Māori kidnap victim dies on French ship

24 March 1770

Drawing of Ranginui (Journal of the Polynesian Society, University of Auckland)

Ranginui was a Ngāti Kahu chief from Doubtless Bay who was kidnapped by the French explorer Jean François Marie de Surville.

De Surville’s ship, the St Jean Baptiste, had arrived off the west coast of northern New Zealand in December 1769. He rounded North Cape in a storm on 17 December, unaware that James Cook’s Endeavour was nearby, sailing in the opposite direction. The French expedition then spent two weeks in Doubtless Bay, resting and recuperating.

De Surville respected Māori etiquette and relations were mostly friendly. Māori supplied the French with much-needed greens in return for European foodstuffs and cloth. The ship’s officers recorded valuable impressions of Māori customs and artefacts in their journals. On Christmas Day, the ship’s chaplain probably presided over New Zealand’s first Christian service.

But the atmosphere soured. When Māori took a small boat that had drifted ashore, de Surville ‘arrested’ Ranginui, who had been hospitable towards the visitors, and ordered the destruction of whare and other property.

Ranginui was taken aboard the St Jean Baptiste. Strong winds then forced the ship to set sail and it headed east across the Pacific. Ranginui was treated well by his captors. But no land was encountered, the crew sickened and Ranginui died of scurvy on 24 March 1770.