Title: Early New Zealand Botanical Art

Author: F. Bruce Sampson

Publication details: Reed Methuen, 1985, Auckland

Digital publication kindly authorised by: F. Bruce Sampson

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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Early New Zealand Botanical Art


Jules Sébastien Cesar Dumont d'Urville (1790-1842), of which Dumont d'Urville is the surname, made three visits to New Zealand.

Dumont d'Urville was born in Conde sur Noireau, an ancient village in Normandy, France. His father was a judge and affluent landowner, his mother was descended from one of the oldest families of the French nobility. The French Revolution, following the storming of the Bastille in 1789, saw the family fleeing their estates and moving to a secluded property on the banks of the Orne. In 1797 Jules' father died, leaving him as the only surviving son. He developed a love of nature as a child and spent much time in the countryside. He had little early formal education, but his mother's brother, Father de Croisilles, joined the family, and d'Urville has written: "The little I am worth I owe to my good uncle whose scholarship was as attractive as it was varied in its scope" (Wright, 1950). When de Croisilles was appointed to the diocese of Bayeux in about 1802, the Dumont d'Urville family moved too and Jules attended the college there. Later he obtained a scholarship to enter the Lycée Malherbe as a boarding pupil. (Napoleon founded the lycées for the gifted youth of France.)

Jules gained many prizes for his scholastic abilities, but he was a rather frail boy who seldom took part in sport. He was ambitious and when still at school had a bet with a friend that he would be an admiral by the time he was fifty, an ambition he didn't quite achieve as he was made one some seven months after his fiftieth birthday. D'Urville was inspired by accounts of the voyages of the great navigators such as Cook and Bougainville, and in 1807 he entered the French Navy as a midshipman. Like Joseph Hooker, Jules Dumont d'Urville believed that "nothing is nobler or worthier of a lofty spirit than to devote one's life to the progress of knowledge. That is why my inclination urged me to voyages of discovery rather than to the purely fighting navy" (d'Urville, Voyage au Pôle Sud, translated by Olive Wright). For a time there was little to do, and d'Urville studied Greek, Latin and Hebrew, and later physics, biology and astronomy. Much of his spare time was devoted to botany. In 1815 he married a Provençal girl "without rank or wealth". Then, in 1819-20, by which time he was an ensign, d'Urville took part in a nine-month voyage to the eastern Mediterranean. The plants he collected formed the basis for a book, Enumeratio page 48 plantarum quas in insulis archipelagi aut littoribus Ponti-Euxini, written in Latin, which was published at his own expense. During the voyage, when the ship the Chevrette was anchoted off Milos (Melos) Island in the Aegean Sea, wotd was received that a peasant on the island had unearthed an ancient marble statue. D'Urville was very impressed with it and even offered to pay the 400 francs for it out of his own pocket, for France. His captain was apparently unimpressed and considered it too cumbersome to transport. When the Chevrette reached Constantinople (Istanbul), d'Urville repeatedly urged M. de Rivier, the French Ambassador there, to secure the statue for France. The ambassador finally agreed and the now famous "Venus de Milo" was placed in the Musee du Louvre, Paris. After the voyage d'Urville was promoted to lieutenant and was made a Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur.