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Fr Mathieu to Fr Servant, Fiji, July (?) 1854

ES 346 - 353

Introduction and translation by Br Edward Clisby FMS


Towards the end of July 1854, a trading ship arrived in Futuna from Fiji. Among other things it brought letters from the Marists in those islands. Servant has included this substantial extract from a very long one from Mathieu in his writings. It paints a sombre picture of Fiji, its people, and the Catholic mission at this period.

When Bataillon reinforced the Fiji mission in August 1851 (rf L 99), he hoped to open a new station at Bau on Viti Levu. Mathieu, Favier and Augustin were assigned there but the new high chief of Bau, Cakobau, refused to have Catholic missionaries. He arranged for land to be provided for them on the island of Ovalau at Navutu. They landed at Totogo in September and built a house. Meeting with much opposition and little success, Mathieu and Augustin moved to the Rewa delta on the south-east of Viti Levu in March 1852 and set up base at Naililili on the east bank of the Rewa. At the same time, Breheret, Michel and Sorlin at Somosomo withdrew from Taveuni as a result of tribal warfare and took up residence at Totogo (Knox 21). Their poverty and isolation, the bitter opposition of the Wesleyan missionaries, and continuous inter-tribal warfare made their situation increasingly untenable.

The extract from Mathieu’s letter gives details of three events: an episode in the war between Bau and Rewa [2-7], an incident involving Augustin and the mission boat [8-9], a cyclone in March 1854. In the first case, an attack on a cutter from Levuka at Malake brought reprisals from the traders on Ovalau. This in turn prompted retaliation from Varani, chief of Viwa [Biwa in the text] who was also an ally of Cakobau, and resulted in a daring stratagem to win control of Ovalau for Bau. Fortunately for the Tui Levuka and the whites, the plan failed, Varani was killed and Cakobau lost a valuable ally. The high chief of Bau was also involved in the incident involving Augustin and the ‘Tuinavutu.’ Indeed he saved the brother’s companion from the oven and had the vessel restored to the mission. Fear of French reprisals undoubtedly saved the Catholic missionaries from more serious consequences. But it was, as Mathieu admits [13], also an obstacle to conversions.

Text of the Letter

The Fijians are still everywhere at war. There is hardly a spot now where one can live in safety. God’s justice weighs heavily on this wretched people among whom nothing good can be found, and who do not appreciate their evil because they have no notion of or feeling for good. One needs to stay on guard everywhere against betrayal, assassinations and poisonings, for their wars are nothing else. You should not judge the Fijians by the ones you have seen in Futuna since they are as docile outside their country as they are troublesome within it.[1]
Last September, a cutter from Levuka was trading on the north coast of Viti Levu at a place called Malaki [Malake], where there were some heretics, when it was attacked by the natives without warning. They pillaged everything on board and trussed up one of the three whites on board for roasting and eating. The other two escaped in their little boat and made it back to Levuka. On hearing of this outrage the whites of Levuka, in concert with the Tui Levuka (chief of the area), resolved on vengeance. With the assistance of a merchant brig which was in port and their own boats, they went to Malake, burned three villages, killed 40 Fijians and took their wives and children back to Levuka.
This expedition set Farani, chief of Biva [Viwa], in a rage and he determined to obtain revenge. Farani, so named for having once killed the French captain Biro [?],[2] was the Methodists’ chief man, and an ardent preacher of the sect. The Methodists had made a convert of him by promising him protection against France for his murder, and had completely moulded him in their image and likeness. Each Sunday Farani would walk around dressed in papalagi (European) clothes, cane in hand, going from house to house to spread the knowledge of the true God and to spew out all the hatred he had been inspired with against us. So, aroused against the Whites, he hatched a plot to make them pay for their audacity. There was at Levuka a Methodist catechist from Riva [Rewa][3] named Daniel. He was the one the Whites preferred to entrust their children to. One fine night, this individual, at Farani’s instigation, removed all his belongings, set fire to the fort, and left for Riva. Fanned by the wind, the flames soon invaded all those houses of straw. The whites, awakened suddenly, thought only of taking up their guns, convinced that the enemy were at the door. Everything was consumed. A white child was burned to death, a magazine of 300 barrels of gunpowder blown skyhigh. Nothing could be saved. The Whites sustained a loss estimated at 250,000 francs. Totogo (another place where Whites live) should have suffered the same fate, for the word had been given to burn the two villages together. But Providence was taking special care of us (Totogo is a dependence of Ovalau where the Catholic establishment is situated); the Whites were on watch, and the attempt could not succeed. The poor Whites of Levuka, possessing only what they stood up in, set to work putting up little huts of coconut fronds to protect them from the elements, and those of Totogo helped them as best they could. They were not in any doubt about Farani’s hate not being satisfied. In fact, he went so far as to plan the massacre of them all.
In league with Takobau [Cakobau] (a great Fijian chief), he undertook to win over the mountain people. They both set out for this purpose, Farani on the boat belonging to the Methodist ministers of Biva and Cakobau in a great canoe. They proceeded to Moturiki, a little island close to Ovalau. There they agreed on a signal: if the mountain people favoured the plot Farani would light a fire and Cakobau would come bringing presents. So Cakobau remained on Moturiki, and Farani, with eight of the main Methodist chiefs of Biva, almost all hallowed catechists, the incendiary Daniel included, went to Ovalau, on the opposite coast from Levuka, and entered a fort, the principal one in the Ovalau interior. He declared his intentions to the people there, offered the customary whale’s tooth, then a club painted white on one side and red on the other, and an axe. The white side of the club meant the Whites should be killed, the red side their children, and the axe was killing the chief of Levuka. The people of the place pretended to be in complete agreement with this project. Since the Whites had no reason to suspect them, it would be that much easier to carry out, and there would be a lot of booty, especially at Totoga. They were loud in their praise of the inventor (of such a plot). But as their chief was absent, they sent someone to find him....
He was at that moment with the chief of Levuka, and Providence, watching over the lives of our Fathers at Totoga, caused the project to be discovered. The chief of Levuka, offering presents to the other chief, secretly won him over to his side, and in consequence the latter sent a secret order to his fort for Farani to be killed with all his men, and for Cakobau to be captured if possible. So they played Farani along for several days, learned all the details of the plot, and had the signal fire lit. But Cakobau was too shrewd to let himself be caught. He sent some people from Moturiki to make sure. On arrival on shore, they were massacred. Then, without warning, the mountain people fell on Farani and his men, and at the very moment they believed themselves certain of success, they slew them all. Thus perished the scoundrel whose name alone was an insult to the French in these islands. Incidit in laquem quem fecit [He fell into the snare he had made. rf eg Psalm 56:9] The ones who perished with him were precisely those who had turned away the Bishop of Enos’ boat when he wanted to go and pay a visit to the American consul at Biva. Those hypocrites did not stop performing the exercises of their so-called religion even while plotting the deaths of so many people. They died as true Methodists. One of them had the audacity to declare in the middle of a sermon that they had gone straight to paradise. The children of the Whites whistled at him.
This event caused a declaration of war between Ovalau, siding with Reva [Rewa], and Biva with Bau.
Since you could not know how thick the darkness is in Fiji, you would imagine that this affair must have dealt heresy a mortal blow, at least as far as the Whites were concerned. Nothing of the sort. The ministers came, they said they would hold meetings and collections in Sydney to repair the losses caused by the fire. They loaned the Whites trading goods to set them up in business again, and this way they entangled them in their nets, so that nothing has changed. The Whites laugh at their attempts to justify Falani’s conduct. But although they do not agree with one another, since Mammon is their only God they are now just as they were before with respect to the faith, and with respect to us. They regard us as poor abandoned wretches who are good for nothing.
All these things took place while Visesio was at Rewa sawing planks with [Br] Augustin. As he wanted to return to Ovalau, I sent him back in my boat with Augustin and Jean de Manille. They arrived safely. But on their return, Augustin and Manille were stopped at the mouth of the river which leads to Rewa by a flotilla of canoes from Bau. As there were only the two of them, they were in no position to resist. They were captured and everything in the boat was pillaged in the twinkling of an eye. Jean de Manille was stripped and transferred to one of the canoes to be taken to be cooked and eaten in a nearby fort named Nukui. However, they demanded a preliminary interview with Cakobau, the commander of the fleet, who was some distance away, and this was granted. When Cakobau saw the Brother and realised it was the mission boat, he pretended to be afraid. He gave Manille back his liberty and ordered his people to restore what they had taken. They restored about half and kept the rest. That is an example of fakaviti (the Fijian way): to steal half and return the rest so as to appear generous. The fact is that Manille and Augustin were very lucky to get off so lightly. They retuned to Rewa the next day. That very day Fr Ducretey [sic] embarked with three Whites in the boat belonging to the Fathers of Ovalau to go and buy some provisions around Viti Levu. They had arrived off a point where the water was only two or three feet deep when they were attacked by an army of two to three hundred men who tried to capture them. The Fijians were in water only up to their waists. They fired about two hundred shots at the boat at close range. One bullet pierced the hull, another the boom, and three the sails. The three Whites with the priest, a Frenchman among them, retaliated, killed one Fijian and wounded some others. Providence willed that the water was deep enough at the time for them not to run aground and they escaped.
News of these incidents spread and the Methodists exploited them to their profit. As they had previously succeeded in converting Farani by promising him protection against France for his murder, they tried the same means with Cakobau. They frightened him by telling him France would avenge the harm he had done us, and then they offered him asylum in their sect as the safe refuge of our assassins. In this way, they managed to get a house built for them in Bau, something refused to them up til then, and a minister has since taken up residence there. I do not know if Cakobau will be a second Farani or not.
As you see, the Methodists in their zeal have found a very ingenious method of gaining converts for themselves. They get us killed or robbed and then set themselves up as the avowed protectors of our killers.
You will conclude from all these accounts that Providence has shown itself a true father to us, but that evil is firmly entrenched in these islands. Those who haven’t experienced it at first hand as we have would have no idea. It is a chaos of treachery, greed, bias towards evil and falsehood, hatred and mistrust of the truth, with a brimming over of frightful customs, and the complete absence of any feeling of decency. There is nothing that could be compared to Fiji, except perhaps hell. The longer one stays here, the deeper one probes the wound of this people, the more frightening it appears. Only God’s power could cure it. Ordinary examples are not enough to make an impression. There you have Cakobau, who sent the bishop away, brought to bay by his enemies and continually menaced with death; the Bivans, who repulsed him, all massacred; the chief of Somosomo, who deceived him and forbade anyone to listen to the priests under pain of death, assassinated by his own son, who has been assassinated in his turn by another - all that does nothing. Facti sunt sicut equus et mulus quibus non est intellectus. [‘They are like the horse and the mule without understanding’ Ps 32: 9]...
On March 19 St Joseph sent us quite a strong cyclone. Our house at Rewa is situated on the bank of a river as large as the Seine which almost crosses the width of the large island of Viti Levu. The torrential rain accompanying the cyclone caused the river to overflow its banks and the water flooded our house to a depth of three feet and stayed there three days. During this time our boat, moored at the door, served us as kitchen, and we lived in our loft with all our belongings. Although flooded our house stood up to the storm, and the great saint whose feast we were celebrating protected it from the storm. We lost hardly anything. After the three days, the good weather returned and the good God raised up a dry wind which repaired all the damage.
At present we are reasonably well respected in Rewa. There recently arrived about 60 Fijians from here who had spent five or six months in New Caledonia fishing for biches de mer.[4] They were well treated by our Fathers and saw our French warships and steamships. [5] Although they are great talkers, they did not have enough words at their disposal to tell everything they had seen. They did not exhaust their stock of rhetoric praising the strength and energy of the French. Since several of the officers let them understand that they were soon going to come and see us in Fiji, the whole population is now waiting in expectation for the arrival of these ships with sails of fire, as they say. This is what is keeping them full of respect. As far as the faith is concerned, you will understand that our enemies do not fail either to represent us as the forerunners of an invasion, and our religion as the prelude to slavery, with the result that people are even more wary of embracing it, whatever we may say.
We leave it to Providence to act. The war is too open, and these people too superstitious for us to make an approach of this sort at this time. The Methodists have spoiled everything and vilified the faith to the utmost. When one mentions religion to the chiefs, they always put off the subject until after the war. They want Bau destroyed first. It is true that that is where the root of the evil certainly is, and that Bau is indeed like the head of a great serpent which grips the whole of Fiji in its coils. But one cannot foresee when that will happen.
While waiting, all we can do is try to baptise some little children in danger of death when we come across them. This happens sometimes, but too rarely. One of the little daughters of the King of Rewa has gone that way into paradise. May she intercede for her father who is still a very long way from the kingdom of God.
If I set out to tell you of the superstitions and cruelties of the Fijians, I would never finish; it is Satan’s kingdom. The demon which possesses them is in particular, I believe, the demon of murder. All their titles of honour are names for murder. They go so far as to train their little children to murder by making them kill other children taken in war. It is an entertainment for them. Everything people say about cannibalism is only too true and we have every day the spectacle before our eyes almost every week; almost every week the sound of the lali (Polynesian drum) tells us that some Fijian has been cooked and eaten. What is worst about these people is to find neither heart nor affection. The good God will have to create them over again to make Christians of them. Pray a great deal to the good God for this, reverend Father. The Fijians are a very numerous people. It would take a long time to reach the last of them and we are only at the beginning of our troubles.
As for me, I have no regrets for having come nor any desire to leave, but rather to stay to the end, if that is God’s will.
If we come to lose our few belongings by fire or by pillage, we could take refuge with you by means of our boats, for we are no great distance away....


  1. Mathieu then reports the death of a young Futunan. On his way back to his homeland he set foot on the island of Somosomo where he was slain and put in the oven.
  2. In 1838 the French had mounted a punitive expedition against the Fijians of Viwa who had murdered the captain and crew of a French brig in 1834 (Knox 19). The question mark in the text against the captain’s name is the work of the editor of ES.
  3. This is the editor’s suggestion, but it is more probable here we should read Biva, for Daniel was one of Farani’s subjects, and Rewa is later referred to as Reva.
  4. beche-de-mer: the trepang or sea-cucumber, a delicacy in the East.
  5. Pyroscaphes in the text.

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