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Fr Auguste-Joseph Chouvet to his father, New Zealand, 28 Oct 1845

Translated by Fr Brian Quin SM, November 2005

APM Z 208 28 October 1845 (3)

New Zealand Father Chouvet mis[sionary] ap[ostolic] to his father.[1]

My very dear Father

This time I have delayed longer than usual in writing to you, because I wanted to receive a letter from you before sending you others. M Tr… was the first to let me hear his friendly voice, from the major seminary where he is preparing to be ordained as a priest. In that interesting letter he gave me all the news about my dear parents that he could have given. But that letter was dated at a more distant time than the France I knew of [la date… est d’une époque pl. lointaine qu ne l’est pour moi la France]. He wrote to me on the 14 March 1843. At last, on the 25th October of this year I received a packet of letters containing one by your hand dated 8th February 1844; another from Charles of the 30th July 1844, another from Father Ber. and another from Father Fred. de Courreau.

Immediately after receiving [this mail], I am hastening to give you new signs of life. I am delighted that you are enjoying perfect health. May God preserve you in it for a long time, for his service and to build up to your credit, treasures in heaven, where there are neither worms which eat [them], nor robbers who break in and steal [cf Matthew 6:20]. I myself have not yet been tested by sickness; only my eyes are weaker, the continual sweating arising from my journeys harmed me very appreciably. That is why I was forced to give them up. Like father, like son. You are [bien ? s_ ? – words mainly obliterated] and I will be so soon, as much as you. You age before your time in the missions.

God certainly wanted me to gather in a little good seed in my exhausting journeys. I conferred at least baptism on a good number of children, which rewarded me well for all my difficulties. Where you are, men six feet tall are hardly ever baptised. Recently I baptised two whose height made it difficult for me to sign them with the cross. Where you are, children do not stand as godparents for their fathers and mothers; but here situations of this sort are common. We are in the Antipodes. Your night time hours are day time hours here, and vice versa. It seems that this [notion] must be understood in the moral sense as well as in the physical sense. Here things are seen very differently from the way they are seen among you; for example, where you are, men do not dare go to Mass without trousers – here, most often, it is a novelty to see a man wearing trousers. Some time ago I gave a pair to a man about forty years old, who had never put any on before. After having put them on in front of me, without any fuss or ceremony, which is unknown among the Maori, he took himself off to have a walk, coming and going proudly, never stopping admiring himself and saying “Kapai, kapai” – “It’s good, it’s good.” In the same way, shoes and hats are not fashionable. Do not think that missionaries here look after only men and women. I have lived for about a year in a house made of wood, which I described to you before it was erected. My garden was bigger than the one at my first establishment. During this period of only a year it provided me with many more beans and peas than I needed; without mentioning 20 other sorts of food or [hortolages - ?] so that I lacked nothing. For drink I had only mild and tea, keeping the small amount of wine I am sent for Holy Mass.

Mr Russell, an English Jew[2] whom I have helped as an interpreter and as a notary in the sale of his schooner to the natives of a tribe, presented me, as a sign of gratitude, with twelve bottles of excellent beer and a big container of ground coffee. I used them in English style by way of table wine. If recently [dans ces jours] you had done me the kindness of visiting me with [j.h. Charles – young man Charles?] and big Mille [3] I would willingly [p2] have shared these drinks with you. I would also have had the advantage of offering you a choice of roosters, wild ducks, pigeons and fish. Without wanting to delude you about it, and wanting you to take it into account [et vouloir vous en compter], I can assure you that apart from the numerous birds in my “farmyard” [basse-cour], the Maoris brought me big game, especially ducks and wild pigeons – more than I could eat. I gave them in exchange a little tobacco, in sticks, with the result that these pigeons and ducks did not cost me more than a sol [4] of your money. I have gone whole months on them, without being obliged to eat pork or potatoes, which the colonists in New Zealand make their unchanging food, but I have to tell you that it is more expensive to live in and around the colony’s towns. The Maoris know how to take advantage of the opportunity to sell their goods when it comes along.

What has become the most tasteless food for me is fish. At Opotiki it was incomparably cheaper for me than game. I am going to tell you about something I saw and considered with my own eyes. Often seeing a great quantity of fish brought from the sea, I conceived the desire to see for myself how fish are caught in New Zealand, so as to compare it with fishing [à la pernoise/parnoise ? – in the Pernois fashion?] in the [sorgues ?] of Vaucluse [5] where catching a fish a foot long brings extraordinary shouts of joy from the fishermen.

I wanted to accompany the Maoris in all their fishing operations. So joining a group of 25 to 30, we got into a waka (canoe) which was only the dig out trunk of a tree. The natives took their oars, similarly made, and different from the oars of the small boats belonging to the whites, fashioned in another way, without pointed ends which go into the water as you see, and very much longer than those of the natives. I took one myself to have something to do. We all paddled and distanced ourselves about four or five hundred paces, in a straight line, from the shore. During all this time two strong men were busy throwing overboard armfuls of the net, which had little stones attached to it on one side only, pulled to the seabed. Having got this distance from the shore we turned to the left and travelled roughly the same distance. We turned the prow of the canoe (as the natives call it), for a second time, and we returned to the shore having made this figure on the water:

[diagram] During this whole circuit armfuls of net as wide as the cloth produced by the looms of your weavers were ceaselessly being thrown into the sea. You can estimate from that the length of the net. At the place of departure a native held one end of this net by a thick rope, and the other end which remained in the canoe came back with it, so that, from the figure made, you can estimate the position of the net in the sea. This manoeuvre having been finished, the men involved divided. Half of the fishermen went to one end of the net which was at the point of departure; the other half went to the point of return. Already precautions had been taken so that the ebb and flow of the waves did not pull [off] the canoe. Divided like this, the fishermen pulled all the ropes of the net. After 20 or 25 minutes it was entirely brought to land. In view of the preceding you will understand that it was the middle of the net which came last. It was in the middle of the net, ten or fifteen times wider than all the other parts, that a crowd [monde] of fish were gathered and all imprisoned. When there are only ten or fifteen quintals [6] the Maoris say coldly, “he torutoru” – only a few. Anyway I can guarantee you that I have seen several catches of 20 to 30 quintals. Dear father, I say to you without exaggeration: imagine the kitchen of your house all covered with fish two feet deep and you will be able to get some idea of the quantity of fish I have seen. Often fifteen different species of fish are caught at once. If I was a naturalist I would tell you the names of these fish in French, but I can’t because I only know them by the names given them by the savages. No matter. [p3] The movement of the colours and shapes of the piled up fish is truly a wonderful sight. Then you find several of them in the jaws of others. Once I took one from the heap that weighed about forty pounds to give it to my hens to eat, although it was of very good quality, because I had really lost my taste for it. In these catches from the net there are always some sharks, but the biggest that are caught, or at least that I have seen caught quite close to the shore could not weigh more than sixty pounds at the most. I shared one of 30 pounds among my hens. To end this little description I will tell you that this net whose shape I have described to you is entirely made of little rushes which the native call kiekie [7] and which are very strong. A rope is passed through the whole length to the two ends[8] and a lot of little stones are distributed regularly along the length so that the net always stays upright on the seabed and so it can drive the fish to the shore and force them to flee to the middle.

From this detail about the fish and the game you must conclude that you would have been very wrong to feel sorry for me in such a situation. Do not fear any more for those whom Divine Providence, which [illegible word – sustains?] everything that breathes, makes its children of predilection. Let us bless God and thank him together.

(Then come some expressions of indignation against freethinkers who ignore Providence and attribute everything to pure chance. The letter finally ends by quoting some arguments of a Methodist who wants the apostolic and priestly ministry to be hereditary, and who nevertheless has agreed that Bishop Pompallier was truly a priest even though his father was not.)[9]


  1. This letter must be the “letter to my parents” he mentions in his first letter to Father Colin of this date - translator’s note
  2. Who would have thought of meeting an offshoot of Israel here? See how all the prophecies of their dispersal are being fulfilled. The Jews everywhere look alike. This fellow is very talkative, like the one who was always shouting out in your area.
  3. I presume this is a proper name - translator’s note
  4. ? – does he mean a sou? - translator’s note
  5. Vaucluse is a department of S E France, whose capital is Avignon - translator’s note
  6. A quintal = 100 kg - translator’s note
  7. a climbing plant, according to Williams’ Maori dictionary - translator’s note
  8. Chouvet adds de la largeur – of the width – but I cannot see how this adds meaning - translator’s note
  9. All in brackets above is written in Chouvet’s handwriting. My guess is that what we have here is a copy of Chouvet’s letter to his father, a copy he sent to Colin, and the bracketed part just sums up the rest, which he judges that in detail would be of no interest to Colin - translator’s note