Marion du Fresne


In 1735, and not yet a teenager, Marc Joseph Marion du Fresne joined the French India Company ship Duc de Bourgogne as honorary sub-lieutenant.

He worked his way up the ranks of the Company and the French royal navy until 1771 when he was given command of two ships for a voyage of trade and exploration to the Pacific sponsored by the French authorities.

En route to his destination Marion du Fresne searched for the fabled southern continent in the south Indian Ocean. Eventually landfall was made in Tasmania, and after several days there he set sail for New Zealand. Marion du Fresne sighted Mount Taranaki on 25 March 1772, naming it Pic Mascarin. He then sailed north to Spirits Bay, where a gale caused severe damage to the ships. Marion du Fresne then proceeded south-east and on 4 May reached the Bay of Islands.

The next five weeks were spent exploring the Bay and repairing the ships. On 8 June Marion du Fresne was welcomed at a special ceremony, but within a week he and 24 of his crew were killed by members of the Ngare Raumati tribe. As the French ships could not leave promptly while repairs were incomplete, a counter-attack was organised, which soon turned into violent reprisals and caused an estimated 250 Māori casualties.

The reasons for the killing of Marion du Fresne and his men may never be known. It is likely that the French transgressed in some way, possibly on the fatal day, or more probably on a number of earlier occasions, until it was felt that they had gone too far. Probably a visit of five weeks with no clear signs of departure created serious economic and cultural strains.

The stay, remarkable for its length and the closeness of the contact established between the visitors and the indigenous people, produced many records of early Māori life. The events of mid- 1772, however, strengthened the view in France that New Zealand was inhabited by dangerous natives and did not warrant an attempt at colonisation.

Adapted by Matthew Tonks from the DNZB biography by John Dunmore

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