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24 June and 24 July 1846. — Fr Léopold Verguet to his father. San Cristobal

Translated by Fr Charles Girard SM, 2010.

Letter from Father Verguet, apostolic missionary, to his father

Arosi (or San Cristobal), 24 June 1846

My dear father,
Today is your feastday. If I were with you, I would show you my affection by some proof inspired by my attachment to you. Although I am quite far from you, I have not forgotten you. Today I offered the holy sacrifice of the Mass for your happiness, and I am using the rest of the day to write to you with long details about the peoples among whom I am living. Your affection for me makes these things interesting.
It is impossible for me to speak of the idea which the inhabitants of San Cristobal have concerning the origin of their island. I do not know their language well enough. All that I have been able to obtain is the native name for this island which Mendaña, a Spanish captain, discovered in 1567 and to which he gave the name of San Cristobal, because he could not know of the name Arosi which the local people give it.[1] The few bits of information which travelers have written about this island and which Mr. de Rienzi reports in the third volume of the work entitled The Universe, seem correct to me. It is regretful that they are so short. Mr. Durville[2] tells us that it is a big mountainous island, populated in this land which measures 72 miles (34 leagues) from the north-west to the south-east and 16 to 18 miles (4 or 6 leagues) wide. The east coast is not well known, from 10º 4’ to 10º 53’ latitude south and from 159º 2’ to 163º longitude east. Port Saint Marie where the residence of the missionaries is located is situated at 10º 28’ latitude south by 159º longitude.
The Arosians are of medium build and have well-proportioned limbs. They differ from Europeans only by color, their skin is a very dark bronze, and by a few traits of their facial features; their forehead is slightly narrow and flat, the nose is open, not long, and contracted at the height of the eyes. While some of them have well developed jaws, most of them have a medium-sized jaw. Generally, there is nothing repulsive about their faces. Some of them inspire confidence at first sight and a fondness which cannot be explained. Their eyes are black and gentle. Their honey-tongued, often crafty speech causes the gentle name of friend to sound in your ear, or rather the name of good friend, malaou kou, of little brother torakou, words which fittingly find their way to the heart. There are some who speak like that only to deceive all the better, but others who speak sincerely and who prove their friendship when they bring yams, coconuts, bananas and other local fruit. The latter are quite sensitive to any show of friendship. If you refuse their present, such scorn can make them shed tears. If you offer them in exchange some cloth or a piece of iron, they want to accept it only as a brother or friend.
The children can add a great vivacity to that nonchalance which is natural to all tropical people. When you see them in their pirogue, they bow their little body, they softly move their oar and seem to be sleeping as they skim the surface of the water. When you see them playing, they chase each other in the sea, on the shore, in the bush, in the trees. There is only jumping and shouting for hours on end. Spending their childhood that way in physical exercise favors the development of their limbs and they come to a flourishing adolescence full of strength and good health. More than once I found that I was like in contemplation before the bodies of these youngsters. They could provide excellent models for a good painter, when they are running or climbing, when they are carrying burdens on their bare shoulders or when they are nonchalantly seated, chewing their betel nuts. They are always so graceful that I never get tired looking at them. When they cut off the branches of a palm tree, I have sometimes seen them in the air with no other support than the end of a branch. A single foot was enough for them to hold their balance while they stretched out their arms with all their strength to take hold and cut other higher branches. Their feet are very wide; their toes, far from being paralyzed like ours by the use of shoes, are unfettered and very mobile. They are so hardened that they can go through thorns and coral. When they climb the steep mountains on this island, the least stone, the least root is used as a support. They cross over precipices on a small tree trunk thrown across. Their foot curls around any shape of the object on which it is placed.
When they come with me on my errands, they are surprised to see me constantly looking for a place to put my foot. As far as they are concerned, they are never bothered; with lance in hand they are thinking rather of looking in the shrubs to see if some enemy is not setting a trap for them. Despite my precautions, it happens that I slip and fall; they laugh as they lend me a hand and tell me to take off my shoes because are of no use for walking. “Let shoes be taboo for your feet and soon you will walk like us.” When they see my bare feet on which the toes seem to be stuck to each other, they hold them up to ridicule, and they advance their own feet and spread out the toes, moving them in every direction, they dare me to so as much and are triumphant over my not being able to do so. Often, when I was in France, I used to make fun of the feet of the Chinese; it is quite just that the natives pay me back with the same thing, perhaps with no less reason.
You must not believe that the natives of these islands leave it up to nature to adorn their bodies. They really like to adorn themselves and show considerable good taste in the ornaments they choose. They cut their hair in different ways. The children have their heads shaved clean, except for a tuft of hair kept at the top of the head. The young people enlarge their foreheads by shaving a little of their hair; they let the rest grow and are careful to keep them combed up with a bamboo comb adorned with red feathers. Ordinarily they leave a space open in their hair so that the skull behind the head is visible. From a desire for cleanliness and also so that the sun should bother them less, they smear their hair with line, which burns the hair and leaves a red color at the edges. They seem to like this daubing very much. They use it especially when they go to visit some distant tribe. They want to appear in all their beauty, and they would not forget either to powder their hair any more than a fashionable European would forget to arrange his beard and put perfume on his head in a similar situation. I have seen some who, in order not to disturb their hair, preferred to suffer the inconvenience of certain insects which are plentiful among them; they brought their hand to the lime in the hair and then withdrew it as if they had burned themselves. If the hurt were still felt, they would take a small rib of coconut leaves and would carefully stick it into their thick hair to harpoon the noxious guest. When they do not have their head beautified with lime, they go hunting and make a feast of all the game they can find. Some have a part in the hair so as to represent two crescents joined together on the inside by a straight line. Others let their hair grow naturally and highlight the blackness by the striking contrast with some pouri which they attach there. Pouri is their name for a shell about the size of an egg and white like porcelain.
The razor which they use to do their hair is a piece of fire-stone or a piece of glass. Almost all the Arosians have tattooed faces. Their tattoos differ from the tattoos of the New Zealanders in that they adopt the broken line instead of the curved line and thus they are all tattooed in the same way. They take as their model the coarse sculpted statues in the chief’s house. This kind of tattoo is a series of zigzags, separated by straight lines which run parallel from the nose to the ears and which fill the whole face. On the middle of the forehead they trace a design which has some resemblance to the Malta cross. They tattoo only their faces. In rare cases some can be seen who are tattooed along the back spine; others have a fish drawn on their chest. I showed them a parrot which I had painted; one of them asked me to tattoo it on his shoulder.
The features of that black, tattooed face are highlighted by several ornaments about which I am going to speak. It is rare that they have all these adornments, but they are never without some of them. The most beautiful, in my opinion, is a crown of irregular pouri shells which diminish in size from the forehead to the ears. The nose has several different kinds of ornaments. One pierces the nasal septum and spreads horizontally on each side of the face; at other times it is rounded as it descends to the lips. Others pierce the nose either on the sides or at the top. The thorn which they stick into this hole curves upward in imitation of a rhinoceros horn. The other thorns, on the contrary, as they descend, cross each other in front of the mouth. Only a small number of them have their nose pierced that way. The earrings are remarkable because of their large size. Sometimes it is a large disk made of mother of pearl, about two inches wide, surrounded by a part of the ear which they pierce and which gets longer because of its elasticity to hold it in. From the middle of this disk there are rays which represent the sun and which end in small holes representing the stars. From the bottom of this disk emerge strings of pearls at whose ends are attached bats’ teeth or fish teeth and these fall to the shoulder. This ear ornament is the most beautiful. Then there is a kind of cylinder in white wood, painted black on the curved surface and left very white and the two bases. This ornament is as large as the one previously described. It can be up to three inches wide. It seems to me that particularly women wear this one. And then there are a multitude of other ornaments. There are small reeds from which are hung collars of pearls mixed with human teeth or fish teeth. There are bamboo cases where they keep small fishhooks of mother of pearl or of shell, white shells simply stuck into the ear lobe; an orange-like fruit similar to a bean pod which folds back upon itself in the form of a trumpet; sweet-smelling herbs; in a word, all that it pleases them to pass through the openings in their ears. There are even some who are not satisfied with one opening; they pierce their ears in two different places, one below and one on the side. So they have various means to beautify themselves. Sometimes they abuse the elasticity of their earlobes so much that they end up by cutting them in two because they are so eager to enlarge the opening.
The mouth does not have any strange adornment. They particularly want to have black teeth and easily obtain this goal by chewing betel nut. Their daily use of it tints their lower lip a blood red. We see some of them who succeed in enlarging the volume of their teeth. They add some of the lime which goes into the make-up of their betel chewing. These teeth thus enlarged force out the upper lip and are visible on the face where they let their beautiful blackness be admired. This beauty seems disgusting to me.
For the embellishment of the neck, they have different kinds of collars. The most beautiful and the most generally seen is made from dog teeth, sometimes mixed with human teeth which are always easy to distinguish because of their black color. For their collars they take only the canines from among the dog teeth. Their pierce them at the root and string them together like pearls, one after another. The effect produced by such an ornament can be easily imagined. It stands out brilliantly against the black skin of the natives. It sets off the head by separating it from the shoulders in strong contrast and gives the young warriors who wear such a collar an audacious and martial appearance. Another no less striking collar is made with rings of white seashells tied together one after another, with a sufficiently large number of them to encircle the neck. This type of collar seems more feminine than the previous kind. Finally there is the ordinary collar made of differently colored pearls, white, black or red. These are the only colors that they know of. A few collars made of human teeth can also be seen. Only the incisor teeth are used for the collar. They pierce them at the root and string them together at a distance, separating them with a few pearls.
The chest is adorned with strings of pearls thrown haphazardly over the shoulder like a cross-belt. Then there is the belt of pearls. It is woven in a way as to reproduce a symmetrical pattern. The shape most generally admitted is that of a red lozenge surrounded by white and black string-lines. These lozenges come one after another and are predominant along the whole length of the belt. They attach this belt in the front at narrow part of the waist. It advantageously shows off their ordinarily robust shape. There are some who do not have enough pearls to weave into a beautiful belt, so they are satisfied with threading them by dividing them by color and holding them up by means of small hatches of tortoise shell.
For the arm, there are three kinds of ornaments, two bracelets and an ato. The first bracelet is placed at the top of the arm beneath the shoulder. It is made of pearls which have been woven and arranged in lozenge shapes. The second bracelet is placed around the wrist. It is much larger than the first kind and is made in the same way, except that the lozenges are arranged from the bottom to the top and separated by colored threads. Finally the ato, an ornament so precious that they will not exchange it, even for a piece of iron. This is a large ring, white as alabaster, about three or four inches in diameter. It is about a half inch thick and has a small groove along all the exterior. They place this ornament above the elbow; they grow up without ever taking it off and later they would be able to remove it only by breaking it. They must need a lot of time to wear down a seashell sufficiently to obtain such an ornament.
The way they work these ornaments is a very lengthy process and requires much patience. To make an ato, for example, they choose a seashell of suitable size and wear it down by rubbing it against a stone for several months. Thus they obtain a disk which has to be pierced and polished. They pierce it with a firestone, enlarging the hole and then widening it by rubbing it with coral sticks which serve as lime. The wear down the exterior in the same way. Little by little they give it the desired dimensions and, after many months of patience, they are able to embellish their arm with this dazzling ornament.
The method used to make their pearls and their money is no less thorough. On a stone they wear down a seashell from which they get the pearls. They cut them up into small round disks, always by rubbing against the stone. They drive these disks into small holes made in a plank. Over the middle of the disk, they put a small rod with a very sharp piece of fire-stone at the end. They turn the rod very rapidly between their hands and end up piercing the seashell. The only thing left to do is to polish the pearl and put it on the thread. These pearls are the money current among them; they measure it on their arms. The lengths adopted in their exchanges are an elbow length, a half-arm’s length and a full arm’s length.
At the beginning, when we were bargaining with the natives to obtain from them permission to establish ourselves on their land, a native who speaks some English and whom we had taken as interpreter, said to us with assurance: “Although the proprietors of the land where you want to establish yourselves are not here, that does not prevent you from building a house even sooner. Go where you want; when the proprietors come, I am rich, I will take care of paying for you.” We asked him what were his riches. He showed us an elbow length of rather coarse pearls. “How much is that worth?” we asked him laughingly. “It is worth a pound in Sydney” (that is, 25 francs), he told us with an imperturbable composure, and he added, without being disconcerted by our laughter: “I have a lot of them, and they are all at your service.
These are the pearls which go into making up their bracelets. They use them to ornament their legs below the knee and above the ankle. In front of the knees they ordinarily attach a puri about the size of an egg. Aside from these ornaments, the Arosians have yet many others for certain occasions and which are no less beautiful than the other kind. There is a young fern leaf which they gather in the morning and use to embellish their head by sticking it in their hair. There is a flower of a more striking color, white or purple, which they tastefully place on their forehead. There are sweet-smelling herbs which they place in their bracelets, &...
I have not said anything about the natives’ clothing. That is because they do not have any, unless you want to consider as a garment that supple and narrow leaf with which the men hide a part of their nudity, and those small filaments of bark which the women hang from their lower belly and from behind below the belt. In New Caledonia I was revolted when I saw the women wearing so little. However, they are very modest in comparison with our Arosian women. I do not think that lewdness can be pushed any further than in these countries. The young girls go about completely nude. The married women wear the small transparent apron I spoke about. On Isabel Island, the women are covered with a blue cloth from the belt to the knees. The Arosian women have an adornment which distinguishes them from the men. It is a series of very white rings which covers their arm from the elbow to the shoulder. Aside from that, they cut their hair the same as the men. They pierce their ears and their nose at the end of which they sometimes place the feather of a pigeon or a parrot. Style is an unusual prejudice!
The houses of Arosi people are nothing but small cabins whose leaf-roofs are supported by a few stakes and whose sides are made of pegs close together or by superimposed palm branches. I will go into some detail. Before building his house, the Arosian begins by arranging the ground. He chooses four posts of the size he wants to give his cabin and puts then in a rectangle at the base. That is his first plan. He sticks a pike into the earth at each of the corners and rests on these pikes two other beams which support the roof. The ridge of the roof is formed by a long beam resting on two forked pikes fixed in the earth a little inside the house-plan. On this roof-ridge they attach small sticks with the bark removed. These sticks descend from the side beams to which they are securely tied. Once the framework of the roof has been set up, the only thing left is to cover it. They take palm leaves from which they have removed the leaf-vein. They fold these leaves around a reed to which they sew a rush, superposing them in such a way that each leaf covers half of the previous one. When they have a sufficient number of rushes thus prepared, they attach them across on the sticks of the roof framework going from bottom to top, putting them very close together. This covering is at once light, solid and waterproof. The roof of our house is made in the same way. At the roof ridge they place a large number of reeds so as to make a crest which gives the roof a certain elegance and much more solidity. The palm branches whose leaves have been used are not lost in the least. They use them to form the sides and the front of the house. Each house has two openings. Since the roof comes down almost to the ground, the windows are placed in the narrow sides of the house. These windows serve for both doors and chimney. In one of the corners of the house there is ordinarily a small opening next to the ground to let the dog go through. The interior of the cabin is as simple as its exterior. A few black stones mark the fireplace. Coconut-leaf mats stretched out on the ground serve as chairs and beds. On a small flooring, almost always covering only part of the ground, the food is placed. Weapons and tools decorate the walls.
All these treasures are sheltered from theft behind a simple mat which serves as the door. They bar it with a reed and go about their occupations, assured that no one would dare to break down this weak barrier. The master of the house has the right to kill anyone who comes into house during his absence. One day, my ignorance of this custom made me expose the life of a native who was my guide. A certain Pahé had stolen a hoe from us. He was from the village of a young man named Toroa. I pretended to take a walk, but really I wanted to recover the hoe, so I invited Toroa to lead me to his village. I was with two of our Brothers. Toroa was leading me. I asked to see the house of Pahé, and he showed it to me. Pahé was absent. I entered unceremoniously and I looked everywhere for the stolen hoe. He had been careful to get rid of it. I did not find the hoe, but in Pahé’s house I saw a small hatchet which had been taken from us without our knowing who the thief was. I left the hatchet and went back with the satisfaction of knowing about Pahé, in whom we had previously placed our confidence. The face of our guide became distorted when he saw me going into Pahé’s house. One might have said that some sorcerer had changed him into a stone. “Get out,” he said to me, “get out; Pahé will kill me. I got out, leaving the house open and Toroa led me back by another path. After walking for some time, we sat down in the shade near a waterfall. Toroa had not recovered from his fright. He was still saying: “Pahé will kill me...”
“No,” a Brother said to him, “he won’t kill us...”
“As far as you are concerned, that’s true, he won’t kill you, but as for me, he will kill me.”
“So, this Pahé is quite terrible,” I said to him. “Aren’t you as strong as he; couldn’t you defend yourself?”
“Yes, I am strong,” he said, making a fist. “See, I’m a vigorous man,” he continued as he his flexed his arm to show us that he was hard muscled. “Let him come to get me, I will run him through with my lance. As he said this, his eye sparkled and he stiffened all the muscles of his body, as if he were getting ready to fight. He stayed with us all day long. In the evening, he went back to his village, and he promised me that he would come back the next day. I was very anxious to know how he had calmed his quarrel with Pahé. The next day, after our lunch, we saw Toroa coming. He told us that the had not gone to sleep at his own house but at Tiia’s, our mutual friend. In the evening, during the darkest part of the night, he was seated before the door; his lances were in the house. All of a sudden, Pahé appeared and reproached him for his conduct. “You are the one who brought Perké ;[Verguet]: into my house; now die from the blow of the lance.” At the same time, without waiting for an answer, he threw the sagaye. Toroa, no less agile, avoided the blow by a quick movement. He threw himself into his house, seized the lances and ran in pursuit of Pahé. “He missed me,” he said, “but if I had found him, I would have run him through.”
“You are not courageous enough, you must have trembled like a leaf when Pahé approached, your knees were knocking against each other, because you were so afraid.”
“Should I tremble? Look at this arm, it’s strong. If I had found Pahé, he would have felt it.”
“Why did you not find him?”
“The night was too dark,” he said, as he closed his eyes with great effort. “If there had been a bright moonlight, he would not have escaped from me.” In talking about the moonlight, he opened his big eyes, he breathed heavily and spread his fingers as if rays were coming from his face.
“But you know well where Pahé’s house is. Why didn’t you go there?”
“Pahé is no longer at his house.” Indeed, Pahé had gone away for three weeks. Then he came back and made peace with Toroa and with us. I have spoken too long about this thing of little importance, but it will help you to understand the customs of our neighbors.”
The Arosi also have suspended houses in which they keep their provisions. These are storehouses for yams. These cabins seem very picturesque. They stand out elegantly in the middle of clumps of green, bamboos, coconut trees and sugar cane. And in each village you can see a large hangar endowed with everything that is most precious in the country and adorned with all that artists’ imagination could invent, everything is most original. This is the palace of the main man and, so to speak, a royal palace. Only men are permitted to enter there. That is where strangers are received. It is a kind of forum where affairs of state are discussed. That is where prisoners of war are cut up and cooked. Their skulls and their bones, mixed with those of pigs and fish, adorn the ceiling of this palace! The palace of Mahémara, the chief of Oué, a village located at Port Saint Marie, is the most remarkable one that I have ever seen. It is about 24 meters long by 12 wide and 12 high. Each of the rafters is made entirely of a single piece of wood; the room is held up by 12 sculpted columns and placed in three rows. Each of the columns depicts coarse black statues embellished with all the ornaments known to the local people. They call these inoni -man. These “men” are all in about the same position. They are in a standing position, with both arms stretched out alongside the body. In the middle of the hangar, there is, I would say, something like a group sculpted from the same wooden post. This group portrays a man who has a fish on his head. This fish is devouring a child held crosswise in its long jaws. On the rafters upon which rests the middle of the roof, two images can be seen. One represents a victory over the mountain people and the other represents the capture of a large boat. This image had no depth: the men are all in the foreground, all the same size and pictured one after the other. The dead are depicted with the head below and the feet above. When the artist had difficulty fitting two fighters into the scene, he placed them above the others in the clouds. This tableau shows that drawing is not foreign to these island-people and that it is still in its early stages. They go into ecstasies when we show them engravings from our homelands. They express their admiration by jumping up and crying out.
Before the first statue in the middle there is a large wooden hook which serves to suspend the fish. In a corner inside, a large number of boxes can be seen, on top of which they cook the fish. In each hangar are placed the most handsome pirogues, the best sculpted plates and the most ornamented seashells. Some musical instruments can also be seen there. These are trees hollowed through a slot which runs from top to bottom. They strike this hollow cylinder with large rods with all their strength. They produce a deafening sound which, from a distance, resembles the noise of several drums.
The serious work of the native people consists in cultivating the earth and in fishing. They are not encumbered by large properties: a few coconut trees, a small scrap of land where they sow yams and where they plant banana trees and sugar cane. That is the limit of their ambition. However, they each have their share of the fruit trees which God has taken care to plant profusely in their forests. Every year without the least effort, they harvest walnuts, almonds, breadfruit, which they showed us and with which we were not familiar. They respect these trees, and in their wars they never cut them down through a spirit of enmity. The walnut-tree or nari, well distributed in these forests, is a gigantic tree measuring three or four feet in diameter at its base and which rises to about fifty meters high. The trunk is very straight, without branches until a height of 20 or 30 meters, which makes them quite suitable for making ship masts. It is an excellent wood for carpentry and for making furniture. The planks of our house are in part made of this wood.
In speaking to you about trees, I lost sight of the plantations. Allow me to come back to that topic. When the native people prepare a field for planting, they begin by pulling out the plants, by cutting the underbrush and the useless trees which they burn. Then they scrape the land with a stick, place their yams, their pineapples, their taro plants and return to the field only for the harvest. The have to build fences to prevent the pigs from ravaging their garden. There is no barrier to keep men away; they are free to pass everywhere. However, thefts are rarely spoken about. A thief caught in the act is sure to be struck by a lance. A coconut plantation requires a little more care. When the coconuts are ripe, they place them on the ground by the hundred, side by side. They give them the give to germinate and to sprout a few leaves. Then they take them, break them carefully so as not to damage the roots or the stalk. They remove the inside of the coconuts which is good to eat and plant the rest level with the ground.
When they do not want their coconut tree to be touched, they wrap a leaf around each tree or else they plant sticks in the ground a little distant from each other, on these they take care to maintain a bouquet of leaves. This precaution is necessary so as to allow the coconuts to ripen and to set some aside for sowing and for making minced coconut. The days when they make these coconut dishes are for them days of rejoicing. Not only does the tribe take part in the feast, but often they also invite strangers. When the coconuts are quite ripe, they grate them on a seashell held fast on a support. They gather in a large wooden platter the gratings which fall from there. This operation entails entire days of work. When they have an abundant amount of gratings, they wash them and squeeze out the water by pressing them in a kind of tissue which they find around the coconut-tree leaves. The coconut is prepared to end up as a mousse. They pulverize a large amount of nari nuts; they do this by crushing them in hollow cylinders with branches of the palm tree. When the nari is crushed, it forms a white paste covered with a very clear oil. They scatter the coconut ratings on this paste. They often add yams, some taro and pineapples or sweet potatoes. Only the men have the right to work on these dishes; the women are forbidden to have a part in the preparation. With the paste thus prepared, they draw it out of the cylinder, put it in large platters made from a carefully carved single piece of wood which is painted black. They align the platters in the hangar and adorn them with leaves and flowers. The tribe then comes to feast together. After the meal the left¬overs are brought away by each of the guests. They take care to keep the women’s portion at home. The women are forbidden to enter the hangar under penalty of death. These public feasts do not prevent each individual from making their taouma separately, so that at the time when the coconuts are ripe, the men cannot be seen anywhere; they are all busy in the kitchen.
Fishing is one of the main occupations of the local people. To catch fish, they have fishhooks, harpoons and nets. Their fishhooks are made of a single piece of mother of pearl. They use these to catch small fish. They can be seen in the morning nonchalantly seated in their outrigger pirogues, with the oar in one hand and the line in the other. They throw out the fishhook without bait; they make it run along the surface of the water. Its brilliancy attracts the small fish. As soon as these have bitten, the native pulls them out, deposits them in the pirogue when they fall off by themselves because the fishhooks do not have hooks at the end of the curve. The line is immediately thrown back and in a few minutes they usually catch a dozen fish. The fishhooks used for fishing in the open sea are bigger and made from two pieces. One of these pieces is of tortoise shell and the other of mother of pearl. This kind of fishhook is curved and pointed. This kind pierces the jaw. With these fishhooks they catch fish weighing several pounds. They know the time when they should go fishing.
This time, like the time of the tauma, is a time for rejoicing. They separate in bands each day. A certain number goes fishing and the whole tribe profits from their work. When the fish are abundant, the hangar is jubilant. It is filled with native people, all of whom are busy cutting up the fish, removing the bones and roasting it. For this purpose they light a large roaring fire which gives them a lot of glowing embers. They place stones on the embers; on these stones they spread coconut leaves in the form of a grill. On these leaves they place the already skinned fish; it is roasted on a slow fire. When it is cooked, they carefully put it on very clean mats and eat it in a family meal where the conversation is no less agreeable than the food which nourishes them. They tell of the different happenings of the day: some fishing lines which broke, men who fell into the sea, pirogues which capsized and which had to be set upright on the water again, etc.
Their nets are of two kinds: some resemble a triangular netting placed at the end of a stick, the others are large, long and are formed much like the ones used in our country by fisherman on the seacoast. They confine the fish in these nets by pushing them up to the shore. They replace the float with pieces of palm branches and the lead weights with shells. The kind of fishing most amusing for the on-looker is harpoon fishing. The Arosian drives his pirogue to the middle of the reefs. There, in order to see the fish better, he stands up in his light boat which each wave causes to bob. His left hand guides the pirogue and his raised right hand is armed with a triangular harpoon, always ready to throw it. Should the fish appear, the pirogue glides noiselessly, the harpoon is thrown and soon returns to the surface of the water, often with nothing, sometimes with a seriously wounded fish. So as to fish with more success, the fisherman takes his wife or his child with him. The latter, seated behind his father, guides the pirogue, while the father standing upright looks all around and can harpoon with more assurance. The harpoon is not always in the form of a trident. It is often a simple lance, very long and very flexible. They let it slide in their hands without ever letting go, and this gives them the ease of throwing three or four times in succession at the same fish.
I have said only a little about the pirogues of the Arosians. They are so carefully and elegantly made that they deserve a separate treatment. They have three kinds which they call etea, ora, solima. The etea is a pirogue made with a single piece of wood. They make it by hollowing a tree whose wood lends itself to this kind of work; it is light, white, and resists cracking when exposed to the sun’s rays. These pirogues measure around five meters long by three decimeters wide and four or five decimeters deep. Across the middle of this pirogue there is a small seat for the rower. It would be impossible to keep this long and narrow boat stable if it were not fitted with an outrigger. The local people are very much attached to this kind of pirogue. From the seat and from the front of the pirogue are extended two parallel poles about a meter and a half long and which extend toward the left of the etea. At the extreme ends of these poles are fixed two half circles whose curvature is turned toward the sea. These half circles hold up a palm branch stripped of its leaves; it serves as the outrigger and counterweight for the pirogue. The front end of this palm branch extends beyond the front of the pirogue. It is lifted by a natural curve and is always out of the water. The etea is the kind of boat most used by the Arosians when they live on a quiet bay. They go to their farms in the etea by hugging the shore. They bring back the fruits, the wood and the herbs necessary for the household. They make use of the etea to go fishing along the coast. If, during the movements they are obliged to do, the etea happens to capsize, the Arosian is unperturbed as he returns to his pirogue by swimming, swings it above the water in order to begin to empty it. When the pirogue can float, he empties the water in it with a paddle which always goes with the pirogue. He swims to retrieve the oar, comes back to his pirogue, throws himself inside and continues fishing.
The pirogue which they call ora is more elegant and seems to me to be more solid than the etea. The ora is made with long planks sewn together and tarred with the nut of a certain fruit, brown in color, the size of a fist and shaped like an egg. They call this fruit puru. By rubbing it against a stone they obtain a paste which they place on the fault lines of their ora. Soon this paste hardens, turns black and looks like tar. The ora comes in different sizes. The average lengths are eight meters by seven decimeters wide and about five deep. It is shaped like a crescent somewhat lengthened in the back. These canoes do not have a keel; they are extremely light. The least wave lifts them up; the smallest oar stroke make them move a long distance. Three rowers in one of these boats would easily make several leagues per hour. The ora can hold up to eight to ten rowers. You can imagine the rapidity of their course when they strike the water together and with all their strength. The seats in this pirogue are very low and rest on planks and are made of rounded pieces of wood carved from the interior of the boat. The point in front has two planks raised higher than the others so that large waves do not throw their foam into the pirogue. The ora is very graciously decorated. The point of the front crescent ends in a bird’s head devouring a fish. From one end to the other it is embellished with festoons of pearls of different colors, with red plumes, and with mother of pearl shells. On the curve in the rear, there is the sculpture of a dog. The extreme end has small adornments of wood splashed with many colors. A succession of puru descend along the length of the crescent. On the sides of the ora there are patterns of white shells stuck into the wood. These figures represent birds which spread out their wings and which seem to be shaking them on the surface of the water like swans or albatrosses. In these pirogues the local people venture far into the open sea to engage in commerce with ships. They also use them to go fishing for large fish.
The boat which they call solima differs from the ora only in size. It is a construction which is gigantic considering the fact that its builders have at hand only small blades of iron attached at the end of a curved piece of wood. The solima is about twenty meters long by a meter and a half wide. It has twelve or fourteen rowers’ benches and can hold thirty to forty persons. Its ornamentation and shape are about the same as those of the ora. The Arosians ordinarily use these pirogues only for long voyages. They load them with arms and provisions and go to visit a friendly tribe about ten or fifteen leagues away. One fatiguing day is enough to make this long trip. They stay for several days with their friends, exchange their provisions, their arms, their tools and also the objects which they stole from us, and then return to spread before our eyes the gifts which they received. If sometimes we follow them to their friends’, we find there a straw hat, a hatchet, a clerical frock-coat which we are obliged to respect because the present owner has legitimately acquired these objects by paying for them with his money.
The relationships of the Arosians with their neighbors are not always peaceful. Often there is talk of murder and sometimes of a meal of human flesh. Their wars have no rules. They are surprise attacks by an individual against an individual rather than general combat of one tribe against another. If a member of someone’s family should happen to be killed by an individual of the enemy tribe, he takes two or three friends with him and goes to hide in the bush at the edge of the tribal land where his enemy lives. When they notice a man of that tribe, no matter who it may be, they rain their sagayes on him. A combat is engaged. Almost always those who have been surprised take flight, carry off their wounded. Anyone who has the misfortune of remaining on the field of battle is killed by the victors who carry the body to their tribe to make a feast of it. The cadaver is suspended by the neck from a beam in the hangar, it is gutted and cut up, piece by piece. They roast these disgusting pieces of flesh on red-hot stones in the fire, and eat this flesh not only without repugnance but rather with delight. Then they recount laughingly what they did to surprise their victim and the pleasure they felt as they ate his flesh. One trembles with horror in hearing them speak, but, as far as they are concerned, they find cannibalism so natural that they laugh at our astonishment. “That is of no worth to you,” they say, “but for us it is excellent.” Only rarely are they able to satisfy their appetite for human flesh; more often the wounded die in their own tribe where they are buried. Later the bones are gathered up and set out on the ground in a small square bordered by large stones. The enemies’ bones are, as I have already said, kept to ornament the hangar. The palace of our chief is adorned with fourteen skulls. You might well imagine that he is a blood-thirsty man as cruel as a tiger, one who could not be approached without running the risk of being killed. Far from that. Mahemara, although without any formal education, has exquisite good sense. He understood right from the beginning that we not coming there to do harm to his people. He is completely devoted to us, as is all his family. He extended his kindness to the extent of coming to our place to plant taro and banana trees. His welcome is always gracious when we go to his place and never does he let us leave without a small gift. That is the way our neighbors combine cannibalism with gentle manners, something which we could never have expected.
The material life of the Arosians seems to me to be happy enough. Because they do not need clothing to ward off the rigors of a cold season, for the weather is always temperate here, they are spared of a great worry. Their entire wardrobe consists of a few ornaments and a large cloak of wide, long feathers, in which they wrap themselves. They soften these feathers by heating them, then they sew them on, one after another; they fold them double several times and thus make a portable room under which several of them can find shelter. They are naturally very sober. They take only two small meals per day; they eat in the morning and after sunset. The women are in charge of the ordinary cooking. Although they do not have any iron vessels, they know how to boil water in their wooden platters by putting in some red-hot stones from the fire. They are the ones who go to gather wood, herbs and the fruits needed. The men do not stir to help them. They carefully wash and peal the yams and the pineapples; they scrape them with seashells, washing them in water several times and prepare them with a great deal of cleanliness. The women are not slaves. Except for a few taboos which they are obliged to observe, they have as much freedom as the men.
The material life of the Arosians seems to me to be happy enough.[3] Not needing clothing to guard against the cold, they are they are spared of a great worry. Their entire wardrobe consists in a few pearl ornaments and a large cloak of wide, long feathers sewn together. These cloaks keep them from the rain which often falls without a moment’s warning and in torrents. They are naturally very sober and are unfamiliar with any kind of intoxicating liquor; they drink only water. They take only two small meals per day, one in the morning and another after sunset.
They take strength during the day by chewing betel; they make betel with bitter and amomatic leaves which they call auraté, with the fruit of the aru and other palms, and then, with the lime which they pulverize, they suck from the tip of a rod while they chew the auraté. That is the limit of what they need. The rest of the time is spent in visiting or dancing and very little in the cultivation of the land.
Their dancing is war-like; they always dance holding a small club. They arrange themselves in several ranks, jump forward and backward while always keeping the same distance from each other. They hum a melody full of violence and this helps them to dance in rhythm. They walk in rhythm with their club and with small globular bells of mother of pearl attached to their right hand. The whole of the movements creates all the beauty of this dance. After having jumped to one side, they suddenly turn around and jump to the opposite side. Their singing makes this dance rather distressing. Perspiration can be seen flowing down the length of their body, but they stop only when the singing and the maneuvers have finished. This dance is forbidden to the women; they are satisfied with looking.
Only a few sick people can be seen among them. They put up with their ills with much patience and leave it up to nature to cure them. These are ordinarly wounds which pit the surface of the skin.
Such is the material life of the Arosians. But their spiritual life is deplorable. In this regard, they are worthy of pity! They barely recognize a superior being, about which they have but an obscure idea. It seemed to me that they call him Jona. He is a god who hears nothing, who sees nothing, but whom they address nevertheless when they plant their yams. They take the first yam, breathe on it, murmur a few words and put it into the earth. Until now, that is all that we have been able to notice about their belief and their worship. They are astonished upon learning that our God sees everything, that he hears everything, and that he penetrates even the most secret thoughts of our hearts, that after this life he will recompense us according to our merits or that he will punish us according to the gravity of our faults. This idea of a future life would bother them too much here below; they are anxious for us to finish speaking; they interrupt us or else they go away. They feel that our God is better than the one which they made for themselves, but in order to please him they would have to abandon cannibalism and polygamy, two great obstacles which we could not overcome except through a miracle of grace. I have enough confidence in the prayers of the associates of the Propagation of the Faith, in the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ, and in the mercy of God to believe that this time of grace is approaching and that the dawn of true happiness will rise upon these unfortunate islands.
I embrace you with all my heart, as well as my mother, my sister, my brother- in-law and my other relatives.
Your very affectionate son, Léopold Verguet apostolic missionary
You may pass my letter on to those who ask you for news of me and assure them of my friendship.
24 July – For the last four days, the Clara, Bishop Bataillon’s ship, is at anchor in our port. It came to give us fresh provisions and resupply us with many things which we were lacking. The time of want is now over for us. Properly speaking, during the last four months, we have never endured hunger, but in these last days our kitchen was very poor. Our health was somewhat affected by this. We were all rather weak. From now on, we will continue to get better and better.
The local people are become more friendly to us. At the beginning they stole a lot of linen and tools. They even took two pigs from us. We forced them to give these things back to us by threatening them with the vengeance of the first warship which would arrive. That restitution gave us the upper hand over the indigenes; they respect our property better now. In a word, it seems to us that the day is not far off when we will be as tranquil here among the cannibalistic tribes which surround us as a good country priest might be in France among his parishioners.
I conclude by begging you not to worry about me. I have had only an eight-day illness followed by a convalescence of fifteen days. Now I am only somewhat weak; good food will restore me completely. I never forget to pray for you. I recommend myself to your prayers.
I ask you to send me two dozen sandals like those worn by the Catalans.
I embrace you with all my heart, Léopold Verguet.


  1. Álvaro de Mendaña passed near the island when he went from Guadalcanal Island to Malaita Island in 1568; one of his ships, under Hernan Gallego, explored the south coast of the island which was named San Cristobal (cf. Spate, p. 123-124; Sharp, p. 46-48). Arosi is the name of the north-west district of the island; Makira is the natives’ name for the island (cf. Pacific Islands, vol. 3, p. 689-690).
  2. Jules Dumont d’Urville, commander in the French navy, was on the island in November 1838 (cf. Dunmore, vol. 2, p. 366-367).
  3. Most of this paragraph (§ 31) is a repetition of the preceeding one (§ 30).