New Zealand 1826-1827: From the French of Dumont D'Urville
Columbus of immortal memory had just discovered a new world, but all that was known was that a vast ocean surrounded it both on the west and on the east; no one knew the extent or the boundaries of this ocean and no one had any idea of what lands might be found on its surface. Having scarcely emerged from the state of ignorance that prevailed throughout the Middle Ages, Europe was still far from having achieved the high degree of civilization, the noble zest for knowledge and renown that characterize it today and which have prompted more than one sovereign of our time to order important expeditions to be undertaken solely in the interests of learning and humanity. At the opening of the sixteenth century, the thirst for conquest and the speculations of trade alone decided monarchs or governments to fly their flag in the most distant parts of the globe, while the men who manned these vessels were, as a rule, only animated by the lure of profit and the hope of booty. Greedy adventurers thought only of gold as the object of their labours, demanded nothing but gold of the lands they discovered, and any regions which could not offer this precious metal to their greed, ceased to be of the slightest interest to them. It is clear that with such an attitude and influenced solely by such ideas, these navigators could not render great services to geography: hence the discoveries they made were often shrouded in uncertainty and it was even doubtful whether such places as they described existed. How far the lands once sighted by Mindana [born 1567] were to be identified with what are now known as the Solomon Islands was still a fact contested by different geographers, till the skilful work of the scholar Fleurieu [1738-1810] shed a very clear light on the problem. But it required page 51the brilliant achievements of M. d'Entrecasteaux [1737-1793] and the testimony of a number of English captains, who passed near the archipelago, to decide the question. How many islands sighted in the past by Quiros [1560-1614], Tasman [1603-1659], and Roggewin [1669-1733] were for long regarded as fictitious, until modern navigators rediscovered them and charted them more accurately! Further, how many other islands still wait to be discovered a second time! Yet, as justice demands that we should render to every man his due, whatever his motive, let us hasten to enumerate the names and voyages of those captains who were attracted to these waters by nothing higher than ambition or greed, in the days before Europeans were drawn here by nobler sentiments….
The reader will have noticed that I have not mentioned expeditions which had as their particular object the archipelagos of Asia, the coasts of America or New Holland.† That is why I passed over in silence the voyages of Baudin [1705-1803], Flinders [1760-1814], King [1793-1856] etc., in spite of the eminent services that they rendered to geography. But I was forced to confine myself to work carried out in Polynesia, whose islands are the only ones included in our plan of campaign.
Although I have endeavoured to make as complete as possible the review of the discoveries and surveys carried out by those navigators who preceded us in the Pacific Ocean, there are no doubt some documents which have escaped my memory or which have never come to my knowledge. England is the only place where it would be possible to complete the record without leaving any gaps. Every year a great many whaling captains sail through the different regions of this vast ocean, and probably these are the men to whom it will be given henceforth to report the evidence of that small number of islands still unknown to Europeans. In our day, the real aim of scientific missions should rather be to complete the geographical study of the coasts still imperfectly charted and of some scarcely known groups of islands; above all to establish by means of chronometers the exact position of an enormous number of islands and reefs (where a degree of uncertainty still remains) by placing them in relation to points regarded as having been accurately determined by a series of observations. In this spirit I suggested and undertook the expedition of the Astrolabe and throughout the voyage it has been the mainspring of all my actions.page 52
Those parts of the Pacific Ocean which seemed to me to demand most urgently the attention of the navigator-geographer were New Zealand, Viti [Fiji] Islands, Loyalty Islands, New Britain, and New Guinea; and my endeavours were directed to these regions. The narrative of the voyage will show what we were able to carry out and it will no doubt be understood why we were forced to leave certain parts of the project incomplete….
At this point I owe the reader an explanation. Before M. de Freycinet [1779†1842], all accounts of sea voyages, related strictly in order of the events, were, so to speak, nothing more than the diary written on board, relieved of some of its inevitable tedium, enlivened to some extent by incidents, observations concerning customs of the natives and products of the soil, and occasionally also by philosophical reflections. M. de Freycinet, in writing an account of Baudin's voyage and in accordance with the instructions he received, was the first to adopt a different method. With nothing but a simple itinerary as an introduction to the book, he divided the observations made during the voyage into different chapters, arranged according to one rule only, viz., locality and subject matter. He followed more or less the same method in the publication of his own voyage on the Uranie, which constitutes a vast compilation of laborious research rather than a true narrative.
In this way, it is possible no doubt to present a more complete work, one which may in some circumstances prove more useful for reference, since the narrator is no longer restricted to his own observations or to those directly connected therewith. The different stages of the journey thus become, as it were, so many topics to be elaborated, each carried the more easily to full completion, because no author or traveller who has treated the same subject is ignored. But it must not be overlooked that from another point of view this method has grave disadvantages. First, it necessitates long delays in publication, since the writer must consider everything that has been written on each subject; he must study, discuss, analyse accounts that often show serious divergencies, and draw up, so to speak, a geographical treatise for every anchorage. Then, too, the explorer's own observations are lost in the mass of those made by others from which he has had to quote. Thus his work loses the peculiar charm of original writing, which appeals to the general reader and is for the scholar the best guarantee of the sincerity of the author. At the same time the narrative loses that interest which is nearly page 53always felt for the person of the narrator, who tells of what he himself has seen, of what he has done, of what he has observed in his travels: an interest which varies in degree of intensity according to the talent of the narrator, the importance of the events whose course he has to trace, or the intrinsic value of his observations. Yet interest of this kind attaches even to the least important voyages and is strong enough to save them from oblivion. Notwithstanding the simplicity, one might almost say the naïveté with which they are written, Dampier's† voyages offer a notable example of this truth, and who has not enjoyed rereading at some time or another the very ingenuous narratives of the good Lery!
Having regard to these considerations, and above all, being anxious to offer the results of our labours to the public with the least possible delay, I have returned to the method adopted by most of my predecessors. My narrative will be nothing more than the diary of the voyage, and as I made it a strict rule to record each evening the events and even the reflections of the day, I shall endeavour to render as closely as possible not only my feelings but also the very mode of expression inspired by the circumstances under whose influence I found myself at that moment. My learned colleague, M. Quoy, has given me his ov/n diary of the voyage. From it I have selected the most notable passages to add them without any alteration to my own account, merely taking the precaution of placing them at the end of each volume to avoid any break in the course of the narrative…. .
It will happen sometimes that I shall present the reader with documents from an outside source, but these will have some immediate and essential bearing on the places that we visited, and I shall be careful to choose only such documents as I believe to be still unknown or scarcely known in France: in any case they will never be of a later date than the time of our own voyage. Finally, taking care to quote my authorities, I also propose to make a clear distinction between observations due to others and those that are my own.
† d'Urville, Volume I, pp. I-III; XXVII-XXXIIT.
† Dampier, 1652-1715.