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27 November 1846 — Father Charles-Eugène Mathieu to his brother, Wallis

Translated by Peter McConnell, September 2010

My dear brother,
I have a document from Doctor Barbier concerning the mixing of sea salt and mankind’s food. Here are a few brief observations that you can send to that excellent friend and compatriot, if you think it would be of interest to him.
The races of Polynesia whom I know, that is the archipelagos of Tonga, Navigators and Fiji do not use sea salt in their food. All their dishes which they prepare sometimes with a certain amount of care are tasteless. They use no kind of spices nor anything which could improve the flavour. They even have a dislike for those types of seasoning, so different in that respect from the natives of Africa and of the colonies who chew salt as if they were lollies. I have also heard it said that Fijians don’t like to eat Whites because their flesh is salty. Here, in Wallis, when the mission station started, Brother Joseph was preparing some yams and all the natives came asking whether they could have a taste. He thought of a device. In advance he rubbed some coconut cups with pepper and when the parasites (sic) came, he served some spoonfuls of his sop in those cups. They grimaced curiously. Every since they don’t return. The Polynesian races then don’t use salt. I do not mean that they may not do it for the children who live with us eat salted soup and salted pork. Yet I think that they would prefer it without salt. In their language they have only one word which means at the same time: salty, bitter and poisoned. That is the word kona; it means drunk. I have been told that the New Caledonians who seem to be a quite different race don’t make any more use of salt than the Polynesians.
By way of compensation, these people are always in the sea. At Wallis, a child knows how to swim at the same time as it knows how to walk. Nobody spends a single day without bathing and most often it is in the sea.
As for their life span so far it has not been possible to find that out. They do not count their years and have no way of working out their ages unless you say: it is a child still being breast-fed, or one still crawling on all fours, or who is walking, or who is beginning to talk, who is doing jobs, who is climbing up coconut trees, who is a teenager, who is a young man, who is old, who has white hair who is completely old and feeble. There is not one person who knows his age by counting years, and as the traditions of the islands scarcely go back more than twenty or thirty years at the most, it is impossible to know anything about it. As we keep on a regular basis the registers of baptisms and deaths, we will be able to know in the future by this recording what is impossible for us to know.
These people have fine physiques. Generally they are well built and well proportioned, but their energy does not fit in any way their appearance, in my opinion, because were a European built like most of hem he would be a Hercules. Is it the result of the climate? Or is it for some other reason, I really don’t know.
The ordinary life of a Wallisian is sober. After Mass he goes to their hut, then works until about two or three o’clock. It is only then that he thinks about a meal. Ordinarily it consists of grilling some bananas or a breadfruit, drinking a coconut or eating the nut. Then he goes for a swim, returns home, chats with his wife and friends, says his rosary and his evening prayers and his day is over. On Sundays and feast days the meal is copious and better prepared. There are plenty of occasions where there are solemn meals, public or private. They eat abundantly there; it is only there that roast pigs appear with all types of dishes prepared. Often the Wallisian takes it into his head to eat some fish. Then he sets out in is canoe, goes fishing for some hours in the nearby islands, stuffs himself with raw fish, raw shellfish and brings back the rest of his catch to his relatives and friends.
There are a lot of causes of sickness among these people. The main ones are: their habit of sleeping on the ground which in these countries is unhealthy and moist, eating those fish and all kinds of seafood raw, eating sickly pigs or those which have died from disease, staying several days practically starving, then stuffing themselves to excess, not taking precautions going from hot to cold, jumping into the sea when sweating after work or after a meal. From these abuses there are many cases of elephantiasis, chills, hydroceles, rheumatics, scrofula wounds, ulcers, nervous colics, indigestion without mentioning epidemics which ravage them severely from time to time, such as colds, chest infections, dysentery. Sometimes it happens that on the same day nearly all the population wakes up with a cold. After explanations that a doctor has given me, I think that venereal disease to put it bluntly is still unknown here.
Since the mission station began we have worked a lot to reform the unhygienic habits of these people, but it is very difficult and that takes a lot of time. Moreover we know what it costs to change the habits of certain peasants in France, when they even have proofs under their noses. Even more so when it concerns a people who have not yet seen anything.
To cure all kinds of skin diseases, I have use calomel or protochlorure of mercury and I have achieved very good results. Yet, doctors have told me that preparations of iodine had greater effect and less side effects than mercury. If you would like to go and see Doctor Barbier asking if it were possible to send me something of that medication to try it out,. He would have to add a note about how to administer that medication, what doses at unless it is marks on the instruction sheet. I am frightened of using pills from Dr Barbier because you forgot to give me instructions. I don’t know when to use them. I am finishing off this letter which I have written in haste, but I wrote another a few days ago which you will probably receive at the same time.
Thank Dr Barbier from for the interest he takes in me. I will endeavour to give him all the information that he wants if he would be so good as to mention the points that I should mention.
I repeat all my love and affection,
Your brother,
Wallis. 27 Nov 1846