An Officer of the Blue — Marc-Joseph Marion Dufresne, South Sea Explorer 1724-1772, by Dr Duyker, Ed, Introduction and Ch. 1

An Officer of the Blue — Marc-Joseph Marion Dufresne, South Sea Explorer 1724-1772

by Dr Edward Duyker

Melbourne University Press, 1994

Introduction and Chapter 1



On the afternoon of 12 June 1772 a French officer in his late forties wearing a coat of scarlet and blue English velvet landed at Te Hue cove in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands. He was accompanied by a number of his fellow officers, a longboat crew and a black slave. They had landed at Te Hue many times in the previous weeks and had enjoyed good relations with the local Maoris. That afternoon they planned to fish with a seine. They were never to return to their ship. Everyone of them was surprised and killed and their bodies devoured according to Maori rite. The officer’s name was Marc-Joseph Marion Dufresne and the wounds to his side and to his head or neck brought to an end one of the most colourful careers in the annals of French maritime history.

I first heard of Marion Dufresne while researching the role of Mauritius (then the Isle de France) as a base for French exploration of Australia. My interest in his life became keener when I learned that he had actually settled on my mother’s native island. In fact the land he acquired in 1769 became part of the sugar estate where my mother spent her early childhood and where my grandfather was mortally wounded by an assassin’s knife. In my preliminary research of his family, I also discovered a number of surprising connections with my own ancestors in Saint Malo, Lorient and Brest. But this biography is not the product of a genealogical adventure; more than anything it was the enigmatic circumstances of Marion’s death and his omission from published Australian history which spurred me to begin more serious scholarship. Marion deserves better than to be ignored by the Australian Dictionary of Biography and the Australian Encyclopaedia. I could be cynical and suggest that had he been English he might have fared better. Yet he is often absent from the pages of French reference works. This is despite the fact that in 1772 he discovered the most westerly islands in the Indian Ocean, was the first explorer after Tasman to visit Tasmania (then Van Diemen’s Land) and was one of the earliest European visitors to New Zealand.

Although Marion will always remain in the shadow of his contemporary, James Cook, both men share striking parallels in their lives. Both were brilliant mariners who proved their skills in merchant shipping before joining tbe Royal Navy of their respective nations. Both were involved in scientific efforts to observe the transit of Venus. Both sought the whereabouts of the South Land and both eliminated its possibility in various latitudes. Finally, both died tragically at the hands of Polynesians.

Greater knowledge of Marion’s life offers numerous insights for Australian and New Zealand historians, but also elucidates aspects of 18th century Anglo-French rivalry and the course of exploration and colonization in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. While Marion’s early success as a privateer, his part in the daring rescue of Bonnie Prince Charlie, his numerous voyages to the East and his entrepreneurial boldness beg biographical description, they also help explain the making of an explorer. As a number of anthropologists and historians have pointed out, explorers themselves are ‘an ethnographic problem’. To understand the early interaction between European visitors and the indigenous peoples of Australia and the Pacific, biography can provide crucial interpretative clues.

Despite the dramatic breadth of Marion’s life, the few scholars who have written about him, or his exploits, have mainly dealt with his final voyage. The first published account of this expedition of 1771-1772 was undertaken by the astronomer and voyager Alexis Marie de Rochon (1741 – 1817) sometimes referred to as the Abbé Rochon although he was never ordained and eventually married. Rochon edited the journal of Julien Crozet (1728-1782), Marion’s second-in-command on the Mascarin. Rochon’s effort appeared in Paris, in 1783, under the title Nouveau voyage a la mer du sud. It is an important source because Crozet’s original ship-board account has disappeared; only a summary has survived in manuscript form. This 18th century text was the only readily accessible account for more than a century and was most certainly known to later French explorers who followed in Marion’s tracks such as d’Entrecasteaux, La Pérouse, Baudin and d’Urville. It also provided the raw material for Alexandre DumasCapitaine Marion and for Jules Verne‘s account of Marion’s demise in Les enfants du capitaine Grant (1868).

Despite the significance of Crozet/Rochon’s book, it was not translated into English until 1891. The translation, Crozet’s Voyage to Tasmania, New Zealand, the Lidrone Islands and the Philippines in the Years 1771-1772, was the work of the remarkable Austrian anthropologist and author Henry Ling Roth (1855-1925). Roth probably came across Rochon’s version of Crozet’s journal while undertaking research for his pioneering book The Aborigines of Tasmania (1890). The historical significance of Crozet’s description of the Tasmanian Aborigines would have been immediately obvious to him. Unfortunately, Roth was responsible for perpetuating a misapprehension of the identity of Crozet’s commander which had already crept into French biographical dictionaries. The explorer Marc-Joseph Marion Dufresne was confused with one Nicolas-Thomas Marion five years his junior but also a native of Saint Malo. In his introduction, Roth even cited an extract of Nicolas-Thomas’s baptismal registration provided by a British Vice-Consul. This mistake still appears in many French reference works and library catalogues, despite the fact that it was a French scholar, Janine Lemay, who settled the question of the identity of the explorer in 1948.

Twenty-three years after Henry Ling Roth published Crozet’s Voyage, the second volume of the Historical Records of New Zealand was published under the editorial hand of Robert McNab. Included in this second volume were translations of extracts from the journals of Marion’s subordinates Roux and du Clesmeur. These translations (which only referred to New Zealand) were undertaken by Charles Wilson (1857-1932) of the General Assembly Library. Born in Harrogate Yorkshire, he had become fluent in French while working in the wool trade in Paris and Lille, before emigrating to New Zealand in 1879. Wilson’s and Roth’s translations remained the two major published sources available to English-speaking scholars until 1985 when the Alexander Tumbull Library, Wellington, published Isabel Ollivier‘s skilful transcriptions and translations of extracts from the journals of Crozet, du Clesmeur, Roux and Le Dez, together with Chevillard de Montesson‘s summary (held by the State Library of Tasmania) and observations by the hydrographer d’Aprés de Mannevillette. Once again, these more recent translations emphasized Marion’s visit to New Zealand. It was not until 1992 that the observations on Tasmania of all these officers appeared in translation in one volume under my own editorial hand.

While the journals associated with Marion Dufresne’s final voyage became more accessible as translated extracts, details of the explorer’s life prior to his voyage into southern waters were still fragmentary. In May 1883 one Joseph Marion, a municipal councillor in Lancrans in the Department of Ain, wrote to Paris requesting a copy of Marion Dufresne’ 5 service record. The Lancrans councillor’s motivation was probably to establish a genealogical connection with a celebrated explorer and thereby enhance his local prestige; fortunately for posterity, his request stimulated the Archives Nationales to consolidate many of Marion’s documents in dossiers. They were ultimately employed by the great Breton scholar Henri-Francois Buffet (1907-1974) for his biographical article published in the Memoires de la societé d’histoire et d’archéologie de Bretagne in 1958. I have used Buffet’s seven-page survey like a map for buried treasure. Not only does it contain the fruits of research in the Archives Nationales, it also contains the product of research in the port archives of Lorient, Brest and Saint Malo.

On the other side of the world, in 1951, Leslie Kelly (1906-1959) published a detailed study entitled Marion Dufresne at the Bay of Islands which dealt with the explorer’s sojourn and death in New Zealand. Kelly was a remarkable individual who earned his daily bread as an engine driver but, before his tragic death in a railway accident, wrote a number of pioneering New Zealand historical works. The grandson of Kenehuru, chief of the Ngati Mahutu, his book on Marion Dufresne has the mark of insight drawn from close links to the Maoris. Unfortunately, Kelly had access to the accounts of only three of Marion’s officers translated by Henry Ling Roth and Charles Wilson.

Other contributions to our knowledge of Marion’s life and family have come from Kelly’s compatriot Professor John Dunmore in his French Explorers in the Pacific (1965); the French naval historian Admiral de Brossard in his book Moana ocean cruel (1966); and the Malouin historian Patrick Delon in the Annales de Ia societé d’histoire et d’archéologie de Saint Malo (1972). More recently, Anne Salmond, another New Zealander with deep cultural sensitivity, has undertaken a significant reassessment of the events leading up to Marion’s death in her work Two Worlds: First Meetings Between Maori and Europeans 1642-1772 (1991).

Despite the good fortune of having a number of path-finders, I have been disappointed several times while researching Marion Dufresne’s life. In particular, I was frustrated by my inability to find Marion’s personal account of his final voyage. Although this journal may be lost forever, my feeling is that Julien Crozet appropriated parts of it to enrich his own account. Crozet almost certainly had access to Marion’s journal after his commander’s death and there are passages in his published account which seem drawn from sources other than those of his editor Rochon. I have also been frustrated in my attempts to discover the fate of Marion’s wife, Julie, after she requested permission to join her husband at the Isle de France in May 1771. Finally, I have been disappointed by my inability to uncover any contemporary portrait of the explorer. Had he a sea-weathered Breton face crowned with a shock of red Celtic hair or were his features beguilingly Latin? The only information I could glean from documentary sources is that at the age of 48 years, Marion had hair thick enough for Maori chiefs to plant four feathers on the top of his head! I have had to content myself with the image of the explorer by the celebrated French etcher Charles Meryon (1821-1868). This is a crayon, pencil and chalk sketch depicting Marion’s death according to the dictates of 19th century historical painting. Meryon visited New Zealand in the 1840s with the French navy and executed his sketch in Paris about 1850 probably as a preliminary study for a more substantial work. It was later acquired by the Commonwealth of Australia and presented as a gift to the people of New Zealand by Prime Minister Harold Holt. Despite its romanticism, the ethnographic and botanical accuracy of many aspects of the sketch leads one to wonder whether Meryon’s portrait of Marion with powdered wig, heavy brow, strong straight nose and squarish jaw was also based on accurate but now missing contemporary information. Most probably, the explorer’s face is a product of the artist’s imagination, but the thought that it may have deeper historical origins is tantalizing! The curious, however, will have to forgo the strokes of the artist’s brush for the chapters which follow.


Chapter 1  MALOUIN

The explorer Marc-Joseph Marion Dufresne was born in Saint Malo, Brittany, the son of a wealthy shipowner and merchant Julien Marion Dufresne (1681-1739) and his wife Marie Seraphique Le Fer de la Lande. Although he was christened ‘Marc-Joseph’ on 22 May 1724 and always signed ‘Marc’ in church documents, he was often referred to as ‘Macé‘, probably in honour of his maternal grandfather: Macé Le Fer sieur de la Lande (1640-l7l0).

Saint Malo is a proud town. A fortress-port, it stands on a granite islet on the right bank of the Rance estuary where the spring tides can be more than thirteen metres. And what the sea does not envelop, the mist that rolls along the Breton coast can swallow in seconds. It is a port which nurtured sailors who could deal with the unexpected and the unknown. By the 13th century the mariners and merchants of Saint Malo had already made a major entrepot of their town. In the 15th century, when Brittany was still an independent Duchy, the Malouins had established trading connections not only along the coast of France from Normandy to the Pays Basque, but also with Spain, Portugal, England, Scotland, Ireland and the Low Countries. It was trade supported and expanded by merchants in the inland towns of Lower Normandy and Upper Brittany-members of whose families came and settled behind Saint Malo’s granite walls.3

In the next two centuries, Saint Malo would establish links with africa and the Americas; and her merchants and shipowners would grow even wealthier. Dubuisson-Aubenay gave us some idea of their prosperity when he painted a sumptuous portrait of the Malouin table in his itineraire de Bretagne (1636). He wrote that ‘the Malouins live splendidly and deliciously; fish is cheap and oysters cost nothing there; and water-fowl is at a very good price. There are French wines which come by the river Seine and the coast of Normandy. Most particularly, they drink the wine of Gascony and Spain, red and white.’4

In 1665, Louis XV’s Chief Minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683) observed: ‘Houses and considerable property are today owned by the bourgeoisie of Saint Malo. They have bought them from gentlemen who have been obliged to sell owing to financial difficulty. They even purchase estates in the heart of Brittany and they have money in abundance.’5

Among those whose prosperity was intimately linked to the rise of Saint Malo were the weavers and merchants of Vitré. (The admiralty registers of Saint Malo contain hundreds of letters addressed to Vitré.) In many instances they became Malouin themselves. Not far from Vitré is the village of Saint Jean-sur-Vilaine. On the outskirts of the village are two parcels of land: La Fontaine and Le Fresne. The ‘s’ is silent in ‘Fresne’ (from Latin fraxinus, an ash tree) and thus it appears as La Frene on modern maps. In the late 16th century La Fontaine was the property of one Sebastien Marion. Sebastien and his wife Jeanne Croizé had three sons. Mathurin, who died in 1676, inherited La Fontaine from his father. His brother Gilles became a gentleman-landholder at nearby La Bretoisiere.6 The youngest of the brothers, Jean, established himself a few hundred metres uphill from La Fontaine at Le Fresne. Among the cluster of oaks which spring from the surrounding wheat-fields, there are still a few ancient buildings which date from the time of Jean Marion ‘Sieur’ du Fresne.7 They are dark, airless cottages of split stone with sagging wooden lintels. If any grander structures once stood beside them, they have long since disappeared. There is no folk memory of the Marions at La Frene or La Fontaine.8

But, like the small farm of La Pérouse (near Albi in south-west France) which gave a young sailor named Galaup an expanded and now immortal patronym9, Fresne has been immortalized by its association with a family which, by the early 18th century, had tenuous connections with the land.

Jean Marion married in June 1619. He and his wife Jeanne Collet had two sons that we know of. The eldest, Jean, died in his twenty-eighth year, but André (1633-1693) considerably expanded his family’s fortunes and prestige when, in August 1673, in the chapel of the Recollets Convent, he married a member of the powerful Magon family Then merchant shipowners, in the generations to come the Magons would contribute to France’s list of illustrious admirals and statesmen. Chateaubriand, himself a Malouin, mentioned them in his Mémoires d’outre-tombe. According to several Malouin historians, Hélène Séraphique Magon de la Ville Poulet’s dowry was a fabulous six hundred thousand livres!11

Her father Jean (1619-1699) was a nobleman and a conseiller and secrétaire du roi. It seems likely that André Marion du Fresne was already influential within the mercantile community rooted in the Vitré -Saint Malo nexus when he met his future wife. Like the Marion family, the Magons had had connections with the region around Vitré, having settled there from Spain about 1300 before moving to Saint Malo in the 16th century.

Two years after his marriage to Helene, André Marion du Fresne built a magnificent house in the style of the Malouin shipowners in Saint Malo’s rue Saint Francois. André and Helene had seven children. Two died as infants. Two entered the religious life. Their fourth child, Julien, who inherited the family home, was the explorer’s father.

Julien married in 17T5 and he and his wife Marie-Séraphique had eight children. Marc was the youngest of the brood. He did not know either of his grandfathers or his maternal grandmother. They were all dead before his birth. His paternal grandmother, from the house of Magon de la Ville Poulet, died in the Benedictine convent at Dol when Marc was just nine months old.’0 Her family home, ‘Ville Poulet’ an elegant country house in malouinere style, still stands near Saint Coulomb on the road to Parame’.’4

Although the future explorer may have known the rural tranquillity of ‘Ville Poulet’, he most probably grew up in the Hotel Marion Dufresne among the crowded bustling streets intra muros. The building was destroyed during the Second World War (along with 80 per cent of the old walled city), but it is possible to offer some description of its plan and decoration. A pre-war postcard reveals that the main entrance was a stone-arched doorway with five beautifully carved wooden panels.10

The historian Etienne Dupont, who mistakenly suggested that the Compagnie des Indes, the French East India Company, had its offices in the Hôtel Marion Dufresne, described it in the 1930s as having ‘a wonderful doorway, an exceedingly elegant staircase, and a magnificent hall with superb wood carving’.

From other documents, we know that the house had a ground floor divided into two panelled apartments over cellars and then another three storeys and attic rooms. On entering the main sculptured oak doorway on rue Saint Francois, one faced an impressive staircase with a handrail and balustrade also of carved oak. As one climbed the stairs, each storey was illuminated by a large window overlooking the rue Saint Francois. There was a southern courtyard containing a well and an annex that served as stables opening into the rue des Vieux Remparts. The kitchen also opened on to the interior courtyard and the street.’7 The house’s grand salon contained a monumental chimney. Just over the hearth were the carved arms of the house of Marion: a palm between two hatched crosses. Next to them were the arms of the Magon family: a crowned lion beneath a chevron and two stars. Well above, a bold oaken eagle stood sentinel over a central circular panel. Rich carved wooden friezes of acanthus and oak leaves, and of fruit and flowers, decorated the exposed joists and the panels of both the walls and ceiling. On some panels the artist had woven serpents in has relief. It was restrained baroque splendour which barked from the maritime decorative tradition, but spoke of wealth, power, and the aspiration of a bourgeois family for the prestige of the landed nobility.

Although the Hôtel Marion Dufresne was destroyed in 1944, the historian can write with conviction about the magnificence of its sculptured panels, because they can still be seen. Sometime after 1931, the internal joinery of the ‘grand salon’ was sold to an American buyer who removed it and exhibited it at the New York World Fair. After the Second World War it was purchased by Jansens-the Paris-based antique dealers-and returned to the city of Saint Malo. There the carved oak was installed in the Mayor’s chambers after some changes to the Hotel de Ville’s fenestration. It is ironic that the initial despoilment of the Marion family home was the cause of its partial preservation!

Marc grew up metres from the sea. The gulls can still drown out conversation within the walls. From the ramparts, as a child, he must have scoured the horizons for sight of his father’s ships. Not much is known of Julien’s career at sea, but he seems to have been an exceptional mariner who was highly respected by his peers. According to a fellow Malouin, Bernard de la Harpe, Julien was ‘a sensible intelligent officer, and a man of veracity; consequently not liable to be deceived or capable of deceiving any person. During the War of the Spanish Succession, the Malouin corsairs were spectacularly successful preying on British shipping. More than 600 prizes were taken between 1702 and 1712.

Julien commanded the Marie Magdeleine, a corsair of 230 tons, 26 cannons and a crew of 170.20 In the latter part of the conflict, however, France’s opponents increased patrolling of the Channel and the losses experienced by the shipowners of Saint Malo became unacceptable. Despite daring raids such as that led by Duguay-Trouin, which held Rio de Janeiro to ransom in 1711, the Malouin shipowners looked elsewhere for profit. They took the bold decision to establish a direct maritime trade with Spain’s colonies on the Pacific coast of South America. The French, like the English and the Dutch, had traded in Spanish contraband from their bases in the Caribbean since the mid-17th century. Spain attempted to maintain her trading monopoly, but it became increasingly difficult to exclude the French when a grandson of Louis XV acceded to the Spanish throne.

One of the brave Malouin sailors who pioneered this highly lucrative South Sea trade was Julien Marion Dufresne. On 5 September 1711 he departed Saint Malo in the 350 ton Marquis de Vibray which was owned by Francois Le Fer sieur de Beauvais. (Le Fer was a relative of Julien’s future wife and also one of the shipowners who equipped Duguay-Trouin’s bold raid on Rio.) It was a forty thousand kilometres voyage full of perils via furious Cape Horn. But the long dangerous haul to the Peruvian port of Callao, and back, brought rich rewards. (Between 1703 and 1718 almost two hundred million livres of silver made its way to France on ships like the Marquis de Vibray.) It took Julien twenty-seven months to sail to Peru. He remained there over five months and set sail for France on 15 May 1714-returning to Saint Malo via Valparaiso and Conception on 10 June 1715.

Julien married five weeks after his return. It seems likely that his great adventure inspired all but one of his surviving sons to make a career of the sea. In the three years prior to Marc’s birth, Julien commanded the Notre Dame du Rosaire and then the Phenix (in which he sailed to Cadiz). The first of his father’s ships that Marc would come to know was the Fran~ise. She was small-between 130 and 150 tons -and, unlike the corsairs which required large numbers of men to board and overcome enemy prizes, she had a crew of only 38 men. Of these, eleven would die in the course of a sinister voyage which took the Fran~ise to the coast of west Africa to buy 348 slaves and then across the Atlantic to Martinique to sell them to labour hungry planters. From the Caribbean she returned, no doubt laden with sugar and rum, via Nantes to Saint Malo on 25 April 1731. It took only 15 months for Julien to reap yet another rich reward. He had not sailed with the Eranise for he was now wealthy enough to employ others to command his vessels.25 Julien purchased another ship in 1730, the 350 ton Sage; but she does not appear to have been engaged in the slave trade.26

As early as 1716 the French Crown had issued letters patent which gave official sanction to the slave trade. The King even enacted special slave taxes. Some who suffered pangs of conscience about this horrendous trade, rationalized their guilt away with the perverse logic that the majority of the slaves embarked for America were already condemned to death or slavery as prisoners of war in local African conflicts and would face a far worse fate without their ‘humane’ intervention!27 They seemed oblivious to their promotion of such local conflicts. It is hard to judge the moral impact of the voyage of the francoise on an impressionable child of Marc’s age. He was later employed by men who, like his father, grew wealthy on the trade; after settling in Mauritius, he himself became a slave-owner and sought to expand this appalling trade in the Indian Ocean.

Not much is known about the manner in which Marc was educated. Saint Malo had a high literacy rate by the end of the 17th century. The numerous religious orders established in the town assumed a significant responsibility for educating the poor.28 Marc, however, was probably educated by a private tutor. In a city of families of absent sailors, women had a strong matriarchal role. But Marc’s early childhood, more than that of any of his siblings, coincided with his father’s retirement from an active life at sea. One wonders whether Julien assumed a personal role in the education of his two youngest sons, perhaps giving them lessons in navigation and mathematics. Marc was to demonstrate his practical competence as a navigator at an early age. From his letters and journals we know he was literate – though much of his writing is marred by grammatical and spelling errors.

Aside from the influence of the sea, what is perhaps most obvious when one looks at the Marion household, is the strong influence of religion. His eldest brother Nicolas (1717-1795) entered the priesthood and became Canon of Saint Malo in 1745, 29 then, like his illustrious uncle Jean-André, he rose to become Canon of the Bishopric of Dol in 1765.30 He also served as a deputy to the Provincial Assembly in Tours. And Marc’s sister Marie-Séraphique (1721-1791) entered the Ursuline order whose convent once stood close to the centre of the old town.


The family of Marion Dufresne, therefore, belonged to a unique class of bourgeois merchants and shipowners: pillars of the Church and State, but at the same time competitors with the nobility for important ecclesiastical and secular rank and privilege. And ultimately they were aspirants for acceptance within the aristocracy through ‘ennoblement’. Unlike several of his Magon cousins, this formal recognition by the King was something Marc never attained-although he was made a Chevalier of the Order of Saint Louis. In 1893 the historian Frain de la Gaulayrie (whose wife was a Marion descendant), wrote of the social mobility of the Malouin and Vitréen ‘sellers of cloth and sheets’, and observed that they were ennobled by their ‘charges or the will of Princes and by their alliances’ but ‘above all by the dignity of their life, the boldness of their enterprise [and the generous employment of their fortunes’.31 It is commonly assumed that the nobility and the clergy were the only privileged groups in France under the Ancien Régime, but privilege took many shapes and forms. While merchant shipowners such as the Marion Dufresnes chafed under feudal restrictions, they themselves enlisted the support of the Crown to establish their own prerogatives. As they expanded their trade abroad, they were able to enjoy a standard of living which far outshone that of the petty nobility-members of which were often unable to afford a carriage or simple lodgings should they venture beyond their estates.32

Despite the fortunate circumstances of his birth, Marc, like his cleric brother Nicolas, would betray both a potent ambition and concomitant insecurity and desire for acceptance. As we shall see, he was a man capable of bold individual action, yet one who constantly sought approval for his actions-especially when they were outside the confines of the merchant-bourgeois world of the the Compagnie des Indes. It was these ‘extra-mercantile’ adventures which were his greatest achievements and gave his life historical significance.

In February 1734 Marc’s brother Francois died on board the Amphitrite as an honorary enseigne in the service of the Compagnie des Indes which held the monopoly on French trade with the East. He was only fifteen years old. 33 Undeterred by the misfortune of his brother, the following year Marc went to sea in another of the Company’s ships with the same honorary rank. He was only eleven. It was the beginning of a brilliant career.

One thought on “An Officer of the Blue — Marc-Joseph Marion Dufresne, South Sea Explorer 1724-1772, by Dr Duyker, Ed, Introduction and Ch. 1

  1. Hi – i’ve come across this info while searching for family history! We are related to Marc Joseph Marion de Fresne on my paternal side and it has been a fascinating read for me to get a glimpse of the background and family tree – thanks!

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