Charles Meryon, The Death of Marion du Fresne at the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, 12 June 1772,
Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington (1846-1848)


Sometime between 1846 and 1848 drew the scene en graiselle in pencil and crayon, heightened with chalk. It’s a largish work, one metre by two metres – a heroic scale for a “heroic” subject, executed by the French artist Charles Méryon (1821-1868) and exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1848. Thence it passed on to the artist’s closest friend, Antoine-Édouard Foleÿ (the two were stationed together at the French naval base in Akaroa on Banks’ Peninsula), a member of the Paris Positivist circle of the philosopher Auguste Comte, who left it to his son. The drawing was purchased in Paris by New Zealand-born British art collector Rex Nan Kivell, who smuggled it back to London, rolled up in the leg of his trousers, as the Second World War broke out. Eventually this magnificent curiosity entered the National Library of Australia as part of the Rex Nan Kivell collection from 1959 until 1967 when it was presented to the New Zealand Government by visiting Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt. In December of that year Holt would go on a fateful ocean swim and never be seen again.

Now in the collection of the Turnbull Library, Wellington, the title of the work, The Death of Marion du Fresne at the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, 12 June 1772, leaves very little ambiguity about the subject. The Breton-born explorer and navigator Marc-Joseph Marion du Fresne anchored his ships, Marquis de Castries and Mascarin, in the Bay of Islands from May to July 1772, late in the reign of Louis XV. This was the first significant social interaction between Europeans and Māori, and at first relations between the two were cordial enough, until suddenly they weren’t. According to the story – particularly from what another French explorer, Dumont d'Urville, was able to find out from local Māori during his 1824 visit to the Bay of Islands on the Coquille - Du Fresne was killed by Māori of Ngāti Pou iwi beneath a Pōhutukawa tree at Te Hue Bay before being ritually consumed by several local chiefs for his mana.

Méryon attempts to reconstruct the event, rather fancifully and through a fictive scrim of overweening classicism. True to the tropes of the Picturesque, the scene is set up like a stage. In the background Du Fresne’s ships are anchored in the bay. In the mid-ground a French sailor takes a stroll with Māori wahine, a reminder that sex often paid for European goods in early New Zealand, and short-term marriages to Europeans for material gain would become an important industry in some Māori communities. Unfortunately, this also had the unforeseen consequence of unleashing a number of venereal diseases which the indigenous tribes had no experience of or resistance to.

In the foreground, a scraggly Cordyline, looking like a refugee from a Dr Seuss book, defines the left wing of the stage with its perky, calligraphic line. The right wing is a pātaka, a storehouse for perishables raised on stilts to protect it from the ravages of the Kiore, the native rat, and preserve their tapu. Méryon’s interpretation of a pātaka is decidedly at odds with reality, resembling more a ramshackle Roman temple out of a Piranesi engraving than anything he would have seen in New Zealand. Essentially Méryon has put in the barest of essentials to let the viewer know that this is a pā, a Māori village. The effect was calculated to appeal to the contemporary vogue in French art for exotic and decadent scenes with the plentiful bared breasts and poised, theatrical violence.

Image result for The Death of Marion du Fresne at the Bay of Islands, New Zealand
The Death of Marion Du Fresne (detail)

To the left of the pātaka, in front of a palisade and draped backcloth, Du Fresne presides over a déjeuner sur l'herbe of Māori chiefs, warriors and wahine. In front of them is a pile of Māori and European goods for trade. Méryon has depicted his countryman as a dignified and noble hero of the Enlightenment in profile as one might find on a coin. He is the calm, still focal point of the drawing’s universe. On the other hand, Méryon seems like he can’t quite make up his mind how to depict the Māori participants. Some resemble classical figures as one might find in the paintings of Nicolas Poussin in academic postures fitting Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Noble Savage model, or supine like an odalisque by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Others seem the worst racial and pantomime stereotypes, particularly the rat-faced chap theatrically sneaking back to the pātaka while his tribesman, suggestive of something from the orientalist paintings of Eugène Delacroix, is paused mid-delivery of the dolorous blow with a club to Du Fresne’s powdered scalp while a comely young wahine distracts the Frenchman with what looks like a kākāriki, a small, green, native parakeet. A young, barefoot boy sailor, about the age Du Fresne was when he first went to sea, turns to flee.

The fancy ten-dollar word for this little exercise is ekphrasis, the Greek word for description, a literary description of a work of art.


Marc Joseph Marion du Fresne’s exact birthdate is unknown, but he was baptised on 22 May 1724 in at the walled port of Saint-Marlo, Brittany, on the English Chanel coast. The son of a merchant, in 1735, still a boy, Du Fresne joined the French India Company ship Duc de Bourgogne as honorary sub-lieutenant, which is the beginning of the trajectory that lead to his death at the bottom of the world. During the messy War of Austrian Succession – a complicated episode which managed to drag in all the European powers over the question of Maria Theresa's succession to the Habsburg territories - he commanded privateers out of Saint-Malo, rising to the rank of temporary captain in 1745. After the ill-fated Battle of Culloden it was he who sailed to Scotland to retrieve Bonnie Prince Charlie. He then served in the French royal navy until taken prisoner by English forces in May 1747.

When the war ended the following year, Du Fresne served on several French India Company ships, sailing to the Indian Ocean and China. With the outbreak of the Seven Years War in 1754, he found himself a consultant for a proposed landing by French forces in Scotland. With much cunning and daring do, he spent two years in naval operations outsmarting the British blockade of Brittany and in recognition of his skill and bravery he was promoted to fireship captain in 1759, and made a Chevalier of the Ordre Royal et Militaire de Saint-Louis, the immediate predecessor of the Légion d'honneur. After all that excitement returned to trading in the eastern seas, conducting hydrographical surveys of Mauritius, and for a time was harbourmaster of capital, Port Louis. He also traded in the Seychelles and India, and participated in the peculiarly colonial vice of land speculation.

The liquidation of the French India Company caused Du Fresne considerable financial bother and when in 1771 the opportunity arose to voyage to the Pacific on a trade and exploration mission sponsored by the French government. This was in no small part sparked off by Captain James Cook’s first Pacific expedition aboard the Endeavour which had returned that year, with the hope that if there was a new continent to be discovered to the south of New Zealand, the hypothetical Terra Australis Incognita, it should be claimed by France, not Britain. Du Fresne was provided with two naval ships, the twenty-two-gun Mascarin and the sixteen-gun Marquis de CastriesThe first directive of the mission was to return, like an overdue library book, the Tahitian Ahu-toru to his island home. Ahu-toru had been brought to France in 1768 by Louis-Antoine de Bougainville. Lionised in Paris and becoming something of a celebrity, this brave voluntary Polynesian explorer of Europe had been sent to Mauritius to find passage back to Tahiti, the “New Cythera” of the Pacific.

Du Fresne and his ships sailed forth from Port Louis on 18 October 1771. This proved most opportune as an epidemic of smallpox had broken out in Mauritius. Unfortunately, the disease also killed Ahu-toru. After picking up supplies at the islands Bourbon and Madagascar, since the Tahiti was no longer part of the mission, Du Fresne decided to try and recoup some of the expedition costs by heading for Cape Town in South Africa to begin their search for the Southern Continent in the high latitudes of that hemisphere. On the way he discovered the south Indian Ocean islands of Marion, Prince Edward, and the Crozets. After a stopover in Tasmania where he was the first European to explore and interact with Aboriginal Australians, the mission set sail across the Tasman for New Zealand.

They sighted Mount Taranaki on 25 March 1772, giving it the name Pic Mascarin (not realising that Cook, who had been through on the Endeavour in 1769, had already named it Mount Egmont after John Perceval, 2nd Earl of Egmont, a former First Lord of the Admiralty. Sailing north on 15 April they landed at Spirits Bay. Two days later strong winds severely damaged the ships, losing a number of anchors, so they limped south-east and on 4 May reached the drowned valley complex of the Bay of Islands, anchoring first to the south of Okahu (Red Head) Island and then off Moturua Island.

The French had some idea of what to expect. In 1769 a previous expedition let by Jean François Marie de Surville of the Saint Jean Baptiste had visited the area, though had ventured no further south than Doubtless Bay and hadn’t left a positive impression on local Māori as, following the theft of a small boat, De Surville’s men had retaliated by the razing of a kāinga close to shore, and the kidnapping of Ranginui, a Ngāti Kahu of rank. He would die at sea three months later.

Du Fresne and his men spent a leisurely five weeks exploring the Bay and making repairs to the ships. They set up camps – one on the mainland as a quartermaster’s store and communications base, a tent hospital for sailors stricken with scurvy on Moturua, where gardens were also planted, and one inland in the forest to hew masts and spars for the ships. They were also able to visit distantly scattered pā to trade, able to communicate by means of an extensive Tahitian vocabulary put together by Bougainville and Ahu-toru, sufficiently close to te reo Māori to be comprehensible, and despite the occasional nuisance of what the French regarded as petty theft (Māori concepts of property and reciprocity being very different to those of Europeans), prospects appeared very pleasant and relations friendly. On 8 June Du Fresne was even welcomed at a special pōwhiri in his honour by Te Kauri, chief of Te Hikutu hapū, and four white feathers placed in his hair, denoting chiefly status. This charmed Du Fresne, already an enthusiastic student of the culture, greatly.

What the Frenchman didn’t realise was that despite tranquil appearances, he and his crew had arrived at an extremely fraught moment in Bay of Islands history. They were sitting on a powder keg.

By the middle of the eighteenth century the Bay of Islands was like a scaled down Māori Mediterranean, populated by diverse hapū with modestly-sized territories scattered around the coasts and further inland. Apart from the hapū to the north and south of the bay, most of these communities shared whakapapa. Ngāti Miru and Te Wahineiti occupied Te Waimate which stretched from the Kerikeri coast to the Waitangi River. Ngāti Pou inhabited Taiamai, the southern part of the Bay from Kawakawa and extending west. Ngare Raumati controlled Te Rawhiti, the coast and remoter islands of the Bay’s southeast. North and south of the bay were the territories of the various hapū of Ngāpuhi, and they had ambitions.

Around 1775 the Northern Alliance of Ngāpuhi hapū descended on the Bay, conquering Te Waimate. Two decades later the Southern Alliance took Taiamai. Ngāpuhi cemented their absolute dominion of the Bay over subsequent generations, beginning with a ferocious, but ultimately unsuccessful attack on Rawhiti in around 1800, and an overwhelming victory in 1826.

The Northern Alliance invasion a mere two years in the future, tensions were running high. The presence of the French was destabilising in that precarious environment. Less than a week after the pōwhiri, Du Fresne and the fishing party he had gone ashore with were attacked and killed. A second party was attacked the following day and four hundred armed Māori attacked the hospital camp on Motorua, but were turned back by the overwhelming firepower of French blunderbusses. In all, twenty-seven of the French died: two young officers, M.M. de Vaudricourt and the volunteer Pierre Le Houx, the second pilot Pierre Mauclair from St Malo, the steersman Louis Ménager from Lorient, Marc Le Garff, also from Lorient, Vincent Kerneur of Port-Louis, Marc Le Corre of Auray, Thomas Ballu of Vannes, Jean Mestique of Pluvigner, Pierre Cailloche of Languidoc, and Mathurin Daumalin of Hillion. What we know of that fateful day comes from the accounts of two officers, Jean Roux and De Clesmeur.

It has never been entirely clear what the trigger was. The Northern Alliance invasion effectively disrupts the thread of oral history. The French were already bulls blundering around in the china shop of Māori tikanga and protocol, and their ongoing presence both created political, cultural and economic issues for local iwi and carried with it the spectre of a permanent French settlement. Some claim that they had violated tapu by fishing in Manawaora Bay where the bones of the dead were cleaned prior to interment, or where the drowned corpses of members of a local iwi washed up in Te Kauri’s Cove (now known as Assassination Cove).

This story, appearing in the 1960s, seems rather unlikely. Supposedly the French had been at the tapu beach for seventeen days, assuming they were still in distant Ngāti Pou territory, but in fact in Te Kauri’s lands, just below the pā. Discrediting this is the fact that Te Kauri was well known to the French, having dealt with them on multiple occasions and having been on their ships. It seems altogether more likely that this was a gambit by one hapu or other to acquire muskets, or a response to the French being perceived to have claimed Motorua. Following the pōwhiri for Du Fresne, Māori made a nocturnal raid on the Moturoa hospital camp, taking muskets, uniforms and an anchor. The French took two of the culprits hostage against the return of the stolen property, one of whom accused Te Kauri of having been involved. Du Fresne ordered the men released, but this even alone would have caused Te Kauri significant loss of mana in a scenario where the French were already, unwittingly, being used as pawns in a competition for status among local hapū. Later an armed party of Māori, presumably Te Hikutu, challenged the French, but utu was restored with an exchange of gifts.

In all that time there was no mention of tapu, but parties of Māori had been seen by French sentries prowling at night around the hospital and lumber camps, and visiting chiefs showed a great deal of interest in the French muskets and blunderbusses. These visitors went so far as to ask for a demonstration which was satisfied by Jean Roux, Ensign of the Mascarin, shooting a dog. Those would have been powerful incentives for any enterprising chief. French weapons and resources would have dramatically changed the balance of power in the area as British muskets and the easy carbohydrates of potatoes were for the following generation.

Following the attack on the hospital camp one of the local chiefs told Roux that Te Kauri was responsible for killing Du Fresne. Soon longboats of armed French sailors arrived to confirm that Du Fresne and the others had been killed, apparently lured into the bush and ambushed. Despite it being the small hours of the morning, according to Roux’s account he claims to have recognised Te Kauri in the darkness and ordered him shot. In the days that followed, the French came under persistent attack as more Māori reinforcements arrived. The French abandoned the hospital camp, which was raided and razed to the ground. As they retreated to Moturoa, the French were still close enough to see that the warriors wore the clothes of Du Fresne and his fellow sailors.

That night Māori attacked the Moturoa camp, this time to general fire from the French. The next day another 300 or so Māori joined the attacking force, bringing it to around 1500 fighters, whom the French charged with 26 of their own soldiers, seeing them off with technological superiority. Gallic pride having taken sufficient battering, the French attacked Te Kauri’s pā, being met with a rain of huata. Te Kauri’s allies fled in their waka. Some 250 Māori were killed, including five chiefs, and many French sustaining serious wounds.

On 7 July, investigating a month later, Roux found Te Kauri’s pā abandoned, the cooked head of a sailor on a spike, and some human bones. Julien Crozet, Du Fresne’s second in command, and the captain of the Marquis de Castries, Ambroise-Bernard-Marie le Jar du Clesmeur secured their ships, to which the French withdrew, fighting off small sporadic raids. In order to complete repairs on the ships, Crozet and Du Clesmer ordered a counter-attack to clear the area of the lumber camp, instigating reprisals resulting in a further 250 casualties among Māori.

These events left a profound scar on the French psyche. Before they departed on 12 July for the Philippines, they buried a bottle at Waipoa on Moturua, containing the arms of France and a formal declaration of possession of “France Australe” in the name of France, but left firmly of the view that Māori bore no resemblance to Rousseau’s “noble savage” and the dangers posed by them warranted against any attempt at colonisation. And yet they would attempt to do just that, and seventy-two years later a French artist, familiar with New Zealand and its French colony at Akaroa on Bank’s Peninsula.


Charles Méryon (1821-1868) is possibly not so well known a name these days as he deserves to be, but is generally regarded as the finest French proponent of the etcher’s art in the nineteenth century. He was born in Paris, a bastard, the illegitimate son of a travelling English doctor and a dancer with the opera. Méryon was raised by his mother until he enrolled at the Naval School at Brest in 1837, eventually embarking of a tour of duty around France’s possessions in the South Seas on the corvette Le Rhin.

Like William Blake, as a boy Méryon claimed to have seen troops of angels around him. A brooding, melancholy sort, quick to take offence, Méryon was already an accomplished draughtsman when Le Rhin arrived in New Zealand in 1842, resulting in a remarkable series of pencil drawings of the landscape. It was around then that his mother, suffering from a mental affliction, died. Ostensibly Le Rhin’s mission was to protect the tiny French settlement of Akaroa on Banks Peninsula as Britain moved to consolidate control of the archipelago.

Akaroa (“long harbour” in the Ngāi Tahu dialect), founded in August 1840 by French settlers, is Canterbury province’s oldest township, lying 84 kilometres at the end of a winding and precipitous route southeast of Christchurch. At around just over 600 people, sixty percent of the houses are holiday homes. It retains a strongly French flavour in its architectural style, the street names, and the occasional tricolor. On the Rue Lavaud is a modern statue, intended to represent Méryon, but erroneously depicting him as a stereotypical painter at easel and wearing a smock and beret.

By the time Le Rhin arrived, its mission was largely irrelevant. Three months before the settlement had even been founded (the French whaler Jean-François Langlois being under the mistaken impression he had purchased Banks Peninsula from Ngāi Tahu), two Ngāi Tahu chiefs, Iwikau and Hone Tikao (John Love as he was better known to Pākehā), signed the Treaty of Waitangi at Ōnuku on Akaroa Harbour. It had been Pākehā involvement in Te Rauparaha’s 1830 raid on the area, leading to direct intervention by the British, which lead to the Treaty process in the first place.

Méryon’s drawings of Akaroa, and the etchings made from them, are fascinatingly detailed, and those made of the Māori village at Ōnuku clearly reveal the elements, in their original organisation and with a Romantic eye for nature, that make up the more Classical composition of The Death of Marion du Fresne.

Image result for charles meryon akaroa
Charles Meryon, Greniers indigenes et habitations a Akaroa, presqu'Ile de Banks (1860)

On his return to France, while only 25, still a lieutenant and with only a tiny inheritance, Méryon left the navy with the ambition of becoming an artist. It was only then, however, he discovered that he suffered from Daltonism, a hereditary form of colour blindness that causes confusion of greens, reds, and yellows, leading him to enter the atelier of the engraver Eugène Bléry, under whose tutelage he acquired the technical skills of etching. Méryon supported himself with hack work, when not copying the etchings of Dutch masters like Renier Zeeman and Adriaen van de Velde, eventually going on to produce the celebrated series (though never published as one) Eaux-fortes sur Paris from 1850 to 1854, consisting of twenty-two etchings, collected together with the rest of the artist’s oeuvre in the Victorian art critic Frederick Wedmore’s catalogue Méryon and Méryon’s Paris (1878) in an edition of 129.

It is the studies of Paris, it’s glories and squalor (even as George Haussman was tearing it down and replacing it with boulevards for Napoleon III) that are the noblest fruit of his abilities, though there are some nice illustrations of the wooden houses of Bourges, around 240 kilometres from Paris.

What Méryon might have accomplished had not material and mental struggles not shortened his life, will never be known. His work failed to find broader appreciation, despite the admiration of no less than Baudelaire, Gautier, and Victor Hugo, and he was forced to sell his etchings (when he could sell them) for a pittance. The poverty and disappointment played heavily on his mind, even as his supportive friends, the etchers Félix Bracquemond and Léopold Flameng, became successful.

As Méryon’s own reputation slowly increased (Dr Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, who cared for Van Gogh in that artist’s final weeks at Auvers-sur-Oise, was a fan) he declined into paranoia, fearing imaginary enemies at every turn, believing his friends stole from him or owed him money. When the English surgeon etcher Francis Seymour Haden visited to purchase a set of the sur Paris etchings, Méryon’s chased him through the streets of Paris, seizing back the etchings and accusing the startled Englishman with wanting to plagiarise his work.

Eventually he became completely delusional. he started digging up his garden looking for dead bodies, eventually taking to bed and brandishing a pistol at anyone who attempted to see him - and was committed to the infamous asylum at Charenton Saint-Maurice on 12 May 1858.

His stay in Charenton, the French Bedlam, restored him to some lucidity, and was released for a time, resulting in some of his most visionary and peculiar work. It is evident that his mind travelled back to the Pacific from time to time, resulting in the striking Tourelle de la TixeranderieMinistere de la Marin (1865), depicting the offices of the French Admiralty, while in the sky above, a surreal flotilla of Polynesians in canoes race against horse-drawn chariots, tiny like the staffage of a landscape painting. These efforts exhausted him and he briefly returned to Charenton in late 1866. He was released again in 1867 so that he could visit the Exposition Universelle at the Champ de Mars and Ile de Billancourt, where some of his etchings were being exhibited.

At this great world’s fair, only the second to be held in Paris, with 50,226 exhibitors (15,055 from France and her colonies, 6176 from Great Britain and Ireland, 703 from the US, and even a representation from New Zealand) the likes of Jules Verne and Vincent van Gogh thrilled to such sights as the hydraulic elevator, reinforced concrete, and a recreation of the reliefs of Borobudur in the Java.

Alas, on the day Méryon visited, the weather went bad and a violent thunderstorm struck, terrifying the fragile artist out of his wits and shattering what remained of his sanity. He was once more committed to Charenton, never to emerge. He came to believe himself the second coming of Christ incarcerated by the Pharisees, and grew obsessed with the notion that there was insufficient food in the world for its population. To that end he began designing bedroom furniture that looked more like torture devices, for the express purpose of preventing sexual intercourse that might lead to reproduction, and refusing to disadvantage the poor by taking scarce food from their mouths, stopped eating. He starved himself to death in February 1868.


What a strange image The Death of Marion du Fresne is, so surrounded by death and tragedy. It brings together so many elements of New Zealand’s complex relationship with France, and one wonders what Du Fresne or Méryon would have made of later chapters of that history – the liberation of Quesnoy by New Zealand troops during the First World War, the New Zealand government sending a hastily refitted navy frigate, the HMNZS Otago, into the waters off Mururoa in protest at nuclear testing, the bombing and sinking of Greenpeace’s ship Rainbow Warrior in the port of Auckland by French military intelligence’s Direction générale de la sécurité extérieure in 1985 Indeed, we might wonder what future stories the drawing will play a part of in years to come.


  1. This is a fabulous work and a truly fascinating essay Andrew! Thank you so much for sharing.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog