hen, wheat, rice, peas and cloth. Surville and his officers recorded their impressions of Māori life and artefacts in their journals and in careful sketches, providing a valuable insight into a pre-colonial northern community, with perceptive comments on material conditions and cultural practices. It is likely that the ship's chaplain, Father Paul-Antoine Léonard de Villefeix, celebrated Mass on Christmas Day, making this the first Christian service to be held in New Zealand.
The friendly atmosphere was marred during the last two days by Surville's violent anger at what he saw as the theft of a ship's boat which had drifted ashore. He inflicted reprisals by burning some huts along the beach, some food stores and nets, and a canoe. He also took prisoner a Ngāti Kahu leader, Ranginui, who had been particularly hospitable towards some of his officers and men. However, this was not done in revenge but rather in the hope of learning more from him about New Zealand's resources. Ranginui was well treated, eating regularly at the captain's table, but, like many others, he became affected by scurvy and died at sea on 24 March 1770.
The stay was cut short by a violent storm which showed Doubtless Bay to be a poor anchorage. Surville sailed east in the southern Pacific, but made no new discoveries. As he encountered no land and his crew became increasingly debilitated, he decided to seek help at the port of Chilca, Peru. On 8 April 1770 he attempted to go ashore in heavy seas and was drowned.