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Fr Leopold Verguet to his parents, Kororareka, 4 June 1847

Translated by Fr Brian Quin SM, February 2006 - Click here for Peter McConnell's translation

APM Z 208 4 June 1847

Kororareka, 4 June 1847
My dear parents
I arrived in New Zealand on 20th of last month after a good 12-day voyage. The wind was favourable, and we had no bad weather. The seasickness I experienced this time with more severity than ever, no doubt because of my weakness, has been an excellent remedy for me. Since our arrival my health has so improved that I am, today, pretty much as well as at the time of my departure from France. Bishop Collomb also enjoys good health. He was consecrated as a Bishop last Sunday, the 23rd May, Pentecost Sunday. Now we are waiting for our ship which has gone to Auckland – a town about 40 leagues[1] from Kororareka – and which, when it returns, will pick us up to take us to New Caledonia. There, there will be another ship for the Bishop’s use.
Since my arrival in New Zealand, I have been busy sketching the curiosities of the country, I draw [recopie] the natives’ faces with their tattooing, the canoes, the houses, the graves etc.
The tattooing gives the faces of the New Zealanders a ferocious look. It consists of tracing on their skin, which is usually brown and tending to be sallow, blue indelible lines following directions dictated [voulues?] by custom. They are almost the same on all the faces. You always notice four wide blue lines which rise like great wrinkles [rides] above the eyebrows; others equally wide leave the nostrils and come down onto the chin. The rest of the face is more or less covered with circular festoons according to the patience of each individual and the desire he has to get pleasure out of being noticed. To prevent the beard from hiding their facial good looks, they are careful to pluck the hairs from it as they grow.
Tattooing is very painful. For this process the New Zealanders use a piece of sharpened iron which they strike with a little wooden hammer to dig it into the skin. In this way they stipple [p2] the line that they want to mark, being careful from time to time, to dip the point of the iron into the sap of a tree which has the property of colouring in blue. They draw on the face without marking beforehand, and nevertheless achieve a perfect symmetry (1). During the operation the blood flows abundantly, and the man being tattooed makes not the least movement. The next day and the following days, the wounds he has received become inflamed, and the skin which has endured the tattooing swells considerably. I have seen a lip which had just been tattooed: it was monstrous. To better endure these pains, the New Zealanders have their tattooing done on different occasions. The mature men are distinguished by the extent of their tattooing. The young people have barely a few lines in the middle of the lip.
Tattooing here is very different from what it is in the Solomon Islands. There they tear the skin with a piece of bamboo, and add nothing to colour it, so this tattooing is hardly visible. It leaves a slightly reddish mark on the black skin of the Melanesians. The people of Cristoval,[2] for example, use a broken line. Their tattooing is only a series of zigzags which at intervals go from the nose to the ear. They are separated by straight lines and cover the whole face. On the nostrils of the nose the broken lines go down in the same way to the lips and the chin. On the middle of the forehead they draw a figure which bears some resemblance to a cross. This broken line which you can see on their carvings, their houses, their canoes [p3] and which covers their faces – what does it mean to the Cristovalians? I think that they make these designs to imitate the sinuosity of the snake, and that it is in its honour that they tattoo themselves in this way. I have noticed that in several tribes the snake is for them a divinity.
Going one day to catechise a village in my district I told them to adore Jehovah (that is how we name God) and to pray to him. I made them get down on their knees, and they repeated after me this act of charity: “Jehovah, I love you.” One of them, who was not pleased with this prayer, said that Jehovah was for us, and not for them; that their prayers consisted of doing what I was going to see. At the same time he took a wooden dish in which there was some coconut milk [The following is in the margin of the page: then taking from the fireplace one of the stones used for heating food, he plunged it into the liquid with bamboo tongs. It boiled immediately, and the white vapour which was given off] rose up in front of a very crude statue. “Are you without any understanding?” I said to him, “to offer your prayers like this to a piece of wood? What can this wood, which has no life, do for you?” “This wood has no life, it is true,” he replied, “but come and see another which does have life.” He pointed out a plank carved in a broken line ending in a triangle. I did not realise that with this crude design someone had wanted to represent a snake, whose head was formed by the triangle. “I see only wood,” I told him again, “and this one is no more alive than the other.” “Yes, that one is not alive, but the snakes that slide along the ground, aren’t they alive?” So it is in honour of the snake that they made this carving, and it is to it that they offer their prayers. In another tribe I noticed that they offered fat to dogs. What unfortunate people! They adore the devil under the form he chose to seduce our first parents: they have his image everywhere, even on their faces.
It is not only on the face that the Maoris are tattooed. They are tattooed as well on the thighs and on the legs. To see these tattoos you have only to look at their idols. The buttocks are covered with great blue lines in the form of circles, on the backbone a distinctive tattooing is drawn. I think it is a repetition of the tattoo which is found on the middle of the forehead. This tattoo is, as it were, the name and the title of the person bearing it. When a New Zealander wants to show his nobility, he uncovers himself and shows this tattooing. [p4]
Maungaroa, the son of a Protestant minister, got himself tattooed on his buttocks and he also uncovers himself to show off his particulars. The tattooing on the thighs is parallel to their length. [3] It consists of long straight lines which end by curving towards the middle of the thigh in another hook shape by the latter. It is followed by a straight line which goes down to the knees.[4] The space between these two lines is filled with blue tattooing.The legs bear the same tattooing as the thighs. The great chiefs alone have the privilege of having it.
In the southern part of the island, I am told, they tattoo figures of lizards on their legs; on the idols, tattoos on the arms and on the bodies, and the same as that on the thighs; only on the body it takes a different direction – it is transverse.
If the New Zealanders wanted to complete their tattooing, they would not have a single part of the skin free of colour. They ought to tattoo their tongues since those of their idols are tattooed. The women have only the two lips and the chin tattooed. The bluish colour of the mouth, a result of tattooing, pleases the New Zealanders; in Europe it would arouse disgust.
The New Zealanders, on becoming Christians, are ceasing to get themselves tattooed. Those who before baptism underwent this operation retain its indelible marks, but they have only that of a savage.[5] They are good, happy and have a childlike simplicity. There is a Christian woman who takes delight in adoration in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Often she weeps when she is at the foot of the altar. If she is asked what is the cause of her tears, she naively replies that it is the love of God.
When Bishop Colomb[6] had been consecrated, in the first days after his consecration, the house was besieged by the crowd of natives who came and asked as a favour of the Bishop, to kiss his ring, and to receive his blessing. When they came into the Bishop’s room they notices even the least defects with their sharp eyes. They saw that he had too wide a [pouce ? – thumb]. The Bishop’s blue spectacles aroused their admiration. They noticed that one of the missionaries had a rather sharp nose. They sincerely felt sorry about it, because, they said, his parents could not have loved him, otherwise they [p5] would have hugged him more often when he was young, and his nose would have become flattened.
Embracing, here, involves pressing nose against nose. When it is done only in passing by, it is soon done. You press noses, holding your breath, and when you are almost out of breath, you go to embrace another person. When people have not seen each other for a long time, the embraces go on and on.[7] To do that, the natives crouch down on their legs, and press nose against nose, and remain so long in this position that one day, being a witness of this sign of friendship that two young people were giving each other, I did not have the patience to wait until they had finished.
When they question me, if there is no interpreter, I cannot answer them. My silence greatly amazes them. “How can you not understand the New Zealand language?” they say. “This language is so easy!” When they tell a funny story and I maintain a serious look, they clearly realise that I do not understand, they say, otherwise I would laugh.
We do not have many natives at Kororareka. Since the war they have gone away a bit, and those who remain near the settlement are very much affected by European influence. They wear clothing that is half European and half Maori. Their houses are built half and half in each style.[8]
A little further into the interior, you do not come across this strange situation – there you find Maoris in their natural state. Their houses are all made of wood, roofed with phormium tenax.[9] They are low, and have two openings – a door and a window (Catholic chapels in the interior are hardly more sumptuous).
Phormium tenax is a swamp plant which has very long flat leaves, like a spear with two cutting edges. The lobes of these leaves are very tough while still being very pliable. The natives use them for making elegant cloaks. They are white in colour. They are made more colourful by little black threads, fixed at intervals into the fabric. The circumference of the cloak is edged with black fringes. Phormium is also used by them to make mats and ropes. The New Zealanders highly esteem the uses this plant offers them. After having listed them, they say to the foreigners listening to them, “There is nothing like it in your country.
The British wanted to try to make [p6] fabrics out of phormium but the attempt failed – this plant is too tough. It also has the disadvantage of being damaged by rain. If it were not for that it would be esteemed because it was very [sayeux ?].
To cover their houses the natives use phormium leaves which they attach to the framework. They make this layer about half a foot [about 15cm] thick. Above that they lace a lay of reeds thick enough to prevent the rain from penetrating through to the phormium. The sides of the house are also stopped up with phormium.
During a journey I made in the company of a missionary in the district surrounding Kororareka, I was able to see the sites [10] that the Maoris give their villages. They place them indifferently by the seashore, or on the top of a hill. In every case they surround them with high and strong palisades, which give them protection against a sudden attack. Each village resembles a small fortress. Apart from the general palisade there are other smaller ones which separate the (individual) properties and isolate each house. You go between these rows of pickets as between two walls close to each other. The entry gate in this surrounding wall is raised above the ground and is rather like a window.
In one of these villages I saw the tomb of a chief’s daughter: her remains were resting in a red box, carved in the style of the country. It [the box] was four metres up on a platform made of planks nailed together. The whole thing was decorated with pigeon feathers and sheltered by a roof lined underneath with mats of different colours. This tomb was surrounded by a double palisade. It is forbidden to go through this wall. When they have lost one of their relatives whose remains they want to keep, the Maoris enclose the body in a box, and carry it away to an open air site [et l’emportent en plein air] where there is always someone to watch over the box. If some of the remains fall from it, the person watching over the box notices it and has them burnt, and preserves the ashes which later on he will put in the tomb with the dried out remains.
In S. Christoval[11] the Arosi use another way of keeping the remains of the dead. They expose [p7] the corpse in the open air in the middle of the village on a pile of Nari (a sort of walnut) shells. They secure the body in an upright position by attaching it to two poles stuck in the ground. They surround it with a fairly plain palisade about six feet (two metres) high. When the process of decomposition has ended, they gather the remains and keep them in a tapu place. They like to attach to the rafters of their houses the skulls of the conquered enemies.
The New Zealanders preserve not only the skulls but the whole heads of their enemies, along with the flesh and the hair which they preserve from corruption by a process they know. Since the arrival of the Europeans in New Zealand this custom has, little by little, disappeared along with cannibalism, traces of which remain in the northern areas. To call them cannibals[12] is to insult them. When a Christian New Zealander comes to die, his relatives let him be buried in the Catholic cemetery. It sometimes happens that they come back to ask for the body. They go and disinter it and take its remains away to throw them off a great inaccessible cliff where the remains of their ancestors already lie.
I have passed over too quickly the burial ceremonies of the Arosi. I should have told you that after the death of a man they cut down the coconut palms which belong to him, and that if this person is a chief, instead of leaving him to decompose in his upright position, they lay his body in a great flat-bottomed container[13] with the wood decorated with festoons of mother-of-pearl [nacre] and big enough to hold him stretched out. The widow and her children observe mourning for two whole months. The woman, during this whole time, is obliged to wear a long white garment which comes down to her knees. The men must completely go without shaving and wear white necklaces and bracelets usually made from seeds called Job’s tears.
The New Zealanders have the reputation of being skilful in working in wood. You would not say that if you saw their carving in the northern part of the[14] island. There is nothing really extraordinary. Their statues are even more poorly done than the one I saw at San Christobal. The heads of their statues equal[15] a good third of the body, and the rest is also so lacking in proportion that sometimes you have to spend a long time looking to guess at the different parts. [p8] Although they seem to be unaware of the laws of proportion and perspective, there is so much symmetry in this apparent disorder that the eye finds it pleasant to study their work. I particularly like the two carvings which they place at the prow and stern of their canoes. On the prow they put the head of a man or of a devil[16] remarkable for its disproportionately lengthened tongue, for its big eyes made of mother-of-pearl,[17] and for its hair made of pigeon feathers. (1) The stern post of the canoe rises sharply at a right angle. It is a board about two inches [5cm] thick, a foot and a half [40-50cm] wide, and about a metre high[18] and carved in an open work [perforated] style.[19] The human figure, grotesquely disfigures, is always the subject of the carving. The whole canoe is 15 to 20 metres in length, two metres wide and one metre high. It can carry 80 to 100 people. It has one or two sails made of reeds which fold like fans. These canoes are made of two great pieces of wood lashed together with phormium tenax and tied to a strong plank. The oars are small and resemble a rhombus shape at the end of a handle.[20]
I have told you nothing about the little children. I saw several of them while on a walk. They are all very fat. They have noses so flattened that, if seen from side on, they can hardly be seen. They are concealed by the cheeks and by the lips. With children the lower part of the face is the most developed. While travelling, the women carry the little children on their backs – these put their arms around the necks of their mothers, who hold them by wrapping them around the lower back with woollen blankets which they use as cloaks.
We had the happiness, before returning home, of baptising a child. The ceremony took place in a very poor but clean[21] hut which serves as a chapel in the village where we were. There were only a godfather and two other people there. I answered [p9] the missionary when he spoke in Latin, the Maoris answered when he spoke to them in their language. A woman was carrying the child in her arms. She was squatting down near the priest. The godfather was sitting on the ground against the wall. The priest was obliged to bend down to do the anointings and to pour water on the child’s head. Never did the sacred ministry seem to me so beautiful. I believe I saw in the person of the priest Our Lord Jesus Christ making himself small to save others. There was, outwardly, nothing impressive in that chapel. Great simplicity was its entire decoration, but how consoling it was to think that I was present at the rebirth of a soul. In circumstances like these, the missionary is well recompensed for his efforts. How then would he regret his exile when he thinks that without him, the souls whom he baptises would have been forever deprived of the sight of God. Since the Catholic missionaries have been in New Zealand they have baptised about 8,000 Christians. It was about the year 1836 that the New Zealand mission was offered. [22]
After the baptism of this child we embarked on the journey back to the house. The sea was calm. I saw above the water the neck and head of a bird, the rest of whose body was hidden. I expressed my surprise to the missionary, who told me it was a koru[23] – a penguin and was good to eat – reka [sweet] – hence the name Kororāreka given to the British settlement in the harbour of the Bay of Islands, where these birds are very numerous. I recall having seen penguins at the Cape of Good Hope; it is an aquatic bird whose wings have no feathers and resemble flippers. When it is on land it uses them to strike at harmful creatures or to defend itself from those who would want to take hold of it. The Maoris hunt them. They wait for them at night when they go to find shelter in holes in the rocks on the edge of the sea, and stun them with blows from sticks. [p10]
You will excuse me if I do not take the trouble to copy out my letter. I didn’t think I would have the time to do so.) (In margin – I have since had the time to copy out the first part of my letter.)
I end by commending myself to your prayers. For my part I do not cease to pray for you and for all our benefactors in Europe.
Your very affectionate son
L Verguet
Please give my best wishes and respects to our relatives and friends, and give them news about me. I would very much like to receive the newspaper entitle L’Universel, a new review. The subscription is six francs per year. It has been appearing since July 1846.[24] Please send me some pious images[25] which I can use a models for sketching.
{Footnote (1) on page 8 of the original. }
I have heard it said somewhere that this custom of the New Zealanders of lengthening the tongues of their idols is linked to a Christian tradition in its origin[26] They would have acted in this way[27] of which the tongue is a symbol. I do not know the basis of this idea. It is certain that today that is not their intention. [28]


  1. about 200 km - translator’s note
  2. Now known as Makira - translator’s note
  3. en suite la direction
  4. I am not totally sure of the preceding two sentences. In the original there is no punctuation: Ce sout des longues lignes droites qui cinissent en se recourbant vers le milieu de la cuisse en autre crochet par celui-ci est suivi d’un ligne droit quie descent jusqu’aux genouz… Interesting to note that he makes ligne first feminine and then masculine. Today it is feminine - translator’s note
  5. mais il n’ont que cela de sauvage – he seems to imply that the markings have lost their early meaning? - translator’s note
  6. sic – Collomb
  7. n’en finissent pas
  8. Leurs maisons sons faites moitié en chacune
  9. native flax – harakeke in Maori
  10. taumuia ? – sites?
  11. sic – San Cristobal/Makira
  12. now, he seems to imply - translator’s note
  13. un grand plat
  14. North - translator’s note
  15. in size - translator’s note
  16. [plus.. dehors ? – An editor has crossed out dehors and written above de démon – of a devil - translator’s note
  17. nacre – likely to be paua shell in New Zealand - translator’s note
  18. The mixture of traditional and modern measurements is interesting. The metric system was a creation of the Revolution in the 1790s, but seems to have taken time to be popularly used - translator’s note
  19. sculpté à jour
  20. bâton
  21. décent
  22. to the Society, presumably - translator’s note
  23. sic – kororā – blue penguin
  24. He does not seem to be referring to L’Univers, an important French conservative Catholic paper edited by Louis Veuillot, which began publication in 1833 - translator’s note
  25. holy pictures
  26. dans le principe
  27. pour les tarmous le verbe de daux - ??
  28. The original French is: J’ai entendu dire quelque part que c’est usage dout les nouveaux-zélandais d’alemagne la langue de leurs idoles s’attachent a june tradition chrétienne dans le principe ils auraient agi de la sorte pour les tarmous le verbe de daux dont la langue est le simbole je ne sais sur quoi on pourrait appuyer cette conjecture il est certin qu’aujourd’hui ce n’est pas leur intantion.[Father Verguet‘s spelling can be a bit creative. His lack of punctuation is another problem - translator’s note

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