Gerry Webb

Surville at Doubtless Bay
December 1769

A blow your hats off as usual westerly
works up the waters whitens the bay.

Jean-Francois-Marie de Surville, captain,
St. Jean Baptiste (650 tons, 36 guns, taking water)

steps from his longboat in blue velvet suit
crimson cravat to a rocky ledge jutting out

from the beach hand holding on to his natty hat
desperate with forty men dead from scurvy

many scabbed and shivering on their berths
his fear of ambush and attack overridden

by need for water, fresh food, firewood. The chief
steps forward in his dogskin cloak, red ochre topnot

spiral cheeks. He hongis the pakeha, gestures
fearfully at the muskets while the watchful

gathered hapu wave ferns in powhiri but some
with rolling flashing eyes, brandished patu

only stiffen the will of M. de Surville
sailing out of India in search of gold and silver

a rich fabled isle not on the charts
with a cargo of brandy wine opium iron bars...

now he's on the scrounge for water, fresh greens.
His men fill the water barrels and accept kahawai

flapping from the net, watercress and wild celery.
Girls offer themselves, 'showing everything they have'

and gesture towards the bush, but wary sailors stay put.
Surville presents cloth a barrel a bucket an axe

piglets a jacket for the chief. He is curious,
makes daily visits to the captain's cabin,

asks to see a cannon fired and raves over
the waterspout. He returns Surville's stolen knife.

Surville notes the palisaded pa, young kumara gardens
declines the offer of slaves, marvels at scarlet

smoking trees muscling from cliffs. In his log
he writes: 'this bay seems a lovely place.'

* * *

Dark sky, violent north east storm, that chilling
whine in the rigging. The St. Jean Baptiste rolls

and pitches on four metre breaking waves, decks
awash. The master sweats on his berth, his ear

to the shredding gale, dreaming fitfully of cannibal
feasts, black reefs surfacing under the bow.

Ghastly dawn, the ship drags her anchors towards shore.
The skipper shouts the orders (in French of course)

'Raise the foresail...let the anchors go.'
Only two boat lengths from rocks to leeward

'fit to make your hair stand on end'
the drifting ship won't answer the helm

will not make way. Surville looks at his death
down under his tired heart thumps in his chest.

By fractions the bow starts to point. They run
with the wind like a frightened goose, to Whatuwhiwhi...

* * *

The missing ship's yawl is spotted on Tokerau beach.
Longboat lowered, skipper and oarsmen waste no time

but the only trace they find is the imprint across
dunes to a creek. The overstretched rationality

of Jean-Francois-Marie de Surville snaps.
His officers say he has been too soft, do they?

Enough. A chief who approaches carrying a green branch
is seized, whare storehouses waka and nets set alight.

European violence comes to Tai Tokerau, the place ablaze
the chief abducted (and dead from scurvy in ten weeks).

Surville puts to sea toute de suite of course
he drowns soon enough in Peruvian surf, the bar of Chilca,

as he rows ashore to get help from the Spanish consul
dressed to the nines with sword and military medal.

His legend survives with the people of Tai Tokerau:
'We fed these salts from the other side of the sea

who were sick, we were kind to them but the chief
Ranginui was taken by them without any reason

and the vessel was lost to sight out far on the sea.'
A motor inn (so called) with a reputation

for erratic cooking bears Surville's name.
One of his anchors is in the museum at Kaitaia.

© Gerry Webb 1996