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24 July 1846 — Fr Joseph Thomassin to Fr Victor Poupinel? San Cristobal

Translated by Peter McConnell, September 2010

Jesus Mary Joseph, Christoval. Port Sainte Marie 24 July 1846
Reverend Father,
I would have written sooner if I had not feared shocking you with the account of inescapable worries of a long passage. Now that we have landed I am in a hurry to give you some information on our situation and hopes. You have already learnt that the natives are keen to have us in their midst. They have shown keenness in building our house themselves and in preparing the site which we have established. Up until now this wonderful attitude has not dwindled, and we can say now that we are bound with them and that they regard us as being one with them except that they have a higher regard for us and generally their esteem for Whites is immense. There is good only in what they have and what they do. These people are very slightly built, that is true; yet they are not lacking in intelligence and hard work. They notice everything they see us do and try to imitate us. They are jealous of seeing that we are superior to them and in order not to appear too inferior to us, they ape us in everything we do even almost in the domain of religion.
At the beginning they said they did not have any god. Now, like us, they have one, but he does not see and as yet does not speak. In that they recognize the superiority of our God. I think I can say that religion plays a very minor role in their lives. Yet they sometimes pray. Recently I saw a native who prayed and made an exorcism while blowing two or three times on a banana plant he was planting. They seem also to recognize the immortality of the soul and the reward of goods by chastising the wicked. The latter go into the land whereas the former go much farther; some say in to a place called Guékénoné, others don’t know where.
Although they have pretty well no religious beliefs they have nonetheless retained all the principles of natural law, because before we begin saying or showing anything, we have noticed that theft, lying, fornication, adultery and murder are bad things. Polygamy, which is very rare among them, is considered to be wicked. The chief of our tribe has told us that having two wives is bad. He is also ashamed of their nakedness. We have seen such attitudes as being propitious for the success of our mission station. It is impossible that we should experience a great struggle, but the our progress too has to be slow because of their indifference. They listen to us willingly repeating with laughter what we have said adding: for our part, we don’t have any God. But patience and grace will work secretly on them. And some already listen to us seriously. They are seriously shocked by the fear of hell fire.
This esteem and affection of the natives for us does not exist only in our tribe. All the neighbouring tribes rival our tribe. Many come and see us, invite us to go and see them, and stay with them. It has already occurred on two occasions that men from a tribe some ten leagues away have come to speak to us about going and staying with them and saying that they would come and fetch us as soon as a boat arrived. A few weeks ago twelve natives from the chiefs of our tribe took us as if in triumph into one of their friendly tribes and when we arrived everybody eagerly rushed to carry our boat fearing that it would break against the coral which borders the seashore. Recently another dozen natives from a neighbouring tribe came to fetch us to go with them to a gathering which took place five leagues away. I went there with Brother Hyacinthe (Joseph Chátelet) and I took my French horn. When I got to the tribe, I was a little afraid at first. I saw almost 60 natives, all new faces, holding in one hand three or four spears and in the other a club. They had a commanding seriousness about them. At that stage I did not know that they wanted to welcome me with honour. Yet I did not show any fear. I began to play my French horn and cried out Saegoro xia; they really like you repeating those words which mean: you are all fine men.
Then it was the meal which was served in a reception room. It was a huge hangar raised on wooden carved poles. There were 19 huge dishes made of wood and all well carved. Inside there was a gnari ( a local name) jam or yams blended with gnari and coconut. On top they put pawpaw fruit and covered everything with amaris leaves. They make their betel-nut mixture by mashing up these two plants. There were about a hundred guests at least, coming from various tribes. Suddenly there was complete silence. Two of the leaders went around the dishes appointing the leader of each group for each dish. After that they set to work cutting up an entire roast pig. They put a piece of pork on each dish and everybody drew near. We were the first to be served and we had what was the best of the leg with a plate of gnari smothered in oil and nobody ate until we started. After the meal they shared out the scraps to all the guests and everybody left.
You ought to know already that we live on an island that is mountainous and heavily forested. That makes it very humid and unhealthy in the rainy season. Headaches and fevers are very common here.
I still can’t tell you too much about how rich this island is as far as botany is concerned. We have not yet examined it sufficiently. Yet, apart from minerals, everything has much to offer for a naturalist. For the botanist the whole island is a charming wood where in every direction an infinite number of flowers rival one another in beauty and which are mainly unknown in Europe or do not appear in any of the botanical books I have seen. There are also many that are known but not yet in the varieties that we have here. We hope that in due course we will devote some spare time in patiently examining all these benefits of Providence. Birds and insects also deserve great attention because of their number, variety and especially the brightness of their colours. Night time as well as day time displays its treasures here. No sooner has the sun set than rather bright trails of light appear in every direction. They are insects which probably give off phosphorus by rubbing their wings together and producing moving lights. Among the dangerous animals we are already aware of are the scorpion and the snake. There are plenty of them in these islands. There are even some species of snakes which are poisonous for the natives. There do not seem to be any large animals. The biggest that we know until now is the opossum which is inoffensive and small.
Do accept,
Reverend Father,
the feelings of deepest respect of your very
affectionate colleague,
Joseph Thomassin.