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29 September 1848. — Father Mathieu Gagniére to a Marist priest, Vanuatu

Translated by Mary Williamson, September 2018

Based on the document sent, APM ONC Gagniére.

Sheet of paper forming five written pages.

Letter from Father Ganiére, missionary of the Society of Mary to a Father of the same society.

New Hebrides, island of Anatom, Bay of Saint Joseph.
29th September 1848.

My Reverend Father,
A ship is leaving for China, so I am profiting from this occasion to let you know our news. I have been four months now in the desired location of my mission, but I have not yet been able to gather anything of interest to tell you; my letter will thus be short.
From the information that we have already sent you since our arrival here, you must have thought that at the beginning at least, the establishment at Anatom[1] presented us with quite a fine outlook. Our mission is to establish a procurator’s centre here for the other establishments of the curacy and a small community of children who will provide their own food by working with their hands and will spend the rest of their time studying. But already providence has sent many obstacles to hinder our projects and thwart our hopes without, nevertheless, destroying them.
The Protestant ministers, not having been able to, or not having dared to settle on any of the islands of the New Hebrides, have come to Anatom to look for a safe place. They had already had some catechists here for seven years, but had not been able to gain any influence; nevertheless, they knew the language and the ministers were able, as soon as they arrived, to carry out whatever they wished through their intermediaries. Now they have three establishments around us. Nevertheless, this is not the greatest inconvenience that has assailed us, for if our first project succeeds we can easily and advantageously struggle against our adversaries if we are patient.
But now the five young people who, following the disasters that struck in New Caledonia, had left their homeland to follow our Fathers, have succumbed to the fever; one of us has also been affected and we have all almost continually suffered illnesses. Could the climate be unhealthy? We have several reasons to believe so; but we are not losing confidence, our patients are improving and the favourable season will soon begin for our regions, just as you unfortunately see the winter descend upon you and this will help with the improvements that we make every day and our adjustment to the climate, which will help us no doubt to get on top of the illness.
I had not formed an inaccurate idea of the prospects of our missions; the good to be done however has more obstacles than I would have thought, and it is also easier to bear the obstacles and trials when I had not anticipated them. My life at the moment is divided between manual work, prayer and study. I assist the Reverend Father Rougeyron with the cultivation of a garden that we call the children’s field, as it is for our little family that we are working. Our location is suitable and we often say to ourselves that we would be happy if we were Trappists, dividing our time between culture, prayer and our garden. We plant many potatoes that fortunately grow well in our islands; It is a great resource that the Good Lord has provided for us.
Quite often we are visited by some Kanaks, with whom we try to exchange a few words in their own language. Our contacts are usually nothing if not very amiable; if there is nothing to laugh about in a childish fashion, our natives do not stay long. It is in these conversations that we gradually learn the customs and habits of our islanders and that we become up to date with the news of the country.
Whilst waiting to be better informed, here are some minor facts that will give you an idea of the state of brutality that these people have descended into, people who God has given us the task of converting. It is the custom in Kéamau (Anatom), that when a chief dies his neighbours honour him by coming solemnly to strangle his wife; she must not survive him, I do not know yet what is the motive. But if you speak to one of these wives of chiefs whose husband is dying: “If your husband has just died, will you be made to die after him?” Yes, she will reply, but bursting into laughter and so perfectly calm that you would believe that she is speaking about a future triumph. “But you should flee.” Oh no! That is the custom in Kéamau.
Our scholars in Europe sweat blood and tears to understand earthquakes, winds, the way rain is formed; and yet they are far from reaching agreement. In Kéamau the explanations are much more simple and much less contested. A strong earthquake can be felt (which happens quite often and no doubt because of the proximity of the island of Tanna which has an active volcano). We ask a native of Kéamau: What makes the earth tremble like this? Oh! he says, it is a man in the mountain, he takes the land in one hand and shakes it with such force that it scares us. There, I think, is a clear and unchallengeable explanation. It is the same thing for everything else. On the right they give you the person who makes the rain, on the left the person who makes the wind blow, all, in a word, is done by the men of Kéamau. After that, what need have they of a missionary who comes to tell them the dogma of the creation of the world. He will be listened to, but only as much as he who says he is clever enough to make the wind or the rain. If one asks them: Have you seen anyone make the rain or the wind? They reply: Oh no, I know how to plant taro, I do not trouble myself with all that.
We have not yet been able to ascertain if, before the arrival of Europeans, they had any idea of a deity; here only a demon seems to feature, he reigns supreme in these unfortunate countries. He is evil, strong, old, limping and deformed. From the centre of the earth, where he lives he emerges, often to enjoy himself by doing harm to men; he roams around the huts to insult those who emerge at night. He causes those who break the tapus to die and there are not even any illnesses which he is not accused of causing.
Also, the most effective remedies that can be given to a sick person are to chase away the evil Neukurague, by frightening him with loud shouting and especially by striking vigorous blows on his cape and this will do wonders.
This gives you a slight idea of our people. I have not painted a flattering picture; please, all the same, believe that I love them and already I am attached to them and am happy among them. I cannot see another position in the world, that I would prefer to the post that our good Mother has assigned me, in the development of the areas conferred on our little Society. Compassion and charity will make our islanders equally dear to you and you will not forget them at the holy altar and in your prayers.
To end my letter, I will share with you news that we have just received from the Isle of Pines. Father Roudaire, as you already know, left Anatom on 8th of last August for this island, situated to the South of New Caledonia, with Fathers Chatelut and Gougeon, and Brothers Jean Taragnat and Joseph Reboul. Having arrived on 12th, they offered Holy Mass for the first time in this godless land. On 15th August, it was the celebration of the glorious Assumption of Mary and it is in this name that they established their mission.
The natives welcomed them as friends and they are very comfortable with the chief, who is very respected by his subjects. It seems that their lives are not in any danger; for several years the natives have been accustomed to seeing Europeans come to their island to gather sandalwood. Seven years ago they massacred a crew and some catechists ….. …., [2] who were aboard, but today they are horrified by this cruelty. They steal nothing from our colleagues, even though they are [3] a hundred chances every day. To all appearances, the inhabitants of the Isle of Pines have the same tastes as the Polynesian people; they love to look and learn; they would be the very best of what there is in the curacy of New Caledonia. The country is healthy and our colleagues will have some resources if they succeed in taming five or six cows that wander in the woods and that the chief has given them; but it is necessary to catch them. They cut planks to build a house. Whilst waiting, a native hut serves as a lodging; it is quite large, but daylight only comes in through the door, which is three feet high and two feet wide.
Father Roudiare wrote to us with these details on 23rd of this month, and they are perhaps more consoling than the news from our poor Anatom. Their hopes and our troubles will rouse your charitable instincts and your energies to help us.
Yours sincerely,
Gagniére, Marist priest.


  1. The modern spelling of the name of this island is Aneityum
  2. A space left here, no doubt to later identify the religion or nationality of these “catechists”
  3. Read: have.

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