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13 October 1846 — Fr Pierre Verne to Fr Giroust, Parish Priest of Reyrieux (Ain), Samoa

Translated by Peter McConnell, September 2010

My dear friend,
We have just been advised that an American whaler was leaving for the United States this evening; I am hurrying to use this opportunity to contact you; perhaps there will not be another opportunity for a long time; perhaps this letter will not reach you; the route whalers take is not certain; be that as it may, we trust in God. This is the fourth time that I have written to you. Let me know if you have received all my letters and what it has cost you for receiving them.
Right now, pick up a map of Oceania or else your atlas and look at the very middle of that great ocean, almost under your feet, the archipelago of the Navigator Islands or Hamoa, and in the that archipelago the island of Violava or Opulo, beside Pola. That is where I am writing to you from. We spent some weeks there, but we are leaving it tomorrow to go to the Wallis Islands, from which we are more than a day’s journey from. You no doubt think that I am already in New Caledonia, but we are travelling as amateurs or rather we are visiting the various mission stations on our way; the commander is setting up trading houses, etc. Perhaps we will stay a month or two in the Wallis Islands (Ouvéa; from there we will visit Rotuma near Fiji on the way to New Caledonia. These are the plans of our commander, but you know that man proposes and God disposes; all that is still subject to the opinion of Bishop Bataillon, and I will not be surprised if he comes and keeps us here, Bishop Mugnéry and I, because he has a pressing need of clergy in his apostolic vicariate. I fear that prospect more than liking it; it would cost me the chance of going to New Caledonia, but the life of a missionary is a life of sacrifices, and then the monsoon is there at least as heavy as in New Caledonia, and in the guise of a temporal report, Hamoa, Tonga, Fiji and Wallis leave nothing to be desired (if a missionary were allowed to make such a judgement, that was not pleasing to God). My next letter will give you precise details as to where the mission station is.
I am now going to talk to you about our adventures between Tahiti and today. It was on 27 August that we said goodbye to the good priests Armand and Dumonteil who welcomed us with so much kindness and with whom we spent such an enjoyable time. Goodbye to Tahiti and its charming shadiness. We sailed through the Navigator Islands. The brig Anonime goes with us and watches us considerably, needing to adjust to our speed. For two days almost all of us were seasick; on 4 September we entered the 160 degree in that part of Oceania where the vast diocese of Bishop Bataillon begins. We have so many thoughts coming and disturbing us right now where we land at our mission stations. We all say Mass to beg the protection of the Holy Virgin and the guardian angels, protectors of Oceania.
On 5 September at five in the morning we saw Rose Island, which rises up in the middle of the waves like a bunch of greenery. As the sun rises we sailed past the Manoua Islands. The Islanders of Olosinga greeted us all along the coast lighting big fires; we were really sorry not being able to speak to them, but it was thought unwise, not knowing them, to make land at nightfall. Nothing equals the fertility of those islands, as far as we can judge in the moonlight and a thousand leagues away. I thought for a moment that I was sailing on the Saône opposite Mount Ceindre and the mountains of Couzou. Same view, same terrain except for the distance of 6000 leagues and the sight of coconut palms that you have to substitute for the vineyards of Mont-d’Or.
On 7 September at three in the morning we saw the island of Cocos (Tabou-Tabou), famous for its Assassins Bay where thirteen of La Pérouse’s companions were massacred; it almost touches the large island of Tutuila; we tacked waiting for daylight; as soon as dawn started to appear, we could see some native canoes coming towards us; you could say that the canoes were flying on top of the waves. It is because of the large number of canoes and the ability of the natives to paddle that Bougainville called this archipelago The Navigator Islands. One of the natives jumped onto our ship, pointed out to us the channel and offered to lead us there. At nine o’clock we dropped anchor in the Bay of Tutuila. It is surrounded by two mountains which are almost perpendicular and yet covered or rather bristling with trees right up to the summit. Three hundred huts approximately were scattered on the beach on the water’s edge in the shade of coconut palms, bananas, breadfruit trees and surrounded by plantations of yam, pineapples, taro, sugar cane, etc. At the bottom of the bay, you could see half way up the mountain the Protestant church, the Protestant missionary’s house and that too of the Protestant consul. There is no Catholic missionary in all these islands which we have seen up until now, but they all have one or several Methodist missionaries each one having a wife and children, etc. Around the huts all you can see are fowls, pigs, ducks, dogs which are on the lookout for adventure and which indicate the wellbeing of the natives. In the forest, there is a song of birds similar to what you hear in the woods of Sathonay, as Spring returns.
The natives welcomed us at first coldly but gradually confidence was established. The commander succeeded in making some exchanges of goods and to get some food in exchange for cloths. Every day the natives did not stop bringing fowls, pigs, ducks, geese, coconuts, bananas, breadfruit and especially coconut oil, lovely mats and very many beautifully carved clubs. In the exchanges we could only be delighted by their pretty scrupulous honesty.
On Our Lady’s birthday one of the sailors who did not know how to swim, fell into the water and being alone and without help, one of the natives who saw him from the beach came and rescued him, pulled him into his canoe, took him to his hut where he gave him all possible help. The poor sailor drowning under the waves did not give up offering himself to the Hoy Virgin whose scapular medal he always wears. His trust was not in vain. You could say that the Holy Virgin saved him as miraculously at the hands of a native, but what brings that native honour the most is that he never wanted to receive any reward, yet forced to accept a pair of trousers, he took it only in exchange for a little pig, five pineapples and some shellfish, still alleging that all he had done was his duty in snatching that wretched sailor from death.
All that exemplifies a gentle, generous, and hospitable nature in the islanders of Tutuila. From the first day of our arrival, the king hurried to tell us not to be afraid in his island, and that we would find only friendly faces. As for their physique, the Islanders are no less interesting than in their morality; they are well built, being a little taller than Frenchmen; the colour of their skin is not less coppery than people who are sunburnt. Their woolly curly hair resembles sheep’s wool; they colour it red and white. Their clothing is a little strange; it consists of a scarf of leaves or else a grass belt and nothing more for the men so that you can believe you can see gods from the rivers of the fable; the women wear as well as the leafy belt a long article almost similar to a priest’s chasuble.
May Our Lord and Mary our good mother hear our prayers which we make for those good natives by sending them soon Catholic missionaries. Besides, they have expressed to us their desire to have some. Can we forget that they are our children because they belong to the Marist mission?
On the 15 September we weighed anchor to leave. A dozen natives stayed with us to help us go out of the gap in the coral reef which is difficult; they behaved in a completely friendly way. For more than four hours they heaved, pulling the ropes and carrying out all the manoeuvres which we told them, accompanying their indefatigable work with patriotic songs which their heads were full of.
At 12-30 they left; we sailed on the Pacific Ocean. On 16 September at six in the morning we were opposite Opolu (Solava) thirty leagues from Tutuila. That beautiful island is seventeen leagues long and 70-80 leagues around; its population is estimated to be 40,000. I couldn’t compare it better than to the shores of the Saône between Lyons and Mâcon; same mountains, same valleys, same countryside--- From the beauty of its sites, by its inconceivable fertility, it is at least the equal of Tahiti. At ten in the morning we greeted our colleague Father Roudaire, the only Catholic missionary on the island whereas there are ten Protestant missionaries. Only a year ago the first Mass was celebrated at Opolu and the mission station was built under the patronage of Our Lady of Victories, and already the fruits of salvation brought about by the intercession of Mary are very real.
Scarcely had the Arche d’Alliance moored than already the islanders besieged us on all sides; more than twenty canoes came in a line; the good natives shook our hands with spirited feelings and were in such a hurry to tell us, by making the sign of the cross, that they were taking instructions or were recently baptized, etc. Then they wanted to know our names, how many there were of us and asked us heaps of questions. Most of them have their cross, their rosary beads, their medal of the Holy Virgin hanging around their necks. Among them were a young catechist from the Wallis Islands and one of the chiefs who followed the priests out of affection and to help in his apostolic works. Among the many visitors of the Arche d’Alliance were also several chiefs of Opolu, who wasted no time in coming to us and asking for missionaries. During the entire evening the ship could not contain all the natives; they filled the mess, the bedrooms, the poop, the bridge and the forward galliard. Everything greatly interested them. When going into my cabin I found one of them lying on my bed. There is no fear that they may steal anything or if they touch anything, they put it back where they found it. At night time they bade us goodbye, then they jumped into their canoes, and reached their huts singing songs in our honour while they were paddling back to shore.
The following day we went on shore. In front of Father Roudaire’s hut is a very beautiful square shaded by coconut palms. There was a gathering there of natives and several chiefs leading hem; they were waiting for us as well as the commander to give us presents which consisted of nine pigs and a quantity of yams, coconuts, etc. After the presents came the kava ceremony; Because I haven’t time today, I will speak to you about it later on; all I’ll say to you is that we celebrated with wine. The commander invited the chiefs to have the evening meal with us. It was the first time that they ate with Europeans; they were also amazed at the honour that we accorded hem. They agreed also that French kava was better than Samoan kava. At night time I went with them to the shore, in the company of Father Roudaire; throughout all the crossing they repeated singing songs in our honour. Here is the chorus: Samoans, let’s be Catholics, let’s love the missionaries let’s be in France! The women and children were waiting for us on the shore. After the prayer which was made in the house of a great chief, everybody came and stood around us, men, women, and children; they repeated at least one hundred times our names and now everywhere they meet us they come up to us shaking our hands and calling us by our baptism name. That delightful evening ended by singing hymns, using the same tunes as we sing in France. While listening to the multitude of voices of young natives, men and children I felt I was back again repeating by heart our hymns from the diocese of Bellay and Lyons with the most perfect harmony.. When retiring and walking past the hut, they did not forget to greet us by our names, Pekalo = Peter, Kalolo = Charles.
The following morning, I gave a Christian burial to a little angel whom Father Roudaire had baptized three days previously. Throughout the whole night, according to custom, those receiving instruction sang and prayed in a vigil beside the little child who had died. After the burial one of the chiefs sent the missionary a little well roasted pig with breadfruit and a basket of taro. Father Roudaire informed me that for a year he had never asked any Islander for anything and that he lived from day to day having no flour, no kind of provisions and that despite that no day had gone past without him, the brother and those giving instructions had not received their food, a clear proof that Providence takes care of those who completely dedicate themselves to it.
On Sunday 20 September, feast day of Our Lady of the Seven Dolours, feast day of the Marist Society, the natives were invited on board. The Arche d’Alliance was decked out with bunting as on Easter Sunday. 23 flags were flying from the ship; we spread out tents the whole length of the ship and under the tents we set up an altar; it resembles a pretty temporary altar for the feast of Corpus Christ with its double row of columns and floating draperies. The natives covered the bridge and the poop. Eight of the chiefs also were there in full costume, that is to say one had a shirt, another a pair of trousers, another an old smock coat, another a buckler and a waistcoat, etc . They did us honour by their coming. We warned them that we were going to fire the big cannons so they would not be frightened; I fact at the time of the Sanctus, the artillerymen got the cannons ready and at the very time of the consecration, the firing of eight cannons shook the vessel. The Anonyme replied with a similar firing; finally at the blessing of the holy sacrament, immediately after the Mass another salvo of ten to twelve shots from each ship took place. This ended up terrifying the poor natives who couldn’t explain to us both their surprise and astonishment; also one of the great chiefs (there are no kings on the island) hurried to ask us for one of the big cannons to defend his religion if they wanted to attack it. Imagine how this request amused us!
After Mass, the commander distributed clothing to the eight chiefs who attended the ceremony. May the visit of the Arche d’Alliance at Opolu do our religion some good!; they regard it from now on as their ship since it is the one which has brought it Catholic missionaries.
Tomorrow, as I have told you, we will be leaving for the Wallis Islands; we will leave Father Mériais at Pola (an island near Opolu, as big as it and which has only one Catholic missionary, Father Violette). Father Padel is staying on Opolu with Father Roudaire; so Pola and Opolu will henceforth have two missionaries each; but what can two missionaries do where we need forty? What can two missionaries do in response to the sole needs of Opolu, that is to a population of 40,000 inhabitants? To baptize the little sick children and to distribute the good news to all the people, who appear so keen to know the true religion, to rival in piety then the most fervent of our Christians in France. I told you that there were in Opolu ten Protestant missionaries, there are also 80 teachers of the same sect, no less zealous than their masters to proselytize our poor natives. You can judge from that whatever the friendliness of several chiefs and he good dispositions of a little nub of Catholics, the struggle will be long and that our missionaries will gain a complete victory only as a result of zeal, sweat, patience and in proportion to their number. The same situation exists at Pola as it does in Opolu.
I forgot to tell you that Pritchard visited us on board the Arche d’Alliance; he acts as consul at Opolu and does not preach the Gospel any more. He is a very tall man, stouter than the average man, his hair is almost white, his comportment honourable (fronti nulla fides); he must be 56 years old.
It saddened us all greatly to leave those good natives of Opolu, who gave us so many courtesies, who have been so keen to come and see us in great numbers every day, to help us in all sorts of ways, to bring us presents of coconuts, bananas, pineapples and other fruit. It would be very wrong to call these men savages, those who deserve that label far less than many from civilized countries. The archipelago of Samoa, so little known and so badly dealt with by geographers and one of those in the whole of Oceania which deserves most interest in every way. It is very likely that before long Bishop Bataillon will transfer his episcopal base to Opolu. Wallis is too small and offers few resources for the various stations which he plans to establish.
I have told you that nothing compares with the beauty of the island and the fertility of the soil. It is completely surrounded by reefs so that the sea breaks the fury of its waves against the reefs. Consequently there is a peaceful lagoon around Opolu. The sandy beach extends up to the land which is all covered in coconut trees and breadfruit trees. You could say that there are sometimes huge walks purposely designed, sometimes there are as it were rooms of greenery. It is in their cool shade that the huts are scattered. Nothing is simpler than their architecture; a palisade of reeds and bamboo or stakes serve as the wall, matting covers the floor and takes the place of flooring and is used as beds, chairs and tables. The wind which blows at will through the gaps in the walls makes windows unnecessary. Yet there are in every hut one or two doors less than a metre high. This kind of building suits the country marvellously, a country where Spring time never ends, where trees never lose their foliage, where you can sleep in the open air or at least under the lightest shelter much better than you would do in the most beautiful salons of France. Here they do not know what locking and bolting doors is all about; all the huts are open without exception and never is the slightest theft committed; the chalice, the ornaments and other sacred objects are exposed to everybody’s view; the same goes for the missionary’s hut which is full of a thousand little things which could rouse the curiosity and the covetousness of the natives and there has never been the shadow of theft. Behind the huts are the plantations of pawpaw, bananas and other trees which serve as an English garden crossed by many little paths; past these plantations there are fields of yams, sugar cane, taro, kumara, pineapple watered by pretty rivers, and the fertility is such that an Islander does not work an hour a week to feed himself and all his family. Finally past these plains come the mountains or rather high hills, covered in grapefruit trees, chestnut trees, ash trees, hibiscus, pandanas, banyans and other trees which I am unacquainted with, intermingled with creepers which swing in the breeze or climb to the top and carpet them with their flowers and their greenery. These forests team with blackbirds, pigeons, nightingales, parakeets, humming birds, woodpeckers, etc. As in Tutuila there is a chorus of birds like a never-ending Spring.
That is in brief what the country looks like; if I were now to tell you about the natives, I would never stop. In a couple of words, they are as good as natives can be. They are endowed with an innate uprightness which makes them want to know about the true religion. They are totally unaware of human respect. Would to God that it was also unknown in France! They are obliging; more than 50 times, they have carried us on their backs when crossing rivers, on bad tracks, or else when getting off the ship. They are happy and have a ready wit. They have often proved that to us. They are poets by instinct and inclination. They improvise and sing unceasingly while paddling their canoes and their improvisations have always been to praise us, to praise the missionaries and to sing the glory of French people. Men, women and children like to sing during the day all the hymns that they have learnt by heart but especially in the evening with their families. They are polite and honest in the way of their country. They have strangers sit on the most beautiful mats, offer them kava and attend to their every pleasure. They are quick to oblige. If you need a coconut, pineapple, you just make a sign. Often they even foresee your wish. They are hospitable; often when we were waiting on the shore for the dinghy which had to come and collect us and take us on board, they came bringing us fruit, invited us to dinner and had us sit on their most beautiful mats. In each village there is in place of an inn a large public hut where all strangers and travellers can rest for three days; one person has the task of providing them with food for nothing as well as the crockery and utensils and to see that the visitors lack nothing, in brief that they should be treated as if they were at home. Their appearance is the same as in Tutuila; they are of the same stature, the same appearance, the same hair, the same faces. They serve Sundays scrupulously; they prepare their food on Saturday evenings and on Sundays nobody is allowed to do the slightest job. After Mass and Vespers, they rest and relax singing hymns.
It is impossible not to take an interest in them when we see them, every time we meet them, coming up to us shaking our hands and calling us by our names. At other times they come and sit down beside us and ask us the most naïve questions on our voyage, on our country and particularly on what strikes them. They do not miss an opportunity asking whether France is as big as Samoa, whether our country is far from the sea, whether there are many inhabitants in France, whether there are many cannons, rifles, missionaries, breadfruit trees, coconut trees, whether we took a long time getting to Samoa. When we tell them that it took ten moons for the ship to make the voyage, that there are thousands of priests and missionaries in France, that there are as many inhabitants as there are leaves in the bush (that is a little exaggerated), that there are no coconut trees, but there is wheat, wine, fruit, they do not mention it again. They are wrapped in seeing a beautiful picture, a clock, a watch, etc--- But that is enough without saying too much. May these little details be of interest to you, as well as to the charitable people of your parish who are interested in the work of the Propagation of the Faith!
Be so good as to excuse me for the length of this letter which could be much longer still if I were not in a hurry because of he departure of the American ship The Midas, because I feel I have still thousands of things to tell you. In the next letter I will speak to you about the all these Islands. Oh, how my heart beats with pleasure thinking that tomorrow I will see that happy island, where my thoughts were so often when I was in France.
Mangareva is in the Gambier Islands and Wallis those are the two paradises on earth. Tomorrow, I will see Bishop Bataillon, that worthy and holy bishop, a model of apostolic life! Tomorrow or at least the days following, my fate will be decided; I will know whether we are going to New Caledonia or whether we will stay here. Although it ought to concern me, I have been slow in learning the language of the country I am going to and dedicating myself entirely to it. The language varies from country to country, but you quickly get used to the differences. When you know about a hundred words by heart, you make yourself understood on everything. Gestures also serve wonderfully to communicate our thoughts and that’s where the natives excel. But of all the languages, the one which helps us the most, is the English language. Besides it is the most widespread and you find Englishmen everywhere without exception. Many natives in all the islands where we have gone have used some English which they have learnt from English and American ministers and whalers who visit them. At Opulo for example there are 400 Europeans, almost all English or American and in that number there are always those who complain about our presence. If ever Providence called my little nephew into the career of being a missionary, I would get him to learn English well.
My dear friend and colleague, do tell me what has become of that poor child. Tell me whether he is pursuing his vocation, whether he is well, whether all my relations are in good health, whether you yourself have been in good health, whether your parish continues to give you satisfaction, whether Bishop Bellay is still enjoying good health, etc.
Don’t forget to remember me to the people of Sathonay and others mentioned in my previous letters and whose memory is dear to me; I do not name them this time. Do be the interpreter of my feelings towards them and to all my family. Assure those of my relations who still think of me, that I am perfectly well. I do not forget them a single day in my life in my prayers and at holy Mass. Assure them that I am not insensitive to their temporal welfare, but what I particularly want is the spiritual welfare of them all. I beg them to work a little for heaven, to behave as good Christians, in a word, to work for their salvation, and to help me thank Our Lord and Mary, our good mother, for the great grace that they have given me in opening the doors of Oceania to me--- I don’t forget you either, my dear colleague, do think of me from time to time as I do of you.
I beg you to pass on this letter to the priest of Cuzieu, my friend Father Laurent; I don’t have time to write to him, but this letter is for you as it is for him, I can’t tell him any more; I don’t even have time to rewrite my letter; The Midas is weighing anchor and is leaving right now. Excuse all my mistakes.
Your very devoted and really sincere friend and colleague,
Verne apostolic missionary of the Marist Order.
NB. The people who receive this letter are asked to keep it secret, and to allow it being read only by people in our trust and in particular not to have it published in the newspapers.