French explorers in the south Pacific

With the 250th anniversary celebrations of Captain Cook’s arrival in New Zealand in full swing, inevitably the “what if’s” of history get debated. The diverse native peoples of New Zealand were fortunate that Britain’s Captain Cook did the first systematic charting of New Zealand’s coastlines and returned on two subsequent voyages. There were plenty of French explorers in the south Pacific in the late 18th century and Akaroa might have become the first capital of Nouvelle Zélande.

James Cook headed off French explorers

Unlucky French explorers

By Bruce Moon and Roger Childs

The French made several expeditions to the Pacific and all were in some degree unlucky. Their problems were often severely compounded by their failure to apply the British discovery of the ways to avoid scurvy. Basically the key factor was to provide sailors with vitamin C from oranges and lemons, or sauerkraut in Cook’s case.

  • Marc-Joseph Marion du Fresne and a number of his crew were murdered and eaten in the Bay of Islands in 1772. 
  • Jean-François-Marie de Surville was drowned when trying to get ashore in Peru in 1770.  Coincidently he had been to New Zealand and was exploring Fiordland about the same time as Cook in 1769.
  • Jean-Michel Huon de Kermadec died in New Caledonia.  
  • Antoine Raymond Joseph de Bruni d’Entrecasteaux never got home as he died in the Pacific of scurvy.  

Jules Sébastien César Dumont d’Urville, who did return to France, died with his entire family in a railway accident near Paris. He had discovered French Pass and hence D’Urville Island – which Cook had missed, like Stewart Island! – and named Pepin and Adele Islands in Tasman Bay after his wife. Know what to do after an oilfield accident happens.

He was lucky, when his ship did go broadside on through French Pass in a tidal stream of 9 knots, that it was not wrecked. 

La Pérouse disappears 

La Perouse

Perhaps the most interesting one was François de Galaup de La Pérouse who spent three years in the Pacific with his two ships, “Astrolabe” and “Boussole”, called at Botany Bay in early 1788, departed and was never seen again.  “Astrolabe” was discovered wrecked on the isolated Vanikoro Island in the Solomons but “Boussole” remained a mystery for about a hundred years.  

It was finally found post-war by my ( Bruce Moon’s) Vanuatu friend, Reece Discombe, when scuba-diving along the reef from the Astrolabe wreck.  Both ships had been driven over the reef and wrecked by a colossal cyclone.

The Astrolabe Reef in the Bay of Plenty, scene of the disastrous Rena collision in 2011, was named after another ship — La Perouse never came to New Zealand in all his three years in the Pacific. In fact it was D’Urville’s ship which nearly collided with the reef in 1827, that provided the name.

The 1840 race for Akaroa

Captain Charles François Lavaud, the French representative for the proposed settlement of Akaroa, sailed for New Zealand in April 1840. A month later, the Comte de Paris set off from France for Akaroa carrying 53 emigrants. 

Lieutenant Governor Hobson

In the Bay of Islands, Lavaud made contact with Roman Catholic Bishop Jean-Baptiste François Pompallier who had arrived in 1838 to set up a Catholic mission.  Lavaud also dined with Lieutenant Governor, William Hobson, and let slip the immigrants’ intentions. Hobson thereupon promptly despatched the brig HMS Britomart to Akaroa under the command of Commander Owen Stanley.  He hoisted the Union Jack ashore without delay and it duly greeted Captain Lavaud five days later. Realising that resistance to the English would be futile, Lavaud accepted that the French had been headed off, but would be allowed to settle in the sheltered

The French legacy in Akaroa

harbour. Akaroa retains reminders of its French origins today, notably in its street

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