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Ethnology of Manihiki and Rakahanga

Sickness and Death

page 216

Sickness and Death


With most, if not all, branches of the Polynesian race, the theory of medicine is associated with religious concepts. Certain symptoms which denote a departure from normal health were regarded as manifestations of the displeasure of the gods. They were punishments inflicted for infringing prohibitions that had been established in connection with religious observances. Thus, a swollen foot or a swollen tongue was a punishment by the god Hika-hara. Urticarial skin rashes and digestive troubles were associated with the family food prohibitions, which had come to have a supernormal significance. It is not clear whether or not a treatment through ritual to placate the supernormal cause had been in use. It is difficult to obtain exact details from a people who have come to regard “heathen” practices with shame.

The power of causing illness and death to others by the use of occult powers, or black magic, was not referred to in any conversations, except in the story of one Whakaheo ariki. He went to Honolulu after European transport was available and is said to have caused the death of a chief there by putting a hair from his head in the chief's bowl of kava. But for this isolated example, the Whakaheo and Whainga-aitu chiefs seem to have restrained their displeasure with their people to calling up rain, thunder, and lightning through their influence with their gods.

A people with a psychological attitude toward the manifestations of ill health usually seeks a psychological remedy by consulting priests and going through the established observances and ritual. There is no incentive to explore the field of herbal remedies, and the native pharmacopoeia is thus a very limited one, even supposing that medicinal plants grew on the islands inhabited.

The one plant used for minor ailments was the coconut. The diet of children was formed from the special use of various stages of the coconut, as described on page 101. The hinu romonga oil was used in massaging babies. The general term for massaging was kotikoti; pressing movements with the fingers were termed tauromi and stroking movements, maoro. The oil was also used to make the hair grow. The hinu takataka oil from the takataka nut was used as an application for boils (tahora) and any such obvious tumors as sebaceous cysts. It was also used as a dressing for burns, ulcers, and cuts. The sediment from the hinu pipiro oil was applied to ringworm (hune) after the part had been washed in salt water. The uto puni stage of the coconut was used for cuts and wounds to stop the bleeding. A slice of the uto was placed over the cut and changed two or three times until the bleeding ceased. A fresh piece was applied and kept on for one or two days. Coconut cream was used as a purgative.

page 217

The atolls are remarkably free of endemic diseases. The medical officers of late years report but little yaws. I saw one case of elephantiasis of the feet, but the patient had been to other islands and may have become infected there.

Leprosy has been known from time to time, but the origin is attributed by the natives to Hawaii. Dr. Andrews, Surgeon on H.M.S. Ringdove, made a medical report on the islands in a New Zealand Parliamentary Paper printed in 1893. He stated that the first case was developed by a man named Tukerau, who, at the age of 18 years, left for Honolulu in an English trading barque (25 years before 1893). Tukerau developed leprosy on his return. The second leper was a man, Akatu, who visited Honolulu in 1874 and lived with a leper family. On his return in 1876, he developed the disease. The origin of the disease in the neighboring atoll, Tongareva, is also attributed to Hawaii.


When a chief died the whakamaru (tribal head) placed the corpse on the platform (pahata) of the house in which the tukuwhare gods were kept. Some corpses were not buried (kare e tanu). Relatives mourned in the house on the floor below and bore the odor of putrefaction out of affection (aroha) for the deceased. They even allowed the fluids of decomposition (wai o te tupapaku) to fall down upon them. The body was allowed to remain in the loft of the house until it had dried up. Many human bones are to be seen on the atoll, and are evidence that all bodies were not interred in the ground.

The missionary, Aporo, is responsible for the following description (13, p. 150):

After any man had died, from the second until the fifth night they took food for the deceased and hoped then to upraise him to life. This is one of the “upraisings”:

E ara! e tu ki runga.
Tera mai to mango
E te ika, kia kai koe.

Arise! stand upright.
Here is thy shark
And fish, that thou mayest eat.

They all cried and cut themselves, and knocked their heads, when they found the deceased did not arise; and thus they did for many days.

Burial places were termed turuma. The dead were interred in pits and the sites marked with small coral slabs set on edge, after the style of the smaller graves on Tongareva. The coral slabs were set to form a rectangular inclosure, above the grave, about 7 feet long by 2.5 feet wide. The projection above the surface was from 10 to 12 inches. None of the large worked historic slabs forming headstones, so common on Tongareva, were seen. Though a number of graves were seen on the island of Te Kainga, it was stated that it had been customary to bury the dead on the other islands where the families had their property rights.