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In Island Polynesia: Wallis

Already before the visit of the six new missionaries, in May 1839, several Wallisians had shown an interest in the lotu. Bataillon had gathered a group of catechumens, led by the chief Tuugahala. They met secretly for prayers and religious instruction on Nukuatea, a small island on the outer ring of the lagoon that belonged to him. The Lavelua liked the two missionaries personally but, as many of his people, he detested all the white men’s religions. When, in March 1939, he fell ill, and his healers could not help him, the king ordered Bataillon in a fit of anger to get off the island. When Bataillon pretended to get ready to leave, the king did everything to keep him back.[1]

Wallis, or Uvea as the Polynesians called it, had a bad name. Many ships, whalers and traders, used its safe lagoon as a shelter, but looting ships was a national pastime and Tuugahala was feared by sea captains as a gang leader.[2] When in October 1838 people on Wallis planned to attack an American whaler, the John Adams, and had the Lavelua’s permission to do so, it was Tuugahala who kept them back.[3]

The visit changed the nature of the mission. It tore off the last pretence and made it clear that Bataillon and Joseph-Xavier were missionaries and had settled on the island for no other purpose than converting it to their lotu. During Bataillon’s absence on Futuna, Brother Joseph had baptized six children. One of the Lavelua’s grandchildren too had become ill and it had died before Brother had a chance to baptize it. The number of catechumens was increasing but the Lavelua’s resistance only grew stronger. He chased the catechumens from Nukuatea, beat up one of their leaders and destroyed a house. But all the time he allowed the missionaries to live in his own compound.

For a year[4] Bataillon had worked on a detailed, fifteen pages report on Wallis and its people.[5] While the visitors were there he added another seven pages[6] and handed it to them for mailing from New Zealand. In July 1839 he was back in Wallis and started another letter that eventually ran to eighteen pages. Because he had not thought in time of making a copy of the first one, he repeated – from memory – a lot of data already contained in the first one.[7]

Part of the letter,[8] apparently written in view of being published in the Annales is a passionate appeal in the name of ‘we, poor Ocean islanders’ nous pauvres Océaniens and addressed to ‘you, children of Saint Irenaeus’ (the founder of the Church in Lyon)[9]. It is in very much the same bombastic style that Pompallier used and that must have been acceptable at the time.

Bataillon developed a broader vision of missionary work than the familiar ‘saving of souls’. Already before we came here, he writes, other people had introduced cotton, water melon, maize, tobacco, and sweet potato. The Marists had brought in different varieties of vine to grow grapes, orange, pineapple, potato, flax, melon, beet, chicory, rape, mustard and the castor-oil plant. They were also trying to grow cabbage, onions and carrots. They had tried various grains, such as wheat, rye and hemp but without success. ‘Perhaps the seed was too old’, he explains, ‘or we sowed it in the wrong season’. The vines were doing well, but Bataillon doubted if they would produce grapes. Some things died, others flourished. They already had a hundred orange-trees that were growing well. Cotton too was promising. Brother Joseph had succeeded in spinning a good quantity of cotton, ready for weaving. Hemp too would be useful. Although seldom mentioned in the letters, it is evident the Marists had a program of introducing useful plants into Polynesia, ‘for the good of humanity and even religion!’[10]

Even more important for humanity and religion, Bataillon writes, would be to find remedies for the tropical diseases they encountered. He gives lengthy and detailed descriptions of what appear to be yaws, leprosy and filariasis. As the islanders blame these things on evil spirits, healing them would prove that the spirits do not exist or at least that the God of the missionaries is stronger than their evil spirits. The story went that the Protestant missionaries in Tonga had tablets against some of these diseases and Bataillon plans to find out. In the meantime he wants Colin to see if doctors in France recognize his descriptions and can supply remedies. He regrets not having used his time in France to learn more about diseases. He regrets not to have brought books of medicine.[11]

The missionaries, he reminds Colin, live and work in an English speaking world. There are many Protestants and he has to refute their calumnies and accusations but he knows not enough English. He begs Colin to send him books of apologetics in English, catechisms, bibles, Church history, especially on the Reformation, prayer books, etc. Especially among the Europeans we find all over the Pacific, he says, we should spread good books to replace the rubbish they often have in hand. They inhabit the islands where we work; we are just as much responsible for their salvation as for the heathens.[12]

He praises the Methodists in Tonga for having translated large parts of the Bible. The translator, a certain John Thomas (whom they had met when visiting the island of Vava`u) has caught the genius of the language, says Bataillon. He has obtained a copy of the translation and is going through it carefully and critically. On controversial issues he finds what he considers a few perverse and intentionally false renderings, but he also acknowledges the accuracy of texts on the Holy Eucharist. Only, he adds, it seems that instead of bread they use the fruit of the bread-tree for Communion. How awful![13]

In early September Falemaa, a Wallisian chief, went across to Futuna on Jones’ schooner and spread the story that Wallis would soon accept the lotu. When a Tongan chief, Tuponeafu, on a visit to Wallis, converted with his family to the Catholic faith, it made quite an impression.[14]


  1. LRO, doc. 28 [25].
  2. EC, p. 376, 29.08.38.
  3. EC, p.384, 02.10.38. Rozier thinks that Chanel got the story from Jones, and that Jones got it from Tuugahala himself, boasting of his own role and importance. The context allows to think that Chanel got the story from Bataillon’s letter. Even if it comes from Tuugahala himself, it is remarkable as a change of attitude in comparison with his notorious behaviour.
  4. Starting in July 1838.
  5. LRO, doc. 28 [1 – 20].
  6. LRO, doc. 28 [21 – 31].
  7. LRO, doc. 38 [1- 27], especially [2].
  8. Especially the paragraphs 11 to 22.
  9. And in fact published in 1841, pp. 396-397, and 388-401. Cf. LRO, p. 281, n. 15.
  10. LRO, doc. 38 [23].
  11. LRO, doc. 38 [24-25]. Il seroit bon qu’un missionnaire en Océanie surtout soit un homme universel.
  12. LRO, doc. 38 [25].
  13. LRO, doc. 38 [26]. Il a bien saisi le génie de la langue. The editor of the LRO notes that the translations were done by a group of people, and that Thomas was not the most important of them. LRO, p. 290, n. 27.
  14. Chanel to Bishop Devie, EC, doc. 56 [6].

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