Dictionary of Sydney

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Receveur, Laurent

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Receveur, Claude-François-Joseph

Claude-François-Joseph Receveur, later also known as 'Père Laurent Receveur', was born on 25 April 1757 in the village of Noël-Cerneux, Canton of Russey, in what is now the Département of Doubs, in France. This village is a few kilometres from the border with Switzerland. Receveur came from a humble but respected family. Noël-Cerneux had its own school, so we may assume that he received his education locally. Receveur's initial vocation was the profession of arms; however, he then decided on a religious life, and entered the Franciscan order, probably in Besançon. Known as the 'Cordeliers' in France because of their rope-girdle (corde, cordelle), the order's Paris friary, the eponymous 'Couvent des Cordeliers', was Receveur eventual residence. Taking the religious name of 'Père (Father) Laurent', he embraced scientific studies, but also undertook a number of missions for the French navy between 1776 and 1780. [1]

Naturalist and chaplain

When Jean-François de Galaup de Lapérouse was given command of the Astrolabe and the Boussole, and ordered to follow up on James Cook's surveys in the Pacific, Receveur was selected by the Académie des Sciences to serve as a naturalist and chaplain on the Astrolabe under Paul-Antoine Vicomte Fleuriot de Langle (1744–1787). At the time, Receveur appears to have been better known as an entomologist. Nevertheless, his interests included both the natural and physical sciences, as evidenced by the books he took with him aboard the Astrolabe and the activities he undertook during the expedition.

After crossing the Atlantic and entering the Pacific, the expedition visited Concepción, Easter Island, the Hawaiian group, Alaska, Monterey (California) and Macao. It then sailed between the northern Philippines and Formosa, through the Ryukyu Islands, skirted the southern Korean peninsula and entered the Sea of Japan before surveying the La Pérouse Strait between Hokkaido and Sakhalin. Lapérouse then visited the Russian settlement of Petropavlovsk, on the southern Kamtchatka peninsula of Siberia. Here he dispatched the Russian-speaking Barthélemy de Lesseps (1766–1834) overland to Paris with a copy of his journal and a report of his surveys. At Petropavlovsk, Lapérouse also received orders to investigate reports of a new British settlement at Botany Bay on the coast of New South Wales.

En route to Australia, the Boussole and the Astrolabe visited Tutuila in Samoa. Here, on 11 December 1787, Fleuriot de Langle, the naturalist Robert-Paul de Lamanon (1752–1787) and ten other crewmen and marines were killed by the Samoans. Receveur was wounded in the same attack, receiving, according to Lapérouse, 'a severely bruised eye', but managed to swim back to his ship. The expedition then sailed via Fiji and Norfolk Island to Botany Bay, arriving on 26 January 1788. There they learned that Governor Arthur Phillip had relocated the nascent British colony to Port Jackson. The French anchored at what is now Frenchman's Bay in Botany Bay, and maintained cordial relations with the British before their departure.

While at Botany Bay, Receveur wrote to his brother and sought to reassure his family that his wounds were 'very trifling' and 'had healed within seven or eight days'. Despite these assurances, Receveur died on 17 February 1788. He was buried on the northern shore of Botany Bay. Although a number of causes have been suggested for Receveur's death, including Aboriginal violence and even smallpox, the most credible explanation is that he died from a slowly accumulating subdural haematoma as a result of his injuries in Samoa, perhaps complicated by scurvy.

Monument and remembrance

Receveur's grave on the [media]northern shore of Botany Bay was originally marked with a painted epitaph fixed to a tree trunk. Lapérouse departed Botany Bay on 10 March 1788. Soon after, the grave marker was found to have been torn down. Governor Phillip ordered a replacement to be engraved on copper. Several officers in the First Fleet recorded the epitaph with varying degrees of consistency. When Louis Isidore Duperrey's expedition arrived in New South Wales on the Coquille in 1824, a number of the officers went in search of Lapérouse's campsite and Receveur's grave on Botany Bay. One of them, Ensign Victor-Charles Lottin, recorded that after they found it, with the aid of the corporal and two soldiers in the garrison, they carved the trunk of an enormous eucalyptus which shaded the site, with the 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]

The tree was later used as a windbreak for a fire, but the carved inscription was saved thanks to the efforts of Simeon Pearce, later the first mayor of Randwick. It was then exhibited at the Exposition Universelle, in Paris in 1854. Soon after, it became part of the collection of the Louvre and thence the nascent Musée de la Marine in Paris.

When Hyacinthe de Bougainville visited the same site in 1825, he found Lottin's inscription and the grave marked by a pile of stones holding up a cross. It was Bougainville who commissioned and paid for the present tombstone and the monument to Lapérouse, after consultation with Governor Thomas Brisbane. Both were designed and costed by the Government Architect George Cookney. The epitaph appears to have been based on the texts recorded by the First Fleet officers in early 1788, but with some change in the Latin grammar. [media]These contain a number of grammatical errors, later compounded by use of black paint. 'F. F.', the abbreviated plural for the Latin word Fratribus (Friars), became E. E., perhaps because the full stop after each letter F was mistaken for the bottom horizontal bar of a letter E. The present inscription reads as follows:










In 1876 the New South Wales Government enclosed the grave when the cable servicing telegraphic communication between New South Wales and New Zealand came into operation. A new metal fence was installed in 1906 and the badly rusted iron crucifix on the grave was replaced with one of bronze in 1930.

Although commemorative Catholic Masses at the gravesite were reported as early as 1879, in 1933, 5,000 people attended the first mass 'pilgrimage' to Père Receveur's grave. To this day, it is a tangible link with Lapérouse's visit and a focus for community cultural and religious commemoration in New South Wales. Receveur would have celebrated the Catholic Mass in Australia aboard the Astrolabe several times during the French stay at Botany Bay as would his fellow chaplain, Abbé Jean-André Mongez, aboard the Boussole. It is also likely that they celebrated Mass ashore[2]; if not, a subsequent graveside Requiem for Receveur might have been the first Catholic Mass on Australian soil. While Receveur was undoubtedly the first Catholic priest buried in Australia, he was also the first scientist to be interred here.



Edward Duyker, Père Receveur: Franciscan, Scientist and Voyager with Lapérouse, Dharawal Publications, Sydney, 2011

RJ King, 'What brought Lapérouse to Botany Bay?', Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol 85, part ii, December 1999, pp 140–7

MLA Milet-Mureau (ed), Voyage de La Pérouse autour du monde, L'Imprimerie de la République, an V (1797), 4 vols

H Selkirk, 'La Pérouse and the French Monuments at Botany Bay', Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 1918, vol iv, part vii, pp 329–61


This entry was revised on 28 August 2020 to incorporate information about the practice of Catholic Mass in the 18th century.

[1] This entry is based on Edward Duyker, Père Receveur: Franciscan, Scientist and Voyager with Lapérouse, Dharawal Publications, Sydney, 2011. All quotations from Receveur's correspondence, above, are taken from Edward Duyker's translations in the appendix.

[2] Under Ordonnance du Roi, concernant la Marine. Du 25 mars 1765, Livre XV, de la Police des Vaisseaux, Ordinance MXXX, (Paris, de l'Imprimerie Royale M. DCCLXV,p. 263), sailors would receive six lashes for ‘missing Mass, prayer & catechism without legitimate cause’. There is no record of how this was managed during the stay in Botany Bay. It seems likely that one of the priests would have come ashore so sailors on land could attend Mass without having to return to the ships.