Jean-François-Marie de Surville

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Jean-François-Marie de Surville
Born 18 January 1717
Port-Louis, Brittany, France
Died 8 April 1770(1770-04-08) (aged 53)
Chilca, Peru
Cause of death Drowned
Nationality France
Known for Explorer of the Pacific

Jean-François-Marie de Surville (18 January 1717 – 8 April 1770) was a French merchant captain with the French East Indies Company. He also served with the French Navy and fought in the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years' War. In 1769, he commanded an expedition into the Pacific and explored the seas around the Solomon Islands and New Zealand. He drowned off the coast of Peru on 8 April 1770 while seeking help for the crew of his ship, the St. Jean Baptiste.

Early life[edit]

Born on 18 January 1717, Jean-François-Marie de Surville was the son of a government official at Port-Louis in Brittany. At the age of ten, he left home and joined the French East India Company, a commercial enterprise established several years previously to trade in the East Indies. With the company, he sailed on trading voyages around India and China. He joined the French Navy following the outbreak of the War of the Austrian Succession in 1740 and fought in that conflict, during which he was twice captured. He also participated in the Seven Years' War. In 1759, he was awarded the Cross of St. Louis.[1]

Exploring the Pacific[edit]

Following the defeat of France in the Seven Years' War and the collapse of the French East India Company in India, Surville set sail in his 650 ton ship, the St. Jean Baptiste from 1769 hoping to seek new markets and opportunities in Tahiti, South America and the rumoured fabulously wealthy island of "Davis Land" before the British could lay claim.[2]

He sailed first to Terengganu on the Malay peninsula and then to the Bashi islands where several of his crew deserted. In retaliation, Surville captured some of the Bashi islanders. He proceeded to the Solomon Islands where they received a hostile reception and were unable to conduct any trade or even resupply their ship without being attacked.[3]

At this stage, the ship was desperately short of fresh food and 60 members of his crew dead (primarily from scurvy). Surville was forced to find a safe anchorage but he was unwilling to risk stopping at the Solomon Islands again. Instead, he followed Tasman's charts, and headed for New Zealand. To avoid missing New Zealand due errors in longitude, he first sailed south-west before turning eastwards at the latitude of northern New Zealand. This course took him to within a few hundred kilometres of the uncharted coast of New South Wales without ever sighting land.

On 12 December 1769 at 11:30am, the St. Jean Baptiste sighted the coastline of New Zealand, soon passing James Cook's Endeavour, with neither ship sighting the other due to the bad weather. Surprisingly, both Surville and Cook were navigating New Zealand waters at the same time, the only Europeans to do so since Abel Tasman, a century earlier.[2] The chaplain on board the St. Jean Baptiste was Father Paul-Antoine Léonard de Villefeix who conducted the first Christian services in New Zealand on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day 1769, in Doubtless Bay.

Later, while at anchor, more bad weather damaged the ship. Surville was forced to make substantial repairs. At Whatuwhiwhi, he ran afoul of local Māori, and was forced to flee, kidnapping Ranginui, one of their chiefs.[2]

The St. Jean Baptiste continued east across the Pacific and suffered further loss of crew through scurvy before reaching the coast of Chile. Surville drowned in heavy seas on a small boat, on 8 April 1770, while seeking help for his dying crew. The St. Jean Baptiste was impounded by Spanish authorities and her surviving crew imprisoned for two years before being allowed to return to France.[2]

Although a commercial failure, Surville's voyage confirmed the size of the Solomon Islands and contributed more knowledge of New Zealand and its inhabitants. It also provided further evidence that there was no large continent in the South Pacific. The Surville Cliffs, the northernmost point of New Zealand's North Island, are named after him.



  • Dunmore, John (1981). The Expedition of the St. Jean-Baptiste to the Pacific 1769-1770. The Hakluyt Society. ISBN 0904180115. 
  • Quanchi, Max (2005). Historical Dictionary of the Discovery and Exploration of the Pacific Islands. The Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0810853957.