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20 July 1848 - Father Jean-Baptiste Bréhéret to Father Jean Griffon, curate at the Chapel Aubrey, Beaupréau arrondissement, Fiji

Translated by Mary Williamson, October 2017

Based on the document sent, APM, personal dossier of Bréhéret, correspondence.

Two sheets of “Bath” paper, forming eight pages, seven of which are written on, the eighth having only the address.

[p.8] [Address]
Monsieur Jean Griffon, curate at the Chapel Aubrey / Beaupréau arrondissement / Department of Maine and Loire / France.
[Post marks]

Jesus Mary Joseph

Fijian islands Lakemba.

20th July 1848.

Monsieur the curate,
It would give me the greatest of pleasure to write to you more often, but here the occasions are difficult to come by. They hardly present themselves more than once a year and even then, it is only for a few days during which one has hardly the time to get one’s thoughts together.
I am still at Lakemba, from which I have not yet been able to get away to visit a single one of the surrounding islands. We are nevertheless not unknown throughout almost all of the archipelago, because of the frequent communications that the natives have amongst themselves, travelling in a host of canoes in which they circulate all around.
I will not hesitate to give you a description of these canoes, which vary greatly in size. The largest could have a length of 70-80 feet and carry as many as 200 people. Their construction shows a people who are intelligent and tenacious in undertakings that are to their liking. * [1]. These craft are double-hulled and so are balanced by one another, which means that they do not easily capsize. They have only one mast and one triangular sail. They sail as close to the wind as possible. Although very simple, one needs to have seen their manoeuvres to have an idea of how they work. All the different pieces that make up these canoes are tied together with a sort of flat string with three strands, that they make with the fibre of the coconut. [2]
They also tie the framework of their houses together with this cord. They need a lot of it. One day at the King’s house I saw two rolls of it, of which the largest would have been at least 6 feet long and with a diameter of at least three and a half feet. Their houses are quite attractive and fairly big. They are oblong and rounded at the ends. The rooftop is very high, but the rushes that serve as walls are usually only three feet at the most. The King’s house differs from all the others with its large dimensions and in the amount of binding, which is lavish. There are panels that are decorated with this twine in types of designs. A double thickness of rushes forms the walls which can have a height of five feet. This rustic palace is raised on a small knoll about four feet high, which makes it healthier if the village is situated in a less desirable place. On the bare earth they place a layer of ferns and on this, small mats made of the leaves of the coconut palms, are spread out. Thus their houses would be very clean, if they exerted any care at all. But ordinarily it is the absolute opposite.
In the King’s palace not only all the princes of royal blood, but also all the general public and even the hefty farm workers are admitted. I have often seen them, while the kava is being prepared, come and discuss with his majesty the foods that have been served to him. It is in this palace that all the King’s children live, with thirty or forty women; for here in Fiji, the kings and chiefs distinguish themselves by the number of their wives, which can extend to 50, 100 and even more. This is a great obstacle to their conversion.
Yams, taro, bananas, breadfruit, coconuts and fish make up their usual foodstuffs. Laziness and lack of organisation mean that they live poorly and are often short of food. Thus, a good number of them die languishing, because of the hunger that they have suffered. Or else, the general unhealthiness of this particular island causes them illnesses from which they do not really recover well; so that the average life span for them does not seem to extend beyond twenty years, if they even get that far. The chiefs are more or less in the same category as the people as far as food is concerned. They eat meagrely at least six days of the week, but this is not from being virtuous. Pig, cat, dog, rat etc. all serve as food. “We are told that in Tonga a rat hunt was greatly amusing for the King, a truly noble and worthy pastime for His Majesty”.
I do not want to say anything about human flesh; it is the prime food. As soon as one asks them if it is good, you can see them licking their lips, like a tiger who has just devoured his prey. One says in Fiji that to cook men in the manner of such and such an area is like saying in France that you would prepare a dish in the English or French way. “The Fijians are distinguished by their skill in cooking”. On certain islands they spy on each other; on others they dig up their dead. In Gau, during the great sacrifices that they make to the devil, they kill a certain number of men, cook them in their ovens and then dress them up as if they were still living and place them thus in the middle of the assembled gathering, so that it would not be noticed that they were dead until the moment when they were cut up.
When a high chief dies, there are always one or several of his wives who accompany him. When someone falls ill and the illness is prolonged, his or her relatives, if there are any, gather together to discuss the situation, whether the patient wants this or not. If there are no relatives he would be left to die in his own time whether from hunger or destitution. The relatives deliberate then the person is either strangled or simply buried alive.
One day I questioned one of our novices who gave me all the details: When they are being buried alive, do they not cry out? No, he replied, they only warn them not to crush them. Another time, this same novice told me that some of them, seeing themselves in a languishing state, had someone dig their grave and then went and lay in it. That is very bad I told him. Well, he said, I have buried two of my relatives in this way. I had one who was languishing; one day he said to me: Show me your affection for me, go to a certain spot and dig my grave, so that I can go and lay myself in it. I replied: Wait for a while and then we will see. I started to weep. A few days later, he said to me again: So, you no longer have any affection for me? Have pity on me: Go and dig my grave so that I can go and lie down in it. Oh well, yes, I will go and do it, I replied. I went, I dug and dug; when I had finished, I went back and said to him: Your grave is prepared. That is good, he replied; accompany me. I followed him; he lay down in it and I buried him. Some time later I did the same for another relative. But, I said to him, in doing that did you not feel any repugnance; your heart did not tell you that that was bad? Not at all, I was still insensitive.
Another time, I asked him: Have many white people been eaten by Fijians? Is their flesh good? Ah! Certainly, he replied, in the past they were all eaten and those who had tasted them said that there was nothing as delicious; then he added: Here is how we went about capturing a European ship. To begin with we presented a friendly face to the crew; we took them foodstuffs to entice them and make them unsuspecting. Finally, on the chosen day, the chief said to his people: Today we are going to massacre these foreigners; each one of you take your club; without seeming to do anything, when we are aboard the ship, disperse yourselves around and at the signal that I will give you, each one of you will fell his man. It is their habit to seem friendly towards those that they wish to kill.
It is a habit of this kind that we have heard took place a long time ago, on the islands of Hapai, which are part of the archipelago of Tonga: An English warship anchored near to the island. Immediately, the plan was formed to seize it, but the enterprise was complicated. Following their custom, there were great demonstrations of goodwill and naivety towards the crew of the ship who, surprised and charmed to find so much goodwill towards them from these savages, were less on their guard and fell into the trap. Then the natives, who observed everything, invited them to a grand national celebration where they were entertained with various local dances. Encouraged by the desire to see a spectacle that was quite new to them, the Englishmen nearly all came ashore. All the savages were gathered and were waiting for them with impatience. They hastened to lead them to the gathering place; there they would be feted. On the pretext of honouring them even more, they were dispersed amongst those assembled, so that each Englishman had two savages, one on either side of him. At the moment when they were all completely engrossed in watching this new type of spectacle, the signal was given and in an instant everyone was massacred. They rushed to the ship where the rest of the men were killed. Then they devoted themselves to pillaging. Everything in the way of nails, iron objects etc. was taken, as being articles of greatest value. Bags of gold and silver coins were ignored, till such time as there being nothing else left, so then they carried them off and amused themselves by ricocheting them on the sea shore. Nowadays they are more aware of their value. This will give you an idea of these people and their treachery.
In Fiji, they have all the vices and not a single virtue. [3] They have a greed that is frightening. They are swept along by their covetousness. They have come from the bottom rung of the human species. Nevertheless, they are not all quite at the same level; some of them are somewhat more aware of the laws of nature that they have not been able to eliminate from their hearts: For they know very well that it is wrong to take the goods of others, to eat human flesh etc. We are told that some of them only do it with extreme repugnance, or even remove themselves from the situation.
Today cannibalism is much less practiced in the islands to the East; the ships have much less to fear there now than formerly. Here, in the case of a shipwreck, the people are treated respectfully. It would probably not be the same in all the islands to the West. Last year, a small schooner that came from Tonga, wishing to anchor near to a neighbouring island, ran aground at the entrance. Immediately one of the head chiefs from one of the large land areas, who was nearby with two hundred men, set about the task of going to massacre the men and pillage the ship. Fortunately, a chief from Tonga, who was on the island, hastened to talk to him and succeeded in persuading him to desist from his plan. He restricted himself to offering powerful sacrifices to the devil so that the shipwreck would be total, but to his deep regret, the schooner worked free of the reef and gained the open sea.
The devil still reigns as masters in Fiji. They worship them and build temples to them. They have their priests who offer them sacrifices. On this subject, they have a host of superstitions that we will get to know better later. In many houses, there is an area that is consecrated to the devil and offerings are hung there that consist of strips of locally made fabrics. They say that their demons appear to them frequently and that they used to appear much more often in the past than today. The chiefs especially have crowds of them. There are demons particular to each island, to each village and each house, etc. The King here says he is from a small neighbouring island, because the King of Lakemba is a demon. They say that the demons of certain islands are the demon chiefs and powerful; while those from other islands are wicked, that they love war etc. They have their distinct characteristics, similar no doubt to the characteristics of the inhabitants. They have the habit of casting spells, to make people, families or even villages die.
A man with a crippled hand told us one day how this had happened. And here is how it happened: One day when he was out walking with three others, they saw along their path a breadfruit tree laden with beautiful ripe fruits. They were hungry and they had nothing to eat. But the tree had one of these tapus on it, which they put on when they want anyone who breaks it to perish. They hesitated for a long time. Finally hunger took over; they ate the forbidden fruit, but this was not without consequences. After several days all four fell ill. Three of them died and the fourth, who was telling us the story, only recovered after several months.
To make Christians of these slaves of Satan, it needs more than work and patience; it requires help from on high; only mercy can bring about such marvels. With the conversion of each pagan, one is obliged to say: Digitus Dei est hic. If only there was still just their ignorance and ferocity to overcome, but there is more; they are all bursting with pride. When they have their hair well combed and neatly arranged, their faces completely or partly painted in red or black, a pair of garters on their calves and a club in hand, the great Turk would not be their equal. They march proudly, heads held high, glancing to right and left to see if anyone is admiring them. Their hairstyles take them a considerable time; sometimes of one colour, sometimes of another. There are some that are as huge as a bushel. Ordinarily, vermin abound in them, but when they anoint them with oil, this chases them off. Then the fleas come out: one person sets about catching them and gives them to another who eats them immediately, thus taking revenge for the bites that they have inflicted.
Apart from the obstacles of paganism which seem to be greater here than elsewhere, we also have to struggle against heresy. Six or seven Methodist ministers, spread throughout Fiji, with a swarm of Tongan and Fijian catechists, do incalculable harm. Not satisfied with stirring up old slanders, they invent new ones. My pen refuses to record the stories that they have spread here on Wallis and Futuna. With a few scraps of the bible in their hands that they can hardly read and that they understand even less, their catechists come right up to our door to do their preaching, with an audacity and impudence that you would not believe if you were not to witness it. One day, after having chatted with one of them for nearly an hour and very seriously, he replied with a smile: You speak to me, but I am paying no attention to what you say to me; my ears are deaf to your words. It is inconceivable the zeal and passion that they expend to defend their wrong thinking and to spread it. They make it a group affair; the disciples are becoming worse than their masters. Heresy gives them an air that is impossible to depict; just by their look one can recognise them, especially the catechists. Why, one of them said to one of our novices, have you embraced a religion that we want to destroy? He has just died, a victim of his enthusiasm for the heresy to which he sacrificed every moment of his time. He left several weeks before us from Tonga, specifically to block our entry to Fiji and prevent us from saving souls there. He carried with him the pain of not having been able to succeed here.
In fact, despite all their efforts, we have established ourselves and the truth is seeing the light of day. Little by little the natives of Tonga who are quite numerous here and who have plenty of common sense, recognise the folly of all the tapus that have been imposed on them. They had been forbidden all amusements, even the most innocent. On Sunday everything was tapu, except going to service, reading the bible or sleeping. As our novices say to us: we could not even move, if we turned to the right tapu, if we turned to the left tapu. On Sunday, to draw water, gather fruit, break a branch to brush away insects tapu; fire a rifle shot, swim etc. tapu. If the good Lord had not had pity on us, they said, and had not sent us the true religion, heresy would have made our land a place of heartache; we would have lost our way. [4] On the other hand, to be seen quite naked in front of everyone and have their children the same, nothing is more innocent. I have seen with my own eyes the good heretical women of the country lead the children of ministers to the seashore and let them run, completely naked, in front of everyone and laugh heartily. One can excuse these pagans; at least they say things to each other such as they are. But to see these miserable heretics present themselves as saints without fault, that is what makes us feel sick, that is what penetrates right to the core of our being.

In many of the villages, a spirit of enthusiasm takes hold of them; in their gatherings they weep, they cry out, they jump about, pretending that the holy spirit has come down upon them; they cast aside their vala, [5] or belts, caste off all their clothes and are very happy to be thus. Perhaps their folly will finally make them open their eyes. Already a good number understand that they have been mislead and only remain attached to the heretics for fear of their chiefs, for human respect and above all because their hearts are not yet prepared. Others are attached and are obstinate because of pigheadedness , pride, or attachment to the group. For these latter, their hearts grow more bitter and their hate grows as the religion grows and strengthens itself. [6] Our successes are still very few; nevertheless, the good Lord, here too, selects his chosen ones .
Our conversions take place mainly among the natives of Tonga, who are more ready to accept the faith. Amongst those who have been converted, a good number come assiduously to morning and evening prayers. Some little children, who cannot yet even reason and who have converted themselves, set an example for the others. A small child who is at the most four years old and who has become a Catholic, wanted no matter what to have a medal and comes regularly to prayers, even though his parents are strongly attached to heresy. The chief of our village, who believed the heretics, who detests us and who had heretical prayers recited in our house, saw his little daughter, who certainly is only about two and a half years old, drag forcefully from him permission to become a Catholic and who leaves everything at the first ring of the bell and comes all alone to prayers. One day when it had rained and there was a stream of water to pass it was only after having searched for a ford in three different places that she finally returned calmly home to her parents. The father and mother could not hold out against the voice of God, who was speaking to them through their child. They too abandoned their heretical beliefs and have become Catholics. [7]
The few rosaries that we have, have been distributed to them. Several people have brought me glass beads that they have bought from ships, for me to make them one. They are proud to wear them round their necks. Chiefs and commoners all feel proud and honoured to bedeck themselves with the symbols of Jesus and Mary.
A high chief from the Western islands, who came here about six months ago, at Easter 1847, with a dozen craft and nearly three hundred men, came to pay a visit. We allowed him to see our small chapel. Here is the true religion, he said, addressing his followers, a lotu dina ga qo. [8] Then turning towards us: when we commit ourselves to a religion, we will do it sincerely, we will quit evil and will do good; we will not behave like the heretics, who call themselves religious and are always wicked; It is an untruthful religion; we do not want anything to do with it. In fact, we have just learned that two ministers who are heretics and who were on our land, have been obliged to leave. When leaving, they have, as one says, shaken the dust from their heels: in testimonium illis. Alas, what can two poor ministers do in the middle of such a vast archipelago! We need missionaries for so many islands; we especially need prayers so as to receive from Heaven abundant mercy which will lighten their spirits and soothe their hearts. When one is in these places, it is impossible not to recognise that the conversion of an infidel is a pure act of grace, that all the knowledge, all the power of man can do nothing.
It is true, heresy has made some converts, but what converts! They are worse than they were as pagans. Oh! How can we help them? As they are taught here too, that charity means nothing, that faith is everything etc. I pass by the public confessions that they have established in silence and these could be called derisive and a school for sin; and the same for their communion which they carry out with all sorts of fruits of this country. Lets us hope that Mary will crush this burst of heresy and up till then these words that the church sings in her honour will come true: Gaude, Maria virgo, cunctas haereses sola interemisti in universo mundo; [9] that her divine son will not allow his mother to be insulted in vain, that she will be restored, that she will not be mistaken for one of the crowd, that she will be raised above the common herd, because that is what they do here every day. From the way that they utter it, the holy name of Mary is like a blasphemy on their lips. Let us beseech her Son to defend the honour of his Mother and pray to the Mother to save the many souls for whom her divine son shed his blood.
[24]: Pray for these poor heretics, pray for these poor infidels. Some, tricked by a false hope, chase after a vague phantom; others are still caught in the shadow of death. All deserve the most profound compassion, because they are all in a most deplorable state. Please pray for them and have others pray for them too, that they may finally escape from their mire. The day will come when these people, lost in the middle of the seas, with their barbarous language will also bring forth praises of our Lord. Heaven is only waiting for our sighs and our tears to lavish them with the treasures of blessings that are reserved for them.
It is useless to try to express to you how much I think of you at the far ends of the world, especially in prayer. Separation by distance does not distance hearts. They do not change with a change of climate. [10] You will be very cold and I am very hot. You draw close to the fire and I avoid it. In this respect, everything is reversed, except for the fact that I do not have a cold season to await, but it is less hot from the month of June till November, specially when the South wind blows. Overall, your climate is as good as here, and even better. Please, I beg of you, make a little place for me in your prayers with your faithful. It is a charitable deed which would be well placed. Many people have a right to be remembered by me and to receive my gratitude, but it is such a long time since I have received any news, I greatly fear that some have gone to take their place in the prayers for the dead. Life is so short; we pass away so quickly!
If a letter from you should reach me here, how I would bless providence! It would be sufficient to address it to Lyon, Saint Barthélemy Rise, no. 4, for it to be sent on to me.
We have had two storms this year. The last one, which was terrible, tore out 400 breadfruit trees, destroyed the banana palms and caused famine in the island. A small earthquake occurred a few weeks ago.
My health still holds up. Though I am in the middle of a people who are cannibals, I do not expect to be eaten on this island. There would be more danger on the larger islands to the West.
Please remember me to Messrs Ferro, Gabory, Vincent, etc. etc. and your good Sisters. I think often too of the Curate of la Salle and of the gentlemen of Barot. All of you please pray for me and for Fiji.
I would ask you to express my good wishes to my parents. I do not forget them and hope that they do not forget me either. May they pray for me as I pray for them. May they be good Christians, obedient to the voice of their pastor. Those are my main wishes for them.
Though I have written this letter a long time ago, nevertheless, I am ending it in haste, as chances present themselves here unexpectedly and then one is so pressed that one does not know which way to turn.
I am, with the greatest respect,
your very humble and devoted servant,
Jean Baptiste Bréhéret,
missionary apostolic.


  1. [note by the author on an angle in the margin] They are passionate about the possession of these canoes. To build them they can spend 2, 3, 4 and sometimes even 10 years, because often they suspend work, whether from laziness or for some other reason.
  2. [note by the author on an angle in the margin] Several of the small islands round about pay tribute to the king here in string of this cord.
  3. [note from the author in the margin at an angle] If they do have some, they are still hidden from us; no doubt, when they are converted, they will become changed men; we have some proof of it.
  4. [note by the author in the margin on an angle] Here they have relaxed their Pharisaical severity a little; and have softened their plan of attack against us.
  5. Fijian word, vala = belt
  6. [note by the author in the margin on an angle] A boatload of heretics, who arrived from Tonga and who came to establish themselves among our people, have done them a great deal of harm; so that since then they have not had the same enthusiasm in coming to prayer and instruction.
  7. [note by the author in the margin at an angle] The father died, baptised, and with positive feelings; his child followed several months later.
  8. Fijian words, a lotu dina ga qo = here is the only true prayer (church, religion).
  9. Text from the roman bible of Pius V (cf. doc. 8, § 9; n. 4).
  10. [note from the author, in the margin on an angle] I wrote this to you in the winter, but I have not been able to send it till now; and I can tell you that I am still hotter than you.

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