Aux Terres Australes
Marc-Joseph Marion Dufresne and the First French Voyage to Australia
Conference Paper, Department of French Studies
Tuesday, 1 October 2002
Few Australians are aware that on 6 March 1772 two French ships, the Mascarin and the Marquis de Castries, anchored off Cape Frederick Hendrick on the east coast of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in search of fresh water and timber for repairs. The commander of the expedition was Marc-Joseph Marion Dufresne, one of the most colourful mariners in French history. Who was he and how did he come to reach Van Diemen’s Land even before the British?
Marc-Joseph Marion Dufresne was born in Saint-Malo, in 1724, the son of a wealthy ship-owner and merchant. (Although his home was destroyed during the bombardment of 1944, the magnificent baroque joinery of its ‘grand salon’ has survived because sometime after 1931, it was sold to an American buyer who removed it and exhibited it at the New York World Fair. After the war it was returned to Saint-Malo and installed in the mayor’s chambers in the Hôtel de Ville.)
Marion first went to sea at the age of eleven on a voyage which took Mahé de Labourdonais to the Isle de France as governor. His early career was spent as a daring privateer in vessels such as the Du Teillay, owned by the emigré Irish Jacobite Antoine Walsh. He also had the distinction of commanding one of the two French vessels which rescued ‘Bonnie’ Prince Charlie from Scotland after the disaster of Culloden. Later he served as an officier bleu in the French Royal Navy and as an East India Company skipper.
After taking the astronomer Alexandre-Gui Pingré to the Indian Ocean to observe the transit of Venus in 1761 and organizing an important expedition to the Seychelles (which discovered the source of the fabled coco-de-mer and brought back a tortoise which lived until 1917!), he settled on the Isle de France (Mauritius) as a trader and planter.
In 1770, the Polynesian Ahu-turu (who had journeyed to France with Louis-Antoine de Bougainville), arrived at the Isle de France with orders that an eastern passage to his native Tahiti should be organized for him. Marion seized this opportunity to propose a journey to Tahiti, which could convey Ahu-turu home, but also enable exploration of southern waters on the way.[i]
In recent years there have been a number of explanations of Marion’s motives. John Dunmore has argued that Marion was ‘looking forward to visiting the earthly paradise, the example of Rousseauist society which Commerson was daily extolling’.[ii] This is too romantic an interpretation. Although Marion met Commerson on at least one occasion, Marion, who was actively engaged in the slave trade and who brought slaves on his expedition, is unlikely to have been a disciple of Rousseau.
Several scholars, including John Dunmore,[iii] Leslie Marchant[iv] and Anne Salmond[v] have also suggested that Marion was in search of Gonneville’s lost continent.[vi] Presumably this is founded on Julien Crozet’s (1728 – 1782) comment that, in the light of Bouvet de Lozier’s discoveries in the southern Indian Ocean, Marion Dufresne needed to search for Gonneville’s lands ‘to the east of the meridian, which passes through Madagascar’.[vii] While Marion may have believed that Gonneville’s lost continent was identifiable with Terra Australis (rather than New Holland), he certainly did not indicate this in any of his letters or submissions. Nevertheless he did propose ‘exploring the southern lands from 45 to 55 degrees latitude south‘.[viii] This statement in itself is evidence of his belief in a Southern Continent in the region his friend d’Après de Mannevillette[ix] believed one was located. Since the days of Aristotle, Europeans had held mythical notions of symmetry in Creation — that a great continent had to exist in the southern hemisphere to counterbalance the continents of the northern hemisphere.[x] As one of Marion’s officers, Lieutenant Le Dez, remarked, the existence of a third continent ‘appears sufficiently demonstrated by the very form of the globe, which obliges us to attribute to this [other] hemisphere almost the same configuration, the same quantity and quality of matter as ours.‘[xi]
Marion Dufresne also declared his desire to ‘continue to New Zealand’ after repatriating his Tahitian charge and ‘exploring the whole archipelago, going as far as Saint Esprit,[xii] located on the East of New Holland, which promises the greatest advantages least distant from the Isle de France.’[xiii] Rather than pursue the vague and perhaps imaginary claims of Gonneville, this suggests a desire to follow up the known discoveries of Bouvet de Lozier in the Indian Ocean, and those of Quirós, Tasman, Roggeveen and Bougainville in the Pacific. There is ample evidence that Marion also intended to retrace the route of Luis Vaez de Torres, through the strait which now bears Torres’s name. Torres’s long forgotten report had come to light only after the British occupied Manila in 1762, and Alexander Dalrymple[xiv] incorporated details in his book An Account of the Discoveries made in the The South Pacifick Ocean, previous to 1764, printed in London in 1767.[xv] The implication that New Guinea and New Holland were not one landmass is obvious in Bougainville’s sailing directions to Marion for his return voyage from Tahiti.
Geographical discovery, however, was not the only motivation for a passage through Torres Strait to Timor. Pierre Poivre, commissaire-général of the Isle de France, had already dispatched a number of expeditions to the East Indies in the hope of securing clove and nutmeg plants. Although he achieved a measure of success when Simon Provost returned to the Isle de France with seedlings from the island of Geby in June 1770,[xvi] they did not fare well. To ensure the success of his nursery, Poivre was determined that Provost should secure additional stocks of seeds and seedlings.[xvii] Since Marion departed before Poivre had any idea of the success of Provost’s renewed efforts in the Moluccas, his expedition should in some respects be seen as a back-up. In his book Voyages aux Indes orientales, Alexis Rochon, who was then at the Isle de France, states quite explicitly that Marion received secret orders to search for and procure nutmeg and clove seedlings in New Guinea and ‘adjacent islands’.[xviii] Poivre also held out hope that Tahiti might prove a source of spices.[xix]
In addition to the support of Poivre and Governor Desroches of the Isle de France, Marion was fortunate to have the support of his cousin, the former Governor René Magon. On 22 February 1771, Magon had co-signed Marion’s formal proposal, having become his local partner in the venture.[xx] Magon retained a strong interest in naval matters and it should also be remembered that his uncle, the celebrated mathematician and astronomer Pierre-Louis de Maupertuis (1698 – 1759),[xxi] had specifically urged further exploration of southern waters. In the joint proposal Magon signed with Marion, there is an astute understanding that the climate of the possible southern lands from 30 to 45 degrees south did ‘not appear promising’. Nevertheless, to a nation still smarting from the loss of Canada, Marion and Magon held out the tantalizing proposition that in these regions ‘fishing may be as plentiful as on the Banks of Newfoundland’.[xxii]
To finance his voyage, Marion Dufresne sold a number of parcels of land and mortgaged all his remaining property at the Isle de France. He purchased one of the vessels for the voyage himself: the Marquis de Castries, originally named Bruny. Although the Crown gave him the use of the 450 ton flûte Mascarin for three years, he was expected to reimburse all the wages and provisions of the crew and the expedition’s cargo of trade goods. With insufficient assets to cover the costs of the entire expedition, on 10 October 1771, his cousin René Magon appended his guarantee to the agreement Marion Dufresne had already signed with the colony’s administrators four months before.[xxiii] Magon generous support would ultimately lead to bankruptcy.
Placed in command of the Marquis de Castries was a young aristocrat named Ambroise Bernard Le Jar du Clesmeur, not yet twenty years of age. This was an extraordinary command since Du Cleumeur was a mere garde de la marine, a rank which approximated that of a British naval cadet and midshipman combined.[xxiv] But Du Clesmeur was Desroches’ nephew and the Governor regarded him as ‘a lad of the greatest promise for the Service’.[xxv] It seems likely that in return for the Governor’s enthusiastic support, Marion may have had to accept du Clesmeur’s appointment. Such was the nature of aristocratic privilege and the pervasive nepotism of the time. Effective command of the vessel, however, was probably in the hands of Jean Josselin Le Corre (1727 – 1785), an experienced East India Company officer and veteran of Bougainville’s circumnavigation.[xxvi]
The expedition left the Isle de France on 18 October 1771. Initially Marion intended to obtain further provisions at the island of Bourbon (now La Réunion), but when smallpox broke out on board he was forced to make for Port Dauphin on the coast of Madagascar. There Ahu-turu died. Undeterred, Marion sailed on to the Cape of Good Hope for provisions before sailing south then east. On 13 January 1772, the expedition sighted islands which are now known as the Prince Edward group. The following day the two vessels collided; one man was killed and the Marquis de Castries, under the command of the inexperienced Le Jar Du Clesmeur was left with a splintered bowsprit and no foremast. Despite the damage, the two ships maintained their easterly course and on 21 January the Crozet Islands were discovered. In need of fresh water and timber to remast the Marquis de Castries, Marion decided to set a course for Van Diemen’s Land. On March 3, 1772, the sailors of the Mascarin and the Castries first caught sight of the Tasmanian coast and anchored off Cape Frederick Hendrick on 6 March — in the waters embraced by Frederick Henry Bay (now Marion Bay) and North Bay.
Marion Dufresne and his men landed from a longboat and yawl on 7 March 1772 and were the first Europeans to meet the Tasmanian Aborigines. (It will be remembered that Tasman had not met the locals when he visited.) At first relations between the French and the indigenous Tasmanians were cordial, but fear, misunderstanding and violence soon followed. Regretably there were Aboriginal casualties. What is striking about these first European descriptions of the Tasmanians is the African and Malagasy analogies employed in the journals of the officers — obviously a result of their colonial experiences. Le Dez, who was one of the more learned of the officers, and Du Clesmeur, were the only observers on the expedition to make the more accurate comparison between the Tasmanians and the Aborigines of New Holland.[xxvii]
Le Dez‘s cautious testimony contains a valuable primary-contact description which may yet offer new insights to ethnographers and historians.
I think they are seafood eaters because we found many places in the woods where they had stopped. One notices easily the place where they had slept around a mound of ash and one sees, nearby, fishbones (my italics) and many burnt shells.[xxviii]
This latter observation is particularly interesting because a number of archaeologists have argued that the Tasmanian Aborigines stopped eating fish about four thousand years ago.[xxix] Le Dez’s record reinforces the view that at least some fish may have been eaten by the Tasmanian Aborigines.
It would seem that the individuals Marion and his men encountered at North Bay were probably members of what has been conveniently called the Oyster Bay tribe. According to historian Lyndall Ryan, the ten ‘bands’ of this tribe (the largest in Tasmania) totalled a mere 700 to 800 individuals. [xxx] Although historians must be cautious in extrapolating population figures from accounts of brief landfalls, there may be grounds for at least doubling the hitherto presumed size of the Oyster Bay tribe. Marion’s officer, Jean Roux, for example, asserted that he saw some three hundred Aborigines during his visit. If this was just one band, our notions of the population of the whole island and their seasonal migrations at the time of European contact deserve reassessment.[xxxi]
The references to widespread Aboriginal burning in all the officers’ accounts lend support to the ideas of a number of scholars of fire and the Tasmanian biota — particularly those who have studied the preservation of sclerophyll forests, the creation of highland ‘button-grass plains’ and Aboriginal symbiosis with the grasslands.[xxxii] Although Le Dez gives the impression that the burning he saw was essentially indiscriminate, the journals of Du Clesmeur, Crozet and Chevillard de Montesson suggest that the Aboriginal fires in the south-east were in fact selective and that the Oyster Bay pine (Callitris rhomboidea) may have been protected by them.[xxxiii] While it may have been one of the most common trees in the North/Marion Bay area in 1772, eucalypts now dominate the area and the Oyster Bay pine only exists in isolated stands. Although it is a fire-sensitive species, the vulnerability of these stands is reduced because leaf litter is densely packed and not well aerated.[xxxiv] Thus, while particular Aboriginal use of Callitris rhomboidea remains uncertain, the records of Marion’s expedition undoubtedly suggest major ecological change in south-eastern Tasmania over the past two centuries.
It is also possible that Crozet, Roux, Le Dez and Chevillard de Montesson were the first Europeans to see the thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus) of Tasmanian tiger: all reported sighting a ‘tiger’ or ‘tiger cat’ during their visit, while du Clesmeur mentioned quadrupeds which resembled dogs.
On 9 March 1772, Marion and his men were the first Europeans to land on nearby Maria Island. The expedition accounts, however, contain a number of interesting, though fragmentary, observations on the material culture of the Aborigines. Nevertheless, given the rapid disintegration of traditional Tasmanian Aborginal culture in the first few decades of the 19th century and the lack of systematic ethnographic observation during the years of British rule, the accounts of Marion’s officers (some of which have only recently become known)[xxxv] provide an important source of information for scholars.[xxxvi]
Not having a professional naturalist with them, Marion and his merchant seamen did not record any detailed natural history observations. Just as they searched for comfortable ethnological analogies, so too the ‘pines’ and other flora and fauna they encountered were described with familiar names. Later French voyages to the region, however, would make far more impressive contributions to Tasmanian botany and zoology.[xxxvii] For example, during d’Entrecasteaux’s two sojourns in Van Diemen’s Land his naturalist, Labillardière laid the foundations for his magnificent Novae Hollandiae plantarum specimen (1804-1806) — justly recognized as the ‘first general flora of Australia’.[xxxviii]
So what happened to Marion Dufresne? He decided to set sail for New Zealand on 10 March. He might have discovered Bass Strait on the way, had he not been frustrated by northerly winds. Three months later, on 12 June 1772, his life came to a tragic end at Te Hue cove in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands: after unwittingly breaching Maori etiquette and taboos, Marion and two of his longboat crews were massacred and eaten. Regrettably, his personal account of his voyage has not survived, although significant sections may have found their way into Julien Crozet’s book.
Twelve days after Marion Dufresne’s landing in Van Diemens’ Land, Alleno de Saint-Alouarn (who had become separated from Kerguelen’s rival expedition in search of the South Land) made his first landing in Western Australia. These two French voyages would ultimately be followed by the more sophisticated expeditions of La Pérouse (1785-1788) and Bruny d’Entrecasteaux (1791-1793) which bore professional hydrographers, astronomers and naturalists to Australia’s shores. Nevertheless in d’Entrecasteaux’s journal there are numerous references to Marion Dufresne’s voyage, as there are in François Péron’s account of Baudin’s expedition. Indeed all these voyages should be seen in the context of a continuity of French scientific endeavours and sustained interest in the Great Southland. Before the close of the eighteenth century, French explorers would make profound contributions to the foundations of the natural, physical and social sciences in Australia and precipitate pre-emptive British settlement of Van Diemen’s Land.
[i] In addition to a number of new studies and sources, this paper is largely based on my biography of the explorer; see: E. Duyker, An Officer of the Blue: Marc-Joseph Marion Dufresne 1724-1772, South Sea Explorer, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1994. It is hoped that a French language edition will appear in the not too distant future.
[ii] Prof. Dunmore has further asserted: ‘We cannot doubt that Marion du Fresne knew something of the ideas of Rousseau, that Commerson extolled Tahiti to him, home of the Noble Savage’; see J. Dunmore, ‘L’imaginaire et le réel: Le mythe du Bon Sauvage de Bougainville à Marion du Fresne’, in Mollat, M. et Taillemite, E. (eds), L’importance de l’exploration maritime au siècle des lumières (a propos du voyage de Bougainville), Editions du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris, 1982, pp. 161—68.
[iii] J. Dunmore, French Explorers in the Pacific, Oxford University Press, 1965, vol 1, p. 167.
[iv] L. Marchant, France Australe, Artlook, Perth, 1982, p. 47.
[v] A. Salmond, Two Worlds: First Meetings Between Maori and Europeans 1642-1772, Viking, Auckland, 1991. p. 363.
[vi] Binot Paulmier de Gonneville is said to have sailed to the southern hemisphere between 1503-1506, but scholars are divided as to whether his voyage was imaginary[vi] or whether he landed in South America, Madagascar or even Australia. For a recent survey see M. Sankey, ‘L’Abbé Paulmier méconnu: le mythe et l’histoire des Terres australes en France aux dix-septième et dix huitième siècles’, Australian Journal of French Studies, vol. xxxviii, no. 1, 2001, pp. 54-68.
[vii] J. Crozet, Nouveau voyage à la mer du sud (edited by A. Rochon), Barrois, Paris, 1783, p. 7. For an English translation see: H. L. Roth (trans.), Crozet’s Voyage to Tasmania, New Zealand, the Ladrone Islands, and the Philippines in the Years 1771-1772, Truslove & Shirley, London, 1891, pp. 8-9. Crozet is probably referring to 45° east of the Paris Meridian i.e. 47° 20′ east of Greenwich.
[viii] Archives Nationales, Marine B4 317, pièce 17.
[ix] For an account of Marion Dufresne’s voyage to China with d’Après de Mannevillette, see E. Duyker, A French Trading Expedition to the Orient: The Voyage of the Montaran 1753-1756, Stockholm University Center for Pacific Asia Studies Working Paper, No.30, August 1992, pp. 20.
[x] E. van den Boogaart, ‘The Mythical Symmetry in God’s Creation: The Dutch and the Southern Continent, 1569-1756’, in Eisler, W. & Smith, B. Terra Australis: The Furthest Shore, Art Gallery of New South Wales/International Cultural Corporation of Australia, Sydney, 1988, pp. 43-49.
[xi] Le Dez, ‘Extrait d’un nouveau voyage en australazie en 1772‘, Archives Nationales, Archives Privées, Fond Bougainville 155 AP 3, pièce 4.
[xii] The island of Espíritu Santo, Vanuatu (formerly the New Hebrides) discovered by Quirós.
[xiii] Archives Nationales, Marine B4 317, pièce 17.
[xiv] See E. Duyker, ‘Propagandist, Pamphleteer & Cartographer: The Alexander Dalrymple Holdings’, National Library of Australia News, vol. VIII, No. 4, January 1998, pp. 7-9.
[xv] Marion may have read this book or been aware of its contents through his friend d’Après de Mannevillette, who regularly exchanged information with Dalrymple.
[xvi] Marion Dufresne attended the celebratory reception in honour of Provost and (with Commerson) was one of the certifiers of the plants he brought back.
[xvii] M. Ly-Tio-Fane, The Triumph of Jean Nicolas Céré and his Isle Bourbon Collaborators, Mouton & Co., Paris, 1970, pp. 26—8.
[xviii] A. Rochon, Voyages aux Indes orientales, op. cit., p. 319.
[xix] Archives Nationales, Marine C7 197, pièce 38.
[xx] Archives Nationales, Marine B4 317, pièce 16.
[xxi] ‘. . . dans l’hémisphère méridonal il y a un espace inconnu, où pourrait être placée une nouvelle partie du monde, plus grande qu’aucune autre’, cited from Maupertuis, Lettre sur le progrès des sciences, ch. 7, by R. Lacour-Gayet, Histoire de L’Australie, Fayard, Paris, 1973, p. 69.
[xxii] Archives Nationales, Marine B4 317, pièce 16.
[xxiii] ‘Agreement with M. Marion Dufresne, Capitaine de Brulôt, relating to the assignment for which the King has given the flûte Mascarin, for the voyage to Cythere ordered by the Court’, Archives Nationales, Marine B4 317, pièce 20.
[xxiv] For a biographical summary, see E. Duyker, ‘Du Clesmeur, Ambroise Bernard Le Jar (1751-c.1810)’, Dictionnaire de Biographie Mauricienne, no. 47, janvier 1992, pp. 1447-1448.
[xxv] Desroches to the Minister of Marine, April 27 1771, Archives Nationales, Marine C4 28, cited in Kelly, L. G. Marion Dufresne at the Bay of Islands, A. H. & A. W. Reed, Wellington, 1951, p. 18.
[xxvi] Jean Josselin Le Corre (1727-1785) accompanied Bougainville as an officier bleu on the Boudeuse and so impressed his commander that he was nominated for the rank of capitaine de flûte. The Intendant of Brest, however, had recommended against the appointment on the grounds of insufficient naval experience. The unfortunate Le Corre had served on four naval vessels and had been a prisoner of war in 1758. He had also made eleven voyages in merchant vessels, but the Intendant felt that ‘the pecuniary advantages of this type of shipping was compensation for the preference received by those who are only employed in the service of the King’. See J. Aman, Les officiers bleus dans la marine Française au XVIIIe siècle, pp. 36-37, 83, 104, 109, 188. Le Corre’s wife, Augustine Duclos-Guyot, appears to have been related to Bougainville’s second-in-command, Nicolas-Pierre Duclos-Guyot (1722-1794). Although Le Corre was born in Pléhérel (near Cape Frehel), his son Alexandre was born in Saint Malo and this explains the reference to that port as his home in the muster roll of the Marquis de Castries. Alexandre Le Corre (1766-1802) would lead the Isle de France’s first trading expedition to Australia. He and five of his crew members perished when their ship, the Entreprise, was wrecked off the Three Sisters in Bass Strait on 15 October 1802; see E. Duyker, Of the Star and the Key: Mauritius, Mauritians and Australia, Australian Mauritian Research Group, Sylvania, 1988, pp. 12—13 and E. Duyker, ‘Le Corre, Josselin (1727-1785)’, Dictionnaire de Biographie Mauricienne, no. 48, janvier 1993, pp. 1490—91.
[xxvii] Le Dez, in E. Duyker (ed.), Discovery of Tasmania, op. cit., pp. 33-35.
[xxix] See R. Jones, ‘Fire-Stick Farming‘, Australian Natural History, vol. 16, 1969, pp. 224-228; H. Allen, ‘Left Out in the Cold: Why the Tasmanians Stopped Eating Fish‘, The Artefact, Vol. 4, 1979, pp. 1-10.
[xxx] Ryan, The Aboriginal Tasmanians, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 1981, pp. 16-19.
[xxxi] Unfortunately, the seasonal migrations Ryan alludes to, do not sit comfortably with the facts of Marion Dufresne’s visit late in the southern summer. Had the Aborigines just arrived to commence their winter regime of shellfish, or had they been living off other game by the large, but unusually dry, lagoon behind the sand dunes of North Bay? Perhaps, like the Aborigines on the west coast of the island, the Pydairrerme may have had no need to wander very far from the coast at all. The author has visited Swan Lagoon in May and found it teeming with swans, ducks and other water birds; see: Ryan, op. cit., pp. 16-19.
[xxxii] See J. M. Gilbert, ‘Forest Succession in the Florentine Valley, Tasmania’, Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania, vol. 93, 1951, pp. 129-151; R. Jones, ‘The Geographical Background to the Arrival of Man in Australia and Tasmania’, Archaeology and Physical Anthropology in Oceania, vol. 3, 1968, pp. 186-215.
[xxxiii] See Chevillard de Montesson, Du Clesmeur and Crozet, in E. Duyker (ed.), Discovery of Tasmania, op. cit., pp. 47, 22, 26.
[xxxiv] Personal communication with botanist Dr Stephen Harris, Department of Lands, Parks and Wildlife, Hobart, Tasmania, 12 October 1990.
[xxxv] Chevillard’s summary had been part of the estate of the New Zealand bibliophile Dr Charles Fox and was acquired by the State Library of Tasmania in 1973. And Le Dez‘s journal was discovered only in the late 1970s by the New Zealand scholar, Isabel Ollivier, among the papers of the Bougainville family archives (held as a private collection by the Archives Nationales in Paris). As recently as July 1988, in a paper entitled ‘The French and the Tasmanian Aborigines’, presented at a symposium at the University of New South Wales, Plomley made no mention of the accounts of Le Dez or Chevillard de Montesson.
[xxxvi] Marion’s officers recorded a meagre handful of Tasmanian words (and no meanings for them). William Anderson–surgeon on Cook’s second and third voyages–listed just nine Tasmanian Aboriginal words during his visit in January 1777. However, Jacques-Julien Houtou de Labillardière, naturalist on d’Entrecasteaux’s expedition, recorded eighty-four Tasmanian Aboriginal words in his ‘Vocabulaire de la langue des sauvages du Cap de Diemen’ which appeared as an appendix to his Relation. Since none of the few Aborigines who became literate in English recorded anything of their language and few English speakers gained any significant grasp of the Tasmanian language, this vocabulary is a precious linguistic vestige.
[xxxvii] See, for example, Maiden, J. H. ‘Records of the Earlier French Botanists as regards Australian Plants’, Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, vol. 44, 1910, pp. 123—54..
[xxxviii] See E. Duyker, Citizen Labillardière: A Naturalist’s Life in Revolution and Exploration, Melbourne University Press/Miegunyah, Melbourne, 2003.