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When Chevron and Attale landed on Wallis, it was a year since the visit of the Reine de Paix. Until that visit Bataillon had not openly spoken of his intention to convert the island to the lotu. There had been a small number of adherents, barely tolerated, even maltreated, by the Lavelua, and meeting in secret. Since then, Bataillon had been frank about the missionary purpose of his presence, and the tide had turned. Chevron found there were up to 800 catechumens, meeting openly on Nukuatea, the little island on the ring of the lagoon that belonged to chief Tuugahala, who from early days had opted for the lotu.

The rapidly growing support also drew increasingly violent resistance. In May 1840 the island was about evenly divided between those who wanted to be instructed in the lotu papalangi and those who refused to have anything to do with it. At times there was a real danger of civil war. Although he personally liked the missionaries, the Lavelua stood clearly on the side of the traditional religion and the issue took on the form of a struggle for political power between the old king and the ambitious young Tuugahala. However, the converts were numerous enough to stand their ground

The visit of Chevron and Attale was a windfall for the catechumens. They all wanted to touch noses, or shake hands with the new missionaries and after Sunday Mass on Nukuatea the visitors were regaled with kava. The grace of state, Chevron wrote, carried him through when a chiefly old man honoured him with a piece of fruit out of his mouth after chewing on it. Bataillon wanted Chevron to stay in what really was a time of extreme danger. The catechumens were ready for armed resistance, in case the pagans decided to resort to violence.

Bataillon added a page to the long treatise on Wallis he had begun in September 1839[1] and to a letter for Séon begun in November.[2] What is needed now, he wrote to Colin, is a printing press. He had taught some young people to read and they are quite able to teach others. He ended on an optimistic note: The Lord reigns, let the earth rejoice, let the many islands be glad! [3] The visitors boarded the ship for the night and he gave them the letters. Besides their schooner, there was a whaler for anchor in the lagoon. When a rumour went round that an attack on the ships was being planned, the crews stood by all night at their guns. At daybreak both ships slipped out of the lagoon. Chevron could not even go ashore to pick up his breviary that he had left in Bataillon’s house.[4]


The Futunan chief Falemaa, who did not want to get involved in the war of August 1839, had skipped off to Wallis in time and returned by the end of the year. He spread the story that soon Wallis would be entirely Christian. He vowed he would do anything in his power to stop Futuna going the same way, and recalled with glee how the Wallisians had killed Tongan teachers a few years earlier and how the Lavelua had beaten up some early Christian adherents.[5]

During January a Sydney based schooner called at Futuna. Its Hawaiian sailors attempted a mutiny, but they were caught before they could murder the captain and his wife with their three children. They escaped to Singave but Niuliki forced the Singaves to hand them over to the captain. Chanel did not feel well and he was very busy instructing sick people around him. He sent Nizier to visit the ship and offer fresh fruit. They exchanged little presents. The captain’s wife gave the missionaries a pot of jam.[6]

In February Chanel had found out how high feelings were running on Wallis, when he asked a visiting canoe from Wallis to take a letter to Bataillon. He was bluntly told they had other gods and would do him no favours.[7] A most unusual reaction.

Nevertheless, when Chevron and Attale landed on 16 May 1840, Futuna was comparatively quiet. Peter Chanel was delighted to receive them, but, at the same time, bitterly disappointed that his bishop had again not bothered to come himself. On top of that, Brother Marie-Nizier was told to board the ship for New Zealand! As Chevron half expected to return to Wallis to support Bataillon,[8] that would leave Chanel alone with a newcomer who did not speak a word of the language. His health was declining and his feet were in a poor state.[9] Chevron told Chanel of the 250 francs the captain would charge the bishop for every day spent off Wallis and Futuna.[10] The provicar of Oceania, always gentle and flexible, could also take responsibility. He decided on the spot not to keep the ship a day longer. Both Chevron and Attale would stay on Futuna for the time being and Marie-Nizier was not to go to New Zealand. The captain was told they would hand him a parcel of letters next morning but that they did not need his services any longer; there would be no passengers.

Pompallier had written a letter to Niuliki. Chanel read it out to him and the king was very pleased.[11] He then must have stayed up half the night. He wrote to Pompallier but we shall never know how he expressed his disappointment and how he explained his decision to disregard the orders concerning Marie-Nizier. His letter has not been found.

To Colin Chanel expressed his profound disappointment with Pompallier for not coming himself. It would have been an ‘unspeakable consolation’.[12] He explained why he felt justified to go against the instructions of the bishop: the bad tracks on Futuna and his bruised feet.

While Bataillon, he wrote to Colin, is on the point of converting the people of Wallis, Futuna is still far from it. Listing the causes for this lack of progress, he mentioned in the first place the fact that the bishop still had not come for a visit. The problem lay, he wrote, not with the people of Futuna: I have every cause to be happy with their good character. Nor was it Niuliki personnally. Chanel called him with some affection ‘my good King Niuliki (mon bon roi Niuriki)’, who had assured him that the island would soon turn Christian.[13] Chanel blamed the delay on the contest taking place on Wallis reverberating on Futuna. Another thing that kept many people back was their reverence for the king. They just could not get themselves to come out openly against him. And, said the humble Chanel: ‘it is my sinfulness and my lack of zeal that delays the conversion of this island’.

The core of the problem however he described with great empathy and understanding for what converting to the Christian faith meant to the Futunans:
Our good King Niuliki, said to be the man into the whom the greatest god of the island descends, seems to have a great fear of what his islanders will say if he rejects a god he has so often told them is powerful and terrifying.

Chanel devoted an entire paragraph to the earthquakes that just then terrified the Futunans. It started a week ago, he wrote, with one, mighty shock at four o’clock in the morning. It felt, he wrote to Colin, as if the earth would open up under my bed. Not used to be woken up like that – Chanel must have been a good sleeper – it took him some time to get over the agitation. He counted nineteen aftershocks in twenty-four hours.

Futunan tradition has it, he wrote, that one of their gods, Mafuike fulu, sleeps at great depth under in the earth, and when he turns over in his sleep, he causes the frequent earthquakes on their island. When earthquakes become particularly intense Mafuike fulu suffers of itch and he scratches himself. The Futunans do not understand, Chanel adds soberly, that their island is of volcanic origin and they are not aware of the danger they would be in, if the seemingly extinct volcano were to come to life again.

It is touching to think of Chanel, sitting on a tree trunk in his hut all night, with a burning candle as only light. And then to read his thoughtful and lengthy account of the Futunan explanation of earthquakes. In no way does he make it sound ridiculous; on the contrary, he recounts it with respect. At the same time, there is his geological understanding of volcanic activity. As if Chanel is sorry for the fact that Futunan religious feelings are threatened, not so much by the Christian faith he brings, as by the disenchantment of nature entailed in contact with the other, we would say today, Western world.[14]

A similar concern seems to underlie the next, equally long paragraph. Chanel is no romantic. He has seen the sordid side of natural religion. In each illness they see the hand of an angry god. Each god has his little sanctuary. People rush to bring their valuables to whatever god is presumed to be the cause of their illness, all to no avail. But at each sanctuary there is a greedy man or woman who claims close links to the gods and the right to take the people’s gifts for themselves. ‘Please’, he wrote to Colin, ‘send us good medical handbooks, supplies of medicines, small surgical tools. It is dreadful to visit the sick and not be able to help them at all’. In other words, no good talking about beliefs, give us what we need to help them effectively.

‘It is said that France is the most beautiful place after heaven. But there is a beauty about these islands that France would be jealous of.’ However tough his life is, and however frustrating his lack of success, he loves Futuna.

Twice, Chanel speaks about his death. ‘Death will soon come and thin our ranks’. (….) When we are dead, others will come to take our place.’ Did he have a premonition of things to come? It was to be his last letter to Jean-Claude Colin.

The third letter Chanel wanted to get away was to Bishop Devie. As he had asked Colin to keep the bishop informed, Chanel could presume that his former bishop would know of the voyage to Oceania and of his whereabouts. He now told him of the visit of Bataillon, the fighting on Futuna in August, of how he tried to intervene and how the King did everything in his power to prevent the war, to no avail. He shared with the bishop his impression that since the war people’s minds were better disposed towards the faith than before. On the neighbouring island of Wallis there was more success to report. The Lord has blessed the work of Bataillon; his island counts many catechumens and some have had to suffer for their faith. A Tongan chief has converted to the Catholic faith while staying on Wallis and wants to return to Tonga with a priest. The Protestants have nearly everywhere established themselves before us. The Methodists have Tonga in their power, they now spread into Fiji. They were in Samoa but now Anglicans are taking their place.

There are promising contacts however with a Fijian chief who visited Futuna, with people of Rotuma, etc. Chanel mentions Tikopia where a Polynesian language is spoken not unlike Futunan. He has heard from the Picpus Father Maigret that Pohnpei too was promising.[15] As to Futuna, things are slow but there is hope that the King will decide for the Christian Faith when Bishop Pompallier comes as promised.

Neither the letters Chanel wrote on this occasion, nor a careful use of the Analyse of Chanel’s diary by Roulleaux for this first half of 1840, suggest that things on Futuna could go seriously wrong. After a couple of days on Wallis Chevron had sensed the threat of violence in the air, but arriving on Futuna the only threat he felt was from the frequent aftershocks of the earthquake.[16]


  1. LRO, doc. 38 [29 – 32], cf. above, p. 132
  2. LRO, doc. 43 [6 – 8].
  3. According to the familiar Vulgate: Dominus regnavit, exsultet terra, laetentur insulae multae. Ps. 96 (97).1. The RSV translates coastlands instead of islands.
  4. LRO, doc. 62 [46 – 49].
  5. EC, doc. 56 [6].
  6. EC, p. 486.
  7. EC, p. 487.
  8. LRO, doc. 62 [52].
  9. EC, doc. 59 [1].
  10. Cf. above p. 176.
  11. EC, doc. 59 [5].
  12. ‘l’ineffable consolation’, EC, doc. 59 [1].
  13. According to the Analyse by Roulleaux of Chanel’s lost diary, EC, p. 487, the king continued to send food to the missionaries and Chanel used every opportunity to speak with him about the lotu. The king maintained his neutral position, saying it was up to the people to become Christians if they wish.
  14. On this sensitive missiological issue, cf. Jan Snijders, The Best of Two Worlds: functional substitutes and Christian secularity, in Catalyst, I (1971) pp. 47 – 60, with references to Tippett, Larracy and others.
  15. Chanel would have heard this in May 1839 from Baty and Petit, who had met Maigret in Valparaiso in January, after his return from Pohnpei. They had travelled together to Tahiti. Cf. above, p. 111f
  16. Rozier, op. cit. doc. 14 [8].

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