Marion du Fresne arrives in Bay of Islands

4 May 1772

Painting showing the death of Marion du Fresne (Alexander Turnbull Library, G-824-3)

Du Fresne’s was the second French expedition to visit New Zealand, following that of de Surville in 1769 (see 24 March). Du Fresne’s acceptance of the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s beliefs about ‘noble savages’ was to have unfortunate consequences.

The crews of the Mascarin and Marquis de Castries spent five weeks exploring the Bay and repairing their ships. Their many interactions with Māori gave them ample opportunity to unwittingly give offence.

They violated tapu by fishing in a bay where bones were scraped before being laid to rest, and they unknowingly allowed themselves to be used by one iwi to diminish the status of another. Their lengthy sojourn placed strains on the local economy. Māori may have feared the establishment of a permanent French settlement.

In mid-June, local Māori killed du Fresne and 24 of his crew. In reprisal, the French killed up to 250 Māori, burned several kāinga and destroying waka and other resources.

The survivors were able to provide many insights into Māori society. Some communication had been possible, as they had brought a Tahitian vocabulary with them.