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doc. 328 — 20 May, 6 and 26 June, 19 and 25 August 1844

Letter from Charles Mathieu to his brother

Partial translation by Fr Charles Girard SM

[2] The island of Wallis is about 10 leagues in circumference. It is surrounded by about ten islets which are more or less large, and beyond by a belt of reefs which allow ships to enter only through a very narrow pass. There are 2600 inhabitants. [...]

[3] The Wallisians are tan skinned, they have long hair floating on their shoulders or combed up in the form a large turban. They are clothed from their armpits to their feet in a large tapa cloth wrapped several times around the body and they also wear a fine mat attached with a string belt. They are tattooed from the belt to the knees. Almost all of them have the little finger of the hand amputated because of ancient superstitions. While still pagans, it was their custom to cut the little finger of their children to appease the gods. Their countenance is generally noble and full of character, it shows little difference from that of the Europeans. The houses have a large round roof covered with leaves and help up by pillars in the middle and all around. Although I am not very tall, I have to bend deeply in order to enter. This form of house is suitable for keeping out the rain which sometimes falls in torrents and is violently pushed along by the wind. It also allows air to pass through from all sides to cool the house during the almost continuous times of great heat. The interior is covered with mats on which people sit, lie down, and eat. Although the houses are spread out along almost all the coast, there are however three main points or villages where churches have been built. [...]

[4] The inhabitants of Wallis are merry, they like jokes, they are respectful and affectionate toward their missionaries. All the songs they compose are now either on religious subjects or about their missionaries. Almost all of them have beautiful voices and are crazy about singing. It is not rare to hear them singing from the evening until sunrise. They sing while working, while walking, while carrying burdens. [...]

[6] [These people] have their rules of politeness as strictly observed as in France; we need to know these rules and observe them at least up to a certain point. Kava with its ceremonial is offered at all meetings; no one can make or receive a visit unless the kava root is presented, chewed and distributed, with all the necessary prescriptions. This drink, although Europeans do not find it very inviting, is nonetheless very healthy and very useful in this burning climate. After a stay of some time, one soon forgets about the way in which it is made and one drinks it like anything else. If you could come to Wallis, you would often see me in the middle of a circle of old men (for we bear the name of old men or elders and we hold the rank of chief in this country.) A young person faces us with a large shallow wooden bowl, about 2 or 3 feet in diameter, with several empty coconuts filled with water, a few sea shells and a wisp of hemp called fao. When the root has been presented to me, I thank the one who has offered it. I present it to someone else who does the same to his neighbor, then the root is thrown to the young person whose duty it is to divide it up immediately, to clean it and to chew it. During this time, we talk about the business of the day. Soon all the chewed pieces fall into the large plate. Then the one who is to stir the liquor shows them to the president of the assembly who says that it is well and who has them divided if there are too many of them. Then the one is working at it kneads the kava what a quite fashionable movement of head and body, then it is ordered that water be poured in, then that the whole be sifted and cleared with the hemp. Three individuals are seated around the plate. The one who stirs is in the middle. Two others are on either side of him with small wooden sticks to extract the little pieces of fiber or refuse which might remain in the liquor. When the drink is ready, the one who stirred it claps his hands three or four times with a loud noise to give notice that all is ready. Then the tufa (distributor), who is always seated next to the president of the assembly, orders that it be distributed. The hemp is thrust into the plate and then squeezed to cause the liquor to fall into the coconut cups. Each time a cup is filled, one of the individuals seated next to the plate gives notice of this in a loud voice, and the tufa orders it to be brought to one or another in the assembly, notably to each in turn according to his rank and standing. Before accepting the delicious cup, one must testify his satisfaction by clapping his hands two or three times. This liquor has a gray color is neither agreeable nor very disagreeable. As for its taste, there are some people who find that it has a peppery taste. As for myself, I do not know of anything to which it can be compared; it is somewhat bitter, somewhat peppery, a bit of all that. This liquor does not inebriate the drinker, but makes one languid when drunk to excess.

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