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9 May - 11 July 1842. — Father Joseph Chevron to his family, Wallis

Translated by Fr Brian Quin SM, December 2014

Madame veuvre Chevron, Nantua (the widow Chevron)



J(esus) M(ary) J(oseph)


Uvea (Wallis) 9 May 1842
May the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ be with you always.
[1]
Dear Mother, my dear brothers and sisters, with what pleasure I received all your letters! At the end of last December I had received, by way of the mission schooner, those which you had written to me in March 1841; the same schooner has brought me in the last few days all those, I think, that you have written to me since my departure from London. I haven’t been able to read them all yet; I have only glanced at them hurriedly, while keeping for myself the first free moment when I can read them again. Oh! It’s a great consolation, this far away, to receive some letters. They arrive so rarely. May God be blessed in that, as in everything. I am annoyed at only one thing, not being able to reply to each one, overloaded as we are with work.
[2]
Might all the good relatives and friends who have continued to remember the poor missionary kindly accept this expression of gratitude. Please speak of it to others, in particular M Brachet, M Cuzin, M Besson, M Gouchon, the reverend parish priest of Nantua and Father Denis,[1] Brother Roger and Mrs Vandel. Please do not forget either Fathers Collet, Victor, Mercier and Malfroid. And Aimé Baroudel? But he is part of the family. May the good God reward them. The consolation that I have experienced in reading their treasured letters is, from them, a very pleasing gift, no doubt, in the eyes of him who sees as done to himself what is done to the least of his brothers. I bless God with my whole heart, for the resignation with which you have submitted to the sacrifice of our separation; it edified me as much as it consoled me, knowing as I do the truly blind tenderness you have for me. I am not, however, as edified by the so lively desire that you have for my return, so that, you say, we might see each other again and die happy. Alas! What does this life amount to? An exile which, I hope, will not be long. So why say adieu at the moment when we are reaching our homeland: in a few moments we will be reunited for an entire eternity. As well, I could not see, without experiencing a feeling of confusion, not the idea you have formed of a missionary, it is correct, but that of the poor exile, your brother. Yes, and I admit it frankly, I read your letters only with confusion; I will say as well, it was only with a sort of pity for the greatness of your scorn. But may God be blessed! All of that will give rise to many prayers. They will not fail to be offered for me, you say – all the better, I have a great need for them. May God bless all those charitable souls who are concerned for me. If, one day, with their help, my prayers become pleasing to God, oh! how many graces would come down on them and on you! Often I offer a litany of your names and theirs to God and that litany is very long, not a relative nor a friend is missing from it.
[3]
I sent you, by the returning voyage of the mission schooner to the Bay of Islands, a fairly long letter begun in Futuna and ended here. The schooner as well as the French corvette which accompanied it called at Futuna to collect the precious remains of good Father Chanel. King Niuliki and the main driving force of Father’s death had already the reward owing for their crimes. Their truly extraordinary deaths spread terror throughout the island. They were seen as a punishment from God; the King, a robust man, strong and stout in a way rarely seen in Europe, became at first frighteningly thin, then died; the other man died in awful suffering. Some catechumens from Futuna, instructed on Wallis, went back there on the schooner. Where they are now, we do not know. The Bishop will call there after leaving here.
[4]
We are now in a Catholic country. The island has been almost completely baptised; those left are preparing to receive baptism from the Bishop. The conversion of this island has been truly marked on the corner [?coin] of the cross. When I came here from Futuna the great majority, as I said in my last letter, was converted; a war which some muddle-headed people among the pagans tried to start, had redoubled the fervour of the catechumens, they were all fired up.[2] But new trials were in store for these poor people. Even those who had most contributed to making the preaching of the gospel successful, began to show coolness, then, soon, to oppose it; people complained about good things,[3] ended up by listening to them and then believed them. People still came to prayers, still sang the hymns, still recited the rosary, but with faltering faith. At that time I could make myself understood only to the catechists and to the regular visitors to the house; my sorrow was only greater. I often heard reported words against the true faith and I suffered from not yet being able to talk fluently enough to strengthen these poor catechumens. Father Bataillon criss-crossed the island ceaselessly to fortify some, and bring back others. Various circumstances soon came again to make our position more serious. People spoke about bringing back, not the former superstitions, but the immoral practices that went with them; it was a matter of driving us out. The pagan party several times tried to assassinate the leader of the Christian party in the hope of finishing off the rest. The Father was no longer even sure of the role of those who called themselves catechumens. He made frequent visits to the King, but with no effect; that poor King saw himself as abandoned; his anger and his despair went on growing. One day Father Bataillon was persuaded to make a new attempt to see him: the King received him as coldly as usual, then he said: your party’s chief is sending you here so that I might kill you, and have afterwards a reason for war. Go away, I will not kill you. The next day in an interview that chief had with the Father, he admitted quite frankly his desire; I sent you to the King, he said to him, so that he might kill you. I had wanted to get rid of you. People, however, did not dare to come out openly against us, we were simply treated as impostors. Where are your parents, people said – where is your leader who was to come back in 6 months – here 4 years have now gone past; you have been abandoned, and, then, there are no ships in France. The King, forced by circumstance, finally abandoned the superstitions which he no longer believed, but only to embrace the religion of the self-styled catechumens. The situation of the mission was desperate, however, we were still hopeful, we were working on Mary’s vine.
[5]
The good God finally put an end to the trial; circumstances allowed the Bishop to visit us, accompanied by a French corvette. This sight silenced all the significant complaints, the enemies of the true religion lowered their tone and its friends regained courage. What a change in 4 months! Now you have the whole island baptised, and changed so much so as to be no longer recognisable. These poor natives are beginning to understand the cost of the faith. The King, a few days ago, was on board the schooner with a certain number of chiefs; after having visited and examined everything, he told them: all the white men’s wealth is for me worth very little. The thing really precious to my heart is the true religion, it is the so-good God whom we serve. Then turning to Father Bataillon: I thank you, he said, for your love for me; I was ignorant, I repulsed you, I wanted to drive you away, but you loved us, you were patient, you suffered greatly – thank you. While he was saying this, great tears rolled from his eyes. How lovable is providence, potens est Deus de lapidis istis suscitare filios Abrahae.[4] This island is, I think, right now the image of the primitive Church. It is a living faith, with burning charity, great delicacy of conscience, an insatiable hunger for the Word of God. After the first baptisms, some powerful chiefs, vexed at seeing the crowd asking for the sacrament with so much ardour, humiliated the newly-baptised in some ways. They have control over our possessions, one of these good natives told me, let them do what they like with them. They can even take our lives away if it seems good to them, but let them leave us our religion. In one house I saw a woman occupied in carrying out a really humiliating task; I could not stop myself from showing outwardly my indignation at it: Don’t worry about it, this really Christian woman said to me, smiling, all the things we have taken away from us are only bagatelles, our wealth is in heaven. The thought of heaven makes them long to die with unbelievable ardour. I had baptised a young man; I went to see him later. He was weeping. I thought that the tears were caused by sorrow, I consoled him. “No, no,” he told me, “I am weeping from the desire to go to heaven.”
[6]
If someone is in extremis, the relatives and neighbours gather around him to pray. Hardly has he breathed his last when each person repeatedly says, “How happy he is, he has arrived at his destiny, how enviable he is.” Then begins the singing of hymns, which is mixed with prayers and recitation of the rosary – they do not stop until the time they leave the cemetery. Meanwhile the body of the dead person is carefully washed, has put on it a new vala [Author’s note in the margin: Vala - the piece of material that they wrap round themselves and which they use as clothing.], it is adorned with the most precious things as on days of great festivity, and especially with its rosary and medallion – a great treasure for a neophyte. The hair, well combed, is, as well as the whole body, abundantly sprinkled with perfume oil. In this way it remains exposed in the middle of a huge piece of material folded over several times. There it receives visits from relatives and friends who have come to join in with the singing and the prayers. I have seen natives reproaching the relatives for weeping. How can you weep, they said, on the day when your relative is beginning to be truly happy? The body is carried to the church wrapped in the piece of material on which it was exposed. The natives accompany it to the cemetery while loudly reciting the rosary. The graves are a bit more spacious than in France. The bottom, covered with a bed of beautiful fine sand, is, as well as the walls, first covered with pretty mats made of coconut leaves, then again covered with finer mats. The body is placed in it with its ample piece of material, then covered again with a new piece of material made of new finer mats, then finally with mats made of coconut leaves. (I have seen more than fifteen mats in a grave.) The whole is covered with beautiful fine sand, usually brilliantly white in colour, which often they scatter with little black pebbles. I have seen crosses made with these little pebbles, which produced a truly pretty effect. These graves are the focus of all their care.
[7]
The natives usually spend half the night in prayers, instructing each other, or recitation of the catechism, then in singing hymns and reciting the rosary. There are indeed a few people who do not recite the rosary every day, but there are certainly, as well, some who recite it several times. This desire for prayer is only the effect of grace. We have been forced to oppose, out of prudence, a truly astonishing practice among the poor natives. Several of them, to prepare for baptism, went and spent 2 or three days in the forest, not eating anything, or, at the most, some wild fruit. Yes, grace has worked real wonders in this island. During the bad times, when the faith seemed almost extinguished, a chief who was a catechumen, all-powerful on the island, accompanied by a good number of his people, all armed (several attempts at assassination forced him to not go out without weapons), found himself face to face with a great pagan chief who had tried to kill him several times; we were even present, blessing God at this meeting, which we knew well must turn to the glory of the true religion. The pagan chief, sitting on the ground and with his head sadly lowered, was waiting for the axe blow which he knew he had only too well merited. The catechumen came up, and sat in front of his enemy. “You have tried to assassinate me several times,” he said to him. “You have only hate for me, but know that the religion you have persecuted up till now demands that I forgive you; it is to it that you owe your life.” Then he embraced him with an affection that brought tears to the eyes of the pagan. A few moments later he had himself and his family inscribed among the number of the catechumens. Yes, the true religion is very strong; it alone is able to bring about such moving scenes. I would like to be able to tell you all the truly glorious signs of the true religion that we have witnessed. But time is short, I am forced to go to my parish, three hours away from the main station, to prepare for a first communion there. Since the baptisms, I am completely exercising my ministry and I assure you that I am not short of work, with neophytes so anxious for instruction and at the same time with consciences so over-scrupulous. I would spend days and nights in the confessional if I wanted to believe them. May all the holy people who by their prayers have obtained the conversion of this island be so kind as to ask perseverance for them, then it would be a truly Christian land. Blessed souls! These fervent neophytes will be their crown in heaven. When we accompany the conversion of these people from close by, we see only the work of grace which is alone able to conquer obstacles before which will infallibly collapse all human prudence and wisdom. So pray very much, my dear parents [relatives?] that the good God gives increase to the seed which we are scattering among these poor people. Pray, so that you will share in the reward that God is preparing for the workers on this new vine. Moses on the mountain, hands raised to heaven, merited the victory; the Israelites were fighting on the plain. Try at least to hold up the hands of the new Moses so that we do not succumb before the Lord’s enemies; Hell is being roused: could it, without shivering, see itself pulled away from such fine parts of its former kingdom?
[8]
We have here a certain number of chapels in which the natives from one or two villages gather, morning and evening, to pray and sing hymns; then four main churches; one in the islet Nukuatea,[5] the birthplace of [local] Christianity, called “St Mary”, and three in the main island: St Joseph, St Peter, and St John the Baptist, which is the King’s church. I carry out my ministry from St Peter’s. St John’s church is 80 feet long and 30 wide.[6] One of the ends is round, it is at the rear; it forms a sacristy which is the home of the Fathers. The other churches are smaller, but all need to be enlarged; some of the people are obliged to stay outside on Sundays. These churches are only a compartment made of reeds, five feet high, surmounted by a roof made of foliage, in the local style. The sacristy or the Father’s house is separated from the church by a compartment made of reeds and a curtain of locally made material, which goes from top to bottom. The altar has been built against this hanging. You will see that our churches are very simple, but I can assure you that they are very becoming. Like all the houses, they are covered with mats. Their only decoration is some “pictures from Epinal”[7] which do not fail to have a wonderful effect on the natives and often bring tears to their eyes. These churches, filled with 6 or 700 poor natives, with bodies semi-naked, it is true, but also with souls still dressed in baptismal innocence, all, without any exception, singing with a truly magical unity, without any fear of contradiction, make a greater impression on Europeans than could, in France, a cathedral with its cantors and musical instruments. The newly-arrived Fathers and the crew members were moved to tears by it. I always hear them with real pleasure.
[9]
These churches are continually visited, I don’t think they are deserted for a quarter of an hour each day. We have been obliged to forbid visits during the night. When the Blessed Sacrament will be installed, I don’t think it will be necessary to organise perpetual adoration; it will be so in fact.
[10]
In all your letters you ask me for some details about his island, our way of life and so on. I did say something about it in my last letter. Our situation in every respect is, and will remain, I think, for a long time the same. You soon get used to the habits and even the tastes of the natives. It seems to me that I have spent my whole life among them. Sitting on the ground cross-legged, eating the pasty head of a shark, drinking four or five cups of kava (prepared in a rather unattractive way, as you know), seems to me to be as natural as sitting in an armchair, eating the obligatory beef at dinner in France, and taking a glass of sugared water. The word ‘shark’ reminds me of a fairly interesting thing; the hunting of this creature, during which the natives of this island demonstrate extraordinary skill and courage. When they catch sight of the shark, they pursue it in their canoes, come up to it and pierce it with their spears, if they have one, so as to hurl themselves onto it, seize it and finish it off with an axe, a knife or anything else they have at hand. If they don’t have a spear, they come up to it in the same way, leap onto it, seize it, and grasp it around the part of the body closest to its head, and kill it immediately by breaking it. The catechist who first told me about this fishing, told me he had caught one in this way which could have been 8 feet long. To help him he only had a young man. There are never any people injured, he told me, except those who are clumsy; the shark’s movement are slow. By observing them carefully, you easily avoid any danger of being seriously injured. They catch, like this, sharks 12 feet long or more, even the most dangerous species. It is a royal dish; the head, as it is seen to be the most esteemed part, is usually reserved for us; [but] you can find something better.
[11]
(16 May) I have just come back from my parish, where I have given their first communion to 75 natives. I was really annoyed to not have gone there until Friday evening; those who could not approach the sacraments that day were desolate. Father Viard, provicar of the mission, came to say the Mass. We had adorned the altar as well as we possibly could; quite simply, however, as you could imagine. It was a beautiful day for them and for us. What faith there is in these poor neophytes! The thanksgiving Mass had been finished a long time; no one had yet left, they were seemingly overwhelmed by the thought of their happiness. At first I simply urged them a little to leave. I was, later on, forced to change it to a command; they would have stayed there, I think, until night.
[12]
(16 June) Now, already, we are a long way from Wallis. I am writing to you now from the anchorage at Oneata, a little island a few leagues east of Lakeba, in the eastern part of the Fiji archipelago, where I wandered about so long on my voyage from the Bay of Islands to Wallis. On 23rd May the King of Uvea was baptised with a good number of chiefs who had waited for him to receive baptism with him. It was decided, after this baptismal ceremony, that Father Viard would stay in Uvea with Father Bataillon and that I would go to Futuna to work in the field that good Father Chanel had watered with his blood.
[13]
The 27th. We embarked, the Bishop, Father Servant, Father Roulleaux (newly arrived from New Zealand) and I. The Bishop had promised the King to take him to Fiji and Tonga in a search for his brother who had gone on board a canoe with some natives from Uvea and Tonga in December 1840. He wanted to have himself accompanied by about thirty natives, we also took some catechists. The moment of embarkation was a very sad moment. There were only truly heartbreaking tears and cries. I stayed alone on land with Father Viard. I witnessed the sadness with which the Bishop and the King were leaving. At the moment the King was leaving his house, one of his female relatives fell in a faint; we were quickly called, I ran there but she had no further movement nor life. She was a strong and energetic woman. My good parishioners from St Peter’s had come to pay me their last visit, they had brought me for the journey, some pieces of locally made cloth, some baskets of yams and about four gourds full of perfumed oil. They were waiting for the moment of my departure. The difficulty that I had in separating myself from these dear children made me afraid of not being able to stop myself from having some moments of too great emotion. I left secretly while they were waiting for me in front of the church to say their goodbyes to me.
[14]
The next morning (Saturday)[8] the anchor was raised. I could not tell you the suffering I experienced on leaving this beloved island of Uvea. Before we left the anchorage Father Bataillon, who was still on board, came and said goodbye to me. I was broken-hearted, vainly I tried to tell him: goodbye; my tears flowed but my mouth remained silent. More used to making sacrifices than I, this beloved confrère pointed to heaven, saying “another sacrifice”. I turned away, for fear of seeing his skiff distancing itself, my heart was too choked. I remember Our Lord’s words: He who give up for me, in this world, his father, his mother, his brothers, will gain a hundredfold in this life and eternal life in the next.
[15]
The next morning we got to Futuna. In the first canoe that came on board was one of Father Chanel’s murderers. In the second, which only came later, was the man who had given the last blow to the Father, the too notorious Musumusu. He was king of part of the island; he came to make an invitation to come to his house where all the neophytes from Uvea were gathered to spend Sunday together. He gave this invitation only to the King of Wallis; he was too ashamed, he told me later, to extend it to the relations of him whom he had the calamity of assassinating, however, he came with confidence, convinced that the hand of the priest would only be able to bestow its blessings and his lips, words of peace. Bad weather forced us to go and quickly drop anchor in the little bay situated in the part of the island opposite to that in which Father Chanel lived. What change did we find in the island?
[16]
(1st July, in the anchorage at Tonga, in the Friendly Islands group) When I wrote to you at Oneata, I was forced to interrupt my letter to busy myself with training a catechist for a great and beautiful mission. My dear Moisé![9] But let us not anticipate things, let’s come back to where we were; the Bishop is ashore, I have spent the whole day with the natives or writing; it is 10 o’clock, but I hope to keep myself awake for some moments more; then I don’t know whether I would still have a moment to write to you. We were at Futuna. It seems that the death of Father Chanel had seriously distressed most of the natives in Futuna; people complained, very quietly however, because of fear. The death of the King and of one of the main driving forces of the murder, visibly bearing the appearance of divine vengeance, really struck these people. The French corvette, which appeared a week after the death of the king and deposed young Keletaona whom I have told you of, ended the matter. That fine catechist could instruct without fear. The party of the vanquished had always looked to him as their principal support even when they were pagans. One of the main villages of the victors converted and even reunited with the vanquished. The rest of the victors, undeceived of their superstitions, had themselves been instructed by the few catechists that Father Chanel had; they were still very ignorant, but with the help of grace, they succeeded in teaching them the oneness of God, knowledge of heaven and hell, then some prayers like the pater, the ave, the credo etc. They ate their tapus (things forbidden by their former religion) and burnt what they called their gods. “Oh,” said a woman whom I saw in our former village, “no one has failed to eat their tapu, not even this little child,” she said, while showing me a little girl 4 or 5 months old. “But what was her tapu?” I asked her. “The fele”, she told me (a sort of sea reptile almost as hard as a bull’s pizzle). “I chewed it myself and made her swallow it,” she added, “to show that really we no longer believe in all those lies.” The vanquished people, the village of the victors which had reunited with them, and some of the main old men of the rest of the victors chose the catechist Keletaona as King. This young chief has an excellent character, more than usual courage, and experience which he has gained in travelling on board several ships; quite certainly he is, in all these island groups, one of the men most able to make a people happy. Some young people among the victors chose as their candidate for king the notorious Musumusu , the murderer of Father Chanel, but all were living in peace while waiting, they said, for the arrival of the great missionary, who would decide, they added, who would be the one to become King. The Bishop pointed out to them that the island was rather small to have two Kings, that it would be a cause for war, that they would do well to come together to choose a King all together. The votes were all in favour of Keletaona. [10]
[17]
The day after our arrival. I went, in the morning, to visit the neophytes from Uvea who were in the other parts of the island. In the evening, to see our former home at Poi. I saw the site of the house, then some posts still upright. I recognised the place where I usually sat with good Father Chanel; I saw the place where he had received the crown. Gathered around me, the people of the village spoke of the details they had heard, and those they had witnessed themselves. In the place where we were told that Father Chanel’s head rested, we saw what seemed to be many bloodstains on the stones or broken coral which formed the floor of the house. The natives tell us that they had always seen these stains, that for a long time they had been a dark red colour, that then they had been washed by the rain and that nothing remained of them than what we saw; they told us that no one had ever dared to touch them. Some days later, the Bishop, who went to say Mass on the very spot where Father Chanel had been killed, had got dug up and found, in the place where Father Chanel’s head had rested after receiving the adze blow, earth still red with blood, then all round, earth of a natural colour. We asked for all the details of the murder to be told to us again. I was with Brother Marie-Nizier, who lived on Futuna with Father Chanel, then I had as well two catechists from Uvea. These details are almost the same as those I have told you, only it seems that the Father, wanting to ward off with his hand the club blow which had injured him, had received such a blow on the arm that the natives said he had the arm broken. All the people present assured us they had heard a noise like a cannon shot above the house at the very moment of Father Chanel’s death.
[18]
To the very site of our former house, people brought food and kava. One thing struck me remarkably; while we were gazing at our former dwelling, I felt a dog rubbing against me, that went from Brother Marie to me, leaping, gambolling; I looked, alas! it was a poor little dog we had in the house. The poor creature had recognised us. We visited the plantations which were far from the condition in which Father Chanel had left them. Then I went back to give an instruction to the neophytes from Uvea who were still gathered in the village where the Father’s death had been plotted. I spent the night visiting and strengthening these poor people. I also visited the murderer. He told me to ask the Bishop to have pity on him and the whole people, and to leave a priest to instruct them. He showed great regret for his crime, which had only committed, he said, reluctantly, and to obey the King. The next day I went back to the Bishop.
[19]
The King (Keletaona) was baptised and confirmed with his little daughter. The people asked, with tears, that they also be given baptism; we then began to see a duty to prepare them and to have them instructed by the catechists from Uvea; I got together a small amount I had learnt of the Futuna language and in five days I was able to give them some instructions. While the Bishop went and visited our former home, he made me responsible for examining them, and ten days after our arrival, he baptised and confirmed 114 of them. There was a greater number of communions among the neophytes from Uvea. The Mass was said in the King’s house. I found out later that this house was formerly that of the King I told you about, to whom were served up to 14 roasted men for lunch. It really needed to be purified and blessed. We left on 9th June, leaving on Futuna Father Servant, Father Roulleaux and Brother Marie.
[20]
At Futuna we had added to the number of passengers 30 and a few neophytes from the Tongan island group who, wanting to go back home, divided themselves into two groups. One went on board the schooner and the other went by a large canoe which followed us. On the first two days our sailing was good. On the third day, with the weather appearing to get worse, it was decided that they would all come aboard [the schooner] and would abandon the canoe. The embarkation was not done without danger; the shame was considerable. We were forced to hoist aboard with ropes two little children still at the breast, the women and the slightly older children were also hoisted, not without danger, the men swam and abandoned their canoe, a product of six months’ work. Fortunately, the night was bad; we would have lost them. We arrived at Oneata. The natives went to land to have a rest. I lay down with them. After some conversations between the natives from Uvea and those from Oneata, the latter came to the Bishop to leave a priest with them. They wanted to have nothing more to do with Protestantism. Because the island was very small, the Bishop promised them only a catechist, which they accepted quickly and with gratitude; but some Protestant catechists frightened them so much, by threatening them with missionaries and the King whose subjects they are, that they went back on their decision. Then one of those catechists who is also one of the main chiefs of the island opposed the catechist remaining. With a typically Protestant form of charity, he didn’t want to allow this young man to stay on the island one or two days while waiting for an opportunity to go to a neighbouring island where his relatives live. So we left for Lakeba. We cast anchor there in a very difficult and narrow harbour. The natives were continually watching to see if the schooner would come onto the shore, because in that case, according to the local laws, the vessel would then belong to them. Thanks be to God, we got out of it without any accidents. After having talked to our neophytes, the natives seemed to want me to stay with them. The matter was almost settled when news from Tonga arrived and led to the abandonment of this plan; to steer to this island and at first leave in these islands only a catechist, Moisé Matanavai. This young man, born in Tonga, was taken while still young to the islands of Fiji. During a voyage to Samoa or the Navigators’ islands, the canoe he was in was thrown by the winds onto the reefs of Uvea, where he was baptised and confirmed. He is a young man full of modesty and energy. He had been associated with me to be my outstanding catechist; I loved him very much. He had to sacrifice that for the glory of God. He is going to prepare the ways for the gospel in the Fiji islands while waiting until the Bishop has priests to send.
[21]
I went to sleep this morning while writing this letter; I see that I was talking to you about my dear Moisé Matanavai; our separation has been a true separation for me. Our journey from Lakeba to Tonga was quite happy, in spite of a furious wind gust which we experienced on the evening before our arrival. Up to now, it seems that I will stay with the thirty and a few neophytes from this island group who were in Uvea and who came with us. Most of the natives in this island are still in paganism. They have been almost always at war with the natives converted to Protestantism; they have had to resist attacks from the whole island group united against them. They live in sorts of fortresses. A year ago an English naval vessel came and anchored in the roads. It wanted to take the side of the missionaries. The commandant appeared in front of the main fort of the pagans, with part of his crew carrying weapons, some cannon and all the Protestant natives; they were going to take the fort by assault. The poor commandant lost his life there and the victorious pagans captured three cannon. The conduct of the English commandant was, it is said, blamed by everyone.[11] It seems that I am going to live among the pagans.
[22]
(11 July 1842) I am definitively going to my station tomorrow morning. It is the fort I was telling you about, its name is Pea; it is the smallest of the three forts belonging to the pagans, but the most worked on. It astonishes all the Europeans who visit it. We were attracted to it at first glance. We visited the two other forts and the pagan chiefs who all welcomed us in the most friendly way. In contrast, going through the territory of the self-styled converts to Christianity, the captain, some Englishmen, some natives and I, were assailed with insults and even with rotten bananas. The chief of the self-styled religious people who is only the third in rank in the island, but who has been proclaimed by the missionaries as king of the whole island and recognised as such by the King of the Ha’apai and Vava’u Islands,[12] has issued several times a ban on receiving me. Warned of the fury of the heretics, the Bishop encouraged me to take possession. The king of the heretics, although having little power on his own, is feared because he is supported by all the forces of the King of Ha’apai and Vava’u. The first night I spent at Pea, he sent an order to expel me. I was called to the night-time council which met in the King’s house. I was informed of the message. The King, a fairly timid man, conferred with an unrelated chief, his spokesman, as he called him (he was the chief who received me into his house and who had the biggest influence in the fort). They said that they were afraid of the King of Vava’u and Ha’apai, but also that they loved God, the newly-come parent and his religion, because they were afraid of France. Only they believed that they could only put up a protest against all that would be done against me. I thanked them for their friendship and, seeing their good dispositions, I protested that I would not take a single step to leave their country, and that it would be only by violence that I would be driven away from them. I added that, being ready to give my life for the happiness of the heretics as well as for that of the people still in idolatry, out of love for them I asked to reflect on the consequences that any violence inflicted on my could have. The boldness with which I spoke made a strong impression on the natives; they conferred again, then begged me not to abandon them. You will instruct us, you will bless us, the chief told me, and we will all die with you. At that point the council ended.
[23]
Several orders of expulsion, several threats have since arrived but without making them in the least way change their resolution. The upshot has been to get the fort ready to be defended, and to get them ready to bravely receive an attack from people describing themselves as Christians, which appals them. If we pagans, a chief told me, if we attacked the Christians to force them to send away their missionaries, that could be imagined; but for the Christians to attack us, we pagans, because we are receiving the true missionary who has left everything because of love for us and who is coming to teach us to serve the same God as them, but in a true way; that cannot be imagined.
[24]
This resolution was shared by the chiefs of the other forts and especially by the high King of Tonga and the whole island group;[13] but it has pleased the missionary gentlemen, helped by the strength of Vava’u and Ha’apai, to strip the tapu status of the King. These natives were delighted when they were told of a religion that would be freely embraced, in which no one has to fear getting blows from ropes for having smoked a bit of tobacco, having their teeth broken from fist blows for actions of no importance which it pleased the missionary gentlemen to include in the list of sins. We saw a man who had his jaw cleared by fist blows as punishment for a sin, he had escaped to the pagans. Blows from ropes are everyday punishments.
[25]
These good people seem well-disposed; I hope that this island soon will be counted among the number of islands converted to the Catholic faith. A call has gone out to ask for the help of the King of Ha’apai and Vava’u to be brought against us; but let God be blessed.
[26]
That is my situation. I am alone for the time being in the presence of three missionaries who see jeopardised by my arrival [their hold on] the population of this island and the entire island group which they thought was exclusively in their possession. In the presence of a people they have fanaticised and made cruel. But also having on my side God… and the immense majority [of the people] of this island, the first King[14] at their head, who is urging the Bishop not to abandon them, but to have pity on them and instruct them.
[27]
Pray for me very much. But I think that when you receive this letter the fate of this island will be clear – matters will then be clear.
[28]
It’s past midnight – I have to finish. I am going, at dawn, to get back into my fort and to await in peace (or in war) the will of God, by working to unite in the hearts of these poor natives the words of God and the knowledge of Our Lord Jesus Christ and his most holy Mother.
All yours, your poor brother, J(oseph) Chevron, miss(ionary) ap(ostolic)
[29]
So as to conform ourselves to the day of the month, even though erroneous, which the missionaries brought here a long time ago, we have put ourselves forward by a day; instead of being 12 hours behind you, as in Wallis, we are 12 hours ahead [of you].
[30]
I forgot to tell you the reasons advanced to encourage the pagans to expel us. They are curious. This missionary, the Protestants say, preaches a very bad religion which orders murder and adultery. If you convert, the missionary will kill your little children and cut them into bits to roast them. (I would prefer to fast for a day than to kill a hen, but it’s all the same). When you are converted, people add, you will have to fatten pigs and hens, plant yams and do all that for the French warships which will come and take them from you. Then these ships will bring, first 10 men, then 20, then 30, until they are strong enough to take over your island and drive you from it.
[31]
All these insults only serve, it seems, to increase the attachment of the pagans to us.

Notes

  1. Jean-Maire Debelay, then parish priest of Nantua; in the context it can be thought that “Father Denis” would be Denis Debelay, curate and then parish priest of Nantua (Cf Doc 161 [7, f/n 5]) but it is possible to think as well of Father Pierre Denis, parish priest of Nievroz since 1814, and of Jean-François Denis, professed as a Marist 27 September 1842 (Cf Doc 341 [3. f/n 2])
  2. tout état du feu
  3. on se plaignit de bon
  4. Cf Mt 3:9 – “I tell you, from these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.” Cf also Luke 3:8
  5. An islet off the south coast of Wallis. The first church of the Wallis mission was built there (Cf Doc 38 [29])
  6. “feet” – the metric system introduced by the Revolutionary government took some time to be popularly accepted - translator’s note
  7. 18th/19th century prints depicting scenes of traditional French life - translator’s note
  8. The day after May 27 (Cf [13] ie May 28, fell on a Saturday in 1842.
  9. Moïse Matanavai (Cf. below [20])
  10. It was at this time (May 1842) that Bishop Pompallier baptised him and installed him as the only King of Futuna. (He called him Petelo:Cf Doc 193 [5], 207 [2-3]. In 1843 the independence of the two districts of the island was re-established and the reign of Keletaona was limited to the district of Sigave until 1851 when he had to step down there as well (Cf Doc 342 [3] f/n 4; Frimigacci p 152-54). Chanel spoke about him in his mission diary (journal de mission) 23 Jan 1838 (Rozier, Écrits Chanel p323):… “Sami, son of the legitimate King of the whole island. This young man wants to revive the rights which his father had neglected. While still a child, he performed prodigies of bravery in the wars that took place in the island.” Rozier (Écrits Chanel p 205 f/n 4) quotes the observation made later by Brother Marie-Nizier Delorme: “For a very long time we have believed that really Keletaona had rights to the kingship; that derived especially from the fact that white men living on the island made this assertion as certain, getting it no doubt from Keletaona himself.” (See as well: Doc 133 [5] f/n 3; 162 [3] and below [19])
  11. This “English commandant” is no doubt captain Walter Croker who arrived in Tongatapu on 21 June 1840 on his little vessel Favourite. Intending to put an end to the civil war which was then raging, on 24 June he went to the fort of the pagan rebels at Pea, with half of his crew and three little cannon. After having informed the rebels of the conditions for peace, he granted them a delay of half an hour for the reply; and with his watch in his hand, he refused the delay asked for and attacked when the thirty minutes had passed. Several of the English crew were wounded, Croker and two others mortally and, in the retreat, the three little cannon were left to the victors. As Chevron says here, Croker’s conduct was blamed by everyone, certainly by the inquiry of the government of New South Wales (Cf Wood p 50-51, Latukefu p 116-7, Laracy Catholic Mission Tonga, p 140). Chevron tells us as well ([22]) that it was at Pea, the site of this battle of 24 June 1840, that he was going to set up the Catholic mission (See Grange’s account of the Croker incident: Doc 264 [19]). Another incident in the 1840 civil war is mentioned by Chevron in an earlier letter (Doc 62 [44] f/n10).
  12. The “King of the whole island” (Tongatapu) was Aleamotu’a, whose title was Tu’i Kanokupolu, his ally, Tāufa’āhau, was Tu’i Vavau and Tu’i Ha’apai (the King of the Vava’u and Ha’apai islands) (Cf Doc 62 [44] f/n 10)
  13. Laufilitoga (1827-1865), the last Tu’i Toga. For three centuries the power of the title-holder had been greatly diminished (Cf Wood p41, 66)
  14. Laufilitoga, the Tu’i Tonga