Dumont d'Urville

Dumont d'Urville

French naval officer and explorer Jules Sébastien César Dumont d'Urville (1790 – 1842) developed a passionate interest in the of exploits of Bougainville, Cook and Anson as a schoolboy in Caen, and went on to enlist in the French navy. At the Naval Academy in Brest, he presented as serious and studious and spent his first years in the navy studying foreign languages, botany and entomology. The French navy was blockaded in its home ports throughout the latter part of the Napoleonic era, and d'Urville would not see sea service until Napoleon was exiled to Elba in 1814.

During a pause on a hydrographic survey of the Greek islands near the island of Milos in 1820, the local French agent brought a rediscovered marble statue unearthed by a local peasant a few days before to his attention. Dumont recognised the Venus de Milo's value and persuaded the French ambassador to Constantinople to acquire the statue. His role in obtaining the iconic figure for the Louvre earned d'Urville a promotion to lieutenant, the title of Chevalier (knight) of the Légion d'honneur, and brought him to the attention of the French Academy of Sciences,

On his return from the Greek Islands, d'Urville encountered an old acquaintance, Lieutenant Louis Isidore Duperrey, at the naval archive and the two began planning an exploratory expedition to the Pacific. After the French government decided to see whether it could regain some of its losses in the eastern hemisphere, La Coquille, a former horse barge, sailed from Toulon on 11 August 1822 with Duperrey in command and d"Urville as second-in-charge. She returned in March 1825, after a circumnavigation that included the Falkland Islands, Chile and Peru, New Zealand, Australia and New Guinea with an impressive collection more than three thousand plant species and over a thousand different species of insects.

The two commanders had fallen out over the course of the voyage, and while Duperrey was received a promotion, d'Urville did not.

Two months after Coquille returned, d'Urville presented the Navy Ministry with a plan for a second expedition, which he hoped to command. The Ministry accepted the proposal, and La Coquille was rebadged as the Astrolabe after one of the ships in the La Pérouse expedition. She sailed from Toulon on 22 April 1826 on a second, three-year circumnavigation of the world that skirted the coast of southern Australia, surveyed sections of New Zealand's South Island and the North Island's east coast and Bay of Islands. From there, she called at Tonga, Fiji, New Caledonia and explored the shores of New Guinea, having identified the site of La Pérouse's shipwreck in Vanikoro. After mapping part of the Caroline Islands and the Moluccas, the Astrolabe was back in Marseille on 25 March 1829, with another impressive collection of zoological, botanical and mineralogical samples, hydrographical papers and reports. Following this expedition, d'Urville came up with Micronesia and Melanesia to distinguish these western Pacific cultures and island groups from Polynesia. He took Melanesia from the dark skins of its inhabitants, Micronesia from the small size of the islands, and delimited Polynesia to the islands and inhabitants of an area lying within the rough triangle formed by Hawaii, Easter Island (Rapa Nui) and New Zealand (Aotearoa).

After he returned, d’Urville was promoted to captain and turned his attention to writing up the details of his travels, which appeared in five volumes between 1832 and 1834. In 1835, he returned to Toulon for more down to earth work and spent two years obsessively pondering a third expedition to the Pacific, and, in January 1837, wrote to the Navy Ministry suggesting a new expedition that would investigate a gap he had identified in the exploration of Oceania

King Louis-Philippe approved the scheme but added the South Magnetic Pole to the itinerary. If he failed to reach it, and claim it for France, d'Urville was to equal James Weddell's most southerly latitude (74°34'S in 1823.

While the expedition's two ships, Astrolabe and Zélée (Charles Hector Jacquinot), were being prepared at Toulon, d'Urville went to London to acquire documents and instruments, meeting Francis Beaufort, the Admiralty’s oceanographer, andJohn Washington, President of the Royal Geographical Society, during his stay. Both were strong supporters of the British exploration in Antarctic regions.

D'Urville's Astrolabe and Zélée left Toulon on 7 September 1837, three weeks later than planned. His first objective was the Weddell Sea, east of the Antarctic Peninsula below the South Atlantic. From there he would pass through the Straits of Magellan, travel up the coast of Chile before crossing the Pacific, inspect the new British settlements in Western Australia, then sail to Hobart; and New Zealand to investigate opportunities for French whalers and examine possible sites for q French penal colony. When he was done, his path home would take him through the East Indies before rounding the Cape of Good Hope.

Attempts to best Weddell's latitude involved great hardship proved fruitless, and after a spell in Concepcion (8 April-23 May 1838) to allow his crews to recover from scurvy and a stop in Valparaiso in Chile, they spent the southern winter looping through Oceania and the East Indies. They called at Mangareva, Nuku Hiva, Tahiti, Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, the Solomons and Guam on their way to the Indies; Ternate, Ambon and Banda on their way to Arnhem Land. There they called at Raffles Bay and observed a party of Macassan trepangers at work on a small island and recorded what they saw in an engraving along with extensive descriptions and a comment that trepanging probably preceded the arrival of the Dutch in the Indies.

Turning back to the north,  Aru, Triton Bay, Seram, Macassar, Batavia, Singapore, Jolo, Mindanao, Borneo, Semarang and Batavia (again) on their way around the Indies then steered well wide of Western Australia on their way down to Hobart for another crack at the Antarctic in the southern summer of  1839-1840.

The two vessels and their crews were very much the worse for wear when they arrived in Hobart on 12 December 1839 the two corvettes landed at Hobart. A stay on just under three weeks saw the sick and dying treated and various options debated before Astrolabe, and Zelée left Hobart on 1 January 1840 with a relatively straightforward plan: Head south and reach the furthest point that conditions permitted. 

Their loop through the Southern Ocean took them across the Antarctic Circle on 20 January and on to the rocky Dumoulin Islands, some members of the crew landed. By this point, they were off the edge of Antarctica, which d'Urville named Terre Adélie after his wife and established the basis for a subsequent French territorial claim to the area. Hydrographer Clément Adrien Vincendon-Dumoulin charted the coast, and the crew carried out experiments to determine an approximate position for the South magnetic pole as they followed the coast westward until 1 February, when d'Urville decided to head for Hobart, which they reached days later.

After a three and a half week stay there, d'Urville crossed to New Zealand's sub-Antarctic Islands, where magnetic measurements suggested they had located the location of the South Magnetic Pole, and from there to the whaling station at Port Chalmers (Dunedin). 

Their next stopover, Akaroa on Canterbury's Banks Peninsula was the destination for a group of settlers on their way from France to occupy land Captain Jean François Langlois purchased from the local Maori chiefs in 1838. Coincidentally, d'Urville arrived there on 9 March; the same day sixty-three would be settlers from the Nanto-Bordelaise Company left Rochefort on the Comte de Paris, a former man-of-war provided by the French government. 

When the Comte de Paris and its companion the Aube, arrived in the Bay of Islands on 11 July they discovered that the Banks Peninsula had been claimed by the British. Still, the settlers arrived at Akaroa on 18 August, established their settlement and subsequently worked a deal that saw the British authorities grant their company 30,000 acres for a payment of ₤4,500.

However, by that time d'Urville was in the South Atlantic on his way to Saint Helena, having travelled by way of New Zealand's Poverty Bay and Bay of Islands, Mabuiag in Torres Strait, Kupang in Timor and the French island of Réunion off the coast of Madagascar.

They arrived back in Toulon on 6 November 1840, at the end of a successful voyage. As the leader,  d'Urville received the Gold Medal of the Société de Géographie and promotion to rear admiral. He then settled down to work on Voyage au pôle Sud et dans l'Océanie sur les corvettes l'Astrolabe et la Zélée 1837-1840, a twenty-four volume narrative with an additional seven volumes of maps and illustrations, published between 1841 and 1854.

On 8 May 1842, the d'Urville family boarded a train from Versailles to Paris after a day trip, and died in the flames that followed a derailment near Meudon. At the time it was customary to lock a train's passengers in their compartments.

Sources: Felipe Fernandez-Armesto (ed.) The Times Atlas of World Exploration; Colin.Jack-Hinton,, 'A compass can go wrong, the stars never.'; Regina Ganter, China And The Beginning Of Australian History; Michael Pearson, Great Southern Land; Wikipedia; 

© Ian Hughes 2017