Brian Hooker

New Zealand



The De Surville plaque, Northland     




       Brian Hooker          

© 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 European history.


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. □