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Edward Duyker, Dumont d'Urville, Explorer and Polymath.

Edward Duyker, Dumont d'Urville, Explorer and Polymath

Otago University Press, Dunedin, 2014, hb+dj, 672 pp., ISBN 9781877578700, NZ$70.

This review was originally published in the March 2016 issue of the FMC Bulletin, quarterly of the Federated Mountain Clubs of New Zealand, and is reproduced with the kind permission of its editor.

Trampers probably best know of French explorer Dumont d'Urville (1790-1842) through the names he left behind on Nelson's Abel Tasman coastline. The Astrolabe Roadstead commemorates the Frenchman's faithful corvette, the Astrolabe, while Adele Island is named after his wife, and Watering Cove is the site where the ship's casks were replenished. Other parts of New Zealand also bear his name; perhaps most notably D'Urville Island (anyone who has made a passage through French Pass will appreciate d'Urville's pluck and luck at navigating his sizeable ship through it under sail), and Mt D'Urville--the highest peak of the subantarctic Auckland Islands.

The exceptional French mariner--sometimes referred to as 'France's Captain Cook'--also left behind a slew of names across the Pacific, and even in Antarctica, the result of three huge journeys around the world in the first half of the 1800s. A formidable sailor and a scholar with a prodigious memory, it was d'Urville who coined the terms Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia, and brought the world's attention to many of the linguistic differences between these areas of the vast Pacific Ocean.

The author of 17 books, Sydney-based academic Edward Duyker specialises in Pacific exploration and natural sciences, and also wrote a biography of another French explorer, Marc-Joseph Marion Dufresne (who had a rather more torrid time in New Zealand than d'Urville).

Born in Normandy, Jules-Sebastien-Cesar Dumont d'Urville rose through the ranks of the French navy, at the same time absorbing all he could of the natural sciences and several languages. In 1819-- 20, he was a naturalist aboard a French expedition to the Mediterranean, and at Crete was involved in discovering a marble statue later revealed to date from Roman times and now known as the Venus de Milo.

Between 1822 and 1825, d'Urville was second-in-command on the Astrolabe's first around-the-world voyage. By the following year he had command of the robust corvette, and undertook his second journey in 1826-28. The last, and most arduous, occurred in 1837-40, when a second ship, the Zelee, joined the Astrolabe, to not only circumnavigate the globe, but make two probes into Antarctic waters. The first, into the Weddell Sea, almost resulted in the same fate as Shackleton's famous later voyage.

French claims to a slice of Antarctica result from d'Urville's formidable exploration (their main base is named after him). The expedition resulted in the naming of Adelie Land (even though--incredibly --an American explorer beat him to the discovery by mere days), and a penguin. His journal recorded their passage through the icebergs: 'Their sheer walls were far higher than our masts; they overhung the ships, the size of which seemed ridiculously small in comparison. One could have believed oneself in the narrow streets of a city of giants. At the foot of these immense monuments, we saw vast caverns hollowed out by the sea, and into which the waves swept with great noise. The sun darted its oblique rays onto immense walls of ice. The effect of light and shade were truly magical.'

The Astrolable and Zelee returned to France by way of the Auckland Islands, New Zealand and Torres Strait--where both ships were stranded on treacherous coral reefs for some days before escaping. It was the last great French exploration by sail.

Duyker spend seven years researching this masterful biography, with the unenviable task of deciphering d'Urville's almost illegible handwriting. The result is a work of considerable scholarship, but one which does not forget a general audience. Occasionally Duyker is at pains to explain inconsistencies in the historical record that somewhat interrupt the narrative, but not too often.

He makes special mention of the fruits of d'Urville's flora and fauna collections, with explanation of their modern taxonomy. Several plant and animal species are named after d'Urville, as well as two genera--a bull kelp and sea slug.

Tragically, just as he could look forward to domestic life, and complete the books from his last great journey, d'Urville, his wife, and only remaining child, Jules, were killed in France's first railway disaster. Trapped inside an overturned carriage, they all burned to death.

This is an even-handed and fascinating biography of an extraordinary man, one who died too young. Duyker writes that d'Urville's 'force of intellect, skilful resolute leadership, courage, gentleness and generosity--are as compellingly evident as his tendency to self-pity, melancholy depression and arrogance. They are an intrinsic part of what drove him to greatness.'

Otago University Press has produced a handsome, hardback publication, with high production standards, an extensive bibliography, index and endnotes as well as excellent illustrations and maps although it could have done with more of the latter. While the book's 500 pages require some dedication, it should appeal greatly to anyone interested in exploration, Antarctica or natural history. Additional pleasure comes from reading about the tumultuous period of French history through which d'Urville lived.

Shaun Barnett

New Zealand Alpine Club
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Author:Barnett, Shaun
Publication:The Globe
Date:Jul 1, 2016
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