Marc-Joseph Marion du Fresne

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Marc-Joseph Marion du Fresne
Mort de Marc-Joseph Marion Dufresne dans la baie des Îles - détail.jpg
Born(1724-05-22)22 May 1724
St Malo, France
Died12 June 1772(1772-06-12) (aged 48)
Assssination Cove, Bay of Islands, New Zealand
Cause of deathCannibalistic Murder
OccupationExplorer, navigator, cartographer
TitleCapitaine de frégate
Spouse(s)Julie Bernardine Guilmaut de Beaulieu

Marc-Joseph Marion du Fresne (22 May 1724 – 12 June 1772), with the surname sometimes spelt Dufresne, was a Breton-born French explorer who made important discoveries in the south Indian Ocean, in Tasmania and in New Zealand. Du Fresne was killed by Māori in 1772.[1]

He is commemorated in various place names, as well as in the name of the research vessel providing logistical support to the French Southern Territories of Île Amsterdam, Île Saint-Paul, Îles Crozet, and Îles Kerguelen, the Marion Dufresne II.

Early career[edit]

Du Fresne was born in Saint Malo and, until recently, was thought to have joined the French East India Company at the age of 11 as a sub-lieutenant aboard the Duc de Bourgogne. However, the Australian historian Edward Duyker, in the (revised) French edition of his biography of Marion Dufresne, has revealed that this was, in fact, the future explorer's older brother.[citation needed]

During the War of the Austrian Succession, he commanded several ships and was a captain by 1745. In the Seven Years' War, he was engaged in various naval operations. After the war, he again sailed on the East India routes and eventually settled in Port Louis on Mauritius, where he also was the harbourmaster for some time.


When the French East India Company collapsed and was dissolved in 1769, du Fresne was suddenly unemployed. He convinced Pierre Poivre, the civil administrator, to equip him with two ships and send him on a twofold mission to the Pacific. Du Fresne's fellow explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville had recently returned from the Pacific with a Tahitian native, Ahutoru. Du Fresne was tasked with returning Ahutoru to his homeland, and then to explore the south Pacific for Terra Australis Incognita.[2] For these purposes du Fresne was given two ships, the Mascarin and the Marquis de Castries.

Memorial fountain in Hobart for the bicentenary of the 1772 sighting of Tasmania.

Neither part of du Fresne's mission could be achieved; Ahu-toru died of smallpox shortly after embarkation at Port Louis, and the expedition did not locate the Australian mainland.[2] Instead, du Fresne discovered first the Prince Edward Islands and then the Crozet Islands before sailing towards New Zealand and Australia. His ships spent several days in Tasmania, where Marion Bay in the south-east is named after him. He was the first European to explore the island and, due to his interaction with Aboriginal Tasmanians, was the first person to show that Tasmania was not terra nullius.

New Zealand[edit]

Bay of Islands (1772)[edit]

Monument to the memory of Marc-Joseph Marion du Fresne and his party at Te Hue Bay, "Assassination cove"
A close up of the monument to Du Fresne and his men

Du Fresne sighted New Zealand's Mount Taranaki on 25 March 1772, and named the mountain Pic Mascarin without knowing that James Cook had named it "Mount Egmont" three years earlier.

Over the next month, they explored the islands, repaired their two ships and treated their scurvy, first anchoring at Spirits Bay,[3] and later in the Bay of Islands. Apparently their relations with the Māori were peaceful at first; they could communicate thanks to their Tahitian vocabulary learned from Ahu-toru, and the Māori even held a ceremony for them.

The French had been anchored in the Bay of Islands for many weeks and got on well with the chief Te Kauri (Te Kuri) of the Ngāpuhi iwi (tribe). The French established a significant vegetable garden on Moturua Island. They had been invited to visit local Māori at their pa – a very rare event – and had slept there overnight. Māori in return had been invited on board the ships and had slept in the ships overnight. The French officers made a detailed study of the habits and customs of Māori including greetings, sexual mores, fishing methods, the role of females, the making of fern root paste, the killing of prisoners and cannibalism.[1]

Sixty of the French sailors had developed scurvy and were on shore in a tent hospital. In these months two Māori had been arrested. The first had sneaked on board ship and stolen a cutlass. He was detained for a brief period to give him a fright, then released to his friends.[1]

On one occasion du Fresne was invited on shore to a special celebration where he was crowned and Te Kauri made it clear that he was making du Fresne the "king" of all the surrounding area. After this Māori made a night raid on the hospital camp taking away many guns and uniforms. While the soldiers chased the raiders, Māori slipped back and stole an anchor.[1]

Two men were held as hostage against the return of the stolen goods. One of them admitted he had been involved in the theft but accused Te Kauri of being involved. Du Fresne, finding the men bound, ordered them unbound and released. Later an armed party of Māori approached the French as if to challenge them, but the French understood enough tikanga to make peace with them by exchanging gifts.[1]

Murder and cannibalisation (1772)[edit]

Two contemporary accounts were written by French officers, Jean Roux and De Clesmeur.

During the night of 9 June 1772, French sentries at the hospital camp noticed about six Māori prowling. In the morning it was discovered that Māori had also been prowling around a second camp where the French had been making masts. The next day Māori arrived with a present of fish. Roux said the Māori were astonished at the blunderbusses he had mounted outside his tent. He noticed the visiting chief taking a close look at the weapons and how they worked, as well as the defences of the camp, and became suspicious of his motives. The chief asked for the guns to be demonstrated and Roux shot a dog.[1]

That night more Māori were found on Moturua Island prowling around the hospital camp but ran when sentries approached. Captain du Clesmur alerted du Fresne to the rise in suspicious activity, but du Fresne did not listen. On the afternoon of 12 June 1772 du Fresne and 15 armed sailors went to Te Kauri's village and then went in the Captain's gig to go fishing in his favourite fishing area.[4] Du Fresne and 26 men of his crew were killed and eaten. Those killed included de Vaudricourt and Pierre Lehoux (a volunteer), Thomas Ballu of Vannes, Pierre Mauclair (the second pilot) from St Malo, Louis Ménager (the steersman) from Lorient, Vincent Kerneur of Port-Louis, Marc Le Garff from Lorient, Marc Le Corre of Auray, Jean Mestique of Pluvigner, Pierre Cailloche of Languidic and Mathurin Daumalin of Hillion.

That night 400 armed Māori suddenly attacked the hospital camp but were stopped in their tracks by the threat of the multiple blunderbusses.[1] Roux held his fire and realised that they had narrowly escaped being massacred in their sleep. One chief told Roux that Te Kauri had killed Marion. At this point longboats full of armed French sailors arrived with the news that du Fresne and the sailors had been killed. One survivor, who had been spared, told them Māori had tricked them into going into the bush, where they had been ambushed, with all the others being killed.[1]

In the following days the French came under relentless attack. The next day about 1,200 Māori surrounded the French, led by Te Kauri. As they approached, Roux ordered Te Kauri shot. Later even more Māori reinforcements arrived. The French decided to abandon the hospital camp. The Māori then stole all the tools and supplies and burnt the camp down. They were close enough that the French could see they were wearing the clothes of du Fresne and his fellow dead sailors.[1]

The French retreated to Moturua Island. That night Māori again attacked the camp and this time the French opened a general fire. The next day even more Māori arrived taking their forces to about 1,500 men. The French charged this huge force with 26 armed soldiers and put them to flight, the Māori fleeing back to Te Kauri's pa. The French attacked the pa, firing at the defenders, who showered them with spears. The remainder got into canoes and fled. About 250 Māori including five chiefs were killed in the battle. Many of the French were wounded.[1]

Roux, Julien-Marie Crozet and Ambroise Bernard-Marie Le Clesmeur took joint command and undertook reprisals against the Māori over a one-month period as the ships were prepared for departure.[5]

A month later on 7 July Roux searched Te Kauri's deserted pa and found a sailor's cooked head on a spike, as well as human bones near a fire.[6] They left on 12 July 1772. The French buried a bottle at Waipoa on Moturua, containing the arms of France and a formal statement taking possession of the whole country, with the name of "France Australe." However, both published and unpublished accounts of du Fresne's death circulated widely, giving New Zealand a bad reputation as a dangerous land unsuitable for colonisation and challenged stereotypes of Pacific Islanders as noble savages then prevalent in Europe.[5]

Possible motives[edit]

There are different possible reasons for the massacre, including that the chief Te Kauri (Te Kuri) considered that du Fresne was a threat to his authority or Te Kauri became concerned at the economic effect of supplying food for the two crews, or that du Fresne’s crew, possibly unwittingly, broke several tapu laws related to their not carrying out the rituals required before the cutting down of kauri trees,[7] or breaking of tapu by fishing in Manawaora Bay.[4]

An account told by a Ngāpuhi informant to John White (ethnographer 1826-1891), but not published until 1965, describes the chiefs Te Kauri and Tohitapu as participating in the massacre when du Fresne and 26 men of his crew were killed and cannibalised.[4] Apparently tapu had been placed on Manawaora Bay after members of the local tribe drowned here some time earlier, and their bodies had been washed up at Tacoury's (Te Kauri's) Cove - therefore, the local Māori believed that the violation would anger the gods and neighbouring tribes, provoking war.[4] However, the French had been at the supposed tapu beach for 17 days. The beach was at the foot of Te Kauri's village and controlled by him. Te Kauri had numerous dealings with the French and he had been on board the ships at the cove many times.[1] Du Fresne fished at the cove (now known as Assassination Cove, located at 35°15'26" S, 174°12'48" E in New Zealand's Bay of Islands area) numerous times in the 26 days he was there.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Diary of du Clesmeur. Historical records of NZ. Vol l1, Robert McNab
  2. ^ a b Beaglehole 1968, pp. cxvi-cxvii
  3. ^ Whitmore, Robbie. "Marc-Joseph Marion du Fresne". New Zealand in History. Retrieved 26 October 2014.
  4. ^ a b c d "The First Pakehas to Visit The Bay of Islands". Te Ao Hou / The New World. No. 51 (June 1965) pages 14-18. Retrieved 12 December 2017.
  5. ^ a b Quanchi, Max (2005). Historical Dictionary of the Discovery and Exploration of the Pacific Islands. The Scarecrow Press. p. 178. ISBN 0810853957.
  6. ^ From Tasman to Marsden, R. McNab 1914, Ch 5.
  7. ^ Hughes, Vicki. "Introduction to Margaret Bullock's Utu: A Story of Love, Hate and Revenge - Fact versus Fiction". New Zealand Electronic Text Collection. Retrieved 12 December 2017.


  • Beaglehole, J.C., ed. (1968). The Journals of Captain James Cook on His Voyages of Discovery, vol. I:The Voyage of the Endeavour 1768–1771. Cambridge University Press. OCLC 223185477.

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