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12 November 1845. — Father Joseph-François Roulleaux to Father Jean-Claude Colin, Lakeba, Fiji

Translated from the French by Fr John Crispin SM, in The Mission of Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows: The letters and journal of the Marist Priests in Lakeba, Lau, Fiji, 1844 to 1855, Suva, 2015

Based on the document sent, APM OF 208 (Fiji) Roulleaux.

Six sheets forming 24 written pages. In the register of letters, ED1, one copy carries the number 172.

[p. 1]
+ Mother of Sorrows, pray for us.

Fiji Mission, Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows,

Lakeba. 1845

Very Reverend Father,
I have nothing truly consoling to tell you of our little mission in Fiji, except a lot of suffering and contradictions. That has been our daily bread for the nearly fifteen months that we have been here. Scorn, insults, calumnies, persecutions, defections, sickness, nakedness, famine, we have been tested in all sorts of ways. We have been really small, and we are still small, or to express it better, we are still nothing. Six newly baptised, of whom three are dead, and six catechumens, of whom four have returned to heresy or to paganism: these are the gains and losses of this first year.
Newly baptised who have died:
1. A Fijian infant from Namuka.
2. Marie Joseph Sau, of Lakeba.
3. Michel Bubureta, of Bau.
Newly baptised who are living:
1. Gregory Toga Taufapulotu, Tongan.
2. Maria Anastasia Tutsi, daughter of the above.
3. Alphonse Marie Ligori Togalepakuokita, son of the above.
Catechumens who have not been faithful:
Koroitacina and his wife, from the island of Oneata.
Notofai and Kapuleirai, young Tongans living in Lakeba.
1. Ratuseru, an important chief from Somosomo.
2. Vuatalevu, from Somosomo.
Baptised earlier:
1. Mosese Matumavai, catechist.
2. Filipo Biu, Fijian from the island of Moala.
3. Apolonio Atufufu, newly baptised from Wallis.
4. Pako Feilolo, from Wallis.
The personnel of the mission are seven newly baptised and two catechumens. Though we are very small, we have caused considerable fear, and people have moved heaven and earth to make us disappear.
But, to put matters within your reach so that you can better judge everything, I am going to tell you the most important things that have happened, in the order in which they happened.
Leaving Tonga on 30 July 1844, we saw, from the second day, the eastern islands of Fiji. We saw them come up out of the water one by one as we advanced; and we couldn’t look at them without fearing the terrible reefs which surround them. They are small high islands, not very fertile, but well covered with trees. Some are barren and uninhabited. It is to these islands above all that the Tongans come to build their big canoes. There are a thousand or more Tongans, heretics for the most part. Their big chief, rather like our consuls in the colonies, has his permanent residence in Lakeba, the most fertile and the capital of all the eastern islands which, numbering twelve or fifteen, form a small kingdom whose population does not exceed four thousand people I think, counting the Tongans. About two thirds of them are heretics.
It is at Lakeba that Bishop Pompallier had left, three years ago, a catechist named Mosese Matanavai, with the promise to send him priests as soon as possible, a promise which we came to fulfil. We first went ashore on Saturday 2nd August, to see if we could establish ourselves there. The ministers had left some days before to go to their annual conference in the islands in the west. But they had left, to guard the post in their absence, a catechist, recently arrived from Tonga on their ship, and sent expressly by the minister Thomas to counteract us. The choice was excellent. The son of a Tongan man and a Fijian woman, a chief from both sides, speaking with equal facility the two languages, this man, by his natural eloquence, his air of conviction and piety, may have done more harm here than the two ministers themselves. He had already warned all the chiefs against us. We received a very cold reception. The king and the chief of the Tongans had already taken undertaken to repel us. A nephew of the big king of Bau, named Kamisese, to whom Bishop Pompallier had made gifts, was the only person to welcome us, in the hope of receiving new gifts no doubt because this was what he wanted, and he didn’t show the same interest in us.
So it was necessary for us to go back on the boat, and to go and try somewhere else. The bishop was thinking of taking us to the big islands. He even offered a financial incentive to the captain to sail to that coast, but nothing was able to overcome his fear of the reefs. So we made our way to Namuka, where we hoped to find Mosese, whom we had not yet seen. The winds and the calm spells held us back from the island for eight days. We tried in vain to anchor at Oneata and at Kabara, and, while we beat to windward between the two, we thought that we were going to go on the reef of a deserted island, carried by the current. We were in very grave danger.
Finally on Saturday morning, a favourable breeze took us in a few hours to Namuka. I accompanied the bishop ashore. Our catechist had already left, but we were received by one of his relatives, named Moimoi. All the Fijians gathered around us. The night was spent explaining our religion, in the course of which the bishop destroyed some prejudices, with the result that in the morning several seemed decided to become Catholics, and, not knowing the refusal we had met in Lakeba from their chiefs, they consented to receive us among them.
The calumnies and the frequent visits of the ministers have greatly weakened, if not entirely destroyed, these good dispositions. However, the furious devil overturned all the heads in the ship, and if God had not taken a hand, I am not sure whether perhaps we would have returned to Wallis. The bishop seemed to be truly great in this situation, by his patience and his firmness. Finally, we were thrown on the beach with our belongings a great distance from the place where we ought to have gone. In spite of all, we were satisfied and happy.
Providence did not leave us for a long time in this awkward situation. The Fijians came and took us, together with all our trunks, on one of their canoes and we were lead into their village. Everyone seemed satisfied enough to have us. It was the 12th of August. Three days later we had the consolation of offering, for the first time, the holy sacrifice in this heathen land, and a little later to send to heaven a little Fijian baby, whom brother baptised, and who died two days later.
Namuka is a small island, not very fertile, where there is no good water and which has no more than 70 or 80 inhabitants drawn from both races. We judged, using the discretion that the bishop had given us, that this was not a good place to establish ourselves. I left, therefore, the day after the Assumption for Lakeba. I took with me only one catechist and Ratu Seru, a big chief from Somosomo, whom we had brought from Tonga, and whose plan it was to take us to his island. My intention was to see poor Mosese, who had been deprived of the help of the Church for such a long time, to know from him his disposition and his spirit and, in case they remained obstinate in repelling us, to advise on how we could get to Somosomo with Ratu Seru. They were not a little surprised to see us in Lakeba, for they thought we had gone back to Wallis. But since we showed the desire to establish ourselves on the big islands, they gave us a good enough welcome. Finau even offered one of his canoes to make the trip. It was necessary to go and bring our confreres from Namuka, return here to take us, and transport us to Somosomo. Everything went marvellously. I asked this chief only to make us wait as little as possible. He left at that moment for Kabara, to see a canoe that he was having built, and he remained there for nearly two months, without however forgetting the promise that he had made to us.
However, I was provisionally installed in the poor shack of Mosese, which I could not compare better than to a coalminer’s lodge. I did not think then that this would be, for eleven months, the presbytery and the chapel of our mission. It was high time to come to the help of this interesting convert. Persecuted by the chiefs, abandoned by his relatives, hated by everyone because of his faith, scarcely able to procure a little food, there was reason to fear that he had ended up by giving in, at least exteriorly, to the continual attacks of the ministers who spent sometimes half the day to shake his faith. He already was reading their bible and had ceased to carry his rosary around his neck, as is the pious custom of the Catholic natives. However, he held firm with his convert, Filipo Biu, a Fijian from Moala, whom he had baptised in danger of death and who had recovered his health after his baptism. Both were still the terror of the heretics.
I had brought with me from Namuka everything necessary to say Mass. We put up, as well as we could, a small altar in the least hidden part of our hut which resembled well enough the stable at Bethlehem in its poverty, and there I celebrated Mass for the first time on the feast of St. Joachim. Poor though this place was it was already made holy by the patience of our neophytes and by the prayers which they addressed every day to God, for they had nothing else to do for their pious exercises. I was moved to tears when I heard them both chanting their prayers and singing their hymns in the Fijian language.
I used the free time provided by the absence of Finau to make a tour of the island in order to know the Fijians and to see what impression the sight of a Catholic priest would make on them. I was well received everywhere. The novelty of my clothing and above all my mission cross caused surprise and attracted attention. Everyone wanted to see it and to study it at leisure. I was extremely bothered because they didn’t leave me free for a single moment and I was not even able to distance myself if I needed to, without being followed by a crowd of curious people who surrounded me and watched all my movements. They studied me from head to toe. Each one wanted to feel my habit. If I recited my office, each picture that I turned to made them give out cries of admiration and bring all the village around me. I assure you, very reverend father, that it was very difficult to defend myself from distractions. In the evening the recreation was to watch dancing in the moonlight. I was in a position to admire their ease, their suppleness and the harmony of their gestures and movements, which they accompanied with rhythmic chants and the clapping of hands done in time. The Fijians are passionate for this exercise. The two sexes danced in turn and separately. I did not notice anything precisely bad, but there was something in the whole action which suggested voluptuousness. I told them through my companions that the only true religion is that which we have come to announce to them; that they must be patient, that soon they would have priests to instruct them. But their hearts didn’t seem to be disposed to receive the divine seed.
It will probably need more than words to convert these people. I have counted around the whole island twelve villages, whose population, joined with the Tongans, could reach eight hundred. Nearly two thirds are heretics. None the less, the two most numerous villages, that of the king and another called Yadrana, are still almost totally pagan. They have their temples, raised up on small mounds and surrounded by high trees. They are round buildings, whose slender roofs resemble a little one of our steeples. The light comes in only though the door and there is a darkness there that inspires horror and fear. All around inside the building hang the offerings made to the prince of darkness, which consist of local material, rare shellfish, and other objects that are precious to them. In time of war they come to place here the dead bodies of their enemies, as if to use them to give homage to the enemy of the human race – before cooking them in a native oven. These houses have their priests, whom they call “bête”, who are inspired to abuse the credulity of these poor idolaters. I still have only a very imperfect knowledge of their mythology. From what I have been able to learn, it is made up, as everywhere, from a pile of ridiculous stories and indecent fables.
On my return from this visit, I had the sadness of seeing die without baptism, right close to our hut, the child of a heretic woman whose sickness no one had told me about. This is how the heretics neglect, by the urging of the devil, the single means by which they could save some souls. The next day, in the neighbouring village, they buried alive, in spite of his tears and cries, a young Fijian man on the pretext that he had an incurable sickness. I was told of it only two days afterwards. As I still did not know their customs, I was seized with horror at the news and I ran to carry my complaint to the king who at the time was drinking kava with his old men. He listened calmly to me without appearing surprised or moved by an action that seemed so frightful to me. For them it was nothing out of the ordinary. It is an established custom in these islands: as soon as a sickness goes on for a bit too long, or the sick person becomes a burden, or it is thought that he will not get well again, the family get together and strangle him out of love for him they say and to put him out of his suffering. Then they will weep for him, not with tears, for they don’t know how to shed tears, but by hypocritical shouts and wailings in the manner of the savages of Oceania. In this way a crowd of these unfortunate people perish. They treat insane people the same way.
However, Father Breheret, to whom I had written asking him to come and join me here, arrived here with brother and all the mission belongings on one of the canoes of the big Tongan chief. This chief was still in Kabara. The Wesleyan ministers, who had returned from their synod, descended with their ladies and walked along the shore to impose, I think, on the Fijians with an affected brazenness while their boat was unloading. They were, no doubt, rather surprised and not happy to see two Catholic missionaries established on this island after the efforts they had made to keep them away. But providence made light of all their measures and brought us back and was even served for that purpose by the canoes of their people. There is no wisdom at all against God.
We still did not know for certain if we would stay in Lakeba. It was that time the object of our reflections, when two young heretics came and asked to be admitted as catechumens. Two days later we were called to a dangerously sick Fijian whom we baptised after having prepared him as well as time and his condition permitted. It was the vigil of the Holy Name of Mary; we gave him the name Marie-Joseph. He felt such strong pain that we feared that he could die at any moment, and we had to interrupt the baptism ceremonies several times; but they were scarcely finished when he felt noticeably relieved. He slept immediately and was reasonably rested until the next morning, when we found him almost cured. It seems that a notable favour had been given irrevocably to him to come to faith, but it was not so. I was not able to instruct him again through an interpreter, and also I was not able to communicate my thoughts to this interpreter except in the Futunian language, which he didn’t understand well. The ministers however came to visit him, they gravely reproached his relatives, charged this catechist who came from Tonga, of whom I have written above, to watch him. They gave him no rest at all so that they could get him to apostatise. They told him so many lies, and he was so full of them, that it was impossible for us to get him back. He sent me back the medal that I had given him, and, to get himself away from our frequent visits which the heretics feared, he had himself taken to a village a long way away, where he died several weeks later. I said Mass for him several days before. And even on the day of his death, we both said Mass for him. We then went to visit him. He died at the end of two Masses which had been said for him during his agony. May Mary by her sufferings obtain mercy for him! Since exteriorly he had died in heresy, we left him to be buried and came home in silence, reflecting on the depth of the judgements of God.
Providence did not take long to console us for this defection by a conversion which had a much happier ending. The high chief of Bau, who is now at war with a small tribe of Viti Levu named Rewa, had sent to ask help from Finau, the Tongan chief. On the canoe which carried the delegation was a child ten or twelve years old, who had been sick for a long time and, in the hope of finding relief for him, he had been brought here. Arriving at Lakeba, far from finding relief as he had hoped, he grew steadily worse, with the result that the Fijians from his island feared to care for him on the return journey lest he die on the voyage. Thinking that perhaps we would be able to bring some medicine for his sickness, one of them came to look for us one morning to ask us to go and see him. “If you can cure him”, he said, “he will become a Papist”. That is the name that the heretics taught the Fijians to use for us. I followed this man and found the child still strong enough to be able to withstand several days at sea; but the hope of being able to procure for him the grace of baptism lead to negotiations to leave him here, to be prudent. They believed me.
We never lost sight of this child. We frequently got information about him, people told us that he was doing well. But though we wanted to assure ourselves by observing his state ourselves, we were not able to go and see him: they took care to hide him and replace him to make fun of us with another healthy child. So we made several useless trips. Finally I went to see the king and I got him to take me to the house of the sick child. This time they didn’t dare to hide him from us. But what was our astonishment to find him in a desperate state, not talking for the last four days and abandoned by the ministers who had tried in vain to cure him.
None the less, since he was conscious and he expressed himself well enough by signs, I began to instruct him and gave him a medal of the Blessed Virgin, without anyone putting up any opposition. God’s arm was with us. I even left for him, to act as a guardian for him, the cross of Fr. Chanel, which the bishop had given me and which seemed to interest him a great deal; and on the third day I gave him baptism with the name Michael. I could not hold back my tears thinking of the good fortune of this child, whom God had called to the faith in such an admirable way and who was, I could see, on the point of going to enjoy the sight of his creator. Eight days passed, during which we lavished on him all the care that our position and our poverty allowed. We visited him twice a day, fearing the heretics. This poor child touched our hearts. He had a dead arm; with the other he held his crucifix, bringing it to his dying lips, he respectfully kissed the feet without anyone having taught him to do that, and he did not stop looking at it. Finally he entered his agony. I gave him Extreme Unction and he slept, we hope, in the peace of the Lord. May my last hours be like his.
It was morning; according to the custom in hot countries, burial must take place the same day. I was careful, acting prudently, to make sure that I had the approval of the king. It was as well that we did so. All three of us went to the house of the chief where the child had died. His body had been rubbed with oil, his hair was sprinkled with scented powder. He had in each hand a tabua to show he was from a chiefly family, and he was richly covered in the material of this place. The house was full of people who guarded him honourably. Only the relatives were near the dead person and they wept for him with cadenced cries in which their hearts did not appear to take much part. After remaining seated for some time in silence with the others we began the ceremony and sang all the prayers according to the Roman ritual. But, arriving near the grave, we were very surprised to see another procession coming forward. It was that of a woman whom we had visited a few days ago and who had refused baptism. They had strangled her according to the barbaric custom of these people and they were proposing to bury her with our convert. I made plenty of protests, but they took no notice. I had to take my part without hesitating. Then I decided to perform all the normal ceremonies for our convert, who was placed on the body of this unfortunate woman.
Up till then everything went well; people kept silence. But when I began to throw holy water on the body of our convert one Fijian, who had been murmuring softly since the beginning, was not able to contain his indignation any longer; he hurled insults at us and threw some handfuls of dirt at us. His eyes blazed with anger, and it could be said of him that all the fury of Satan had passed into his heart. I interrupted my singing for a while to let him know that we were doing this according to the wishes of the king. Then he began to tremble and left us to finish in peace this funeral ceremony which I concluded with the sign of the cross in Fijian. It is the only public act of religion that we have performed here. The priest of their gods, the queen, the chief of the illage and a crowd of other people were present. But all the circumstances have made a successful outcome of what was an exceptional favour and the devil, far from being beaten, still reigns as master over these poor people.
God visibly chained up the fury of the devil so that we could handle the means of saving this child, because it was in the house of a chief who was an enemy of our religion, surrounded by a group of women, that we gave him the grace of baptism. This chief was so attached to all their superstitions that in a visit we made to the king several days later in a newly built royal house and which had to be consecrated that same day to the devil, he stood up against all the other chiefs who wanted to change the pagan ceremonies because of us, and he showed thus his disgusting dedication. He put so much fire into it that he was totally distorted. The punishment followed quickly; eight days later he was suddenly struck dead in his house. As soon as we heard the news we ran to oppose the strangulation, according to custom, of his main wife, but we arrived too late. The crime had already been committed and she lay on the bier close to her husband. I was very upset by the outcome for this unfortunate woman who had several times shown interest in our frequent visits to Michael Bubureta. But it is necessary to become hardened; these scenes are very frequent in all these islands where the enemy of the human race, murderer from the beginning, pours out the fury which he bears to mankind.
All these things, and many others that I have omitted, took place during the absence of Finau, whom we awaited impatiently to determine definitively the place where we would settle. He finally came from Kabara with a canoe to take us, according to his promise, to Somosomo. Ratu Seru desired that fervently, the heretics rejoiced in advance at it, and the ministers had even gone to ask the king to compel us to leave his island if we persisted in remaining here. After having seriously thought and prayed to God to direct us according to his plans, we went to announce to this chief that we were resolved to live in Lakeba. This is the place where the mission had started, where the bishop had first proposed that we establish ourselves, and where we have been for some time. We already have some catechumens. The king seemed to have gone back on his first refusal. Only the Tongans, foreigners like us, wanted us to go away, to satisfy the hatred of their ministers. If we left they would publish everywhere that we had been chased out. Besides, were we certain that we would be received in Somosomo? Such was the reasoning behind our decision. Finau was drinking kava with his chiefs when we informed him. He immediately lost his temper against us and the Catholic religion, and asked if we were claiming to take over Fiji by force, as we had done in Tahiti. He added several very abusive expressions about our religion. His intention, I think, was to arouse his people against us and to lead them to chase us from the island. I replied with reserve, but with assurance, that I saw what source he had drawn on, that the taking of Tahiti was a political affair not a religious one, that France left them their former ministers, that as we get to know the language a little better we would be able to make them understand how false are the ideas that heresy gave them about our Catholic religion and its priests, that it was wise to listen to all the arguments, to discover on what side the truth could be found. “Truth! Truth! What does truth matter to us?” he replied brusquely. “The English religion has come here first, we find it good, and we will remain attached to it.” After such language I knew that we had nothing to add and we left.
Over the following days they tried all sorts of ways to force us to leave. They spread the rumour that they were going to come and take us by force and carry us on the canoe that was waiting for us in the port. They tried to frighten us. The ministers stirred up the people from underneath. They even went as far as to feign an order from the king to chase us out. The alleged representative of the Fijian king presented himself one evening at the door of our hut and did all the customary ceremonies used in these circumstances. Then he told us, from his master, that we had to leave here as soon as possible, that there was enough evangelisation of his small kingdom. We had absolutely no idea that it was a deceit. We replied seriously that we were surprised at the sudden change from the king, that these were not the sentiments that he had shown a few days ago, that we were the only true missionaries on his island, that for the rest we would go and see him and decide this affair with him. We learned later that the king had no part in this, that it was purely the work of Finau’s ministers who could not bear the idea that we remain on the island.
This did not put him off the uselessness of the means used up till then. He wanted to try himself to see if he could be more successful than the others. So he came to see us in our little hut. I saw him from a distance as he came with hurried steps. He was alone and cast angry looks at our hut. I judged that it would be necessary to adopt a gentle tone to calm his irritated heart. So I hurried to spread a mat myself to present him with a nice kava root, and to show the most smiling face that I could. He hardly gave me his hand. Every time he lifted his eyes to Mosese, who was seated facing him, his face again took on an angry expression. After some moments of silence he tried two or three times to say, “I have come to see if you are definitely leaving, which I know.” I didn’t hurry before answering that he had not drunk any kava. He seemed to calm down a little. Then I said to him that the bishop had intended to take us to Somosomo, but he had been held back by the fear of the captain; that it had also been our intention at first, but wearied by so much travelling and seeing our trunks and boxes damaged by loading and unloading so many times, we wanted to wait for his return, and besides their canoes were not safe and we were afraid to go on them.
He seemed to think over these reasons and returned home seeming satisfied, but it was probably only in appearance because either the same day or the next day he ordered his chiefs to take care that no one brought us anything to eat, nor helped us to put up any buildings. His orders forbidding these things were observed faithfully. They went even further, if they did not always obey in that, they stole at night the yams of Mosese and his convert, which they knew to be our only source of food. Judge, very reverend father, the sad plight in which we found ourselves. By such severe measures within a few days we had very little to eat. Our two catechists from Wallis, foreigners here, passed whole days without eating. The others, who were bolder, went into houses and devoured whatever they could find. For ourselves we had hardly anything apart from pawpaw, a small local fruit, which people only eat in the time of famine, and which our converts went to look for in the bush for us. Then the two ministers, who were not ignorant of what was going on, sent us through their domestic staff, some yams with a piece of fresh pork. Did they do this from a certain feeling of humanity? I am led to believe it. Whatever the reason, we did not believe that we could accept it. Fr. Breheret sent it back quite promptly. We contented ourselves with thanking them through Mosese, sending through him the food they had sent to us. However, at the end of some weeks, we both fell sick. Fr. Breheret recovered fairly quickly. For myself, exhausted already long before, I truly thought that I was going to be put out of action. My stomach was so irritated that I was no longer able to take anything. I also had at the same time a bad cough, which was a worry. The sickness did not always make great progress. It disappeared at the very moment when we least expected it. I recommended myself especially to Fr. Chanel, whose cross I wore. I have remained convinced that it was he who saved me.
Hunger and sickness were not the only trials we had then. The ministers, the same ones at this time, made incredible efforts to win back the two young people who had left them. They entreated them through their relatives, subjected them to the jokes of their friends about rosaries, they themselves seized every encounter to embarrass them by objections which we destroyed as they came up. Finally, seeing that all this was useless, they had recourse to more powerful means: to authority and to force. They came one Friday, accompanied by Finau and a crowd of chiefs and heretic catechists, to do their preaching in our village and in front of our door. Having finished the explanation of the bible they retired with a modest air, like people who were foreign to all that was going on.
The chief alone remained with his numerous followers. They were seated in a circle in front of him to have kava. We saw all this from our little hut. Already they had got one of the deserters from heresy to appear. The other was at that moment with us. A Fijian came to look for him with an insolent air and to snatch him, so to speak, from our hands. We then believed that it was our duty to show ourselves, and we went outside at that same moment. Finau, seeing us, seemed a bit embarrassed. He immediately recovered himself, exchanged some words with his people and invited us to sit and drink kava. We were not in favour, and we refused. Then he spoke to our catechumens. His expressions were very moderate, he exhorted them to have confidence in him and in their relatives rather than in two strangers whom they didn’t know. But he seemed very disturbed and we could see that he had to force himself to contain his indignation and the hatred that he had for us. All his looks were fixed on us and seemed to question us. They were hostile looks and the chief seemed besides to be badly disposed, so we judged it wisest to keep silent and to reply only by our expression and to maintain that. Events showed that we would have spoken in vain. Our two catechumens, having understood from the angry manner of their chief what they could expect, were cowards and returned to heresy, one that same evening, the other the next day. We had only a few weeks, we had no more time to instruct and strengthen them. For the rest, we don’t look on them as lost to our religion. Everything shows that they are still attached by heart and by conviction, and we hope that they will come back when the mission will have gained a little substance.
Heresy triumphed. It had made Marie-Joseph apostatise, it came to take away two of our catechumens and to remove from us some sort of hope of making new converts by this act of open persecution. But its triumph was soon disturbed; scarcely five weeks later Finau died after being sick for two days, at almost the same day and the same hour at which he had got our catechumens to renounce their religion. The hand of God, in striking him, took away from heresy its strongest support and delivered us from a truly cruel enemy. This man had a profound hatred of our religion. He could neither see us nor hear speak of us without anger immediately showing on his face. It is probable enough that he had resolved to get rid of us and he had a good reason for this, as we shall see further on. Everyone here bent before his authority because the king, without liking it, was not able to do anything without his agreement, regarding him as a necessary support against the often unjust and unreasonable pretensions of the court of Bau, to which he is a tributary.
Here is a fact which has unequalled proof: Bishop Pompallier, during his voyage to Fiji, had anchored at Oneata, a small island of 250 to 300 inhabitants, all heretics. After the Mass that he celebrated, he used Mosese to speak to them about the Catholic religion. The young people seemed to be disposed to embrace it, but the false caution of the old people opposed it. Later they chased out the same Mosese who was living among them. Hardly had we arrived when one of these Fijians came to find me to become a Catholic. I encouraged him and gave him a miraculous medal. A little later he came back with several others and asked to be instructed. He knew how to read; I gave him in writing the payer and a small summary of the main truths of our religion. I armed him with a rosary, gave him some little gifts and established him as a catechist on his island. Hardly had he returned to Oneata when he declared himself and his wife to be Catholics. Quite a big number were thinking of imitating them, but they wanted, before turning, to have the permission of the king of Lakeba who immediately went to Finau to know his thoughts about this. Finau, without openly explaining, said enough, however, to make clear that he was not in agreement. The king then sent orders to stop them. The catechist (Koroitacina) and his wife held firm for some time more, but, threatened by the chiefs with being chased from the island, they ended up by giving in to the persecution.
You see, very reverend father, the influence that this big chief had and how easy it was for him to paralyse the progress of the mission. His successor, without being exactly favourable to us because he is also a heretic, does not hate us. He has made a voyage to Sydney where he saw the Catholic faith tolerated. He does not wish to persecute us any more here and he leaves his people a bit free in the choice of their faith.
So a new order of things began. We were finally able to breathe after so many trials and the Fijians, delivered from fear of Finau, seemed to reproach themselves for having been too hard to us. We even hoped that the mission was going to take hold among them, when suddenly a storm blew up that was worse than anything we had experienced up till then. The famous Ma’atu, king of Niuatoputapu, having ignited a war in Wallis, brought terror to Futuna, and spread the most hateful news about us throughout Fiji, arrived here still full of anger to get us chased out of Lakeba.[1] He had many people with him and four or five Wallisians who had apostatised during the journey, and through whom he confirmed all his lies. He blamed the bishop for all the troubles in Wallis, gave assurances that it was his well known intention to continue to bring about the fall of heretics at any price. He renewed old and dirty lies, saying that there were, under all the churches of Wallis, hidden apartments where they kept women whose infants were killed after the mothers had been abused, that they had seen with their own eyes these secret places and the pretended virgins who were detained there. He added other horrors with which I don’t want to soil this letter. Finally, he made us so black that the heretic Fijians of Vanua Balavu, where he had passed, wanted to come here to massacre us. These lies flew from mouth to mouth, indignation showed on all the faces. We no longer dared to show ourselves. In fact, how could we reply to these people who said they had seen the things they recounted? This famous chief was the great friend of anyone about to die. For us it was like these two ferocious beasts had been able to join together.
But God did not permit this and his providence, which was watching over us, brought the remedy out of the excess of the evil itself because the Fijians, who had been uncritical at first of these hateful rumours, later began to reflect, began to doubt, and the more sensible of them, who had kept silent, giving the lead were not afraid to say out loud that these stories were too frightful to be true. When we saw this happy return of spirits we also lifted our voices to defend and avenge the truth which had been so malignantly attacked. Little by little the storm abated, not always without leaving some traces of its passage because we were not able to totally destroy all these calumnies, some of which might still remain in some heads less sensible than others. Besides, the heretics were not able to persuade those whom they had the greatest interest to deceive. The king and the Fijian chiefs had enough judgement to discover from the first glance the falsity of all these rumours, as I had learned from the mouth of the king himself, because having gone to visit him at the height of the storm and having asked him what they thought of the news from Wallis, he replied without hesitation: “We Fijians know that these are pure lies.”
We took advantage of the peace that we were given to take up again the work on the little house that we were hurrying to put up, so that we could shelter from the rain from which our old hut, badly covered and all in ruins, didn’t protect us enough. Besides it was so small that brother was obliged more often to lie down under the stars. We have received no help from the heretics, who are not afraid to say to our faces that when the house is finished, they will burn it down. These threats, which we take as an insult rather than as a plan of action, only stir up our eagerness. We went with our converts to search in the mountains and among the rocks for big pieces of wood which we carried on our shoulders. Everyone played their part. But I was not able to share in this noble work with my confreres until the end: sickness stopped me.
The bad food which we had been eating had upset my stomach. This had been a problem for me for several months and had sapped my strength without my realising it. The harm ended up by degenerating into a flow of blood, [2]which is often enough fatal in hot countries. Since we had neither medicine nor food available, I was soon reduced to such a thin and weak state that I believed that this time my hour had come. I thought to put things in order to prepare for death which could not be far off. One night I complained to the Blessed Virgin that I was like an abandoned child and that she had no pity for me. This good mother was without doubt touched because help was not made to wait, and it came from a direction that one would have least expected. That same morning, the ministers send word to say, through an Englishman who worked for them, that everything in their houses was at my service and that I had only to ask for what I wanted. They came themselves in the evening to see me and without break during six weeks that the sickness lasted they visited me two times a day and sent me from their table the necessary things that we could not get here. As there had been some of their people who had died of this sickness in Fiji, they had plenty of medicine to treat it, with instructions on how to administer it. Also they succeeded in putting me in a passable state of health, although I have not recovered all my strength, and when I started to get better asthma made its presence felt, which has bothered me a lot and made me pass part of the nights not sleeping. I have to say in truth that they have helped me to recover with all possible zeal.
On our side we have tried to acquit ourselves before God in the knowledge that some quite disinterested care demands of us. We have offered several times the holy sacrifice of the Mass for their intentions, at the same time we loaned them some Catholic books in their language which are quite suitable to disenchant them. But it is difficult for them to come back! For that it would take a miracle of grace. That is why I recommend them especially to the prayers of our Society, and to those of the Archconfraternity of the holy heart of Mary in Paris and in Fouviere. This is a debt that others can help me acquit; one easily conceives the happy consequences of a conversion if it pleases God to answer the prayers of his mother.
Since that time there has been nothing remarkable in the mission, other than the conversion of a Tongan chief, a relative of Tui Toga, who had been involved in heresy for more than ten years. The beginning of his conversion dates from when Bishop Pompallier passed through. This Tongan man went to the bishop and asked for a rosary but Finau, who was present, turned him away with a severe reprimand. His fear of this chief was still there when we arrived in Lakeba. After Finau’s death he got in touch with us and, after living for several months as a hidden catechumen, he finally declared his faith, pushed by grace, and had the good fortune to receive baptism with two of his children on the feast of the Assumption. We hope that his numerous family will become Catholic later but we have to await providence for the time. Heresy has hurled fire and flames and made every effort imaginable to get them to go back to heresy. The lies didn’t affect him; heresy has no respect for truth on these occasions. But it was in vain. I think they will never abandon the truth. They have cost us too much pain and patience for them to be taken away like that. This chief’s name is Gregory Toga Taufapulotu. He is the first cousin of Moeaki, the second chief of Pea, and he wishes to return to Tonga to see his relatives again and to get the Tui Toga to embrace the Catholic faith.[3] So this is as much a work for the mission of Tonga as it is for here.
Very reverend father, these are the principal events of the mission. You said to give you details and I have tried to do so. You see that crosses have come our way and that up till now the little mission of Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows has well justified its name.
There remains now for me to say something about the Fijians, and to add some reflections that are not written in my letter.
I still don’t have exact ideas about this archipelago. Therefore I shall speak only of rather general things. I don’t think that the population is more than one hundred thousand, from the information that I have received. There are only two independent lands: Bau, a small peninsula of Viti Levu, and Somosomo, an island next to Vanua Levu; Somosomo recognises the superiority of Bau. All the other islands and the different people of the two big islands obey one or other of these two powers and pay them tribute, that is to say they provide them annually with a certain quantity of fibre,[4] tapa, mats etc.
These islands and people of second rank are not, however, independent of each other. They form small kingdoms, which also have their tributary islands. So you can say that there is a hierarchy of powers, at the head of which are Bau and Somosomo. It is not only that these two reigning powers have material forces superior to the others; sometimes even they are beaten in battle. But it is from time immemorial that their right to command in Fiji is recognised, so that after beating them one does not cease for that reason to obey them.
These people are almost continually at war, not to make conquests, but to get revenge for hurts, and these wars are wars of extermination. All who fall in battle are massacred on the battlefield, cooked and eaten. There is horrific cannibalism. In the war going on at present between Bau and Rewa, they eat each other like wild animals. At any moment you can see big canoes arriving, filled with human bodies destined for the kitchen. In times of peace, the chiefs, for the least reason, will have someone clubbed senseless. If it is a person of no rank, they will eat him; if he is a chief, they are satisfied to take out only the heart, the liver and the tongue, which they cook for the chief, and the body is buried. Sometimes they send to have whole villages massacred to make a feast. In Vanua Levu they track each other in the bush like wild animals, to then eat them. There are some islands where they add insult to this ferocity. They cut off the head of the victim, which they soak well in oil, they comb and prepare the hair neatly. Then when the body has been cooked, they replace the head to serve as an ornament at this frightful feast. Human flesh is almost their ordinary food. They speak of delicate pieces of the human body with a fierce smile that would make you shudder. Cruelty and vengeance are the foundation of their character. It is a principle in Fiji that one never pardons. This year the king of Bau had his brother killed, one of his sons, and one of his nephews. Kamisese, of whom I spoke at the beginning of this letter, is also destined to have the same ending. He fled from the middle of his family to avoid death and has come to seek exile in these eastern islands, where mixing with the Tongans has moderated a little the Fijian ferocity. It is still the custom in Fiji to massacre unfortunate people, Fijians or whites, who are shipwrecked. The Fijians of the island where they are shipwrecked throw themselves on them to massacre them as they come out of the water; they are cooked in a Fijian oven and eaten. That is the right of the people, among themselves.
As well as cannibalism there is polygamy. There are even examples of polyandry. The big chief of Bau has more than one hundred wives. His oldest son, who also has the name of Tui, has perhaps the same number. It is the same thing at Somosomo. The chief of Lakeba has more than forty. The chiefs, following the example of the king, multiply wives in proportion to their rank, so that among the ordinary people a good number of the men are forced to live celibate. At the death of these kings and chiefs, they strangle perhaps one of their wives to honour the dead person. The choice falls on the noblest ones. They strangled six on the death of the last king of Lakeba. At Somosomo, besides the wives, they also kill some common men to honour the death of the king. You would be tempted to believe, after all these calculations, that nearly half of the population dies a violent death.
These, very reverend father, are the people to whom providence has sent us. How will the gentle and chaste commandments of the Gospel take root in these degraded hearts, on top of all that we have seen up till now? I don’t know; God knows. How even do we establish priests in the middle of these inhospitable people if we can’t frighten them by the frequent appearance of warships? However the time seems to have come for them to be evangelised, to not leave heresy to advance everywhere, which is more difficult even than destroying paganism. When the Fijians have tasted the poison of heresy, they are as it were bewitched; we have no more hold over them. They become false, hypocrites, secretive. That is written on their faces. One sees, following that, an anxious, deceitful, and hateful manner. We can say, in all truth, that heresy perverts the pagans, destroying in them the little bit of good that idolatry had left.
The heretics here are disgustingly impudent, going as far as presenting themselves totally naked, which the pagans no longer do. Since we have been in Fiji, we have been insulted by the heretics, detested by them, persecuted by them. The others have always regarded us well enough and shown interest. Pray then, very reverend father, and get others to pray for our mission, to draw looks of mercy on these pagan islands where the devil reigns as a tyrant, than anywhere else, and to obtain for us strong graces to fight such strong enemies arrayed against us. We feel the need of prayers and that without them all our works would be fruitless.
Send also priests to help us to arrest the progress of heresy. Two more establishments in Fiji and we would be able to face them everywhere in Fiji: one at Somosomo where there are two ministers, and the other at Viwa, where there are three. It is true that they make few proselytes in these places, but they gain all the time a few and accustom the Fijians to their ways. They try hard above all to win over the chiefs, and they already have several. If they are able sometime to slip into Bau, which they have been trying to do for a long time, they would have the key to Fiji, and would do us incalculable harm. So also for us, we would have a great advantage over them if we were able to get there before them into this chiefly land. It is true that the circumstances don’t seem favourable. They are at war with Rewa and are preparing to attack Natewa, a powerful people in Vanua Levu. But if we had to wait for peace to be established with all their neighbours, we would possibly be waiting for a long time. It is still true that they seem little prepared to receive the faith, but they would be disposed little by little with the grace of God and instruction. Besides, I am speaking hesitantly on this subject, for who knows the designs of God, and the means he has chosen to ensure his work.
A few more words again about the Fijians. These people seem to belong to different races: their colour varies according their islands. Those from the big islands are much darker than the others. In general, they have long arms and legs, slightly bulging muscles, long face, narrow forehead and brain, eyes are cloudy and as if covered by a film among some, a sly look, and a certain air of hardness and fierceness which makes the blood run cold. They are tall, run as nimbly as a stag. They have a martial character; even the women go into battle and handle the lance and the club. They wear their beards long, and care for their hair, to which they give different shapes according to their whims. The chiefs usually have their heads wrapped in fine tapa, whose whiteness contrasts with their skin. They are naked, with the exception of a loin cloth, and a small light waistband for the women. In their fields and in their canoes the men are often enough completely naked. The children go completely naked until the age of puberty and even older for the boys. It is necessary to have an experienced eye to live in the middle of these poor savages. They don’t seem to be spiritual, however they don’t lack ability in the making of their weapons, the material of their earthenware pots, the construction of their houses and their canoes, and in the art of making mats and tapa, etc.etc. Their money is whales’ teeth, to which they give the same value that we do to gold and silver. We found one time the king of Lakeba counting and looking at his like a miser in Europe looks at his coins, his whole spirit was there. Often enough they become the price of crime: they are used to buy women, to have their enemies massacred, or to make one people rise up against another. It is still a trait of the Fijian character to love riches and to not be too delicate about the means to procure them, and their caresses and their politeness only tend to snatch from you some presents, all their conversations end in asking. The chiefs of Bau and Somosomo have come in a nice way to see us, and they have shown us a lot of affection, but the refrain was always to ask to see what was in our trunks. Several have deceived the vigilance of brother, and have taken various objects from us. This cupidity will plague the fathers who will go to the big islands and who carry with them only the things of most urgent necessity, and again they will see these often snatched away. There will be times when you have to refuse a big chief an object that he covets greatly. If you had enough riches to give them away, the Fijians would become Catholics without difficulty, but they would be Catholics who are only as good as the motives which made them convert.
There are many other things to say, but it is necessary to limit myself. I have said enough, I think, to give a first idea of this mission and some of the obstacles which we have to surmount. If I have painted our Fijians under their most unattractive traits, it is because I paint them as they are. Those of our fathers whom God will inspire with the generous thought of coming to share our works and our sufferings should not be afraid. We fight under good patronage, that of the sorrows of Mary. We have at our head the Queen of Martyrs, what have we to fear? Are not souls purchased by the blood of Christ not worth some sacrifice?
And you, very reverend father, pray for your poor children in Fiji. We have great confidence in your prayers and we do not stop recommending ourselves to God.
I am, with profound respect and entire submission, very reverend father, your most obedient child.
JF Roulleaux SM


  1. Girard: Ma’afu, chief of Niuatoputapu, had taken part with his people in the civil war of Wallis, on the side of Po’oi, the Protestant chief of Wallis; he left Wallis in November 1844 after the first battles. It would appear that he is not Ma’afu, the Tongan chief, who was barely 22 when he arrived in Fiji in 1848, three years after the date of this letter.
  2. This expression “a flow of blood” occurs several times in this book, and was suffered not only by Fr. Roulleaux, but by several other people in this story. I have not been able to find out what is the medical condition it refers to. In general terms it must be some sort of bleeding.
  3. Girard: The Tui Tonga converted to Catholicism in 1848 (Routledge p.72)
  4. French “tresse” (English “fibre”) appears often in this book. The Fijian word is “magimagi”, a strong thread made from the fibre of coconut husks. It was used to tie together the large timbers of Fijian traditional houses, as they had no nails. It is still seen in Fiji traditional buildings, e.g. at tourist resorts.