Marion du Fresne arrives in the Bay of Islands

4 May 1772

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

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

The crews of the Mascarin and Marquis de Castries spent five weeks exploring the Bay of Islands and repairing their ships. In their many interactions with Māori they had 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 mana 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 destroyed waka and other resources.

The surviving members of the expedition provided many insights into Māori society. Some communication had been possible, as they had brought a Tahitian vocabulary with them.