01 July, 2020

The Lapérouse Mysteries

Frenchman's Cove within Botany Bay.
From the Flickr Photostream of Alan Foster.

[On] the 24th, in the morning, two Strange Ships were discover’d to ye Southward of Cape Solander & we soon after discover’d that they were French, one of which wore a Chef d’Escardres pennant EN 1 from which we conclude them to be La Boussole & L’ Astrolabe under ye orders of Monsieur De La perouse on discoveries. But the Wind blowing strong from NNE prevented their getting in [to Botany Bay] or our going out. At four in ye Afternoon they were out of sight & at day light on ye 25th we weighed in the Supply having received a Company of Marines & 40 convicts on board. The wind blew so strong from ye SSE that we were obliged to anchor & wait for the Ebb tide & at Noon we weighed & turned out of the harbour. In running along shore we observed a number of steep Rocky clifts & after having run about 3 Leagues, we were abreast of some high sand Clifts [sic] at the Northerm extremity of which the Land of ye Entrance of Port Jackson commences & the entrance is soon discovered lying between two steep bluff heads. EN 2
Lieutenant Philip Gidley King, a naval officer of the First Fleet, described in these words the strange turn of events as two European maritime expeditions converge at the same time, on the same spot, on the far side of the world. The two expeditions were not unknown to each other (or their respective governments) but surely would not have expected such an encounter. It so happened that 1788 was one period when the two nations were not at war with each other.  EN 3

The First Fleet entering Botany Bay January 1788.
A drawing of c.1885 by Julian Rossi Ashton.

The eleven English ships which comprised the First Fleet had arrived in two groups at Botany Bay from 18th January, the place where Captain Cook had arrived in April 1770.  Cook landed on the south side of the Bay in the locality now called Kurnell. For the purposes, however, of establishing a viable prison colony of felons transported from England, the commander of the Fleet, Captain Arthur Philip, quickly judged the rocky, sandy land around Botany Bay to be unsuitable. But, not far north, he had found what was described as “without exception, the finest and most extensive harbour in the universe.” EN 4 We can well imagine these sentiments as a small party from the Fleet sailed into Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour) on a beautiful January day and beheld the many and varied wonders of that natural harbour. They found a spot which suited their purposes for settlement and called it Sydney Cove. EN 5

The First Fleet sailed from Botany Bay into Sydney Cove and Captain Philip made his landing there on 26th January, but he left one of his officers on the ship Sirius to meet with the French, who anchored in Botany Bay on the morning of that same day, 26th January. We might suppose there was a concern among the English that the French were intending to establish their own colony on these shores; but the Lapérouse expedition was a journey of exploration, not of colonisation. 

As it happened, this was also an important moment in the beginnings of Catholicism in Australia.

Jean-François de Galaup
The Count de Lapérouse.
An oil-colour of him aged around 40.

Musée des Beaux-Arts d'Albi.
The man whose name has been given to the bayside Sydney suburb of La Perouse was a French nobleman and mariner. Under the patronage of the King of France, Louis XVI, and by the arrangement of the French Academy of Science and Medicine, Jean-Francois de Galaup, the Count de Lapérouse, began preparations for an extensive sea voyage. King Louis wished an expedition to demonstrate that France could also excel in ocean exploration; he had been inspired by the voyages of Captain Cook. The Pacific regions of North and South America, Asia and Australasia were to be explored.

The Lapérouse Expedition consisted of two frigates - La Boussole and L'Astrolabe. When they left France in August 1785, these two vessels carried a total of 225 men : sailors, officers, scientists and two chaplains. Commanding the second vessel L'Astrolabe was Paul-Antoine the Viscount Fleuriot de Langle. Having sailed south around the tip of South America, the Expedition entered the Pacific Ocean where it mapped coastlines and explored uncharted areas. The Expedition's scientists also spent time onshore at various ports, observing the habits and customs of local people and collecting natural history specimens. Lapérouse sent back regular reports to France. During a visit to the Russian Pacific port of Petropavlovsk on the Russian Kamchatka peninsula, Lapérouse received letters from Paris and was ordered to investigate the settlement the British were intending to establish in New South Wales. This was in September 1787. 

The two French vessels La Boussole and L'Astrolabe of the Lapérouse Expedition
depicted off Maui in the Hawaiian Islands.

The National Library of Australia.

With the Expedition were two Catholic priests, Father Jean André Mongez and Father Laurent Réceveur, of the Conventual Franciscan Friars.  E
N 6 The circumstances of their being appointed as chaplains to the Lapérouse Expedition are quite interesting and deserve to be told here. In essence, they were appointed chaplains because they were also respected scientists and could serve two purposes during the Expedition.  No likenesses of the two chaplains are known to exist.

The senior chaplain of the Expedition was Father Jean-André Mongez (born 1751), a Canon of the Abbey of Saint Genevieve in Paris, man of letters and published scientist. Only a few years later in 1790, the Abbey of Saint Genevieve was suppressed by the French Revolution and its community of priest-scholars evicted. Subsequently the abbey and its church were demolished.

The Abbey and Church of Saint Genevieve in Paris
as it appeared in the eighteenth century.
Claude François Joseph Réceveur, born in 1757, lived his early life in a village in the east of France named Noël-Cerneux. Although pious, he was also adventurous and impulsive and drawn to military exploits. After a period with the French navy, Claude Réceveur left service and returned home. He chose to enter the Convent of the Conventual Franciscans and took the name in Religion of Laurent.  The Conventual Franciscans are often referred to as Greyfriars.

Friar Laurent Réceveur was subsequently sent to University in Paris, to the Franciscan Grand Convent, to continue his studies and was ordained in 1783. Beside his normal coursework in theology and philosophy, Friar Laurent studied astronomy, botany, geology, chemistry, meteorology, entomology and philology. By 1785, the remarkable background of this young Franciscan priest was noticed by the French Academy of Science and Medicine, who were urging King Louis XVI to prepare an expedition to explore the vast and still-uncharted areas of the southern Pacific Ocean and to circumnavigate the globe. The Academy recommended Father Réceveur’s participation in the Expedition, because of his credentials as a scientist and his experience in maritime voyages.  EN 7

Very little has been recorded about Father Mongez, but several remembrances of Father Réceveur have survived, such as this by Captain L’Angle in a letter sent back to France during the Expedition :
Father Réceveur carries out his duties as chaplain with decorum; he is friendly and intelligent; while at sea he deals with meteorological and astronomical observations and when we are at anchor, with matters related to natural history.
Lieutenant King, meeting him at Botany Bay described him as a "Collector of Natural Curiosities [who] appears a Man of Letters and Geniality.”  EN 8

The First Fleet at anchor in Botany Bay.

During the period of six weeks in which the Lapérouse Expedition remained in Botany Bay, there can be no doubt that Holy Mass was celebrated. The Chaplains were required by French naval law to offer public prayers daily and to celebrate Mass on Sundays and Feastdays. EN 7 What is unclear, however, is whether Mass was celebrated on land, or on the ships themselves, as was the usual practice during a sea voyage. Both ships would have had established arrangements for the chaplains to offer Mass. One consideration which militates against the suggestion that the Chaplains offered Mass on land, would be their caution to safeguard the Sacrament against unpredictable circumstances, such as inclement weather or attack by the indigenous. EN 9

The theory that Masses were celebrated by Fathers Réceveur and Mongez on the very land of New South Wales, is one which can never be proven. The offering of PUBLIC PRAYER on the shore by the two priests is, however, a quite different matter and it would be very hard to argue that this did not take place. Indeed it is more than probable that Public Prayer was 
regularly offered by the Chaplains at the Encampment during the six weeks of the French visit.  EN 10

The French – within several days of entering Botany Bay - built a small encampment of tents at the area known as Frenchman’s Cove (or Frenchman's Bay) on the northern shores of the Bay and they established a garden and even an Observatory for purposes astronomical. There was a stockade built to protect this encampment, in which were placed two cannon from the ships. EN 11 There is no evidence, however, which suggests that there was any form of chapel at this temporary encampment. During the period of their sojourn, the French had eleven distinct engagements with officers and other personnel of the English colony. There appears to be no mention amongst the First Fleet diarists from that period (who mention the visit of Lapérouse) of any chapel at the French encampment. Surely, nevertheless, a Cross or Crucifix must have been erected there. 

There is another important part to this story of the French at Botany Bay, but a sad one. Three weeks after their arrival, one of the chaplains, the Franciscan friar Laurent Réceveur died aged 30; this was 17th February, 1788. He was buried at Frenchman’s Cove, probably within a day of his death. Father Réceveur’s was the first burial of a Catholic priest on the Australian continent and only the second known European burial in New South Wales. The circumstances of Father Réceveur’s death remain obscure (for reasons which will be described further). He was injured in the massacre at Tutuila in the Samoan islands just two months earlier; written accounts suggests that this was a heavy blow from a club resulting in a contusion of the eye, but that this had already healed by the time of his death. There has been much study of this point, which has not been conclusive. EN 12

A 20th century artist's impression of the burial of Father Laurent Réceveur.
At the right is shewn the coffin being carried, led by a crucifer and Father Mongez,
whilst a guard of honour surrounds the place of interment.

Drawn by Philip Hughes 1933 and digitally coloured by the Saint Bede Studio.

Since no account survives of the death and burial of Father Réceveur, it is only possible to describe what is likely to have occurred, in accordance with the time and liturgical custom. 
Something which is often asserted, namely that his burial was accompanied by a graveside Mass, is most unlikely. The liturgical law of that period had no provision for such a rite. 

We do not know whether Father Réceveur died at the encampment or on board the ship L'Astrolabe of which he was the chaplain, but given that this was in the middle of an Australian summer, his burial would have taken place without much delay. It is probable that the body of Father Réceveur would have been prepared on board one of the ships and vested in his priestly vestments, before being placed in a coffin constructed by the ship's carpenters. After that preparation, Father Mongez would have prayed the Office of the Dead with other members of the  Expedition, by the side of the coffin.  A Funeral Mass would have followed afterwards, at the conclusion of which the remains would have been honoured with incense and holy water, in much the same way as is done today. EN 13

Only after the completion of these Offices of the Dead, would the remains of Father Réceveur have been rowed ashore for burial, and a brief rite celebrated beneath a eucalyptus tree for the committal of his body to the earth.  In the days and weeks which followed, further Masses would have been offered for the Repose of his soul, with various degrees of solemnity.  The adjacent image is an artist’s impression of the scene at Frenchman’s Cove and corresponds to what we might call a Christian burial with military honours; we cannot rely on its accuracy, but it does help us visualise the occasion.

The circumstances of the friar’s death cannot be definitively known, because of a tragic turn of events which overtook the French expedition after it left Botany Bay on 10th March 1788. Approaching the island of Vanikoro (part of the Solomon Islands), both La Boussole and L'Astrolabe went aground on surrounding reefs and were dashed to pieces in a storm. There were some survivors who made it onto shore and accounts exist claiming that these men subsequently constructed a small sailing craft to escape the island. For almost 40 years, the disappearance of Lapérouse’s Expedition remained a mystery of great celebrity until a chance discovery in 1826 revealed its dreadful fate. EN 14

Very strangely, although the French visited the English settlement at Sydney Cove after the death and burial of Father Réceveur, they made no mention of his death to the English, even though English officers had met him. Only after the French had left Australian shores did the English discover the grave of the Franciscan and an inscription attached to the nearby tree.

The Surgeon-General of the First Fleet, John White, visited the site of the encampment at Frenchman’s Cove and found the adjacent grave of Father Réceveur. On 1st June 1788 he made the following entry in his journal :

After breakfast we visited the grave of the French abbé who died whilst the Count de Peyrouse was here. It was truly humble indeed, being distinguished only by a common head-stone, stuck slightly into the loose earth which covered it. Against a tree, just above it, was nailed a board, with the following inscription on it (...)
As the painting on the board could not be permanent, Governor Phillip had the inscription engraved on a plate of copper and nailed to the same tree; and at some future day he intends to have a handsome head-stone placed at the grave. We cut down some trees which stood between that on which the inscription is fixed and the shore, as they prevented persons passing in boats from seeing it.  EN 15
It is worth noting here that Governor Philip and other members of the English settlement demonstrated a practical respect in preserving and maintaining the place of Father Réceveur’s burial, something they had no obligations in. The copper plate described above also disappeared, and as the visit of the French faded from memory in New South Wales, the resting-place of Father Réceveur seems to have been neglected. 
The carving on the tree-trunk
whilst an exhibit in the 
Musée National de la Marine in Paris.

Another French expedition arrived in New South Wales on the ship Coquille in 1824, and officers of the ship went in search of Lapérouse's encampment and Father Réceveur's grave at Frenchman’s Cove. A member of the Expedition recorded that after they found the grave (with the assistance of local soldiers), they carved the trunk of the tree which shaded the site, with these words:
Près de cet arbre reposent les cendres du père Receveur, visité en mars 1824.
Near this tree lie the remains of Father Receveur, visited in March 1824.  EN 16
Subsequently, in 1825 and again in 1829, there were further French explorers seeking the site at Frenchman’s Cove. The officers of one expedition dug about near the tree and found human bones. It was on this precise place that the tomb of Father Réceveur was constructed, in the year 1829. This was formally arranged between the Government of France and the Government of New South Wales. EN 17 Although it has undergone various refurbishments over the course of almost two hundred years, the present monumental tomb of Father Réceveur is the same one erected in 1829. It was constructed in Sydney. The inscription on the tomb seems to be in most respects similar to those accounts recorded by the First Fleet officers. It is laudable that the original words marking the grave of Father Réceveur have been handed down to us, with little change. EN 18 The present inscription is as follows:


Here lies L[aurent] Receveur, French priest of the Friars Minor and scientist in the Circumnavigation of the world by the Count de Lapérouse.  He died on 17th day of February in the year 1788.

A sketch of the grave of Father Réceveur made in 1842. 
Adjacent is the remains of the tree on which the
French sailors had carved a memorial before the tomb was constructed in 1829.
On the far left can be glimpsed the Lapérouse monument.

The State Library of NSW.

Over the course of 230 years, the grave of Father Réceveur has been a place of respect and devotion on the shores of Botany Bay. In 1788, 1824, 1825, 1829, 1879, 1933, 1938, 1988 and 2008, particular commemorations were made of his death and burial. In more recent decades, there has been a continuing tradition of offering Mass and celebrating the Office of the Dead near his grave each year on or near the Anniversary of his death.

The grave of Father Réceveur as it appeared c. 1885.
That hallowed spot is rightly understood to mark the location where the rites and prayers of the Catholic Church were first celebrated in the settlement of New South Wales. We may ponder the Providence of God that, at the very moment English settlement was being established at Sydney Cove, two ships - filled with French Catholics and two priests - simultaneously arrived. Accordingly, the grave of this young priest - which has been the focus of continuous respect and prayer since 1788 - Australian Catholics will always hold in reverence.  For this is the place where the public prayer of the Catholic Church began to be offered after European Settlement.

The grave of Father Réceveur as it appears today.
The Randwick City Council.


Replica of the altar-stone.

Courtesy of the Lapérouse Museum, Sydney.
As described previously, the remains of one of the Lapérouse vessels La Boussole was discovered and explored in 1964 at a reef off the island of Vanikoro. A number of artifacts were retrieved from the wreck of La Boussole, including something most precious to Australian Catholics. Broken into a few pieces was the portable altar stone which had been used on the ship for the celebration of Mass. Liturgical law required that, even outside the confines of a church or chapel, Mass was to be offered on a stone consecrated by a bishop. It is beyond doubt that, during their time in Botany Bay, Masses were offered by Fathers Réceveur and Mongez on the altar stone recovered from the wreck of La Boussole. Although this precious relic was housed in the Lapérouse Museum in Sydney from 1988 – 2008, it is now preserved in the Musée National de la Marine in Paris. In the Sydney museum, however, is kept an exact replica of the altar stone, a photograph of which is adjacent, kindly provided by the curators of the Lapérouse Museum. EN 19


Father Edward Bond addressing Pilgrims at the grave of Father Réceveur
30th April 1933.



EN 1
The pennant Chef d'Escardres indicated the commander of that vessel had a rank equivalent to what we now refer to as Vice-Admiral.

EN 2
France and Great Britain were at war between 1778 and 1783 and again from 1793 (the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars).

EN 3
Remarks & Journal kept on the Expedition to form a Colony in His Majesty’s Territory of New South Wales ... by Lieutenant Philip Gidley King, Second Lieutenant of His Majesty's Ship Sirius. Two volumes, 1786-1792. Vol. 1 titled: 24th October 1786 – 12th January 1789. Collection of the State Library of NSW.

EN 4
A description by John White in his Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales, first published, 1790. White was the Surgeon-General to the First Fleet and new colony.

EN 5
So named after Viscount Sydney at that time the British Home Secretary, who had governed the process of forming the First Fleet.

EN 6
Whereas in the English-speaking world, these two priests would have enjoyed the same form of address, namely “Father”, in the French-speaking world, Father Réceveur had the title reserved for priests of Religious Orders, namely “Pére”. Father Mongez, however, was referred to as “Abbé”. For the purposes of this article, we refer to them both as “Father”.

EN 7
Further details about the academic and scientific attainments of the two chaplains may be found in an article by F.R.L. Carleton An eighteenth century Conventual Franciscan naturalist on the Laperouse Expedition: Père Laurent Receveur (1757-1788), The Great Circle Vol. 15, No. 1 (1993), pp. 18-29. Published by the Australian Association for Maritime History.

EN 8
Lieutenant King’s journal, previously cited.

EN 9
In more recent years, scientists and historians have researched records which indicate that a number of violent storms and strong winds were experienced along the coast of NSW in the period January - March 1788. See, Gergis, Garden and Fenby, "The Influence of Climate on the First European Settlement of Australia: A Comparison of Weather Journals, Documentary Data and Palaeoclimate Records", 1788–1793, in the journal Environmental History vol. 15, no. 3, July 2010. https://www.jstor.org/journal/envihist

EN 10
A French naval regulation of 1765 detailed the duties of chaplains to lead public prayer morning and evening “in an audible voice”, in addition to the recitation of the Angelus, all of which was to be signalled by the tolling of the ship’s bell. Furthermore, on every Sunday and greater feast, Mass was to be publicly celebrated. These duties are listed in Carleton’s article, op. cit. There is something important to be deduced by these regulations. Religious observance was a usual thing aboard ships of the French navy and it should not be assumed that the crew had no interest in them.

EN 11
The construction of an armed stockade is not surprising, given the unprovoked attack by natives in Samoa, resulting in the death and injury of many members of the Expedition. Lapérouse and his officers would have been very cautious about the Australia aboriginals, of whom they had no experience. One of the First Fleet diarists (David Collins, the Judge-Advocate) records in his An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales (London, 1798), that the aborigines did, in fact, attack the Lapérouse encampment, requiring the French – as a last resort – to fire upon them. There is no record that anyone on either side was killed in such a skirmish.  King Louis of France had given Lapérouse explicit instructions to avoid any acts of hostility upon natives they might encounter during the Expedition.

EN 12
A number of learned studies of the death of Father Receveur are referred to and summarised in Carleton’s article, op. cit., and in Edward Duyker’s Père Receveur : Franciscan, scientist and voyager with Lapérouse, Sydney 2011.

EN 13
There is every reason to believe that members of the Expedition were capable of joining Father Mongez in praying the Office of the Dead (namely, Matins, followed by Lauds), possibly in a sung form. This was a different form of Catholicism from Irish Catholicism of the same period; the French learned the chants of the Mass, hymns etc from childhood and would have been familiar with Offices of the Dead.  We must recall that all of this was prior to the Revolution, during which the State ruthlessly eliminated religious observance along with their monarchy and aristocracy.  A particular Mass would have been offered from the Roman Missal, designated the Mass on the Day of Death or Burial.

EN 14
The mysteries surrounding the fate of the two ships and their crews is discussed in this online article, being the research of Dr Garrick Hitchcock : http://www.sci-news.com/archaeology/clue-fate-famous-french-explorer-jean-francois-la-perouse-05179.html

EN 15
A description by John White in his Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales, op.cit.  Another First Fleet diarist, Lieutenant William Bradley visited the grave of Father Réceveur on 4th April, 1788, less than a month after the departure of the French.  He found that the Memorial attached to the tree trunk had been torn down by the indigenous, but not destroyed, allowing it to be transcribed onto the copper plate.  William Bradley A Voyage to New South Wales, manuscript held by the State Library of New South Wales.  We use the term "diarist" to describe the various journals, letters and books written by members of the First Fleet contemporaneously with the settlement.  Amongst these are Arthur Philip, William Bradley, Watkin Tench, David Collins, Philip Gidley King and John White.

EN 16
In later years this eucalyptus tree had died, and in 1854 the portion of the tree which bore the 1824 inscription carved by the sailor was removed and presented to France for the purposes of an Exhibition. In 1988, this item and many other objects from the Musée National de la Marine in Paris were given by the French Government as a Bicentennial Gift to Australia for the establishment of the Lapérouse Museum.  But in 2008, the trunk was returned to France for an Exhibition and a replica was constructed for the Sydney Museum.

EN 17
In 1825, whilst visiting Sydney, French nobleman Hyacinthe de Bougainville arranged for the construction of a monument to Lapérouse and a tomb for Father Réceveur. The Governor of New South Wales, Sir Thomas Brisbane granted land for this purpose. These memorials were not completed until 1829.  De Bougainville and the French Government made arrangements with various officials in Sydney about Father Réceveur's tomb. It would seem, however, that the local Catholic Church had no role in the preparation of that tomb.  

EN 18
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are a number of errors in the inscription on Father Réceveur's tomb, just as there are variations in the journals of the First Fleet diarists as to what the original parchment inscription actually said.  Various inaccuracies have persisted over the almost 200 years that the monument has been in place;  for example, that the surname was Le Receveur (instead of Réceveur) or that his first name was Louis (his name in Religion was Laurent). For this reason, we have included the notation [sic] on our transcription of the grave to indicate errors. It is perhaps a moot point whether the translation should read "in the Circumnavigation of the world by the Count de Lapérouse" or "in the Circumnavigation of the world under the leadership of de Lapérouse."

EN 19
We are indebted to the curators of the Lapérouse Museum in Sydney for kindly providing details about the altar-stone and the photograph of it for use in this article. The following description accompanies the exhibit in the museum :

“This Altar stone was commissioned by The Friends of the Laperouse Museum Inc. with funding provided by Randwick City Council.  It is on permanent loan by The Friends of Laperouse Museum Inc. The original Altar Stone was recovered in three pieces from the wreck of La Boussole in Vanikoro in 1964 by the Association Salomon of Noumea and Mr Reece Discombe. The pieces were then sent to Sydney, to be reunited and placed on exhibition for La Perouse Museum opening in 1988. One of the pieces was broken in transit, into 4 pieces. These original pieces were sent to the Musée National de la Marine in Paris in 2008, where they remain. The original Stone was 35cm x 35cm x 3cm. This reproduction was carried out in Paris by Madame Barbara Donné Donati, and is made of powdered stone and a binding agent. It is coloured from natural earth pigments to obtain colouring as close as possible to that of the original.”

A nineteenth century aquatint of the Count de Lapérouse.

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