From Marist Studies
14 March 1848 — Father Grégoire Villien to Father Jean-Claude Colin, Sydney
Translated by Mary Williamson, May 2016
Based on the document sent, with no signature except that added by Poupinel, APM OP 458.2 Missionary translation (1845-1860).
Sheet of paper forming four written pages.
- Sydney, 14th March 1848.
- Jesus Mary Joseph
- My very Reverend Father,
- I have at last left Rotuma to present myself at the apostolic curacy of Bishop Collomb, a call that I had to obey. It was on 5th January 1848 that I left the island that had provided me with hospitality for a whole year, to once again embark on the Arche d’Alliance. For a long time I had waited, in my temporary station, for the ship that would transport me to the site of this mission. But if, on the one hand, I was delighted to be able to rejoin the vicar apostolic of Melanesia and Micronesia and all his generous collaborators, on the ship which had transported me from Europe, and whose excellent Captain and officers I already knew, on the other hand it was at the cost of leaving a land whose natives were gentle and good, and whose customs and language I understood and who gave me real hope that conversions would be able to be achieved in certain individuals.
- On leaving Rotuma, I was far from foreseeing the disasters that had struck our missionaries and the harsh trials with which it pleased God to try us during our voyage towards the Solomon Islands. First the Captain informed me of the catastrophe that had struck in New Caledonia which, apart from the pillaging of the possessions of the two missions, included the massacre of the missionaries and of the vicar apostolic of Melanesia.  The new Bishop, back from New Zealand, where he had been consecrated,  had waited there for a ship to transport him back to the place of his mission with all his possessions; I dispense with giving you all the details, because they have already been sent to you.
- Mr Marceau was going to pass by Anatom, to pick up letters and since he was going to be in the vicinity of the Loyalty Islands, he was anxious to take on board, at Rotuma, 33 natives from those islands, who had been dishonestly transported by ship to Rotuma. Amongst them were the son of a king and several other chiefs; they wanted to be of service to the mission of Bishop Douarre by winning the confidence of the natives towards the missionaries, which would be great help; and they succeeded as much as one could hope for, considering the nature of the natives. The king of this area was extremely pleased to see his son again, as he had believed him lost, along with others of his subjects. He asked the captain to leave with him the two missionaries who he had on board, Father Rocher and me. Mr Marceau replied that he was not in charge of assigning the missionaries, but that later on the leader of the missionaries would be able to organise some for him. You would be interested to learn of the remarkable and interesting reception that the natives of this island, Ouvea or Jae as the islanders call it, gave us when we came ashore and all that was frightening and solemn in our meeting with the islanders with spears, clubs, slingshots etc. the king leading them; we found ourselves lost in this crowd of warriors with faces painted with black or white, according to personal taste, and remarkable for other grotesque traits. But other more pressing matters oblige me to leave out the details.
- Up till then we had had a favourable wind; but as we proceeded towards the Solomon Islands, the weather was no longer auspicious. First it was prolonged calms, a fiery sun beating down and a heat that hardly allowed us to breath; we spent ten days to cover a distance that should have taken four with a favourable wind; on 24th January we found ourselves out from the Bay of Saint Mary (island of San Cristobal) where our missionaries had established themselves and where they had stayed from the time of the death of Bishop Epalle in December 1845, until September 1847.
- There I hoped to see and embrace at least some of our colleagues and this relief would have allowed me to forget for a moment the stresses of our passage; but as if the dreadful arrival in New Caledonia had not been enough, we learned there of disasters just as unexpected and even more overwhelming. While we were delayed out from Saint Mary’s bay, three canoes set out from different points of the bay and paddled out to us; but we saw no sign of the missionaries. The natives who arrived first, climbed on board; some of them wore hats and caps on their heads that had belonged to the Brothers. They were in a great hurry to let us know that the missionaries had all left, along with the Bishop; but we were not entirely convinced by their words, which we had difficulty in understanding. We saw in the canoes a dog and some books that belonged to the mission and that we suspected had been pillaged. A succession of other canoes arrived and came to make some exchanges; but they had an air of nervousness about them. So these factors were far from being reassuring, when the man who was the spokesman exposed under his hat, which he kept on his head, a piece of paper which seemed to be the end of a letter. We pulled out this piece of paper which indeed turned out to be a letter; this one was followed by a second, then a third, which slid out after the first. All these letters, written in the handwriting of Bishop Collomb to Mr Marceau informed us of the fact that Father Cray had died in his bed on 15th March 1847, a calm and peaceful death; that on 20th April of the same year Fathers Paget and Jacquet and Brother Hyacinthe had been massacred on the mountain, by a treacherous act of the natives, at a time when they were looking for a site to set up an establishment; that the Bishop, fearing further attacks of this kind, had judged it wise, contrary to his first plan, to move everyone, Fathers and Brothers, to a healthier or at least more welcoming place, to Woodlark in all probability; that if the Captain found no missionaries there, he should take no further action to find them; but that without upsetting himself he should return to Sydney with the missionaries that he had on board. This was indeed bitter news.
- I was not surprised about having to make a further voyage; for having learned that the Bishop had headed to Woodlark, I had to submit to his urgent bidding that I should not stop anywhere within his mission and that I should not rejoin him, all this according to the tenor of a letter delivered on his behalf by the Captain; but I deeply regretted not being able to at least visit the mission and the other areas that had been witness to so much physical and moral suffering for my dear colleagues and where four of them had left their mortal remains to enter, as I am firmly convinced, into a better life with the pleasure of a happiness earned with so much suffering; it was not wise to involve oneself ashore amongst a group of anthropophages, already upset by the departure of the missionaries.
- It was with regret that we finally left these inhospitable shores. We had covered very little distance when, added to the confirmed calamities which were already established in our hearts, another anxiety became associated with it which, within the realms of probability, was no less trying for us than all the things we had already seen. This terrible fear was nothing less than the suspicion that all the missionaries had been massacred, the belongings of the mission pillaged and the brig with all the crew who were at the service of the Bishop apostolic destroyed. What gave rise to these terrible suspicions was that we had seen, in the hands of the natives, several objects from the mission, books, hats etc. There were the rather vague explanations about the letters we were given, which seemed to indicate an awkwardness concerning the items retained; and finally the anxiety displayed when they saw that we about to come ashore. So we came to ask ourselves: had the Bishop and his missionaries really departed from San Cristobal on the brig? Would this not have been attacked? After having hesitated somewhat over the course we should take and reflecting on the futility of any actions we could take ashore, if in fact this disaster had occurred. We were not sure of this and knowing of the imminent danger of exposing armed men to any attack from the islanders, we continued our passage towards Woodlark, with this distressing suspicion in our hearts.
- But burdens of another kind were awaiting us in our attempts to reach this island. We were only 180 leagues away from it and with fine weather this should have been a matter of 4 to 5 days; but it was the unfavourable season of rain and storms; when, after a considerable amount of time and trouble we had covered a distance of 100 leagues and were quite close to Georgia, one of the Solomons, it was impossible to progress any further. Everything was against us: head wind, very strong adverse currents, huge waves that battered the ship, storms that tore the sails and broke the ropes, torrential rain and continual mists that prevented us from being able to fix our position, in a sea well known for its reefs. I do not need to tell you, my Father, how much I suffered personally with this miserable weather; a poor sailor, I was tormented in a way that made me detest sea voyages forever. The Captain, with great courage, struggled for 12 more days against these storms, to try and reach Woodlark; but far from making progress, it often happened that the next day we were further from our destination than the night before, the contrary currents were so strong. Pondering the poor condition of our rudder and the small amount of food we had left, in a vicinity where it was impossible to acquire more, we also considered the nature of these storms which, far from abating, seemed to become more tempestuous every day. On 9th February we were forced to give up on Woodlark and set a course for Sydney, bitterly regretting not being able to cover the small distance that separated us from that island. We were three days into our route for Sydney when we were suddenly surprised by a huge gust of wind which nearly made us founder or break the masts; six men on the tiller could hardly master it; thanks to the solidity of the ship and, above all, divine protection, we got off again with a fright, except for the torn sails and other damage to the masts. Nevertheless the sea, constantly stirred up by almost continual storms, hurled massive waves at the ship, which rolled so much that it caused many of those on board to have falls; we were on edge most of the time; the 13th February, a very sad day, ended with an accident that froze most of the people on board with fear; towards nine o’clock in the evening an enormous wave crashed down on the stern of the ship, breaking and carrying away the tiller, which disappeared under the water. Still 500 leagues from Sydney, in a sea scattered with reefs, in stormy weather, without a tiller and with food supplies which would last two months at the most, that was the alarming perspective we were faced with. A sort of makeshift tiller was constructed, as best we could, using thick ropes. The next evening, the wind, which since the day before had begun to drop, allowing us the respite to carry out this work, became so strong again that it was not possible to stand on the bridge without being secured with ropes; the whistling that it created through the masts, the yardarms and the ropes, seemed like the ringing of a large church bell. This anguish lasted only 12 hours; it was the last trial of this sort, with which divine providence wished to teach us the lesson that, God being the unique master of the elements, it is in Him that we should place our peace of mind and all our confidence. In our troubles we also had recourse to our usual support, which has never let us down, to our loving Mary, she who the church calls the star of the sea; ah, she really was for us that reassuring star who guided us, without mishap, through the numerous reefs; the sun reappeared and awakened in us a feeling of joy and the hope of saving ourselves; the Arche d’Alliance, without a tiller, was able to travel at twenty to thirty leagues each day for six days, holding a straight course towards our destination. During this time, we were able to work on a few pieces of wood which we had on board, to fashion a small tiller; and, with this fragile support and a friendly sea we were happily able to enter into Sydney harbour on the morning of 5th March 1848.
- There you have it, my Reverend Father, the shortened story of this voyage, which I had hoped to achieve in 15 days at the most; it lasted two months and I now find myself further away from my mission than when I left Rotuma. It has pleased God to send us signs of his goodness and power; of his goodness in the happenings that forced us to surrender ourselves to him and of his power in snatching us from the fury of the elements. This voyage is a fairly faithful image of the life of a missionary who, time and again, has to cope with all aspects of adversity and inconsistency.
- Now, during the short stay that I am having at the procurator’s premises, I hope to build up my health, which is somewhat battered by the vagaries of the sea; I have met up with the Fathers and Brothers from New Caledonia who are about to leave to establish their mission in New Caledonia, but in another part of the island.
- Reverend Father Villien
- Jean-Baptiste Epalle, vicar apostolic of Melanesia was mortally wounded on 16th December 1845, on the island of Santa Isabel in the Solomons; he died three days later, on 19th (cf. doc. 457, § 11; 469, § 7-10; 470, § 8; 488, § 4, 17-29).
- Jean-Georges Collomb was ordained bishop by Philippe Viard at Kororareka in New Zealand on 23rd May 1847 (cf. Wiltgen, p. 458).
- this name is written in Poupinel’s hand
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