Kidnapped Ngāti Kahu chief Ranginui 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. The chaplain probably presided over New Zealand’s first Christmas Day service.

Later, 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. However no land was encountered, many of the crew became sick, and Ranginui died of scurvy on 24 March 1770.