Br Hyacinthe to Br Francois, Christhoval, 18 January 1846
Br Hyacinthe (Joseph Chatelet 1817-1847) entered the novitiate at Vauban in September 1840, almost a year after it was opened by Champagnat. He made his final profession in September 1843 and the following year joined the large group Mgr Epalle was leading to the Pacific. It was another large one, 7 priests and 6 brothers: Frs Fremont, Paget, Chaurain, Montrouzier, Verguet, Thomassin, and Jacquet, and Brs Prosper Rouesne, Charles Vincent (coadjutors), and Bertrand, Gennade, Aristide, and Hyacinthe (PFM). They left London on the "Bussorah Merchant" on February 2 1845 and reached Sydney on June 22. Here they were lodged at the temporary procure at Woolloomooloo, the first Marist house in Sydney, and another house rented nearby. It was here that Gennade wrote his letter to the Hermitage which has not survived. . The brothers were assigned to repairing, washing, and airing their cargo while Epalle tried to gather information about the islands of his new vicariate. Pompallier arrived in August and the two conducted an embarrassing and fruitless debate over the issues of authority and finance. In October Epalle chartered a ship, the "Marion Watson", and the party set off for the Solomons after a funereal farewell, for Melanesia had such a bad reputation it was shunned even by beachcombers and escaped convicts.
When they called into the New Caledonia mission at Ballade in November they found it had shortly before them been supplied by the "Rhin" but some of the missionaries were down with fever. Epalle took pity on his colleagues for there were only four of them, Viard having departed for New Zealand the month before, and left Bertrand to help out. On November 24 they departed for the Solomons, where they anchored first in Makira Bay on San Cristobal. It was here that Hyacinthe and Aristide got lost . On the 12th December they headed for Santa Isabel. There, at the mouth of the Astrolabe Harbour in Thousand Ships Bay, Epalle was struck down a few days later, on the 16th. After his death and burial on the nearby island of San Jorge on the 20th, the rest withdrew to San Cristobal and built a timber house near the village of the One people in Makira Bay, a site they named Port St Jean Baptiste. Even here they had to be careful, as the incident involving Jean-Xavier Montrouzier the following January shows . Montrouzier was taken to New Caledonia to recover and did not return until the year after with Mgr Collomb, Epalle's successor.
This letter was not completed until March 1 and then taken to Sydney on the "Etoile du matin" for despatch to Europe. The original has not survived but there is a manuscript copy in the AFM (Cahier pages 201-210). Epalle's death is recorded in Colin's circular to his confreres included in the CSG vol 1 (pages 446-9). The same volume records the equally violent death of Hyacinthe himself a year or so later (rf L 72).
Text of the Letter
- Very dear Brother,
- I think I would be failing in my promise and my duty if I did not take time to give you some details of our voyage. I didn't do so earlier as Br Gennade included some news from me at Sydney.
- On the 23rd October we set sail and headed for New Caledonia where Monsignor Amata [Douarre] set up a mission two years ago. Our voyage was a long one but very pleasant. In Caledonia we found Mgr Amata and Fr Rougeyron in very good health. Brothers Blaise and Vincent were still feeling the effects of the privations they suffered in the first months of their arrival on the island. They told us some of their adventures, of the many times they had been in danger among the savages, but God looked after them. They had rarely been wounded and never seriously. As soon as they could make themselves understood they had no difficulty in making friends with the natives. They have a special liking for Br Vincent who forges them iron suitable for cutting the wood they use for building their canoes. Although these savages go about naked I found nothing disgusting about them. I found them so welcoming I hope to find the same dispositions in those we are going to live among.
- During our stay in Caledonia we helped Mgr Amata begin to raise the scaffolding of his cathedral. It is a little church about 50 feet long and 25 wide. My very dear Brother, how can I express to you the zeal and ardour of this good bishop. We saw him working with us with a pick to prepare the site for his church. According to the Brothers, he is the one who carried all the stones and the mortar for the house, and when there is something difficult to do he is always the first in. When they were building it they often had nothing to eat and had to go to bed hungry and get up the same. I say a bed, but it is only a bit of straw; there are no mattresses. The 8 days we stayed there, priests and brothers, we slept on the ground. That was where we began the life of a missionary we were to carry on later.
- Several months previously the "Rhin", a French warship, had left them some provisions. They are much better and we left them something we had picked up in Sydney for them. Now they are doing fine. They are busy teaching the good natives and the little children to pray. You could hear them chanting the Hail Mary at the top of their voices with charming simplicity and candour. They appeared to be so happy with us that they would have spent the night at the door if His Lordship had not sent them away. It was with much sorrow that we left Br Bertrand at the New Caledonia mission to help Mgr Amata with the building of his church. The day of our departure His Lordship dined with us aboard and after we had received his benediction we headed for Christhoval - that was on November 24. On the 26th we narrowly escaped being wrecked on some still uncharted shoals. God delivered us from this danger and in thanksgiving Monsignor instituted a Mass in perpetuity for this grace.
- We reached Christhoval on December 2. The savages we found there seemed good and peaceable enough. You can judge from this incident. On the 4th, while the sailors were getting in fresh water, we went ashore to see a little of the country. Br Aristide and I wanted to climb to the top of a hill, thinking we would get a good view, but far from it. The forest was so thick we could hardly see a thing. When we wanted to go back to the others, who we thought were not far away, we took the wrong direction - not another track, since they are not common - and got lost in this immense forest without any idea of where we had started from. After walking for more than 3 hours through vines and bushes hindering our passage and through torrential rain, we had decided to sleep out there when I had the inspiration we should each say a Rosary to place ourselves under the protection of the most holy Virgin. After finishing, I clambered up a tree at least 200 feet high and when I reached the top I saw the sea in the far distance. So we headed in that direction with much difficulty and soon came across a little stream. After following it for some time we found ourselves on the edge of the bay where we had anchored, but on the opposite side from the ship. We tried to go towards it but soon we found a very wide and deep river in our way. Since neither of us knew how to swim, we again recommended ourselves to our good Mother. At that moment we saw two canoes of natives come into sight. We signalled to them as frantically as possible. As soon as they noticed us they hastened to our help and we climbed into their canoes. When we had taken our places they offered us each a coconut. We accepted with great pleasure for we were hungry and thirsty by then. After eating and drinking our coconuts we headed for our ship, offering many prayers to our rescuer who had sent us this help. On arrival we paid them by giving them an empty bottle, a thing they much prize.
- The next morning, the 12th December, we left for Isabelle. The great misfortune we experienced the first day we anchored at the Port of a Thousand Ships still deeply affects me. I have to force myself to share it with you. God will not abandon us, I am sure, but he has taken our greatest support. On a visit to the savages, Mgr Epalle has been killed by those wretches, with 5 axe blows on the skull and 2 lance thrusts in his sides. He would have died in their hands if the sailors accompanying him had not fired a gun. This frightened them and they left him. Fr Fremont and Fr Chorin [Chaurain], who were with him, and a Brother [Prosper] and 6 sailors took advantage of their withdrawal to relieve them of their prey. When they lifted him up from the place he had fallen he was unconscious. At first they thought he was dead, but he was still breathing. They moved him with all possible care, as well as they could. He died on the 3rd day after much suffering. We all considered him a martyr. Everyone tried to save whatever had been used to wipe the blood from his wounds, his hair, and other things like that. We preserve them as very precious.
- All the crew appeared to share our sadness and performed what services they could quickly and willingly. Fr Fremont received 2 blows on the top of his head from a club and was covered in blood. But we hope with a lot of care he will soon be cured. The third officer of the ship was struck by an axe but he made a quick recovery. Fr Chorin happened to find a couple of rocks which served as weapons to help him escape their hands. These natives are extremely treacherous. When the party landed on the beach all came to meet them, presenting them with fruit according to custom, and apparently friendly. The sailors, who rarely went anywhere without their weapons, left most of them in the boat, thinking there was no danger, but they found out only too late. His Lordship's trousers and clothes remained in their hands and those barbarians would probably have eaten him the same night if they had been able to carry him off. Everything leads me to believe they are cannibals. It is not rare to see shoes or human teeth hanging about their necks. On two occasions, even, children were offered to the ship as exchange for what was desired. After all we had seen, we did not judge it prudent to set ourselves up among them so soon. We returned to Christhoval where the people seemed to us to be much better disposed to accept us. Even so, there were two tribes on Isabelle which appeared quite good and we are not thinking of leaving them long without sending someone to them. In the meantime, Mgr Epalle will prepare their hearts. I do not think his blood has flowed on their land to no purpose.
- I will give you some impressions of these people. Their clothing is all the same: a little belt is all they wear. Most daub the face and whiten the hair with chalk to inspire fear; tufts of leaves tinted red adorn their hair. A large number are tattooed on the face and around the body, making them look ridiculous. On Christhoval and Isabel (sic) they are of medium height, but at Voidal Canard [Guadalcanal] we believe we saw several around 6 feet. When they come on board, they first ask you if you want to trade with them. They bring out their most valuable possessions, coconuts, yams, taro and tortoise shells; you can have it all in return for some scraps of iron. When there are one hundred or so around the boat you can hardly make yourself understood for the noise they make, all armed with a spear in one hand and a club in the other. All have their noses pierced and their ear lobes distended; they serve them as pockets where they ordinarily carry their sugar cane and similar things.
- The six of us have started work on our house but we have had some great problems. When we needed to buy land for the site, no native wanted to sell us any. Providence, however, gave us great assistance with the help of a native we met on the summit of the island where we were anchored for 3 days. This native, along with two others, had spent 3 years in Sydney. They knew a little English and so, after a fashion served as interpreters. We kept one with us for a few days and he did us great service. After spending several days at the port without making any progress, we did not know which way to turn. When everything seemed opposed to our establishment, God, who holds the hearts of all, knew well how to turn them to our advantage. Suddenly they were different men; not only did they let us build but they helped us by carrying wood and earth and everything needed for the building of our house. They did all the roofing, apart from the carpentry, all covered in palm fronds very close-fitting and neatly arranged. Now we are comfortably lodged. The house is 41 feet long, and 20 wide, all of wood. I say "Comfortably lodged" in comparison with the 2 months we spent in a stuffy little hut where 6 of us regularly slept - 3 priests and 3 brothers. The other 6 slept on board. We suffered a lot from the frequent rain and the great heat. We were continually soaked from one or the other. Our priests have truly shown courage and dedication. They have worked with us continually from morning to evening, so that we have done a lot of work in these two months.
- But we had one dismaying accident in the middle of our work. One of the priests was speared by a native of an enemy tribe and was in bed for a month. This is how it happened. A sailor played around with the savage's wife and he was enraged at the insult. Since he didn't yet know how to distinguish us from the crew of the ship, he took his revenge on the Father, who was a little distance away from the others - it was Fr Monroucier [Montrouzier]. This event certainly put us on our guard. This word of Scripture certainly operates here: "You work out your salvation in fear and trembling."
- The tribe nearest our residence, however, is good enough. The chief is very attached to us and often brings us the best they have in the way of food - a sort of pate they make from the nuts of a tree which is very common and yields a good crop of fruit. This nut tastes like almond. They pound it with the white flesh of the coconut and cook it over the fire. It is not all that pleasant but we never refuse it - that would be a great insult. They also bring us coconuts, bananas, sugarcane. But you must always give them something in return - shirts, handkerchiefs, ideally little bags for storing their betel nut. Br Aristide frequently spends all day making them, especially when we have about 40 working at clearing the bush around our house. What is best are pearls. That's their currency, like 5 franc pieces in France. They also place a lot of value on bottles. All I can say about these natives is that they rend us many services, although they try our patience a lot. We have to keep a close eye on them because they are all thieves and we can leave nothing in their hands. They have taken several of our tools. In time we will know their language and hope to make fervent Christians of them all. Without a doubt, after so many trials the good God will turn our tears into rejoicing. I forgot to mention, we are at Port St Jean Baptiste on the west coast. That's what we have named it, after Monsignor Epalle. It seems it is not known to French navigators.
- But, my very dear Brother, the recitation of our persecutions and trials should not discourage those who want to come and share with us the labours of this great harvest. After the sufferings of this life we will have our rest in heaven; there we will all be reunited in our homeland. Dear Brs Gennade and Aristide send you their greetings and their profound respects to all the Brothers of the Hermitage. They are very happy and in good health, and we hope you are all the same. Don't forget us in your prayers. Best of wishes to dear Brs Louis-Marie, Jean-Baptiste, Stanislaus, Bonaventure and all the others. We embrace you with all our heart in the very holy hearts of Jesus and Mary.
- I am for life your very devoted Brother,
- Hyacinthe, little Marist brother.
- I am for life your very devoted Brother,
- Dear Brother, noting our position after the details I have given you of my occupations, you can see that my letter was begun on the 18th January, and I finished it on the 1st of March. I think the ship is leaving for Sydney in 2 or 3 days. Please do me the favour, the dearer to me as I am convinced you will not forget, to copy my letter or pass it on to Vauban. The postage will not be much and the result will be the same. We greatly desire to receive news of the Hermitage. Please do not let an opportunity pass without sending us some.
- Hyacinthe or his copyist seems to have got his names confused here for it was Jean Taragnat who had accompanied Blaise to New Caledonia in December 1843, and there had been no arrivals since.
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