Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

From Tasman To Marsden.

Chapter III. — De Surville Visits Doubtless Bay, 1769

page 33

Chapter III.
De Surville Visits Doubtless Bay, 1769.

A Recital of the events which brought the first French explorer to New Zealand, and which caused him to pass Cook, without the one knowing of the proximity of the other, has in the past never been attempted, and its first complete publication now makes this chapter of more than passing interest.

When Captain Wallis returned from Tahiti in May 1768, his report on that Island was so favourable that advantage was taken of the fact of the Transit of Venus being visible from it, to direct the Expedition, then being fitted out to observe that phenomenon, to make Tahiti its place of observation. There is no doubt that the great natural advantages of the place lost nothing by being repeated from mouth to mouth, and nothing could prevent that exaggerated report getting to other countries. As a matter of fact, it reached the ears of three Frenchmen—Law, Chevalier, and De Surville—and the action they took on hearing it brought the last-named to New Zealand on board the Saint Jean Baptiste.

The three men named had met in Bengal in 1765 and formed a partnership to engage in the trade of India. Law and Chevalier found the capital, and De Surville was to carry their schemes into effect. The last-named, on returning to France, obtained the requisite permission from the French Company of the Indies to engage in the trade of India, and was nominated by the King as Commissary for the recovery of the French possessions in India, and Governor of the same in case of the absence or death of Law.

This commercial partnership was ready for operations when the story of Captain Wallis' discovery of Tahiti fired their ambitions to anticipate the British Government in taking possession of the Island, and every preparation was made for an extraordinary voyage. To lull suspicions it was intimated throughout India that the Saint Jean Baptiste, page 34 their vessel, was bound on a trading voyage to Manilla, China, and Batavia, when, on 3rd March 1769, she sailed from the Bay of Ingley on the Ganges. On 2nd June, De Surville sailed from Pondicherry with M. de St. Paul, Captain of Grenadiers, and a troop of 24 soldiers belonging to the French Indian troops put on board by Law. It shows how completely India was then cut off from the news of Europe when an Expedition, destined to anticipate any steps the British might take to secure Tahiti, should leave the shores of India six weeks after the British had actually landed at that place. Cook cast anchor at Matavai Bay on the morning of 13th April, and Law put his troops on board the Saint Jean Baptiste, to be there first, on 2nd June.

De Surville's route was through Malacca Strait, and on to the Philippine Islands. At Bashi Island three of the French sailors deserted, and De Surville secured and brought away with him three of the Natives “in order," he recorded, “to get from them the information about their country and their ways of living." Later on another Native was captured and taken away by force at Port Praslin at the Salomon Islands. When in the latitude of 14° S., De Surville decided that the state of health of his ship's crew rendered it absolutely necessary to make for New Zealand, and he accordingly steered south until he reached the thirty-fifth parallel, when he altered his course to the east and picked up New Zealand at 11 a.m. on 12th December 1769. A day later would have made it the 127th anniversary of Tasman's discovery.

De Surville came upon the land in latitude 35° 37′, or just to the south of Hokianga Harbour, and his first view was one of rather high sandhills, a range of mountains some 3 or 4 leagues back from the coast, and a country closely settled, as the number of fires indicated. As De Surville intended to double New Zealand in the north, and the wind was unfavourable for that, he kept tacking about until the fourteenth, when suddenly the wind changed to the W.N.W. and blew with such great violence that several times the Expedition looked like coming to an end. From their position and the direction of the wind it was impossible to so tack as to double page 35 the land either towards the north or the south. All night of the fourteenth and the following day, constant tacking had to be kept up to avoid drifting, and the only gleam of hope lay in the fact that the currents had, in the meantime, carried the ship a little off the land. When slightly to the south of Reef Point, De Surville made a daring attempt to double it to the north; he crowded on more sail, and held to it in spite of some of his sails being carried away, with the result that, on the afternoon of the fourteenth, he got safely past the danger, and made his way, without further interruption, northwards.

On 16th December De Surville rounded Cape Maria van Diemen, sighted the Three Kings Islands, and sailed round the northern part of New Zealand. In doing so the name Cape Surville was given “by the officers" to the “most northern land." This would indicate that it is the point now known as Kerr Point which was called Cape Surville, and not the point called by Cook North Cape. As the eastern coast opened up, Surville found a large bay without any shelter. This bay Cook, only six days before, had named Sandy Bay. Moving on, another bay opened up, but whether Rangaunu or Doubtless Bay, is not quite clear. Here a boat with five or six Natives came forward and exchanged fish and shellfish for calico.

Shortly after the visit of the pioneer canoe, three big canoes came up, and, in a little while, came alongside the Saint Jean Baptiste, and traded with large quantities of fish which they had, for calico. The chief, clad in a dog-skin mantle, came on board and was taken to the council room, where De Surville presented him with a coat and a pair of red breeches, to which the chief replied by presenting De Surville with the dog-skin robe. As the chief was some time out of sight the New Zealanders grew uneasy at his prolonged absence, but it was all right when he appeared on deck and explained to his assembled subjects that he was having the time of his life. Several more Natives came on board and were not there long before they showed De Surville that they were expert thieves.

page 36

On 17th December the anchor was cast in Doubtless Bay, in 25 fathoms, about three miles from the entrance, and in front of a sandy cove, at the foot of a little mountain on the top of which was a village. The next day trading with the Natives was continued, and in the afternoon De Surville went off to sound the Bay and to make the acquaintance of its inhabitants. This he did, and was greatly delighted with the prospect in front of him. He had been received by the chief of the village with great ceremony, the Natives doing him honour by bending themselves, and waving their dogskin robes and bundles of grass which they held in their hands.

On board the Saint Jean Baptiste the condition of the crew was terrible. Since leaving Port Praslin on 21st October —only two months before—60 of De Surville's men had died, and the scurvy had got so strong a hold of nearly all the rest of them, that one officer's journal records the opinion that a few days more without seeing land and only a miracle would have enabled the Saint Jean Baptiste to get away again.

At five o'clock in the morning of 19th December De Surville landed. To such straits had the crew come that they could not launch the longboat, and one of the smaller boats had to be taken. Arrived ashore, they found the Natives, all armed, standing about in groups and talking excitedly as if they meant to attack. The chief, who had been well treated by De Surville, and who had come out in his canoe to meet the French Commander, made a sign for the party to remain on the beach while he went and harangued his people. Leaving them, he returned and asked for De Surville's gun, and, on that being refused, asked for his sword, which was given him, whereupon he went from one group to another, showing everyone the naked weapon. After this there was no further trouble until the sailors commenced scooping out holes in the creek for the water casks, but when the Natives saw the casks being filled up, not only were they assured, but they rendered every assistance to roll the full casks down to the water's edge.

At the chief's own request he was taken on the boat to go on board the ship, but they had no sooner put off than the page 37 Natives ashore got anxious and cried to him to return. He hesitated a moment, and then asked to be put ashore, which was done.

On Wednesday the twentieth, De Surville again took a party of the sick men ashore for wood and water as before. Some little difficulty was again apparent at the landing, but after something in the nature of a council of the Natives had sat for half-an-hour, the chief advanced to De Surville and pressed noses; De Surville, on his part, presented to the chief a hatchet, a cask, a bucket, and a white aigrette of feathers. In spite of all this there seemed some indifference on the part of the Natives, but the Frenchmen got what wood and water they wanted, and a fair supply of vegetables pulled up by the Natives. During the afternoon the position of the vessel was changed to about two miles from the Native village. The following day the Saint Jean Baptiste drifted a little as the weather was stormy, but with 80 fathoms more cable given out the vessel held.

On Friday the ship was visited by three canoes, and the chief went aboard and down into the council chamber, where he was loaded with presents. At 11 o'clock the anchor was hoisted, and the vessel tacked about until 1.15 p.m., when the anchor was again let go. On Saturday the Natives were early aboard with vegetables, and for the delectation of the chief one of the big guns was fired out to sea, after which De Surville went ashore, taking with him two little pigs for the chief. About 9 o'clock the sick were sent ashore for their daily recreation, this plan being decided upon instead of sending the men into a camp ashore. Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday passed off uneventfully, except that on Monday one of the Bashi Island captives died.

Wednesday 27th December was a day of anxiety, and was followed by dire disaster on board the Saint Jean Baptiste. On that day the wind changed to E.N.E. Three of the ship's boats had gone to the top of the Bay, and by evening only two of them had been able to get back. The wind continued to increase, and a third anchor was dropped at 4 a.m. on Thursday. Then one of the cables broke, and the vessel page 38 commenced to drift on to the heavy rocks on the southwestern portion of Chevalier Cove. There was only one thing to do and that was to make sail. This was done, one cable was cut, the other let go, and good-bye said to the anchors. As the vessel was straight to the wind great difficulty was experienced in getting her over to starboard, an operation which was not accomplished until she was within twenty yards of the rocks. “One cannot see death nearer than we did" was the entry in one officer's journal, and testimony is given to the skill shown by De Surville under circumstances which only come once to a commander during his sea-going experience. Getting away from danger, the ship lay-to in order to get another big anchor ready. This was done after four hours' extreme labour, and the anchor was dropped at 2 o'clock in the afternoon of the twenty-eighth. A second anchor was dropped, and the topmast and yards lowered. Then the tiller broke, and, if the anchor cable had failed, all was over. Fortunately it was equal to its task, and the vessel was saved. At 5 a.m. on the Friday the second cable broke, but more of the first was immediately let go, and that held.

At 3 a.m. on Friday the boat which had left on Wednesday morning returned to the ship, and First-Lieutenant Pottier de L'Horne, who accompanied it, gave the following account of their doings during their two days' absence:

About 3 o'clock in the afternoon the wind began to freshen, and at five a commencement was made on the return journey from the bottom of the Bay. There were in the boat, besides De L'Horne, the surgeon and thirty-three men, three casks of water, some firewood, the boilers and the axes, and a small dingy for landing. On leaving the cove the sail was hoisted, but that broke away and the oars had to be taken out, but the increasing wind made rowing impossible, and the anchor was dropped to give the sailors a rest. At about 9 o'clock it was decided to return to the cove for shelter, and in doing so in the dark the boat was, on two occasions, almost lost among the breakers; on one occasion it actually got on a rock and was almost swamped, page 39 but in the end the boat was got into the shelter of the cove, the sick seen to as best could be done, and a close watch kept for the Natives.

When daylight came the sick men were landed and a big fire lit. After a while some New Zealanders came down to see the party, and, when they saw the dire straits of the men, brought dried fish for food for them, and the Chief offered them the shelter of his hut. At 8 o'clock De L'Horne sent eight armed men under M. Dubocq, the chief surgeon, to Chevalier Cove to try to get on board the Saint Jean Baptiste for food. Not long afterwards some of the men who remained behind took a walk to the top of the hill and from there saw the danger which faced De Surville. De L'Horne was summoned to the spot, and from there was an anxious observer of the efforts of his Commander to clear the ship of danger. To his intense delight he saw her come to an anchor at two in the afternoon, and unrig the yards and topmasts. The troops sent out under M. Dubocq had also been spectators of the herculean struggle to keep off the rocks of Chevalier Cove, and, as they gazed on the terrible position of the vessel, were quite convinced that they would be called upon to pass their days in New Zealand. That night a tent was rigged up and the boat hauled up high and dry. Early in the morning everything was got ready, the boats launched, and the vessel reached by 8 o'clock, without the loss of one man; and lucky it was for De L'Horne that he came on board when he did, as a delay of half-an-hour would have rendered it impossible to do so.

On Saturday 30th December, De Surville went in the longboat, with De L'Horne, M. Dubocq, and one of the officers, to Refuge Cove, as the cove where the two boats took refuge was designated. In the afternoon they returned with vegetables, firewood, and water.

On Sunday 31st December, the harmony which had hitherto existed between De Surville and the New Zealanders was rudely broken under circumstances which plainly place the French Commander in the wrong.

page 40

When the Saint Jean Baptiste was at the height of her peril near the rocks of Chevalier Cove, a little dingy attached to the vessel got filled with water and sank. On Sunday morning the dingy was seen at the end of the Bay towards the east of the point of Refuge Cove. De Surville got into a boat, with a well-armed party, to bring the dingy back. From the vessel it could be seen disappearing little by little as the Natives dragged it into the scrub. When De Surville arrived at the spot it was gone, but there were traces of it and one of its ropes was lying there. The tracks led to a little river, but vain was the search. While hunting for the dingy some Natives were found round a canoe. De Surville called them to him and one came, when he was immediately captured. The others escaped. One canoe was seized, and the others burnt, and a like fate was meted out to some Native huts there. Worse than all, when De Surville returned to the ship, the chief surgeon and De L'Horne recognised the prisoner as the chief who had befriended the sick sailors when their fate was entirely in his hands on shore.

De L'Horne thus records the chief's arrival on board the Saint Jean Baptiste:

“They came back on board in the afternoon with the prisoner, who turned out to be the same Native who brought me some dry fish when I was without food in Refuge Cove during the bad weather. I was touched with the greatest compassion on the arrival on board of this poor unfortunate one, who, recognising me, and not knowing what his fate would be, threw himself at my feet, kissed them, then got up and wanted to kiss me too, with tears in his eyes, and saying to me things that I did not understand, but making signs to me that he was the man who brought me some fish at a time when neither myself nor the ones who had the misfortune of not being able to get back to the vessel had any food to eat. The man seemed to beg his pardon of me, or for me to beg it. I did my best to console him, and to make him understand that no harm was intended to him. But it was page 41 useless, for he did not stop crying, especially when he saw them putting irons on his feet to make him secure."

After this act of De Surville all hope of obtaining further assistance from the Natives vanished, and it was necessary to go and get help somewhere else. Help was badly wanted. More than one-third of the crew had died; four anchors, four cables, and a boat had been lost; and the rigging and the instruments of the vessel called for the closest attention. This was the gist of the report which De Surville placed before a council consisting of the members of his staff and the crew-master. The nearest European Establishment on this side of the Cape of Good Hope was 1200 leagues distant, and Peru was 1800, but to get to the former the Saint Jean Baptiste had to pass through straits where she would often require to cast anchor, and with only one anchor it was taking too great a risk. In regard to Peru, an article in the instructions prohibited the vessel calling at the Spanish Possessions, but the greater distance was more than compensated by the favourable winds, and there was no necessity to anchor on the road. It was considered, therefore, the only prudent course to follow, and so the council decided.

De Surville had returned to the ship at 5 o'clock in the evening of 31st December; by 9 o'clock he was working out of the Bay, and by 10 o'clock was clear and heading northward. Shortly after 5 o'clock on the New Year's morning, New Zealand had faded from sight in the south-western horizon.

It seems to have been a peculiarity of De Surville to take away with him to France specimens of the aboriginals he met, probably to enable his countrymen to get information about the various places discovered, and thereby secure an advantage over the rest of the world. Before coming to New Zealand the Commander had already put his philosophy into practice. From the Bashi Islands he had brought away three Natives on the flimsy pretext that they were responsible for some of his sailors running away. At Port Praslin a Native was captured in the most deliberate and barefaced manner possible, and was with the Saint Jean Baptiste when page 42 she cast anchor on the Peruvian coast. De Surville therefore had with him on board his ship, Natives representing two different peoples he had met. One of these men breathed his last while they were at Doubtless Bay. Had De Surville not had some special reason for desiring to have aboriginal Natives on board, the fact that the chief had been so generous to the sick Frenchmen who were in his power, would have moved him even if possessed of a heart of stone. It was not punishment for the theft of the boat which was uppermost in the mind of De Surville, that had been settled by the steps taken on shore, but a desire to enable himself and his countrymen to get the maximum of information about this country. A chief was the best for that purpose; here was a chief; it was unfortunate that there was a sentimental objection in his case, but where did sentiment ever prevail when the advancement of science or the acquisition of hard cash was in the balance?

The shocking capture of the Chief, coupled with the indignity of placing him in irons, so preyed on his mind, that when the Saint Jean Baptiste was in sight of the Island of Juan Fernandez, on 27th January, he died. The Frenchmen say that Naguinodi's death was hastened by the straits to which all were reduced through shortness of water.

While the Saint Jean Baptiste was lying at anchor in Refuge Cove, the chief of the village opposite invited the officers to climb the hill and view the pa. They did so, and, when there, were entertained with an illustration of how the pa was defended. A chief stood on a plateau with a lance in hand, and, swinging it here and there, shewed how the attackers were beaten off. The method of disposing of the wounded was also rehearsed with great fidelity. The enemy was seized by the hair, and killed by being struck with a mere near the temple; he was then disembowelled, and the trunk and limbs cut in pieces and distributed among the victors. In this connection an invitation was extended to De Surville, for whose weapons of war they entertained the greatest respect, to join them in waging war against their enemies.

page 43

One day the chaplain had an experience which might have resulted in a catastrophe. He was invited by a chief to accompany him to some huts where he was going with his wife and some of his people. Pretending to accept the invitation the chaplain went with him, but kept on the watch and remained at some distance apart. As they advanced the chief's retinue was increased threefold by men armed with lances and meres. Alarmed at these dangerous signs, the chaplain went up to the chief to say farewell, when the chief's lancebearer put his hand on the chaplain's chest, and the chief put his on the chaplain's gun. Without losing command of himself, the chaplain got clear of his friends and made homewards. The suspicions he had formed of the hostile intentions of the Natives were confirmed when, a little later on, he looked back and saw that the chief's followers had again dwindled down to the original number. There is little reason to doubt that had he gone on a catastrophe would have taken place.

De L'Horne, the most observant of De Surville's officers, has much to say on the question of antiscorbutics. Two species of watercress and one of celery were found in the Bay, and all three proved of great use in curing the scurvy. The sick sailors were taken on shore and fed on these vegetables with wondrous results. One of the most desperate cases on board, where the man's body was swollen all over and his mouth was quite rotten, was so bad that he was only able to go on shore twice, but he made such a good use of these healing plants, that, at the end of a month he started walking, and was quite well shortly afterwards.

Speaking of the native dogs, De L'Horne says: “The only quadrupeds I know of are the dogs, in rather a small quantity, and the rats. The dogs are of an average size, with long, fine hair. The Natives feed them as we do our sheep, and eat them likewise."

Before leaving, De Surville gave to the Natives samples and specimens of the most useful plants and animals of Europe, in the form of wheat, peas, rice, pigs, and fowls. The use of wheat was fully explained to the Natives; they were shown page 44 how to sow, harvest, and crush it, and then how to change the crushed wheat into paste and cook it as bread, in which form it was very palatable to them. In connection with the rice it was hardly anticipated that the country would be fit to produce it. Two young pigs, male and female, were left with them, also a Siamese rooster and a hen, of a small species, white and leggy, which had been reared on board. The poverty of the ship in the possessions of civilisation prevented anything else being given, and the laziness of the New Zealander appeared to the Frenchman to be too great to hold out very much hope of the seeds of civilisation which they had sown taking any very firm root among them.

De Surville did not long survive the Native he had wronged. On 8th April he tried to enter the Harbour of Chilca in a boat, but the bar rendered his task an impossible one, and he sent a message ashore by means of a Native of Pondicherry, a fine swimmer, who was accustomed to cross the bar of his native port in the very worst weather. The Indian, after leaving the boat, had occasion to look back, when he saw that the boat had capsized and that De Surville and his two companions were swimming for the shore. Impeded by their clothes they were all drowned. The Indian succeeded in gaining the shore. De Surville's body was found and buried at Chilca, and M. Labé took command. With all his faults, De Surville's death was a tremendous blow to the Expedition, and it was no empty ceremonial that fixed all the yards backwards, hoisted the flag half-mast, fired five-minute mourning guns, and, later on, sang a requiem mass and fired a salute of fifteen guns.

De Surville's visit has not left us a single name. Cape Surville has given place to the North Cape of Cook. There is no doubt that Cook sighted and named North Cape on 11th December, while De Surville did not see it until five days later, but from the position of the vessels when the Cape was named it seems fairly certain that the French Commander was naming a point a short distance to the north of North Cape, and now known as Kerr Point. If this view page 45 of the position is correct, De Surville ought, even now, to have his name given to the most northerly point on the mainland of New Zealand.

Of the other names, Lauriston Bay must give place to Doubtless Bay, given a few days before by Cook. The name Lauriston has an interesting history. It is not French by any means. At a castle and estate of that name on the Firth of Forth there died, in 1684, one William Law, whose son, an exile in France, rose to be Comptroller-General of the French finances, and proved probably one of the most marvellous financiers that ever lived. The Law of Lauriston, who was in partnership with De Surville, was either a son or a nephew of the celebrated Law, and his designation of Lauriston was utilised by De Surville to name the bay in which his ship anchored in New Zealand.

For the identification of the places mentioned in Doubtless Bay the author is indebted to Captain Bollons of the G.s.s. Hinemoa, who very kindly, with a copy of De Surville's Journals in his possession, made an examination of the Bay. As a result of this examination the Captain identifies Chevalier Cove as Brodie's Beach, just inside Knuckle Point, Refuge Cove as the cove on the west side of the abandoned pa of Rangiawhea, and Salvation Cove as the one on the south side of the old pa. The first and second anchorages were in the small bay just inside Knuckle Point, and the third one was abreast of the Native Settlement of Rangiawhea.

If De Surville can claim to be the first discoverer of any part of the New Zealand coastline at all, it can only be of the few miles between Cape Maria van Diemen and Kerr Point. All the rest he described had already been sighted, by Tasman on the west, and by Cook on the east.