Bureaucracy and the Buried Bottle by Lynton Diggle

In 1772 two French vessels Le Mascarin and Marquis de Castries visited the Bay of Islands and set up camp on Moturua Island. Before leaving on July 24th 1772 they buried a bottle containing the arms of France (used from 1589 to 1792) and a declaration of possession.

 Arms of France

Act of Possession.

“In the year of Grace one thousand and seventy two, the eleventh of July, we Captains and Officers of the King’s ships Le Mascarin and 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 DuFresne, our Commander, France Australe, being in a harbour to which he gave his name, situated 35 degrees 21 South latitude; and one hundred and seventy-one degrees of longitude observed to the East of the Paris Meridian; the Castries lying on 164 degrees. We arrived and anchored in the harbour on the fifth of May and we intend to depart therefrom on 13 July of the same year, have lost in the said harbour through assassination by the Natives of the Country, Mr Marion, two officers and twenty four men of the Crew, forming the complement of the long boat of the Castries and of our gig which we have not seen since.”


The bottle in which is enclosed the said Act is buried on the left bank of a Stream where we obtained our Water, at fifty seven paces from the place where the sea comes up at the new and full moons, in rising, at ten paces’ distance from the said Stream, at four feet deep. This paper figures in the Foreign Affairs Archives, in the volume New Zealand ---1772-1839. Miscellaneous Papers T.I.



Moturua IslandThis photograph taken around 1914 by Russel Duncan shows a trench being dug to search for the bottle.
Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust image.


By the 12th July they were ready for sea. That day a bottle was buried at Waipao on Moturua, in which were enclosed the arms of France, and a formal statement of the taking possession of all the country, which was named Austral France. This bottle has never been found, nor have the three anchors from the Marquis de Castries, lost in Spirits Bay. According to LG Kelly’s book published in 1951, the bottle was buried in Waipao Bay, however in an article in the New Zealand Herald 12th May 1934 by Kelly, he writes. “I discovered as I proceeded that the task of identifying the “Watering Place” was no easy one, for the French chart does not agree with the present coastline, the chart showing a bay now represented by steep cliffs. After due consideration, I came to the conclusion that the bay from which the ships drew their water and where the French buried their papers taking possession of the country was Mangahawea” Two locations to search? Given both the gig and their longboat were destroyed, then, somewhere on the island there must also be rowlocks and a rudder pintle plus muskets and axes yet to be found. At the masting camp a hole was dug and some implements and utensils were buried and a hut burnt so they may be hidden under the ash. So much to keep a metal detector busy.

To date no serious attempt has been made to find the bottle other than random digging. A French archaeologist Dr. Michel Charleux was very keen to be involved and could have been key to getting finance from the French Government. I approached Pam Bain, senior archaeologist with Heritage New Zealand, while she described the search as an “exciting project”; she pointed out that “a French archaeologist would not be able to work in New Zealand unless he had experience in working in New Zealand” Catch 22. Ironically in 1986 a group of archaeologists from Australia were given permission to excavate the Buffalo shipwreck in Mercury Bay and artifacts were recovered. In 2016 Australian archaeologists were involved in the excavation of the Horeke shipyards in Northland. Would Kiwi maritime archaeologist Dr. Bridget Buxton, who is lead archaeologist for Robert, “Titanic” Ballard, and Associate Professor of Ancient History, University of Rhode Island, also be barred from working in New Zealand?

I wondered what the French could have done to consummate their claim to New Zealand. After all they have the world’s best national anthem and could have solved our flag problem. Constitutional lawyer, Sir Geoffrey Palmer kindly provided an opinion.

“These are questions of international law, not domestic constitutional law. The current position is the Queen, in right of New Zealand enjoys sovereignty over New Zealand, by which is meant the State enjoys legal competence over its territory. The extent of that territory is defined in important respects by Imperial statutes passed at Westminster but in force in New Zealand under the Imperial Laws Application Act 1988: the New Zealand Boundaries Act 1863, British Settlement Act 1887, and the British Settlements Act 1945.
In practice the matter is determined by the international law doctrine of recognition. Other states recognise and have recognised for many years that New Zealand is an independent sovereign state. There are I think no disputes whatever about New Zealand’s status in this regard.
The New Zealand Government exerts effective control over the territory here. It has both title and possession of the territory. New Zealand’s right arises from history, general recognition and the absence of any other claimant.
I do not have the leisure to research precisely how and when this status arose, but its present existence is undoubted and what France could have done in times past to secure title is speculative. Certainly the acts you describe would not have been sufficient, I think.
The main modes of acquiring of territory are occupation, accretion, cession, conquest and prescription. There are many complications about this classification and I will not go into them. What we have in New Zealand is effective and continuous display of state authority that puts the issue beyond doubt.
I hope this is helpful but as you may appreciate there are significant legal issues involved here and I have only outlined the fundamental elements.”

Geoffrey Palmer

Moturua Island is administered by the Dept. of Conservation. I enquired about getting approval to search for the bottle. Initially a non-invasive search was planned using ground penetrating radar.

A DOC ranger’s dystopian response was breathtaking and clearly doesn’t share Pam Bain’s enthusiasm as an exciting project. He writes.

“I have been working on a series of projects to tease out this history, and this has included the geophysical survey of Waitii, Waipoua and Mangahawea bays. These have not shown any specifically European’ signatures. However we have some evidence from a midden of European use of the site. This midden is at present the most likely element of the Island that could possibly speak to the broader Marion Du Fresne story. It is the basis for a joint project between the Department of Conservations, (sic) Heritage New Zealand and Otago University. To be honest, none of the groups involved are that interested by the ‘bottle’, many people in the past have looked for it and as an historical object we are not even sure it exists.”
In terms of the process you would have to go through in order to gain permission for any kind of archaeological investigation on the island. You would need an Authority to Modify from Heritage New Zealand (I have cc’d in there (sic) regional archaeologist), a scientific research permit from the Department and full support of Ngati Kuta and Patukeha. The Department would expect to see a full project plan including costing, outcomes and who would be involved and who would be leading the research (this individual would need to have previous expieracne (sic) dealing with these sorts of sites and conform to the Heritage NZ standards as a lead archaeologist. Any research would need to be tied into a broader research goals/questions and not just the location of the bottle”

Clearly he doesn’t want any outsiders working on his patch. Repeated questions as to why he believes the bottle “may not exist” and why research would need to be ”tied into a broader research goals/questions” or why he would require “a full costing of the project”, have simply gone unanswered by a DOC ranger who could have started out cleaning toilets in DOC campgrounds. I bet his mother still calls him sonny. He either had no answer or if he had stopped to think, he simply forgot to start again. Ironically an archaeologist is not needed to search for the bottle. No one has that particular expertise. Common sense is all that’s needed. In 1998 a metal detector was used to recover a lead sealed bottle from Australia’s Dirk Hartog Island, left in 1772 by Captain Alesene de Saint. Inside were two French coins. Maybe the Moturua Island bottle also has a lead seal or maybe coins?

Rob Bell from NIWA kindly provided the tide cycles for the 1772 period.

“I’ve done the tide analysis for 1772 from 5 May 1772 (their 1st arrival) to 12 July when they left. Tides are in attached PDF.

So they would have observed the spring (higher tides) soon after (1-2 days) new and full moons on:

New Moon   Full Moon
1772 May 3 1772 May 17
1772 Jun 1 1772 Jun 15
1772 Jul 1 1772 Jul 15

Therefore they would have observed spring tide water edge at around 1 m above the mean sea level. You will need a surveyor to establish these levels (or go over to observe spring tides on island) – remembering that mean sea level was lower than present by around 0.23 m back in 1700s.”

Rob Bell, NIWA


I approached Professor Paul Kench at the School of Environment, Auckland University.

He replied.
“Your general assumptions regarding the dynamic nature of the site would be valid. You are also right in stating that if undisturbed then changes in the subsurface structure should reveal a dig site. Hitting it with GPR first, followed by cores would be a sensible approach.”
He suggested it may be possible to use one of his students to undertake the coring.

Multiple agencies have rules that frustrate the examination of our heritage wrecks. Now we have a DOC ranger thwarting efforts to find one of the earliest and most historic European items in New Zealand’s maritime history, a buried bottle.

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