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17 Jun 1845 - Fr Joseph Chevron to Fr Jean-Claude Colin, Tonga

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

Tonga 17 June 1845.

Very reverend Father,
Last week we had the visit of the corvette Le Rhin, the very one which took to New Zealand Fathers Chauvet, Moreau and (I have forgotten the name of the third priest). The vessel stayed here a week but we have been so busy either by writing letters to Bishop Bataillon or by an account that Commander Bérand asked me for on the state of the mission station (not on the religious state but on the establishment of mission stations on this island and of our relations with the English missionaries and with the natives); we have been so taken up with these matters and by receiving the officers that I have not been able to write a single word, nor to my parents. This morning we have had the visit of an Englishman residing in Tahiti; he had to put into port here because of damage to his schooner; he offered to take our letters to Sydney, where he thinks he will return after the Navigator Islands. Therefore I am taking advantage of the opportunity and although a little pushed for time will say a brief word on how things are at present.
You know of course that almost a year ago we were visited by Bishop Bataillon who brought us the Father provincial who is living here. From that time our position has seemed less rosy, although unquestionably sound. The natives like inexperienced children have all grown up. Relying on some words, which I would not dare to qualify, but uttered by Bishop Pompallier whether at Wallis or at Futuna, the natives were delighted to think that the bishop was going to arrive with a squadron, perhaps with a fleet of warships and transport ships and that he was going to give them great quantities of clothing, spades, axes, cooking pots, knives, etc Furthermore based on the slightly exaggerated words with which the Protestant missionaries on Wallis are treated, they imagined that the bishop on arriving would call the missionaries to his court and that in no time at all he would reduce them at least to admit even by their silence that they were nothing but impostors.
The natives who came from Ouvéa (Wallis) in no way toned down the exaggerations of the natives of Tonga. They spoke of the gifts given to them, gifts which were very capable of rousing jealousy among our natives of Tonga. Bishop Bataillon in reports taken by some natives to Wallis and even in reports from Bishop Douarre , who came in a passing visit, had seen everything in a rosy complexion. The bishop, I say, on arriving blared out that he was coming to take a missionary to the fort of Moua. Hearing this news the English missionaries got into action. We still did not know when the ship would arrive nor that they were already at Moua working on the chiefs and swearing them not to receive the Marist missionary. Bishop Douarre received a rebuff. The restraint with which this refusal was made gives me the impression that the missionary would have been most likely accepted, had the matter been made tactfully and wisely.
As you can see there was a gulf between this refusal and this triumph which the natives promised themselves over the Protestants and over the pagan chiefs. So many dashed hopes and such a strange way changed the face of the island for us; many chiefs who claimed to be our friends and who received us quite eagerly, far from continuing from coming to see us as before, receive us at their homes only with coldness and sometimes even with dishonesty. This coldness, as you should regard it, is an epidemic sickness here, because in Tonga as well and perhaps more than everywhere else the chief is the one who sets the tone. The Protestants exhibited the same change towards us. The missionaries have made new efforts. They have created a new station in the eastern part of the island, where they had a certain number of converts. Their enthusiasm was stimulated; they appeared to take their business to heart. They sent catechists from every direction.
Yet it seems that God enjoys showing the emptiness of Protestantism to those who earnestly seek and reflect on truth. Religion for Protestants is no more than taking sides. I don¹t know if you could find here among them a single one who is sincerely religious. Furthermore they themselves regard the division among them as a curse.
The state of Protestantism at Hapai and at Vavou is the same as here, it is more than probable that if the Catholic missionaries don't go into those parts, these islands will revert to paganism. The system of excessive rigour practised by the Wesleyans throw the natives into a kind of despair. If they were free to leave the country a good number of the natives would take refuge in the neighbouring islands.
This coolness in the chiefs' treatment of us served to show that we have a stronger base than those false signs of friendship. Also the false rumours spread by the Wesleyan missionaries and the English which travel through these islands, to stir up against us the hatred and the defiance of the natives has created in them a fear which would make them apprehensive about compromising themselves with us. One of the main chiefs, stirred up by his two sisters, zealous Protestants, undertook to upset about 50 converts whom we had in a village which he controlled. He even sent them an order to abandon the village and to withdraw to the fort of Pea. Father Grange, who was there, confronted him and he beat a retreat; he even apologized to me later on.
Having prepared all the necessary material for a church, the converts of this little Christian community of Hologa, started the task of building it on the first day of last May. It was then that the same chief ordered the natives to stop building and ordered the missionary to leave the village. I was in the village (we had a small house here where Manous drop in every ten to twelve days). I went to see the chief who was in his fort half an hour away. I had a rather lively discussion with him. He persisted in his decision not to allow the building of the church and even to chase away the converts should they continued building. As for me, he made it clear to me that he was still of the same opinion but that he would do me no harm, He said he knew of the bad designs of France as regards Tonga through the reports of the English missionaries and of other travellers.
That is roughly our present position. Our main residence is at Pea where we live. We have this start made for a mission station at Hologa which I have just spoken to you about and a Christian cell in the most eastern part of the island. It can grow from fifty to sixty members. In addition we have some converts but in very small numbers in different parts of the island. We think that we have in total about 500 catechumens or converts. We have not baptized many since Bishop Bataillon¹s visit. We have baptized only the new born babies of the converts and the children in danger of death. We are thinking of preparing soon for a multiple baptism when Bishop Bataillon visits. We have recently received a letter from him and he hopes to visit us with the first arrival of missionaries whom we believe won¹t be much longer in coming. I think you will receive news of him by the corvette which must be at Wallis today. That island has been at war for eight or ten months. The bishop tells us that everything is fine, despite this state of war in which few natives however take an active part in.
We are all well here. Brother Attale and Brother Jean are very busy. Father Calinon is working passionately on the language; he has already been twice to Hologa to give instruction. He is beginning to be understood a little by the natives. As a result of the lack of provisions in which we have been left until now, Father Grange is depressed, a state he has I believe already informed you about more than once. He was on the verge of leaving on the corvette, as he said, to go and inform you of our position. Finding that the provincial formally opposed this step, he decided to wait for a new opportunity. The reflections and the opinions of Father Grange are partially quite correct basically, but he adds to them matters which are 100 leagues from the religious spirit. Also there is deep down even exaggeration. I think that the Father provincial will have spoken to you about it in more detail. Father Grange is in a state in which we can not count on him for the mission; besides all natures and temperaments do not find the same ease in dealing with difficulties and deprivations which we encounter here. Consequently you will not be surprised to see our dear colleague disembarking in France. We entreat you when you receive him to do so with all the kindness you have for your children.
When writing to Bishop Bataillon, I spoke to him of the difficulties we have here in continuing to rely on the generosity of the natives for our sustenance. Generosity is a virtue not particularly known here; they speak all the time of friendship; they make a thousand promises but when they have to put their words into practice it is only with reluctance; that is what the natives are like. In seeing them only en passant, you can say that they are the most hospitable people and the most charitable but when you have spent rather a long time with them to read the bottom of their hearts you see in that behaviour only an enforced pretence. That pretence is rather often noticed by us, but basically they feel even more regret in giving us something than in giving it to their fellow natives. Undoubtedly religion produces a change in our converts, but these converts are few in number, besides religion does not strip away old habits to such an extent that there still doesn¹t remain some traces. Add to that the spirit of commerce which the English have brought here; nothing for nothing, that is the principle here). They don¹t count for much the gifts we give them, the services which we give them (unless you take for gratitude some fine words which they address to us sometimes in circumstances where the ceremonial show of the island makes them make empty words. They hold little account of what we give them but they recall ceaselessly the smallest things that they have given us. With that we dare not ask for anything. We wait until we are in desperate need before asking them for help, fearing that we may be pushing them away from religion, and that they would consider it an onerous burden if they had to give us all the services which we needed.
Because we receive sustenance from them, they believe that we are obliged to a kind of system whereby all is owned collectively. So they would feel slighted and outraged if we would eat in their presence without inviting them. And as they are always ravenous because of their laziness they try to come and roam around the house at meal times and even ask the brother if they can come in beside him. So a refusal annoys them and makes them say that we are quite like the other whites, unfriendly. Knowing for example that we received a little flour and wine, they come harassing the brother to have some, besides that they don¹t bring anything more not thinking that the little that is brought is not sufficient to nourish us. It is difficult to reason with them on those sorts of matters. We think that to make a clean cut with these annoyances, it would be pertinent not to receive sustenance for nothing from the natives but to buy them for ourselves by exchanging things yet still continuing to dispense medicine for nothing and even from time to time giving small presents at least to the chiefs. It would be necessary too to pay for the houses to be built and for the other similar services that we need to get from them. There are enough obstacles to establishing religion without still adding the obstacle of appearing to them a burden when we ask them for services and sustenance. It is true that this is a matter which seems quite natural but which they are not yet in a position to understand. The bishop has indeed authorized us in the case of need to buy some food on board the ships, but many of the ships don¹t want to bother with us, because we are French and Catholic priests. Secondly what can be obtained from these ships is very expensive, besides it is only trash that they let us have and also in a word our purse is not always well stocked.
I think that Father Calinon had to speak to you about that. I think I need to tell you that we share perfectly the same viewpoint.
Very reverend Father, don¹t take what I have just said to you as a complaint. No way, I am rather far from complaining. We are better here than I imagined in France. Besides, God has I think given me more than many others the ability to accustom myself to the way of life which we have here. Only I think that this type of life can be very distressing for a good number of our colleagues whose temperament is not made to be subjected to great deprivations. Also I think this system is less advantageous to the progress of the mission in that it puts us as a burden on the natives and it makes them much more demanding in our regard.
I must finish this letter which is already quite long, all the more long that I did not have time to summarize in a few words what I had to tell you.
I have received only recently the letter that Father Maîtrepierre wrote me in 1842. Should I dare ask you to offer my respect to that venerable Father and to remember me to all our dear colleagues? A propos of our dear colleagues who are destined for the missions, I think that I ought to tell you, very reverend Father, that the greatest difficulties that can be encountered here is seeing the slowness which God¹s work among the pagans and heretics takes. For the physical difficulties and for those that you would expect to encounter in being separated from one¹s parents and friends, with the grace of God, they are easy to endure and easier than I would have dared to hope for. From a distance those difficulties seem monstrous and enormous, but close at hand they are only troubles and difficulties that you encounter in France. Yet I think that God gives special graces here in that regard.
Please receive the assurance of the deep respect with which I have the honour of being,
very reverend Father,
your very obedient,
Joseph Chevron