The Vanishing Tribes 2

I asked if he had ever found the tribes intolerant of his preaching, and the pastor said, no, on the contrary. The trouble was that the natives were only too ready to accept any message but wanted to be allowed to fit in the new revelation among their own idolatries. He just couldn’t make them understand that God was a jealous god. That was another term that they didn’t have in their language, and he had to spend hours explaining to them. A typical attitude after hearing the gospel was to offer to include the new spirit in their Pantheon along with the spirits of earth, water, thunder and rice. This usually went with the suggestion of a big cer¬emony, to be provided by the pastor, at which a number of buffaloes and jars would be sacrificed and the new spirit would be invited to be present. ‘We just can’t get them to see how foolish and wicked these sacrifices are. Why only today we saw some natives drinking in a field and when they saw us in the car they came running over to offer us alcohol. Can you imagine that? We actually recognised people we had already given in¬struction in their own language out of a little manual we produced.’ The pastor put a book in my hand. It contained, said the title-page, thirty hymns, a section on prayer, an explanation of twenty-six religious terms, a short summary of the Old and New Testaments and a Church manual, with duties of preachers, elders, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, dedication, the marriage service and the Apostles’ Creed. And all this was written in the Rhades language with its lack of such words as God, love, hate, jealousy. A formidable accomplishment indeed!
Bringing up the matter of the plantations and their effect upon his endeavours – since coolies working thirteen hours a day and seven days a week would obviously be unable to attend Divine Worship – the pastor drew in his horns immediately. He was concerned only with the natives’ spiritual welfare, and their material conditions were no interest of his whatever. One thing could be said in favour of the plantations, in fact, and that was that a man working there was at least put out of the way of temptation. His view was that it didn’t really matter what happened to a man in this world so long as he had acquired the priceless treasure of Faith. When Jesus said that ‘He that believeth in me shall be saved’ he was not referring to this life. Naturally, if one of his Christians got into trouble he would try to come through for him, so long as it didn’t annoy the French. I realised quite sharply that the pastor was totally uninterested in the natives as a whole, but only in ‘our Christians (we love them like children)’. He collected souls with the not very fierce pleasure that others collect stamps.
It is curious that a twentieth-century evangelist should join hands in this belief in the unique and exclusive value of faith with his first missionary predecessor, the seventeenth-century Jesuit, Borri. Borri was scandalised and depressed at a display of most of the Christian virtues on the part of a people who had not benefited by conversion. ‘.. . others profess Poverty, living upon Alms; others exercise the Works of Mercy, minist’ring to the Sick… without receiving any Reward, others under¬taking some pious Work, as building of Bridges, or other such thing for the Publick Good, or erecting of Temples . . . There are also some Omsaiis (priests) who profess the Farrier’s Trade, and compassionately cure Elephants, Oxen and Horses, without asking any Reward, being satisfy’d with anything that is freely given them… insomuch that if any Man came newly into that Country, he might easily be persuaded that there had been Christians there in former times; so near has the Devil endeavour’d to imitate us.’
There was, however, a remedy for this distressing state of affairs, for ‘. This is that part of the Earth call’d Cochin-China, which wants nothing to make it a part of Heaven, but that God should send thither a great many of His Angels, so S. John Chrysostom calls Apostolical Men, and Preachers of the Gospel. How easily would the Faith be spread abroad in this Kingdom… for there is no need here of being disguis’d or conceal’d, these People admitting of all Strangers in their Kingdom, and being well pleas’d that every one should live in his own Religion… nor do they shun Strangers, as is practis’d in other Eastern Nations, but make much of them, affect their Persons, prize their Commodities, and commend their Doctrine.’
Borri had his wish. The Angels, Apostolical Men and Preachers of the Gospel arrived in great numbers, and it was under the pretext of protecting them from Annamese oppression that the French conquest of the country was undertaken. That evening I went mistakenly to a restaurant that masqueraded under a European name. I believe it was the Restaurant something or other. In this part of the world one is always at the mercy of the Far-Eastern peoples’ broad-mindedness and ingenuity in matters of food, and conse¬quently there sometimes arises a craving for something simple, definite and nameable. The Restaurant fell badly between two stools. Although a jukebox groaned gustily in a corner, the screen that only partially excluded the kitchen details was ominously decorated with dragons, and the remnants of a meal that had been eaten with chopsticks were snatched from my table as I sat down. Without my being given a chance to express my preference, a moody Vietnamese waiter now arrived with a plate of eggs, which might have been laid by thrushes. They looked like highly coloured and greatly magnified frog spawn and were bathed in green oil. This was followed by the plat du jour for Europeans, described as a Chateaubriand maison, a huge slab of blueish-grey meat, undoubtedly cut from the haunches of some rare, ass-like animal that had been shot in the local forest. ‘… Et des pommes Lyonnaises,’ said the sombre-faced waiter arriving again, and releasing over the plate a scoopful of fried, sliced manioc. This was accompanied by a bottle of perfumed beer.

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