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15 October 1839 – Father Catherin Servant to Father Étienne Terraillon, Hokianga

Translated by Fr Brian Quin SM, August 2013

Father Terrallion, parish priest of Our Lady of St Chamond, department of the Loire, in France

St Mary of Hokianga, New Zealand 15th October 1839

Most respectable and beloved father in Jesus Christ,
Your interesting letter of 19th July 1838 got here by way of the dear Fathers of the second dispatch who have come so opportunely to our help.
The advice and encouragement you give me with so much unction have given me an inexpressible joy. However I believe that you think I am better than I really am, alas! If you felt the weight of my spiritual difficulties, I am certain that you would change the way you talk and commend me to the great mercy of God. The fine quotations that you give me edify me, and I thank you very much for them; I bless God for your charity and for the concern you show for my spiritual welfare.
Today, Reverend and dear Father, I am not going to talk to you about the progress of Mary’s mission in New Zealand; I presume that this good news is already known to you; I only propose to inform you about some New Zealand customs, which will perhaps be of interest to you.
Although the religious beliefs of the people have some quite remarkable features, I will bypass those in silence, because I do not yet have a perfect knowledge of them. If one has to rely on information from a certain number of natives, it would seem that they wouldn’t have had any idols, and that spirits were the sole concern of their worship. The representations and the statues which are seen on top of their palisades and on the front of the gables on their huts would only be, from their account, memorials of their ancestors who had been killed in battle. These artefacts usually display shapes that are bizarre and sometimes frightening; the natives have a special liking for showing a tongue extended to a remarkable length; eyes formed from the shiny side of the shell of a large oyster; they take pleasure in carving these shapes on their weapons and on their tools of every sort, and on their war canoes. These shapes show little variation, but they do not lack grace and perfection. Music gives them some pleasure, but they have few instruments; you see here no more than a wretched flute with four notes which produces fairly monotonous sounds. It seems that in former times they did not lack musical instruments, but they do not use them any more, and have let them fall into disuse. They often sing, improvising, and their singing, modulated in a sweet and poetic language, is full of charm for them, but not always for Europeans, who tire of the monotony. I have noticed several times that when, in their singing, they speak of their love for their parents, their friends and their tribes, their faces and expressions are inimitable; their thoughts are reflected with lively sensibility and keen imagination. There is nothing more interesting than to hear them telling some story with feeling; every part of them is in movement: the head, facial features, eyes, arms – the whole body. Their favourite gesture is to strike themselves on the thighs and on the chest, which they sometimes do in a quite boisterous way, especially when they are excited. There are no secrets among them, everything is said, good or evil, everything is repeated, the slightest details of a situation do not escape their observation, they go as far as repeating the words of the person they are speaking about, even to imitating his tone of voice and his gestures. The natives do not lack formalities of civility and politeness. When a tribe receives a visit, especially from a high chief, he is called to from a distance. “Come, come – haere mai, haere mai.” The chief arrives, he presses noses with everyone, he crouches down near someone, and in this situation long lamentations begin. People sing, they weep, it is what the natives call the cry of affection. That having been done, sometimes people tear their faces and even some other part of the body with sea shells; finally the ceremony ends with a song which the natives call the song of tenderness; when the song is finished the chiefs sit down on mats that have been got ready, there are a few moments of silence then the most worthy chief speaks up, but at the beginning little talking is done, the conversation languishes a lot, as each person reflects on what he has to say.
Their formularies for greetings are very simple: the expression which equates to “good day” goes roughly thus, “So it is you” (Tenā rā ko koe) and at the same time the head is raised. When someone is farewelling another person, he says to him, “Stay there”, Ki kona ra. The one who is spoken to says, “Go”, Haere ra. Some natives have taught me an interesting way of freeing myself from their importunities without hurting them – here it is: “Is your speech finished?” “No.” “Go on speaking, when your speech is finished you will leave, because I have some writing to do.” If the native takes no notice of this first warning, you add, “That’s enough talking, please go.” If he doesn’t yield to this second warning, you say, “Do you want to bother me?” This short saying is the last: the native desists and leaves. The New Zealanders cannot put up with offensive language, if anyone uses it, especially to a chief, in line with their customs the latter would immediately seize anything owned by the person who had offended him, and would hand it back only with the say-so of a high chief, and as well would demand a sort of payment for the offensive words.
There are many chiefs in each tribe, but the natives recognise among them a high chief who is distinguished by his dignity. The high chiefs have the right of life and death over their slaves, over their children, and even over the minor chiefs. They also have the right to sell their slaves and to make their subjects go to war. According to the laws of the country, wives of high chiefs who are guilty of adultery are punished with death, along with their partners in guilt. The high chiefs are allowed to have several wives, and the chief can have a number of wives in proportion to his rise in dignity. Minor chiefs and other men of low status can have only one wife at a time. If these latter commit the crime of adultery, they are subject to reprimands by the high chief, and it is customary, as a way of showing derision for them, to make them act out a simulated battle without putting them to death.
There are also laws concerning warfare. When a tribe has given occasion for a war by reason of grave insults, a murder, by an abduction of a woman without the agreement of the high chiefs, or by any other important cause, the tribe gathers to discuss the situation, the high chiefs call their subjects together. Everyone forms a circle, the chiefs walk about in the midst of the gathering with quickened pace. They speak in a raised voice and a threatening tone, their angry looks, their tattooing, the fire burning in their eyes, are capable of inspiring terror. If the enemies do not wish to accept the decision of the discussions, war is declared. It seems that it is taken that a signal for war is given when a tribe hears uttered these insulting words: “Taurekareka” – which mean “slavery” –“go into the forest – may your men[1] be buried – you have only women left to govern you.” The New Zealanders have other expressions which they see as so insulting that the man against whom they were uttered would be driven to fury and would kill his adversary.
The distinctive marks of chiefs are not the tattooing of the face, but the tattooing they have on the outside of the thigh; the further this tattooing extends towards the knee, the greater the dignity of the chief. These tattoos are like family coats of arms which are handed down through the generations from father to son. Men of low status have their distinctive mark in the tattooing they have on their buttocks. As for the women, the sign of their dignity is a little tattooing on the forehead and on the upper and lower lips.
In general the New Zealanders are happy, but they show it less than the people of the tropical islands – they seem to be more serious and thoughtful in their conduct. Under an appearance of simplicity and naivety they hide notions of cunning and deception – their definite preference is for war. They quite like entertainments among which several sorts of dancing are remarkable: their favourite dance is the war dance. They perform it with contortions capable of terrifying; they also have a sort of dance which, holding branches of foliage in their hands, they move the whole body except the feet. All these sorts of amusements are characterised by an astounding unity of voices, of gesture and of movement, but there is nothing which goes beyond the boundaries of modesty, except in the war dance, when the men take off their clothing beforehand.
Funeral ceremonies are performed with solemnity: customarily they proceed like this: when a native has died, there occurs a great meeting, not only of the tribe itself, but of other tribes as well, especially if the death is that of a chief. They utter their song of mourning and their superstitious prayers. First of all the men begin to sing near the corpse with plaintive voices; when they have finished their song they make way for the women, who in their turn sing in a very melancholy way. That having been done, the corpse is placed on a bier painted red, and decorated with figures made with a great deal of regularity; the bier is fixed to the top of a column whose height is determined by the greater or lesser dignity of the chief, but the biers of ordinary people, which are not as beautiful, are hung from trees. This ceremony is done with respect; these natives have so much respect for the bones of their ancestors that the least profanation is a crime, in their sight. When this ceremony is finished, the give the dead person a sign of their attachment, people tear at their skin, until blood flows, with sea shells. Immediately afterward, a great feast follows the sad ceremony. Another gathering occurs some time later, to go to the remains of the suspended body and place them in their cemeteries which they call atamira,[2] and to which it is forbidden to go, under pain of death.
But already I have written at great length, dear Father, and I am stopping here, and ask you not to forget me in your holy sacrifices, to ask Our Lord on my behalf for the graces I need to carry out his holy will, and to attach myself to nothing but that. It is a great consolation to think that I am where God wishes and am doing what God wishes. Fiat voluntas tua .[3]
Please accept my respects and affection, with which I have the honour to be, in the holy hearts of Jesus and Mary,
Dear Father,
Your most humble, obedient and unworthy servant
Louis Catherin Servant


  1. Homs – word mis-spelled but meaning clear.
  2. The Maori word atamira generally means a platform, or as in the present context, a low platform on which a body is laid, one end of it being raised for the head.
  3. Matthew 6:10 – May your will be done.

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