Marc-Joseph Marion Dufresne was baptised at
St Malo, Brittany, 24 May 1724. He belonged to the upper bourgeoisie, and
although he did not belong to the nobility by birth, by being appointed a
Chevalier of the Order of St Louis later in life he acceded to it by military
title. He added a territorial designation to his name, from the village in
Brittany where his ancestors came from, Le Fresne, but this is not his surname
which is Marion, and we will refer to him as such throughout this essay.
He joined the merchant navy and went to see in 1741. In effect he was a corsair during the War of the Austrian Succession which put France at loggerheads with England. Ships lay in wait around the coast of Brittany and especially the narrow inlets of the Channel Islands to pounce on British ships returning from the West Indies or West Africa laden with precious metals, white wine, oranges, lemons, corn, and rye. Many of these hauls supplied all of France in foodstuffs and were lucrative for the mariners involved.
First though, Marion enters history in one of its most romantic episodes. He was responsible for the repatriation of Bonnie Prince Charlie to France after his disastrous defeat at the Battle of Culloden,1746. The Young Pretender spent nearly six months in the Highlands going from safe house to safe house, never betrayed by the Jacobite Highlanders despite the huge bounty on his head, and the fatal consequences for those who harboured him. He was on board Le Prince de Conty which was in convoy with L'Heureux, which anchored at Loch nan Uamh close to Fort William. 28 September Charles Edward Stuart came on board L'Heureux and after a crossing of nine days disembarked at Roscoff to spend the next 40 years of his life in exile in France and Italy. For these and other exploits Marion was becoming well known. He became an Officer of the Blue. This was a very important distinction because, to reach the higher grade, to become an Officer of the Red one had to belong to the nobility, which reflects the deeply engrained society of privilege France was in the 18th century. Many nobles refused to take orders from sailors of lesser social status than them, although there were cases where they served at this grade.
The Seven Years War, 1756-1763 saw France evicted from India and maintaining only a toehold in Canada. In this period Marion distinguished himself as a man of science in conveying the astronomer, the Abbe Pingre (1711 – 1795) to the Ile Rodrigues in the Indian Ocean (east of modern-day Mauritius of which it is a territory) in 1761 to observe the transit of Venus across the solar disc, and it deserves a little detour in our essay because there are parallels with Sir Joseph Banks and James Cook. Eclipses of the sun had been accurately predicted by the English astronomer Edmund Halley in the 17th century and he had forecast the next two to appear in 1761 and 1769. France took the lead in the first, 6 June 1761 where there were 120 observations in 62 stations while England took the lead in the second, 3 June 1769 where there were 150 observations. In the Age of Enlightenment, it became all the rage for savants and scientists to measure the heavens and describe the terrestrial globe. The savants of England and France stayed in touch with each other despite the war which had broken out between the two countries. The monarchs of both countries communicated with each other throughout this period, exchanging information on family matters to more mundane ones. Both of them were fascinated by scientific exploration because Marion was given a safe conduct by George 111 and Cook on his third expedition, 1776, which coincided with the outbreak of the American War of Independence was given the same by Louis XV1. Cook's expedition to New Zealand was a scientific one, not a voyage of conquest or settlement as Maori propagandists and their partisans erroneously claim. These expeditions harvested a wealth of botanical and zoological material as well as observations on the culture of indigenous inhabitants which made up a large part of the material later published in the journals of the captains and scientists on board. To measure accurately the distance of the earth from the sun would help in determining longitude which had bedevilled sailors for centuries. The Abbe Pingre, canon and librarian of the Abbey Sainte – Genevieve at Paris was chosen for this mission by the Academy of Sciences of Paris, the place designated best to observe this phenomenon was the Ile Rodrigues, and the vessel nominated for this mission was the Comte d'Argenson whose commander was none other than Marc-Joseph Marion Dufresne. However, the mission met disaster in the middle of the ocean and not in a way anticipated. The vessel rounded the Cape of Good Hope and met a vessel, the Lys, commanded by Michel Blain des Cormiers. His ship was labouring and taking on water and he demanded that Marion escort him to the Ile de France (now Mauritius) and so abandon making the anticipated stop at Rodrigues 350 miles away. Pingre was furious, and during heated arguments with Blain who threatened to throw him overboard demanded he take him to his destination; but Marion felt he had no option but to accede to Blain's request. Fortunately, at the Ile de France the governor found another boat to take Pingre and his assistant the further 320 miles to Rodrigues and they arrived just in time to put up a makeshift observatory on a slope to observe the transit on the due date.
How did Marion get to the Southern Seas? Antoine de Bougainville had made a tour of the world, 1766- 1769. and at Tahiti had taken on board a trophy, Aotouru, whom he wished to parade around Paris. Aotouru was the darling of French society, petted in particular by Madame de Choiseul, wife of the French Foreign Minister. However, he could not master French, (it’s delightful to hear that not only anglophones have problems with this unpronounceable language!) became homesick and wished to return to his native land. Marion, who was commander of the Mascarin was chosen for this voyage and the contract was signed between him and the governor of the Ile de France June 1771. This was a commercial venture. Marion had the use of two boats, the Mascarin and the Marquis de Castries; in exchange for a mortgage on his properties the King would pay the crew, the victuals for them and the cargo to the value of 77,000 pounds that Marion would reimburse on his return. In order to assemble the necessary funds, he had to mortgage his lands in Brittany and borrow 150,000 from a cousin. However, the purpose of the voyage was subverted straight away as Aotouru contracted smallpox at the Ile Bourbon (now Reunion and a department of France) and the expedition had to anchor at Fort Dauphin off the coast of Madagascar to disembark him where he tragically died within a few days, aged barely in his twenties. Marion was shaken by his death but had to continue as he had invested so much of his capital in the expedition. He had been present at the Ile de France in 1770 when there was a ceremony to mark the planting of nutmeg and clove trees brought from the Dutch East Indies; as the expedition was a commercial venture, he may well have hoped to find spices on his journey which could be transplanted to French territories in the Indian Ocean which would prove lucrative for him. At the Isle de France he had met Philibert Commerson (1727 – 1773), the celebrated naturalist who had accompanied Bougainville. He was an enthusiast of the noble savage ideal and may have imbued Marion with it because he made so many excuses for the Maori despite their penchant for theft in his subsequent relations with them. They spent 6 days in Tasmania, then named Van Diemen's Land where they must have been the first Europeans to meet the unfortunate inhabitants, because during Tasman's brief stay there, he did not meet any, whom they described as the poorest and most miserable human beings on the planet.
On 25 March 1772 Marion noticed the silhouette of Mt Taranaki on the horizon that he named Pic Mascarin, not realising that Cook had preceded him in these waters by two and a half years. He then tacked towards Hokianga and Kapowairua. While trying to find an anchor there Jean Roux was sent on land to find traces of human presence; he came back with a freshwater fish having exchanged it for a knife and a handkerchief in an amical exchange with local Maori, made strange by the barrier of language. His journal gave a detailed description of the houses he observed, being quite impressed as they were all built without metallic tools. Their next stop was Cape Brett in the Bay of Islands where they arrived 3 May. At 8am 3 Maori canoes with about 8/9 in each directed themselves towards the Mascarin and the crew invited them to come on board, throwing baubles at them. An older warrior had the courage to climb the ladder on the side of the boat but when they took off his clothes and dressed him in European costume he started to tremble. Chevillard de Monteson said there were soon 250 Maoris on board, (which I find hard to believe). They were unarmed, bearing fish and potatoes, but Marion took the precaution of having soldiers stationed on the stern their weapons dissimulated. Obviously the first encounters between Maori and European were amicable because a few days later 100 canoes surrounded the two boats, and a febrile exchange took place, fish, crustaceans and potatoes for trinkets and more useful things like glass, axes and nails. This was in complete contrast to Tasman's welcome 130 years before where 4 of his crew were killed and he fled, and Cook's reception at Poverty Bay. Because of contrary winds they had to move again and finally found anchor between Moturua and the islands of Motuarohia. They soon put up two tents to accommodate the 62 sailors on board who were afflicted with scurvy; a forge was established here to carry out the extensive repairs needed to the ships. The same pattern of bargaining began and some of the Maoris felt so comfortable that they stayed on board overnight. The crew needed to find trees to cut down to repair the masts, a laborious job which took most of the manpower of the two boats; the trees had to be transported down a slope, across a swamp and dragged to the edge of the camp site one and a half miles away. Then matters started to go awry. There were slaves on board the ships and one of them one day was washing laundry on the beach when it was stolen. There was another incident when a group of Maoris came to visit the Mascarin. One of them stole a sword that he found by a porthole but was caught in the act as he was trying to abscond. Marion had him arrested, to frighten him, but released him later on the urging of his tribesmen. At the camp site there were more infractions; one evening while the guards were taking supper by the fire, a Maori slipped into the tent, took a musket, some cloaks, rope, biscuits and other objects; later another group entered and stole an anchor. The following morning the French took reprisals, conducting a raid on a village, and took a chief as hostage, tying him to a stake from which he later escaped under the nose of his guard. Some commentators have said that this was a trigger which prompted this chief to exact such a terrible revenge. To tie him up was to treat him like a slave, would violate his personal tapu (taboo) and would make him lose cast as a member of a rangatira.
Many of Marion's officers were now worried about the behaviour of the Maoris and doubted their good intentions but Marion was impervious. The Maoris recognised him as the chief of the two ships and brought him anything he wished such as turbot which he loved; he tried to communicate with them in the language of Tahiti which flattered them. As for their theft he dismissed it. To the remonstrations of his officers, he urged them to be indulgent to those, “who do not know Yours or Mine, that which is theft with us not being so with them.” Whenever he went on land, he was surrounded by crowds of them, men, women and children. When Marion went on land again, 8 June the chiefs assembled around him and with common accord named him Great Chief of the country; they placed in his hair 4 white feathers that only chiefs bore. Perhaps Te Kuri found all this too much to bear as it was an affront to his pre-eminence as paramount chief of the region. All this bears a striking resemblance to the way Cook was treated in Hawaii on his last visit, but the sequel was to be far more ghastly and grizzly.
Marion and his men violated unknowingly a multitude of tapus (taboos) which governed the daily life of Te Kuri and his people. For the Maori, all the things of nature had a dimension spiritual; they believed that men, birds, and trees all had a common ancestor, the forest being part of the family in the widest sense of the term. The most important god of the forest was Tane. The anthropologist Elsdon Best (1856-1931) wrote that, “when a great tree was cut down, the great lord Tane was appeased only by a complicated ceremony.” Marion and his men were led to a clearing by some Maoris where great kauris grew. The sailors would never have suspected that in cutting them down to repair their masts they would unleash such vengeance. The same taboo surrounded fishing; in casting out their nets the French would never have suspected that they would incur the wrath of the gods, in this case Tangaroa, god of the sea. Marion's logbook has never been found so we are dependent on accounts left by his officers and they don't always coincide. According to some reports some Maoris tried to warn Marion of the danger threatening his life. One of them threw himself at his feet saying that Te Kuri would kill him if he went on land. Marion's response was the same: “Why would you think that I would have a bad idea of a people who witness so much friendship for me. As I do only good to them, they will not do any harm to me.” On 12 June, 2pm, despite the insistence of a party of his officers, unarmed, he went on land with a detachment of 15 – 17 to fish in the bay at the invitation of a number of chiefs. They were never seen alive again. There was not a single Frenchman who witnessed what took place that afternoon in the bay, but there are tales that Maoris told Europeans decades later. They were surprised while they were bringing in their nets and putting the fish in the boat. All were massacred. The corpse of Marion was devoured by Te Kuri who appropriated his clothes; their bones were used as forks.
It was not clear straight away what had happened to Marion and his crew. There was some unease on board the Mascarin, but the crew thought he had probably spent the night at the hospital camp and vice versa. There the situation became very tense. A crowd of about 400 Maoris surrounded it; Jean Roux had 62 men afflicted with scurvy who could barely stand; he had only about 6 armed men himself. However, for some reason the Maoris beat a retreat; perhaps the feint had worked, and they thought the site was more heavily defended than it was. If they had attacked, it could have been a disaster for the entire expedition. They could have killed a large part of the crew which would have made a continuation of the voyage impossible and destroyed equipment from the boats which was being repaired at the makeshift forge nearby. However, the Maoris retreated only to regroup the following day when 1000 – 1200 encircled the camp. Roux had reinforcements this time and was able to press home the advantage; Te Kuri was injured, many thought he had fallen, and the Maoris again withdrew to their pa. That day a chief came to tell them Marion had been killed which only confirmed their worst fears. The horror that overwhelmed the French must have been unimaginable as they must have suspected the fate that had overtaken their comrades. The French never did see the remains of their fallen comrades en masse anyway. They ransacked the pa on the hill and found vestiges of them. The chiefs were wearing the clothes of the officers and Marion's sword was recognised while a surgeon confirmed cooked body parts in what passes for a kitchen in a pa. There were piles of clothes strewn all over the site belonging to the sailors. They were determined on revenge and in the assault on the pa in the days following they killed 200 Maoris. It was the bloodiest massacre of Maoris perpetrated by Europeans in the history of New Zealand and it is worth commenting that this bloody revenge was not the responsibility of colonists in the 19th century. The crew still had work to do, to fill the boats with barrels of fresh water and carry out makeshift repairs to the masts to make the vessels seaworthy. They raised anchor 13 July 1772, not before burying a bottle on the beach of Moturua containing a proclamation claiming for the King of France all those lands which were called, “France Australe.”
What happened to Marion and his men was a tragedy which they could not have foreseen. He, personally, did not deserve it because his treatment of them was not in any way provocative. Historians have said that by cutting down trees and fishing in their waters he had broken various taboos. But all explorers at the time did the same; after exhausting voyages they limped into port anxious to take on fresh food and water and repair their battered vessels. Cook did the same on his various stops around New Zealand and he does not seem to have provoked this reaction from the Maoris. Possibly Marion outstayed his welcome as Cook would do 7 years later in Hawaii. The natives practised subsistence farming and may have been alarmed at the depletion of their fish stocks. The massacre was so bloody though I think that Marion and his men found themselves unwittingly caught in the middle of inter-tribal warfare. Maybe they had supported one tribe more than the other and that had provoked the massacre. When Rousseau was told the news, he exclaimed, “Is it possible that the good children of nature can be so wicked?” From now on the European would have to be wary in dealing with the Maori, having to sidestep their many taboos, and always mindful that if they provoked them, they could be victims of a terrible, disproportionate revenge.
Peter Bacos is a retired teacher living in Wellington, a self-confessed auto-didact with a love of history; he has had lengthy assignments in the UK, Germany, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.