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3 September 1846 — Fr Pierre Rougeyron to Fr Jean-Claude Colin: Report on New Caledonia

Translated by Peter McConnell, September 2010

New Caledonia, the 3rd September 1846
Father Superior,
If until now we have kept silent on the nascent mission station of New Caledonia, don’t look for any other reasons than the wish to give you more certain and more interesting details. The missionary, by his own character, should be above all the opponent of falsehood. But how can he give a true account if he has not seen, examined, even deepened his knowledge of the people he is required to speak about. Several days, several months indeed are not enough time; you need to spend several years with these people and to have lived with them. It has been almost three years that we have been on this land whose habits and customs we study and yet we are far from knowing them totally, but we do know enough about them to be bold enough to hope that this letter will be of some interest for you. It is the wish of Bishop Douarre and of the one in charge on behalf of His Lordship to write to you. But don’t ask, I beg you, of a poor missionary among natives to have the graces of style and the flourishes of rhetoric!
As New Caledonia is one of those newly discovered countries and still very little known, I think it is useful to give you some general ideas about it, but briefly. It was in 1774 that the famous Cook, an English navigator, discovered this island. Its length is about 80 leagues and its average width is from 15 to 18leagues. It extends from 20-10 degrees latitude south and 161-39 to 164-232 east. It is edged with reefs which extend from the west to the north from 80 to 100 leagues. Pretty well its whole length is crossed by high mountain chains. The main rocks you discover in this huge country are quartz, mica, steatite, garnets, etc. There are a lot of iron minerals. Here and there you sometimes find small amounts of copper, lead, which have been rolled down by the fast streams. Today there are no volcanoes in the island, and we can’t even presume that there have been any, because we find no evidence of them, not even pumas. A very deep grotto 114 leagues from our district has recently been visited by Bishop Douarre and Father Montrouzier. I won’t talk about it, because it’s a matter for naturalists. Reverend father Montrouzier will speak to you about it, I think. Although New Caledonia is a mountainous country, it des not fail however to have huge and fertile plains, where many little streams wind their way with so much energy absolutely perfect for watering taro plantations.
What the country produces.
What is produced is pretty much the same as what is produced in the other islands of Oceania.  : that is to say bananas, coconuts, yam, sugar cane, two types of taro, arum esculentum, which the natives call caboué, and arum macrofhizon called locally péra. The former lives in waterwhereas the latter grows in ordinary soil. You still see ginger plant which the natives make no use of, no more than Linné’s melaleuca leucodendrona tree which has odiferous leaves from which they make Molucca oil. The fig tree grows in certain parts of the island but the fruit is small and furthermore is so sour that it is not used. Fifteen leagues from where we live, that is in the tribe of Tea-Pouma, you find several breadfruit trees but where we are we can count only three or four yet we have never seen them fruiting. The orange tree is not uncommon but the orange is. The natives never eat any. The tiliaceus hibiscus or paoui the tuberous dolichos or ialé, the wild sorsonerre or tao feeds our natives for most of the year.
New Caledonia with its dry mountains, although irksome at first sight, has its advantages however, The air is pure and healthy up there. Although tropical, New Caledonia enjoys a nice climate, warm to be sure, but made temperate by refreshing breezes which you could say are continual.
A pleasant feature is soon accompanied by another disadvantage. The traveller has no sooner breathed the beautiful air of New Caledonia than thousands of mosquitoes, also known as marengouins, attack him and suck him like leeches but the bite is very much different; it is fatal. The mosquito leaves a certain venom which causes painful itching. When I arrived I was sick for several days following being bitten. It was impossible for me to rest in the slightest way both night and day. The bishop, as a good father, watched over our health. He made us use mosquito nets where we shut ourselves up as in a cupboard.
Imported goods
Father superior, I have already spoken to you about what is produced locally but should I not mention the things we have to import here? No! It is one of the glories and joys of the missionary that he is proud to bring an abundance into a country at the same time as he is bringing in the happiness of our holy religion. We have not actually imported maize. There was some in the island but only recently. Yet our Téa-Pouma tribe did not know it. Now there is pretty well no individual who does not have a field of it. Up until now wheat has not been successful, but barley has. Grapes will produce if you look after them. We have already had some. Recently we tried to grow potatoes here. Sown in a season other than last year, it produced nothing. Beans, peas, lettuce, cabbages have been wonderful but cabbages don’t produce seeds. Nonetheless the Creator has provided things. Cuttings produce roots in no time. We have just imported a lot of fruit trees as well. Let’s hope they will do well.
Father superior, we limit restrict ourselves to these few plants. We have imported poultry , sheep, pigs, goats and some cows. The bishop’s intention is to have them multiply over the island. Where all these animals are unknown previously. He aims also to endow each settlement which he forms with a great number of these animals. In that way, the mission station will be self sufficient. These animals will cast the missionaries nothing, since feed is abundant and furthermore they will feed the missionaries. Up until now, we have had only a very small number of them, and still this small number we are obliged to kill them to feed more than 200 men who have just been shipwrecked three leagues from where we live, but Providence will come to our help.
What shall I tell you, Reverend Father, about the New Caledonian houses? You can’t compare them better than to bee hives. A centrally placed column supports the whole building. Chevrons of equal length from every angle and at equal distances are tied together at central column; the hut is thatched. The walls are hermetically sealed with the bark of leucodendrons which Linné had described. A little opening, through which a man has difficulty in passing through on all fours, serves as a door. Undoubtedly experience has taught them this method of construction. The cold or better the freshness of the night and even in daytime when it is raining is the reason for it. Mosquitoes which swarm in the northwest where we live may also have influenced them in building like that. As he hut is well closed on all sides these tiresome people can enter only by the door which is already very narrow. Now, at that door, they take pains in keeping a huge burning log which by its excessive heat and smoke keeps them away for the most part. Besides, to get rid of those that stay, they light another fire in the middle of the house; its smoke is usually so thick that you can hardly breathe.
Perhaps you think that because we live under the Tropic of Capricorn, we are overwhelmed with the heat. In Summer it is nice and warm yet the heat is very bearable because of the refreshing breezes, what more can be said? I admit to you that the heat in France have made me more tired that the heat in New Caledonia. Degree of temperature. The thermometer this year did not surpass an average of 25 degrees.
In Winter we normally count on an average of 20 degrees. When the sky is serene, even in Winter, the sun is fierce. But when the weather is dull or rainy, you see the natives shivering and they have heavy colds. I have suffered from that too. More than once I enjoyed warming myself.
So we count as in Europe on a Winter which occurs when you have Summer. In June when you have the sun in the tropic of Cancer, that is the time when it is the closest to you. Well, it is precisely then that we experience the worst cold for it is the greatest distance away from us. More than you we have two Summers; one when it is going and the other when it is returning. Autumn and Spring are not very noticeable. I have noticed only one tree which loses its leaves every year in Autumn. However in Spring growth is much more active and the country turns green and begins to embellish itself with more beautiful flowers.
I would find it difficult to tell you the exact time of the rainy season in New Caledonia. Until now they have occurred at different times, from December through to May. For the three years that we have been in this country, the rainy season has not been very heavy nor for very long. It is not unusual for four or five months to pass without any rain. Fortunately most of the rivers do not dry up.
To cultivate their fields the natives don’t have anything else than their arms and a piece of wood. We had the impression that they were unable to clear ground but we were convinced they could. This is what they do. As the country is covered in grass which impedes them and which they have no scythe to cut, they go in the afternoon and set fire to the grass when the sun is very hot and when there is a strong wind. In a short time you can see nothing else but bare ground covered in ashes which they use as a fertilizer; then, some days later, when the grass begins to grow again, they go in large numbers to the designated field. Some pull out the weeds such as gramen with their sticks; others dig a trench which they intend cultivating. The latter break up the clumps of soil whereas the former throw back the weeds. The soil which is moved in that way is very fertile. The grass covered by the soil from the trench rots and still improves this land increasingly. After that, the owner of the field feeds the labourers and they go their separate ways. A few days later yams, bananas, sugar cane, etc are planted. To give the yam a much greater supply of good soil, they make a small pile of soil higher than the surface of the field and it is there that they plant their yams, cut into pieces like potatoes. From time to time they come and look at these pieces of yam. If here is something rotten, they remove it very carefully to keep what is intact in the field.
As far as taro is concerned, they are happy to pull up the grass and to hoe it once that it is planted and watered. As soon as the banana has fruited, it does not produce any more, and so the natives pull it out for two reasons: firstly to replant it or its pups, and secondly to eat the root of some which they cook.
Normally in the households of the chiefs or of the working family men, each member of the family has his field. The women are required to keep all the fields in a good condition as soon as the men have cleared and planted them. June and July are the months when they plant in our part of the island.
For the land to rest, they never cultivate two years in a row in the same spot. Sometimes you find heaps of shells in the country. But it is not correct to say that the New Caledonians behave in that way to marl their lands. I do not think they have so much spirit. It is simply a place to put shells which they have eaten in great quantities.
What gives them the most bother in growing yams is putting up stakes for them to climb on, as you do for grape vines in certain counties of France.
Sailing craft
Like all natives, the natives here have reached the stage of making sailing craft, but they are so gross that they show clearly their lack of sophistication. Two hollow trees tied together by pieces of wood comprise their boats. I have often travelled on these boats; they sail well with a sail. I have travelled 15 leagues from where we live and on the open sea on one of these canoes. With a favourable wind they can do two leagues an hour. Outriggers are no longer unknown to them.
Wild animals
One of the great advantages of our island is that we can travel everywhere and at any time without fear of being attacked by wild animals. Reptiles. Not only are there no wild animals but not even poisonous reptiles in the middle of very dense forests and in those vast plains where the traveller’s head is scarcely higher than those huge swampland grasses. We have amphibious snakes but they are not poisonous; the natives catch them without any worry. We have too a lot of lizards and rats. The caterpillar causes the same damage here as in our countries. We have grasshoppers which the natives like eating. Vermin. Moreover there are more disgusting things which they eat such as certain earth worms, certain spiders, which they cook. Their vermin is even part of their food. How many times have I seen two men or two women looking for flies on each other and then crushing them in their teeth? Today they do not dare do it in front of us.
I am not going to tell you anything about botany and zoology; I will leave that to those more knowledgeable than I the pleasure of telling it to you. I am practically not seen any new or special plant. The most precious thing I’ve seen are the orchids that you find many of here. Birds. As for birds, there are few for a country where there have never been hunters. E reason for that is that there are so many birds of prey such as eagles and sparrow hawks. Furthermore birds normally have only one or two fledglings; it seems to me that the same holds true for them as for human beings, there is little food available.
Fishing is abundant whether it is for fish or shellfish. But it must be mentioned that some are poisonous. The New Caledonians call them manboua or pone. They are the two types of fish which poisoned us in the first months of our stay in New Caledonia.
Where the New Caledonians came from?
This is the country inhabited by he New Caledonians. Now, who are they and where did they come from? It is not for me to speak out on a question which is still debated among geographers of today. I would willingly agree with several that this people had come from the great island of Borneo, that they emigrated from there to New Guinea and that finally they left New Guinea and reached New Holland by the Torres Strait, and from there to New Caledonia. Or else they could have come from New Guinea to the Solomon Islands, and from them to New Caledonia. What makes me have that opinion is that the natives really love to travel from one island to another and that they often make longer journeys than the one I have just mentioned. So we find in New Caledonia people from the Halgan Island (Ouvéa in the Loyalty Islands) in their thousands in New Caledonia. They are not so black as our natives and their language is essentially different. Their language is that of the Wallis Islands where they are originally from, according to information taken from those places.
Our New Caledonians are copper skinned. They are called the Papuan race. Their height is the same. They are very ugly and most have woolly hair. They have a sloping forehead and at an obtuse angle, but the forehead which we are not mistaken about, is sloping on purpose. No sooner are the babies born than the parents use hot cinders to shape the forehead of he child in that way. It is rare to see white men and women but there are those with a reddish whiteness which is revolting. Albinos. These men are what we call albinos. I know one of them who is married and who has children. That albino is full of spirit. He has always got something to say to make us laugh.
The Caledonian character
So there remains now something to say about the character of our islanders. Although they are cannibals, they are however good, gentle, loving and considerate. They also smother with hugs the stranger whom they consider a fine person. When travelling with them, they warn you of a stone, or a hole which could cause you to fall. When you have to cross a river, they argue among themselves for having the honour of carrying you on their back. Recently, having gone into a neighbouring tribe with the commander of the Seine a chief wanted to give me the honour of carrying me himself. When I was carried across the river, he told me to wait. I have to fetch the other chief. I thought he referred to the commander of the corvette. Not at all, he was already beside me. He meant the dog which we had given him. In fact, I saw the big dog carried with great care by the native on is back. Another native was careful to to open his legs and to support them so hat he would not slip. If they have a little food, they share it with their fellows. It often happens that they make a great sacrifice by going without, whatever it is; they have to give even if they are hungry as a result. This charity is practised among them so that it becomes as it were part of the nature of the child. You see little children being breast-fed not knowing how to refuse what they are asked for even a piece of yam, banana, etc. Meat is the most precious thing for them. Well, at least notice that although this charity is real but compulsory, true charity comes from the heart and only religion can give it. So these natives very often hide while eating. I have found some on several occasions preparing their food in the woods, in the valleys. I have asked them why, and they admitted to me that they had come to those places not to be seen and not to be forced to share.
Simplicity characterizes New Caledonians. The reason for this is undoubtedly that they have never heard of {---} Whites. They say with a lot of {---} that there are many sorcerers in the country and that these sorcerers can make me die at will. To do that, they have only to enter at night time the house of the one they want to die and leave there peelings of yam, taro, etc with certain herbs. This superstition is so ingrained in their spirit that they put to death {---} a sorcerer as soon as somebody dies at a young age because they say that nothing else could have caused his death. For a short time now, I have seen more than twenty men killed on the pretext that they were sorcerers, {---} who live near us. One day when I went for a walk I asked the bishop to see an Islander whom I knew, if it was true that they had killed somebody. He answered that he had killed more than one; he had killed three. Why? They were sorcerers. How did you do it? I went at night time into their huts, while they were sleeping and there I cut their throats with an axe. Well, hat executioner followed us while we were walking to have the pleasure of offering us some coconuts. Both of us accepted some. That fellow seems very good, very friendly. He would always embrace us when he meets us.
Superstitious aspect.
Here is yet another fact which will show you how far this superstition leads to. In a village of our tribe a large number of people came to a sudden death. The chief Païama with his retinue went there only a few days ago. He had the residents come together, men, women, children and placed them along a straight line. He then took a long rope which he put around the neck of the first one in the line, and then the second and then the third and so on. When he came to a man who was more than 40 years old, he untied those who had been bound and bound the last fellow. Two young men took the two ends of the rope to strangle him, and they were in the process of strangling him in fact when shouts and pleadings and especially the promise of an honourable present touched the chief, who had the wretch, the so-called sorcerer, released. I don’t know whether he will survive that execution. His face still shows his great horror. Then we go further to another aspect of that same ceremony. We get to an old woman. They put a rope around her neck and then throwing the rope over the branches of a big tree which was used as a lever, they hauled up that poor wretch. They held her suspended; afterwards they let her fall to the ground. They repeated the execution until she gave up her last breath. I forgot to say that everybody had their legs and hands bound during this exercise. Having heard of this incident, I went to see a sick person who was in the village of the chief, who was also the executioner. So I had the opportunity of seeing the wretch, whom I reprimanded as best I could. That succeeded. Another woman and a child, who were condemned to death, were saved. You see, Reverend Father, that we are not completely useless in New Caledonia. We are the savers of souls and sometimes of lives.
Aspects of simplicity
Do you think, Reverend Father, that the Islanders are naïve or else stupid enough to believe that men are pregnant? My little Louis and I went to see a sick person. I instructed him but because I thought he was not in danger of death, I did not baptize him. A few days later, I sent Louis alone to see him. He prepared him again for baptism, and hardly had the child left the outskirts of the village than the sick person died. The poor child was devastated and immediately asked the reason for that premature death. They immediately told him in reply that he had died because he had not been able to give birth. The young catechist couldn’t tell me quickly enough this matter which made us laugh a lot and at the same time horrified us that they were so stupid and so blind. What is ore strange is that we have as yet not been able to talk them out of that belief. They say to us proudly that it is possible that the matter does not occur in France, but it is something real in their country, that they have touched children in the bellies of those men, that they have heard them cry, and that briefly we have only to look at them bellies of those men. Dropsy causes the swelling which they talk about.
What I have just said explains the behaviour of a chief to whom we had to give some pigs for them to breed. He wanted only male pigs; similarly another person begged me to give him some little dogs when our big dog had mated; I promised him I would do so. He repeated the same request every time he found me. I am not going to comment on those who explained o other natives that our rabbits were the offspring of our bull and our cow. And that they would become as big when they were as old. I will not even speak of that big fellow who told me very seriously not to disturb a chook with its chickens which I wanted to feed. They suckle, he told me. Chook’s milk is better for them than what you give them to eat.
They make jokes
Such a stupid race does not seem capable of wit. Yet it has plenty of wit. Generally they crack jokes, love to argue for fun in company. They keep up a conversation of witty jokes for hours on end and it is a competition to see who can produce most jokes. When I joke with them, they talk to one another; See now, he knows how to joke as well. When they notice a foreigner or somebody else who is inclined to laugh somewhat, they are quick to seize the opportunity to make people laugh.
Characteristic of eloquence
Not only are they witty, but you even find among these natives eloquent people. Wasn’t that woman eloquent, when needing to complain about her ungrateful child, showed me her belly which had carried it for nine months, showing me her breasts which had suckled it and the hands that had sustained it? And for what? cried the distressed mother, you despise me, you ungrateful one, because my belly is shrunk, my breasts are dry and my hands are weak. Well, go then, I can die, but the child could not cope. He threw himself into the arms of his mother, weeping profusely, and held her in his arms for a long time. That son is today a source of consolation for his mother and for us.
To tell you that the natives are proud is to tell you nothing new, since they are children of our father. More than once I have seen them not only slinging off at us but even at all Europeans. They think that they can delude us with their words and deceive us when we are speaking with them. If they can steal from us without our knowing it, they take advantage from it and are not afraid to claim that they are more acute than we are. Having gone into our garden one evening, I met a native who was admiring the work of our brothers. Using that opportunity I asked said to him: Don’t you see that we know much more things than you? We too, we know things that you do not know. You don’t know how to swim like us you don’t know how to grow yams and taro like us because we have shown you how to cultivate them. As I explained to him that our way of growing plants, although it was a different method, was better than theirs. He answered me angrily: Well, since you are so knowledgeable, what did you call this yam, this leaf? I ignored him because there are more than sixty words to signify those different insignificant things. But then, without disconcerting me, using a trick, I opened my breviary which I held in my hand and said: and you, tell me what these letters here are! I don’t know anything about it. Because you know nothing about it, you can see that you are an ignoramus. Well I know the names that you asked me. I tell you some names like: barbaric, catechesis.
Thieving traits
You have just seen that our natives don’t think they are inferior to Whites. They are in fact more able in one aspect, but one which brings them no glory. I am talking about theft. I don’t think the shrewdest rogues of our European countries should despise their associates in New Caledonia. They are all robbers par excellence. The bishop, one of our Brothers and I had been to wash our clothes. The day after we had a lot of washing to do, we put our shirts on purpose in an area the shape of a triangle between us. Despite this precaution several items disappeared in front of our eyes. The thief was spotted in the grass crawling on his stomach and then with a piece of wood he drew the clothing towards him, but it was in vain that we ran after him, he was no longer there. Another time there was an axe between all three of us and a native. The latter, not wanting to remove the axe without our seeing him, pretended he wanted to whisper something to us in the ear and coming closer he made movements with his feet and covered the axe with soil. It was only with the help of another native that we found it again. Still recently some officers of a ship who had come to visit us having been for a swim found that one was missing his tie, another a hat, another his shirt and his uniform. They all returned to the house in his way without having seen anybody. We made some inquiries; we were angry; and in a few minutes those gentlemen were pleased to see the return of their gear which they were frightened of having lost forever. Now, they blush when called thieves and even liars. “Lie” That term used to make them smile. They gloried in knowing how to lie well and truly.
New Caledonians are not only thieves and liars. They slothful still, with the exception of a very small number of days when they work in their fields of yam, the rest of the time is spent is complete idleness. From morning until evening they do nothing else but yawn and lie down. If I had to spend a life like that, I would die of boredom in very short time. They have nothing which infringes on the monotony of their days. Games. They don’t even have games with the inhabitants of the other islands. Their recreation is going fishing or going hunting in the mountain for grassroots which are a little similar to liquorice to be eaten when they are short of food. The children themselves play and those games are generally nothing else but war exercises.
They do have feast days but rarely. Celebrations consist of coming together and having simply a meal of yams, taro and sugar cane, and conversing with one another.
Good qualities of the New Caledonians
Because I have told you about the bad qualities of our natives, I have to tell you the good points. They are sober, very sober, but they don’t deserve much merit in being sober. They can’t do otherwise because of their extreme lack of resources. So it is not about that which concerns us here. I have already said that they are charitable, but that moral virtue is seen especially towards the sick. When somebody becomes ill, the parents, friends and neighbours immediately go and visit him and often give him presents. One person or several stay beside the sick person to serve him. Everybody is in a hurry to give part of his own food and even give sometimes a present to ease him in his pain.
Should he recover, as a sign of rejoicing, they bring him some culinary provisions which they usually eat together.
Perhaps you would never imagine that natives like society. I thought that natives lived in the bush like wild animals, that they lived in their own place without visiting others. Alas, how wrong I was! These men are perfectly like us, despite a few insignificant differences. They live in a social grouping. Their huts are not built in the forests, but certainly in the plains or the valleys and almost always beside some wonderful river. Beside their homes some land is cultivated which serves as a garden. Besides they take pains to plant bananas and other fruit trees which give them cool and lovely shade. More than once I have felt sleepy and shut my eyes there. Those few fields around their houses are generally to grow food for their friends who come and visit them. There are others, much farther away, which they don’t touch. They are fields kept in reserve, not only from one village to another but even from one tribe to another. They ago and visit one another when they have nothing to fear. There are also in our island well beaten tracks to go into the smallest villages, but I don’t want to give the impression that those tracks are very convenient. When there is a great feast in a place, on the day itself you see people from all the neighbouring tribes, that is from more than ten leagues. You go to these festivities in crowds as you do in our countries. I have seen more than 1500 natives around our thatched cottage, where I lived mainly alone.
Caring for the family
Our New Caledonians are good family men. They cherish their children. They help the others to care for them. They even go so far as to carry their cradle on their backs to stop them crying. The parents are lavish with their attention as long as the poor little creatures need help or somebody else. Neighbours themselves are proud to carry these little children in their arms and give them some kisses; in the same way as animals do, they are almost abandoned as soon as they can prove for themselves. You can see all children roaming on the mountains looking for some bad roots. It was evening when I asked one of them: What have you eaten this morning? Oh! He said, I will have something to eat this evening if my hands are strong enough to pull out those roots. Those children often leave their parents too when they find food elsewhere. How many charming children full of hope for the future is we had the wherewith all to sustain them.
What does that result in? Children abandoned in that way become undisciplined. It is common to see children of five or six years old knowing as much about evil as thirty year old men. Those who stay with their parents sometimes receive warnings and even punishments for their bad behaviour. But those who are vagabonds have nobody to care for them. So don’t be surprised when I tell you that all the vices of our countries, with no exceptions, exist in New Caledonia. The devil is the same everywhere; I find in them the true children of Adam.
However great libertinage is, it is not too much for natives kept by any bonds. Natural law must not be completely done away with, because they still have a lot of modesty. I will admit only one thing to you, Reverend Father, which makes me ashamed. Some of the sailors of all the ships which have come to New Caledonia have degraded themselves as far as committing lechery so great in the presence of the natives, that is in public, that the natives themselves, unsophisticated as they are, blushed and ran away saying to one another: How bad the Whites are, how dirty they are! They don’t blush as we do.
You must have seen , Reverend Father, from what I have told you that our natives of New Caledonia are not devoid of intelligence. I even have the feeling that, generally speaking, they are less mentally limited than certain good people whom you found in our mountain villages. They are simple, that is true, but that comes from the fact that they have never seen anything other than what is on their island. So in the north-east part where Port Balade is, I have found only two or three old men who knew ships which had come into that port, I asked one what he thought of the ships and of us the first time he saw us. He said in reply: he thought that your ship had come from heaven, because in the distance it was touching the vault of heaven. We thought you were the souls of our parents who had changed from black to white and he most beautiful in the other world. We loved you a lot, because you reminded us of touching memories.
Idea of Whites Characteristics
Even now some are convinced that heaven is the earth where Whites live. So the sun, the moon, the stars which we show them as the work of an almighty creator god does not shock them because they regard those masterpieces as he work of Whites who are extremely rich and extremely powerful. Recently too several natives came to me and told me: Father, why are you greedy with us. Me greedy? I never stop giving you things. You don’t bring us rain. Your fellows the Whites, keep it all. Look, come and see our plantations, they are dying. Everywhere you go, they never stop asking me for rain and to stop them dying; they think that it is in our power to grant them their request. They add that when we go and visit the sick, we can stop them dying by giving them some special water hat we know and which has a lot of goodness. We performed prodigious acts; they would not convert for that. They say that we know how to do things as they know for example how to put back a limb which is dislocated.
Not planning for the future
It is of no use saying that our islanders don’t plan for the future. That is an attribute of all natives. The chop down a tree o get some fruit. You can’t do better than to compare them to grown up children who ink only of the present moment and never of the future; fortunately for us, because the view of their future would throw them into despair. We have seen them living day by day for more than eight consecutive months. They had no plantation, no provision for food. On various occasions we gave them corn seeds to plant, but instead of planting them they ate them. Seeing this childlike behaviour, we have taken it upon ourselves to plant their fields ourselves. The unfortunate creatures, they have not even enjoyed them. Internal warfare in this country came and destroyed the harvest before it was ready and our troubles came to nought.
You already have an idea of the poverty of this people. This year the yams have all been eaten in the short space of ten days. A ceremony had to take place and all the neighbouring tribes were invited to the banquet. What is to become of them all year? We do not know, we don’t understand how they can live. Also no day goes past without our being besieged by starving individuals asking us for food. After travelling six leagues to teach the Gospel to certain tribes, we could not eat a measly piece of yam or of taro which we carried in our pocket with the bishop, because more than 100 natives would have coveted it from us. What could we do? We went and hid to have this necessary food. We are happier today because we have some bread to eat, but still can eat it only when we are pretty well in hiding. Not only so these people not give us anything but they don’t have anything to give. The wretches fight with our pigs for the peelings of yam, taro, and banana. Coconuts which feed pigs in the other islands are a delicacy for our New Caledonians. One day I thought they would stone me because they saw me giving pieces of coconut to our pigs. You can imagine. They are more than animals. Very often we notice at our door small children and even old people bending down to the ground to pick up discard corn grains which we give to the fowls. God, I can’t tell you everything. My heart aches when I talk about such wretchedness. However, these men are our brothers. You who are rich now, what have you done to deserve such wealth? He who has given you wealth will ask you for a terrible account of the surplus which would feed thousands of men and would make excellent Christians out of them.
They are not only lacking in food but in clothing too. They are like the new born child except for women who wear a small belt as a rather decent filament. Some of the men wear a hat without covering any other part of their body. Nevertheless to tell them that they are indecent is to make them blush. They think they are attired decently. So here is this strange clothing. When children have reached the age of five or six, they invite relatives and friends. A meal is made then they take some leaf or other to wrap around the genitals of a male child in the same way as I would cover my finger with a leaf or with a piece of material if I had a wound. They take away this leaf only when they are alone. They blush when you surprise them like that, so they run away ashamed. They could dress who they wanted to because they know how to make tapa cloth which they make elsewhere; but other than the ouangui a tree which is used to make that materials not common they are too lazy to bother even more that they don’t see the necessity for it. Cold alone would make them want clothing. Several have wraps of material or straw that they have made themselves. We wanted to clothe some little children whom we are raising in the house. We gave them not European clothes which does not suit them in our view, but belts which come down to the knees as the Jesuits made them wear in their beautiful reduction stations in Paraguay. Well, Reverend Father, you would not believe the trouble we had in making them wear that light-weight clothing. Everybody slung off at those children. To reduce the anti, I put red, their favourite colour, on those belts and skirts. Today they ask for some and most would wear them, but we would have to be able to give them some.
Anther ceremony takes place when the young man reaches puberty; they circumcise him, as what happened among the Jews and as I still happens in the most part of Oceania. Is it a vestige of Judaism, we don’t know. They do it because their fathers did it. Is it because of cleanliness and at the same time of morality, as some claim? Is it in short as others say, for a bad purpose? I must admit I don’t know. The ceremony is simple when you circumcise a simple block. You give food and pearls to the parents of the circumcised boy and the matter is done with. But when it concerns a chief, they invite all the friendly tribes and lift the tapu from yams and coconuts to give a good feast to a large crowd. While that is going on, he most elegant youths, relations and friends of the circumcised fellow put dark stains all over their bodies. The only white you see is the white of their eyes. They are horrible to see. These young devils go into all the villages and even into the country to be seen. If they meet somebody who is not a chief, hey chase him throwing stones and spears, but they do not try to kill him, only to make him aware of their presence. After going to take some water from the sea to make us a little salt which we lacked, I saw a dozen of those monsters racing towards me. Stop, I shouted as loud as could, don’t you know that I am a chief? With those words they left me and continued their way. On the way, they met Brother Blaise, who, unaware of this custom, did not even quicken his step. Stones rained upon him and spears began to be hurled at him. To reply he picked up his spade and pursued them as fast as he could. In a blink of the eye he made them disappear. In the evening while waking in or little garden with the bishop we were chatting about what happened during the day when suddenly a hail of stones was thrown into the very spot where we were. Fortunately we were not hit. Annoyed at this behaviour, we were very angry and since then all is calm.
Wars, here as among all people where he flame of faith has not shone, are a devastating curse. Wars are between tribe and tribe, village and village. In the former case they are terrible butcheries. They kill everything that they meet: old people, women, children nobody is spared, and what is even more revolting is that it is not over when the wretches are killed; they are taken away very carefully and roasted and eaten. Then the bones are hung as a sign of triumph at the doors of the houses. Pretty well at every step you take in the villages you find here a skull, there a hand, elsewhere some legs and everywhere you hear the words: He was an enemy indhiou iaré I am the one who killed him. Others carry human bones around their necks out of vanity, and God! What bones have I seen around the neck of a young man of 15 to 18? I snatched a little finger from him and replaced it with a medal of the Holy Virgin. That was a little more comforting. Another had as an ornament part of the body that modesty forbids my mentioning. I have seen in the hands of another flesh that is still beating. He had just killed an enemy. They are not content, those wretches in eating their fellows, like tigers they still drink their blood as several natives have told me.
If the enemy run away, the visitors burn the houses and ransack all the property. They have even gone to the extent of chopping down the coconut palms. We are shown today a beautiful plain formerly covered in magnificent coconut trees and today only three coconut trees remain to tell passersby that new Vandals have passed that way.
The tribe where we are is one of the weakest. It has been beaten by the neighbouring tribe Téa-Mouélebé or Pouépo on various occasions. Also it is now less numerous and more wretched.
It seems that every five years the neighbouring tribe makes war to stop them becoming too powerful. It does not want to give them time to build up numbers. Yet, for more than five years that war of extermination has not taken place. The inhabitants of our tribe think they owe it to our presence among them, and we are of the same opinion. It almost broke out a few times but until now we have stopped it. Also we see on all sides new villages being made.
The weapons that our natives use in their wars are the spear, a lethal weapon with which they have pierced through and through ten or twelve of our pigs; as well they use the sling shot and the club. They have prepared stones for the sling and they are very polished and very sharp on both sides.
In the two years, that is when the wars have occurred only between villages and in the same tribe, the wars are less murderous. Usually they don’t kill one other and if they did occasionally, they don’t each one another; but they inflict serious wounds on one another with their spears or slings and consequently they die of these wounds. They do not use the club in these little wares.
But what is awful in these little wars is that the vanquished suffer from seeing their property entirely ransacked. Unfortunately too, these wars are very numerous. A thousand excuses provoke them; a tapu is violated; a chief’s wife is raped, jealousy of seeing a lot of food in a neighbour’s place, an insult given to a chief, vengeance, the desire to match strengths, etc. are so many reasons for war to break out so often.
It would be difficult to tell you, Reverend Father, the order they keep in these wars. You can see a father fighting with his son, a neighbour with his neighbour. Not very long ago we asked a chief who could see two camps ready for battle what side he would be on. He said naively that he did not know. Moreover, he added, tell me whom I should go and help. He followed our advice; he defended those who were being attacked unjustly, but that is not what happens usually. They never see the justice of a cause. They take up arms for those who ask for it and for those whom they like the most, no matter who is right or wrong.
We have stopped so many of these wars. One day the two sides were armed. The bishop ran up and there in the middle of that wild people who were showering stones on the other, he held the crucifix in his hand and chased them with that weapon. That was all he had to do to chase them away at least for some time. What has always astounded us is that they have respected our properties. We have seen our fields of yams intact, the only one in the midst of all the other ransacked ones. How could it be otherwise! We and our fields have been consecrated to Mary.
The chiefs declare war. They are the ones who decided on peace and war just as they are the ones to put an end to it. Don’t think that because of that they have a great influence over their subjects. They have the right to put tapus on yams and coconuts for a time. Bad luck usually for anybody breaking the tapu. Those tapus are not forever; they have been established here as elsewhere for a good purpose. The goal is not to touch he yams, coconuts, etc normally while they mature. That would be perfect if then they did not abuse it when the tapu was lifted. But they abuse it really. They call together all the friends of foreign tribes and in a few days they eat all the food which they deprived themselves of for so long and which could have fed all those families for several months of the year if they ate a little of them.
In general too, the chiefs are respected in the wars; they don’t try to kill them. These chiefs can kill the others, and the others can’t kill them. What’s better they don’t dare kill them. They regard their persons as sacred. If some subject had the audacity of striking a chief, the other chiefs, even enemies, would revenge the death of that chief and the wretch would not be able to escape, that is for certain. It is a political matter on the part of the chiefs.
That is roughly all the authority that we recognize for our chiefs. It is not great. They are hungry too just like the least member of their tribe. They are beggars like all the others. Land. Land does not belong to them, but they have some right to it. They raise a type of tribe. Each individual recognizes very well the boundaries of his fields. They give them away or sell them at their pleasure. So you see that our islanders recognize the right of ownership.
But if those chiefs have little authority, they are compensated for it with much pride of their birth. They admit still that we have more wealth than they, but they firmly deny that we are descended from a blood as noble as theirs. In fact in the eyes of all these natives, we have only a much inferior rank. First honours are made to their chiefs. The women for example do not walk in front of the main chiefs and should not consume what a chief has had cooked.
Caledonian governance
Certainly what stops these chiefs enjoying great prestige is that here are too many of them. There is no small hamlet which does not have several chiefs. However, you do not give enough distinction to the first ranking great chief who bears the name téama; you add as well when you want to distinguish him the name of the tribe of which he is the first ranking chief. So you would say téama-Pouma, chief of Pouma.
The salic law
The salic law exists in New Caledonia as it does in France. Only male children and the eldest ones have the right to succeed their fathers. The eldest daughter is regarded as the greatest chieftainess of the tribe. She takes the name of cabo, but she can’t reign because she is a woman. If she marries a chief, the children will be chiefs quite naturally, but if she marries by inclination or otherwise a iambouéte, that is a mere subject, a man of the people, the children born of that marriage are not chiefs but iambouéte, because the children never inherit the nobility of their mother, but that of their father.
Now if we consider the young members of the royal family, here is what becomes of them. If the eldest who reigns by right, as I have just said, has male children, they are the ones who succeed the father, first of all the eldest. If his eldest son dies without male children, it is, I repeat, the younger called by the natives moueaou or if he is dead his children. They are roughly the same rules as in the French monarchy. The first chief takes the name or the names of his ancestors. The names of the father and the grandfather are never lost.
But here a different matter takes place. If the younger branch is not called to the throne, it is lost according to the constitutions of the country, one degree of nobility for each generation. So for example the young man of the royal family will be number two. I say like two because the king is like number one. That being the case I say that the young man is like number two. His eldest son is like number three. His grandson is like number four and is great grandson is like number five. The sixth generation being noble only to the sixth degree, the titles of nobility expire with and henceforth the children are no longer chiefs but indeed iambouéte
I have spoken there only about the younger royal branch, because for the other children they lose even more quickly their titles of nobility at and even more quickly than the second, third, fourth generations of the family. Bad luck for the last one to be born. He inherits only much less of the illustrious blood. Also as if to make up for the illustrious blood that they have made to flow in his veins, the father and mother give him much more affection and keep jewels and little cakes for him.
Despite these rules of governance, it happens whether by extinction of the royal family or whether because of a revolution, whether by choice or otherwise that strangers can be elected by the main chiefs. Usually they then take one of the adopted children because it is a tried and true custom to adopt somebody for your son. When this adoption is made, the individual becomes a chief as if he were the true child of the family and so participates in all the privileges. So you see that by this method you can always have the royal family survive and it is also what makes the number of chiefs multiply.
The dances of the New Caledonians are the most insignificant and the most boring that I have seen. They consist merely of making regular movements with the whole body without changing positions. It is accompanied by a particular cry which is as unpleasant as their dance. Sometimes in the great occasions two or here men who are wearing masks come in front of the gathering and perform a dance which is a little less monotonous; What then excites the spectator is the sight of hose masked men. I think that at Paris itself and in the middle of the day, some of them would strike fear in those brave city dwellers. The faces of those masks are horrible to see.
The ordinary daily dances have not seemed to us bad up until now. Those which occur at night, when there is a meeting of both sexes are awful, not exactly per se but in their consequences.
There is another dance a little less heavy that is performed when they finish mourning the death of a great chief. The women then dance by themselves; they powder their heads with the cinders for the bereavement, and the men wear a white handkerchief on their heads.
We do not find tattooing widely spread as an honour as in certain islands for example he Marquises. Our natives are not all tattooed and still those who are, are only partially so. Some stripes without designs are enough to satisfy their vanity. Their vanity consists mainly in the case of men of putting on their faces and their chest a layer of black colouring made from the nut growing in the country and furthermore they have to wear a large red bonnet and some little marks around the base of their spine and elsewhere. =
Female ornaments
As for women their adornments are blue necklaces in glass beads with some flowers inserted in a hole in their ears and a belt to which is attached a large piece of white material covering their backside.
Moral customs
There is a very moral custom among women. Girls and even a lot of women all retire at night time into a single house to sleep in. The same goes for boys and men. In each little place you find communal houses. That is not to say that there is not one house for every household. Nearly everybody has his hut where the husband and his wife withdraw to when they want to.
Furthermore there is another hut where all women who are having a period withdraw to. If one of the women in his condition goes into any other house, he chief would be obliged to come and purify the house with fire and the juice of certain herbs.
A sick person
Sick people whom they have given up hope for or hose who exude bad smells are put aside in a building made from some tree branches. Sometimes even they don’t bother to go to that trouble. I have found one of them, who had been thrown onto the grass, only out of pity had they lit a small fire for the night; they were all astonished, those wretches, that I went to the trouble of going and seeing that poor abandoned creature and in particular that I instructed him; they kept on shouting in my ears that it was not worth the trouble, he smelt bad
Polygamy is rather common especially among the chiefs. Yet several listen to us; they take only one wife and some have even sent some away. Those who have several wives tell us that they take women only as servants, but here is something more, and that is they live in concubinage with those they claim to be servants.
Female slavery
It is quite true that there is only religion which can raise the status of a woman. Everywhere or pretty well everywhere she is a slave. She is admitted into society only in civilized countries, through the gentle influence of religion which teaches man that the woman has been given to man by the creator to be his companion and not his slave.
In New Caledonia she is perhaps not as much a slave as in many other countries, but you can tell how much lower she is than man and how shocking her fate is. Besides being mainly responsible for preparing food and maintaining the gardens in a good state, once they have been cleared, she has to feed her husband most of the year by fishing for shell fish or by working at something else. That is not all, I have not yet mentioned it. She has to gather firewood. When a journey is made, she becomes the beast of burden. For doing that does she have the best share in meals taken together? No. She is not even admitted. The good pieces become tapu for those wretched women; they would die if they ate any; but the men instead of dying can enjoy them. Are they happy to exclude women from society? Not at all. The husbands beat them up, if they so desire. Very often we learn that such a fellow has broken his wife’s leg, broken an arm and furthermore, as if that was not enough, he cracked her skull. We have seen several in that state. An extraordinary matter! Not only don’t they die but they recover rather promptly, thanks to, we must say, the surgeon of the country who gets them on their feet again with a lot of skill and success. Country surgeons. He even distinguishes himself for trepan work: yet his only instruments are nothing else but a shell with which he tears the flesh of the patient.
These so-called doctors know how to bleed and it takes place on he bruised area, if her has been a fall; on the temple if the patient has a headache; his place seems to be dangerous, yet we have seen no accident occur. They don’t know about cataplasms; they know how to get rid of body fluids by applying certain herbs which make the wound suppurate.. I even think that they know how to purge themselves by drinking sea water. This same sea water is used by them sometimes to stop an ulcer. They filter it through some leaves and then pour it over the area where the ulcer is. They claim to stop infection in its heart by cauterizing the flesh.
You will agree that for natives who are so backward for every other matter, they are rather advanced in the science of the famous Hippocrates. In the tribe Téa-Pouma, there are secrets which are transmitted from father to son. The father takes great care in instructing and training his most capable son. One of those doctors of the country asked me one day, mind you very seriously, if here were similar people in my country and if they knew as much as they. He seemed quite shocked by my mocking laughter; Yes, I told him, the doctors in my country are embarrassed because they do not have any shells and besides they do not know how to put spittle on a patient’s wound; he understood my reply very well because the bishop had seen him operating in that way. After making a large incision in a patient, mysteriously, he has spat into his hands and applied that greasy infusion on the wound. He ordered everybody to take frequent baths and to diet.
The sick in New Caledonia
The main illnesses are ulcers, hydroceles, venereal disease and dropsy. They complain habitually especially in Winter of pains in the chest and of the head very often even when they experience colic. Infections of the eyes are common, but we cure hem quite well in the space of three days.
Other superstitions
Another word about the superstitions of the country would not be out of place here perhaps, although I have already mentioned it ,but I haven’t exhausted the subject. The years go by and they are not always the same. One has a lot of rain, another brings drought and so on. If it is too rainy, then the yams suffer. Our natives take advice and go and massacre the people living in the mountains who treat them so badly by making rivers flow down from their mountains and woods and floods the people in the plains.
If the year is dry, they capture those in the mountain where the sun takes refuge when it sets. It is the same for the wind. When it is wild, they think of finding a solution by killing the unfortunate highlanders who they believe cause those accidents.
Pointing to a rainbow with your finger makes your teeth chatter. You can point to it only with your clenched fist.
Two cousins, the children of a brother and a sister, can’t eat together, otherwise they would be covered in scurf. The same thing would happen if one were rash and dared touch the head of the other person. On the track to Pouépo here was a man whose hand was all covered in scurf. As I took that path very often, I asked him one day what caused the problem. He and his companions looked at me in such a way that I knew it was not prudent to ask such a question. Yet one whispered very secretly in my ear the real cause. It was his fault, he told me, he had touched the head of his besingane, that is what they call cousins who are the children of a brother and a sister.
During the heat of the conflict in wars, one member of the hostile side withdraws and goes and consults fate by using some herbs. The same method is employed too in the case of a sickness. On that occasion here is what happens. Called to see a patient, I begged the doctor of the corvette to come with me. When we reached the patient, we found him so poorly that the doctor thought that we could do nothing other than to bleed him. To give him some relief. I asked the patient’s relatives and friends if they would allow that to happen. Their opinions were varied. To carry out the procedure, one of the company was sent to consult fate and to find out if the bleeding done by the Whites would be useful or harmful. I asked him where the individual went; they replied in an evasive answer, but as I knew the matter, I insisted again to know what they wanted us to do. They told us to wait. As we were sick of waiting, and also that I had baptized him, we were about to leave, when I saw the young man who had gone to consult the omens came running back. Well? I said to him, the herbs have spoken well to you, what have they allowed you to do? He answered me seriously: Today they have not spoken. They did not want to say anything to me. I do not know what better to do. Do what you want! Although the patient was dying, because of such a long delay, the doctor did not delay in bleeding him. The bleeding of the arm shocked them strangely, because they did not do it there; they consider that spot very dangerous, but the skill, the speed with which it was performed delighted the admiring crowd. The patient seemed a little relieved by the process but the infection had already spread considerably. In the evening, that is twelve hours later, he passed away. At night time they came into our village to set fire to a large number of houses as a sign of mourning. That is what happens when a chief dies. Moreover they sometimes cut or chop down coconut trees, probably to show and display their grief and the sorrow which they feel intensely and deeply; they injure them in such a way that they die gradually. A fine show of sadness and distress! You see those beautiful coconut trees die insensitively; first of all their leaves dry out , then they fall, and the tree itself after weeping for a long time collapses dead. When it is a great chief who dies, they destroy all the plantations and the year becomes one of famine.
When a parent dies, they rip their ears. Also I believe they do but I would be loathe to say so, that they burn their breasts or their stomach. All these burs that you notice on their bodies have not all been the result of somebody dying, but really out of vanity. They consider the marks as beauty spots. That is what you notice especially among women.
When a great chief or a parent or a dear friend dies, they set fire to the houses, as I have just said. So you see some people going looking for death so as not to survive the death of their friend.
A deed
A woman whom I know very well had just lost a daughter whom she loved more than herself. Her grief was so intense that all she could do was to cry and groan day and night, calling her daughter. She could not bear her loss. She took a rope that she had plaited and strangled herself. As pain caused her to groan, one of her neighbours heard her, went in and saw her ding. He immediately untied her, and brought her help, but when left alone that wretched woman called out again for death to take her and regretted that they had not left her to go and join her daughter; I have no longer any consolation down here, she said, life is burdensome for me. Let me die, I beg you.
That deed makes you see two things, Reverend Father: the first is that suicide is known in New Caledonia. Yes, the devil is everywhere and seems to be here with his infernal breath. I have not yet been witness to those horrible deeds but I have been assured that following an argument or a disappointment, they would rush off into the bush and hang themselves. Their corpses would be discovered some days later, letting off a dreadful smell.
Existence and immortality of the soul
The second thing which is more consoling than the immortality of the soul is not unknown even among the New Caledonians, a people as wild as it is possible to imagine. Yes, they believe in another life, no matter whether the idea that they have is right or wrong. After their death, their souls go to Boualavio (an island near New Caledonia), some by land, he others by sea without using canoes. When they reach the island, they go into a hole in a rock and go down into the land of a dianoua, of a spirit. There they eat a lot of good bananas, excellent yams taro, in brief, they have plenty to eat. Everything there goes swimmingly if that spirit were good but he is evil. He hits them, deprives them of food and then he finishes up killing them. But those souls are not dead for long; they resuscitate going through a metamorphosis. They become like some kind of shadow of an object. From that moment they are invulnerable. That bad spirit can’t make them die any more. They are immortal.
You see the belief in the immortality of the soul and through that even of its existence,. It is a recognized belief, admitted by the natives and denied by philosophers in civilized countries. Do you want to know what our good natives compare their souls to?
Definition of a soul
Here it is. As I was questioning a very intelligent child on one occasion, he did not answer me, but getting up he went and took a little mirror in the corner of my room and holding it in front of my face , he said to me: See your soul, then looking into the mirror himself, he added: See my soul.
They believe in ghosts and they are very frightened of them especially at night. That is why we only very rarely see them at night (and we are not angry about that). These dianoua or spirits are the souls of those who have died. The come, they say, to see us, but most are evil. They do us harm. Dreams. They also believe in dreams and conscientiously relate them to one another.
The inhabitants of Bélèpe Island where great spirits live in the ground sent it to us to do us harm. In fact, that dianoua came at night time, and although we have firmly closed our doors, it did not stop him coming in. Inside he cast his eyes around the house, which he could not do for very long. He saw extraordinary lights in our homes and in our people men stronger than he. He can’t stay there and even less harm us, yet, while we are asleep. So he did nothing better than quickly leaving us, and he has not returned ever since. The people of his island to whom he related his misadventure are still afflicted by it.
Don’t be surprised then, Reverend Father, that we could go into the most sacred forests even when the wind whistles and shakes through the trees; it is then that the dianoua is walking and we are greater than that great spirit.
There are, in our view, all the religious ideas that he people of our tribe and the neighbouring tribe have. They have pretty well forgotten everything and he little they know is even so diffused that you can’t really find any difference between the good and the bad in the underground world of the spirit. They have no idea of a supreme being: creator, avenger and rewarder, at least despite our research we have not been able to discover anything satisfactory, but take note, please, that I am speaking only of that part of the country where we live. It could be, and I don’t believe it to be the case, that that belief exists elsewhere, because the island is very large and the language very different.
No sacrifice and no cult
We have in vain looked for their priests, their sacrifices, their cult. We have found nothing which even gives us a slight idea. They are a people who, when we arrived, did not know what it was to pray, that it is always essential to pray and the reason for it. They lived in complete indifference to everything regarding religion. Religion did not seem necessary to them; they kept telling us that their fathers had lived well and that they had harvested a lot of yams without praying.
To strike these people buried in the shadows of death, we had to make them feel, as soon as we could, the great truths of hell. We succeeded, thanks to Mary; now there is not a single person who does not fear hell. The mere name hell makes the most free and easy and the most inveterate sinner shake with fear. In fact you have to be mad, yes mad, I repeat, to stay indifferent to the view point of that road leading unceasingly to a wretched eternity. Nobody today refuses to pray and pretty well all are baptized, but, Reverend Father, don’t believe for that reason that the mission station has made great progress. We sow, that is true, but it is scarcely probable that we reap. May others come to gather the harvest! It is of little concern o us, provided that God’s work be done. That is what Bishop Douarre never ceases to say to me again and again.
Very Reverend Father, I would like to have said everything about the New Caledonians not to besmirch these pages with their infamous barbarity, but since I have a responsibility to give you this small work, I must not fail to report everything. I do not want to talk the facts that I am going to relate will be enough for you.
Barbaric traits
I sent about here leagues from our house a small boy of about eleven years old, although he was still being prepared for baptism. That child was well instructed and very keen and was an even better teacher that he was the son of one of the great chiefs of the country. Before sending him, I recommended that he should find out exactly where here were sick people. Therefore he left with some water to baptize and a little cross hanging on his stomach to show it to his listeners. There he was passing through various villages proselytizing. That was a scene which would delight the angels themselves! Men, women, children, they all came and stood around him I a circle and listened to him like an oracle. He was a child according to his age but an old man through his seriousness. He reprimanded severely those whom he had to complain about. Don’t you get the impression, Reverend Father, that seeing in this small boy the child Jesus teaching in the temple? In the meantime, asking to be taken to the sick people, they said that everybody was well. There is only one old lady whom they were going to bury, they added. She is very old, then she is not held in high regard, you don’t want to baptize her. As the child cried out against such statements, they pointed out to him the ht of the old lady without wanting to go there, because she was far way. So he set off alone to find that poor soul to redeem her. Finally he found her, his good guardian angel, he told me, having shown him the way. Seeing the children and the relatives of that good old lady ready to be buried, although only a little ill, he flew into a rage against their barbarity, but not trusting their fine promises, he instructed her and said that he would send me the following morning to baptize her. She said she really wanted to be baptized but she did not want to be buried yet. The child got from those barbaric children he promised not to bury their mother before my arrival. In fact, I found her at daybreak. She had so little desire to die that I couldn’t wake her she was sleeping so soundly. I instructed her again and then baptized her. I made some recommendations to that family to bury her only when she was really dead, but they took no account of that advice. The following day I found out that she had died.
That is the how these natives deal with their sick and with their old parents. When they are tired of their very long lives, hey throw them into a ditch alive, then they either club them there or bury them alive. If they are not unhappy but if they will be too old, infirm and consequently a burden, they take them for a walk in the bush then throw the wretched old person into a ditch that they have dug before hand; sometimes it happens that hose infirm people tired of their sad existence, ask themselves to be treated in that way; they want a tomb. A native told me that they had buried a wretch still alive in the hollow of a stone which they then covered with a huge stone. For three days and nights they heard cries and groaning and nobody went to free that unfortunate person.
Only a fortnight ago, I was told that a native whom I had the chance to see frequently had just died and that they had buried him. It is true that they had taken him to the cemetery. Passing nearby a chief heard sighing; he approached and finding the dead man asked him he following questions: are you dead or alive? I am alive. Aren’t you a spirit? No, I am a real man. Who are you? He gave all his names. After that interrogation, he freed him from all that was used to strangle him and he was restored to life. A week ago yesterday while going to give instructions in that place, I saw the dead man resuscitated; his resurrection was so complete that, having to cross a river, He wanted to carry me on his back just as the officers who wanted to accompany on my journey.
What shall I say about their cannibalism? Some carry it out to excess. An English captain, collecting some sandalwood at Hienghène, a tribe living 15 leagues away from our tribe, counted seventeen corpses on the canoes of the chief of that tribe. Those corpses were destined for a feast. I saw traces of blood left by a corpse the night before on the grass of the plains; while going to see a patient, I had to tramp through that very grass, that same blood. At that moment, I thought that they would roast those human limbs to devour them. I did not see, but I heard on another occasion the frightening groans of a father and mother from whom a rogue of a chief had just kidnapped a dear son who was still under age. My travelling companion on that day trembled throughout his body; at every step he looked behind him and then bending down peeping in the undergrowth to see whether there was some hidden tiger.
Another time during the absence of Bishop Douarre, Reverend Father Montrouzier and I went to Pouépo to visit the parish. When we reached the last village, we found everybody under arms. Emotions were at their height; we learnt that a young man had just been surprised and kidnapped by the young chief of that tribe. Several strong men, having bound him hand and foot, carried him like that into the hut of that chief who cut off his head with a blow of an axe. They cut him up, then they had him roasted for a feast. That young man was only 17 or 18 years old. He was one of the best educated of my parishioners. There was nothing about the behaviour of that young 20-year old chief which could shock you, when you found out that he had cut the throat of his mother-in-law and of his aunt. Well, that tiger, I am obliged to give him a smile and rather often I dirty my hands in touching his infamous body covered in corpses. Lately he has even killed a chief and out of honour ate only his stomach. God knows whether his stomach will not be one day my tomb.
Another chief of another tribe coming to visit our chief, brought him two corpses as a present, one was a female and the other a male. After dissecting them they gave one person the head and some yams, another got the shoulders, another got the chest, another the feet and the hands. The bishop in the meantime, went into that village where he dealt with the stupidity of that wretched chief. He seemed to be affected for a moment; he threw himself around the neck of the bishop to embrace him, think how gentle that kiss must have been! We have not learnt of other acts of barbarity that he has committed since that day. Reverend Father, that is what the missionary is exposed to. You tremble, I am sure you do, at those fine accolades which we are obliged to receive and to give, but our good master, didn’t he endure he kiss of Judas?
One final story. A man was killed treacherously when he was coming to a festival to which he was invited. He was destined to be the food but by himself there would not have been enough. Another man tall and heavily built was invited. They followed him. That wretch took refuge in the hut of the chief, which was inviolate. Therefore not being able to kill him here, they waited for him at the door. Spears were raised in the air together with clubs to strike him down. Our little child told me about it; as soon as I had the bishop warned, he was near that hut without having any idea of what was happening. Hearing this, the bishop went into the hut and made the individual come out and while holding him firmly by the hand and saying to those who were lying in wait for him that he was his friend. The bishop led him himself more than three leagues where he left him go in safety. Throughout that journey the bishop fond apostate men ready to seize his prey; some were lying down in the grass, others remained hidden in the bush. The bishop put on a good face, addressed all those whom he encountered and so succeeded in saving the life of that unfortunate person. Perhaps that memorable action would merit the saving of his soul. On his return His Lordship heard thousands of complaints from those who were frustrated in that way. The never stopped asking him for compensation for the good food that they had just been deprived of.
After these stories, judge, Reverend Father, the happiness and the liberty of the natives; happiness and liberty are praised by the philosophers of the past century; happiness and liberty today are even coveted by men who consider the millionaire as more harmful than useful to the good of these people. Sensible men, Judge!
Sculpture and music
Reverend Father, I haven’t told you anything about sculpture, music and other similar arts, for our New Caledonians are very little versed in them that I think I should be silent on that subject.
In conclusion I must say a word on the main events of a man’s life, such as on his birth, his marriage, etc
A man’s birth
No sooner has a child been born than his parents, friends , are advised of the happy news. So each one hurries to go and visit he child and his parents, but it is not usual to go without offering a present. When everybody has arrived, they prepare a meal. During that time they take a hot cinder and press it into the forehead of the child o make it small and skilful. For them it is beauty just as having a flat nose. They discuss the name to be given the baby. It is pretty well always the name of a parent or a friend or even of something which they like giving. I know some who have the name of iron, axe, harbour, sheep, etc because they really like iron , axes, etc. When that is done, they put the baby back into a cradle full of warm cinders and begin the meal, then each person gets ready to leave if they consider that appropriate. Generally the natives receive several names at their birth.
When the child reaches the age of 20 or 22 he tries to finds a spouse. Often he finds only refusals and so has to live a celibate life, but if he finds a companion, they unite or give each other mutual consent. The parents are not always consulted; in the same way the parents sometimes give their children in marriage without asking them their consent. It appears that according to what we have been able to learn, up until now, the two spouses consent to take each other for life provided that they are not unfaithful. In that case they regard marriage as dissolved and get married again. The mother keeps the children of the first marriage. There exists something which is very moral. The spouses keep away from their wives during pregnancy and while they are breast-feeding their children.
When he reaches the end of is life, the old man has his wife and children summoned to die in their arms. I have seen an old man with white hair ands a white beard on the lap of his son. From time to time the old man raised his head and he son instantly pricked up his ears to hear the last wishes of his father. When I was warned that the patients were shortly to die and that they had their family summoned to be around them, I baptized them. After the ceremony was done, he raised his head again and after the son listened to him, he got up and went to fetch some sugar cane which he offered me on his father’s behalf. After saying farewell, I left and some days later they came and told me that the poor fellow had died. I wish that his death had not been hurried up. I have never witnessed their funerals but this is what I have found out.
No sooner have the sick taken their last breath or more accurately said had it taken from them, because sometimes they stop his breathing by closing his mouth and nostrils, sometimes by tugging him by the arms and legs. So scarcely has the patient closed his eyes than somebody in the gathering binds the legs of the corpse together and ties them, then and then takes the arms and binds them to the knees. In this position the body is wrapped in local material; then on a type of stretcher he is borne to a place designated as his sepulchre. They put him in a ditch in such a way that the head appears above the surface of the earth. They have even told me that they bury with the corpse wealth of the country which they gave to him as a gift for the last time.
The one who performed the last duties to the dead person while burying him is loved and esteemed by the family of the deceased person. The family shows its gratitude for a long time by some present. The one who does the honours of the burial of a great chief is honoured in the country. He then takes the name of pouanangate.
Women do not accompany men to the cemetery but they accompany them with shrill cries and complain bitterly in their grief of the person they have so recently lost and of their feeling of abandonment--- finally they cry out farewell for the last time.
After the burial, they come together. The women utter loud screams all together, they weep, but with the exception of close elatives whose grief is sometimes sincere; the other people pretend to weep for that is the custom; you would be taken in by that behaviour if shortly after those screams you saw them laughing. I have seen men crying only at the death of the principal chief of he tribe.
After he weeping the rejoicing. A feast is prepared where everybody in the ceremony comes and takes part. I can assure you that their appetite is not lacking. The same does not go for the dishes; on more than one occasion there has been a shortage.
There are no tombs. They plant a piece of wood on top of which is a shell; in addition they put some stones on the tomb.
When the king of the tribe dies, throughout the frontiers of is kingdom and in important places inside the realm, they raise mausoleums in his honour. These mausoleums consist of putting a little wooden enclosure in the form of a rectangle about as large as he size of he deceased person. A piece of bleached tapa cloth is attached to the top of one of the stakes. I have had great difficulty in asking why. They have never been able to give the reason for building such monuments as those. Our forefathers did it, they have always said to me, but let’s do the same as them.
Reverend father, it is time to finish with such a long letter. I wanted to give you a little outline on New Caledonia. It is insufficient, no doubt, but we will try to add to it later on, if we get a clear picture of some new custom. Be so good, as to forgive a little disorder, some imperfections of style, even some mistakes in spelling and especially an intolerable scribble of a poor missionary who does not know any more and if he did he would not be able to express it because of the shortage of time which is so precious that he has consecrated entirely to the happiness of hose poor natives whom he raises to Jesus Christ. May his little work for which I have stolen some time, serve all the same to the greater glory of God and in honour of his very holy mother.
Very Reverend Father, every time that we do something in haste, generally speaking, we do it badly or else we forget something; that is precisely my case. I forgot to give you an overview on the language of the New Caledonians.
That language is as barbaric as the inhabitants themselves. The best trained ear and he quickest hears only a murmuring which comes almost dead on the lips. We stayed several weeks in the midst of these people without being able to distinguish a single syllable. I often had the idea that these people were not speaking but were murmuring some sounds, like birds. Finally when we succeeded in hearing some words, we rejoiced, but alas, we had not come to the end of our troubles. Each one of us had an exercise book and we went to discover some words which we wrote down carefully in our books; in the evening we came together bringing our work home to pool the work. But we had hardly looked at the first word when comparing it than we were confronted with the same word hat somebody had written, we noticed hat this same word was different according to he different exercise books; you have to admit we were upset and disheartened. So it is not surprising that travellers who have come to New Caledonia have not been able to say anything precise about the language in his country.
Finally in our capacity as missionaries, we have not been able to recoil faced with this difficulty. We tried to cross it. We succeeded by dint of notes and observations in the sentences that we heard; we discovered the defect of the exercise books where the words of one differed from the words of another; in brief we seized the spirit of this language, a spirit quite different from the spirit of our European languages which were the only ones which we knew and which confused us more than serving us. If we had found some written text or even is we had found some Whites in his island as you do in all other islands our study would not have been so long, nor as difficult but we had to do everything ourselves. After six months we reached the stage of beginning to stammer out a few words. Yet we have to tell the whole story and give credit where credit is due. Father Viard, who came with us to New Caledonia, helped us a bit in this work, because he knew he spirit of the language used in the Wallis Islands and in New Zealand. He had less difficulty in seizing the spirit of the New Caledonian language which is similar to those languages he knew. Moreover Father Viard understood a little of the language of the people of Halgan Island who were living in New Caledonia, so through hem he was able to obtain some explanations which have been very useful for us.
Father Superior, that is then how we came to learn this language. Now the work is done for the other missionaries who will come. Although I still do not know this language very well, I know enough to make myself understood and to understand those who speak to me. I have gathered some rules and some principles. I have made a little dictionary of two thousand words; every day I add to it new expressions.
This language is poor especially in dealing with abstract and religious matters. Quite often we have to use periphrases where they have a lot of expressions to express their naïve beliefs. The same goes for every grass in the fields, each has its own name, each bird, each fish, each reptile, each stone, etc--- and all these names are known by each native. You see that New Caledonians have inclinations to become naturalists. That is the way they conceive things. They are concerned with what hey know through heir senses and the rest, they ignore.
But we can say generally that this language has great beauty, a marvellous simplicity and a marvellous conciseness that we find nowhere in our European languages.
We teach in our schools that without the auxiliary verbs avoir and être, we can’t express our thoughts nor make a sentence. Here they make lovely sentences without those two verbs, because they do not exist.
Verbs are variable; the possessive adjective indicating various persons is placed before or after the verb. There are only three tenses: the present, the past and the future. Sometimes you find the imperative and the subjunctive, a particle makes them known.
Like the verb the adjective is invariable.
As for the noun, here are few general ones. They are pretty well all particularized by the possessive adjective added to the end of the word.
Duals play an important role in the pronouns. Here are all the pronouns. When you understand them well you have the key to this language. That is what is most difficult for those starting a study of this language.
na or nao = I or Me; io= you or You; sa = he, she; dhi (dual) =we two, you and I; abé (dual) we two, he and I; ote (dual) =you two; lé(dual) = those two; dhia = all of you; aba = we but not the person to whom you are speaking); ate = all of you; la = all of them
I am going to give you a declension for example. Let’s take moua = house for example: that word changes according to the possessive adjective which we place in front of that noun. My house = mouan, your house = mouame, his house = mouane, our house ( ours and mine) = mouan-dhi, our house ( his and mine) = moua-bé, our house ( theirs and mine) = moua-ba, our house (all of us) = mouan-dhia, your house (belonging to the two of you) = moua-ote, your house (belonging to all of you) = moua-ate, their house ( both of them) = moua-lé, their house ( belonging to all of them) = moua-là.
Using that pattern the following can be declined: tchera = my field; kan = my leg; dhiéran = my belly; iaban = wife; noalan = treasure; ouangan = ship, etc.
The word pé marks reciprocity between two people, that is for example they love each other (two people) = lé pé aïouale; they love one another (three people) = la pé aïoula.
One of the words which we sought initially because of its frequent use, that was the word for Good morning and Good evening. We sought those words in vain; they do not exist. When our natives meet, instead of greeting each other, they ask the following questions firstly whether they are coming from somewhere: Good morning = where do you come from? Secondly if they are going somewhere = where are you going? Thirdly if they are not going anywhere: what are you doing? = ate loura.
Ad majorem Dei gloriam et Dei genetricis honorem = To the greater glory of God and to the honour of the mother of God.

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