The St Jean Baptiste had six anchors when she left Pondicherry in India in 1768. By the time she got to Peru in 1770, she had only two. Three were lost in New Zealand, this one among them - the earliest known bit of jetsam left here by Europeans.
Jean François Marie de Surville was in command of the St Jean Baptiste on its voyage of exploration, looking for resources suitable for trade in the countries visited. De Surville got to New Zealand waters late in 1769, after a long beat southwards from the Philippines. At the same time, James Cook was doing his east-west circumnavigation of the North Island in the course of his first voyage. Unknown to each other, they almost crossed paths off the top of the North Island. De Surville was desperately searching for a safe anchorage where his scurvy-ridden crew could get fresh food and water and recuperate.
He found a place on 17 December 1769. He named it Lauriston Bay - Doubtless Bay as we call it today, and as Cook had named it a few days previously. Peaceful relations and trade were established with the local people, and the sick were brought ashore to recover.
During the stay, the St Jean Baptiste had two anchors out to hold her. Then an easterly storm blew up. Its force caused the ship to drag her anchors and drift towards the rocks close to shore. So a third anchor was dropped. The ship held, but then the cable to one of the anchors broke, and the ship again started drifting shorewards. De Surville ordered the cables to the other two anchors to be cut, hoisted the sails, and got the ship under way just seconds before it would have been wrecked on the rocks.
More than 200 years later, the notable diver Kelly Tarlton set about locating these relics of a near disaster. He studied the charts the French crew made of Doubtless Bay, and the accounts of the incident they had written in their journals, and identified the most promising area to search. Then he set about organising the search.
The three anchors were found covered in marine growth. Kelly Tarlton spotted the first anchor while a boat at the surface was towing him underwater during a grid search of the bottom. The second and third anchors were located by Mike Bearsley. Two of the anchors were hauled to the surface in 1974, and were given electrolysis treatment to rid them of the salts and conserve them, as Cook's Endeavour cannons had been. One of these links to our European explorer past is held by Te Papa, the other is in the Far North Regional Museum in Kaitaia. The third anchor remains on the sea bed.
Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database (1998)