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Murihiku: A History of the South Island of New Zealand and the Islands Adjacent and Lying to the South, from 1642 to 1835

CHAPTER XXVI. — Discovery of the French Pass, 1827

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Discovery of the French Pass, 1827.

IN the year 1826 an expedition was fitted out in France for an extended voyage of discovery and exploration and particularly to investigate the fate of La Perouse, concerning whom no tidings had reached France since the letters sent from Botany Bay by the explorer himself in 1788. The command of the expedition was given to Jules Sebastien Cesar Dumont D'Urville, who had already, as second in command, accompanied Duperrey when he sailed round the World in the Coquille. D'Urville, hoisted his flag on board the old Coquille, now under the name of the Astrolabe, and sailed from Toulon on 25th April, 1826.

In the pursuit of his voyage D'Urville sailed from Port Jackson on 19th December of the same year, with the object of visiting Chalky Inlet or the southern portion of the South Island and completing the exploration of the coastline in the vicinity of Foveaux Strait, a portion of New Zealand, which, though well known to the early sealing craft, had so far not been visited by the scientist. This portion of New Zealand had been the subject of extensive enquiries by the officers of the Coquille while that vessel lay in Sydney in 1823, and advantage had been taken of their presence to procure, from sea captains resident in Sydney, very valuable information regarding New Zealand's coastline and trade. This information was placed upon record and has been made use of in an earlier part of this work.

Unfortunately the French corvette encountered such a succession of bad weather that D'Urville was reluctantly compelled to abandon his scheme so far as it affected the southern portion of the South Island and to make for the northern portion, where a considerable extent of coastline page 368 remained yet to be traversed. Cook, as we have seen, had such important work ahead of him during his investigations that he was unable to devote sufficient time to complete the New Zealand coastline, and D'Urville appears to have kept these incomplete portions in view when selecting suitable places for survey work.

D'Urville changed his course on 8th January, 1827, when in the latitude of 43 degrees. Sighting the Paparoa Range on the tenth he sailed up to the coastline and finding it continuous, sailed along it until he sighted Cape Foulwind the next day. The Three Steeples at Cape Foulwind were seen and named on the twelfth. Immediately the last named rocks were passed vegetable debris and mud, discolouring the sea far and near, showed that what is now known as the Buller River was in flood. No natives could be detected along the shore. On 13th January Rocks Point was passed and in the evening of that day D'Urville, tempted by appearances, sailed up to the mouth of the West Whanganui River, but found the entrance barred by breakers.

Having traversed the West Coast, D'Urville did as Tasman and Cook had done before him and followed the land round Cape Farewell, running close alongside the long sandspit and noting the basin of Golden Bay bordered by high mountains topped in the distance with snow. While the Astrolabe was being steered close round the point of the spit into Golden Bay breakers were seen out to a distance of several miles; her course was altered and D'Urville sailed into the Bay, so far as we have any record, the first since Tasman visited it in December, 1642, or in a period of 185 years.

Closely studying the configuration of the Bay D'Urville noted that the Blind Bay of Cook consisted of two well marked bays separated by a clearly defined point, to which he accordingly gave the name Separation Point, and the first Europeans we know of landed on the shores of Tasman Bay, within a few miles of where the dead body of Tasman's sailor had formed part of the cannibal page 369 banquet in 1642. Some abandoned huts found here were plundered by the sailors which brought down a reproof and threats of punishment from D'Urville, who states the very sensible opinion that such actions are often the origin of quarrels between civilised men and savages. As a punishment the thieves were not allowed to profit by their actions.

About noon the anchor was weighed and the Astrolabe sailed along the western shore of Tasman Bay. Two small islands were detected close in shore, a native village with its inhabitants, a group of tall pine trees, then came the mouth of the Motueka River. That night the anchor was cast off Moutere Bluff, the officers of the expedition being in great delight that the small Blind Bay of Cook had disclosed such an extensive stretch of water to its first explorers.

The morning of the sixteenth showed D'Urville that he had reached the head of the Bay which near here terminated in low-lying marshy land. He accordingly, after completing his observations, crossed over to the eastern shore and to within three and a half miles of what is believed to be Mackay's Bluff, seven miles north of Nelson. Here two canoes from the head of the Bay approached the ship but for some time would not come on board, the occupants being satisfied to remain at a distance resting on their paddles in spite of the attempt of D'Urville, by hailing them in the native language, to induce them to come on board. Tired of inviting them the vessel made a show of sailing away when the Maoris at once boarded the Astrolabe.

The party consisted of 19 in all, half of fine physique and tattooed like chiefs, half without tattoo, and of so common appearance as to resemble men of another race. The latter were the slaves and probably were the remnant of the Ngati-Tu-mata-kokiri which had dwelt there in the time of Tasman, and which had since been conquered and enslaved by the Ngati-Apa-ki-te-ra-to. The natives understood the effect of firearms but knew little, strange to say, page 370 of iron or of iron implements. Their chief demand was for cloth, for which they readily exchanged their rush or flax mats.

When the vessel began to drift away from the shore all but four of the chiefs took to their canoes and left for their village which was situated on the coast, saying that they would return next day to the anchorage. The four chiefs accompanied D'Urville to Astrolabe Bay where he anchored in the evening.

Here the vessel remained at anchor from the seventeenth to the twenty-first. From the behaviour of the natives D'Urville concluded they had never met Europeans before but had only heard of them through their warriors who had encountered them elsewhere. They stated that men with guns came from the north-west and plundered them. They cultivated the potato, but knew the pig only by name. On the morning of the first day three canoes containing some 40 persons, men and women, came alongside. There they spent some time exchanging mats and other articles for European goods, after which they went ashore and occupied some empty native huts near where the observatory had been established. These huts they occupied throughout their stay. Their general demeanour satisfied the French Commander of their peaceful and kindly intentions. On the second day the natives were joined by another canoe.

The five days spent here were very busy ones for D'Urville. A suitable watering place had to be found. The country had to be scoured for natural history specimens, and the general appearance of the land and of the Bay had to be noted. Four days were spent in continual tramping over the hills, climbing bluffs or walking along the beach. During these expeditions Torrent Bay was discovered and the native potato plots there visited. Astrolabe Bay was sounded and charted and everything which busy men could, in a fairly rich scientific field, procure, was procured and “an unbelievable quantity of new objects” brought on board the Astrolabe.

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From the summit of one of the hills visited in one of his excursions, D'Urville spied a deep opening in the opposite coast which made him suspect that there was some communication between Tasman and Admiralty Bays, and he determined to explore it.

The site of Tasman's anchorage is discussed by D'Urville, who suggests that perhaps the anchorage was west of Separation Point and not in Tasman Bay. This conclusion, we have seen, was the correct one, thereby making the name Tasman Bay a misnomer.

Early in the morning of the twenty-second preparations for departure were completed and the ship was visited by crowds of natives to dispose of a few trifles and to say farewell. D'Urville sailed across the Bay to the opening he had detected from the high land on the western coast and by evening had reached his destination, to which he gave the name Croiselles Bay after the name of his mother's family.

Off the entrance, the ship lay becalmed all night and in the morning the anchor had to be let down to prevent her being carried by the rollers on to the rocks on shore. Early in the forenoon, however, a wind took the vessel off and D'Urville steered along about two miles from the shore, to attempt the second opening which he suspected communicated with Admiralty Bay. Everything went well until late in the afternoon when the vessel had reached the channel. Then the commander was astonished to hear the look out announce that the pass was barred by breakers at a distance from them of about three or four cable lengths. No sooner was it confirmed than sail was lowered with all haste, the anchor let go in 26 fathoms in mid channel and the vessel brought to a standstill.

The first thing D'Urville did was to send away two boats to explore the channel and after four hours of excessive toil they returned to the ship and reported that, with the exception of the narrowest part where it entered Admiralty Bay, the channel was practicable but that at the head of the Bay there was a very violent current which page 372 almost got the better of the boats. The dangerous spot they estimated to be about a league and a half distant from the anchorage. So bad had the weather now become that considerable difficulty was experienced in getting the boats aboard.

Not an eye closed that night on board the Astrolabe. As the hours passed the sea grew heavier and heavier and the corvette pitched with great violence and, held down as she was by her anchor, some of the biggest seas went right over the forecastle, until those on board feared she would founder at anchor. Towards midnight more cable was given out and when she started to drift, a second anchor with a chain was let go, and with the two anchors holding her from certain destruction on that ugly coast the night wore slowly on. Just before three o'clock the starboard cable parted and the vessel once more commenced to drift. Sixty fathom more of cable was paid out and another anchor got ready, but just then as by magic the wind fell, the sea went down and the sky cleared. At daybreak, when the chain was hauled in, it was found that one of the flukes of the anchor was broken off by the rocky bottom. Marvellous had been the escape of the vessel.

D'Urville then commenced his attack upon the French Pass. He got under weigh shortly after nine o'clock and sailed up the channel, keeping about 200 fathoms from the eastern side. When he had come about 400 fathoms within the Pass he found it barred by rocks showing just above the water. A boat was sent out to reconnoitre, and the Astrolabe came on quietly under very little sail. The report brought back was that the current had commenced to enter and that without a strong breeze it would be difficult to contend against it. D'Urville however determined to try it and made sail for the passage.

When the vessel was within a cable's length of the Pass the bar became covered with boiling foam and the water rushed through in powerful whirlpools. The strong current caught the corvette and, whirling her round and round several times, carried her back into the bay she had page 373 just come out of. To add to the danger of the position the current carried the vessel straight for a rocky point to the south. To prevent her striking, an anchor was let go and the long boat was sent out with a towline. It was then noon and without intermission until four o'clock the crew toiled away, placing and replacing the anchors, to enable the vessel to be moored to a place of safety whence the attempt to conquer the Pass could again be made.

To suitably impress the sailors, as well as efficiently utilize the services of men who were of no value in a crisis on board the vessel, D'Urville sent the scientific men to carry on their work ashore while he fought with the elements at the entrance of the Pass. In the evening he visited the Pass and decided that without a knowledge of Admiralty Bay beyond it was not wise to attempt the passage.

Next day, 25th January, D'Urville went at low tide and was carried by the current through to Admiralty Bay. Here he found conditions of perfect safety and canoes belonging to natives, but as he had come through at low tide and could see that dead low water would prove most favourable for a return he had not much spare time to look about. On returning to the Pass he found the current entirely absent and was able to sound and explore the passage with the utmost ease. He ascertained enough to satisfy him that the passage could be negotiated, and he determined to await favourable conditions and take the corvette through. Before returning to the vessel he visited the island which now bears his name. The third day closed with the corvette dragging her anchor, necessitating two to be let down. The weather was fresh, with squalls, rain, thunder and lightning.

On the morning of the fourth day of the struggle another attempt was made to sail through. The anchor was hauled up at 9 a.m., sail quickly set, and the vessel moved forward. Unfortunately the wind fell and the current swept the unfortunate corvette among the whirlpools, and page 374 thirteen hours' toil was endured before she was secured for the night.

D'Urville determined not to be beaten in his attempt to sail through, and in order to ensure that the vessel would be moored in a spot from which the Pass could be negotiated when wind and tide were favourable, he went out in a yawl and sounded the approach. He was fortunate in finding a sandbank at a convenient distance where he saw stream anchors could be let down. He at once returned to the ship and shaped his plans accordingly. Owing to the proximity of the Pass it was not until three in the afternoon that he found himself in a position to get under weigh at the first favourable wind.

Another visit was paid to the island in the evening and in going through the passage it was found not to be so bad as it looked, if care was only exercised in working the boat. This day natives came from Admiralty Bay, but beyond establishing communication, did not come on board.

The fifth day (28th January) saw the triumph of the French commander.

“At last I saw arrive a day which announced itself under happier auspices, and presaged to me a favourable wind. So as not to neglect any precautions in my power, at 4.30 a.m. I went to the S.E. point of the pass, and climbed to the top of the ridge overlooking it. It was not an easy thing to do, on account of the steepness and the thickets of impenetrable fern which covered the slopes for some distance; but I succeeded, and from a hillock my view plunged down on the pass, demonstrating that it was practicable with extreme precaution. Nevertheless, I did not dissimulate from myself that the enterprise might have a fatal ending. In looking towards the corvette I could not prevent myself fancying involuntarily that that machine, so well organised, so imposing, and destined for such a long career, would be for some instants, by the sole effect of my will, exposed to be lost on the rocks situated at my feet. Ten officers, an entire crew, inhabitants of that floating city now become their veritable country, might in page 375 a few hours find themselves reduced to seek safety on a sterile and inhospitable shore, to lead a miserable existence, and perhaps perish without ever seeing again their relatives and friends. Such reflections for a moment shook my resolution; but it strengthened itself shortly, and I returned aboard decided to try my fortune.

“At 7 a.m. the stream-anchor was got up and dropped near the ship, in 6 fathoms. A short time afterwards the breeze appeared established and moderate in the W.S.W., the tide was also slack, and I decided to get under way at once, so as to be master of my movements. We had taken the short cable to the stern, which presented the bows towards our route, and put us in position to catch the wind in the sails when unfurled. This was executed with great celerity. At the same instant the foresail, jib, the mizzen and lower topsail were set, and for some minutes we steered very well; but at the moment when we entered the pass the wind failed, and the current, coming against us with impetuosity, caused us to swerve to port. In vain I instantly put the helm up, and furled all after-sail, to try and approach the coast to the right—to touch it, as one might say if it were necessary. The corvette would not obey at all, and, mastered by the current, she could not avoid being carried on to the rocks at the end of the reef, on which I knew there was but 10ft. or 12ft. of water. Shortly after the Astrolabe touched twice. The first shock was slight; but the second a lugubrious cracking, accompanied by a prolonged shaking, by a sensible pause in the movement of the corvette, and by a strong inclination to starboard, caused us a serious doubt that she rested on a rock, and would not come off. The crew at that moment involuntarily raised a cry of alarm. ‘It is nothing; we are over it!’ I cried, with a loud voice, to reassure them. In fact, the current, continuing to drag the corvette, prevented her from remaining on the rock; beyond that the breeze freshened, and we got steering way on her, and shortly, free of all fears, we sailed along under full sail in the page 376 peaceful waters of Admiralty Bay. We got off with the loss of several fragments of the false keel which the shock detached, and which floated in the wake of the ship.

“Entirely occupied in the manoeuvres of the moment, it was not possible for me to occupy myself with what passed around me. But those of my companions who could give attention assured me that it was at that time an imposing spectacle to see the Astrolabe, first heeling over as if ready to sink in the whirlpools that surrounded her, and then rising again gracefully and nobly, advancing through waters now become peaceful.”

The Pass was won, and won perhaps by the most daring piece of navigation which the history of New Zealand exploration has to place upon record. Well did it merit the name given—the French Pass—and worthily did the Island earn the name of D'Urville Island.

Having negotiated the passage D'Urville sailed on, aided by a favourable wind and an equally favourable current, past the Chetwolde Islands and the opening of Pelorus Sound in the direction of Cook Strait. At two o'clock in the afternoon he passed Cape Jackson and sailed across the opening of Queen Charlotte Sound, making no attempt to enter as the Sound had been so well explored by Cook. The appearance of currents which are seen off the headlands and which had created alarm in the breasts of so many former navigators, caused some anxiety in D'Urville's mind until the sounding line showed a great depth when he concluded the strange appearance was due to the currents of the Strait or to the sea passing from immense depths to those not so great.

As they sailed past Koamaru fires on shore appeared to invite them to land and the same happened at the mouth of Tory Channel.

D'Urville intended to visit Cloudy Bay, not known by him to have been explored up to that time. He had an idea that it connected with Queen Charlotte Sound. It is to be regretted that he was carried by the strong current page break
Herd's Chart of Port Nicholson, 1826.Original in the Library of Mr. A. H. Turnbull, Wellington.

Herd's Chart of Port Nicholson, 1826.
Original in the Library of Mr. A. H. Turnbull, Wellington.

page break page 377 too far to the eastward to enable him to make the entrance, and was compelled to abandon his intention. So far he had detected no signs of vessels visiting that coast, and Cloudy Bay was one of the very likely places to meet with coastal vessels, of which we know there were many about this time. However he was, on 29th January, doomed to leave unexplored what was, during the next ten years, to become one of the greatest whaling ports in the World.

Cook had left the southern coastline of the North Island undefined at one or two places. One of these was the bay on the shores of which the City of Wellington now stands. As a matter of fact it had been entered and surveyed during 1826 by Captain Herd, but probably D'Urville was not aware of this. At any rate he made for the entrance to try whether there was any anchorage inside Barret's Reef, but the wind did not permit of entering the Harbour and he was forced to direct his course to Palliser Bay.

The author desires to acknowledge his indebtedness to the translation of D'Urville's work made by Mr. S. Percy Smith and published in the “Transactions of the New Zealand Institute” 1907, pp. 416 to 447. Not only is Mr. Percy Smith's work valuable as a translation, but the notes on native matters, upon which he is qualified to speak with so much authority, give it a special interest to the New Zealand reader. Mr. Percy Smith also supplied additional matter to the author. While on this question of foreign explorations on the New Zealand coast, it is surely a reflection upon our countrymen, that of the work of the greatest of French explorers the only translation available to the World is the small portion supplied by Mr. Percy Smith, and of the work of the greatest of Spanish and Russian explorers, the only ones available have been procured by the author and are published in this work.

D'Urville's plates should be perused by everyone who is desirous of examining the type of Maori who inhabited the shores of Tasman Bay in 1827. The French artist may have introduced a suspicion of the Frenchman into the page 378 appearance of his subjects, but the heads of individual natives and the sketches of canoes, &c., are finer specimens of artistic work of that class than have been produced by the artists of any other country at that date or at any other date. D'Urville speaks of two native villages, Mai-Tehai on the western shore and Skoi-Tehai on the eastern. These places were, on the maps afterwards issued, recorded as Maitche and Skoitche Villages. The places indicated were unknown to the first residents of Nelson.