The De Surville plaque, Northland
© This note was first published in Auckland-Waikato Historical Journal,
Number 79 (May 2002). Copyright is held by the Auckland Historical Society Inc.
A diversion to visit the de Surville memorial reserve is well worthwhile for any Northland traveller interested in New Zealand’s early
European history to visit the de Surville memorial reserve is well
worthwhile for any Northland traveller interested in New Zealand’s early
The reserve at Patia Point, Whatuwhiwhi, provides an
outstanding lookout area for viewing Doubtless Bay. The commemorative plaque is
reached via a short walking track off Whatuwhiwhi Road.
The inscription on the plaque (pictured) reads: “J – F– M De Surville
anchored his ship Saint Jean Baptiste in Doubtless Bay 17 – 31 December
1769 to refresh his men. He visited a pa on this headland 30 December.”
The area is rich in Maori history and legends. According to one legend a rock on
the nearby shore represents Kupe’s daughter who was enchanted on the spot.
Jean François Marie de Surville was the first
French explorer to reach the shores of New Zealand. The voyage was a
privately-organised trading enterprise that originated from Pondicherry, India,
and as mentioned in the inscription, de Surville visited New Zealand, primarily
to rest sick crew members and to obtain fresh supplies.
The Frenchmen sighted land on the morning of 12 December 1769 – the expedition
was a little south of Hokianga Harbour. Then de Surville headed slowly north
looking for a suitable anchorage. Since breakers barred the entrance to Hokianga
Harbour they sailed on and on 15 December reached Cape Maria van Diemen.
The St Jean Baptiste doubled the northern tip of New Zealand, from west
to east, on 17 December, at the same time that James Cook in the Endeavour, was
trying to round it from east to west. The two expeditions passed without
sighting each other. The French explorers entered Doubtless Bay where they
stayed a fortnight before sailing east from New Zealand. During a storm the
St Jean Baptiste lost two anchors which were recovered by Kelly Tarlton in 1974. (See the illustration).
De Surville charted parts of Northland’s coasts and carried out a survey of
Doubtless Bay, which he named “Lauriston Bay.” He was unaware that Cook had
discovered and named it a few days earlier. However, de Surville was the
discoverer of New Zealand’s northernmost point now named Surville Cliffs. □