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jeudi 5 septembre 2013

Mangareva, in Gambier Islands

Cradle of
Polynesian evangelization

The effects of the evangelization of Gambier Islands were not all positive. The facts, alas, too often contradict the official history of the Church.

The first Catholic Mission of the South Pacific was founded in 1834, on Gambier Islands by Fathers Honoré Laval and François d'Assise Caret, accompanied by Friar Colomban Murphy.  

The imposing Cathedral of St. Michel before restoration
They built the first church of the whole South Pacific on the island of Akamaru: it’s made of brushwood…

In 1836, Brother Soulié comes and undertakes an extraordinary work as a builder, like rebuilding the solid construction of Notre-Dame-de-la-Paix in Akamaru.

The very controversial Father Honoré Laval
If we refer to the official texts, especially those of the Congregation of the Sacred-Hearts (Picpus Brothers), Father Laval saved Mangarevan people from ignorance and barbarism. Here is what Laval himself wrote about them:

“In former times, our islanders used to wake up about three o’clock in the morning; they ate, walked cool until eleven and were recovering to sleep until four in the afternoon; then they got up for dinner and spent the evening to wander until midnight, provided the moonlight should succeed immediately the day. When this didn’t occur, they slept again after dinner until moonrise (…). It was a purely animal life. Today, they get up at dawn, recite theirs prayers, take their popoi, attend Mass and instruction and set to work.”

The very controversial Father Honoré Laval
If that’s how they lived really, we are entitled to ask who was responsible for hunting, fishing, cultivating fruits and vegetables, who prepared the meal and built the fare, who erected the marae…?

After a visit to Tahiti and Tuamotu, Father Honoré Laval presides over the destiny of the archipelago of Gambier and their people from 1855 (the date of the departure of Father Liausu) until 4 April 1871.

At that time, he was recalled forcefully by his superiors of Tahiti. Many complaints were lodged against him. And the facts don’t plead in his favor: he will never return to Gambier.

The Mangarevan people’s agony
Upon arrival of the trio of missionaries on August 7, 1834, the population of the archipelago is estimated at about 5,000 souls. After Father Laval’s departure (1871), it’s just over 500 individuals and continues to fall, as Mangarevans are only more than 463 in 1887. In 1956, they are barely 580. And this number is further reduced, since they are more than 560 in 1983.

Pearl farms in Mangareva
It must also be considered acts of piracy and kidnapping of young people for the market of slavery.

The explosion of the pearl culturing will save the archipelago: the august 2007 census reported 1 337 inhabitants (source: Statistical Institute of French Polynesia). The reasons for this collapse of population density are multiple. The Mangarevans are dying like flies tuberculosis, childhood diseases, recurring epidemics, but also moral decay.

The ruins of Re'e college on Aukena
Some historians believe that many died in desperation.

Indeed, the main reason for the dramatic population decline seems to be the method of evangelizing Father Laval. It could have led Mangarevans to exodus, refusing life that Catholic missionaries imposed upon them by force, especially Father Laval. Some accounts even speak of corporal punishments conducted publicly in the church.

One of the missionary watchtowers
Here’s what you can read in the “Report of the Imperial Commissioner La Roncière”, cited by Philippe Mazelier in Volume III of his inescapable “Polynesian Memorial”

“ … These missionaries are traders… It cannot be in the name of civilization as they whip the men, they shave the women’s heads, etc.” Further, he’s quoting Laval namely: “He is for violent means, floggings inflicted prove it. One day, in the midst of the church, dressed in his priestly vestments, he gave a blow to a young man because he had seen him smile…”

Young people seek by all means to leave the Mangareva atoll, become a hell for them. They ship under any conditions on any ship, albeit slaver. They steal each unsupervised boat, from the outrigger to the rowboat, with the aim to escape the rules of a faith that oppresses them, to flee mistreatments inflicted by Honoré Laval.

The remnants of evangelization
From this painful past, it remains that The Gambier are the only Polynesian islands where architectural vestiges persist.

The Gambier an archipelago like another
But these latter were produced solely only by the missionary impulse. In order to be sure of eradicating the old beliefs, churches and chapels were built over the marae, and with the original stones thereof.

Thus today, there is almost nothing left of what was once the site that preceded the evangelization of Gambier Islands.

An article of Julien Gué
Translated from French by Monak

See also these links:

Copyright Julien Gué. Ask for the author’s agreement before any reproduction of the text or the images on Internet or traditional press.

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