Roger Hanson: The life and tragic end of Jules Sebastian César Dumont D'Urville

French Pass between the South Island and D'Urville Island is famed for its fast-running tides.

French Pass between the South Island and D'Urville Island is famed for its fast-running tides.

 Fifty five years after James Cook came to New Zealand, another European explorer visited these shores.

His name was Jules Sebastian César Dumont D'Urville. Unlike Cook, he was born into a financially comfortable family, but he had a childhood ruled by an overly strict mother, he was by some accounts, a poor leader and had little empathy for his crew.

But D'Urville was brave, determined, a highly accomplished cartographer and an outstanding scientist.

Dumont D'Urville was born in Normandy, France in 1790, his father died when D'Urville was six so it was his uncle, the Abbot of Croisilles who directed the boy through his early education. At the age of 17 he entered the French Navy and ....had nothing to do.

This was because British Navy warships had blockaded every French port. All D'Urville and his naval colleagues could do was fritter their time away in port. Frustrated with this, he decided to pass the time more constructively by studying botany and entomology. In 1815 he married Adèle Pepin but D'Urville's difficult mother refused to have anything to do with her.

By 1819 the British blockade had weakened and D'Urville sailed on the Chevette to survey the Greek archipelago. It was here that he got his first big break, which bizarrely, had nothing to do with sailing or the sea. His attention was drawn to a statue which had recently been acquired from a Greek peasant. D'Urville identified it as the Venus de Milo, one of the most famous works of ancient Greek sculpture.

The French government awarded him the prestigious Legion of Honour for this important find and he was promoted to lieutenant.

In 1822 D'Urville set sail in La Coquille on a scientific and strategic information gathering expedition to the South Pacific and South America. He discovered a huge number of previously unknown species, it was on this voyage that he first came to New Zealand in 1824.

By some accounts the trip was noteworthy because D'Urville demonstrated a remarkable lack of concern for the welfare of his crew. This however did not prevent him from being promoted two years later to the rank of commander. In the same year he was sent on his second expedition to New Zealand on board the Coquille, renamed the Astrolabe.

During this visit he surveyed the Marlborough Sounds and noted a rare mistake by Cook, who thought that the island now known as D'Urville (30kms by 10kms) in the outer Marlborough Sounds was part of the mainland. The narrow and treacherous stretch of water separating D'Urville Island from the mainland is called French Pass.

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After this, he charted the East Coast of the North Island and then sailed north, charting several Pacific Islands including Fiji and the Solomon Islands. It was on this voyage that D'Urville invented the terms, Micronesia and Melanesia.

On his return to France, D'Urville documented his voyage and scientific discoveries in seventeen volumes. He did not hold back from criticising, the French navy, the government, fellow officers and the crew.

As a result he was transferred to an unspecified but less glamorous role in the port city of Toulon. However, determined as ever, he managed to persuade the government to finance a third voyage, also on the Astrolabe. They agreed on the condition that the expedition attempted to go further south than that achieved in 1823 by the British explorer James Weddell.

En route to the deep south he visited Auckland Island however ice prevented the Astrolabe from achieving its goal and D'Urville returned to France three years later in 1840.

During his expeditions, D'Urville discovered 400 new species of plants and 700 new insect species. Many of his botanic species were named after him, for example a genus of seaweed, Durvillaea and the shrub Hebe urvilleana.

He discovered a previously unknown penguin species, which he named the Adelie penguin, after his wife.

Perhaps D'Urville's most important legacy is the magnificent illustrated volumes presenting his scientific, geographic and anthropological findings – including extensive accounts of his interaction with and observations of Maori.

Tragically in May 1842 D'Urville and his entire family were killed travelling from Versailles to Paris in France's first railway disaster.

 - Stuff

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