A model egotist, Nicholas Reid

A Deserter’s Adventures – the Autobiography of Dom Felice Vaggioli
Translated from the Italian by John Crockett
Otago University Press, $49.95,
ISBN 1877276111

Since the first English-language publication of Dom Felice Vaggioli’s New Zealand and its Inhabitants in 2000, the Italian Benedictine monk has become one of those unignorable 19th century voices in early New Zealand historiography. True, some critics rightly pointed to Vaggioli’s anti-Protestant biases and distortions in his discussions of missionaries and their impact. They noted the haughty view Vaggioli took of British civilisation in general. But Vaggioli’s anti-colonial polemic gained a more sympathetic hearing than it would have gained half a century ago. A little selective reading could transform the Catholic priest into an enlightened champion of the tangata whenua.

The interest New Zealand and its Inhabitants aroused has encouraged Otago University Press and John Crockett to follow it up with a translation of Vaggioli’s memoirs. And a very odd book they make too. Written in about 1910, over twenty years after Vaggioli last saw New Zealand, they were never published. The translator explains the pleasures of reading from Vaggioli’s neat manuscript, which he unearthed in an Italian monastery, and notes that he has translated only that part of Vaggioli’s life story which deals with New Zealand. Apparently this is about half of all Vaggioli’s written “adventures”, but it still makes a volume of some 270 substantial pages.


In his introduction, John Crockett describes Vaggioli as “conservative, Catholic and partisan” and “opinionated, patronising and garrulous”. I would go further than that. Vaggioli is a model egotist, driven by the belief that everything that happens to him must be of vital interest to others. His story becomes a saga. But the externals of his New Zealand experience are in fact quite mundane. In 1879, at the age of 34, he arrives in New Zealand with the Dutchman Walter Steins, who was briefly Catholic bishop of Auckland. He is assigned for a couple of years to Gisborne, where his hard work clears the parish debt left by the French priest who preceded him (Vaggioli always addresses money matters with the francs-and-centimes precision of a Balzac). Reassigned to Newton in Auckland, he again has to cope with the parish’s financial difficulties and falls out with some of his religious colleagues. He spends some time as parish priest of Coromandel, where he makes a favourable impression on the general community. Then, after a total of seven-and-a-half years in New Zealand, he leaves in 1887, never to return.

There is no doubt that Vaggioli was diligent in his priestly duties, charitable in his impulses, outspoken, always ready to engage in discussions or give good advice – to his bishop, religious superiors and newspaper editors, among others. He was also a very fast learner, arriving here with not a word of English but soon preaching fluently to colonial congregations (that the mass was then universally said in Latin doubtless eased his earlier parish days here). His distinctively Italian perspective colours his assessment of the New Zealand scene, as when he claims that Auckland’s climate resembles Italy’s, reminds readers that the Auckland diocese is “huge – more than one third the size of Italy” or (rather predictably) compares Rotorua to Dante’s Inferno.

But the actual events of his time here are no more momentous than those of hundreds of other priests and parsons who passed through 19th-century New Zealand. He did not walk with the great. Outside parochial church matters he had little influence on public affairs. He was not a notable public figure himself. Even the circumstances that give rise to these memoirs’ interesting title were not unique. They are a “deserter’s” adventures because, when he was 18, Vaggioli fled from Italy to Austrian territory to avoid military service. A quick survey of Auckland’s Catholic archives tells me that there were other European priests here (such as the German missioner Jean-Baptiste Becker) who performed the same manoeuvre when Europe’s new secular states began to turn the screws on Catholic church personnel.

Yet style is everything in this context, and Vaggioli tells his own story in such a way that he is always at the centre of titanic temporal and spiritual struggles. Partly it is a matter of temperament – his egotism – and partly a matter of religious faith. 

The egotism is spontaneous and unselfconscious. Of an order of nuns he remarks, “they were upset about my departure because I was reliable and said mass punctually for them in a devout, simple, dignified manner.” When, unlike some Irish priests, he declares that he has always forsworn alcohol, he says his parish committee “praised my strength of character … Protestants, too, got wind of my decision and were full of admiration, holding me in higher regard than their own ministers.” As he takes on the Gisborne parish debt, he mentions another priest who “recognizing my courage, determination and willingness to shoulder the burden, was seized with admiration for me.” He compares himself to Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross as he clears up the affairs of Newton. This is a man of the race of Benvenuto Cellini, unburdened by stuffy Anglo-Saxon prohibitions against self-praise. A nasty “I-told-you-so” tone sometimes creeps in, as when he claims (falsely, I believe) that the Auckland Catholic newspaper The New Zealand Freeman’s Journal ceased publication because Bishop Luck wouldn’t heed his financial advice. When St Benedict’s church in Auckland burns down, he notes that he was always against its being built in wood and, besides, he was clever enough to have taken out enough insurance to
cover the cost of rebuilding.

As for Vaggioli’s religious faith, it too inevitably puts him (in his own estimation) at the centre of things. After all, the Catholic priest, loosing and binding, sacrificing at the altar, hearing confessions, mediating between this world and the next, wields far more spiritual power than anyone else, doesn’t he? There’s a paradoxically egalitarian spin-off to this approach. The state of souls in colonial Gisborne, Newton and Coromandel becomes just as important as the state of souls in the great capitals of the world. But with it goes a very triumphalist theology and social perspective. It is the Devil personally (Vaggioli tells us) who causes some of the diocese’s problems. Besides, there is a dastardly plot of Freemasons to subvert the colony and write most of the editorials in The New Zealand Herald. New Zealand’s non-religious secular education systematically corrupts morals and exposes schoolchildren (especially girls) to “liberalism, self-indulgence, hedonism and wilful independence”. (So what’s changed? I can’t help asking.)

A big irony results from this world view. While Vaggioli believes Protestantism itself to be damnable heresy, he writes sympathetically of individual Protestants, with most of whom he seems to have established cordial relations. There’s only a little sectarian slanging (an embezzling Presbyterian minister is railed against, as are some smugly-affluent Anglican clergy). But there is endless gossip about drunken Catholic priests, the priest who seduced his housemaid, the priests who mismanaged finances or scandalously wasted parish funds on a regular drinking party. His fellow Benedictines, Fathers Adalbert Sullivan, Cuthbert Downey and Ethelward O’Gara, are presented in terms that would provoke libel actions if they were still alive.

Why is this? Shakespeare’s “the nearer in blood, the nearer bloody” occurs to me. Vaggioli knows all the scuttlebutt on his fellow Catholics because they are the people he lives most with. Partly, though, I suspect he believes Catholic immorality is worse because Catholics, belonging to the one true church, have further to fall. Protestant immorality, being the result of defective heretical sects, is so inevitable as not to be worth noting. Besides, Protestants are different. When he is approached by a distraught Anglican clergyman, whose drunken wife has run off with her lover, Vaggioli advises him to seek a divorce or clear out with the money before she returns. Somehow, I don’t think he would have handed out that advice to Catholics in the confessional.


There is almost nothing about Maori in this book (although occasionally Vaggioli refers parenthetically to his other writings on the subject). Rory Sweetman’s useful opening essay draws attention to the Irish national questions that exercised New Zealand Catholics back then, and this is an important context, given the English Bishop Luck’s tussles with his Irish priests and congregations. Vaggioli takes up the Irish cause at least to the extent of arguing with a snobby young English Catholic about it.

John Crockett’s translation reads beautifully. It is not merely the neatly numbered paragraphs that make for clarity, but those forthright declarative sentences, and those dramatic conversations that Vaggioli claims to remember verbatim from decades before.

As I read, I kept wondering what the tone reminded me of. Finally it clicked. A Deserter’s Adventures reads just like the CMS missionary Richard Taylor’s Te Ika a Maui – New Zealand and Its Inhabitants. If Taylor had ever heard of Vaggioli, he would have regarded him as a superstitious, idolatrous papist. Vaggioli of course regarded Taylor as a heretic. But both men speak with the intelligent inquisitiveness and the self-confidence of 19th-century Europeans who have absolutely no doubts about the righteousness of their mission and the superiority of their culture.

We may overlay their words with irony and hindsight, but they still add up to robust prose.


Nicholas Reid is an Auckland reviewer. He is the author of The Bishop’s Paper. A History of the Catholic Press of the Diocese of Auckland, reviewed in our March 2002 issue.


Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in Autobiography, History, Non-fiction, Review
Search the archive
Search by category