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4 June 1847 —Léopold Verguet to his Parents, Kororareka

Translated by Peter McConnell, June 2010 - click here for Brian Quin's translation

[in another later hand]
arrived at Carcassonne ¤ 29 December 1847a ¤ Father Verguet

J(esus) M(ary) J(oseph)
4 June 1847
My dear parents,
I arrived in New Zealand on the 20th of last month after a good crossing twelve days long. The wind was favourable. We did not have any bad weather. I experienced sea-sickness this time which hit me more than ever no doubt because of my weakness but it was an excellent remedy for me. Since our arrival my health has made such progress that I feel today almost as well as when I left France. Bishop Collomb too enjoys good health. He was made bishop on Pentecost Sunday, May 23.. Now we are waiting for our ship which sailed to Auckland, a city forty leagues away from Kororareka and on its return it will take us to New Caledonia. There will be another ship there for the bishop to use.
Since my arrival in New Zealand, I have been busy drawing things that are different in the country. I make copies of the faces of the natives with their tattoos, their boats, the house, the tombs, etc.
Tatoos give the faces of the Maoris a ferocious appearance and consists of drawing on their skin which is normally brown and carving into the flesh indelible blue lines and following the customary directions. And there are pretty well the same patterns on all the faces; you always notice four wide blue lines which rise like big wrinkles above the eyebrows. The other lines are equally wide and start from the flare of the nose and go as far as the chin. The rest of the faces are more or less covered with circular scallops according to the patience of each individual and the wish that he be pleasing and noticed. So that the beard does not hide this beauty of their face, they take pains to pluck out the hairs as they grow.
Tatooing is very painful, so the Maoris use a piece of sharp iron for this operation which they strike with a small wooden mallet to drive it into the skin. So they stipple the pattern they want to make taking care to put the tip of the iron regularly into the sap of a tree which has the property of giving the tattoo a shade of blue. They make the designs on the face without previously making trace lines, nevertheless observing a perfect symmetry. During the operation blood flows abundantly and the one who is tatooed does not make the slightest movement. The next day and the following days the wounds he has received become inflamed. The skin which has endured the tattooing swells up considerably. I have seen a lip which had just been tattooed; it was monstrous. In order to endure these pains better the Maoris have themselves tattooed in different stages. For men the tattooing on the face extends to the chin.
Here tattooing is very different from what it is in the Solomon Islands. There they tear the skin with a piece of bamboo and don’t add anything to colour it; that tattooing is not easily seen. It stands out a little with a red mark on the black skin of the Melanesians. The inhabitants of Saint Christoval for example adopt a broken line; their tattooing is only a series of zigzags which go here and there from the nose to the ear; they are separated by straight lines and fill the whole face. From the flare of the nose the broken lines reach the lips and the chin. On the centre of the forehead they draw a shape which sort of resembles a cross. What is the meaning of the broken line used by the inhabitants of Saint Christoval which you notice on their carvings, on their houses, on their canoes and which covers the face? I think they make these designs to imitate the twisting movements of a snake and that it is in its honour that they tattoo themselves in that way. I noticed in several that the snake taken for a god.
One day while going to take a catechism lesson in a village of my district, I asked them to adore Jehovah (That’s the way we call God), and to pray to him. I got them to kneel down and they repeated after me this prayer: Jehovah, I love you. One of them, who disliked this prayer, told me that Jehovah was for us and not for them and that their prayers consisted of doing what I was about to see; at the same time he took a wooden bowl where there was some coconut milk; he raised it up in front of a very crude statue. Isn’t it mindless, I asked him, to offer your prayers to a piece of wood in that way? What can this wood which is lifeless do for you? This wood is lifeless, that is right, he answered, but come and see another which is alive. He showed me a plank split in a broken line bearing a triangle at its end. I did not understand this rough design. They wanted to represent a snake and the triangle formed its head. All I see is wood, I said to him again, and the latter is no more alive that the other one. Yes, the latter is not alive but aren’t the snakes which slide along the ground alive? Therefore it is in honour of the snakes that they make this piece of sculpture and it is to the snake that they offer their incense. In another tribe I noticed that they were giving fat to the dogs. Poor creatures! They worship the devil in the form that he chose to seduce our first parents; they have his image everywhere even on their faces.
It is not only on their faces that the Maoris are tattooed; they have it even more extensively on their behinds, on their thighs and legs; to see these tattoos you have only to see their idols. The backside is covered with large blue bands draw in a circular fashion at the base of the kidneys on the spinal column and drawn in a distinctive tattooing. I believe that the tattooing is repeated in the centre of the forehead. This tattooing is akin to the name and the title of the person who bears it. When a Maori wants to make his nobility known, he uncovers the tattooing and shows it.
Maungaroa. The son of a Protestant minister had himself tattooed on the backside and he too stripped to show his particular tattooing. Tatooing of the thighs follow the same design. They are long straight lines which end up in circular curves towards the centre of the thigh, another spiral there. It is continued with a straight line which goes down to the knees. The space between the lines is full of tattooing all in the same colour of blue. Legs bear the same tattooing as the thighs. The important chiefs are the only ones who have the privilege of being prepared for it.
In the southern part of the island I am told that they tattoo shapes of a lizard on their legs. Tatoooing of the arms and bodies on the idols is the same as the tattooing on the thighs, except on the bodies it takes a different direction. It is cross wise.
If the Maoris want to complete their tatooing they would not have a single part of their skin free from colouring. They would tattoo their tongues because their idols are tattooed in that way. Only few women are tattooed and their lips and chin are tattooed in a dark colour. The Maoris like the livid colour of the mouth as a result of the tattooing. In Europe it would inspire repugnance.
On becoming Christians the Maoris gave up being tattooed; those who followed this practice before they were baptized have indelible marks as a consequence but that is the only savage thing about them. They are good, happy and have a childlike simplicity. There is a Christian lady here who delights in worshipping the Holy Sacrament. She often cries when she is at the foot of the altar. If you ask her the reason for her tears, she naïvely replies that it is through love.
When Bishop Collomb was consecrated, the first days after his consecration the house was besieged by a crowd of natives who came to ask the bishop as a favour to kiss his ring and receive his blessing. On entering the bishop’s room they noticed in a flash the smallest defects. They saw that his skin was too thick, that the bishop’s blue glasses were beautiful, that the lenses were pretty and that it was unfortunate for somebody to have a long nose in New Zealand for pressing noses, and that his mother would not have loved him any other way when he was young and his nose would have been flattened.
In this country when they embrace, they press noses. When they do it casually, it takes no time. They press noses, holding their breath and when about to lose their breath, they go and embrace another. When they have not seen one another for some time, the pressing of noses are not brief. To do it leisurely the natives do it crouching on their legs, pressing nose against nose and staying such a long time in that position. One day I was a witness to two young people making this mark of friendship and it went on for a long time.
When they ask me a question and there is no interpreter, I can’t answer them; my silence shocks them a lot. They say, How is it that you don’t understand Maori; this language is so easy. When they tell a joke and I remain serious, they see clearly that I do not understand. On other occasions they say I was dreaming.
At Kororareka we do not have many natives; since the war they have gone away a bit and those who remain near the colony feel a lot of the European influence; they wear clothing half Maori and half European. Their houses are half made of thatch.
A little farther inland you don’t find this mixture. You find Maoris in their natural state. Their houses are completely made of wood. The little houses are low down; they have two openings, the door and the window. The chapels are scarcely more luxurious.
Flax is swamp plant which has very long flat leaves similar to a double bladed sword. The lobes of these leaves are very solid and are greatly supple. The natives use them to make cloaks and big ones. Their colour is white; it is tied by little black cords woven into the fabric here and there. The edge of the wrap is edged with black fringes. Flax is also used by them to make mats, cords to cover their houses. The Maoris greatly value the uses that this plant gives them. After listing them, they say to the foreigner who is listening to them: There are not so many in your country.
The English wanted to try to make some fabric with the flax but were unsuccessful. This plant is very stiff; it has also the disadvantage of deteriorating in the rain; without that aspect it would be considered very silky.
To cover their houses, the natives bring formium fronds which they attach to the framework of the house; they put a six inch layer down; on top of that they put a layer of rather thick reeds so that the rain does not reach the formium fronds. The walls of the house are also filled in with formium.
On a journey which I made accompanying a missionary at some distance from Kororareka, I succeeded in seeing the work that the Maoris were doing in their village. The site them at different angles on the water front or on the top of a hill. They always surround them with high and strong palisades which protects them from a blow. Each village resembles a small fortress. Besides the general palisade, there are other smaller ones which separate properties with stakes as between two adjacent walls. The front gate of these enclosure walls is raised above the ground and resembles as it were a window.
In one of these villages I saw the tomb of the daughter of a chief; her bones lay in a red case carved in the local fashion. It was raised four metres high and supported by four planks nailed together; the upper part is decorated with pigeon feathers and is protected under a roof which is decorated with plaited material of different colours. This tomb is surrounded by a double palisade; it is forbidden to go into this enclosure. To get the bones of their dead, the Maoris enclose the cadavers in a case and carry it out into the open air. There is always somebody to watch over the case; if a worm falls out of it, the one who is on watch notices it, has it burnt and collects the ashes which he will later on put into the tomb with the dried bones.
At Saint Christoval the Arossiens use two other ways of getting the bones of the deceased. They expose the cadaver in the open air in the middle of the village on a pile of Nari nuts (type of walnut tree). They stand the cadaver up tying it to two stakes pushed into the ground. They surround it with a quite open palisade which is six foot high and they leave it there to decompose in their midst; finally they gather up the bones and keep them in a taboo place. They are happy to attach to the rafters of their houses the cranium of their conquered enemy.
The Maoris keep not only the skull but all the head of their enemy with the flesh and hair which they preserve by a process known only to them. Since the arrival of Europeans to New Zealand, this practice has gradually disappeared as has cannibalism in the northern area. It is insulting to call them cannibals. When a Christian Maori is about to die, his relations let him be buried in the Catholic cemetery. It sometimes happens that they come back and ask for the body. They go and dig it up and carry away the bones and throw them down a big inaccessible precipice where the bones of their ancestors lie.
I have raced too quickly discussing the tombs of the Arossians. I should have told you that they likewise, after somebody dies, chop down coconut palms which belong to him and that if the fellow is a chief of the area instead of leaving him to rot in a sitting position, they lay him down on a big wooden plank enhanced with festoons of paua shells. The widow and her children keep mourning for two whole months; the wife all this time has to wear a long white cloak which goes down to her knees. The men have to go to the burial without shaving and they have to wear white necklaces and bracelets, usually made of a seed called the ruce of Job.
The Maoris are renowned for their wood carving. You would not say that when seeing their sculpture in the northern part of the island. There is nothing very extraordinary. Their statues are even more poorly done than those I have seen at Saint Christoval. The head equates to a good third of the body and the rest is so lacking in proportion that you have to look for a long time to guess the various limbs. Yet sometimes there is so much symmetry in this apparent disorder that it is pleasing to the eye to examine it. I love in particular the two pieces of sculpture that they put at the bow and at the stern of each canoe. In the front they put a man’s head or put it outside. It is amazing because of its immensely long tongue, because of its big paua shell eyes and by its hair made from pigeon feathers. The rear of the canoe rises briskly. At the centre there is a plank two inches thick, eighteen inches wide and about one metre high sculptured in three dimension in the shape of a man horribly deteriorated and this is always the subject of the piece of sculpture. The entire canoe is 15 to 20 metres long and 2 metres wide and a metre high. It could carry 80 to 100 people. They have one or two sails, that’s so that they can be folded up as fans. These canoes are made of two pieces of wood tied together with flax and attached to a solid plank. The paddles are small and resemble lozenges attached to the end of a stick.
I have not told you anything about the children. I have seen several of them on my walks. They are all very happy. They have noses so flat side on that you can hardly see them. They are hidden by cheeks and lips. The lower part of the children’s faces are the most developed part. When they are walking the women carry the toddlers on their backs; they put their arms around their mothers; she holds them fixing them around her kidneys with a woollen blanket which is used as a cloak.
Before returning to the house we had the pleasure of baptizing a child. The ceremony took place in a hut that was very poor but very clean. It served as a chapel in the village where we are; there was a godfather and two witnesses. I made the responses in Latin when the missionary was conducting the ceremony. The Maori answered him; he was proud addressing them in their language. A woman was carrying a child in her arms. She was squatting at the feet of the priest. The other native was sitting on the ground against the wall. The priest had to bent down to administer the oils and raise the head of the child. Never has the sacred ministry appeared to me so beautiful. In the person of the priest I saw Our Lord Jesus Christ basing himself to save others. There was no brightness in the chapel; its only adornment was a great deal of simplicity, but it was consoling to think that you were witnessing the regeneration of a soul. In these circumstances the missionary is well recompensed for his troubles. How could he regret his exile when he thinks that but for him the souls that he baptizes would have been forever deprived of the sight of God. Since the Catholic missionaries have been in New Zealand, they have baptized about 8000 Christians.
After the baptism of these children we embarked to return to our house. The sea was calm. I could see above the water the neck and the head of something, the rest of the body was hidden. I expressed to the missionary my surprise seeing it. He told me it was karo or a penguin and that it was good to eat, or reka from which the name Kororareka is derived and given to the English settlement in part of the Bay of Islands. Those birds are very plentiful. I remember having seen a penguin at the Cape of Good Hope; it is an aquatic bird whose wings have no feathers and resemble flippers; when they are on the land they use them to hit the (---) or defend themselves against those wanting to grab them. The Maoris hunt them. They wait for them at night time when they go and shelter in the hollows of rocks on the sea shore; they club them with sticks---
Excuse me for not bothering to make a copy of this letter. I foresee that I will not have time to do so. I will finish off by recommending myself to your prayers; from my side I never stop praying for you and for all our benefactors in Europe.
I embrace you with all my heart, your very affectionate
L(éopold) Verguet.
Offer my love and respect to all our relations and friends giving them my news. I have wanted so much the bulletin which is called the New Universal Review. The subscription is six francs a year. It has appeared since July 1846 Send me some holy pictures for me to use as design models.