From Marist Studies
10 July 1848 — Father Grégoire Villien to his cousin Father Villien, director of missions at Tarentaise in Moutiers (Savoie), Rook
Translated by Mary Williamson, August 2017
- Rook, Port Saint Isidore 10th July 1848.
- My dear cousin,
- On 6th January 1848, I left Rotuma on board the Arche d’Alliance, hoping to find some of my colleagues and countrymen at San Cristobal. Alas! When I reached that island, they were no longer there: death and the cruel treachery of the natives had sacrificed some of them; thus Father Crey passed away peacefully, the death of the just, whilst Fathers Paget and Jacquet and Brother Hyacinthe were massacred and eaten by the cannibals. The others, when Bishop Collomb returned, were forced to evacuate that fever-ridden and inhospitable land. I was going to search for them; but, whilst still on the same ship, and heading towards finding them, we were struck for more than 15 days by a terrible wind that several times almost committed us to the deep. The ship suffered great damage and even her rudder was crippled. Thanks to her solid build, or rather, thanks to divine providence, which watches over the Arche d’Alliance in the most marvellous way, the ship held her own. Despite all the problems that our worthy captain, Mr Marceau endured, we were forced to withdraw and we arrived in Sydney without further incident on 5th March, after 2 months of difficult navigation. I spent a month in this capital of New Holland, then left again on the brig Anonyme, another of the Society of Oceania’s ships. This time I was much happier and in less than 20 days I arrived at the site of the mission and the residence of Bishop Collomb  and of his remaining colleagues. But how this little troupe had diminished! And how much those who were still living had been weakened by a tenacious fever, that had carried some of them to death’s door! When I arrived at Woodlark, they were much better and the one still suffering the most was Bishop Collomb, who was still stricken with violent stomach pains.
- The Bishop, the vicar apostolic, profited from the presence of the brig Anonyme to go to found a new mission within his vast curacy, which has no fewer than 1500 islands. As a new arrival, I was destined for this second station with Father Frémont and Brother Opat. Bishop Collomb was with us and we set sail towards the North. We stopped out from the island of Rook, 70 leagues North-West of Woodlark and we began by sailing round it to search for the most favourable position for an establishment and to see if it might be possible, as far as the natives were concerned, to set up our quarters amongst them. We favoured a place in the Northern part of the island, where there was a nice little port that we named Saint Isidore, because of the saint whose feast day we were celebrating on the day of our arrival, 15th May 1848. It is there that we established ourselves, on the sea shore, very near to a large village of 4-500 souls. In all probability it is here, finally, that I will be settled, that I will finish my lifespan and that I will leave my last remains; hoec requies mea; hic habitabo,  whilst waiting for divine mercy.
- In response to the interest that you take in everything that concerns me, I am going to give you some details about my new adoptive homeland, at least as much as my short stay here will allow, without putting down anything that is guessed at, or inaccurate.
- Rook is an oval shaped island, running from South-East to North-East; of small size, it is from 20 to 25 marine leagues in circumference. It is situated at 5º30 south latitude and 145º30 east longitude and its position could not be more advantageous for the mission. Situated in the Dampier strait between two large land masses, it has New Britain just 4 leagues to the East and New Guinea 7 leagues to the West; without counting 16 small islets that surround it; towards the South, there are 3 quite big and well populated islands not far away. From the way that the natives communicate amongst themselves, it would be easy for us find out how the missionaries could penetrate these shores. If, by God’s grace, Rook becomes Catholic, the route to the larger islands would be open to us or at least become much easier to access. One cannot help but feel an inexpressible sense of sadness when one has within sight such beautiful and vast lands inhabited by revoltingly cannibalistic people, of unbelievable treachery towards whoever might be unaware of it and for whom the devil dominates as master and tyrant.
- We are not only the first missionaries, but the first white people to have landed on this island. Thus the natives have received us with excessive defiance and anxiety. They have no idea of the motives that have brought us to their land; they imagine that we have come to carry off their women and children, no doubt to kill them and then eat them. So the old people, the children and the women flee into the forest, taking with them their domestic animals and everything that is most precious to them, whilst the young people and the men prepare themselves to fight us. They endeavour to make us understand, by signs and shouts, that we should not encroach on their territory. Poor blind people! They did not know that we were bringing them light and peace. May they be able, soon, to sample with us the pleasures of the Christian religion and give thanks to God, who has sent us to them! At last, a few gifts that we have given them and our peaceful manner has reassured them; they allowed the sailors from the Anonyme to build us a small wooden house. At the time that I am writing to you, we have been living in this new house for four days.
- Rook has on offer all the riches of a vegetation grown on volcanic soil and of an intertropical region. So close to the equator, we nevertheless do not suffer the excessive heat that such a latitude would make you imagine; the air here is constantly refreshed, either by the trade winds  or by the monsoon which blows in the reverse direction from the trade winds. The masses of volcanic rock that one finds on the shore and on the hillsides and the shape of the mountains, abruptly and sharply outlined leave not the least doubt of the volcanic origin of this island. We have as well, before our eyes, a living proof of this fact: On a small island, hardly a league’s distance from Rook, there is an active volcano with the same conical summit as this island, that emits from several craters numerous thick columns of smoke.
- Rook is a generally pretty island, but the Eastern and Southern parts are as magnificent as one could find. Numerous streams water it and towards the South there is a beautiful river which, at its mouth forms an excellent anchorage. If the surrounding areas had not been swampy, we would have established ourselves there. The mountains and coasts are covered right down to the shore with dense forests, except for the clearings made by the natives, to establish their plantations. A good number of trees, some of which bear excellent fruits, reach considerable heights; there are breadfruit, coconut palms, palms that bear another type of nut, another tree called “kangarou” by the natives which produces a very nourishing almond and wild fig trees that are very numerous: the other species are unknown to me. It is there that a host of birds live, pigeons, doves, parrots with harsh cries, hens and wild guinea-fowl. One also finds in these forests a type of pig with small ears and two enormous tusks which jut out from its lower jaw. On the seashore and in the marshy areas a cayman appears at night, a sort of crocodile as big as a man. He moves on his four feet and rather resembles a lizard in shape. He is greatly feared by the natives. Our savages have, in a domesticated state, small dogs that do not bark and whose cries resemble, or could be mistaken for the long moans of a person who is weeping; in contrast, there are some birds in the bush who imitate the barking of a dog.
- The natives seem to us to be numerous; they are robust and tall; their hair is woolly and frizzy, cut short and shaved at the back of the head. They wear, hung from their necks, the septums of their noses and the lobes of their ears shell ornaments. Their smooth skin is of a deep brown. They are excessively distrustful; they make frequent use of betel; they practice circumcision; dancing to the sound of drums and accompanied by a monotone chant, entertains them each evening. Their weapons are spears, bows and slingshots; their houses are constructed on stones on the sea shore. That is all I can tell you about these people; and according to all that, I see that we are dealing with a sick race. We have not yet been able to discover whether, like their renowned neighbours in New Guinea they are partial to human flesh.
- This island, Rook, in a latitude close to the equator is soaked suddenly by showers of rain, that a blazing sun evaporates almost immediately and is covered with thick forests that should be fever-inducing; I hope that with precautions we will succeed in guaranteeing ourselves the most favourable sites. Bishop Collomb, who was stricken with the fever at Woodlark, still suffers greatly today and added to the fever he suffers great stomach upsets. His ongoing and acute suffering, along with the concerns of his new position have exhausted him and we greatly fear being deprived too soon of his shining light and his charity. Father Frémont is accustomed to the fever; he regards it as a companion that the good Lord has given him; Brother Optat is in full strength and as for me, I am for the most part, as well as in Europe.
- When I see myself so close to New Guinea and New Britain, where the gospel has not yet been introduced, it seems to me that I would be willing to make some sacrifices to go and introduce religion to these vast countries. Your prayers and those of our associates in the admirable work of the Propagation of the Faith, will hasten this happy day and will at least seek for others this happiness.
- Please …..
- Villien, missionary Society of Mary.
- Jean-Georges Collomb
- Ps 131 (132). 14: Haec requies mea in saeculum saeculi; hic habitabo, quoniam elegi eam. (“This will always be my place of repose, I will reside here; it is here that I have wished to be”)
- Read: alizé(s)
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