Thursday, 15 May 2008

French Pass

This image comes from the collection of the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Not all Frenchmen are surrender monkeys. Some take it to the other extreme. Witness Dumont D'Urville and his very dangerous and rather pointless conquest of what is now called French Pass, at the Northwest corner of the South island of New Zealand, in 1827.

This account is from his diaries, translated by Olive Wright and published in 1950 by the Wingfield Press.One thing I can think of to match this kind of recklessness is the passage I made of French Pass with my good friend and solid shipmate Sean in his then newly-acquired yacht Rogue, built 1892 by Chas Bailey Jr in Auckland. We were taking her from Nelson to Wellington. As a side coincidence, Sean's Birthday is the same as D'Urville's. But that story might be for another post. Or a yarn at the pub. This is about D'Urville in 1827.

This was D'Urville's second visit to New Zealand. The first he made as second in command of a scientific/ reconnaisance voyage to Australia and New Zealand. During that trip they delivered two Maori passengers from Port Jackson to the Bay of Islands in 1824 (the Nga Puhi at this time were already active traders), and it is likely through them that D'Urville learned the language of New Zealand, and picked up the sensitivity he shows toward the Maori culture in this, his second of three visits.

One of the missions of this voyage, as just about all French voyages of the time, was to try to find out the fate of the La Perouse expedition, which disappeared in 1788 (D'Urville's ship for this journey was named after Perouse's flagship "Astrolabe"). When in Australia, D'Urville heard that evidence had been found only months before by the trader Peter Dillon, in an area which he planned to investigate. D'Entrecasteaux in his 1791-93 voyage had had suspicions about Vanikoro, but poor weather precluded landing at the time. He followed in Dillon's wake and found many artefacts, but I bet he was gutted that a foreigner had solved the mystery.

Reading memoirs of some voyagers and traders of the 1820s and 30s, I sense a certain desperation creeping in, a desperation to shine like their immediate forbears and mirror or surpass their prodigious scientific and navigational discoveries. Arguably, the last great voyages of discovery and chart-making had been those of Baudin and Flinders made in the first years of the 1800s. The rest was just a matter of filling in the gaps; like here, where a great deal of risk was taken to run though a channel when it was easy to prove the existence of the island by simple survey, using the small boats.

D'Urville believed in using the local names in his charts, which I find admirable. He says himself that it seems foolish to name places which have already had names for hundreds of years. He noted that he acquiesced to the naming of D'Urville Island until its "real" name be determined (Rangitoto - the name given to the group of islands of the area). It still bears his name, as the name "French Pass" memorialises this episode, but I don't think he would have approved.

Shortly after this adventure, D'Urville received a visit from a couple of Maori men from the Cape Palliser area. I suppose they were Ngati Kahungunu men. D'Urville names them as Tehi Noui and Koki-Hore (his spelling). They remained on board through a bit of harmless guile, and stayed on until they reached the Hawke's Bay. From these two men D'Urville learned the names of the features of the Cook Strait and East Coast of the North Island, which he entered on his charts. Most of these still bear those names, though he kept the names that Cook gave the larger areas, which have since stuck in officialdom. Interesting that all and sundry at this time charted the major Islands as Ika a Maui (Maui's Fish) and Te Wai Pounamu (The Greenstone Waters) and we've ended up with the evocative names of North and South Island respectively. That must be the Scottish Presbyterian influence kicking in!

D'Urville commanded a third expedition to the Pacific, which visited Antarctic waters, and he claimed to have found the South magnetic pole. This is dubious to say the least.

D'Urville's has other claims to fame: he wrote the first novel with Maori protagonists, He brought the Venus de Milo to France, and he and his entire immediate family died in France's first railcrash disaster in 1842.

Anyway, here is his account of the passage, which shows a bull-headishness usually associated with WWI Brigadier Generals. Well, he liked a bit of Phrenology, did D'Urville...
[Technical hitch with the scans unfortunately - will try to upload them Monday]

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