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3 April 1842 – Father Jean Forest to Father Jean-Claude Colin, Cook Strait

Translated by Fr Brian Quin SM, May 2008

1st letter from New Zealand

Very Reverend Father
begun five days before our arrival in New Zealand
Cook Strait, 3 April 1842
Today we are meeting a ship going to Sydney. I am taking advantage of this to give you news about ourselves. It is the first we have met. Last Friday [April 1] we caught sight of New Zealand, today we are in Cook Strait. We hope to arrive in Port Nicholson tomorrow.
After a stay of three weeks in the port of Falmouth, from where I had the honour of writing to you twice, we finally left it on a fine Saturday in the month of December at four o’clock in the afternoon. I had prepared a third letter to inform you of our departure from this port but I did not have a chance to send it to you. Six days earlier we had made an attempt to set out, but to no effect. We had hardly done 15 or 16 leagues [about 75 or 80 km] when a contrary and very strong wind broke our vessel’s foremast, which was at least ten inches thick and forced us to promptly go back, to our port at Falmouth. If this hold-up delayed us a little in our journey, it gave us a real benefit in allowing for the recovery in health of our two Brothers Luc and Déodat who were quite exhausted and probably could not have got to their destination before dying. Perhaps you received in Lyons the news we received during our stay in Falmouth that three ships which left London at the same time as ourselves were wrecked in the Channel during the storm which we experienced. It was said that one of them had a hundred people on board, the two others, fewer. In the view of all navigators, this arm of the sea is very dangerous in winter. Falmouth is a little town situated at the end of the southern part of England about the 7th degree of longitude west, and about the 51st of latitude north. It has five or six thousand inhabitants, almost all either merchants or employed in the port, which is very much frequented by ships from every nation. We found there a solitary Catholic priest who numbers only 30 people of our faith in the town; all the rest either Protestant or Jewish or I know not what faith. In fact, apart from the little Catholic chapel there are six churches of different faiths. Almost all languages are spoken there, four at least: English, French, Spanish and Italian. This worthy clergyman named Father Robert Plath was posted there more for foreign Catholics than for those native to the district, who would be too few to give employment to a priest. His little chapel in which I said Holy Mass on the feastday of St Francis Xavier was extremely poor. I saw there only four little wooden candlesticks and an old picture showing J(esus) C(hrist) on the cross. This little chapel is a little way out of the town, hidden in a sort of little garden where it is hard to find. What sad feelings take over one’s soul on seeing so many poor people sitting in the shadow of death. One is tempted to ask oneself why go so far to look for what one can find so close: and will the Lord therefore have no blessing for these poor people? In our conversations with Father Plath, having informed him about the zeal and devotion of our good Lyonnais people for the adornment of our Catholic worship, he showed us a desire to ask for some little thing to adorn his poor little chapel. He asked me to grant his request, which I could not refuse him because of the important services he did for us during our stay in that town.
On leaving Falmouth we had quite a strong wind which drove us rapidly into the torrid zone, but a bit too close to the American coast. We reached 36º longitude west. From there we were forced to come back, to round the Cape of Good Hope about 45º south. Apart from a few days of strong winds we were very happy during our journey. We all kept very well. We worked a lot at studying the English language. Several passengers were quite keen to give us lessons in their language, and in return we gave them lessons in French. We saw nothing during our journey really worth of claiming our attention apart from two natural phenomena which perhaps had never been seen. One especially astonished and at the same time frightened all of us. On the 14th of March we were about 45º latitude south and 106º longitude [east] when suddenly about 9 o’clock in the morning while we were at breakfast someone came to tell us that an enormous mountain of ice was only a short distance directly in front of the ship. Amazed, everyone left the table and immediately went up on deck. The seamen changed the sails and got the ship to head in another direction without, however, distancing itself very much. We were all very pleased to see, as close as possible, this sight which no sailor could ever recall having seen in regions as warm as those we were travelling through. We all gazed at this enormous mountain for a good quarter of an hour. Some estimated its height at six hundred feet, others seven. Those most experienced at estimating these sorts of things in the open sea estimated it to be up to 14 to 1500 without counting what was hidden under the water. People weren’t too sure what size it was, but you can imagine that so prodigious a height demanded a huge base. Some said it would take ten minutes to sail round it, others more. Hardly had this one been lost from view than another, perhaps half as big again appeared in front of us, but some distance away from our route. At nightfall two others were seen, quite close to our route. What redoubled the captain’s fears, and those of the passengers even more, was that on the evening of the previous day we had come across the debris of a vessel, ropes, masts, even clothing, which had probably been wrecked on one of these mountains and it is fairly certain that we would have met the same fate if we had come across those icebergs during the night. To avoid a similar mishap the sails were furled so as to slow the ship. Seamen were posted as watchmen. They were not useless, because about 3 o’clock in the morning we were found to be heading for four other smaller ones which were in our way; in all we came across 21. People tried to explain how these icebergs could be there, but could find no other reason than some great earthquakes in the Antarctic region had detached from it these enormous masses, which then pushed by strong winds arrived here. Another little sight which aroused our curiosity without frightening us occurred in the torrid zone. One day about six o’clock in the evening, between us and a beautiful sun setting, about three-quarters of a league [3 or 4 km] from our vessel we caught sight of a column which came down from a large dark cloud into the sea. This column seemed to us to be the width of a large tower at the place where it met the sea. The waters splashed up to perhaps twenty-five feet in height and formed, when they fell back, a beautiful basin for a fountain or jet of water.
We crossed the line or the Equator on the 16th January at about midday. That day and on the following day up to the evening there was no question of the ceremonies that usually occur at this place, but at eight o’clock in the evening while everyone was below decks, the seamen filled a big number of buckets with water, got them up to the top of the masts, took a little barrel of spirits of wine, carried it as well to mast height, set fire to it; and immediately one of the seamen with a strong and robust voice, who was acting the role of the old Father of the Line, shouted from the top of the masts while having alongside him his barrel of spirits which served him as a lamp: “Who dares to come into this place to disturb my rest?” One of the officers answered him, “It is the ship London which under orders from her Majesty the Queen of England is going to New Zealand.” “No one can go past here without paying tribute. Let each person appear before me!” On hearing this noise everyone comes out. Old Neptune then throws his lamp into the sea, and straight away the seamen who were up the masts with their buckets showered in the darkness all those people drawn there by curiosity (All the lower deck passengers were there). Someone was kind enough to warn us a few moments beforehand. However not everyone was able to escape at the moment when people gathered to have tea: four or five seamen arrived with buckets full of water and completely showered all those from the upper decks with the exception of five French people who, wiser or more timid than the others, had not dared to come out to have tea. I, having wanted to take the risk of having tea with the others, shared a little of the general blessing, but that was contrary to the intention of those who bestowed it. They said that for anything in the world they would not have wanted to harm a French Catholic priest because, they said, they are not like other men. The next morning I was offered apologies for having unintentionally been wet a bit. What did they mean by those words: they are not like other men? We had nothing to distinguish ourselves from other people apart from our soutanes which we always wore in the middle of all these people. For a start this garment aroused curiosity a bit, but then it brought us everyone’s respect. Really there is something divine about it! We didn’t give a cent to exempt ourselves from a ceremony like this which all the other passengers experienced. Our soutane alone was enough to exempt us from it. It is more respected among heretics than it is, perhaps, in many places among Catholics. Amongst one hundred and eighty heretics as we were for at least five months, we were more free to carry out all our exercises and pious practices than we would have been in many places in our France. We always said our prayers before and after meals, our Masses [offices] on the bridge without being aware ever of the least criticism. All I could tell you beyond this, our confrères who have preceded us will have described it better to you than I could. In the torrid zone you see a tremendous throng of big and small fish. Of all of them, the one most to be feared is the shark. It is six or seven feet long but is very broad in relation to its length and extremely strong. It usually follows ships to catch anything coming from them. We often tried to catch one but without result. It often, with one single snap of its jaw, cut through thick ropes, at the end of which someone had put fresh meat and a hook to catch it. An old ship’s captain who served twenty-five years in the East India Company told us that he had often seen this creature cut off an arm, or a leg from men who were bathing. During our journey a dozen human bodies were thrown to it; eleven children below three years of age, and the father of a family who had been ill before embarking. One of these children born on the ship died twelve hours after its birth without receiving baptism. While we were discussing the negligence of its parents and the misfortune suffered by this child, some of the passengers on our deck smiled scornfully and said that baptism was not necessary for children, that nowhere in Scripture could it be seen that God had said that children should be baptised. That is the Protestant attitude. So, according to the report of Father Plath, the parish priest at Falmouth, most no longer baptise their children.
On the 17th January, in sight of the island of St Helena we had the happiness of giving holy baptism to a little girl aged three years. She was dangerously ill, had been abandoned by the doctor, and everyone had given up hope for her. Since her baptism she has gone from strength to strength. Today she is almost entirely cured. Her father is a Protestant but he has asked to be instructed so as to change his religion. We have got him to come several times to our cabins. His wife is a Catholic. We gave the name of our good Mother to her who is the first fruit of our work. On the day of the baptism our Brothers put all their efforts into properly decorating our chapel. They had put six candles on the altar and each of them had one in a hand during the baptism. The godfather, the godmother and the child’s mother assisted very piously at the Mass which immediately followed the baptism. Then we shared among them some little sweets, medallions and books… They were extremely happy. They asked our permission to come back to hear Mass every Sunday. We replied that we would see them with pleasure if they were able to get the captain’s permission for it. They assured us that they would get it although we thought quite the contrary. In fact they were refused and we thank God for that. There would have been big problems in admitting to our little cabins all the Catholics who were on board, and what I would have feared most would have been criticism because of the females who would have come. In spite of that we went on seeing them separately from time to time, especially the men to whom we had given some little pious objects. These Catholics, mostly Irish, numbered twenty-two or twenty-three. We gave Church burial with all possible ceremony to two of their children who died during the voyage. All the Protestants were amazed at our ceremonies, they had never seen anything similar. They all showed deep respect during our ceremonies which took place on the bridge in front of everyone. Not a single word was said. Their minister himself, his wife and his children were solemn and serious. We noticed a lot more respect for our ceremonies than they had for theirs. A few words will tell you about those which we have seen. When someone is very sick, the minister sometimes goes to see them, gives them a reading from the Bible, gives them exhortations to arouse faith and trust in them until the sick person has told him that he firmly believes his sins have been forgiven. After the death a national flag is placed on the body. If the person is rich and can pay, a eulogy is given; at the time for burial the minister in his ordinary dress or a sort of large cloak reads long prayers composed or gathered together by their great St Cranmer. Here is what their ceremonies on Sunday were like on the ship during the voyage. At about half past ten in the morning a bell was rung for just half an hour, a bit like what is done at Passiontide in our country areas. During that time everyone (that is, the Protestants) would make their way onto the bridge, if the weather was fine, or even to the bottom of the hold if the weather was bad. There their minister would also go, accompanied by the captain of the vessel, and there as well all the upper deck passengers who were all fervent Protestants. Standing or seated the minister and the captain attentively read out St Cranmer’s prayers. Then there was a reading from the Bible. Several times I wanted to witness it when the ceremony took place on the bridge. With a book in my hand I would go and walk on the upper bridge from where I could see everything that went on. I must say that no one, apart from a few women, looked very pious or recollected. None of the faces showed any of those feelings of joy and contentment showed by a good Catholic in the presence of his God. How often I told myself that I needed no other proofs of the falseness of their religion than this appearance of indifference and coldness that they showed in all their ceremonies. I would not want any more. It is easily seen that there is no heart in it. However the prayers and readings are very long. They certainly go on for at least an hour and a half. They had no other ceremonies nor other exterior signs of their religion. I forgot to tell you that we refused to bury a child baptised by Protestants whose father is a Protestant and mother Catholic. Both of them came to ask us about this. The mother especially wanted it. Did we act correctly or not? I am not certain.
During our voyage we have all been very happy. We have been in very good health since leaving Falmouth and the time has quickly gone by. It is true that we have tried to use it well. We had every day an hour of meditation, breviary, particular examen, spiritual reading in common, classes in English, study of theology and geography… Father Grange said that he had never worked or prayed to the good God so much. During our voyage we made three novenas, one to the Blessed Virgin in January, one to St Joseph and one to the holy Guardian Angels. When we went on board the vessel we offered special prayers to these same saints. As well we each said a Mass for the repose of the soul of our beloved confrère, Father Bret, and we said it at the approximate place, at the place where he died. On Easter day all three of us were able to say holy Mass. In the evening, being off Sydney, but 280 leagues [1400 km] away, we recited the prayers asked for by our immediate predecessors. For that we had a very pretty little celebration. As we didn’t have very much to decorate our chapel with, I threw a hook into the sea to catch one of those birds which are called albatrosses and the smallest of which are at least seven feet long. In a quarter of an hour I had caught two. So we then had something with which to decorate our chapel. Brother Déodat skinned one very well in order to stuff it. If it would please you, we would send it to you. We didn’t touch the feathers of the one he skinned. Father Grange also caught one, Brother Déodat another. I caught three of them altogether. As you can see, Reverend, you have children who know quite well how to amuse themselves.
April 3rd. We are all very well. We are all very happy. We thank you very much for having prayed hard for us. We hope you would go on with that. My respects to all our dear confrères, and news to my parents. I will write to them all in a few days. Jean Forest, missionary apostolic. Please excuse my scribble, I am very much in a hurry.
I am very happy, Reverend Father, to pass on to you right now the little pieces of information that we have picked up about New Zealand during our voyage. I have received from quite a good source what I am going to tell you 1) about the fertility of the country and its produce, 2) about the progress of religion in this country, 3) about the number of British settlers who have been brought in there since 1839. 1) Wonderful things are said about the healthiness of this country. For a certain number of years all sorts of produce have been introduced from Sydney and Europe. Today you can find there wheat, oats, barley, potatoes, very fine flax, a lot of vegetables, cabbages, onions, melons… You can find apple trees, pear trees, chestnut trees, walnut trees, hazel trees, peach trees, orange trees, mulberry trees. You can find the grape vines there, but it has not been developed much yet because it needs someone who is expert in cultivating it, and the British know nothing about it. Bees have not yet been seen there. All sorts of animals are raised there. You see no other reptiles except the lizard. 2) Since 1814 English missionaries have come into New Zealand. In 1839, 35 people were employed as missionaries or catechists in the northern region. At that time they had 10 stations, and 54 schools which had roughly 1430 pupils attending daily. The number of their adherents amounted to roughly 2470. Apart from the Anglican missionaries or catechists there were five Methodist missionaries, not counting their catechists. It appears that the latter are still growing in number. In the reports we have seen there is also mention of a French bishop who, it is said, had bought a piece of land at Hokianga but he had only a small number of converts. Many of these Anglican missionaries have considerable pieces of land in the Bay of Islands area. One of these farms on its own is larger than most of our big farms in France. In working these lands they employ a great number of natives. 3) The number of Europeans, and especially English, who have been brought to this country is considerable. A company called the New [Zealand] Company has been formed in London. This company has bought at least a third of the lands, and the best lands of this country. It has divided the land into lots which it is selling to British private individuals who want to buy them. But there are no lots whose price is below 300 pounds (4300 fr). What is the reason for this way of going on? It can easily be seen, no matter how little one knows about the British government and country. It is in order to always have slaves for their use, that is to say, a good number of poor people who will be like vassals for the rich. Indeed all the settlers who are brought to this country go there in the name of and for this Company which undertakes to give them work, but they have no immediate hope of getting some land for themselves. Those who buy [land] from the Company are people who have a certain amount of assets but who have no great reputation or cannot succeed in England. There are several little towns in New Zealand which the English have founded: 1) Port Nicholson, the population of which is more than 6000, quite close to the town of Wellington whose population I do not yet know;[1] 2) Nelson, which may already have more than 1200 people. All the inhabitants of these various towns are British people who have arrived from Great Britain from the middle of 1839 up till 1840.[2] The New Zealand Company alone has sent nine large ships carrying 1123 settlers. The years following show a proportionate number of ships sent. In October 1841 alone it sent three large vessels. You can estimate from that the number of British settlers there must already be in this country. In April 1842 they were to send several other vessels. They were to send an Anglican bishop to Nelson where they are going to found a college and several schools as they have done in other towns. The settlers who have come in our ship are for Nelson. What is going to become of the poor natives of New Zealand amongst a people so demoralised and indeed with such principles? Soon this whole country will be completely under the control of the English nation.
What towns will receive the labours of Mary’s missionaries? God alone knows. It seems to me however that there would still be ways of paralysing the efforts of the Protestant religion if we had a sufficient number of good priests and excellent Brothers. It seems to me that it would be possible to immediately place in each of these towns a priest and two Brothers who were well instructed in the English language and other branches of knowledge and so able to repel the attacks of our adversaries. The Catholics in the various towns and who have been sent there under the protection of Lord Petre[3] so as to act, it seems, as bases for Catholicism in those towns would, straight away, entrust their children to the Brothers. These, well educated, would attract others. It seems to me that if we do not take over the young people we will achieve little. But, you will perhaps tell me, what provisions will there be for living, for providing buildings for the schools? If, contrary to your usual practice you would, for a moment, leave aside divine providence which would indeed be able to provide us with what is necessary, couldn’t someone beg for, in this situation, the protection of the good Lord Petre who is a member of this New Zealand Company and who shows so much concern for Catholics? I am convinced that he would get for us either free or at a very low price a section of land on which we could build what we would need. Perhaps he would personally take a share of the expenses of the building.
Apart from the towns I have spoken about and which have been recently founded by the British, there are as well three other towns, New Plymouth which has more than 600 people, Auckland and the Bay of Islands.
Before ending my letter, I will add a couple of thoughts about the way we were treated during our voyage, about the reflections which our voyage gave rise to: we had excellent meals; better than those in ordinary houses in London. We had nothing like them during our whole stay in that city. We always had good fresh bread in abundance, fresh meat, a considerable supply of living pigs, sheep, geese and hens had been arranged. This supply was not even finished, and every day we had four or five courses at dinner, soup, beer, wine… We had four sorts of meals each day: at 9 o’clock breakfast, at half past twelve bread, cheese, butter, wine and beer, at four o’clock dinner, at half past seven tea with bread and butter… We were a bit embarrassed; in Lent we were able to fast only two days a week. The rest of the time we fasted only on Fridays. The fast was too constipating.
I am ending my letter here because we are meeting a ship which is going to Sydney. Please inform my parents that I am in good health.
Your very devoted servant, Forest.


  1. Father Forest has, wrongly, the impression that Port Nicholson and Wellington were two different towns. Port Nicholson is the name of the harbour on the shores of which a few Europeans had begun to settle in the 1830s, and gave its name to the early settlement. Wellington was the name given to the settlement by the New Zealand Company when its first settlers arrived in January 1840. In the early 1840s both names were being used for the settlement - translator’s note.
  2. Not quite correct: Nelson was first settled in 1841, and the settlement of New Plymouth also began in 1841 - translator’s note
  3. Lord Petre, a Catholic, was a director of the New Zealand Company, and his son Henry was among the first Wellington settlers. Henry was responsible for bringing Father Jeremiah O’Reily OFM Cap to Wellington as the first parish priest. He arrived in January 1843 – C Girard footnote