Newsletter of the District of Asia

 Jan - June 2003

Singapore visited 150 years ago
by St Theophane Venard, M.E.P.
(martyred in Vietnam, Feb. 2,1861)

First Letter, To his family

In this very long letter of which we give the main extracts, started in January 1853, "Between St Paul and Amsterdam's Islands, in the Indian Ocean, on the 77° longitude East" and finished in February after arriving in Singapore, Theophane tells the whole story of his three month journey by sea from Plymouth, England and of his first impressions of Singapore, a 30 year old city.

January 1 - early February, 1853

Peace and joy to my beloved in the Lord!


The sea, I confess, wearies me to death. It is certainly fine to see great waves rolling one over another, but I should prefer seeing it from terra firma. We had the unspeakable consolation of daily Mass for the first month and a half; but afterwards our altar-breads got spoiled. How I have longed for the possibility of paying a visit to Blessed Sacrament, or of assisting once more at some Catholic ceremony! When the body is deprived of food, it languishes and dies; and it is the same with the soul, without the Bread which sustains its life ...

Time and again I found myself dreaming on deck, leaning against the, bulwarks, and looking back on my past life-my happy childhood, my darling mother, my father's sacrifices, my education, our joyous home-gatherings, my life at school and at college ...

And now here I am, in the hands of Providence, full of thankfulness for past mercies and blessings, full of hope for the future. My dear father, in your last letter, consenting to my departure, you encouraged me by saying, 'The hand of God is everywhere.' This shall henceforth be my motto. The hand of God is everywhere; therefore it will be everywhere with me.

In the China Sea, head winds persisted. The days seemed quite long, because the port was very close, we thus practiced the trade of patience.

It was only on February 12th in the morning that we entered the strait of Singapore formed by the islands of Bintam and Battam and the peninsula of Malacca. We had at that moment a favorable monsoon: a few more hours and we would touch ground. How our hearts palpitated! We used the binoculars to see Singapore from the farthest possible. Little by little it was discovered, the masts of the ships in dock could be seen; then the bell-tower of the Catholic church, in the midst of trees and houses, dominating this pagan ground.

Hail to the Lord whose blessed standard we sight!

Hail to the Catholic Church, the Queen of the world!

Hail to the port where Providence had fortunately brought us!

Our crossing had been truly beautiful. We, missionaries, we cannot praise too much our worthy and good captain, who took care of us so well. We can only be proud of the officers and of all the members of the crew, who wanted to receive from us some small religious souvenirs. We made a distribution of crosses, chains and medals, and the Protestants (because several sailors were Protestant, a fact which we did not know at our departure), wanted to receive their share. They would have wished to converse with us on religion, but we did not know their language.

The Catholic sailors tormented them sometimes; one especially defended the true Church with much zeal, he is a good Christian and is quite well formed. I gave a small silver crucifix to our captain, who received it with many thanks. We shook the hand of this good captain and all these good people, who made our stay on board the Philotaxe so pleasant, and we went down in one of the boats to go to ground, planning to return to bid our last farewell, when the Philotaxe would leave Singapore to go to take its cargo of rice in Burma.

You are certainly right, my friends, that we did not have our eyes in our pockets, when we stepped on the ground! All that we were seeing belonged to a new civilization. The dock of Singapore is very sure and very beautiful, it has the form of a half-circle, crowned with houses and greenery, and intersected with hills, on the highest of which floats the flag of the English governor. A multitude of small boats moves about in the harbour, all light like shells, and surround the large ships to serve them. All the peoples of the world give each other rendez­vous in Singapore, which is unique amongst all the ports, because of the infinite variety of races which meet there. England dominates there as in all the East, and gives the swing to the trade, which is mainly in the hands of the Chinese, the more shrude and covetous of all the peoples.

Thus European, American, Asian, African, Oceanians abound in Singapore. It is impossible to imagine a stranger dissimilarity of costumes. The Arabs, Malabars, Bengalis, Lascans, famous and beautiful men, present their broad white coats and the turban. The Chinese have broad trousers and a small shirt on the top of the body, with the hair in a tail or braids, sometimes hanging like horse tail, with all due respect, sometimes turned around the head, which actually does not give them an unpleasant result. There are Persians, Birmese, Siamese, Annamites, Kampuchean, Chinese — as many as an anthill — and then the Malay, weak and degraded race. Many have for clothing only that which is necessary according to the strictest rigour; thus one can admire the largest variety of skins. The Malay are of a tanned color, dirty; those of the Chinese who are naked have an olive tint, otherwise they are very white; Birmese slightly bronzed, Hindu Bengalis are more, some are almost black. The Arabs have it dry. I say etc..., because I would not finished, if I wanted to say everything.

We saw a Malabar who spoke to us in French; he was from Karikal and was honoured to belong to France. The Chinese junks are a curiosity, and we could not keep ourselves from laughing while passing close to them. Some are large like the largest ships of Europe; but what a heavy construction! What a variegation of colors! What an amalgamation of goods! They struck a resounding drum, as we passed, and we said: our actors of France could come here to take some lessons. These junks are indeed, at first glance, a kind of houses for actors. Or they are like a chariot loaded for a removal, or like an immense bazaar.

We landed after a long circuit, and we stepped on the ground. What a joy to walk freely, and to rest our poor legs tired of so long a lack of exercise! We found close to the church the house of the missionaries, who welcomed us with much cordiality. They are three, two of which are exclusively in charge of the rather numerous Chinese Christians. Another meart of the revolt in China, at this moment more frightening than ever.

Very recently, the Christian Brothers founded an establishment in Singapore, they have already a hundred pupils; half of which are Christian, and provide altar boys and cantors for the offices, and they discharge their functions extremely well.

Singapore is only thirty years old, and has already at least 80,000 inhabitants; the Chinese being the most numerous. China cannot contain the multitude of its people, and each year a good number leave the country to go to populate the neighbouring regions and to make fortune there. This last year, Singapore received more than 3,000 ; the districts in which they live in Singapore are not beautiful. The commercial part of the city is not pleasant to live, because of the dust and exhalations of the tides. Also Europeans have only their offices and stores there, they placed their residences behind a hill, like country houses sown here and there, in the midst of a splendid vegetation; the Catholic church is there too. The Europeans have put themselves above the Asian, like men of a higher nature; just like the Spaniards and the Portuguese did formerly in their countries of conquest. Instead of raising these poor pagan people at the height of Christian civilization, they scorn them, which puts antipathy between them and Europe, and has prevented and still prevents their conversion. The Europeans on the other hand are rather poor Christians in the colonies. In Singapore, I saw a practice which did not please me: when Europeans go by car, the coach driver who is always Asian, Malay, Birmese or a Hindu, does not have the smallest place on the vehicle; he has to trotter with the horse. I really feel sorry for them.

The houses are all made of wood; without glass panes, but only shutters which one lifts or lowers, according to whether one wants to have air or not. The beds are plaits surrounded by a small tent of a light fabric which one calls mosquito net, to protect from the bites of the mosquitoes or their cousins, fond of the blood of Europeans; the natives do not use these nets.

Food must be strongly spiced, so that digestion become easy; those who are not accustomed to this have fire in their the palate in the first days: I like this regime. The fruits are good; the banana, in particular, rather similar to a large broad bean pod, has the taste, this seems to me, of a cake of Savoy, and it really cools down. We ate bread and drank wine of Europe; undoubtedly it is our last time to enjoy them. Later, we will have rice and tea, always that, and sometimes only that.

I have heard once the Chinese sing their prayers; you will have an idea of it, if you have ever heard a piano. They make a warbling which pleases me quite well. By the way, I have a soft spot for them; I already like them as brothers, since I must soon go and live with them.

We paid a visit to the French Consul, who did not lose any of the promptness and frankness of the French. He is a little opposed to the idea that we leave now for Hongkong, because of a very dangerous contrary monsoon, so that we don't know when we will complete our voyage. We leave a confrere, or perhaps a confrere will leave us to go to Cambodgia, his mission: it is Fr. Basset., of the diocese of Digne. Fr. Lavigne, of the diocese of Aix, intended for the province of Canton; Fr. Theurel, of the diocese of Besanc.on, and Fr. Perrier, of the diocese of Nantes, intended both for Tongking, are my other travelling companions. We learned about the Empire without being astonished. May God give peace to France and the world.

In this country gold is the supreme God; new gold mines are frequently discovered, but one finds neither peace nor happiness in them. No: it is the God of charity, of fraternal union who alone gives it. Charity is the pure gold, the true one, the gold tried in the furnace; the remainder is only counterfeit money.

I expected to receive some news of you in Singapore, but undoubtedly you will have addressed your letters to Hongkong; I had to offer it up as a sacrifice. Now there are two mail-trunks per month from Europe in the Indies; they each take 40 to 50 days for the crossing. The occasions will thus not miss from my side, I will be faithful to you. As far as I will be able, I will inform you with the events of my life. Do not be sad, my dear ones. Let us rejoice in the hope to be joined together later in Heaven.

I am pressed by the post, and I must close my correspondence. In Hongkong I will finish to pay my debts.

I keep all of you faithfully in my memory. Greetings, greetings to all! I kiss you tenderly, my beloved father, and you, Melanie my sister, and you, my dear Henri, and you, my dear Eusèbe. In addition to the days already assigned, I offer the mass for the family the first of each month.

Good-bye, my dear ones. Good-bye.
Your loving and faithful




Second Letter, To his family

Theophane spent two short weeks in Singapore. Here are his impressions after that stay.

Singapore, February 25,1853.

My very dear friends,

My stay in Singapore, will not have been very long: this very evening, February 25,1 embark on board an English ship, named Alice Maud, for Wampo, one of the five ports of China left to Europeans. Wampo, located at the mouth of the river of Canton, is only ten miles at the maximum distant of Hongkong. If the monsoon were favorable, our voyage would hardly last but one week; but at this moment, it is contrary, and will oblige us to hold the sea during more than one month. Fortunately the season of the typhoons or hurricanes has passed; and we must be thankful, because five of our confreres who left for China in this season of typhoons, last November, remained at sea seventy two days and almost perished.

As travelling companions I only have two of my confreres. We were to be four, but the boats of Cochinchina having just arrived in Singapore, one of the missionaries who is intended for Tongking is staying behind to await a good monsoon and to benefit from these boats, in order to make his entry in Tongking by Cochinchina, a surer way than that of China.

What will I say of Singapore of interest for you? The city is newly born, it still does not have this unity and this regularity which one finds in other already formed cities. If it continues to thrive, it is not impossible that it can compete with Calcutta, the large metropole of commerce of the Eastern Indies. Singapore is a central place, all the commercial lines reach it, and, as I said it to you, all the people of the earth gather there. The Catholic religion finds there great obstacles to its development; the population moves too much, the knguages are too multiplied, the spirit is devoted too much to money. The Chinese give the greatest hopes; as for Europeans, they spoil the work of God.

There are there two Christian villages in the interior of the island, composed solely of Chinese, and disseminated in the various plantations. The land belongs to the first occupant; and in little time the island will be all be cultivated. The principal plantations are those of bananas, coconuts, nutmeg, pepper plants and gamblers. The pepper plant is a small shrub which gives bunches like the redcurrant bush, it is pepper. The gambler is also a small shrub which one uses in the tanneries. The beasts of burden are oxen, buffaloes, and a species of small horses.

I visited several Christian Chinese families; they receive guests with great joy and cordiality. It is extremely rare to see the women there as they remain in separate apartments and appear little in public. That is in the manners of the East.

I said to you that the boats from Cochin china had arrived in Singapore; they brought eight young pupils of the small colleges of Cochin china intended to be formed to the ecclesiastical life in the Major Seminary in Penang. They had to use many tricks to leave their country, because of persecution. The King of Cochin china, seeing that the boats, which went down to Singapore for the trade, carried pupils with them, defended under penalty of death to come in Singapore. These young Annamese are very modest and very interesting; the catechist who leads them speaks Latin extremely well. They settled in the same house as ours, on the ground floor. When they arrived, they greeted us with the solemn greeting. They were placed in front of us in a half circle, the catechist said some words of compliment, after which all bowed while putting the hand to their forehead, then they prostrated themselves to the ground. They wanted to do the same thing for each Father (thus do they call the missionaries), but we prevented them. Such great marks of subjection smell Eastern slavery, and do not fit well with the spirit of fraternity of the Gospel. The Annamese language is, like Chinese, a singing language.

In a conversation you cannot hear that chant; but when the voices unite, for example to pray, they are really singing. I can hardly determine the character of it; the tone is very melancholic, filled with tears. There is something of the Church's own chant: it is the sigh of an exiled man, the complaint of a sickly nature; it is the accent of the humble prayer, it is the aspiration towards the fatherland and happiness.

I have already started my ministry: one of my confreres and I were charged one day to bury a poor Christian Chinese. He had neither parents nor friends, nevertheless a certain number of other Christian Chinese did not fail to accompany him. We walked in the middle of the pagans going and coming on the road, and my confrere and I were singing with all our heart. A few days before, I had seen the funeral procession of a poor pagan: he was carried by three men, a fourth followed, a spade on the shoulder; that was all. Now and then the last one threw some pieces of paper, a kind of money for the devil, to let him pass. It is necessary to pay enormous sums to the bonzes to have a funeral with some solemnity.

Missionaries are well accepted in Singapore, even by many pagans. One evening, we went for a walk on the hill of the governor after diner. One of the guards, a Malabar, of its own initiative offered to each one of us a leaf of geranium. While leaving us, he said to us, according to the custom, tabé. We also answered tabé. It is the evening greeting; one completes the million dollars, a little more than 25 million francs. That should not astonish you. The Chinese are the richest and most opulent of Singapore. The building of the hospital is rather beautiful, but the interior presents a sad sight. I accompanied once the missionary who visits it regularly. The administrators are pagan, the majority of the patients are too; you can then judge the spirit of charity which reigns there. The diseases are not beautiful, seen from near, especially the leprosy which affects quite a number there. From time to time a missionary persuades some dying pagan and manages to baptize him; others resist stubbornly and will go to hell head­long.

I stop here, because I am pressed by the preparations of the departure. You will find my letter rather badly written, the sentences thrown here and there, unstructured. I am in a hurry and I prefer to send you a rough draft rather than to send nothing. I am well; take care of yourselves.

Good-bye, my very dear father, Melanie good-bye, Henri good-bye, Eusèbe good-bye. Greetings to all the friends.

I kiss you tenderly.


(From Lettres Choisies du Bx Theophane Venard, Paris, 1909, Lettre 2l6, pp.318 -336, Lettre 219, pp.344 -347, our translation)


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