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Ship The discovery of New Zealand
Jean-François-Marie de Surville - France
1717 - 1770
Always, unfettered man, you will cherish the sea!
The sea your mirror, you look into your mind
In its eternal billows surging without end,
And as its gulfs are bitter, so must your spirit be.

      "Man and the Sea" - Charles Baudelaire
"At 11:15 this morning, we saw the land of New Zealand, very high...and very distant"
Jean-François-Marie de Surville
In 1766, on his return to France after the Seven Year War, Jean-François-Marie de Surville requested the French India Company for permission to commence trading in the Company's area. Permission was granted, and with Jean-Baptiste Chevalier, Governor of a French settlement in India, the two men formed a syndicate. The construction of the "St Jean Baptiste", a 650-ton ship equipped with 36 guns commenced under the surveillance of de Surville.

In 1767 the "St Jean Baptiste" set sail from Brittany, arriving in the Ganges a month later, and De Surville began trading around the Eastern area. However, on hearing rumours that a "rich island" had been discovered in the Pacific by an English ship, de Surville decided to try and locate this tempting island.

The "St Jean Baptiste" therefore sailed from Bengal in March 1769 for Yanaon, another French settlement in India. After a stopover, the "St Jean Baptiste" set sail once again on 2nd June, arriving in the straits of Malacca. Here, de Surville took on further provisions, and entered the South China Sea on 19th June. On 1st August 1769, Pulo Condore was sighted, followed by the Philippines on 17th August. On 7th October the coastline of the Solomon Islands came into view, and the St Jean Baptiste sailed in to take on fresh provisions and water for the crew, suffering badly from scurvy.

Misunderstandings between the local inhabitants and the French led to violence, and killings. The Frenchmen had to leave, empty-handed. On 7th November, after a number of fruitless attempts trying to find a safe area to land, and with ever more of his crew falling sick, de Surville entered the Coral Sea area.

However, while unwittingly sailing directly towards the as yet undiscovered New Caledonia, he was driven off course by the current and passed by, just out of sight of the land.

In view of the increasing numbers of sick and dying crew members, it became an increasing priority that de Surville find a safe anchorage. De Surville knew that Tasman had outlined the coast of New Zealand a century before, and turning to Tasman's charters he decided to head for New Zealand, knowing that it was somewhere in the region.

It was with some misgiving that de Surville found himself obliged to seek New Zealand. Explorers were familiar with Tasman's account of the killings at Murderer's Bay. However, the crew of the "St Jean Baptiste" were in an extremely bad state, and it was imperative to find land.


Finally, at 11:30am on 12th December 1769, the "St Jean Baptiste" sighted the coastline of New Zealand, just south of Hokianga Harbour. The ship continued sailing north, looking for a safe anchorage spot. Weather conditions were bad. On the 13th December de Surville rounded Cape Marie Van Diemen.

It was here that the St Jean Baptiste passed by The Endeavour, with neither ship sighting the other due to the bad weather conditions. This was all the more amazing as both de Surville and Cook were at the same time navigating a land which had not been visited by a European since Tasman, a century earlier.

In the evening of the 17th December, the St Jean Baptiste anchored in a bay which de Surville had baptised "La Baie de Lauriston"," in honour of Lauriston, Governor of French India. Captain James Cook had already named this bay Doubtless Bay, although he had simply sailed by and not anchored at this point.

(Click here for a map (25k) showing the position of Doubtless Bay)

To de Surville's relief, friendly relations were established between the Māori and the French at Doubtless Bay. De Surville was able to replenish the ship's supplies, and commence care for his numerous sick crew members.

Unfortunately, Doubtless Bay, or "La Baie de Lauriston" was not particularly sheltered as a harbour, and de Surville was obliged to consider seeking a more secure spot. However, as the sick crew members were returning to the "St Jean Baptiste" after a day on shore, on the 27th December, a strong wind lifted, forcing their boat back. At the same time, the "St Jean Baptiste" found itself in difficulty, and its anchors were not holding. The risk of the ship striking nearby rocks grew.

After much effort, the crew were finally able to manoeuvre the ship into a small cove, which de Surville named "Refuge Cove". There was considerable damage to the "St Jean Baptiste" - broken rudder, damaged masts and sails, and two anchors had been lost. On 29th December the weather finally permitted the crew to commence repairs.

Suddenly, a yawl, which De Surville had thought lost in the storm, was sighted from the ship two days later. The yawl was being studied with interest by a small group of Māori. On noticing de Surville, the Māori dragged the yawl inland, and hid it from view. Furious, De Surville and his men managed to capture a Māori, and forced him to reveal the whereabouts of the yawl. However, instead of releasing his prisoner De Surville took him aboard the ship, and the "St Jean Baptiste" then hurriedly left New Zealand waters on 31st December 1769 before reprisals by the local Māori.

The prisoner, Ranginui, who happened to be a chief, died from scurvy on the 24th March 1770. De Surville himself drowned in heavy seas off the Peru coast, in April 1770, while seeking help for his once again scurvy ridden crew.

Today there is a commemorative plaque which marks the anchorage of the St Jean Baptiste at Doubtless Bay, which reads: "Jean François Marie de Surville anchored his ship "St Jean Baptiste" in Doubtless Bay 17 - 13 December 1769 to refresh his men. He visited a Pa on this headland, 30 December."

The Surville Cliffs, to the far north of New Zealand, are named after Jean-François-Marie de Surville.

Main source of research :
"French explorers in the Pacific" - John Dunmore
"The Exploration of the Pacific" - J. C. Beaglehole

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Related Links
Ships of the world - "St Jean Baptiste"


 Please be aware that this website is a personal homepage. It would therefore be wise to cross check information which I have presented here. A list of many official New Zealand history sites may be found within my Links section.