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20June 1845 - Fr Charles-Eugène Mathieu to his brother, Wallis

Translated by Peter McConnell, June 2010.

Wallis, 20 June 1845

My dear brother,
A month ago I received your two letters which arrived together, although sent by different routes. What pleasure I had in reading them, I who for two years had received no news from France. It was Father Violotte who brought them to me after a very successful passage of six months. When the ship appeared, I had initially some forewarning that it was bringing us something good and I stood on the waterside to see it coming. The ship had a tail wind; it soon came in and laid anchor. A ship’s boat put out immediately. Our ship arrived in full sail. The natives and I fixed our eyes on it. Some little children say to me, “We can see somebody with a black habit”. It was low tide and the ship’s boat touched bottom very far from the shore. I saw one of the natives, whom I had sent to the ship’s boat, wearing a three cornered hat. He was carrying Father Junillon piggy-back. I waded in with the sea half way up my leg to go and meet him. After thanking God at church, I took him to the presbytery where he gave me your letter.
Dear brother, it is quite long staying two years without being able to exchange letters. Distance is not the sole reason for it; it is in particular the isolation of this small land where I live and where so few ships come to. Here we see only a few American whalers, which have no planned route and which roam in the middle of the ocean to fish for sperm whale. They come here to stock up on water, timber, victuals and set off to continue their fishing which sometimes lasts three or four years. Since I have been here I have as yet seen only two French whalers the Elisa and the Heva, belonging to ship owners of Le Hâvre but no news from you. Couldn’t you contact these ship owners who have a lot of ships fishing on the north-west coasts? They usually take course by the Cape of Good Hope and often need to put into port in our locality. You could take the chance of giving them some letters.
We have a little outrigger canoe now. It was left to us by an Englishman who had built it here. The ship hands from the Rhin are busy at the moment restoring it. Perhaps we will be able to use it to cross over as far as Sydney. In that way we would be able to have very frequent and very rapid mail brought by the English steamers which connect Sydney and London by way of the Suez.
Since last year the little island of Wallis has experienced persecution and wars I had foreseen. I even think that I made you aware of my forebodings and my fears in the last letter I wrote to you and sent on the Adolphe. I will rapidly sketch out, and as much as time will allow me, the events which have taken place since then. You will see all the efforts that the devil makes to scatter our little flock, and knows how to save us and even turn all things to the good of this little church which he has deigned to adopt.
Some weeks after the arrival of the bishop, Pooi, Maatu and the gang of Protestants began to carry out a blatant persecution against Catholics. They ordered the villagers over whom they claimed authority to leave their plantations and to turn to the Protestant religion. They went as far as hitting, threatening with death, forcefully dragging Catholics to their gatherings, pursuing them into the bush while they were going to Sunday Mass. This method did not succeed as they wanted and seeing that they would have too much to do leading all the island in this way to their side, they discussed the matter and found it quicker and surer to declare war. In that way they hoped to frighten all the population, separate it from Tuugahala, who was not liked and so take sole power themselves. Therefore they began to be provocative. They threw rubbish into one of our churches, situated at Felaleu, a village where the king lived and where they themselves also lived. In the opinion and customs of these people, an act of that kind is regarded as the most serious of all insults. It is a case of war and it is not necessary even ordinarily to declare it. However the Catholics did not react; they were satisfied in burning some of their houses; they burnt others in their turn and for a fortnight it was only a matter of fires on both sides. So seeing that they were keeping to simple reprisals and perhaps thinking that we were afraid of fighting, the Protestants went quite openly to their goal. They sent to Matautu a village where the bishop usually resides to say that they were preparing to attack the following day. As soon as I found out I went to be with the bishop whom I did not want to be separated from in this time of danger. On my arrival I saw all the people from the north of the island united at Matautu and armed. They were waiting for the enemy which was also fighting at Felaleu less than half a league away. It is a totally odd seeing these people dressed for war. I could not recognize any more any of our converts. They who were usually so gentle and so sober now looked absolutely savage. Their long hair was knotted on top of their heads. All their bodies were daubed and painted in various colours: black, red, and yellow. They had worked hard in particular to make their faces unrecognizable. Their sole distinctive mark to recognize one another in the fray was a red cross which each one had painted on his chest and arms. They were armed with clubs, spears, stones, axes, and some had rifles. For time to time they uttered war cries that were absolutely savage. I took a long time examining them, in recognizing them; that made them laugh. We ourselves had our hands and clothing rather stained with the paint. We waited several days for the enemy who were threatening at any moment to pour down on us and who even on one occasion came half way in doing that.
It was on one of those days that while I was going to Felaleu to take Extreme Unction to an old man who was dying, I had to pass the enemy army. About a dozen ran up to me and surrounded me shouting savagely at me and threatening me with their lances and their clubs. In that way they accompanied me to the house of the old man whirling their clubs around me and brandishing their spears gesticulating most menacingly. They still accompanied me with the same performance on my return journey but did not do me any harm. I don’t really know their intention; I suppose that all they wanted was to frighten me. In that case their poor performance did not have all the success they hoped for.
While the two armies were thus facing each other, an English warship, called the North Star, arrived. As soon as the bishop found out, he made the commander aware of our position and asked him to come and visit us and to act as mediator to re-establish peace. This commander was a rabid Protestant arriving from Tonga quite prejudiced against the mission and full of the slander that the Methodist missionaries had uttered against us. He thought we were compromised in a war which we had fomented ourselves to turn the Protestant natives by force to our religion. He came to Matautu and his first interview with the Bishop was rather strange. Yet the bishop got him to reserve his judgement and promised him a written and detailed report on the matter. This report was sent to him the following day. It was easy for him to check the accuracy of the facts from the witness of all the whites of various nationalities who live on the island. From then on he completely changed his opinion and attitude towards us and mediated with a lot of zeal and action to re-establish peace. He himself went to the Protestant chiefs, refused their presents, gave them a severe dressing down and appealed to them to lay down their arms immediately and threatened in the case where they still caused trouble in the country with all the fury of the war vessels of whatever nationality which would come to visit their country. He then made them come on board his ship with Tuugahala, made them sign a peace and gave them a paper with certain rules of conduct written on it. This commander has been very good towards us and gave himself a lot of trouble for us. On his departure he left us a little present of wine and coffee. On our part we did everything possible to receive him well and give him all the little services that our reduced means could give him. We left good friends but we predicted telling him that the peace he achieved would not last long.
In fact the English vessel was no sooner beyond the reef than Pooi and his men began to built a fort; ( the building of a fort in this country is regarded as an open declaration of war). Tuugahala sent a messenger to ask him why, after concluding peace on board a warship; he kept on acting in a similar way. The Protestants answered him only with insults made to his messengers and told him clearly that they intended to resume the war. Tuugahala did not consider opposing their work but began, he himself too, to build a fort at St Joseph’s.
It took a month to construct these buildings. Here’s how they go about building these constructions. They begin by surrounding the village with a defensive wall out of coconut trees 15 to 20 foot high . Then they dig all around on the outside a deep trench, throwing the soil forming a batter against the tree trunks that they have erected. In this batter there are heaps of tree trunks that are hollowed out and placed horizontally and covered with soil. They make murder holes through which they can fire bullets or throw arrows. Finally they build gates which are more fortified still than all the rest and which protrude outwards in the shape of a bastion. They are covered with a floor topped with a small house which serves as a guardhouse. Underneath they are closed off by tree trunks that are laid horizontally. Each major family has a gate which bears its name and it is charged with maintaining it and defending it. In the area around the fort they also lay types of traps to catch the enemy. They are tree trunks sunk two or three foot into the ground. In the pit they are provided with very sharp stakes of wood, of iron or of bamboo. Everything is covered with small branches and foliage. The Protestants alone use this method here. It is not successful for them, because it is pretty well only they and their children who fall through inadvertence and severely injure their feet. One day when I was passing near their fort I too fell in; the sharp points buried themselves into the sole of my shoe but did not do me any harm. During the night each gate of the fort is guarded by a detachment which constantly beats the drum and from time to time utters war cries. The drum is made from a large piece of wood shaped and hollowed in such a way as to make large sound and one which is heard a great distance away. There are always two of them, one after the other, a big one and a small one. They beat both of them together rhythmically and with different lively tunes and which are not unpleasant. There are eight gates at Saint Joseph’s. When all these drums are beaten together you can judge how much noise they cause all night. I am not talking about the war cries which are very varied and very lively but which I could not give you an idea of in writing.
When the forts were built, the Protestants tried to start the war, and here’s how they did it. One day I was going to Matautu and I had to pass quite close to their fort. A gang of young men had gathered in a house on the water’s edge with a raging madman. He was the one who nearly clubbed the bishop to death on a previous occasion. As soon as they saw me, they incited the idiot against me. He came rushing out and blocked my way gesticulating most menacingly. I had to struggle as best I could, when a chief who had not participated in the plot ran up and seized the madman with his arm around his body to stop him fighting me. I continued my journey and was already quite some distance when the chief who was holding the madman let him go and he raced towards me again. I retreated into a house which he tried to enter. It was then that people who had noticed him ran up and held him back again. I took the route through the bush and reached Matautu where I told my adventure.
The following day I had to return to Saint Joseph’s by the same place. The bishop wanted to accompany me to walk a little way and he took with him a Catholic chief named Solomon, a very strong man and able to stop the madman if it were necessary. Very quietly we passed opposite the fort of the Protestants and we were climbing up a small hill beyond it, when suddenly some young men, came out of the bush looking for a quarrel with our companion and forbade him to go any further. So the bishop took leave of me and invited Solomon to accede to their wishes and return with him to Matautu to avoid the confrontation. They were both walking towards Matautu, when suddenly a posse of about ten Protestants, hidden in ambush in the bush with their rifles, began shooting at Solomon right beside the bishop. Four shots missed so they fell on him with their clubs to kill him. He defended himself and succeeded in escaping with some head wounds. A fifth shot was fired on him while he was running away; the shot rang out but the bullet did not hit him. The bishop had run to Matautu to ask for help for his companion. Solomon arrived a minute later with his head covered in blood.
War was declared and all the inhabitants of the north of the island came together at Matautu an hour afterwards. They were armed and the king authorized fighting the following day. I soon made Saint Joseph’s aware of the news. There had been a lot of gossip in the fort but Tuugahala did not talk about marching yet a gang of young men, impatient of taking part in this affair left their fellows during the night and joined up with the army of Matautu. They reached Felaleu at dawn and were stopped by the Protestants who gave battle and killed one of their men. They defended themselves and the encounter was spirited. The Protestant catechist John Make fell down dead, with his weapons in his hands. He was the mainstay of his side, the leader of all the disturbances and of the killing the night before. This catechist had been sent from the Hapai Islands by the Methodists. Since his arrival he had not stopped making war on us with his slanderous abuse, all aspects more vulgar and more ridiculous than each other. If you should come across some newspapers from New Zealand, you would perhaps find a letter which he wrote against us to the Methodist ministers and which they judged advisable to translate into English and to have printed. It is a fabrication of lies and nonsense but it is not to be disdained for our side. I have written a letter in response to one of our colleagues in New Zealand. I still don’t know whether it has been used in our defence. In a word that poor man had to appear before God, before knowing the truth. Also on that day both sides still suffered an equal number of casualties.
Ever since all the people have remained shut inside their forts, on the watch day and night, occasionally venturing out into enemy territory, occasionally engaging in more or less bloody battles. Sometimes I even went there to bandage up the wounded. Emotions were too highly roused to be able to re-establish peace and all the attacks were provoked by the Protestant side. It would have been easy for our Catholics to crush them in a few days (2,300 Catholics against 200 to 300 Protestants), but they behaved in admirable moderation and contained themselves on the defensive.
However the bishop took the risk of having some conversations with Pooi and Maatui in which he showed them most vigorously their errors and tried to bring them to peace by using all possible arguments. Maatu alone was shaken. It was as a result of one of these conversations that he had his canoe put into the sea and got on board hastily with his crowd, cursing the chiefs of Wallis who had involved him in a wretched affair. However to appear that he had not lost face and not abandoned the side that he had defended, he proclaimed that he was going to Vavao to get reinforcements. In fact a letter which he had carelessly left behind was found a few days later, on a little neighbouring island where he had landed. This letter was from Pooi and his men; it was written to the king of Vavao who was entreated to send men as soon as possible to help his side. After Maatu left, the Protestants lived on hope, waiting for his return and the reinforcements that he would bring. The Catholics entrenched themselves as best they could and prepared to meet the invaders. So peace became impossible. Yet keenness for battle waned. There were no more than some minor skirmishes in the bush; some men were surprised and killed on both sides. Matters remained at that stage for a long time. For six months or less it was not safe to move about the island. I could communicate with the bishop only by sea. That is what I did every week using an old whaling boat which we had purchased.
Finally at the beginning of last month the Methodists’ schooner arrived. It had on board two ministers who first of all had a conversation with the bishop and who, on seeing that their cause was so obviously a bad one, could not stop condemning Pooi and depriving him of any hope of reinforcements. Also some time after their departure, Pooi appeared rather troubled and came himself with his root of Kava to ask Tuugahala for peace. The latter agreed on condition that he demolish his fort which he had been the first to be built. Pooi found that condition repugnant, claiming that it was better to keep the forts for defence against France which was going to come in a few days to take possession of the island. Hence he was given only a truce a month long. This is the present situation. The corvette the Rhin has just arrived. We immediately sent the commander a detailed report of this business. Today he went with the bishop to Matautu and to Felaleu. I still don’t know the result of his conversation with Pooi nor whether peace is going to be concluded definitively. I doubt it very much.
Although these disturbances are quite annoying in themselves for our mission, God, my dear brother, has still been able to draw some advantage from them for the good. Because all our people have been gathered at only two points, it has been easier to instruct them and take care of them. Our converts have formed still closer ties between them and us. It is my belief that they have formed a new dislike of heresy and a new contempt for the slander of those who try to harm us. We have also been able to set up schools, that is something that would have been difficult for us without this change. Today all our youths know how to read in their own language and use very much the booklets which I am sending you a copy of. At the moment I am even conducting a class in reading Latin, and I am not unhappy with my pupils. We have adopted a kind of integrated system in our schools. They are divided into three classes and each class into four or five divisions, and each having its own teacher. The teachers are drawn from the most learned; that stimulated rivalry a great deal. Three times a week after Mass, all the youngsters assemble in the schools (three schools for boys and three for girls). They work there reading for about three quarters of an hour. Every evening after rosary which the converts are used to recite every day in their family, you can see in all the houses the youngsters gathered around the fire or a lamp still practising their reading and their singing of new hymns.
This year the Bishop initiated the saying of the Stations of the Cross. We have been sent two sets of a beautiful coloured Stations of the Cross. The pictures were placed ceremoniously for use in the two churches of Notre-Dame at Matautu and Saint Joseph’s. We taught the faithful about the indulgences that were attached to them; at the same time came out the little book (Kote via Koluse) on the stations of the Cross which I have sent you a copy of. You could not believe the enthusiasm with which these good people put into this holy exercise during Lent. Every day and at every hour there were people and sometimes crowds. Those who did not yet know how to read joined in a group around some more knowledgeable companion who read to them the different stations in a low voice. The paintings of the sufferings of Our Lord made a great impression on them and it was not rare to see them crying. Every Friday we made the stations together, as we are accustomed to do in France with a procession, singing of hymns, reading in aloud reflections and prayers. I think that this exercise has drawn more blessings on our little island.
The publication of the rule governing fasting and abstinence has been something new for our good converts. It has been something that they have had great difficulty in understanding. As they are accustomed to eating only one meal a day lasting from two to three hours, and not every day, and as they very rarely eat meat, they couldn’t really grasp what they were required to do. Also, most made their principal meal on those days at midday, having heard that you could eat at noon, they thought they had to do it and that was the way how to do it. We thought that was very funny. You can see that it is a penance that does not cost them much pain; but we thought we had to put into action all the practices of our religion this year.
On the feast of Corpus Christi we had a wonderful procession at St Joseph’s. We had a beautiful temporary altar on a little mole on the beach which the sea leaves dry at low tide. This mole was surrounded by two big circles of tree branches pushed into the sand and the whole line which the procession had to take was also lined with branches at intervals like an avenue of trees. We had several beautiful banners which we displayed for the first time and a beautiful silver cross. The procession moved perfectly and orderly; choirs were placed in the middle and at intervals. Then a cluster of altar boys carrying baskets of flowers and thuribles, led by brother Joseph. They swung the thuribles as is done in France as they walked in front of the canopy. We had arranged a dais with newly arrived fabric of different colours, which made a very beautiful effect. Finally the elders or chiefs followed and a guard of fifty men armed with rifles marching in good order in two rows and commanded by Tuugahala. We went out of the church at the sound of a small bell placed under the roof and played by a sailor living there. He was the former sacristan and bell-ringer of his village. When the canopy appeared outside all the guard fired their rifles and an American brig then laying at anchor answered it with its cannon. We went and formed a circle around the temporary altar and we received the blessing at that spot. It was a very dignified ceremony, one which people used to fine ceremonies in France would have been impressed by. There was one little negative point. That was that the sea started to rise so that towards the end of the ceremony, His Lordship the bishop was walking on the water just as in former times in Judea Dominus super undas multas.[ The Lord walked on many waves]
But one of the most useful things at the mission station which have been made this year, are the marriages of all our young folk. The thing is rather interesting so I’ll tell you about it with some details. For a long time the bishop has been exhorting the young folk to get married. All the young men and women were well behaved; we had no complaints to make about their behaviour. But we had some fears that perhaps later on some slackening off would occur among them. The bishop exhorted them ceaselessly and unusually without success. There was a sort of shame among these young folk, a fear of being turned down, I don’t know what. Perhaps too they did not yet understand fully the legitimacy and the dignity of a Christian marriage. As there had been in former times among these islanders only concubinage and no stable tie, they attached a certain idea of dishonour to marriage.
Finally at the beginning of last April the bishop tried a new tack. From the pulpit he proclaimed to all the young folk that for long enough he had exhorted them in vain and that it was finally time for them to give in and so they all had to look for a wife (apart from those who had decided never to marry) and he would marry them all together during the course of the present moon.
Then he had a private conversation with each of them to find out their intentions and to guide their choice. Then he sent them on their quest. For a fortnight it was funny to see all the good young men gathered every night in small groups around the church, forming among them their plans then dispersing going into the houses to press their case. When we came across one in our path “Well, friend, have you met somebody?” “Not yet, I am still sailing; I have not yet been able to drop anchor.” “Come on, courage, that will come.” As everybody was implicated, there was no longer any shame of being refused. The girls played a little hard to get, because here as everywhere else, they are keen to have many suitors. Yet after a few days some marriages were registered. The example took the upper hand gradually and after a fortnight we tallied up sixty marriages. Our young folk really acted with considerable wisdom, feeling and faith. Abandoning all the time that they were unsure, they knelt in front of the tabernacle to ask Our Lord to make his will known to them and went to the bishop to seek his advice.
When the day of the ceremony arrived all the young spouses came together facing the presbytery in their wedding finery. All the oceanic extravagance consisted of having their bodies wrapped in the biggest quantity of tapa cloth as possible, rubbed with strong smelling oil and with their hair covered in sandal wood powder. On that day they had so many tapa cloths rolled and folded around them that they could hardly walk. We made them file past in twos, male and female with a banner at the front, to the sound of the bell and rifle fire which greeted their walking past. The bishop celebrated Mass with great pomp and gave them the nuptial blessing with all the gear possible. Three weeks later the same ceremony occurred again at Matautu, where there were over forty more marriages. We saw this event as one of the happiest of the mission station and something that insures its stability in some way. We hope that unions contracted in such a Christian manner will not fail to bring happy results and that a generation quite renewed and quite full of faith will result from it. The gathering of everybody in the forts has been very favourable in this matter. Had the inhabitants been scattered as previously all over the island, such an undertaking would have presented almost insurmountable obstacles.
My dear brother, that’s how God can bring good out of everything. However, we are still waiting for new tests and for my part, I think that the sorrows of this little church are far from ended. Tuugahala is a very dangerous man and although he supports us for political reasons, he is far, I think, from wishing us the best. We have recommended him to the prayers of the archconfraternity, because Our Lady is powerful enough to convert him, if she wants to. Another point is that the Protestants are going to use all their resources to have us pass for French agents, preparing the way for usurpation, although they know in fact that neither France nor England has any design on all these tiny islands scattered in Oceania. It would be such a great folly. It’s a slander from which they hope to draw some advantage. The Pharisees also slandered Our Lord. If we let him be, everybody will believe in him, and the Romans will come and they will take possession of our land and of our nation, tollent nostram locum et gentem [they will take our land and our people].
At the moment the bishop plans to establish a college at Wallis to educate the youth from various parts of his vicariate, through it to form catechists and subsequently perhaps for them to become priests. Some chiefs have even given us land for this purpose. It is at the end of a small bay, in a wide long and very elevated peninsula. It stretches out far into the sea between Matauta and Saint Joseph’s. This place is called Matala. It is a completely solitary and picturesque spot. An establishment of this sort would be of an immense value for all the mission and would give great hope for its future. We must expect to encounter some difficulties in bringing this enterprise to fruition but it is always good to start in nomine Domini [in Our Lord’s name]. I pledge you to pray a lot for the success of this college.
My dear brother, it is time to finish this enormous letter that I have written to you rapidly, yet you can pass it on to the bishop and to the parish priest of Saint Rémi and to our friends and acquaintances if they wanted to see it and to get some knowledge of how we are getting on. I am not giving you any news of the other parts of our mission; we too are deprived of that information. For a year we have received nothing from New Caledonia, from Fiji, even from Futuna which is only thirty leagues from here. We are completely isolated and more likely to receive information from you rather than you receiving it from us.
Farewell, my dear brother, pray always for us and rest assured that, despite my being so far away and the little troubles which I have, I never forget you, and I never forget our good friends.
My love to my aunt ---
your brother
Eugène Mathieu