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As time went on, the Wallisian people, like the Futunans, became used to the presence on their island of the two white men, so very different from the familiar sorts of strangers they knew: visiting sailors, beachcombers and (in neighbouring Tonga) Methodist missionaries. The two were allowed to move around everywhere and attend traditional religious ceremonies (31.03). They certainly had gained the respect of many people, and often received gifts of food and the nicest bits of pork at feasts (30.03, 07.04). They were allowed to visit the sick, often even asked to come, and, given an opportunity, Bataillon would baptize a dying person (22.04).

Apart from occasional bouts of bad temper, Lavelua, the paramount chief (king) on Uvea (Wallis) liked the missionaries and invited them very often to his house for kava and meals. They sometimes went with him as he went visiting villages on the island. Lavelua let Niuliki on Futuna know that if he did not want the missionaries to remain, he could send them to Wallis where they would be welcome (20.04). Another chief threatened the Futunans he would take revenge if they dared harm their missionaries (25.04).

By the end of 1838 the whole of Wallis knew that these two papalangi (Europeans) had their own lotu, and that it was not the same as the one in Tonga. The people could see the religious ceremonies in the missionaries’ house and the two felt free to speak about it (08.04). Bataillon and Luzy refrained from saying they had come to convert Uvea to their lotu. The island was very divided on the issue. Most people felt secure in their old religion, and there was a deep distrust of any lotu papalangi, always associated with the Methodism in Tonga. Quite a few people, including a brother of Lavelua (12.04), were inclined to accept the lotu of Bataillon (17.04), and he secretly had a small band of catechumens who met on one of the twenty odd little islands on the ring of the vast lagoon that surrounds Wallis. Lavelua did not approve of it but mostly pretended not to know. Some people urged Bataillon to force the issue by putting the king for the choice, either to accept the lotu or to send him away (04.04). But all through 1838 the missionaries thought it better not to come out into the open.[1]

Wallis Island

Cultures in contact

By the middle of 1838 our missionaries had lived for half a year in the midst of Polynesians. Remarkably, at about the same time, three of them felt they should start writing down what they had observed. Joseph-Xavier Luzy, on Wallis, started an eight-pages description of the island and its inhabitants in May 1838, he added a few pages in May 1839 and two more in May 1840, before he succeeded in mailing them.[2] Pierre Bataillon started a Notice sur l’île et la mission de Wallis (22 pages) in May 1838, he added a few pages in May 1839.[3] The two sets from Wallis are very much alike, as one would expect. Still, it shows an active involvement on the part of Brother Joseph in the study of the people. Servant did not put his impressions in a report, but the letters to his parents and his two friends in May (each of four pages)[4] and his letter to Colin in September (eight pages) contain all the material of a good report. Peter Chanel started a diary, or chronicle, on 12 November 1837, four days after arriving on the island. It soon got lost and on 26 December 1837 he started anew. Nearly every day he noted down the small events and impressions that make up the warp and woof of grass-roots history and ethnography.[5]

One would have expected all the symptoms of culture shock. The way they had reacted to the local people on the Canary Islands[6] and the romanticism that Mangareva aroused[7], prove they had no natural immunity. Still, on Wallis, on Futuna, and along the Hokianga River in New Zealand, all of them tell us of the Polynesian people in ways that are singularly free of the jolts that intensive involvement in those alien cultures could easily have caused. They see nothing ridiculous and nothing wrong in the people’s way of life. Nor do they romanticize.[8] Chanel notes that on the Singave side of the island men as well as women behave less modestly than on the Tua side, under King Niuliki.[9] The missionaries expected barbarous cannibals, but they are in no way judgmental and describe what they see with sympathy. They came full of the usual prejudices, but very soon the prejudices have melted away in the face of reality.

Nizier and Chanel appreciate the local food (no cuisinophobia!) and the kava. Chanel has acquired a taste for the thick white worms that are prized out of dead wood.[10] They enjoy the music and the dances, admire the food gardens and the people’s fishing skills. The missionaries disregard Colin’s injunctions on moving about alone and Brother Nizier happily measures a local lady for a dress.

Bataillon wonders how the Polynesians ever managed to build their vast houses and canoes without the steel axes and knives they had only recently obtained. He too admires the gardening skills of the men, the variety of their food crops, the rotating use of the land, the courtesies of the kava ceremony. Luzy admires the huge ocean-faring canoes, and the courage with which the Wallisians take to the open ocean. Where Colin fears indecent nudity, Bataillon finds people modestly dressed in colourful tapa[11], and men and women bathing on separate spots, far apart. On Wallis he finds no sign of idolatry, but great respect for the taboos. He sees that some chiefs may have two or more wives, but that the common people are monogamous and that they are generally faithful to their spouses.[12] He sees people sharing their food and notices their generosity to strangers: a well-ordered, hierarchical society where authority is respected, where men grow and prepare the food, women take care of the children and produce the tapa clothing.

In New Zealand, Servant admires the Maoris, strong and well-built men who work hard. He looks at them with respect from his house on the river, easily paddling their canoes even in rough weather: people of good and forceful character, with a sense of humour, who have fun imitating the whites.

What was it that went right? The Marist missionaries were defenceless, unarmed, entirely dependent on their Polynesian hosts. They displayed an incredible trust in the people’s goodwill. In comparison with the Methodists in New Zealand as well as in the islands, they were poor, and had very little to offer but a strange lotu. Unlike the visiting sailors, they respected the women and showed compassion with the suffering. The Polynesians responded with kindness. May we think that it was their very dependence that guarded the missionaries from the feelings of superiority which so easily lead to culture shock? And, may we think too, that it was precisely their trust that brought out the best in their hosts? Whatever it was, Pompallier need not have worried. Their piety was able to cope.


  1. Cf. LRO, doc. 28 [26].
  2. LRO, doc. 23.
  3. LRO, doc. 28.
  4. LRO, docs. 25, 26 & 27; cf. above, p. 72.
  5. Cf. EC, pp. 313ff.
  6. Cf. above, p. 46f.
  7. Cf. above, p. 58f.
  8. Cf. Luzbetak, The Church and Cultures, pp. 203 – 222. With a wink at his own experience in Papua New Guinea, Luzbetak identifies cuisinophobia as a symptom of culture shock. Cf. p. 206.
  9. EC, p. 335. 14.03.38.
  10. Chevron to family, 21.10.40. Rozier, op. cit. doc 16 [28]. It is a guess on my part that these must be the worms found in dead wood, especially of the breadfruit trees. Chevron says they were eaten raw. More probably, as in many islands, they were eaten after having been roasted for a few moments on a small open fire.
  11. Laval too, op. cit. p. 35, makes the point that, even before contact, the women of the Gambier Islands were always modestly dressed with a long tapa knotted over one shoulder.
  12. A few years later, Chevron, op. cit. [16] says spouses separate often and easily. He could not say that yet from his own observations. Had Bataillon come to see that his early impressions had been too optimistic, and told Chevron?

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