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FRANCIS L. DE LEPORTE, COMPTE DE CASTELNAU (1810-1880)


The chronology of Castelnau’s life reads like a travelogue: “[He] was born on 25 December 1810 in London. Travel books by Captain Cook and LeVaillant were his childhood reading. He studied natural science in Paris under Baron Cuvier, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and other noted zoologists. In 1837-41 he travelled in the United States, Texas and Canada; in 1843-47 he went from Rio de Janeiro to Lima in South America, collecting specimens from the River Amazon. After the 1848 revolution he became French consul at Bahia, Brazil. In 1856-58 he travelled in South Africa and then in Asia. In Siam he was French consul and the first European to study the country’s fishes. He arrived at Melbourne in 1862 and became consul-general for France in 1864. He died at his home, Apsley Place, East Melbourne, on 4 February 1880” (Australian Dictionary of Biography Online).  His scientific interests were equally peripatetic. His earliest works focused on insects, culminating in the multivolume Histoire naturelle des insectes, published between 1835 and 1841.  Other published works, although not so lavish, dealt with geography, paleontology, mammals, and, especially after his move to Australia, ichthyology.  His great feat of travel was the expedition to South America, undertaken in 1843 at the behest of King Louis-Philippe of France. “Few indeed were the explorers of South America who covered so much of the continent” (Goodman 1972, 312).  The object was to explore the whole of the Amazon basin, by crossing the continent twice – overland from Rio de Janeiro to Lima, visiting Paraguay and Bolivia in the process, then back across to eastward by crossing the Andes once more, descending the Urubamba and Ucayali rivers to reach the Amazon, then traveling down the entire length of the great river. As a government-sponsored expedition, it had purposes besides science – in this case to ascertain borders, to assess the potential for trade, and to find trade routes through the interior.  It took Castelnau four years to accomplish the journey, and, in addition to the toil and toll of the trip itself, he suffered the loss of most of his instruments, specimens, and papers.

He returned to France in 1847 but was back in Bahia after a year, serving as French consul.  There he met a young girl named Carolina Fonçeca, who became his mistress a few years later, bore him a son, and in 1854 returned with him to Paris.  Inconveniently, on arriving in Paris Carolina discovered that Castelnau had a wife.  Perhaps hoping to escape his domestic complexities, Castelnau departed Paris, serving as a French envoy in South Africa and Thailand.  He finally settled in Australia, with his mistress and two sons, in 1862.

In Melbourne he continued his scientific pursuits, focusing on fishes. Unfortunately, in his enthusiasm to describe a new and exotic species of fish from what he took to be a reliable source, he became the victim of a taxonomic hoax.  The facts are succinctly described by Wikipedia: “The fish was a joke perpetrated by people at Gayndah station, Queensland, who prepared it from the body of a mullet, the tail of an eel and the head of a platypus or needlefish.  They served it cooked for Carl Staiger, the director of the Brisbane Museum, and he forwarded a sketch and description of the fake to expert François Louis de la Porte, comte de Castelnau, who described the supposed ‘species’ in 1879.” The hoax was not exposed until 1933.  (There are instances of the same sort of trick being played with specimens of Neotropical birds – “new” species created from bits and pieces of several species, artfully sewn together.)