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Br Marie-Nizier to Fr Champagnat, Futuna, 30 September 1839

CPC 165-171


After leaving Valparaiso Pompallier had called in at Mangareva in the Gambiers and then at Tahiti. Here the bishop hired a schooner, the “Raiatea” and sailed for Tonga. Finding Catholic missionaries not welcome there, he passed on to Uvea (Wallis) where he left Fr Bataillon and Br Joseph at the beginning of November 1837. He intended to establish his next station on Rotuma but was so pleased with his reception on Futuna that he left Fr Chanel and Br Marie-Nizier to set one up there on 12 November. At this time the island was divided between two groups, each with its own king, the dominant Maro and the subject Lava. The villages of the former occupied the valleys of the east and south parts of the island (the district of Tua) while the main villages of the latter were in the northwest (the district of Sigave). There was constant warfare between the two groups, as whichever side was Lava (or conquered) at a particular time attempted to turn the tables and become Maro (conqueror) in their turn (Rozier EC 196). The two missionaries established themselves first in the valley of Alo under the patronage of the “great king” of the Maro, Niuriki. War broke out in January 1838 and dragged on without any positive result until peace was concluded in April. Chanel, who had taken advantage of an opportunity to visit the Marists on Wallis towards the end of March, did not get back until the end of April, and in the meantime the king had the missionaries' belongings moved to his palace at Poi (the “Tuileries” as Marie-Nizier calls it, after the palace at Versailles). In September they moved into a house of their own which was destroyed by the cyclone of February 1839. The Lava made another attempt to reverse the situation in July and August 1839 which ended for them in complete disaster.

This letter and the next, written not long after this war, were replies to letters brought by the second group of Marists who called in on them on 8 May on their way to New Zealand.

Text of the Letter

Dear very reverend Father,
I still have very fond memories of the Hermitage. The distance between us only makes my affection the stronger. What a long time it has taken for me to receive news of you. Nearly three years! But what a happy occasion it was for me when I had my wish fulfilled with the arrival of the second group of missionaries. Your letter, dear very reverend Father, has been a very special source of consolation for me. I see in it your loving and very fatherly care for me.
I presume you have already received a detailed report of the events during our crossing from Valparaiso to Oceania, so I will dispense with them in this letter.
The first place where a mission was established was Wallis. The ships that have put in there have not had a high opinion of the behaviour of the inhabitants. In fact, when we were unloading the trunks of Fr Bataillon and Br Joseph-Xavier, they didn't have any scruples about removing most of the contents of one of them.
On our arrival in Futuna, we hadn't even cast anchor before our little schooner was surrounded by the islanders in their little canoes shouting to us in a language we couldn't understand. They weren't supposed to come aboard but despite the prohibition they adroitly clambered up when they saw the crew were otherwise employed. Once the anchor was let down the ban was lifted and they swarmed from all sides. The beach was crowded with onlookers, there were not enough boats for them, and some even paddled out on the trunks of trees.
We went to one of the houses belonging to the more powerful of the two kings. He was away but his relations hurried about spreading out mats so we could sit down. On his arrival the first thing he did was to press his nose against the bishop's as is the custom of the island. The conversation was carried on through interpreters. There was no obstacle to our coming to stay on the island.
We were served a meal consisting of roast pig, excellent yams, coconuts, and other dishes prepared in the Futunan way. Leaves served as tables, serviettes, dishes, and plates. We used our fingers as forks and, where necessary, as knives. I can assure you I found the new method a little off-putting, but actually it is not much of an obstacle. They built us a little hut covered with interwoven coconut fronds. The walls were of sticks fixed together in the form of a screen, also covered with coconut leaves. Fr Chanel had another one built but we haven't lived in it.
The inhabitants of this island are divided into two groups, the conquerors and the conquered.[1] Three months after our arrival the latter declared war on the former by assassinating one of their people. Immediately the alarm was sounded in all directions, everyone left their work and all the villages dependent on one king or the other gathered in one valley. There is good reason for this. In times past in similar situations there were night attacks resulting in the massacre of the people of entire villages.
We remained alone in our original valley. Nothing conclusive happened. One side or the other attempted a sortie but none came to anything. During this time Fr Chanel made a voyage to Wallis to visit Fr Bataillon. That left us, a young Englishman from Vava'u {Thomas Boag} and me, quite alone in the valley.
On 5 April 1838 the great king came to our place, preceded by his subjects. "We are going to make war," they told us. We presumed it would be the same as on the days before, but it was not so. They penetrated the lands of the other king, almost as far as his village. They came across two youths and slew one of them by treachery while the other got away. They then came back as fast as they could, acclaiming this death as a victory.
A few days later, the king came back and, despite my protests, had our belongings moved from the valley where we were living to the one he favoured, and placed in the Tuileries of Futuna. The Englishman and I feared there was some sinister design behind this forced resettlement but subsequent events proved the king had only our good in mind. For since that time he has shown us every care and been more attentive to our needs than to those of his own children.
Providence chose the moment when circumstances seemed most opposed to peace to bring it about. The Lava made the first approach and then for more than a fortnight both sides worked towards a peace settlement.
We were very apprehensive about Fr Chanel. The days he had arranged to return had long passed and there was no sign of his coming. Finally, after waiting more than two weeks, we heard the little schooner had returned and we went to welcome him back.
After spending some days in the king's house, in a little corner he had set aside for our privacy and our belongings, we built a house of bamboo sticks planted upright and bound together with twine. It was, beyond dispute, the wonder of the island, but a few months later a frightful storm came, the night of the 2nd to 3rd of February (1839). For several days before, dark skies and strong easterly winds had warned of its coming. When it broke, there was lightning, thunder, a continuous downpour and the fearsome roaring of the sea. To all that was added the cries of the islanders making offerings of kava[2] to their gods to calm the storm. A few hours before dawn the wind changed and swung to the northwest with the speed of lightning, tripling, quadrupling in force. Up to then we had waited it out, but then it was time to change. We were only half dressed and already we were struggling against the hurricane to hold up our poor little house. To no avail! All we could do was watch it being agitated, shaken in all its parts, the roof torn to shreds, and finally collapse under the force of the wind, leaving us without shelter. A great number of houses suffered the same fate.
The night before the disaster, the Lava had brought a gift of 10 roast pigs to two men. They believed two gods came down on these men and spoke through their mouths. Their purpose in making this presentation was to attract the gods (and the men who served as their oracles) to their valleys and thus win their favour in the next campaign... for this was nothing less than a declaration of war.
They have a diabolic spirituality which leads them to attribute everything that happens to their false gods, their successes as well as the reverses they suffer. As a result, the Lava thought they would become stronger by increasing the number of their gods.
The storm was blamed on them for having tried to upset the island and provoking the anger of the chief god: Faka veri kere (who brings evil to the earth). Convinced this was the case, most of the Maro went the same day, armed with spears, axes, etc. to the village where the presentations had been made (and where the Lava had spent the night) with the sole intention of killing all the people they held responsible for the disaster. Those unfortunates only escaped with their lives due to the kindness of the great king.
Coconuts, bananas, breadfruit, yams, in general all the crops of the island were badly affected by the storm so famine threatened to join all the other calamities. But the islanders worked with extraordinary courage to repair the damage.
The two men I mentioned were not long in following their gods. Their departure unfortunately resulted in exactly the sad situation it was intended to bring about.
We rebuilt our house. We believe it to be at least four times stronger than the first, but are waiting patiently enough for a second storm to come and prove it.
The Lava made an open declaration of war in almost the same way they had previously, but this time there was no actual killing, just the attempt. Fr Chanel did everything he could to avert this calamity and to banish it for good. He approached both kings but without any real success.
The king of the Lava had himself crowned and his subjects paid him the homage due to a king by right of conquest. Nothing could have affronted the Maro more, had they heard about it.
On the 10th August, the Maro again gathered in a single valley. The great king proposed to send a messenger with gifts to the other to persuade him to make an end to the war. But such praiseworthy intentions were not to be put into practice. That very morning the Lava, inspired with new hope, began their advance on the territory of the Maro. They were convinced victory would be theirs since now they had the protection of two new gods (which, to their way of thinking, could not fail). Alerted by their warcries, the Maro rushed out in front of their enemies to repel them. The actual fighting was preceded by some gunfire from the ranks of the Lava who possessed quite a number of guns, and these had their effect. "Leave the wounded behind, tread them under foot," the great king told his subjects, "and charge and defeat our enemies," and they did so. Battle was joined, with such enthusiasm on the part of the Lava that victory seemed to smile on them for a moment. But it was followed by the most frightful butchery, for the Maro rallied again. The young men of the Lava took to their heels and the old ones, too weak to withstand this fresh attack, were the main victims of their desertion. The old king, just recently crowned, one of the two men mentioned above, and most of those who had gained some rank since the coronation, were among the dead.
After the battle we were asked to come to the battlefield and look after the wounded. Up to that time we had known nothing of the day's tragic events. We hurried to the place where they were waiting. On the way we learned our good king had been wounded. Our first patient had been seriously wounded by a stone in his left eye; another had had his skull opened by a blow from a weapon they call "isiroir" (this is a lance 8 to 10 feet long carried only by the older warriors and used for both striking and thrusting; there are others which are used simply for throwing). But what an appalling sight awaited us on the actual battlefield! All we could see were the wounded, dead, or dying, surrounded by their grieving relatives. The corpses were a distressing sight, some with heads hacked in, others pierced with spears, or smashed to death! An Englishman, who had come to the island some time after us, had wanted to take part in the war and he was the victim of his own rashness (he was living with the Lava). All the Maro who were not wounded, or only slightly, had gone off to the enemy villages for plunder. They stripped another young Englishman of all his belongings - even the shirt he was wearing was torn off him - and he escaped death only through the intervention of one of the sons of the victorious king.
On their return, the wounded were transported to a neighbouring valley where there were several houses, and they proceeded to extract the lances and bullets. The king was one of the first to undergo this operation. The lance which had wounded him had entered through his right shoulder and finished up under the left. An incision of about two inches was enough to enable them to grasp the end of the lance and draw it out. Much the same procedure was used for spears which had not gone right through the body. One of the king's brothers was among the mortally wounded. The spear which had struck him had gone through his left side and its tip had raised the skin on his right. During the operation, as painful as it was dangerous, they exhorted him not to give in to the pain. But when it was over, the blood really poured from the wound which was very deep. The unfortunate fellow took one glance, then looked up to the sky, his eyes already glazing over, his face went a deathly white, and he died moments later. His wife let the blood flow into her cupped hands and threw it over her head. All the persons related to the wounded collected, so to speak, to the last drop, the blood from the wounds of those dear to them and some even dried leaves and blades of grass stained with blood. Fr Chanel for his part was able to administer Holy Baptism. As the number of wounded was very great, I am afraid it would take a little too long to describe each individually.
It was practically impossible for us to take a step without getting stained with blood. Night came on. The operations were over for the moment, but not the crying of the relations of the dead. You can't imagine the wailing we could hear from all parts of the valley!
Fr Chanel and I spent the night under a coconut tree on the sand. Only a plank gave us a bit of shelter from the wind and rain. It was sheer exhaustion rather than any inclination to sleep that overcame us a few hours before dawn, and we got a little repose, if you can actually call the few moments we spent dozing repose.
When it was morning the dead were conveyed to the valley where people had spent the night. The Lava were buried there, with the exception of the king. His wife had him exhumed and taken elsewhere. Another was the man who had run away with his god. The Maro carried him off to one of their valleys. As for us, we buried the Englishman on the spot where he was killed. What an end for the unfortunate man! God alone knows what he was thinking when he breathed his last.
We weren't able to learn anything about the Lava, for their wounded, like all the others, had sought refuge in the hills, fearing, with justification, they would be the next victims. Trampled bushes were the only sign of their passage. The victorious king and the main chiefs started getting them to come down a few days ago.
I have had the happiness of baptising a sick child a little over a year old. Fr Chanel was away. I learned that the illness was serious and went to visit the child. "She is better now," the parents told me, "we will have to wait until she gets worse." This was only their tactful way of telling me they didn't want to hear any talk about religion, but I didn't say a word on the subject. I pretended to agree with everything they said to me in order to dispel any suspicion. My feigned indifference, in fact, made them less watchful, and thus a few minutes later I was able to baptise the child without anyone there noticing. Mary Philomena is the name I gave her. I thought it would be more difficult than it was so I had brought two little flasks, one containing a liqueur and the other plain water. I was going to use the first for a rub-down and the second for the baptism. The child's parents found out she had been baptised but didn't seem to mind. She died 10 days after her baptism. We have the consolation of seeing that fortunately few persons, adults or children, die without baptism.
I think that there you have in essence, though not completely, the main things that have happened in Futuna since our arrival. Most of the islanders appear well enough disposed to us. But there are many who are afraid their gods will be angry with them if they become Christians.
Goodbye for now, dear very reverend Father. I make so bold as to recommend myself once more to the prayers of the Society.
Br Marie-Nizier


  1. While Marie-Nizier consistently refers to the two groups by the French words for conquerors and conquered, I have adopted Chanel's occasional practice of using the Futunan words "Malo" and "Lava" (eg Chanel to Bataillon 7 September 1839. EC 236f.).
  2. Marie-Nizier provides his own note on kava: "This is a plant whose root, once it has been thoroughly pulped, serves to provide a drink. They also offer it to their gods before their ceremonies and on other occasions."
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