First Mass 1788


After landing on the northern shores of Botany Bay, on January 18th 1788, Captain Phillip quickly decided that the area was unsuitable for settlement. He left the eleven ships of the Fleet and set off with a small group to investigate an inlet to the north that James Cook had recorded but not explored. Phillip declared it to be the ” finest harbour in the world.”

Shortly after he returned to Botany Bay to prepare for the journey to Port Jackson, the two ships of the Lapérouse Expedition, La Boussole and L’Astrolabe, were sighted. On January 25th Phillip headed out of Botany Bay leaving Captain Hunter to greet Lapérouse on the following day. There was a brief exchange before Lapérouse landed on the headland. Over the following six weeks the British occupied Farm Cove and the French established an observatory, a garden, a stockade and constructed two long boats. During the period eleven visits between the two parties were recorded and the noted French Astronomer, Joseph Dagelet, advised William Dawes on the observatory built at what became Dawes Point.

The Lapérouse Expedition included two Catholic priests, Abbé Jean-Andre Mongez, the senior Chaplain and and Fr Claude-Francois Joseph Louis (Laurent) Receveur, the junior. Receveur was born April 25th, 1757 in Noël-Cerneux, a village in Eastern France with a population similar in size to La Perouse. He was a Conventual Franciscan friar at a time when the Conventual Franciscan branch of the Friars Minor occupied the Grand Convent in Paris. A man of letters and author of a number of papers presented to the Académie des Sciences, Receveur was amongst the 17 scientists who accompanied Lapérouse. He served aboard L’Astrolabe as a naturalist, astronomer, botanist, geologist, chemist, meteorologist and philologist.

In a description of the young friar Mr de L’Angle, Captain of L’Astrolabe, wrote ” Father Receveur 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.” Lapérouse described him as an “indefatigable naturalist” . However, he was not without spirit, and in Macao he was one of four scientists detained aboard ship for 24 hours after a quarrel with the commander. On Easter Island he is recorded as descending into an extinct volcano, with an estimated depth of 800 metres, and reporting that it contained “the finest banana and mulberry plantations.”

Over the course of the expedition, there were numerous scientific explorations where Receveur figured prominently and which Lapérouse recorded in his journals. These included the brutal massacre in Samoa which claimed de L’Angle, senior scientist Lamanon, ten other members of the expedition, and left Receveur with “a bruised eye”.

In the final letter written to his brother while in Botany Bay, Receveur claimed that his injury had healed but within ten days he was dead, possibly from unseen complications.

In death Fr Receveur became the first scientist, the first catholic, and the first priest to be buried in Australia. The burial mass was the first to be celebrated on Australian soil. It is also highly probable that the first Christian services held in the new colony were masses celebrated by Mongez and Receveur. The altar stone used by Mongez was recovered from the wreck of the Boussole and later presented to the Laperouse Museum.

On March 10th Lapérouse sailed for New Guinea, Tonga and New Caledonia, leaving behind letters and reports for the British to send on to France. The expedition was due to return to France in December but nothing more was heard from them.

On June 1st 1788, John White, Surgeon-General of the First Fleet and the Settlement at Port Jackson, visited the site of Receveur’s Grave and recorded the following in his Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales: “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.”

Homage to Laperouse

In 1791 Admiral Bruni d’Entrecasteaux was dispatched in search of Lapérouse and by April 1792 he reached Tasmania and was the first to explore its southern coast. The expedition then sailed north to the islands of Santa Cruz. It was there he named an uncharted island “Ile de la Recherche” but ironically did not stop to explore it. The island would later be renamed as part of the Vanikoro group. It was not until 1826 that the adventurer, Peter Dillion, established that this group of islands held the secret to the fate of the Lapérouse expedition. When d’Entrecasteaux reached the East Indies he learnt that Lapérouse’s patron, Louis XVI, had been delivered to the guillotine.

As he climbed the steps Louis was said to remark: A-t-on des nouvelles de monsieur de La Pérouse ?

Other French explorers followed d’Entrecasteaux. In March 1824, Louis-Isidore Duperrey visited the headland and a young French officer carved an epitaph on the trunk of the eucalyptus tree which marked Receveur’s grave. Continued....

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