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16 July 1847 – Fr Charles-Eugène Mathieu to Fr Denis Maîtrepierre, Wallis

Translated by Mary Williamson, September 2010

Based on the document sent APM OW 208 Mathieu.

Five leaves measuring 219 cms x 180 cms folded to form twenty pages, nineteen of which are written on, the leaves being sewn together with white thread. In the register of letters, ED2, it was numbered 33.

To Reverend Father Maîtrepierre, Master of Novices.

My Reverend Father,
You gave me very great pleasure in sending me news of our Society and of the progress it is making in France. Although we are separated from you by such a great distance we are very interested in your work, just as you yourselves take an interest in ours. It is of great delight to us when we learn of the blessings that the Holy Virgin extends to all and the fruitfulness that she wishes to bestow on her little family of which we are members.
You have been kind enough to say a rosary for me. I am very grateful to you; since receiving your letter I too have said one for you from time to time. Over here I cannot tell you how much I feel the benefits of the prayers that are offered in France for us and for our missions. Alas, what would become of me, with all my adversities and the overwhelming tasks that I have to carry out, if you were not praying for me. What also would become of our missions that the Good Lord alone can sustain and expand. The good souls who pray for us do much more for the salvation of these poor people than we can do by ourselves.
In starting this letter my intention is to keep you informed in as much detail as possible about our poor people of Oceania. Will I have time? I do not know, but after having had to stop and start again because of interruptions, perhaps I will be able to achieve my goal of getting something down on paper. I would like to describe the customs and character of our South Sea Islanders but to give you an accurate picture is a very difficult task. During the time that I have had here to study them I cannot flatter myself that I know them well. I do not know if the Bishop, who has been here with them for some time would be able to clearly analyse their character or if he himself would also sometimes be baffled. One thing certain is that one must be wary of relationships formed by those who have just arrived, who are passing through or who have not spent much time in these islands.
The seaman who sees these natives come on board his ship almost naked and paddling primitive canoes judges them to be savage, poor and without resources. If he has a pleasant relationship with them, he considers them good; if he treats them with arrogance and disdain and disagreements ensue, he considers them bad and deceitful; if he gives them something and is not thanked, he considers them ungrateful. All of this means nothing. The Polynesians, at least around here, are not at all savage. Their various relationships with each other are organised in a very appropriate way. There are roles of authority and dependence, family spirit and mutual consideration. Each person amongst them has his rank and his relationships clearly defined, whether it is with his superiors or his subordinates. They speak to each other with more respect than people generally do in France. They have their customs and they scrupulously observe their ceremonials. Those who do not observe them (unless it is a foreigner) would be regarded as badly brought up.
To get an idea of their form of government, one must consider the people as one single family, of whom the father would be the king, the uncles the ministers and the head chiefs or nobles the eldest sons. Is the father angry? He either chastises his children as he sees fit or treats them rather indulgently, according to his mood. The role of the uncles is to make representations and sort out matters with him. The eldest sons more or less do as they please, taking into account whether the father is strict or not, but always relying on his fatherly affection. In a family, if someone gets angry, they are readily forgiven. Although they have separate possessions, they lend to each other and even take from each other things of little value. This is done openly with no resulting quarrelling. They eat at each other’s homes without being invited. In a family everything is done in a fair and reasonable way. As everything is more or less common property they do not follow any strict rules of justice. There is no regulated tribunal nor a penal code, but each person should try to conduct himself in as friendly a fashion as possible. If two people came to blows, they would both be considered guilty and told to make peace with each other, without any precise judgement as to who was right or wrong. If a member of the family is really wicked, the others are obliged to support him. The father will reprimand him but if he is not heeded he will just grumble in private. Can a father kill his children? Put them in prison? This, my Reverend Father, is the way Wallis is governed. Basically it would certainly be best if the king was what he ought to be: intelligent, firm, determined, knowing how to act for the public good over and above his personal affections and when needed, exercise disciplinary action towards his own children. But it is not like this. The King of Wallis[1] is a good man and that is all. He has a sensitive and affectionate nature; he is patient but his ideas are very circumscribed; he is short sighted and fearful. He lets his children walk all over him without taking any disciplinary action, perhaps from affection, perhaps from fear, simply allowing himself to complain in a very pathetic fashion, either to them or to others. He swallows his shame in silence or by drowning it in a few cups of kava. It would perhaps be desirable for us to have a less kindly king. But the Good Lord has given us this one; and there is no way of changing that unless he himself changes things. This king, like his predecessors, was greatly feared in the era of paganism, because he was believed to be super-human. Now that religion has dispelled the prestige that surrounded his royal position he no longer knows what to do, especially as, of all the inhabitants of the island, he is perhaps the least receptive to new ideas. The weakness of his character was a favourable factor in the establishment of religion. When he was the persecutor he used to come off worst. In the early days his affection and his timidity several times saved the life of the Bishop. Now that he is a Christian, the things that were to his advantage have become disadvantageous.
These small details will help you, my Reverend Father, to understand the current position of the mission on Wallis and the problems it will have to continue its work, problems which, in my opinion, will be difficult to overcome if the Good Lord does not step in with special divine intervention. For more than two years two chiefs have been at war. [2] Both are members of the royal family. The king disapproves of them; he condemns the one who is in the wrong without entirely excusing the other, who is actually not exempt from criticism, but the king has neither the will nor the power to take the harsh steps necessary to suppress them. As the saying goes, he lets the water flow under the bridge and leaves it at that, without looking any further ahead. But will these two chiefs be able to resolve their differences with decisive action? It is hard to believe; it is not very likely that these people will fight seriously with each other, the conflict being between relatives and with religion having suppressed the barbarous habits that they previously employed when making war. So things will probably remain much as they are today. Each party in its own encampment with neither peace not war. This particular state of affairs is very dangerous for the mission. The Protestant camp is the refuge of all the discontented and all those who want to indulge in degenerate behaviour, those who, having committed some misdemeanour, go and hide there in shame. It is a veritable Satan’s lair, situated in the middle of the island and when one considers the nature of these people, so thoughtless, so inconstant, so lacking in foresight, so unbridled when overcome by passion, there is certainly reason to fear for the future. If only they were able to keep religion separate from politics, but that is not the case. The difference in religion is, for them, the only source of hostility; they know that anger does not last long between brothers.
Forgive my Reverend Father, humanum dico[3] - insipiens sum.[4] I am speaking here in very human terms and with what little wisdom the flesh has, being unseeing. Could the Good Lord not suddenly perform one of his amazing acts that would put everything back in order? There is not yet too much harm done, but if our little boat is threatening to sink, will our Saviour bestir himself in time to still the tempest.[5] Above all, would you be kind enough to awaken Him, you who are in France, with your kindly prayers; as for us we are remaining calm. As we can do nothing here on our own, we have abandoned the helm to the Holy Virgin. When it is time she will either waken her Holy Son or leave us all to perish, whatever she wishes.
As you can see, the government on Wallis, at the moment seems to be half asleep and everyone is more or less doing as they please. If a man acts unjustly towards one of his kin, this latter person must either take revenge himself or patiently endure the injustice and it is usually this latter action that he takes. Fortunately such injustices are very rare. This demonstrates the kindliness of these people who are now restrained only by the fear of God. They nevertheless maintain a much better sense of order than those who are subject to very harsh human laws that do not have a religious basis. If the Good Lord takes pity on this little flock, he will subsequently introduce, I think, his type of Christian government or he will take care to govern them himself. I do not believe that this task is within our competence or at least we will need to wait until circumstances provide us with an opportunity to attempt such an undertaking and for that it will perhaps require another generation to pass.
The strict laws to which the great European societies are subjected are not at all suited to the people here, nor are they appropriate to their circumstances. Above all, they cannot conceive of the idea of penal laws; for them to be bound, imprisoned or beaten by a man of inferior class is a disgrace to which they do not feel they could possibly submit. It is a complete reversal of all their ideas. They would, if necessary, endure being beaten by a superior, but no one would ever dare to raise his hand to someone nobler than himself, unless he had been authorised by the king. If he then did it with impunity he would acquire, by the very act itself, a more noble standing than the other person and the latter would be completely discredited along with all his family. As well, the family ties are such that if one member is attacked, all the others should then rise to his defence. It is not reason that rouses them, but affection. So if one sent an arrest warrant for someone and the bearer of the warrant laid a hand on him, this would instantly be seen as a declaration of war. Also, the king would have as many personal enemies as he would have guilty people to punish and as he walks about without protection, this would not be very reassuring for him. So it would be impossible to establish laws here and have them ratified. It would be necessary for the entire population to understand the necessity and having understood it, there would need to be a force to carry it out. Here there is no point in even thinking about it. On some of the islands the Protestants, with the help of chiefs who are greatly feared and who concur absolutely with all their ideas, have tried to establish something of this nature. They have only succeeded in reducing the people to a rebellious state of repression, which will come to an unfortunate end, without in any way reducing the number of crimes. I do not think that there are people anywhere in the world with more freedom than these, whilst at the same time having respect, veneration and subservience to their chiefs. They need to have someone who leads them and who they fear, but what they find difficult is to submit themselves to a strict rule of conduct, should it be laid down for them and from which they could not stray. If the master is absent there must at least always be someone to remind them of him. They will not oppose a specific order, but if it is necessary to get them to change their everyday habits in ways that do not fall within the jurisdiction of the church, I do not know if one would be able to succeed. To persuade them to behave differently, whether in connection with their work, their food or their everyday allocation of time would not be easy. If one did succeed for a time, the usual routine would soon have taken over again. Anyhow, they have that in common with most other peoples of the world.
How difficult it is, even in France, to alter the habits of country people, whether it be in the way of work or lifestyle. From there, my Reverend Father, the predicament of trying to introduce what certain people call civilisation, in other words ways of housing, dressing and feeding oneself in a more comfortable and perhaps more hygienic manner. Following that would be the problems of introducing trades and industries. If one asks them why, having for some time now seen European vessels, they do not build something similar, they say that they do not know how and show no great desire to find out. If one of them had this desire, if he had the interest and the means to learn a skill, what reward would he gain from it? As there are no commercial dealings between them, he would be obliged to work solely for the prestige and prestige does not fill the stomach or feed the family. He would be endlessly inconvenienced by the demands of the chiefs to whom he would not be able to refuse his services and from whom he would receive no recompense, given that they have nothing to exchange with him. If however the arts were to be an asset for these people, it would be necessary to wait till time made them a necessity or God raised up a king who had a gift for these sorts of things and took care to foster them.
In the meantime, the arts and trades could only be introduced here through religious communities and would be easy to establish if there was a larger population who would, I think, be happy to be recruited. Divided into different groups of agricultural workers and artisans who would assist each other, they would offer a model of a small, well-organised Christian society and would teach the people by example those things which are hard to convey in words. On thinking it over, I sometimes imagine that the people here would need to be taught and encouraged towards religion in this way, as were the barbarous peoples of Northern Europe by the diverse communities of monasteries in England and France. It even seems to me that it would be in this way that a new mission should be established, even before trying to convert the general population. But for this, the Society would have to, in a short space of time, gather a sufficiently large number of adherents to create a true community. They would have to select those capable of training the natives, who would come to join their little group, in the ways of religion. But I am not called upon to pass judgement in such matters.
I was saying a short while ago: “If only the arts could be a resource for these people”. It is exactly that, in fact, that people in France imagine, where the people here are represented as poor, destitute and in extreme need because they do not have those things that the arts and industry provide for us. But if one considers things from a more accurate point of view, what needs do these people have if not those of faith and goodness. Here there is no conception of poverty, because everyone is more or less equal as far as worldly goods are concerned. Each person can cultivate the soil wherever he wishes and however he wishes; there is much more land than is needed to provide everyone’s needs. Although the terrain is divided amongst families, one can nevertheless go and plant things on the land of one’s neighbour; the only formality required is to let him know, either before or after, as permission is never refused. A man is lazy or sick, or has nothing to eat? He simply goes and eats with his neighbour or with a relative. For shelter, it is very simple and no one is deprived; all the houses are open and each person can go and seek shelter wherever he fancies, without having to pay for it. The women are responsible for providing clothing; every day they have work to do in this field, either in cultivating “tutu”, beating it or pasting it together to form a fabric. As well, they weave matting to cover the walls of their houses or to clothe the family. This sort of clothing serves perfectly in these hot climates; the way in which it is worn is in no way immodest.
When one has had some days to get used to seeing these people, one finds them much more suitably dressed in their natural fashion than in the European garments that are brought here. So, what then do they need? We say: we must get these people used to working. But why do we imagine that they are lazy? These people work according to their need. They do not hurry about much, it is true, but every day they do certain things, either in connection with construction of housing or canoes, cultivating their crops or fabricating their clothes. If sometimes they lie down instead of working, it is very necessary to take into account the extreme heat of this climate, the insubstantial nourishment that sustains them and the frequent indispositions from which they suffer. I do not believe that most Europeans could do much more than they do, if they were receiving the same nourishment and working in this searing heat. Apart from that, what they produce for themselves is sufficient and they do not envy the fruits of other people’s labour. Would it not be better, my Reverend Father, for these people to remain as they are, rather than be like the poor workers in Europe, who toil from morning till night and have not a spare moment to think of their salvation. Work is a good thing, but it should be moderated. On Wallis work finishes after a meal and a bathe at around four o’clock. One can them spend the rest of the day either pondering the Holy Sacrament, reading one’s catechism, chatting with friends or entertaining oneself in a virtuous manner. Thus the soul can profit from this repose each day, as can the body.
So, poverty is unknown here; the only known poverty is the loss of children, family or friends. A man who has lost a friend, a supporter or a child, someone whose company is dear to him, says: now I am poor. It is the only deprivation of which they complain. Often people come and bring us an offering of kava and ask us to have pity on their hardship. We do not ask them what type of hardship they suffer from. We know that they wish to have children and they come to ask us to offer up prayers, so that God will fulfil their wishes. That is the only wealth they desire. As for the word “need”, it does not exist in their language, proof that providence has provided for these people, on their little island, everything that they require.
Amongst all the commercial goods we have available here there is only one thing I can see that would be of great use to them and that is tools made of iron, such as axes and knives. Now that they have become used to using them over a long period of time, I think that being deprived of them would be difficult. Nevertheless, they would manage all the same, as they did in the past, when these tools were not available. They are extremely ingenious at making every possible use of what providence has provided for them.
God protect us then, from introducing commerce to these islands. If we are true missionaries we should be a hundred times happier to live according to the habits of the country than to acquire, at such a price, a more comfortable existence, one that would more closely resemble our previous style of living. Why take away from these people their beautiful simplicity, so favourable to the establishment of the faith? Why create misery for them by introducing needs? Why drag them into this mire of greed and earthly desires in which all of Europe is embroiled. Therefore I said to Captain Marceau that I regarded the establishment of the French Society of Oceania as a harmful thing, but as a wrong that might avert a greater one, in that it is likely to dissuade other merchants who are not so well-intentioned and greedier. It would be very desirable if the Society understood this and had no other outside agenda in these islands, as they remain almost untouched.
These people have been accused of ingratitude. I do not claim to excuse them entirely, but there is something rather remarkable in their customs, of which an explanation will probably interest you. The word “ingratitude” does not exist in their language but instead the words “generosity” and “non-generosity”. This generosity consists of sharing what one has with others and using it in common with them; it is an absolute duty and custom and does not seem to require any repayment or thanks on the part of the recipient. On the track you will meet someone carrying cooked food, perhaps fish or coconut. He will put his basket down on the ground and offer some of what he has and nothing more is required of you than to take what you want and wish him well. If you enter a house where they are drinking kava or eating, you are given your share in the serving of the food; if you did not accept, you would hurt the feelings of the family. No thanks are required. You should, yourself, behave in a similar manner towards others. To accept what you offer is to honour you, to treat you as a friend. There is only about one thing for which one should never fail to offer thanks, that is the offer of kava when it is presented to you. Even the king never fails to do that; he always thanks the person who presents him with kava root, even if it is the smallest little piece.
You can understand, my Reverend Father, how strange European customs must seem to these people who do not yet conceive of the principle “ I give so that you give back to me”. Also how much they have had to ponder and reflect to understand that we eat alone and do not share everything we have with them. Nevertheless we have not lacked in generosity where they are concerned. I do not even know if the older people have any comprehension of the way we behave. The respect that they have for us compensates; they consider us a separate tribe to whom everyone owes respect and obedience and thus, that we behave differently from others. The gifts that the Propagation of the Faith has enabled us to sometimes offer them have helped to convince them that we are not ungenerous where they are concerned. One would perhaps imagine, if one were in France, that they should be very grateful for the sacrifices that we have made in coming here to enlighten them, but what would they know about that? How could they appreciate it? When they have become Christians and they understand something about religion, they themselves will think it a pleasure and an honour to go and spread the word to other islands.
Here is the Arche d’Alliance, come to offer them considerable advantages for their commerce; they have accepted these advantages, but will they really be grateful? I have no idea; perhaps they will be saying amongst themselves that they will be cheated less by this ship than by some others. That is about all, because they understand absolutely nothing about commerce and so not know how to appreciate the relative values of the merchandise. A considerable number of them even imagine that the ships come looking for oil to replenish their lamps during their voyage. They are astonished that so much of it is needed.
You will no longer be surprised, my Reverend Father, by the different opinions you will hear concerning these people, especially from those who have just arrived. Each person judges them on the impression he gets on first contact. It is only after some time and by way of identifying oneself with them that one gets to know them a little. A missionary will win their affection by his manner, friendly, serious, courteous, respectful and sympathetic towards their innocent ways. He himself should conform as much as his nature will allow, not hastily judging without having fully assessed and examined their habits whether or not their customs are reprehensible. In a word one must, on arriving here, cast off one’s fixed ideas and leave behind that atmosphere of European civilisation in which one has been raised and nurtured and try to identify oneself with these people. It is the only way to make progress amongst them and to make them forget that we are foreigners, something which is a major disadvantage in their eyes. In the end, one will convince them that they are loved and from there one will become loved by them. I am chatting to you my Reverend Father at great length. I am putting down on paper everything that comes to mind without taking the trouble to analyse it as I should, but please be kind enough to excuse me. You will take from it anything that will be of use to you for the guidance of future missionaries who are committed to your care. They should not formulate too many plans and projects in advance, for fear of having to reassess them, but they should come armed with a good measure of charity and patience. Those who come to consolidate and maintain the faith of those who are already Christians will have, in my opinion a task much more difficult, more important and more praiseworthy than that of the missionaries who have guided them from paganism and heresy to religion. Though ordinary men may suffice here to begin with, we will need saints to consolidate our work.
Above all, may God be willing to send us men who are strong enough in charitable works to sow the seeds of a native clergy and to breathe into them the true spirit of the calling of our Lord; only then will we be able to say that Oceania is converted to the faith.
The Bishop has just arrived after 8 months away.[6] There is no need to say how joyfully he has been welcomed. He will probably give us details, himself, of what he did in Samoa, where we now have 4 priests and 4 establishments. All the missionaries who have spent time in this group of Islands hold out great hopes for these people, whose character and whose government offer more possibilities than those of Wallis or Tonga. The only obstacle still left to overcome is the indifference in which they are mired, not feeling themselves able yet to judge between us and the different heretical sects that have preceded us; but the Good Lord will certainly find some means of enlightening these poor people who otherwise seem of good faith.
Please, my Reverend Father, do not give this letter more importance than it deserves, as I have written it in great haste. I wanted to communicate with you and I have done so at great length. It will be necessary to wait until there are missionaries who have grown old in these islands and who have had the time to put their observations in order before we have accurate and precise information. Please encourage the novices who are preparing to join us. May they fear neither the dangers nor the work, because the weakest and the most at risk are the most generously supported. May they equip themselves with patience and deference and may they accept the fact that on arriving here they will have to reassess many of their first impressions and accept the fact that they are in the antipodes of Europe.
Please give my regards and my best wishes to all those good Fathers who might come here; we cannot wait to see them and embrace them. God grant that no one amongst them becomes discouraged by the trials of such a long sea voyage, which is like another novitiate, very different from the first one but no less useful. God grant that they all arrive safe and sound to revitalise us with their enthusiasm. The more of us there are, the more souls will be sanctified and saved. Pray for me, my Reverend Father.
I am with the deepest respect,
Your most devoted servant in our Lord,
Mathieu, missionary.
Ouvea, 16th July, 1847.


  1. Vaimua Lavelua
  2. The chiefs Pooi and Tuugahala conducted a war which was essentially dynastic, but where, nevertheless, the Protestants supported the first chief whilst the supporters of the second chief were mainly Catholics (cf. doc. 372, ∫9, n. 7); both chiefs were members of the family of King Vaimua Lavelua (cf. doc. 328, ∫9, n. 8; 342, ∫ 3, n. 3).
  3. Cf. Rm 6.18-19: Liberati aurem a peccato, servi facti estis iustitiae. Humanum dico, propter infirmitatem carnis iniquitatem, carnis vertrae; sicut enim exhibuistis membra vestra servire inmunditiae, at iniquitati ad iniquitatem, ita nunc exhibere membra vestra servire iustitiae in sanctificationem. (You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness. I put this in human terms because you are weak in your natural selves. Just as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer them in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness.)
  4. Cf. 2 Co 12.11: Factus sim insipiens, vos me coegistis (I have made a fool of myself! You drove me to it.)
  5. Alludes to Mt. 8:23-27, Mk 4:31-41, Lk 8:23-25.
  6. Bataillon had written to Poupinel from the island of Upolu in the Samoan Group on 16th April, 1847 (doc.623); at the time that the present document was finished, Bataillon arrived back from Samoa (see his letter of 19th July to Etienne Séon) (doc. 643). In October 1847, he speaks more fully about the seven months he spent in Samoa and of the three months on Wallis in his letter of 14th to Colin (doc. 675) and of 15th to Poupinel (doc. 676).

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