Navigators & Naturalists: French Exploration of New Zealand and the South Seas. Michael Lee. 2018

Navigators & Naturalists: French Exploration of New Zealand and the South Seas. Michael Lee. 2018

Lee, Michael. 
Navigators & Naturalists: French Exploration of New Zealand and the South Seas (1769-1824). 
David Bateman Limited. 
ISBN 978-1-86953-965-8. 
480 pages. 

For those fascinated by Europe’s exploration of the Pacific in the eighteenth century, the celebrations and controversies surrounding the voyages of Captain Cook tend to dominate public attention.  Often overlooked are the voyages of the French in the same period.  


In the past forty years John Dunmore has done much to illuminate those voyages with more than a half-dozen fine books and edited journals, and Lee has taken advantage, with full acknowledgment, of the work of Dunmore and other scholars to produce this single-volume account of the French voyages from Bougainville to Dumont d’Urville. 


Lee’s title indicates an intended differ­ence in emphasis from most earlier studies, for his training as a biological scientist has determined him to focus on the work of the naturalists as well as of the navigators on the French expeditions.




Lee’s book begins with the voyage of the celebrated Louis Antoine, Comte de Bougainville, who from 1767 to 1769 completed the first French circumnavigation.  Among its landfalls was Europe’s second sighting of Tahiti, praised by Bougain­ville as “the true Utopia”.  Lee’s account of the voyage is brief, and he gives surprisingly little space to the work of the expedition’s naturalist, Philibert de Commerson.


Jean de Surville


The book’s next voyage, that of Jean de Surville in St Jean Baptiste, gets far more attention, eighty pages or so.  For most readers it will be familiar because of the ship’s proximity to Cook’s Endeavour.  At one point in New Zealand waters their ships were only 30 nautical miles apart, a distance just far enough to prevent any sighting of the other; but the fortunes of the two commanders were very different.  Sailing from Pondicherry in June 1769, Surville headed southeast into the Pacific with a valuable trading cargo.  The expedition, though venturing into unknown waters, was essentially a commercial venture.  Unlike Cook’s company Surville’s men suffered appalling losses from scurvy, and by the time he headed for the little-known coast of New Zealand in the hope of finding shelter and fresh provisions almost 40% of his company had died.  In December 1769 the ship at last found a promising harbour near the northern tip of North Island, today’s Doubtless Bay.  This was the scene of one of the earliest contacts between Europeans and Maori, at first peaceful as the local inhabitants traded fish and other fresh food for Bengal cloth and various trade items from the ship.  Lee has considerable detail about the ship’s stay, with Surville’s eagerness to get his sick men on shore to recuperate set against a growing Maori suspicion that the newcomers with their terrifying weapons intended to make a permanent settlement.  Surville, unlike Cook, had no naturalists on board, although he and his officers made rather inexpert notes of the local flora and fauna, especially of plants with an antiscorbutic value.


Violent weather forced Surville to make for the open sea, with the loss of his yawl, three anchors and several men.  With his ship and company in a miserable condition he made a remarkable 6,000- mile voyage eastward to Spanish America.  After more than three months crossing the totally unknown higher south latitudes of the Pacific Ocean, Surville sighted the South American mainland near Callao, the port of Lima.  Attempting to land in a frail skiff through heavy surf, Surville was drowned, wearing his full-dress uniform and ceremonial sword.  His ship and its surviving company were detained by the suspicious Spanish authorities for three years before St Jean Baptiste returned to France having completed the first ever west-to-east circum­navigation. 


Marion Dufresne


More than a year before the arrival home of St Jean Baptiste, another French expedition sailed for the Pacific, commanded by Marion Dufresne.  Like Surville, Marion had a distinguished wartime record, but was in a restless state of semi-retirement.  His chance to see something of the wider world came when he volunteered to return to Tahiti the islander, Ahutoru, brought to Europe by Bougainville, and he invested much of his own capital in the proposed expedition.  He hoped to have on board Philibert de Commerson, but Commerson’s ill health prevented this, and once again there was no professional naturalist on the French expedition.  Cook by contrast had Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander on his First Voyage, and the Forsters, father and son, on his Second.  On board Marion’s two ships, Mascarin and Marquis de Castries, were plentiful supplies of trade goods, hopefully to be sold at ports in the hypothesized great southern continent which was Marion’s primary objective.  This became even more the case when Ahutoru died of smallpox in the early stages of the voyage.


After crossing the south Pacific without finding any sign of a continent, Marion sighted New Zealand’s North Island towards the end of March 1772.  Unaware of either Surville’s voyage or Cook’s, Marion and his officers thought they were the first Europeans to reach New Zealand since Tasman in the 1640s.  After battling unfavourable winds for five weeks the ships doubled North Cape, and in early May reached the idyllic waters of the Bay of Islands (named by Cook two and a half years earlier).  The bay was heavily populated by Maori tribes taking advantage of its plentiful supply of water and wood, and its rich fishing grounds.  For some weeks relations between French and Maori seemed friendly, with fresh fish and other foodstuffs exchanged for metal and trade goods from the ships.  By one of Marion’s officers the Maori were described as “the most affable, the most humane, and the most hospitable people on the face of the earth”, and within days Maori chiefs and their families were living on board the ships.  There were isolated incidents of misunderstanding between the Maori and the newcomers, but the appalling outbreak of planned violence in which Marion and his boat’s company of twenty-four men were hacked to pieces was totally unexpected.  Many different explana­tions, then and later, were advanced to explain this seemingly unprovoked massacre, with Lee conclud­ing that for the leading Maori chiefs the newcomers “were no longer anything more than dangerous guests that had to be got rid of”. 


Almost lost to sight amid these horrors was the valuable botanical information brought back by Marion’s officers, above all of the great New Zealand kauri tree (Agathis australis) of which Marion or one of his officers made a fine drawing.  Among other sketches reproduced by Lee was one of the first of a fortified clifftop pa, sacked by the French after Marion’s death.  With no enthusiasm for further exploration the two ships left on their long homeward voyage by way of Guam and the Philippines. 


La Pérouse


Thus far the voyages discussed by Lee have done little to justify the double-headed title of his book, but the expedition led by one of the most respected of French naval officers, Jean-François de Galoup de la Pérouse, might have been expected to change this.  Intended to rival if not surpass Cook’s voyages, the new French expedition carried a record number of savants, fifteen in all, including several naturalists.  It was ill-fated from the beginning, with twenty-one men drowned in 1786, in icy waters off the Alaskan coast, and another twelve, including the commander of the expedition’s consort vessel, clubbed to death by warriors off the island of Tutuila.  Although Lee does not make much of the tension between La Pérouse and the naturalists on board, it was enough for the commander to write that they were “devilish fellows who test my patience to the very limit”.  Despite these differences, usually the result of the naturalists’ eagerness to spend more time on land and less at sea, valuable collections of natural history specimens were taken on board from locations ranging from Japan and Alaska in the north to Easter Island and Botany Bay in the south.  Sadly, none were to reach France.  La Pérouse and his two ships, Boussole and Astrolabe, sailed from Botany Bay on 10 March, 1788, and disappeared into what one of La Pérouse’s biographers has called “Forty Years of Oblivion” before, in the next century, relics were found from the sunken vessels off the island of Vanikoro.




In a France torn by revolution, it was not until September 1791 that an expedition sailed from Brest to search for the missing ships.  Commanded by Admiral Antoine-Raymond Joseph de Bruny d’Entrecasteaux, it also carried instructions for a fully-fledged programme of geographic and scientific exploration, and it included among its savants three experienced naturalists.  As on the La Pérouse expedition there were tensions between them and the naval officers, with d’Entrecasteaux complaining about the naturalists’ “impossible demands”.  Matters were not helped by the ill health of d’Entrecasteaux and his two most senior officers, all of whom died within a few months of each other, and by news, when the ships reached Java, of the execution of the King and Queen in France, where a republic had been declared.  With most of the 219 men who had left Brest dead, the Dutch authorities sold the ships.  The only happy note in this miserable saga was that after prolonged negotiations the expedition’s vast natural history collection, which had been captured by British naval vessels and included an herbarium of at least ten thousand specimens, was restored to France. 


Dumont d’Urville


Lee’s final chapters are dominated by the voyage of La Coquille, which left France in August 1822 with a complement of scientists and artists, and instructions to make improved hydrographic surveys of the known areas of the Pacific as well as charting new routes.  Its senior officer and commander was Louis Duperrey, but the voyage is usually known by the name of his second, Dumont d’Urville, who was responsible for most of the scientific work.  A month’s stay at the Falklands characterised the expedition’s approach.  Careful meteorological observations were taken; d’Urville made no fewer than twelve botanical excursions in which he collected large numbers of plants; and other specialists recorded and drew the islands’ birds and marine life.  After charting a new route in the Pacific through the Tuamotus, Duperrey wrote, “suddenly the island of Tahiti appeared, offering us an enchanting aspect and its delicious perfumes”.  It was, the naturalist Lesson pronounced, “Queen of the Pacific”.  The island was under control of English missionaries, but this did not prevent the French making elaborate hydrographic surveys, and collecting large numbers of botanical specimens.  Their work and lengthy accounts of the Tahitians’ lifestyle, very different from the days of Bougain­ville and Cook, are described in detail by Lee.


From Tahiti, La Coquille sailed to Sydney, by way of the Solomons, New Guinea and the Moluccas.  At the various landing places, the scientists collected large numbers of plants, insects and birds.  Among the more spectacular sightings was the elusive bird-of-paradise at Waigeo, an island just north of New Guinea.  After more than eighty days at sea Sydney was reached in January 1824.  There the ship stayed for two months, with the officers immensely impressed by the port city’s development, and the naturalists delighted with their haul of exotic specimens.  From Sydney La Coquille sailed for New Zealand and the Bay of Islands, the first French ship to visit there since Marion Dufresne’s half a century earlier.  Much had changed: the bay was an important port of call for whaling ships, while the Maori, here and elsewhere supplied with firearms, were caught up in the fearsome Musket Wars.  Lee has much on the scientific work of the expedition during its two-week stay: Duperrey’s hydrographic survey of the bay, d’Urville’s observations on the local Maori, and as always, the botanical and biological collections.  With the flowering season over plant specimens were scarcer than usual, but there was much else to notice, including the flightless kiwi bird.  The voyage home was relatively uneventful, and in March 1825 La Coquille reached Marseilles without the loss of a single member of its complement.  D’Urville was to make two more superb voyages to the Pacific, in the same ship, without quite achieving the fame of some of his eighteenth-century predecessors.  As one New Zealand scholar puts it, he was “fundamentally an anthropologist and ethnologist [but] he was born too late to be the greatest European navigator in Pacific history and too early to be one of the great names in modern anthropology”. 


This is an elegant book, lavishly illustrated with scores of black-and-white and full-colour illustra­tions.  Its thirty-three pages of closely-printed end­notes show the breadth of the author’s research, which enables him to enliven his text with many extracts from primary sources.  My only serious criticism is that I would have preferred Michael Lee to have used in the early chapters his professional expertise to pay more attention to the naturalists and their work, while giving less detail on the service careers of his explorers in the years before and after their time in the Pacific. 


Glyn Williams

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 39, volume 42, number 2 (2019).

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