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Marc-Joseph Marion Dufresne (1724–1772)

by Edward Duyker

This article was published:

Marc-Joseph Marion Dufresne (1724-1772), mariner, was baptized on 22 May 1724 at St Malo, Brittany, France, youngest of eight children of Julien Marion Dufresne (1681-1739), a wealthy shipowner and merchant, and his wife Marie Seraphique, née Le Fer de la Lande. Marc (also known as Macé and mistakenly by some historians as 'Marie-Joseph' and 'Nicolas-Thomas'), probably educated by a private tutor, first went to sea at the age of 17. During the war of the Austrian Succession (1744-47), he proved a brilliant young privateer and, commanding the Prince de Conty, helped to rescue 'Bonnie' Prince Charles Stuart from the west coast of Scotland in September 1746.

Marion Dufresne spent three months as a prisoner of war in England in 1747. Returning to France, he was employed by the French East India Co. and voyaged to Africa, China, India and the Netherlands East Indies. On 20 April 1756 at the Church of St Louis, Lorient, Brittany, he married Julie Bernardine Guilmaut de Beaulieu; they apparently had no children. After military service during the Seven Years War, in 1761 he took the astronomer Alexandre Gui Pingré to the Indian Ocean to observe the transit of Venus, and organized an expedition to the Seychelles in 1768 before settling on the Isle de France (Mauritius).

In 1770 the Polynesian Aotourou (who had journeyed to France with Bougainville), arrived at the island with orders that a passage to his native Tahiti should be arranged for him. Marion Dufresne volunteered to convey Aotourou home and to explore southern waters on the way. Largely financing the voyage himself, he purchased the Marquis de Castries, gained the use of the Mascarin, and left the Isle de France on 18 October 1771. An outbreak of smallpox resulted in Aotourou dying at Port Dauphin, Madagascar. Undeterred, Marion Dufresne proceeded to the Cape of Good Hope for provisions and headed east. On 13 January 1772 he sighted the Prince Edward Islands, one of which was later named in his honour by Captain Cook. On 14 January his vessels collided, one being left with a splintered bowsprit and no foremast. Despite the damage he maintained an easterly course and on 21 January the Crozet Islands were seen and claimed for France.

In need of fresh water and timber to remast the Marquis de Castries, Marion Dufresne set a course for Van Diemen's Land. On 3 March 1772 his sailors sighted the coast, near High Rocky Point. Rounding the island's most southerly point on 5 March the vessels anchored off Cape Frederick Hendrick—in waters now called Marion Bay and North Bay—close to where Abel Tasman had anchored 130 years before. Marion Dufresne led a party ashore in two boats on 7 March 1772; they were the first French explorers to reach any part of Australia and apparently the first Europeans to encounter the Aborigines of Van Diemen's Land. Initially relations were cordial. When a third boat approached, however, a shower of stones was thrown and Marion Dufresne ordered a retreat. Following another hail of hatchets and stones, which wounded him and several of his party, he ordered a volley of shots to frighten off the attackers. He then sought another landing place but was again showered with missiles. One of his crew being speared in the leg, Marion Dufresne gave the order to fire and give chase. This time at least one Aborigine was killed.

Disappointed in his search for timber and fresh water, after six days he made for the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, where he attempted to remast his vessel. At Te Hue on 12 June 1772 Maoris killed him and twenty-four of his crew. His family was bankrupted by the expedition, which returned to the Isle de France in April 1773. Marion Dufresne's journal has been lost, but that of his second-in-command Julien Crozet, published as Nouveau voyage à la mer du sud (Paris, 1783), and manuscript accounts of the expedition provide valuable evidence about indigenous Tasmanian and early Maori life.

Select Bibliography

  • Extracts from Journals Relating to the Visit to New Zealand in May-July 1772 of the French Ships ‘Mascarin’ and ‘Marquis de Castries’ Under the Command of M.-J. Marion du Fresne (Wellington, NZ, 1985)
  • Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 1 (Wellington, NZ, 1990)
  • E. Duyker (ed), The Discovery of Tasmania (Hob, 1992)
  • E. Duyker, An Officer of the Blue: Marc-Joseph Marion Dufresne, South Sea Explorer, 1724-1772 (Melb, 1994).

Citation details

Edward Duyker, 'Marion Dufresne, Marc-Joseph (1724–1772)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 12 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Brittany, France


12 June, 1772 (aged ~ 48)
Tu Hue, New Zealand

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