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25 April & 12 August 1848 — Father Xavier Montrouzier to his parents, Woodlark

Translated by Mary Williamson, August 2016.
Two sheets of paper, forming eight pages, seven of which are written on, the eighth having only the address.
To Mr / Mr Montrouzier owner / Clermont Hérault / France / Hérault
[Post marks]
29TH MARCH 1849

Everything through Mary!

My dear parents,
Although I have already written you several long letters, you do not yet know how we establish our missions. It is a very interesting subject that I am going to try to explain to you, by simply giving you the continuation of my journal.
When, after having left San Cristobal, we had the good fortune of sighting Woodlark, our first concern was to find a harbour or at least a mooring. No doubt you understand the reason for this: it was that, having to deal with savage people with a rather dubious reputation, we had to provide ourselves, in case of attack, with a safe haven on the ship and consequently, this needs to be anchored. The Good Lord who, I utter this with full conviction, has made us many times aware of his help, did not leave us to search for long. On 15th September we entered a vast bay where our captain felt we were fully secure.
Before we had even anchored several canoes had come out to draw alongside. Coming from different villages, each one wanted us to station ourselves near to their village, not, as you might well think, to have the pleasure of our company, but solely to have the advantage of trading and to thus acquire pieces of iron, of which the natives are very covetous. In these canoes we saw a native who was gesticulating more wildly than the others, so as to attract our attention and he added a few words of English to his gestures. His fine appearance pleased us, his scant knowledge of a European language (he knew about ten to twelve words) intrigued us. Finally we allowed him on board.
This was a veritable conquest for us. This worthy man was to later be of great service to us. He was called Pako. We dropped anchor quite near to shore and kept him with us and from then on he found himself surrounded with consideration on our part and respect where his compatriots were concerned. He was aware of this and with political ends in mind, he profited from his position, eating meat with a healthy appetite and complaining that no one had put sugar in his water. This will perhaps surprise you, my dear parents and in fact, such refinements seem ridiculous where the savages are concerned. But when one has lived for a while in these countries, it does not take long to notice that vanity, the desire for distinction and egotism are not just unique to the rich and learned of our civilised societies. The heart of man is the same everywhere.
During the evening we closely questioned our interpreter, using as best we could, the few words he knew and many gestures. Of course he only gave us advantageous information about his island and he poured forth a thousand lies, each one more amazing than the other. The savages are very good, I assure you, at praising their own country and when the truth does not equate with their wish to give you an impressive idea of it, they supplement with their imagination whatever is lacking. Well, these last few days, some natives from a neighbouring island, called Massin have arrived. [1] Wishing to attract us to their home territory, so that they too could have iron and axes, they painted an enchanting picture of their land. “Do you see that large tree on the shore, one of them said to me. (That tree must have been about twenty feet high and six feet in circumference.) Well, our yams are just about as big as that.” (The best yams I have ever seen would be no bigger than 20 pounds; in Tonga there are some of about fifty pounds, but they are rare.) He added: “Our coconuts are so big that neither you nor the epikopo, nor even all of you together would be able to use up a single one. (The very best of coconuts on these islands would scarcely contain two glasses of liquid; they have some a bit bigger in central Oceania.) Finally, our tortoises are so big that when they are swimming their whole body is above the water level.” I’ll spare you the other lies that he poured out with an imperturbable calm.
The day after our arrival, canoes came from all sides. They were loaded with local fruit that they wanted to sell in exchange for iron. Generally, we did not have cause to complain about the ill will of the natives. Only we noticed that they were sharp dealers. They had perfectly arranged their goods so that they only showed the best side and we would find that all the worst of their produce was at the bottom of their baskets. They also had a special expedient for acquiring iron. If we refused their fruit, they protested that they had not brought them to sell, but to give them to us so as to put us in a position where we were forced to accept them. Moments later they expressed such a desire to also have a token of friendship that it would have seemed in bad grace to not give them the piece of iron that they were indicating with their expressive glances. In the evening we went ashore, but only for a short time to demonstrate our confidence to the natives.
On the 17th we sent a message to the chiefs via Pako, that we would be very happy to see them. They came aboard, but I must say, the gathering was not very interesting. Fascinated by the sight of the little gifts that we offered them, they could only reply with cries of astonishment to everything we said to them and no doubt, to avoid all our questions, they began without further ado to sing. In fact, we must admit that our propositions must have astonished them. How could they possibly understand that some rich strangers, lacking absolutely nothing, as they could see from our shipboard life, would wish to stay with people who were poor and deprived of everything? Nevertheless, the object of our gathering was achieved. We could expect, thanks to our gifts, that the chiefs would not frustrate us, at least for the moment. It was a major step, the chiefs of these countries being always very powerful in dangerous ways. From then on we seriously began our investigations.
To make the decision to establish a settlement, we needed three things: a population, drinking water and some land suitable for cultivation. We easily found the first in the bay of Guessup [2] where we were situated; there were in fact six villages. But as for the rest we saw nothing that was satisfactory to us. Water was scarce and of poor quality and the soil was very sandy near the sea shore; nevertheless we decided to stay and we wished to install ourselves in the central village, where the head chief lived. Consequently, on the 18th we went to the area and tried to make the natives understand that we intended to establish ourselves amongst them and that because of this we needed a house for which we needed a site. Our proposition delighted them. They replied that all the terrain that was in front of us belonged to us and they began to clear it of bush. Immediately the Bishop offered them gifts and we set ourselves the task of taking charge of the mission, singing the litanies of the Holy Virgin and the Ave Maria Stella.
You must not imagine, my dear parents, that all this happens with the calm with which we attend to our activities in France. It is often necessary to really exercise our lungs to make ourselves heard. Often we will be interrupted with questions that have nothing to do with our subject and will be obliged, to keep the natives happy, to press noses with them: this is their way of greeting each other. Well, I will tell you about an incident, so that you can judge for yourselves the customs of the savages. As their happiness is not complete without having some food to eat, a large quantity of taro was cooked in front of us and this was then distributed to those present. Now those that were offered to a neighbouring chief were not cooked enough. No doubt taking this for an insult, he got up, threw down his taro in anger and started to gesticulate, shouting words that we did not understand, but the tone of which made it obvious that he was upset. For a moment we were afraid that he would carry this to an extreme. They managed to calm him, but not without difficulty.
Our dealings having been completed, our savages got to work clearing the terrain. Then they began to construct a house for us, of the same type as theirs, that is to say a hut open on all sides. Our state of health obliged us to be better housed. We explained this to the natives and, close to the miserable hut that they had built for us they constructed a solid wooden house. This work took two months; we were not in any condition to help with this; we had to rely on the help of strangers at the mission, which was a huge expense for us.
Once we were housed, we set about studying the language, as that has to be our starting point. Just imagine then, four missionaries armed with notebooks and pencils, going forth round about to expand their vocabulary with a few words, then assailing a native to try, in whatever way they could, to give him an idea of what they were trying to express and asking him in return the expression he would use for it. Thus, if it is a question of the word for the hand or the foot, they show him these parts of the body, listen as carefully as they can to the word they are given and hasten to put it on paper. Then, what disappointment when, coming together to confer, they find that there are different terms for the same thing! Thus one of them has for the word hand, nimag, another has nimame, and a third person has nimane. On thinking about it they finally realised that when they were told nimag, the native had shown his own hand and said: nimag, my hand, while it was the missionary who showed his hand when he was told: nimame, your hand, or else it was a third person whose hand was shown when they said: nimane, his hand. It was basically the same word, but the endings varied according to the person.
There was another much more serious difficulty. It was with words expressing ideas, which could not be exhibited by signs. So, should we, to express the word love, imitate a mother who caresses and pampers her child. The natives simply give us the word to caress, to pamper, in such a way that we have sometimes spent entire hours to find one word and even then we do not always achieve our goal.
Despite our difficulties, although scarcely a month has passed since we began our study of the language, we have been able to say something about religion. Naturally we have taken the subject of the creation to introduce the subject. Our savages have seemed impressed when we told them that the sun, the moon and the stars did not create themselves, but that they had been created by a Great Spirit called Jehovah. From there our instruction began.
You must understand, my dear parents, that the savages only listen with surprise to what we are able to tell them about our blessed religion. They are mainly engrossed with material ideas. They only think about taro, yams, fishing and iron. To speak to them about other things is like talking to them in a foreign language. They do not even assume that we would speak to them about other things and if we said to them that in France there are neither yams or taro, they would regard it as a dreadful country. Thus nothing is more unusual than certain questions or certain replies that they express. One day when we spoke to them about a heaven reserved for the good and a hell reserved for the wicked, one of the natives thought he had understood us perfectly and started to explain to the listeners that the chiefs would go to heaven and their subjects to hell. It required a long discussion to make it understood that the chiefs, even though they were chiefs, would go to hell if they behaved badly, whilst their subjects would go to heaven if they were well behaved. Another time we spoke about those who form the Holy Trinity and we named them. One of them started to repeat them, but instead of saying: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit he said, without meaning to be difficult: the father, the mother and the son. - It required further discussion to make them understand that in the Holy Trinity there is not a mother.
How many times has it been said to us: But why don’t you write to Jehovah asking him to come to Moiu (that is the native’s name for the island) and to bring with him all his riches, iron and axes. This is how our natives are: men who are totally material. Oh! well, in spite of that and perhaps even because of that, you cannot imagine the pleasure one has in teaching them the catechism, to sit down companionably with them and teach them the sign of the cross and tell them something of the wonders of God and of the life hereafter. Often we see God’s grace working noticeably. I will tell you about just one example. One day we spoke about the creation and after having said that God had made everything: And who made the canoes, a child asked us. The reply was that God had made the wood and with the wood men had made the canoes. One feels an inexpressible pleasure in explaining acts of love of God. Hell has been master of our savages for so long that it is a pleasure to deprive it of some prey that it believed it was forever assured of.
Not being able, at first, to translate our prayers into the native language, we have taught the children, who have excellent memories, the Pater, the Hail Mary, the Creed and the Gloria patri in Latin, and quite often we recite several dozen rosaries. The natives know that this is praying to Jehovah and Mary, mother of Jesus. I assure you that my heart then fills with very great joy. When will our people here offer a more perfect form of worship to God? When will they become Christians? This will be when the faithful of Europe will have, by their prayers, obtained from heaven the blessing of conversion, that God longs to confer on them, but that he wishes them to ask for. May this happy day hasten to come, this day which I long for, with fervent prayers, never forgetting these poor savages who are our brothers and who we would resemble, if missionaries had not brought to us the precious gift of faith. I hope for a lot from our mission. It has suffered, it has born some crosses. This is an excellent sign, but it is not enough. We must continue to pray, to support the courage of the missionaries and to soften the hearts of the natives.
Up till now we are very pleased with our natives. They have their faults, no doubt, but overall they are even better than we had dared to hope, after those we had encountered in New Caledonia and San Cristobal. So, instead of continual warfare between the diverse tribes, as happens everywhere else, here the natives have only a few spears, which they use mainly to harpoon large fish. Polygamy does not seem to be allowed except for chiefs and the couples the natives form seems very strong. Although the island does not seem to be heavily populated, the population is quite compact and to go from one village to another the tracks are passable. We have not yet had much to complain about as far as theft is concerned and we have never been threatened. I am mistaken: it has happened once, but that did not have and could not have had a regrettable outcome. One day some strangers arrived at a village near to ours and they thought, being somewhat jealous, that we could well set up an establishment with them, but we were warned not to go and see them because, we were told, they would kill us. We were forbidden by the bishop from going to visit them, until further orders. We respected this order until such time as we might receive an explanation. As it was repeated endlessly that we would be killed, we laughingly asked how this would be carried out. Then they declared in all seriousness that for this, they would use neither spears nor axes, but would cast a spell which would inevitably kill us. You can imagine our astonishment. We went to the home of these strangers and then returned triumphant, displaying the fact that we were not dead.
Up till now we have only set up one establishment. But as the bay where we are now and its surroundings cannot keep us all occupied, we are going to set up another. What are two occupied sights in a curacy which has fifteen hundred islands? If new helpers arrived, they would be very speedily placed.

My health is good at the moment. I only have the fever about once a month. There is the same improvement with the other missionaries, so that we can at last get some work done. Besides, the bishop does not let us suffer. Our food is good and following his orders, I have prepared a long list of the main medications needed for the sick. He has had sent from Sydney all the things I had listed.
I still maintain the same level of satisfaction. God is so good to us. He certainly tests us, but he also consoles us and besides, we know perfectly well that He only chastises us for our own good! Oh, I can scarcely understand how we can still mistrust His love for us. Do you not, my dear parents, love me like your own selves? Well, God loves me even more. What a father! What a mother!
It is extremely hot here. At the time of writing this, it is 32 degrees. It does not rain much and the winds are frequent and gusty. We have had a fairly strong earthquake. The natives say that they are quite frequent. The land is mainly flat. The trees are fairly sparse; they support some bariroussa or wild pigs and some caimen. But these caimen are only found in the swampy areas, so that you can easily avoid coming across them.
Since we have been on the island we have been visited by people from all around. We are the showpiece of the country. We have been asked a thousand questions. Personally, I have been asked your names and those of my brothers and my sisters. Then I have been asked to write to them so that they will come here.
I finish this letter, written in no particular order, like all the others, whilst embracing you from the bottom of my heart and asking you, my dear parents, to believe me to be your loving son,
Xavier Montrouzier,
missionary apostolic.
Post Script. Embrace my sisters and Ernest for me and remember me kindly to all our relatives and friends. I do not receive any letters. I do not know what to think about this. I heard that you have given one hundred ecus to the mission. I thank you in the mission’s name, whilst reminding you of these words of our Lord to his disciples: He who welcomes you, welcomes me.
Woodlark, 25th April, 1848.
The new establishment that I spoke about is finished. The bishop went to found it himself, at Rook. I have stayed at Woodlark with the Reverend Father Thomassin. This establishment is admirably situated. From here one can see New Britain and Louisiade and one can communicate with New Guinea. Our Fathers have been well received and seem very content. They have at hand a fine population who seem to have fairly peaceful customs. But a matter of great concern to us is the state of health of the bishop, which is causing us great concern.

For two months the rains have been more frequent and the fever is more prevalent. I am in its grip at the moment. This is preventing me from continuing to write. The natives are all behaving themselves. We have six little angels. Amongst them is a little girl who I have called Amelia and a little boy to whom I have given the name of Jean.
Farewell, I embrace you all from the bottom of my heart.
Xavier Montrouzier
apostolic missionary.
Embrace for me Gabriel, Henri, Amelie, Marie and Ernest.
Woodlark, 12th August 1848.


  1. Massin is the collective name of the people who inhabit the Eastern islands of Papua, amongst which are the islands of Woodlark (Murua, Moiu) (cf. Encyclopaedia of Papua and New Guinea, vol. 2, p. 714). The “neighbouring island” that the author speaks of could be the island of Misima situated about 155 kms to the South of Woodlark, in the archipelago of Louisiade (cf. Pacific Islands, vol. 4, p. 290-291, 300); Thomassin says that to the South-East there are an “infinity of islets, named Messins” which are probably part of the archipelago of Louisiade (cf. doc. 1067, § 8); the island of Misima is to the South of Woodlark (Murua) and not to the South-East. Nevertheless, Trapenard speaks of the island of Massins, situated “to the West” of Moiu (Woodlark) (cf. doc. 849, § 49, 80; 850,§ 48). It is very likely that Thomassin like Trapenard gave the name of the people, Massin, to these two islands, one to the South in the archipelago of Louisiade and the other to the West.
  2. the bay of Guasupa is situated to the South-West of the island of Woodlark; the village of Guasopa is situated on the shore of this bay (cf. Encyclopaedia of Papua and New Guinea, vol. 3, map engraving)

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