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Tuatara: Volume 32, April 1993

The French and Zoological Discovery in New Zealand

page 70

The French and Zoological Discovery in New Zealand


Three phases of French involvement in New Zealand zoological discovery, dating from the late 18th century are identified and described.


The zoological discovery of New Zealand, that process by which specimens of its fauna were collected and described, was made by individuals representative of several different nations. It was a collective effort and it seems almost quibbling to single out or compare the contributions made by individual countries. Nonetheless, if an occasion or a need arises to evaluate the contribution made by one nationality or another, then such evaluations can sometimes be revealing in terms of national character, the way in which scientific problems were approached, and the basis on which approaches were made. Some evaluations of this kind have already been attempted (Andrews, 1987) and the present paper takes some of that work a step further. Appropriately, in this case, we look at the French on the occasion of the bicentennial of the French Revolution, itself a major influence on science in that country.

The topic under discussion will be examined in comparison with the British contribution in another paper in this collection (Bartle). Meanwhile the present paper sets out to describe some aspects of the early French discovery and collection of New Zealand zoological specimens.

The Phases of French Involvement

Three distinct phases characterise French involvement with New Zealand zoology. They are:

1. The late 18th century, in which the French, along with other Europeans, took advantage of (a) the specimens brought back from Cook's voyages and (b) the ensuing hiatus that resulted from the English naturalists failing to make the most of their opportunities in terms of description and publication.

2. A period when the French undertook their own voyages of exploration in the Pacific with specific scientific objectives.

3. A colonial phase to which the small French community in New Zealand, and its supporters, made a modest contribution.

In each case there were elements of imperialist science — a response to the demands of scientists in France, based in an institution — in this case the Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle or its antecedents.

The First Phase

First what was its context? Did the initial exploration of New Zealand by the French arise out of a thirst for scientific knowledge; was it a simple desire for conquest; or was it based on commercial or trade considerations? Or was it simply, as seems more likely to be the case, a combination of these things.

To understand the reasons for these early explorations of New Zealand we have to go back to the Seven Years War and the intense rivalry that existed between Britain and France (Dunmore, 1965). This rivalry was to continue beyond the page 71 cessation of hostilities for many years and was at least in part responsible for the two countries competing with each other in a Pacific which must have seemed to offer almost unlimited potential for the colonising powers. We can assume that the ambitions of the French and the British towards the Pacific were much the same, and that science had to share with their other more mundane aspirations, including trade.

In the event the first French voyage to reach New Zealand was that of Jean de Surville in command of the St Jean Baptiste, in 1769. In contrast to Cooks voyage which, fortuitously, reached New Zealand at the same time, there was no scientific motive attributed to the voyage. It was privately organised and New Zealand was encountered more or less by accident. De Surville was looking for Tasmania and refreshment for his crew, many of whom were suffering from scurvy, when he changed course and encountered New Zealand instead.

Their stay in New Zealand was a short one, and their scientific observations limited by time and the absence of a natural historian. In spite of these deficiencies the First Officer, Guillaume Labé, recorded the presence of lizards which the English naturalists on the Endeavour (then not far distant) had failed to record or collect, although they must have seen them (De Surville, 1981).

Labé also reported some fish and several species of birds, but again none of these were collected or given any form of scientific description. They released two pigs which thus featured among the very first introduction of European mammals to New Zealand. However in all probability the pigs did not last very long, and were eaten by the Maoris. De Surville himself did not survive the voyage back to France, drowning off Peru, leaving Labé to report that the first French contact with New Zealand and its fauna, flora and indigenous people had been made.

Following de Surville several decades passed before the French again set foot in New Zealand, but French naturalists, like others from Europe were able to acquire specimens brought back from the South pacific by the three voyages of James Cook. Although Cook's voyages by a number of measures were very successful, there were considerable problems describing the countless plant and animal specimens they brought back with them. Into this vacuum came a number of European scientists who were either correspondents of Joseph Banks or who visited him in London. Banks held on to voyage collections, but he was generous in lending or donating specimens to fellow naturalists (Andrews, 1987).

In this way some of the species in Banks' collections were able to be given proper descriptions and scientific names according to the Linnaean system of classification which had achieved a fair degree of support by that time. Regrettably not all were treated like this and substantial parts of the collections were originally described using non-Linnaean names. Why the English naturalists and their Danish colleague Daniel Solander, who was one of Linnaeus' pupils, were unable to get their collections published in the scientific literature is a matter of debate and speculation, the detail of which need not concern us here. The overall consequence of the free-for-all that followed was that many of the specimens went to Europe and acquired scientific names that had German, Danish and, of course, French authors.

The French were particularly well positioned to gain access to the English collections. They were geographically close and could visit Banks relatively easily or, later, attend the auctions of collections that included Cook voyage material. Civil turmoil in France in the late 18th century positively encouraged this traffic.

Molluscan shells found early favour with the French, as they were universally sought after by naturalists and collectors alike. Jacques de Favanne and his son were responsible for publishing a work called La Conchliologie in 1780, which is one of the earliest formal records of French interest in New Zealand zoology. Being collectible items many shells might have found their way from Banks' and page 72 various private collections in the hands of Cooks sailors, to collectors abroad in Europe. As they were small and easily preserved they travelled further and faster than other less transportable specimens. Some of the wealthy aristocrats who escaped to Britain during the French Revolution had further opportunities to add to their collections. They attended auctions of specimens belonging to wealthy English collectors such as the Duchess of Portland.

One French link with New Zealand zoology that lasted well into the 19th century was initiated by Guillaume Olivier, a founder of the Linnaean Society of Paris (Andrews, 1987). Olivier came to London in 1789 to examine the Banks collection of insects, the year of the French Revolution. The animals he described were rather non-descript Hemipterans which in itself is surprising as the tendency in those days was to favour large and more colourful species. Although his visit and subsequent study took place at the time of the Revolution, he managed to get his work published. He was assisted in his work by Pierre Latreille, a conservative priest and entomologist who had endured a spell in prison at the hands of the Revolutionary authorities. He did not suffer unduly from his incarceration and lived to arrange the entomological collections of the Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle and achieve other scientific distinctions.

Another Frenchman to visit the Banks collection was Pierre Broussonet, between 1780–82, who worked on the fish under Solander's supervision. Broussonet described the carpet shark from New Zealand using non-Linnaean nomenclature, calling it “Isabella”. The scientific name of this shark was later provided by another Frenchman, Bonnaterre, in 1788. The carpet shark thus became the first properly described and named New Zealand fish. In 1789, like so many others, Broussonet was forced to flee France, becoming physician to the United States Embassy in Morocco.

Before moving on from the fish some mention must be made of Georges Cuvier the famous French anatomist who was to dominate French zoology in the early 19th century. He was supplied with tracings and copies of fish painted or drawn by the artists on Cooks voyages. The copyist was Sarah Bowditch who with her husband, became closely associated with Cuvier in Paris. One New Zealand fish which was described in this way was the common yellow eyed mullet, Aldrichetta forsteri (Andrews, 1987).

Apart from the almost inexplicable appearance of the tui in a French book on African birds by Le Vaillant, at the end of the 19th century (Stresemann, 1975) there is little else to report on this first phase of zoological contact between France and New Zealand. Although it relied heavily on the Cook collections it was meritorious in view of the fact that a surprising amount of study and publication was achieved in one of the most turbulent periods of French history, and almost entirely on the basis of gifted or borrowed specimens.

The Second Phase

A revival of French interest in the Pacific in the early decades of the 19th century saw some scientifically well equipped expeditions come in the direction of Australia and New Zealand. Not all of these were outstandingly successful, but the three voyages that reached New Zealand were. It was these voyages and the post-revolution development of the Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle, as well as the distinguished group of naturalists based at the museum, that formed a solid basis for the second phase of discovery by the French of the New Zealand fauna and flora.

The first voyage of significance was that of Duperrey and the Coquille in 1824. Among the naturalists, were R P Lesson and Prosper Garnot.

They did not spend long in New Zealand, and all their collecting was carried out in the vicinity of the Bay of Islands, which was reached in April 1824. They page 73 managed to accumulate some 50 species of animals which were taken back to the museum in Paris. Around 25 of the bird species they collected were new (although not recognised as such by the collectors) (Andrews, 1987). However the kingfisher, the whitehead and the southern royal albatross were amongst those described by Lesson. Amongst the new species of fish were the seahorse and red gurnard.

One of the interesting features of this voyage was the better balance struck between invertebrate and vertebrate animals. It was clear that there was increasing interest in invertebrates as the 19th century wore on — whereas earlier naturalists were preoccupied with vertebrates — particularly birds and to a lesser extent fish. From this voyage Lesson was able to describe the rare flax snail — the first terrestrial snail to be described from this country and the common pipi. Duperrey's voyage might also have been significant for its acquisition of some part of a kiwi, possible little more than a few feathers, donated by the missionary Thomas Kendall. This interesting bird was discovered barely a decade earlier and was so unusual that its very existence was doubted by European naturalists at the time.

The scientific accounts of Duperrey's voyage were published in grand style and most volumes had appeared before 1830. This was the start of an outstanding series of zoological works arising out of the French voyages to New Zealand. They were comprehensively and richly illustrated with fine hand coloured engravings which were incorporated as an ‘Atlas’ to accompany the voyage reports.

It spite of these considerable achievements, it was the next voyage that stood out as the most significant of the three conducted during this period. Under Dumont d'Urville's captaincy the Astrolabe reached New Zealand in January 1827. They collected in Astrolabe Bight and in the vicinity of French Pass before heading for Auckland and the Bay of Islands. They discovered some new bird species including the South Island fantail, the wrybill, the grey warbler and the quail (Wright, 1950, Andrews, 1987). But again it was the invertebrate collection that predominated, and became associated with the two naturalists, Quoy and Gaimard. They recorded many new molluscan shells and the magpie moth, a cicada and other insects that were later described by the French entomologist Boisduval.

This voyage too resulted in an elegant publication with a fine atlas of engravings. Quoy himself was very good at executing watercolours of the numerous shells and other marine life that they discovered. These paintings are still in the Muséum d'Historic Naturelle.

There was a mystery associated with this voyage that is still unresolved. In the museum at Marseille is a specimen of the world's largest gecko (Bauer, pers. comm.). It is believed to have come from New Zealand, and there are fairly reliable accounts of large reptiles of this description having been present in the late 19th century. How it got to Marseille no one knows and it is not mentioned in any of the voyage accounts, although the vessels from both expeditions called there on their return.

D'Urville's last voyage with Astrolabe, and the Zelée under Jacquinot, reached New Zealand in March 1840 calling at the Auckland Islands and there making the first significant collections from one of these interesting localities that lie well to the South of New Zealand. A new species of penguin was found here as well as a variety of insects and shells (Wright, 1955; Andrews, 1987).

They called at Otago, Akaroa, Poverty Bay, and the Bay of Islands. Their collections were well received back in France but perhaps were not as substantial as the previous voyages. Also, by now voyages returning from the South Pacific were relatively commonplace. However, most significant in the collection was a pair of kiwis that were illustrated in the atlas that accompanied descriptions of the voyage zoology. Ever since the kiwi was first described the French zoologists had been keen to lay their hands on a specimen, and for many years remained unconvinced of the authenticity of earlier accounts. Their doubts were now put at rest.

page 74

The Third Phase

The third and final phase of the French contribution to New Zealand zoology was that represented by the French whale fishery and the protecting vessels of the French Navy, as well as the small French community at Akaroa. Amongst their leaders was St. Croix de Belligny who was a naturalist from the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. He was apponited a travelling correspondent to that institution and asked to send specimens back to France when time permitted.

De Belligny collected more than 130 birds that were sent back to France, probably on one of the naval vessels. The officers of these vessels themselves collected specimens, for example Lavaud and Raoul on L’Allier, Jaeger Schmidt on the Heroïne and Arnoux on LeRhin. Some material went to the Maison Verreaux, a firm that deal in natural history specimens, one of whose members, Jules Verreaux, was known to have visited New Zealand (Andrews, 1987).

This last phase was diffuse and less organised than the voyages that preceded it, and its output cannot be said to have surpassed the volume of scientific work of the voyage naturalists. The activity in the third phase took place into the 19th century when most of the large animals at least were well known and represented in the major museums.


Taken as a whole the French contribution to early New Zealand Zoology was a major one and somewhat tidier and more complete than the British efforts that preceded and followed it. Many of the natural history findings of the voyages of Cook failed to reach publication - or at least did so in a piecemeal way and then not always adhering to Linnaean nomenclature. The later voyage of the Erebus and Terror which included New Zealand was also a substantial affair, but it took many years for its findings to appear in print. Speed of publication is all important for the scientific record - specimens can soon rot or dry out in their bottles, and publication delays can often lead to nomenclatural problems.

The French contribution to New Zealand science began around the same time as the French Revolution. In spite of the political and social turmoil that followed, and the upheaval that resulted from wars with Britain, the French found time to throw substantial light on the natural history of a little known part of the world. Their contributions in many cases have stood the test of time and still remain a valuable part of the permanent scientific record.


Andrews, J.R.H. 1987. The Southern Ark; Zoological Discovery in New Zealand, 1769–1900. Century Hutchinson, Auckland.

De Surville, J. 1981. The Expedition of the St Jean-Baptiste to the Pacific, 1769–1770: From the Journals of Jean de Surville and Guillaume Labe. J. Dunmore, ed. Ca. U.P. for The Haklyut Society, London.

Dunmore, J. 1965. French Explorers in the Pacific V.1. O.U.P. Oxford.

Stresemann, E. 1975. Ornithology from Aristotle to the Present. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Wright, O. 1950. New Zealand 1826–1827; An English Translation of the Voyage de L Astrolabe in New Zealand Waters, with an Introductory Essay by Olive Wright. Wingfield Press, Wellington.