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End of December 1848 and end of July 1849 — Extract from Father Gilbert Roudaire to Jules Roudaire, his brother, New Caledonia

Translated by Mary Williamson, April 2019


Based on the document sent, APM dossier Roudaire.


Three sheets of paper forming twelve pages, eleven of which are written on. Document dated according to the information given at § 20, below.


[p.1]
Extract from a letter from Father Roudaire missionary apostolic in New Caledonia, to his brother.


[1]
I am now going to give you some little news items about what has happened to me since my last letter, that I addressed to you from Sydney, where I lived for a period of seven months.
[2]
It was towards the end of the month of June that I left the archipelago of Samoa. There I was known and I also knew the language, the customs and the inhabitants; there I was able to converse freely with sociable men who were pleased to see you, to question you and who followed, where you were concerned, all the rules of a well organised civilisation although of a different structure from those of Europe; there the mission could function in an immediate way by directly addressing the people; there I had a starting group of novices, a budding church, a solemn baptism to prepare, daily singing, instruction and religious celebrations, in a word, all that could lift the heart of a missionary. What an enormous difference between the people of Samoa and those of New Caledonia and its surroundings! On the one hand, there is a hospitable people, kind when one is able to get to know them within the intimate setting of the family, a people established on a basis of civilisation, conducting themselves with ideas of modesty and justice, with a pronounced taste for religious things; whilst on the other hand, whatever one can imagine of the most degraded and the most dishonest, a social condition, if I can speak thus, of continual war, and reciprocal defiance against the cunning, the unexpected or the grudges of the enemy. God’s grace is all powerful and certainly it is here that one will see the proof of it when it will have achieved some success; then the missionary will have only one single right, that of believing himself a servant who has served his purpose [1] and to say with the prophet non nobis domine non nobis; sed nomini tuo da gloriam. [2] What consoles me a little is that the Good Lord wanted to make use of me to help repair the ruins of that poor mission in Caledonia.
[3]
So I obtained my passage aboard the French corvette, the Brilliante, commanded by Mr Dubouzet. In passing I saw once again the island of Wallis where I had lived for two years; the island of Futuna, the theatre of a martyrdom of which the blood has so fertilised this little land that it has made of it, so to speak, the earthly paradise of the missions of Oceania; Rotuma is as small as the previous island but is much more populated. There are not as yet any novices because our missionaries, have only been there about six months; but the ways forward are being gently prepared and there is hope for the future. From Rotuma we passed through the New Hebrides touching on Sandwich or Vate in the local language. A month before our arrival an English ship had run aground here and all the crew, numbering 23 men, had been eaten by the natives.
[4]
It is there that I began to see the territories and the people who make up the apostolic curacy of Bishop Douarre. The countries are beautiful, but those who inhabit them are certainly not. In the whole spread of the New Hebrides, which include a dozen large islands and many other smaller ones, all their inhabitants are of a very dark race and speak different languages from one island to another and sometimes even from one tribe to another on the same island. This comes about from the fact that these people do not visit one another, unless it is to fight and eat each other and this is also the reason for the savage state in which they live. Their houses, their canoes and everything they do, in a word, makes clear how backward they are, whereas with the people of Polynesia, natural travellers and hospitable, one finds them semi-civilised with the same language, the same customs, elegant canoes and artistically constructed huts.
[5]
We left Sandwich to finally go to New Caledonia, the first land that we would see. After two days sailing we started to see its high mountains, which grew as we drew nearer. When we were close to the reefs we saw on a hillock a small European house with a sort of flag which was flying from the roof. We guessed that here was the establishment of the mission, but as this place did not conform with the captain’s information, we continued to sail along beside the reefs until we found the pass into Balade and there we saw another European house on the slope of a hill, but it was semi ruined and still showed signs of a recent fire; at first we thought that it was the result of some natural accident; but having arrived in the port and not seeing any canoes approaching us, we began to suspect a catastrophe. We were on the point of sending a ship’s boat to gather some news, when we saw a canoe paddling strongly, with a native standing upright, waving in his hand something that looked like a letter. It was indeed one, addressed by Bishop Collomb to the captain of the ship who he did not as yet know. His Lordship and all the members of the mission, with the exception of Brother Blaise, were taking refuge at Puepo in the first European house that we had seen. They warned us that the natives of Balade had carried out excesses of which the death of a Brother and the destruction of the mission had been the result; that we should not venture ashore for fear of being taken by surprise and being massacred; and that they themselves now only awaited the moment of their deliverance from a place where they were obliged to mount guard day and night and they begged the captain to come to their rescue. All this news was not of a kind to make us rejoice; from my point of view I was the most disappointed of all as I was expecting something very different. Then I cast my thoughts back and I deeply regretted the places that I had just left; but it was no longer in my power to put this right.
[6]
After having read the letter, Captain Dubouzet gave orders that the next day at daybreak the ship’s boat, two rowing boats and about sixty men, armed for warfare, would be sent off. I wanted to be of the party and I embarked on one of the rowboats. The wind and tide were so strong and so contrary that we were not able to arrive in the port of Puepo till night although it was only three leagues from Balade. After that it was necessary to leave some of our group to guard the boats and the rest set off by the light of some flaming torches on a little footpath that led to the mission. As we passed in front of the huts, the natives came out to watch us pass, without showing any intention of wishing to attack us. After walking for twenty minutes through the huts and over a plain covered with coconut palms, we arrived at the foot of a steep hillock on which the house of the mission was situated. We had to use our hands and feet to climb up. The place was well chosen for a fortress. I found our colleagues there, as well as all the other people seeking refuge in the same place, rather fatigued from the fear and stresses of the past days, but already cheered up simply by the appearance of the ship and the hope of a prompt rescue. They prepared for departure as soon as possible. On the next day the corvette that was stationed in Ballade came and moored at Puepo so as to help save as many possessions as possible. When the moment arrived to leave the place, the 80 sailors who had come, armed, to protect the withdrawal, all with bags on their backs full of articles from the mission began to leave, descending by a less steep slope; we were scarcely outside the barricade than the savages had already rushed in from all sides to go and grab anything they could still find in the house. One part of their prey had escaped them and this angered them greatly. They had also placed an ambush in a place where they thought that we would pass. Warned in time of their plan, we took a different route from the one we had come by, going down the right side of the river instead of the left, guided by 4 or 5 young Caledonians who had remained faithful to the missionaries. Crossing the plain of coconut trees we saw, here and there, groups of savages armed with spears who watched us file past. When we had entered the [p.4] path through the mangroves, some stones and a spear fell on our rear guard. Lieutenant Lamothe who was commanding the march ordered several shots to be fired towards the place the stones had come from. At the same time we saw the savages, hidden in ambush on the other side of the river, cross over to come and place themselves behind the clumps of trees on our route. Stones and spears rained down on us from all sides. Instead of fleeing as the savages would have done we halted for a volley of shots and continued to march. It was a succession of halts and volleys for about half an hour on a path where we had mud up to our knees. What was most disagreeable for our sailors was that they were not able to halt the enemy who slipped through the bushes. We had five wounded men, one of whom was a trainee sailor named Raymond, who I assisted during the time of the retreat. We arrived at last at the seashore where we found no enemies, as there were no longer bushes to hide behind. The captain, who had heard the shots, arrived in the ship’s boat; we passed over the wounded then everyone returned on board. We were anchored not far from the place where the beautiful corvette the Seine rested at the bottom of the sea, shipwrecked in this port. We do not know how she came to be lost here, in a place where all the ships of the world would be able to pass without receiving the smallest scratch. On the same day we saw the French brig Anonyme arrive, bringing from Sydney new provisions and animals for the mission. It is probable that if it had arrived a little sooner or later, it would have been a fresh victim of the betrayal and barbarous behaviour of the savages. Bishop Collomb made use of it to transport him to San Christobal, where his mission was situated, still ignorant of the latest misfortune which would horrify him when he arrived. For us, the best part was returning to Sydney on board the corvette, requesting the captain to go via Annatom, where we wished to leave letters for the Arche d’Alliance or any other ship which would be heading for the mission.
[7]
For a short while we thought about establishing ourselves at Annatom, but this idea was then abandoned and we continued on our voyage. While we were still at anchor we saw an English brig the Velocity arrive in port. They had just made a tour round the island for an enterprise which was veiled in shrouds of mystery; but it did not take us long to uncover the secret. This brig, as well as another called the Portenia, had been sent from Sydney by a rich business man of that town, not for whale hunting, nor for pearls, nor for sandalwood, nor for any other commerce of that nature, but to search, we believed, after all that had been said in England against that odious traffic, for a cargo of men. They would be taken to Sydney to be employed here and there as cowherds, labourers or kitchen hands, jobs that are difficult to fill in the colonies because of a lack of people who wish to do them. But how to make them consent to do them? That is achieved by certain means that justice and the rights of men hardly allow. The inhabitants of the island of Halgan [3] in the Loyalties were dazzled by the proposition made to them to come to see Sydney, where they would be given fabric, pearls and riches in a word, after which they would return home. One evening there were almost a hundred on board, they were made to go down into the hold, it was closed over their heads and the ship left during the night. The Velocity, not having a full load, went as far as Rotuma to try and increase it. (All those who had seen a lot, had not always retained everything; but most certainly they would have learned a lot). Well, our travellers of a new type learned at Rotuma, in a rather clearer way, what was intended for them in New South Wales. One fine evening, while they were at anchor, they threw themselves into the water, about fifty of them, and fled into the woods. What rabble! To escape from on board without permission and with the idea of not wishing to come back. The captain, anxious at seeing his prey escape, fury shining in his eyes and his pistol in hand went ashore; but he had to deal with hares who knew how to run better than their pursuers. They would have to think of other means and approach the chiefs of the island to get them to return the deserters. Return the deserters? said the Rotumians, but we do not know any more than you where they are. Get your people to find them. If your prisoners run away, they will always escape from our people who have not the same interest in running after them; but you, who want to get them, go first with your people and bring them back if you are able. These responses exasperated the captain. Then another final idea came to his mind, that was to invite the Rotumians on board to give them some gifts and show them the ship and then hold them as hostages, until such time as everyone had been returned to him. So he made this proposition, accompanying it with the most lavish promises. But the Rotumians are not completely stupid and the person to whom they mainly addressed themselves was very cunning; he flatly refused all these offers, saying that no one amongst them would set foot on board. Anger boiled in the heart of the captain; in a movement of spite he placed his hand on his pistol, we do not know with what intention; but one of the chiefs who was positioned behind, believing his fellow men threatened, seized the Englishman round his body and held him with both arms crushed against his sides to stop him from using his weapon. Kirsopp, believing himself insulted and menaced himself, freed, as much as he could, the hand that held the pistol, aimed it behind from his shoulder and fired a shot into the forehead of the Rotumian who fell down dead. The inhabitants, seeing one of their chiefs felled, ran for weapons and cast themselves against the men from the English ship, one sailor was killed and another grievously wounded; the captain and the others only owed their survival to a speedy flight. It was not even prudent for them to remain any longer in this place; they left for Annatom where we saw them arrive after a clash that they did not boast about in our company. In Sydney even, they avoided presenting the facts from a truthful point of view.
[8]
What is even more surprising is the hypocrisy and effrontery with which they adorned this enterprise, in the guise of philanthropy and devotion to humanity. “We learn from Sydney, said a London newspaper, that a gentleman from that town, Mr. B., moved by sentiments of philanthropy which are characteristic of him, thought of the fine idea of sending several ships to the islands of the South Seas, to gather up as many individuals as possible to rescue them from hunger, poverty and their poor conditions and have them enjoy a more peaceful life by accustoming them to work. The first attempts have already rewarded his zeal and we cannot heap too much praise on him.”
[9]
One can lie from a distance, but on the spot, whatever has some honesty about it clamours against deception; The governor of the colony forbad the continuation of the enterprise and put an obstacle in the way of the philanthropic zeal of Mr B. declaring the freedom of all those who had already been brought to the town. After the departure of the Arche d’Alliance, with several of the individuals who had been declared free and had obtained their passage to their islands, it did not prevent the philanthropist B. and his men from throwing fire and flame against Mr Marceau. From another aspect, it is certain that they would not be upset to see so many countries and so many men in the hands of these pirates of the seas; one could even rejoice if, in these people that they reduced to slavery, they realised that there is also a soul and that this soul could be enlightened, regenerated and raised up by religion; but this idea would never occur to them. One of them spoke highly to me about the happiness of an islander who he had in his service; I asked him what this happiness consisted of and he replied that the young man had a shirt to put on his back, salted beef to eat, etc. In his own home, I said to the Englishman, this person had neither hunger nor cold and he worked less than at your place. I would believe him happy with this change, as well as all those like him, if they learned something about religion and the future life. Religion! Replied the person I was speaking to, he does not ignore it, you never see him on Sunday fail to put on his white trousers and shirt, he does not ignore that day any more then we do. I laughed with scorn, remembering that to read the bible where one understands what one can and what one wishes and to put on white trousers on Sunday, that is the whole of religion for a host of Protestants. In that way they are sure to be on the road that leads straight to heaven without moving even the tiniest little step. Poor people, who occupy themselves only with the material things and for the material things and for whom the intellectual life is an extinguished flame.
[10]
I return now to our voyage. There was nothing of interest from Anatom to Sydney, except that we nearly struck an unmarked rock; we hardly had the time to tack with the sounding finding a depth of 20 fathoms while a little further on there were probably only two or three. We arrived in Sydney on Sunday 13th September. Nothing is more beautiful than this port where the hand of the creator has spared man of any work. Nothing is as surprising as the activity of the English, who in the space of 50 years, have constructed at the ends of the world a European town which today houses 50 thousand souls. What is no less surprising is the progress that the English government has made with religious tolerance in a few years. The Catholics here have full and complete freedom, as well as numerous sects which have formed within Protestantism and they receive, like the others, a salary for their priests and the help necessary for the construction of their churches. They have an archbishop, a cathedral and two or three very beautiful parish churches. The conversions increase the number of faithful daily. During the time that I was there, two ministers of the Anglican church, the highest amongst them, one the curate of the cathedral and the other from a neighbouring parish, became Catholics, to the great vexation of their colleagues and to the great joy of all their new brothers.
[11]
In a word, Sydney is today a great town, destined to later become the capital of a great empire, at the centre of a great number of other colonies which are forming in New Holland, in Van Diemen’s land and in New Zealand, with a speed that those in France have no idea of.
[12]
During the few months that I spent in Sydney, I was able to observe a little of the character of these English who today occupy such an important place in the world. They are certainly the most widespread and powerful nation in the world, they know it and give themselves a legitimate reason to wish to dominate everywhere. Nothing equals their contempt for other peoples, particularly the Irish, the Portuguese and to some extent the Americans; As for France, they speak about it with a little more reserve. There is not, amongst them, as there is with us, a spirit of teasing and impiety about things religious; but in contrast, they make of religion a pliable thing according to their fancy, sometimes in the most absurd manner, without, from their point of view, suspecting that it might have the least inconsistency, while some French people with their ardent imaginations expound emphatically in their discourses on the superiority of France in the world, the English stick to the facts and reality. They are masters of three quarters of human kind, whilst it is hardly as if the French are masters of their own country. No doubt that comes from the fact that for many years the French have been in battle against their own government, to try and deceive it and devalue it, whilst the English are always ready to uphold the interests of their own.
[13]
I was therefore with Father Rougeyron in that English town awaiting the chance to return to New Caledonia. Our house was ready and all we needed was a ship to transport it, along with ourselves. The Arche d’ Alliance was expected any day. One letter from Captain Marceau, dated from Rotuma, told us of his passage to Wallis where he had spent two months getting repairs. The day of his departure, the war schooner The Sultan arrived and warned him of events in New Caledonia. Then the Arche d’ Alliance headed towards the Solomon Islands and the Melanesian mission. Finding no one at Saint Christobal, which had been abandoned because of the unhealthy climate and the slaying of two missionaries and a Brother, she headed for the island of Woodlark, where they presumed they would find Bishop Collomb and the rest of the missionaries. But the strength of the contrary winds for a dozen days, forced Mr Marceau to abandon this plan and head towards Sydney. The wind increased to become a real tempest, in which the rudder of the Arche d’Alliance, that had been repaired on Wallis, was carried away by the force of the waves. After that, how to steer the ship in a storm? And especially in a sea where there were reefs fairly close to right and left? Nevertheless it was sorted out, whether by the skill of the crew on the one hand, or the protection of the Holy Virgin on the other, we were able by means of the sails to cover three hundred leagues on the right route in the space of six days while we were without a rudder. During this time, another was fashioned, that the fine weather enabled the crew to put in place on the sixth day and with which we arrived in Sydney without facing any other problems. This arrival gave us hope that we might be able to return to New Caledonia. In fact, after all was prepared, we left on 19th April for the port of St Vincent, where we hoped to establish ourselves first; but this area not being suitable and the ship being also too pressed for time to look for a more suitable spot, we resolved to go directly to Annatom.
[14]
We managed to establish ourselves in this place with the greatest of ease. We had there a spacious port, land, water, wood, in other words all that was necessary to achieve our goal. But it was not till later that we noticed the absence of something essential for any establishment, I mean the healthiness of the country.
[15]
When we had unloaded almost all that was necessary for continuing the building of the house, the Arche d’Alliance set sail again for the island of Halgan in the Loyalties, to take back fifteen of the unfortunate natives that the English ships, that I spoke about above, had taken to Sydney. Mr Marceau had already, a few months before when passing Rotuma, taken back to the same island of Halgan, about thirty of those who had fled the Velocity; The warm welcome that he had received and this new service that he had provided for them, had raised hopes of a favourable response to the establishment of a mission amongst them. I resolved to profit from the circumstance and to go and settle on this island where I knew a little of the language, as one group of the inhabitants are the descendants of a group of emigrants from the island of Wallis where, being at war, a long time ago, some of its inhabitants were forced to move away. They arrived on the island of Halgan and settled there. Misfortune dictated that they had retained from their former homeland only their bad habits, which they joined to the worst that they found in their new home. When we arrived, war was declared between the tribe Nékélo and that of Ouanéhei. Three days previously there had been a battle in which three men had been killed and eaten by the victors. When walking along the seashore, we saw, hung on a pole, the leg bones of one of these unfortunates, blackened by smoke on one side and still red with blood on the other, the grease and the marrow still fell drop by drop to the ground.
[16]
Despite this state of affairs, perhaps I would have stayed amidst them, if it were not for the presence of an English ship which was there gathering sandalwood. There was on board this ship a man, if he still merited the name, an old man who had escaped from the galleys in Sydney and had lived for a long time amidst these savages, eating human flesh like them. When a ship arrived it was he who conducted the business, but he wished to deal with us in a not very advantageous way, as he advised the natives of the country to attack us and seize our ship. There seemed to be a similar plan on the part of the natives; seeing this we departed, sad to see a people, otherwise capable, pushed away from the light that was offered to them. They are now further away than ever from the kingdom of God.
[17]
Returning from Annatom, we found the house equipped. The Arche d’Alliance was finally making her preparations for the return to France. She left, and we followed her with our eyes for as long as we could see her, as she carried all our regrets and all our affection.
[18]
After the departure of the Arche d’Alliance and the arrival of our new colleagues, we found ourselves reunited in sufficient numbers to try and start a new establishment. I had positive information about the Isle of Pines and I left to go there with Fathers Chatelux and Gougon and two Brothers. The chief, who we had already met at Annatom, received us very well. Right from the beginning and up till this day he has not ceased to be our friend. The Isle of Pines, about 4 leagues long, was discovered by Captain Cook who had named it thus because of the numerous pines with which it is surrounded. This island is surrounded by a range of hills that slope down to the sea and upon which there are stands of forest almost everywhere. A little further into the interior there is another strip of flat land and plants which extend around a raised plateau which is as flat as a tabletop. At one end of the plateau towers a lone mountain that can be seen for 7 or 8 leagues out to sea. This island abounds in sandalwood which has been exploited for 7 or 8 years. The inhabitants, who, numbering about five hundred, used to make war, or rather went and waged war on their neighbours in Caledonia, had killed and eaten them in large numbers. Since the arrival of Europeans and especially since we have been here, the idea of peace has prevailed. The current king is a very peaceful man who God seems to be preparing, little by little, to savour evangelical peace. There would certainly be, amongst these folk, some with natures a little less docile, but as the chief is feared, there is no danger that they would commit themselves to serious deviations as long as they are well disposed towards him. Up until now we have not yet spoken of religion and we have avoided saying mass or even carrying out any ceremony in their presence, understanding that they are very superstitious and that they would be able to take our sacred symbols as evil spells. They know the name of Jehovah and of Jesus but it is to fear them as enemies. That comes from the visit of some Protestant novices who lived here about seven years ago. As the people did not succumb to their word quickly enough, they threatened them with the idea that Jehovah and Jesus would strike them dead if they did not pray. An epidemic arrived at the time that confirmed the fact and instead of committing themselves the inhabitants pillaged a ship, killed the catechists and retained an upsetting idea of the names of Jehovah and Jesus. Now we have to make ourselves loved and gain the confidence of the country before we speak of religion; we are on the right track for that, we are studying the language and we can see the moment arriving when we will be able to put forward the basic truths of our blessed faith. May the good souls who interest themselves in us and in the poor savages kindly not forget us in their prayers, so as to hasten the moments of forgiveness.
[19]
I have said a little to you about the superstitions of our natives. They have no idea of a God who is creator and all powerful; but they believe in the immortality of the soul. They say that the body dies and goes away into the earth, (when it is not eaten) but that the soul remains to wander about in the woods etc. They also have the idea of an evil spirit who has come to them from a neighbouring island and who is seeking to do them harm. They believe that these spirits have the power to make the wind and rain etc. An infinite number of trees are sacred; they say that if they are touched that would make the yams and taro perish etc. [4] It is perhaps the remains of a tradition which died out, about the forbidden tree of earthly paradise whose fruits, gathered when forbidden, could create so many misfortunes on earth!
[20]
I end these details here, my dear Jules, by warning you that they have been written in very different periods, as the first pages are eight months older than the last writings which are at the end of July 1849.

Notes

  1. Cf. Luke 10.17 ( Crampon’s translation); Constitutions of the Society of Mary, 1872, § 50.
  2. Cf. Ps 113B (115).1. “Not to us, Lord, not to us; but to your name may the glory be given”
  3. the island of Ouvea (cf. doc. 694, § 1; 712, § 7).
  4. Here one sees some resemblance with the pre-Christian religion on Wallis (Ouvea): The evildoing of the God-spirits, their power to rule the winds and their relationship with such and such a tree (cf. doc. 23, § 14; 28, § 6).