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Fr Jean-Baptiste Petit-Jean to Fr Claude Girard, Bay of Islands, 18 May 1842

Translated by Fr Brian Quin SM, October 2008

Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us.
To Reverend Father Girard
Bay of Islands, New Zealand 18 May 1842

Reverend Father
Allow me to describe to you straight away, with simplicity, various curious aspects of the law of tapu which I have seen in New Zealand. At Mangonui[1] I saw a native accompanied by a large group of people, holding a torch in his hand, threatening to burn down a European’s dwelling. This white man had made himself guilty in the sight of the Maoris, by going on different occasions to gather wood near a child’s grave. I was called to calm things down. The natives insisted on getting clothes as reparation for the injury done them, and that is what the European agreed to.
This is what happened to me at Whangaroa[2] in my very house. I was bold enough to move it near to a place where dead people had been buried some time before. At that time there remained only the half open graves. I chose that spot as being the most convenient. The natives saw this with some distress. I dared to have our home set up about ten paces from these graves which people could only approach trembling. This time there was great alarm among the natives. My evening meal was not yet served when I heard them shouting that my fire was tapu, that my food was tapu, and particularly, all my pots. Kia tapu nga kohue katoa, all the pots have become tapu. It was that tapu cast on all our pots that frightened me most. The chief along with his tribe hastily came up to my house with everyone in his tribe and gave a really vigorous harangue. Do not imagine that I in any way lost my dignity. From the start I pleaded my cause with every reason that could convince them. I began by protesting that no church urged as great a respect for the dead as the holy Catholic Church, and as a minister of that Church I professed the same respect, but I urged them to consider that they had taken away their dead and that the graves were empty. They were very careful to tell me that some piece of hair could be left, the earth could perhaps be tinged with a little of the dead people’s bodies. Then I replied that my house’s fireplace was far enough away, and asked if they would give me the limits of this tapu land, where this fearsome tapu must extend to, and as according to them there were no more reasons to limit it to ten paces than to twenty or even thirty, it followed that the tapu included in an indefinite way the whole surrounding land. As the Maoris didn’t understand this reasoning or didn’t want to see its implications, and wanted to take my pots, to make them tapu, and were also threatening to kill a little Maori boy who was getting my food ready, I put on a bold front, I ranted in the New Zealanders’ style: Touch me, I told them, touch anything that is mine, and I am certain that we will be avenged by some French frigate. It will not be me, it will not be the Bishop who will call it, but it will come because of the friendship that France extends to all its subjects. I put on my pots a tapu other than theirs, forbidding them to take them away. Their anger ceased, they became as gentle as lambs, they went away one after another. I had my supper, and some Maoris who were in my service furtively came and had the soup which they found delicious. My victory was complete to the point that afterwards I got all these Maoris to eat food cooked in this fearsome place and instead of dying because of it they found themselves to be well.
One day while visiting a tribe, I found out that there was a child who was seriously ill, but where was it to be found? Its father, plunged in sadness and convinced that a god was devouring his son, had fled far away into the forest. In the company of a guide, I went to look for him. I called out for him for a long time and at last, seeing himself on the point of being discovered, he appeared. So as not to allow me to come near, he moved forward in front of me. [3] After the usual greetings, I told him that he should not be sad, that his son only had a slight illness, that was indeed how I viewed a child who was in the company of his father. It wasn’t the real sickness. I suddenly heard cries coming from the bottom of the valley, it was there that the unfortunate little boy was lying. I asked the chief if I could go down. The chief himself pointed out the way I had to follow to get to his son. This son turned out to be under the most terrible law of tapu. My guides had stayed on top of the mountain, no doubt they were seized by a horror like that which the pagans could not defend themselves from when they tell us they approached the dark caverns of the underworld. I put my bundle down a certain distance away, I avoided going too close. How many precautions I had to take! How many tricks I needed to deprive Satan of his prey. After hinting distantly at the matter of baptism I suggested to him allowing me to baptise his son, and I had no response but whether his son, once baptised, would die the same day. At the same time I caught sight of an old Maori priestess who was circling the young child, a veritable picture of Satan who held his prey tightly in his clutches. I wanted, then, to show that I was fearsome even to Satan, and flying, as is said, into a holy anger, I was like a man pronouncing anathemas against Satan and a bit like the Maoris themselves when they curse their gods. This strategy succeeded well enough for me. After all, it was only the truth; what is there more powerful against Satan than the ministry of a priest representing Jesus Christ? The father agreed to the baptism, but I was allowed to use nothing other than the baptismal water poured into a leaf. I must not even touch the child.[4] At last I had the consolation of pouring the regenerating water on the young sick one’s forehead. Satan was driven from his fortress. Three weeks afterward the child was reigning in heaven with the angels. Poor little Nicolas (that is the name I gave him), your prayers, please, for me and for the Society of Mary.
Since I have just named this good mother, I will repeat here what I believe I have already written, that the word marie written in Maori just as the name of our good mother is written in French, means peace and mildness.[5] What a happy coincidence in what seems to be a pure result of chance. Are not goodness and mildness the things that characterise the mother of God? Isn’t Mary’s name an emblem and a sign of peace? Regina pacis, ora pro nobis. [6] This comparison that I have just made came to my mind naturally; people who love make many others of the same sort which are not so true and which are willingly excused for reasons of friendship.
I had the consolation of preparing two French sailors on board the Aube for death. A bad joke unwittingly told me of their sickness. In a few days, someone said, the fish are going to have a really good meal. When I went on board, the lieutenant, with inappropriate concern for the sick, remarked to me that my presence could frighten them. I contented myself with telling him that an enemy bullet did not frighten them, and that the sight of a priest was a lot less terrible. Everything worked out well. I found among the sailors men who responded perfectly to the Latin prayers. How many other Frenchmen die on board naval vessels without the help of religion, especially on long expeditions? When will a truly grateful country make provision for putting to rest the consciences of our sailors who would not want to die without the ministry of a priest?
I am keeping in my wallet, as a memorial of shame and weakness, a solemn decision made by the Protestant missionaries in a meeting we had with them. It was signed by Mr William[7] and the signature was notarised by the magistrate. Here is its exact meaning: It is allowable or rather it is indifferent to represent by sculpture or painting people or profane things; as for sacred things, it is a sin to make representation of them. They were acting[8] following agreements to answer in writing and with a valid signature the question which had been put to them and which concerned the simple representation of profane things. Other questions followed. These gentlemen foresaw the consequences. They deliberated for a long time, did not want to sign, or signed only with a pencil, finally they did it once and only wanted to do it once. What a good tactic to put things in writing! It seems to me that in every public meeting I would like to set down as a principal condition that people will be obliged to answer questions that are simple and reduced in proportion, to answer, I say, in writing and with a valid signature. I was quite satisfied by the naïve and slightly ironic way in which one of our newly baptised answered a Protestant missionary who was attacking him. The Protestant: You Catholics, you have images, which is contrary to God’s word. The newly-baptised: You have them as well; the priests showed [us] one of your books full of illustrations. The Protestant: Yes, but we do not bow in front of images. But when you bowed down with the book of pictures in your hand, you were well bent over as well, you Protestants. Why, the native went on, were you missionaries so stubborn in not wanting to give your signature to many points [while] those whom you call ‘the people from Rome’ gave theirs so willingly; and since you have been in this land, having come hampered by your women, you have not been very energetic for the word of God, you have bought a lot of land. Is this perhaps according to the word of God, or rather according to the natural desires of your hearts? The day after our meeting the Protestant minister[9] left his baker because he was a Catholic and had the misfortune to attend the meeting. Is it possible to honour your cause by petty acts of that sort? Our great battlefield is showing that the Protestants do not come from Jesus Christ but only began with Luther, that Luther was the first of them, and this name Luther in Maori: Rutero, is notorious among the New Zealanders.
I am ending my anecdotes because my pages are full. How joyful I am to see being accomplished in our Society the crescite et multiplicamini.[10] I commend myself to the prayers of our Reverend Fathers and particularly to those of the beloved novitiate, my regards to our Fathers and in particular to Reverend Father Dussurgey.
Very respectfully
J[ean]-B[aptiste] Petit-Jean, Marist priest, m[issionary] ap[ostolic]


  1. Written “Mongonui”
  2. Written “Wangaroa”
  3. lui-même s’avança au devant de moi
  4. Je ne dus pas même toucher l’enfant
  5. marie in Maori does mean peace or peaceful; as in wai marie which means calm water - translator’s note
  6. Queen of peace, pray for us
  7. Henry Williams, head of the Anglican mission in New Zealand (cf Doc 118/15). For the incident mentioned here, see Doc 118/15-31.
  8. ?Ils étolent tenus
  9. The Protestant minister at Kororareka referred to was the Anglican Robert Burrows (C Girard f/note). See Doc 118/25 re Burrows.
  10. Be fruitful and multiply: Genesis 1:22, 1:28, 8:17, 9:1, 9:7