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18 October 1853 — Father Charles-Eugène Mathieu to his brother, Rewa, Fiji

Translated by Peter McConnell, July 2011

Based on the copy, APM OF 208 (Fiji) Mathieu.

[p. 12]
[In the handwriting of Poupinel]
Reva, 18 October 1853 § Fr Mathieu

The ship which made me to conclude my last letter abruptly did not leave and I don’t know when it will. So I am continuing with another letter. The conclusion may very well arrive before the start, but that’s OK. I think I was speaking, my dear brother, about the superstitions of the Fijians. As everything is incoherent in the ideas of that race of people, it is difficult to analyse their beliefs. There are reasons for believing that they are materialists.
The word soul in their language means as well the shadow of a thing. They use it nonetheless to express internal feelings and wishes. When you ask them where they think they’re going after their death, they don’t know and they claim that everything will die with them. They don’t make a distinction between their death and that of their pigs. Yet they have places where the spirits of the dead, according to them, come together. They are frightened of going to those places alone or at night time. They are frightened of ghosts. They decorate tombs. The women have themselves strangled in order to follow their husbands. On one hand they claim that there is nothing after this life and on the other hand they act in a way which seems to indicate that they have the idea of another life, so it is difficult to know where they stand. Moreover, they are very indifferent on that score, and it is very difficult to draw their attention to it for the shortest time.
In certain parts of the archipelago, they say, they believe in a god who is creator and who is good. Here, I have seen no signs of that unless on one occasion in the mountains when I was explaining the creation to them, they told me that they attributed that to Degei who is only a dragon or an enormous snake about whom they have short tales which I have never been able to find out any more.
The kalous or gods of the Fijians are the devils who haven’t bothered, as in old paganism, to put on reasonable faces but who remained in all their depravity and ugliness. The Fijians are frightened of the kalous as extraordinary creatures, superior ones, predicting the future, causing and curing illnesses, deciding the success of warfare and all matters, more or less wicked, killing women and children, etc. They say that they sometimes encounter them and they make the most monstrous paintings of them. Those kalous are involved in all their affairs, not only the public ones but private ones: every event, happy or not, is attributed to them. They speak to them through the mouth of their priests into whose body they enter and produce convulsive trembling. One day when I went to chat to them and to drink some kava in a hut with some men, the priest in the hut started to twist his arms and his eyes looked wild; he began to strike the plaited mats mightily with a club to strengthen his kalou which was beginning to come out of the earth to possess him.
On another occasion while walking outside the fortified village, I noticed a Fijian priest sitting on a stone at the foot of a lovely hut, shaded by lovely trees. In front of him there was one of the chiefs of Rewa with a score of men who were bringing him food. That chief began to beg the kalou in the most penetrating and most affectionate way to grant victory for the men of Rewa over the fortified village of Nukui which they were going to besiege. At the same time he was putting a basket of shrimps at the feet of the priest. The latter began to rub his legs together, then trembling throughout his body, he uttered in fits and starts words which promised wonders. He saw flames rising into the air and enemy falling under the blows of the victors. He ordered him to bring bodies to eat. While speaking in that way he reached out trembling to the basket and grabbed a shrimp to the thunderous applause of those watching. The siege of Nukui took place but without any result one way or the other. I then scorned the false prediction but that did not affect the Fijians in any way. They agreed without any difficulty that their kalous were liars, but that does not worry them; and their priests have always some excuse to wriggle out of the matter.
On the other side of the river, very close to Rewa, there is an enemy tribe called Toka-Toka which keeps on hassling the people by firing bullets at them and eating their numbers. One evening I suddenly heard frightful cries rising up in all the villages of that tribe with a frightful noise of drums and rifle fire. I thought that it was an attack that they were coming to make on us; but, seeing nobody move in the fortified village, I went out and asked a man whom I encountered what that noise was all about, and why he was not going and repelling the enemy. He began to laugh and told me that the people of Toka-Toka where chasing away their kalous. The following day refugees from that tribe came here and I asked them to explain. They told me that from time to time there appeared in their tribe a kalou who was extremely horrid and evil, was called Batidua, which means having only one tooth; and that often he would come out of the earth during the night; he would go through the houses, carrying off women and killing them, and that sometimes they would find eight or ten women killed in that way; that they would then make all that noise to frighten him and chase him away. While he was telling me that tale, I saw a human tooth which was rolling around by chance in the dust on my doorstep and I said to him: when they chased away that kalou yesterday, he came here but as he found no women, he broke his tooth against my door out of frustration. So from that time on you have nothing to fear; his tooth is broken. I say, I said to him, look at this tooth; there it is on the my doorstep. They would have almost believed me, had I not laughed. Yet they found that my proof was not good because the single tooth of Batidua was the thickness and the length of an arm.
In the area around here there is a hut greatly venerated in which there are conch shells put there by various chiefs and by various tribes. Now, from time to time those conch shells start moving by themselves and simulate a fight. The defeated conch shells remain on the floor and the victorious ones go and put themselves on the raised wood of the hut. In that way they preside over the war and its results. They say that these fights take place in the presence of a great number of spectators and many have told me that they have seen them. Although it is not impossible that the devil produces these wonders, I am still far from believing it is based on the sole testimony of Fijians who are all liars.
I am giving you here only a little example of their tales; for as far as their belief in devils and their traditions, I have never been able to get any precise details and I think that they themselves have no precision on that topic. The only manifest fact is that this people is under the full control of the devil and totally enmeshed in his nets, and that you cannot find the slightest opening to tear them out of it. Reason and irony make not the slightest impression on them. They say amen to everything and are insensitive to everything. If you argue too much with them, they begin singing and saying some nonsense which changes the conversation or they turn their backs on you and walk away.
I have not yet encountered nor heard it mentioned that there is a single deranged person in Fiji although there are in Wallis, Tonga and in the other islands. Why is that in such a numerous population and in a country so full of tragic events? Wouldn’t there be a physical proof that there is among this people no feeling, and that they are literally what Irenaeus said of the Jewish people: audi popule qui non habes cor [= Listen, you people, who have no heart]. For madness is most frequently only the result of a excessive feeling which puts organs out of kilter.
Humanly speaking, to convert the Fijians, you have to entrust that archipelago to a military and religious order. About fifty well led knights of Malta would soon achieve that. As far as we are concerned, as long as God in His goodness does not come to our aid in an extraordinary way, we will use up all our energy in vain. Our arrows which are fashioned to go to the heart encounter nothing. Humanum dico [= I say human], because I know well that it is not impossible for God to overturn a mountain with a reed.
As for their observances, there are legions of them. There are some for travelling on the sea, for fishing, for plantations, for haircutting, for food, for drinking, for clothing, in a nut shell for everything. One day I wanted to give a piece of local material to a young chief. He refused it although he wanted it very badly because it had been made in enemy territory and that if he wore it he would be killed in the war and he gave some examples to support his viewpoint. It is forbidden to sneeze when wearing a particular headdress or when you brew kava. Once it happened that I threw the dregs of my kava bowl into the embers of a fire. All the women of he house screamed out saying that they were going to have zika which is an eye infection. When walking on the banks of a river, I saw little children fishing. They were chanting formulas to their kalou to make fish come. Walking through the fields you see in all the yam plantations a shell sitting on top of a reed, that is for a successful harvest. I am very far from knowing all their practices and all their observances. Every day I learn new ones.
The English, who read the bible, say that the Fijians are cursed Jews, who were transported here many years ago. They base their conjectures on certain analogies which they find in their practices. Indeed there is certainly something in that. So, circumcision, offering first fruits, the blessing of huts which is done by marking with red paint the doorways and the timber which serve as columns and many other things and ceremonies which are more or less distorted. But what is in my opinion the most striking feature is that the Fijian is painted line by line in the prophets and especially in Jeremiah when he spoke to the callous. Speak to that people, said God, that people who don’t listen to you; it changes good into evil and evil into good. Alas , it is the same for us. We would need the rod of Moses or the prophet Elijah’s heavenly fire. Still who knows whether we will get to the end of it. For us the only weapon which accompanies us is patience and Our Lord’s cross. We will see if the former does not bring us victory.
I don’t know Hebrew with which I would have been able possibly to discover some analogy in the two languages. One aspect once struck me; it was the resemblance between the word man, in Fijian; it is Atamata, and the name for Adam is Atama. The word woman in Fijian is aleva and it is the name of Eve. So when I had to say that the first man was Adam and the first woman was Eve, I was quite shocked to use the same words by shortening in the first name the final syllable and the first in the second. The Fijian language has all our consonants except the X and all the vowels except the French U which is pronounced as OU. The consonant F is confused with the consonant V and the simple D with T and the B with P. They have in addition a D, a B, a G, and a K which are pronounced as if hey were preceded by the letter N. In summary that language is very rich and more easy to pronounce than that of Tonga. It has all those aspirations and guttural stops which make it so embarrassing and so slow. Navigators who knew this archpelago through the Tongans called it Fidji because the syllable TI does not exist in the Tongan language. They can’t pronounce it and the change into TSI or DJI and the consonant F is confused with the V whereas the navigators, who knew the name of the natives themselves, wrote Viti which is the true name of that archipelago. Yet the first spelling prevailed among the English who wrote Fiji.
14 Oct 1853 I have just received your letter dated 19 June. It has not taken four months to arrive. That is the one which you wrote to me before leaving for Savoy, and which has the name of our good aunt at the top of the letter. You informed me that my letter to Father Lagniez arrived, and that he showed it to you. I am delighted to hear that my letters arrived. So I will address this one directly to you, although it may follow the other which I have sent to Lyon. Do be careful not to publish anything I write, but when you have read this one, send it on to Lyon asking for the first one. Later on I will write again, because there is much to say about this country. Only watch one matter, and that is when I describe this people and the difficulties which surround us my intention is not at all to say that the Fijians won’t be converted, but to prove that it is the work of God alone so that, when they are converted, we may know to whom to attribute the glory; and also to show that those in France who are praying are doing quite as much as we are for the promotion of that intention, and finally to inform our superiors about everything so that they can manage everything for the better. I do not hide our little dangers, because I think that you can imagine at the same time the Providence which is watching over you in a quite paternal way.
I have still a few minutes before going to contact the ship and I am going to give you the daily gazette.
The island of Ovalau has just joined Rewa against Bau and Viwa. This is an opportunity for a war which brings the Methodists no glory. A dinghy of White men from Levuka was going to trade with the tribe of Malaki in the north of Viti Levu and it was attacked by the natives. One of the crewmen was seized to be roasted and eaten; all the articles on board and the sails were pillaged. The two other two Whites succeeded in getting back to Levuka. So the Whites and Tui Levuka, the native chief of that place, armed their dinghy and their outriggers and went to Malaki where they freed the white captive, burnt the villages, killed about 40 men of that tribe and returned laden with booty. Malaki is a dependency of Biva and Viwa, as you know, and is the main settlement of the Methodists and its chief, called Farani because he assassinated Bureau, is their main champion. It is on that small island of Biva that Bishop Bataillon and I were chased on our first arrival in that place and it was there that the French flag was ripped down and trampled underfoot. So Farani on hearing of the defeat of his men swore the destruction of the Whites. Using a Methodist catechist living on Levuka, he set fire to the village during the night. The flames helped by the wind ripped through those straw buildings in no time at all. A store where there were 300 barrels of gunpowder, left there by an American captain for trading in biches de mer, exploded. A small European child was burnt; all the small resources of that colony was lost. Totonga must have been burnt as well but how I don’t know; the arsonists’ plans did not succeed. Some days later, Farani and most of the chiefs of Biva, about seven or eight, boarded the dinghy of the Methodist missionary and landed on the opposite coast from Ovalau. From there they went into the mountains to win over with presents the tribes of the interior to fall upon the Whites or at least not to help them in the war that they were undertaking against them. At that time the chiefs of those tribes were there at Levuka. Learning that Farani was with them they made an alliance with Tui Levuka and striking their war axes they promised to take revenge. They immediately went back up into the mountains where, finding Farani and his men again, they massacred the lot. An embittered war took place then between Ovalau and Biva and consequently with Bau which made common cause with Biva. That event proves what kind of civilization and what kind of religion the Methodists bring into these islands.
Last week I lost my dinghy. I sent it to Ovalau wih Brother Augustin and a man from Manilla. They were the ones who brought me back that news. They were captured by a fleet of outriggers from Bau which they encountered. In a flash the natives pillaged everything on board. They had already stripped the Philipino of his clothes and would have put him into their canoe to take him away to cook when Cakobau, commander of the fleet, recognized the Brother; he seemed afraid when he knew that the dinghy belonged to me and ordered the stolen articles to be given back; but we were able to retrieve only part of the stolen goods. Had I been on board, that would probably not have happened. Many times I have encountered outrigger canoes from Bau on the sea, and they have always respected me although I live at Rewa. Nevertheless I reported the matter to the American consul as in all other previous cases so that he can inform our government about them. Saint Paul complained as a Roman citizen; I am also complaining as a French one, because it is good that those cannibals should have some idea of justice. Goodbye, my dear brother, always be patient with physical problems, quoniam per multas tribulationes oportet nos intrare in regnum Dei [= because we have to go through many troubles to enter the kingdom of God].
My love and affection to ---
Your brother,
Mathieu, missionary.