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20 July 1848 — Father Jean-Baptiste Bréhéret to Fathers Jean Chapel and Anthelme Buyat, Fiji

Translated by Mary Williamson, November 2017.

Based on the document sent, APM, OF 208 (Fiji) Bréhéret.

Sheet of paper forming four pages, three of which are written on, the fourth having only Poupinel’s annotation.

[p.4] [in Poupinel’s handwriting]
Lakemba 20th July 1848 / Father Bréhéret to the Fathers Chapel and Buyat.

Letter from Father Bréhéret, missionary apostolic of the Society of Mary, to Fathers Chapel and Buyat.

Fiji. Lakemba 20th July 1848.

My dear confrères,
I hasten to extricate myself from the dilemma in which I am caught and, so as to prove to you that I am not dead, I am writing to you to tell you that I am alive. In your understanding, one would say that to show signs of life, one would only have to scribble on a slip of paper, slide it into a little box that is found on the corner of such and such a street number 10 and a few days later it would be delivered to its destination. Well! Be informed that it is nothing like that in the antipodes. In Fiji there is no postal service; when someone comes to visit us, it is without warning and we exchange a brief greeting in passing, during which time we scarcely have time to recognise each other. I would like to see you here for a while.
And then what would we teach you? That I am alive? That is not very important under the vault of the heavens; they will not turn either faster or slower. Shall I tell you a little curious feature of this country? For example, that a certain person, in a certain place, strangled his mother for love of her; that a certain chief, having died, two of his wives were strangled to keep him company. You would reply: That is not very edifying. — I know that perfectly well. Do you want some other examples? A certain news item reports that a certain someone, tired of feeding a sick parent who ate a lot and did not work, dug him a grave, put him in and piled earth on top. — He had no doubt killed him beforehand? Not at all. — Buried alive? Really alive!! — Not possible! — It is the custom. That horrifies you? That is not all.
Human flesh is good; extra good when the individual is nice and fat! So they eat them? — Certainly. — Often? — Yes, down there, on the West coast. — Are they going to dig up the dead to eat them? — Sometimes. — And when there is no game, do they go hunting? — In some areas the good hunters do so. — What, hunt each other? — Well, yes. Human flesh is so good! So very good! — Have you eaten it? — Why, no, certainly not, but you should hear them talk about it and see their tongues licking their lips when recalling the past, like a tiger who licks his whiskers after having devoured his prey!! —
But how can one make Christians out of these people? Is it possible? Yes, it is possible. Experientia constat. Our first Fijian novice, who is certainly a very good Christian, has buried two people alive; another who died here baptised and was well thought of, buried someone alive after we arrived. I am not mentioning all our other novices and catechists. With much patience and fervent prayers, we will get to the end of it all. Paris was not built in a day and Fiji will not be converted in a week. I would have many things to tell you no doubt; but everything cannot be related in a single day.
It is a lot already, to have assured you that I am not dead and to assure you also that I think about you and will always think about you often. And as for you, pray for me and do it often. If sometimes you are angered by my silence, remember that the sun should not set on your anger. When you refer me back to our colleagues, who come to you to beg for what is lacking in your letter, are you joking? Do you think that we live on the same street, or in the same house? Attractive streets here are more than 100 leagues wide. Since last year, in January, we have not received a single bit of news, except from Tonga a year ago. Imagine a wheel on which you occupy the centre and we the outer rim of the spokes; or rather, to employ a more brilliant and more noble comparison, replace the wheel with a beautiful shining sun whose rays only meet in the centre, if you understand what I am trying to say; to reach us news has to pass via you. Consequently, I have nothing to tell you about what has happened in New Caledonia, of the Fathers and Brothers who have been eaten in the Solomons, [1] you know all about it before I can tell you and probably before I find out. In short, console yourself whilst waiting, when I have a story to tell you about our little black sheep, I will send you a copy.
In finishing, let me tell you a little bit about our way of life. To start the day, we are guided by the crowing of the cock and by birdsong; to go to bed, by the moon and the stars. We will end up by being astronomers or perhaps lunatics as well. Once we have arisen, we pray till breakfast; next we apply ourselves to our tasks which are: sometimes visit and advise the sick, sometimes dig a strip of garden to plant some cabbages or sew some peas, etc., sometimes do some washing, sometimes do some plaiting to prepare to build a shelter ( we call a plait a small flat string with three strands, with which the houses are bound together etc.; I will soon have made two thousand plaits since I have been here); sometimes mend our trousers etc. Then comes dinner and then a repeat of the same. But we no longer have a watch to regulate all that. We have to function according to what our companions are doing. We often dine at one o’clock, sometimes at two or even three of four, like gentlemen. We do not have table d’hôte; so it is not expensive: a piece of roasted yam, a cabbage, a coconut and that is all. If you only knew how good that is when one has a good appetite! Although I am not the Superior, I take the liberty of inviting you. I have not made many rosaries because I do not have the necessary things; I simply repair those that are broken. When you come, bring me some beads and also, of course, some brass wire; I have two good pairs of pliers. Meanwhile, pray to the Good Lord for me and for the Fijians.
Father Germain [2] has previously written me a letter, but I have not yet replied. I was tempted to take him at his word about a request he made, but I have not got the time and he would have been caught out then. He wanted an Oceanic reply. Give him my best regards.
Another time I will write to you in a more serious vein and at greater length.
Best wishes to you in Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
Jean-Baptiste Bréhéret
Apostolic missionary, Society of Mary


  1. Fathers Jean-Marie Paget and Claude Jacquet and Brother Hyacinthe (Joseph Châtelet), victims of cannibals on the island of Makira (San Cristobal) in the Solomons in 1847 (cf. doc. 674, § 6; also doc. 677, § 1-2),
  2. Gabriel Germain, Marist Father, professed on 12th October 1843, died on 25th March 1880
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