Monday, October 12, 2009


We’ve decided to claim New Zealand for France. It’s not just us, actually. France claimed New Zealand for France, back in 1772. But instead of raising a flag, or drafting an organized treaty for the natives to sign—as Britain did in 1840—the French just buried a bottle.

I’m sure it was a very nice bottle, probably a wine bottle, or perhaps an excellent cognac. They had to drain the contents first, so the glass would be dry for the note they slipped inside. And consequently, they would have been plastered—which makes perfect sense. No one but a drunken sailor could think any of this would work.

In 1772, Marion du Fresne and his crew were anchored off Moturua Island, woefully unaware that Captain Cook had circumnavigated New Zealand three years earlier, charting its coastline and learning how to communicate with the natives. Thinking they’d discovered a great new piece of real estate, they decided to claim the country for King Louis XV. So Marion's officers pulled out a piece of parchment, on which they wrote the following:
In the Year of Grace one thousand seven hundred and seventy-two, the eleventh of July, we Captains and Officers of the King's ships "Le Mascarin" and the "Marquis de Castries", have taken possession in the name of His Majesty Louis XV, our King, of the Continent to the Eastward of New Zealand, named by M. Marion du Fresne, our Commander, France Australe, being in a harbour to which he gave his name, situated on 35° 21 South Latitude; and one hundred and seventy one degrees of longitude observed to the East of the Paris Meridian.
It’s what they did next that makes very little sense. Even in the eighteenth century, when folks had a sort of slap-dash attitude to subjects such as hand washing and the finer points of the law, you’d think that claiming a new land was a fundamentally public gesture. I would have thought the French might have erected a flagpole, perhaps a plaque, and begun sending over boatloads of colonists as soon as possible.

Instead, Marion's men just buried their claim in the sand. Presumably, the Frenchmen expected to return for the bottle at a later date, because they wrote down instructions on how to find it again. Crozet, du Fresne’s second in command, wrote in his journal:
The bottle... is buried on the left bank of a stream where we obtained our water and fifty seven paces from the place where the sea comes up at the new and full moons in rising, and at ten paces distance from the said stream at four feet deep.
And that was it. Despite countless attempts to find it in the past two hundred and thirty-seven years, Marion's bottle was never seen again. Instead of France, Great Britain was the country to send over boatloads of colonists, and in 1840 they legalized their claim to New Zealand with the Treaty of Waitangi.

For obvious reasons, Peter and I think this is a terrible state of affairs. Just imagine how different New Zealand would be if the French had taken over instead of the Brits. There would be no limp, sliced white bread on the supermarket shelves, and the very thought of spaghetti in a can would make New Zealanders shudder in revulsion. The women would be tall, statuesque chain smokers, and everyone would smack their lips at the thought of moldy cheese.

Furthermore, all this stress about New Zealand’s endangered native birds would be a thing of the past, because the Franco-Kiwis would have discovered long ago how to braise the little songbirds in an aromatic sauce. We wouldn’t need to worry about saving the birds because they’d all be dead, leaving us free to eat snails and discuss philosophy in peace.

And so we determined to find the French bottle. If we could just locate France’s original claim to the country, we reasoned, it would be a slam-dunk in the international court system. Never mind that New Zealand is now a completely independent state, and has been since 1948. Who could resist being administered by the nation that invented puff pastry, beurre blanc, and the thong?

We began our search in high spirits, well-equipped with Crozet’s expert instructions. But when we examined the sketches he’d made of Moturua island, we hit our first snag.

We were missing a bay. Crozet had drawn three bays on the west side of Moturua, but modern charts only show two.

For a moment, this gave us pause, but we soon recovered. New Zealand, after all, is in the crossfire of every foul weather system blowing across the Tasman. It was perfectly understandable that in more than two hundred years, the coastline might have shifted and changed. Of course, it was unfortunate that Crozet’s instructions pivoted on an accurate estimation of the high-tide line, something that would have moved dramatically with the shifting sands. But our quest rose above such piddling details. We continued undeterred.

We arrived at Mangahawea Bay shortly after high tide, the sand still moist in a clear line across the beach. The sun was high, waves crashing like broken glass in the sharp New Zealand light. Together with our new friend John, a singlehander from Brazil, we stood side by side, and began counting paces.

And here, we ran into our next difficulty. For how long, exactly, is a pace? Is it a bold stride, as Peter thought, or the length of the average man’s boot, as my father had told me years ago? How long, exactly was the average man’s boot in the eighteenth century? Weren’t people small back then? What size shoe did they wear?

Then, as I soon learned, there was the problem of all the stuff in the way. Beaches are not empty places, as a rule. They are scattered with rocks, shells, and yucky pieces of rotting seaweed that you don’t want to touch. I counted my steps: sixteen, seventeen, eighteen. When I had to navigate a particularly large piece of driftwood, I stepped over it, adding half a pace to my usual stride. Nineteen and a half, twenty and a half, twenty one and a half.

No one ever said anything about fractions of a pace. I wasn’t even sure if they had fractions in 1772. We finished counting steps, and took note of our positions. I was in the rear, Peter and Silas were in the middle, and John was way the hell out front. Between us, I estimated a good two hundred feet of distance. Now what? Do we dig a trench? I cast a look over my shoulder, disappointed to see our footprints in the sand. Preoccupied with counting, our path had meandered and curved, hardly at right angles to the high-tide line. Wherever that was.

Of course, after quaffing an entire bottle of cognac, the French were probably a little wobbly on their feet as well. So perhaps we were being historically accurate.

In our favor, we were now near an actual stream, and according to Crozet’s instructions, we should count ten paces to the left. But ten paces from where, exactly? The bank of the stream? The edge of the water? How high was the stream, when they buried their bottle?

Annoyed and frustrated, Peter kicked the sand. And then he found it. A bottle, glinting in the sun.

“It’s here!” he called. “Come look!”

John and I came running, and we held the precious artifact reverently in our hands. It wasn’t a cognac bottle after all, as we’d so innocently assumed. It was an empty bottle of Nestle Quik, its plastic lid faded and worn with age.

“Are you sure this is it?” John asked doubtfully. “Did they have plastic in those days?”

“Of course this is it,” I chided him. “What else could it be?”

Peter held up the bottle, tilting it gently. Inside, some sand and a few pebbles slid across the glass. “Where’s the note?” he asked.

“Stolen,” I told him. “Obviously. By British agents who wanted to destroy France’s claim to the land.”

Peter and John nodded, exchanging a dubious look. It’s not my fault they’re ignorant. People should read more history, then they’d have a better idea of what they’re dealing with.

Take Marion du Fresne, for example. If he’d read up on Captain Cook’s voyage, he would have learned that this strange new land had already been discovered by Great Britain. He would have read, too, about Cook’s encounters with the Maori, how they had a tendency toward sudden mood swings. And he would have learned about the grisly way they supplemented their seafood and kumara-based diet.

But du Fresne didn’t know any of this. And that’s how he ended up in pieces, roasting slowly in an underground oven.

But Sereia’s crew will not fall victim to such heedless ignorance. The rest of the world may think Britain held legal dominion over New Zealand for a century, but not us. We have the bottle that held the French claim. We have the proof.

It’s right here, in our galley, sprouting lentils. And after all these years, it’s doing an excellent job.



  1. Let's hope for that Brazilian singlehanders sake that Sereia doesn't run short of meat before returning to Russell.

  2. I am glad you are there to correct world history.

    I am sure the New Zealanders are pleased about it too!

  3. Slam bam thank you mam...a short on foreplay!

  4. Antonia, you are a good writer. Keep up the stories. Let me know when your first book comes out.