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May 1838, May 1839, May 1840 — Brother Joseph-Xavier (Jean- Marie Luzy) to his family, Wallis

Translated by Fr Brian Quin SM, May 2010

Uvea Island, or Wallis, May 1838

My very dear father, my very dear mother and all of you, brothers and sisters
Here is the letter you have been waiting for so long, which the good God has arranged to get to you so as to clear away the anxieties about me that you perhaps have experienced, so teaching you that Divine Providence guides, preserves and protects, even at the ends of the earth, those who belong to him.
It is from the island of Uvea or Wallis, where I have been for 18 months, that I am addressing this letter to you. Before telling you about this island, I will give you some details about the rest of our voyage, that is, from Valparaiso to here. It was on the 10th August 1837 that we left this last-mentioned town on an American ship named the Europe (250 tons), which was going to go to Gambier [Islands] and from there, take us to Tahiti. With us there were two missionaries and a catechist from Bishop Rouchouze’s mission who were on their way to his Lordship. We got to his island after a 33-day journey. I cannot describe to you the delight I felt on seeing the new Christians of those Gambier Islands who a short time ago were savages, still fighting and eating each other, and now that the zeal of the holy Bishop whom the Court of Rome has sent among them, has made known to them the one true God, creator of heaven and earth, they are totally changed people. They are gentle, hardworking, loving, fulfilling with fervour and exemplary exactitude all their Christian duties. They cannot express enough their gratitude to the apostolic men who brought them the flame of faith. When they saw another Bishop and other missionaries come from the same place as theirs, they couldn’t contain their joy, and strove in every way they could to get us to understand that they had become our brothers, that they were also Christians, children of Rome, children of Mary. Their gestures, their voices, their looks – everything about them expressed joy, happiness and gratitude. Bishop Pompallier had great pleasure in blessing these new brothers.
On the 15th October,[1] after a stay of only two days among them, we were forced to set sail again, and six days afterward we arrived in the islands of Tahiti. The people of these islands, who have been described as the finest in Oceania, are very far from resembling those in the Gambier Islands, although the Protestant ministers have been established there about forty years. Those who inhabit the interior of the island are still savages, and among those who have embraced heresy, it can be easily seen that they are only held to it by the fear of blows with ropes or other punishments they are treated with.
During a fortnight’s stay we had in Tahiti, the Bishop hired a little ship so as to visit the islands in his jurisdiction more easily, and on the 4th October he had the ship leave, and head in the direction of the Friendly Islands. On the 14th, we sailed past some little inhabited islands, called Palmerston,[2] and on the 21st we saw the Vava’u islands. They were the first islands in the Bishop’s jurisdiction. The devil, who had in one way or another pursued us throughout the journey, seemed to make a last effort to bring about our failure on the very threshold of the mission. The wind having suddenly failed us, the currents pulled our vessel towards the coasts of those islands and twice, amongst rain and thickest darkness, it was about to smash against steep rocks. The holy Virgin saved us from them, and the next day we happily entered the harbour. The Vava’u islands are in the grip of heresy: the people have all been baptised by the Protestants, but if they fulfil some of their duties, it is only by reason of blows with ropes. How far they are from resembling the people of the Gambier Islands, whose only rule for good conduct is the lovable law of the gospel of Jesus Christ our Saviour.
On the 28th of that same month the Bishop had us set sail in the direction of Wallis, and on the 1st November we get to this island, which is still pagan, although the Protestant ministers from the neighbouring islands have tried several times to win it over to heresy. The Bishop, having spoken to the King,[3] decided to leave there a missionary and a catechist; he chose Father Bataillon and me. I will not deny that I experienced some difficulty in seeing myself separated like this from his Lordship and from Father Chanel, but the graces attached to obedience made this new sacrifice easy for me, and with happiness and contentment I abandoned myself into the arms of the Blessed Virgin.
As we were aware of the reputation of this island for theft and plundering, the Bishop left us with only what was strictly necessary for seven to eight months, promising to return at that time to bring us new supplies. We didn’t take long to see the Bishop’s precaution justified; in fact the King having sent some young men to fetch my trunk with a local canoe, these people could not resist the temptation to find out what it contained, and on their way, having forcefully got rid of Father Servant and a sailor-interpreter who were accompanying them, broke open the trunk and took almost all my few items of underwear and some other things that tempted them and took it like this to the King who seemed all the more annoyed about it because he was a long way from having plotted and agreed with this theft. He led us to understand that he would have our things returned; in spite of that, I did not fail to replace them with others, rightly I believe, because they returned only very few things to me. Everything having been completed, the Bishop had the anchor raised to the neighbouring islands, and I remained alone with Father Bataillon amongst the unfortunate people of Wallis.
The King had undertaken to have built for us immediately a little hut alongside his own; at the very time of our arrival, one of the leading men in the country became mad, but a most furious madness: he injured people, ran after them, struck everyone, burned houses, and day and night never stopped creating a frightful din. Because people thought that a divinity had come down into his body,[4] they were very reluctant to resist his destructive activity; they simply fled into the forest, or got away from him in some other way. We were forced to do the same as everyone else so as not to annoy the inhabitants. During the early days we hid ourselves in the forest, carrying from one place to another the only trunk we still had. After a month, seeing that no end to this madness was in sight, Father Bataillon thought it best to leave the company of the King and go to a little nearby island, to the house of one of the King’s relatives,[5] where the rest of our possessions were. This decision was very wise. We had already been close to being killed by this maniac; he had surprised us in the King’s enclosure and had begun to chase us. At first he was hot on our heels; Father Bataillon, who happened to be last, had the misfortune to fall while running; immediately the maniac raised above him a huge staff, he held it raised, or rather the Blessed Virgin checked his arm, he didn’t dare strike. Seeing him, Father Bataillon got up, resumed his flight, but the madman struck then, and broke over his shoulders the great staff he held in his hands; Father Bataillon kept on running, and having once more been caught up in the scrub, he fell to the ground exhausted, and decided to await whatever Providence intended for him. Then the wretched madman stopped, went back on his steps, uttering some words that we could not understand. That was a new reason for our being grateful to the fatherly providence of our God who sometimes places us within an inch or two of disaster so as to better give us an experience of his kindness and protection when pulling us out of danger. We lived for six weeks on that little island. Father Bataillon was able to say Mass every day in a hut that had been got ready for us in an out-of-the-way place. The King, impatient to see us again, sent someone to find us. We straight away came as he desired. We found him after a good while in the forest, in a little makeshift house that he had had made so as to conceal himself, like the others, from the pursuit of the madman. In order to keep us close to him, he himself built for us a temporary dwelling until we were able to go back to the royal palace, which only happened three months later; I was during this time busy preparing timber for the construction of our house. The King and his chiefs, tired at last of the destructive acts of the madman, had him tied up and they each then went back to their respective villages. It was only then that we erected in the King’s enclosure the little house with the wood we had prepared and which should have been built, according to the agreement with the Bishop, during the first days after we arrived.
That was the 12th April 1838. Since then we have remained in peace and at rest, happy as princes, although in a quite new situation for me. Time has not lingered for me because I have always been busy doing something; apart from working on our little house, the maintenance of our little furniture, I have tried to spend my time in making rosaries with seeds which are called Job’s tears, which are abundant. I also found cotton plants in fair quantity and was able to occupy myself in spinning cotton from them and knitting it in order to interest the natives and to more and more attach them to us. Beyond that, I have combed the little children’s hair, I trimmed the men’s beards, I mended some poor linen items they owned, or rendered them some little services of that sort: nothing more needed to be done to arouse their curiosity or excite their admiration.
Because this island is situated in the torrid zone, the heat is oppressive and continuous; and that is no doubt what has given me frequent backaches and some other little illnesses; I have also had some foot problems caused by scratches and inflamed by flies and mosquitos which are a calamity for those who live in the torrid zone.
But let us get to some details about the island itself. It is small and oval in shape, hardly more than three leagues [c 15 km] in its greatest length; it is surrounded by several small islands which are all inhabited. The houses are all on the edge of the sea and very close to each other. The whole interior of the island is only a huge forest of which only a few areas are cleared, some distance apart, in order to plant yams and banana palms there. The population is perhaps not greater than 3000 souls; the inhabitants are big and strong men; as for their appearance, they would fairly much resemble Europeans but for their coppery skins. They are good and, in particular, generous. They eat nothing, not even a piece of fruit, without sharing it, particularly with the whites. Providence has wonderfully supplied food for these people. In addition to pigs, hens, and fish which are abundant, there is as well the yam which is a large and fine potato; the breadfruit, the size of an ordinary melon, which at the right season really has the taste of a brioche; the banana which is in great quantity and which compares well with the best European fruits; the taro and several other root crops which grow without care and even without cultivation. Dogs, cats, pigeons and wild ducks are numerous, but it is generally forbidden to kill and eat them.
The usual drinks in the country are kava and coconut juice. Kava is a spirituous liquor that is made from a root of that name, so as to be reduced to a sort of paste and then mixed in enough water to make it not too strong; it is then distributed in pretty cups made from coconuts; first of all to the presiding chief and then to those next to him, as indicated by one of them who is called tufa;[6] this drink, which at first is repugnant, then becomes pleasant, all the more because it is really beneficial, especially when you are exhausted by tiredness or overcome by the heat. It is suitable for every day and every moment, but it is especially in the morning and the evening that people come together from every direction in each village to make and drink this liquor. There is not the least religious ceremony, the least gathering of any sort, the most insignificant visit, when this root is not offered as a sign of shared friendship. After that the people quench their thirst with coconut juice and especially drink it while working. This fruit is truly wonderful because of the multiple uses it can be put to. The husk surrounding it can be used for making very strong ropes, the shell which comes next makes jugs for water and drinking cups, the nut found inside is good to eat and if you compress it you can get out of it a liquid which has the colour and the taste of milk, and which can then be made into oil; finally the interior is filled with a liquid which has almost the colour and the taste of whey; there are some which contain up to a litre of this liquid; everywhere it is true to say that God is wonderful in his works.
These people are hardworking; they like those who work. There are, here, a dozen British and American white men. They mainly become attached to those they work with. We have found only one Frenchman who has come to live with us and was quite useful to us especially at the start.[7] The women busy themselves with what concerns clothing. They are the ones that make the different sorts of mats, the sisi[8] or belts made with foliage, and tapa which is a sort of fabric made with the bark of a shrub. The men are responsible for what concerns food and shelter, consequently fishing, the cultivation of fruit trees and then the cooking, which they do in underground ovens in a way that is very clean and very ingenious. Building their houses involves setting up four posts on which they make a roof with branches and foliage in the shape of an umbrella, they cover the rest with mats made of coconut leaves.
As for the customs of these people, among errors there are certainly to be found things that are astonishing because some chiefs have several wives, the ordinary people have only one and they preserve great reciprocal fidelity; it is absolutely forbidden for relatives to marry, however far removed they might be. What is more they cannot appear together without a long tapa (local item of clothing) nor exchange between them words of even the slightest indecency.
The gods of these people are the souls of the dead which return from the realm of darkness into the bodies of mortals to let their will be known.[9] The men or women into whose bodies these spirits descend are called priests or priestesses of the gods.[10] There are more than sixty of them on this island, but people pay attention only to those who receive the souls of kings or to those who are recognised as powerful in the kingdom of darkness; some cause one sickness, others another etc; no one dies except as a result of the anger of some of them; so that when people are ill, they are taken into the house of the priest of the god who is thought to be the one responsible for the sickness; it is usually the one in the village, the god is invited every day to come down into the house, and they offer him a lot of kava to appease his anger. Apart from cases of sickness, kava is often brought to the priests of the gods, mainly to get them to come down from the darkness and talk with the men while drinking kava together. That is almost all the worship they offer to their divinities, with the exception that it is in their honour that they observe the tabus that exist among them. These tabus, though decided on by the King or by some chief, are supposed to be observed out of fear and reverence owed to the gods.
These people couldn’t be greater lovers of music and dancing; it is not unusual to see them gathering in each village to sing and dance for some of the night; apart from special dances, they have solemn and formal dances as well in every feast they celebrate, whether for a firstborn, or for someone who has died, etc etc. These feasts and dances are mainly very decent, people hasten to them from every direction. They begin by chewing a huge kava root, then two or three hundred baskets of food are distributed and then they sing and dance until the following morning. The beautiful mats with which they are dressed, the oil with which they all have been greased, the varied shells, the garlands of flowers and foliage with which they are adorned, their songs, their cries, the regular and quick movements of their hands, their feet and their whole bodies are a strange and diverting sight for us. The only thing that is extremely repugnant is the strange custom they have in their celebrations for the dead, of shaving their heads, tearing their cheeks and entire heads with sharp shells, and even with clubs, axes, and spears to show their love for the person who has died. They cut children’s little fingers and the adults also sometimes have the courage to tear at their arms or chests with their teeth, to touch burning coals to their bodies, and to pierce their thighs with spears. It is really a hideous sight to see them like this, all streaming with blood and uttering frightful cries which incite them to tear at themselves more and more. All that mainly occurs on the day of burial; the three other feasts which are celebrated at ten day intervals are not so horrible; it is only the close relatives who renew their wounds a bit, they renew them often again on their own person, sometimes for six months or more. In all those celebrations, apart from the kava and the food, large pieces of tapa and magnificent mats are given to the King and the presiding chief. The presiding chief disposes of everything.
These people are not short of work. It is seen in the building of their canoes, their nets, their clubs, their spears, their kava bowls, which are huge, their cups, their mats etc, etc. The double canoes which they use as war vessels are little masterpieces in view of the little help given in building them; the people are not afraid to set out on the sea in them and to go to other islands more than 100 leagues [500 km] away.
There, my dear relatives, are some very small items of information about this island and its people. I think you will have a chance to receive more lengthy descriptions in other ways. In what concerns the purpose for which we came here, I cannot tell you anything really interesting yet. The Protestant ministers have several times sent from neighbouring islands groups of natives newly converted to error to convert this island to heresy, but their conduct and way of acting so displeased the people that they have constantly rejected their teaching; they, alas, ended up massacring the last comers who numbered between forty and fifty.[11] This massacre occurred only two years before the Bishop arrived; he was forced to conceal our identity as missionaries because of the prejudices that the natives had against this name so unworthily usurped by the Protestants. We therefore spent the first seven months without making our identity known; during that time Father Bataillon worked hard at studying the language, he visited [around] the island at various times and had the consolation of performing five baptisms, firstly two adults in danger of death whom he had secretly instructed, and then three children, one of whom belonged to an Englishman living on this island.[12] All except the last have died, and are now protectors of the island. Seeing the goodwill of the King and the whole island towards us, Father Bataillon, after having sought the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit by way of a novena, finally, at the end of seven months, made known the plan which had brought him amongst these people; he used for this purpose a young chief of royal blood who had a lot of influence over the King,[13] he had been won over and instructed beforehand. The King, who every day was expecting a move like this, did not seem to be surprised at it; he replied that the memory of having massacred those who had come before us and who were his relatives prevented him from embracing the religion, but that we should still stay close to him, and that when he died, we would proclaim our God on the island. He is afraid as well that on a change of religion kava, coconut palms and breadfruit trees might not come any more to the island. Father Bataillon takes advantage of every opportunity to speak to them about God in particular, but he hesitates and says nothing either for or against in reply. The whole island is well disposed and is only waiting for him to embrace religion. The people are disgusted with their gods, and if they were not afraid of the King, most of them would already have rejected them. So let us pray to the Lord who holds the hearts of kings in his hands, let us pray to him with fervour and perseverance that he soothe his anger and moderate his justice towards these pagans still dwelling in the shadow of death and he will enlighten them. Our efforts count for nothing, it is the almighty power of God, the virtue of the blood of Jesus Christ which convert hearts, and it will be through the prayers of good people in France who belong to the [Association for the] Propagation of the Faith that the adorable blood will be applied to our beloved pagans in Oceania.
That is enough, dear relatives; at a later date I will give you other, perhaps more interesting, details. Please pray, and get other people to pray for me and for Bishop Pompallier’s whole mission; don’t be in any way worried about me, about what I eat, about my clothing. God, whose fatherly providence includes the smallest insect, will not abandon the missionaries, and when we really have to suffer something, that will all be nothing provided we are in good standing with God and that we can turn people to him.
If you have some donations for our mission, you would send them to Father Colin in Lyons and he will look after them for us. I have received those which charitable people have given you and I thank them most sincerely, I promise them the help of my prayers, and every day in the mission they are remembered at the time of Mass. Farewell, my very dear relatives, farewell.
Your most humble son and brother
Luzy Joseph Xavier
My brother the priest, or you, dear mother, recall me to the remembrance of the pious and charitable people of Marboz[14] who have been so kind as to help us with their good works. They cannot do better than helping missionaries and through that buying souls for God. We do pray and will always pray for them.
May 1838 Several things have happened since this letter was written. Here is a little detail about some of them. Father Bataillon had had the consolation of doing several baptisms, 67 in all: some solemn and most in secret. Several of these new Christians have died. He has taught the gospel several times. All the inhabitants, except the King, wholeheartedly want our holy religion. The King does not allow it and forbids them to embrace it, nevertheless there is more than one who would rather lose their lives than obey the King. Now that a ship has arrived[15] and the grace of God and the protection of our common Mother, the Blessed Virgin, are helping us, we have to hope that the flame of the faith will shine out for them.
Just as everything was going well for us and for the natives, one of the strongest winds I have ever seen came and swept over this island, and devastated everything. Most of the trees fell, less than a quarter of the breadfruit trees remained, the coconut palms saw their tops damaged by the hurricane, not a single banana palm remains, which is bringing about a small famine on the island. However we are still on good terms with the King – he likes us very much, and we reciprocate that. I heard news of you with real pleasure; do not concern yourselves about me. All I ask of you is that you pray for me. With the help of your prayers and the grace of God, I am the happiest of men. Goodbye once more, while waiting for the departure of my letter.
May 1840 I have just received news of you for the second time. I couldn’t send you this letter when the ship came to visit us for the first time; against our expectation, it left the island of Futuna after Father Chanel’s visit; almost a year has gone since, and many things have happened which I cannot describe to you at length. To find out about them you will have recourse to Father Bataillon’s letters in the Annals of the Propagation of the Faith.
We have built a church. After the persecution in the months of March and April, the good God came to our help and the Blessed Virgin watched over us. We fear nothing. We have endured a lot of hardships. Our dear catechumens have been hunted out, struck, no one has been killed; their houses were burnt and what they owned was stolen etc etc. We ourselves were going to be killed, but the King did not allow it, or, to be more exact, the Blessed Virgin was watching over her children. So we are still alive and well. The devil was doing everything he could to maintain his empire, but the natives’ and the island’s good guardian angels floored him, today there are more than six to seven hundred catechumens who will receive baptism on the arrival of the Bishop who should not be long in coming to see us. Farewell, farewell. Pray for me, and for all our mission.


  1. Read as 15th September (cf Doc 21 [1])
  2. Cf Doc 26 [2]
  3. Vaimua Lavelua had been King of Wallis since 1829 (cf Doc 28 [14])
  4. A phenomenon attested by Henguel (p40) and Burrows (pp 84-87-88): the second-level spirits, the spirits of the ancestors, atua tanatanu, would take possession of a man or a woman who were called taula-atua (divine anchor). It was these spirits’ special pleasure to bring about various plagues in the country. This man affected by madness, a cousin of the King Viamua Lavelua, was named Lavelua Palekuanola (cf Doc 28 [17])
  5. Tuungahala, cousin and son-in-law of the King Vaimelua Lavelua; his ‘little island’ in the Wallis lagoon, was Nukuatea (cf Doc 28 [17] and [19]).
  6. A Wallisian word, tufa = distributor (when speaking especially about food presented during feasts).
  7. Paul David, who acted as interpreter for the missionaries (cf Poncet p21; Rozier, Ecrits Chanel, p203, n5).
  8. Sisi – a Wallisian word for a belt made from leaves of the si (shrub Cordyline Terminalis) or other shrubs.
  9. Cf Doc 28 [6 and nn 8-11 and 14]
  10. Cf Doc 28 [6 and nn 8-9]
  11. Cf Doc 28 [15]
  12. Cf Doc 28 [18]
  13. Tuungahala (cf above [7])
  14. The author’s natal village
  15. The missionaries of the second dispatch, coming on the schooner Regina Pacis (Queen of Peace) stopped at Wallis from 2-6 May 1839 (cf Docs 28 [26], 32 [1], 38 [3])

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