An Officer of the Blue — Marc-Joseph Marion Dufresne, South Sea Explorer 1724-1772
by Dr Edward Duyker, Melbourne University Press, 1994
FOREWORD by Dr Frank Horner
Thirty-two years separated the major exploring voyages of Cook and Flinders on the coasts of Australia. During that time five French expeditions visited these shores. In March 1772, two years after Cook had examined the east coast, two Frenchmen were ashore at opposite ends of the island continent, on territory not seen by Cook. Their voyages, both begun at the French colony of Mauritius, had been planned without knowledge of Cook’s discovery. Saint-Allouarn, at Shark Bay, had buried a parchment claiming possession of Australia’s western coast. On the east coast of Tasmania, Marion-Dufresne was making the first European contact with the Aborigines of that island, at Marion Bay. The countrymen who were to succeed these explorers were La Pérouse (1788), d’Entrecasteaux (1792 and 1793), and Baudin (1801-1803).
Marion’s ten-week sojourn in New Zealand occurred only two-and-a-half years after the visits of Cook and Marion’s countryman de Surville. The expedition’s records are a rich source of information on Maori lore prior to European settlement, and of clues about a historical tragedy that has led to continuing speculation.
To Australian readers, and no doubt to New Zealand readers too, Edward Duyker‘s biography of Marion Dufresne will be a reminder, or a revelation, of the international context in which the English explorations of their homelands took place. In this it builds on the foundation laid by John Dunmore‘s French Explorers in the Pacific and Oscar Spate‘s trilogy The Pacific Since Magellan. To all readers it will, like every good historical biography, illuminate the times through which its subject lived-in this case the maritime world of eighteenth century France.
Marion’s seagoing career began when he was eleven and continued for thirty-seven years, spanning two major wars and equipping him with the skills, experience and interests that fitted him for his last great maritime enterprise. At various times in command of corsairs, naval vessels and merchant ships, he took part not only in convoys, naval engagements, trading voyages and raids on enemy merchantmen but also in a number of special assignments and personal enterprises well out of the usual line of duty. One of the most remarkable was his command, at twenty-two, of the ship that rescued the Young Pretender from Scotland in 1746. The reputation he acquired, during his long career, as a most reliable and resourceful mariner no doubt made him one of the examples that were to encourage the gradual relaxation of the frustrating class barriers faced by ‘officers of the blue’ in the navy of eighteenth-century France.
One wonders, had he survived his voyage to Australia and the Pacific, what he might have achieved in the great age of French maritime exploration that lay ahead, planned and overseen by Fleurieu, de Castries and Louis XVI, and opening up when the next war, the War of American Independence, was over.
The achievement of Edward Duyker goes well beyond writing an absorbing narrative, though his success in that respect is obvious. He has had to assemble a mass of information, both primary and secondary, from many countries and very diverse sources. Unlike most French exploring captains, Marion served only intermittently in the navy, whose archives therefore record only part of his career; and no personal account of his final voyage has been found. In filling the gaps Dr Duyker has brought to light a remarkable amount of fascinating detail, and little of the subject’s career seems left to be surmised. This biography is a notable addition to the maritime history of France, New Zealand and Australia.