Corrections: Russian Waships in 1820 visits to Australia

September 03, 2010

Dear Mac,

  I did say I was going to double-check things, so I'm
sorry you were so quick to post my (13 August 2010) letter on your site, (see below)
because it turns out that between us we have done Mrs
Natalia Melnikova, as she turns out to be, an injustice.

  My mistake was to assume that a senior churchman would
have checked the references in his doctoral dissertation
more carefully than, in fact, he had done. But to go
back a bit.

  The "First Russian Easter" myth seems to be quite old,
but the first occurrence I could find on the web was the
proceedings of the Parliament of New South Wales on the
morning of 12 May 1994, where we find that according to
the Hon. J. P. Hannaford, Attorney General, Minister for
Justice, and Vice President of the Executive Council:
'The first Orthodox service held in Sydney was conducted
by a chaplain from a Russian vessel which visited Sydney
in 1820. The captain's journal records that the
Byzantine liturgy was celebrated in all its glory; with
colourful vestments, church vessels, choral singing and
incense, by the Priest Monk Dionysii at Kirribilli Point
in Sydney.' In 1996 the essence of this account was
repeated in a pamphlet issued by the Australian Bureau
of Immigration.

  In 1997 Mrs N. Melnikova, the editor of Australiada, a
magazine for Russian Australians with a strong
commitment to the Orthodox Church, published an
editorial which accurately placed Father Dionysius'
service on board Vostok, not in Sydney but off the coast
of New South Wales. Melnikova also sensibly revised the
traditional claim from 'first service' to 'first
Easter', since even if we discount ship visits in
previous years it can safely be assumed that Father
Ivanov, on the other expedition that year, celebrated
many of the liturgies of Great Lent and Holy Week in
Port Jackson between 2 March and 5 April 1820.

  Most unfortunately, however, and surely with no
deliberate intent to deceive, Melnikova contradicted her
own article with a cover featuring a picture of Vostok
and Mirnyi in Port Jackson, each flying a somewhat
dubious pennant at the mainmast. above the headline
'First Easter on the sloops Vostok and Mirnyi . Port
Jackson.'. The article itself carried another
potentially misleading headline 'First Russian Easter by
the shores of Australia'. And lastly she slightly
embroidered Bellingshausen's terse description 'broke
their fast with Easter bread' into 'they foregathered
for the holiday breakfast, at which the Easter fare was

  Not surprisingly the myth proved too robust for
Melnikova's half-hearted correction. In 2001 an
encyclopedia published by the Cambridge University Press
repeated Mr Hannaford's version word for word. A more
recent instance, which began life as a doctoral thesis
in 2005, has included all the previous misinformation
and added some more. As a work of scholarship it cites
Melnikova, though calling her Mr Melnikov, but surely it
relies too heavily on her small exaggerations in what
had been, after all, only an ephemeral note in a general
interest magazine. This is Father Protopopov's hyped-up
version, for which his only 'source' is Melnikova, who
actually said almost none of this:

      "On the night of 27 March 1820, Sydney residents
were intrigued to see the Vostok decorated with
lanterns and festoons. The crew appeared on deck in
full parade uniform and the ship's chaplain, a Fr
Dionysius, commenced the Paschal services of the
Orthodox Church. Easter was greeted in traditional
Russian style. After Divine Services a lavish meal
was prepared, with Easter kulich bread and painted
eggs. Official guests were invited from the colony
to join the ship's company and the merriment
continued all day. This is the first recorded
occasion of an Orthodox service to be held in any of
the Australian Colonies."

  Unfortunately the thesis has now appeared as a book.

  Ideally, Mrs Melnikova should have reflected on the
state of Vostok's food supplies after more than four
months at sea, before using a sweeping phrase like
'Easter fare', in which eggs are one of the two central
ingredients. Father Protopopov, on the other hand, has
strayed from the path of scholarship by citing her as
his source for the Sydney harbour location when she
wrote nothing of the sort, never mind the misleading
illustration. It would have been wiser to follow her
example by looking at what Bellingshausen himself wrote,
something which no one in the Australian Orthodox
community, apart from Melnikova, seems to have done for
a very long time. But here too there were mitigating
circumstances. First, Protopopov is not a maritime
historian and he was only using the Vostok anecdote as a
pleasant opening to a book about something else. And
second, who can tell how many times, during his
extensive trawling through the published and unpublished
records of an emigration which is nearly two hundred
years old, he may have encountered versions of the
Vostok Easter myth from other authoritative sources?

  In short Mrs Melnikova was the good guy, relatively
speaking, but in general the Orthodox community have got
the story wrong. The likelihood is that if any Sydney
residents were amazed in 1820, they were amazed by
Father Ivanov's Lenten services at Kirribilli. By the
time Father Dionysius turned up a month later on the
Vostok they would have grown fairly used to the Orthodox
ritual. But only Russians witnessed the two Easter
services in Australian waters that year because both
were held at sea, one off the southern coast of New
South Wales, perhaps off Green Cape or slightly further
north, say Montague Island, and the other near Norfolk
Island. The second, incidentally, was more full-blown
than the first, because off Norfolk Island they tried to
hold the traditional candle-lit procession on deck, but
the weather was against them.

BTW I have written to Father Protopopov. No reply.

all the best



Thanks for that, by a copy to my web master I will ask for this E-Mail to be added to our original piece at URL:
Early Visits of Russian Warships to Australia 

August 13, 2010

Dear Mac,

If I didn't think you had a great website I wouldn't be writing this, so don't take it the wrong way if I point out a few problems with this otherwise valuable article:  Early Visits of Russian Warships to Australia.

The first thing about 1820 is to get the expeditions sorted out. There were two separate expeditions with two ships each and they made separate visits to Sydney which did not overlap.

What the Russians called the 'second', northern expedition was commanded by Vasiliev. They reached Sydney first, on 2 March 1820, and left on 6 April.

The 'first' or southern expedition was commanded by Bellingshausen (NOT Lazarev please, however popular his previous visit had made him). B. reached Sydney with Vostok on 11 April. Lazarev followed with Mirnyi on 19 April. They left together on 19 May.

All this is in Governor Macquarie's diaries and confirmed by the Sydney Gazette. Also Cumpston as far as I recall.

What is not in any of those sources is the fairy-tale about celebrating the Orthodox Easter on board Vostok, and for very good reason:

  1) There were no Russian ships in Port Jackson over the Orthodox Easter weekend, which was 8/9 April (Gregorian). For Russians those were 'First day of Easter', Saturday 27 March, and 'Second day', Sunday 28 March. As you doubtless know the Orthodox Easter service runs from Saturday evening into Sunday small hours, ending with the ceremonial greeting "Christ is risen!"

2) Bellingshausen describes how he took the precaution of moving his chaplain from Mirnyi to the larger Vostok on 17 March, while they were still together in the pack ice and relatively calm conditions. Then he ordered the slower Mirnyi to proceed independently to Sydney. He must have been hoping to make port in time for Easter, but in fact he didn't quite get there. 

Instead his narrative records the celebration of Easter on board Vostok, i.e. for most people on the expedition, on Sunday 28 March, somewhere off the east coast. I like to think perhaps he was in sight of Durras, having enjoyed the place a couple of times myself... He wasn't keen on Orthodox padres himself, having been raised a Lutheran, added to which he can't have wanted the spar-deck cluttered with that sort of ceremony at midnight off a shore he was seeing for the first time. Hence no midnight service as far as one can tell from a very brief entry.

So there you are, no Australian guests, no wooded shores reverberating to the Russian choir etc. etc. All just so much balderdash put into circulation by a certain Mr Melnikov in 1997, apparently. Goodness knows why, since he was obviously well able to read B's book for himself and the libraries of Sydney doubtless have the odd copy!

Doubtless also, however, services were held during the northern squadron's visit in March, and if none of the previous Russian ships held any, they would have been the first in Australia. But obviously Vasiliev was not a glamorous enough celebrity for some people. So they have fabricated the Bellingshausen Easter myth instead.
As a graduate of Adelaide Uni and a historian hugely beholden to your libraries and archives, I really dislike seeing one of my favourite countries being sold a pup like this one. So if you can do anything at all to spread some of these points around the maritime history community, I would be most grateful.

with best wishes

Dr R. I. P. Bulkeley
U. K.

|Dear Dr Bulkeley.

Thank you for your E-Mail, I will correct my account.

I am always happy to have the right account appearing on AHOY, especially about the Russian Easter, it is so easy to get the Bull by the Horns, and of often use miss information, there is plenty of that masquerading as fact out there, and one needs to be careful. I am indeed holden to you.

Best regards,

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