Wednesday, 20 June 2018

La Pérouse at Monterey - an early image of California

Copy of Duché de Vancy's painting, now in the  Museo Naval Madrid

This little picture, a copy of an original watercolour by Duché de Vancy, depicts the visit of La Pérouse and his officers to the Mission San Carlos in the Carmel Valley in September 1786. It is usually credited with being the very first artistic representation of the state of California.

The  outpost in Monterey Bay, which was the capital of the Spanish colonies of the  "Two Californias", had been established as recently as 1770, and La Pérouse and his ships were the first non-Spanish European visitors. The Instructions had tasked him with assessing the Spanish presence in the area - which accordng to French intelligence did not extend beyond a number of small forts along the coast between San Diego and Monterey;   he was asked to report on "the condition, strength and object of these establishments" (Part 2, no.9)

On 15th September 1786 the Boussole and the Astrolabe dropped anchor in the Bay and were given a enthusiastic reception.  News had already travelled from Concepción of their likely arrival, with the command that they were to be treated as honoured guests of the King.  Spanish ships sent pilots on board and the fort of Monterey fired a gun salute in welcome.  During their ten-day visit, the French visitors were overwhelmed with hospitality and with generous offers of supplies for their voyage.  La Pérouse and his officers were frequent guests  at the house of the Governor Pedro Fagès.   La Pérouse reports that, though his territory  covered a vast area, the governor had real control only only "two-hundred and eighty-two cavalrymen", who supplied garrisons for five small forts and detachments of a few men to protect each of twenty-five missions.  This was apparently sufficient to contain a population of fifty thousand "wandering Indians" of whom ten thousand were converted to Christianity.

A visit to the Mission at Carmel

The ten missions of Alta California were under the control of the Franciscans.  It was not long before the fathers of the mission of San Carlos, at two leagues distance from Monterey, arrived with offers of hospitality and information.  Accompanied by the governor, La Pérouse and his party were escorted on horseback over the coastal hills to the mission, which had been relocated from Monterey to a site on the Carmel River.  Here they were received "like the lords of manors when they first take possession of their estates".  A  Te Deum of thanksgiving was chanted in their honour and they were treated to a comprehensive tour. 

Duché de Vancy's picture captures the moment of their arrival.  The French officiers, in their splendid dress uniforms, make a striking contrast with the humble surroundings.

In the centre of the scene,  La Pérouse and Langle are welcomed by Father Matias Noriega and invited to approach the modest church with its straw roof.  The figure to one side is probably Barthélémy de Lesseps, who would have been on hand to translate.  Other groups of officers occupy the foreground. Father Fermin Francisco Lasuén, in charge of the Franciscan mission , can be seen waiting in the entrance to the church "in his ceremonial vestments and with his holy water sprinkle in hand" . The Padre is  flanked by two Indians, and  three newly arrived missionaries.  La Pérouse informs us that the church was illuminated for the occasion as though it was a feast day. Three men to the right ring the bells: "we heard the sound of bells announcing our arrival".

Also in evidence are the two long lines of native converts who were assembled to form a guard of honour. "Before we entered the church, we passed through a square in which the Indians of both sexes stood in a line".  La Pérouse was disconcerted by the Indians' lack of curiosity; they "exhibited no marks of surprise in their countenance" at the sight of the Frenchmen, and waited patiently for the service to finish.

( La Pérouse's description is in Voyage, vol. 1 p.445-6

A second copy in the Bancroft Library, University of California
Duché de Vancy left his picture as a gift to the mission, where it was seen by the Italian navigator Alejandro Malaspina who visited in 1791.  The English captain Frederick Beechey, passing through Monterey in 1826, attempted unsuccessfully to buy it:  he "very much wished to possess this valuable relic, with which however the padre was unwilling to part".  The original disappeared when the Mission was secularised in the 1830s, but two copies exist by artists who accompanied the Malaspina expedition.  One, in the Museo Naval Madrid, is probably by Tomás de Suría. The other, in the Bancroft Library, University of California, is attributed to José Cardero. Cardero also drew two early views of the mission buildings:

A few years after La Pérouse's visit a permanent stone church was built which, much restored, still forms the basis of the Church of San Carlos today.   In 1792, when the English explorer and navigator Captain George Vancouver called at Monterey, one of his crew members sketched the mission and its grounds as the work was progressing:

The verdict of La Pérouse

As a product of the liberal Enlightenment, La Pérouse was critical of the organisation of the new Spanish colony.  Despite the "inexpressible fertility" of the land, California was held back by a policy of isolation from the wider world.   He sees the Spanish preoccupation with religion, and the harsh paternalism of the missions, as stiffling the economic initiative of the Indian converts, who are treated little better than negro slaves.

A friend to the rights of men rather than to theology, I could have wished, I confess, that there had been joined to the principles of Christianity a legislation, which might gradually have made citizens of men, whose state a present scarcely differs from that of the negro inhabitants of our colonies....(p.442-3) 

Indian of Monterey by José Cardero.
Despite the fact that "these men have very few ideas" it would be better to stop treating them like children:  with "ardent zeal and extreme patience" it ought to be possible to demonstrate to a few families "the advantages of society, founded on the rights of the people;  to establish among them the possession of property, so bewitching to all men; and by this new order of things to engage every one to cultivate his field with emulation, or to direct his exertions to some other employment?"

But "human motives are insufficient for such a ministry";  only the "enthusiasm of religion,  with the rewards it promises" can compensate for "the sacrifices, the disgust, the fatigues and dangers of this kind of life".  Nonetheless he might wish that the religious individuals he met in the missions were "a little more tinctured with the spirit of philosophy".
(Voyage, vol.1, p. 442-3


"The reception of Jean François  de la Pérouse at Mission Carmel, attributed to José Cardero", The Bancroft Library, University of California.

Henry R. Wagner, "Four Early Sketches of Monterey Scenes", California Historical Society Quarterly, Sept., 1936, Vol. 15(3): p. 213-15
Claudine Chalmers, "Splendide Californie!: Selections by French Artists in California History, 1786-1900", Vol. 79, No. 4 (Winter, 2000/2001), pp. 154-179!%3a+Selections+by+French+Artists+in+California...-a078527349
_____, "A Frenchman drew the earliest view of California", Alliance Française de San Francisco blog, post of 08/10/2011.

Gary S. Breschini, "Mission San Carlos Borromeo (Carmel) Monterey County Historical Society website, 2000

California Missions Resource Center, "Native Americans of San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo"

There is a memorial  plaque commemorating La Pérouse's visit  at the entrance to the present-day San Carlos de Borromeo church in Carmel, presented by the French government in 1948:

In memory of the arrival at Monterey on September 14, 1786, of the explorer Comte de La Perouse, commanding the frigates Boussole and Astrolabe. This constitutes the first official visit of a European power to the Spanish establishments on a then mysterious coast. In this chapel of the Carmel mission, Father Lasuen in honor of the event celebrated a te deum mass on September 16, 1786.

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