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Medicine Amongst the Maoris, in Ancient and Modern Times

Part II. — The Effect of The Introduction of Civilization

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Part II.
The Effect of The Introduction of Civilization.


The first far reaching effect upon the Maoris of contact with Europeans, was the decimation of the tribes by epidemics. Beyond a vague account of an epidemic which swept through the Taiamai district in the North about 150 years ago1, there are no accounts of epidemics occurring in pre-European times. Previous to the Hawaikian migration, placed somewhere about the year 1350 A.D., there had been communication backwards and forwards between New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. This continued for a very short while after the arrival of the great migration. With the larger islands now at their dispesal, the Maori tribes found enough to engross their attention on shore so that the long sea voyages and communication between their new home and the islands ceased completely. We can say that from 1400 A.D. the Maoris were completely isolated. Tasman's expedition in 1642 did not land but merely skirted the West Coast and sailed away. Thus there was no actual contact between the Maoris and any outside race from 1400 until Captain Cook's arrival in 1769. This complete isolation of the Maoris lasted for nearly four centuries and during that period we hear of no authentic epidemic except the one mentioned above. In an ancient song composed by Turaukawa of the Ngati-Ruanui tribe of Taranaki, full of sacerdetal expressions of hidden meaning, the following lines occur:-

Tokotoko tao, kotahi te turanga,
Tokotoko rangi, ka ngaro te kai, ka ngaro te tangata.
(The spear of wood slays one man at a stroke, The spear from heaven sweeps away food and obliterates man.)

These lines were never understood as men were not killed in ancient times in multitudes by the disease gods, neither page 82Were there famines of food due to supernatural influence. After the contact with civilization, however, the introduction of epidemics explained the one reference and the more recent potato blight, also due to European introduction, explained the other. Turaukawa has, as a result, been placed upon a high pedestal in prophetic circles. Suffice it to say that the escape which the Maoris had enjoyed from epidemics by virtue of their isolation, was ended in the early part of the 19th. century by the advent of the epidemic named by the Maoris, Rewharewha.

Rewharewha appeared according to some authorities, about 1802, according to others about 1790. At all events though most of the tribes had not yet come in contact with Europeans, whaling vessels from Australia and America were frequently touching upon the New Zealand coast. The epidemic spread with extraordinary virulence throughout the North Island and even to the South. From the rapid manner in which it spread, it seems to have been influenza, which owing to new soil, combined with the absolute ignorance and helplessness of the Maoris in treating it, seems to have assumed a very virulent type. The fact that the word rewharewha is used to denote coughing, points to the fact that bronchitis and chest symptoms were same of the outstanding features of the epidemic. The population of many of the villages were decimated. A tatooed veteran of the Puketapu tribe told me that in the Puketapu village, the majority of the inhabitants died. There was no time to bury the dead. At the height of the trouble, a Taranaki war party appeared on the scene. The survivors to make a successful show against the enemy, dressed the dead in fine mats, put weapons in their hands and set them along the palisades where they would be in full view of the enemy. The war party gazed upon the fully manned fort and hesitated to attack such a strong force. "Then my great grandfather who was a noted warrior, "went on my informant, "challenged their page 83 chief to single combat. They met on the level below the pa whilst the dead and the living looked on. My ancestor slew his opponent, carried the body up into the pa and threw it up into the fork of a tree. Mark how he was full of life and strength. It was in the morning. That evening "Rewha-rewha" came and smote him down. Next day he had joined the dead.

Various epidemics were introduced by civilisation and have remained with us ever since. On the East coast one was termed "papareti", comparison being made to a sliding toboggan. On the West coast, one epidemic that devastated Mekau was termed "tokotoko rangi", the spear from heaven.

Measles, typhoid, scarletfever, whooping cough and almost everything, except plague and sleeping sickness, have taken their toll of Maori dead.

The exorcisms of early days, combined with the purifying in mid-stream, but helped on the severity of the attack and contributed to the mortality. The communistic system of living and sharing large meeting houses has assisted the spread of epidemics.

Change of Mode Of Living.

We have seen how, to meet the ancient style of fighting, the villages were fortified citadels situated on high ground. The introduction of firearms by Europeans made these no longer impregnable. As various tribes became possessed of these civilised instruments for killing, they immediately attacked others not so fortunate. In the raids that followed thousands were killed not only from the direct effects of the guns but in the panics which followed the seeing of lightning and hearing of thunder fighting on behalf of the gun-bearers. Tribes throughout the length and breadth of both islands were seized with a fever to obtain guns. They were absolutely necessary to tribal existence. They could only be obtained by bartering with potatoes, pigs and the fibre of the N.Z. flax (phormium tenax). Flax grows usually in swamps page 84and damp low-lying ground. The villages on the hill-tops were vacated that they might be nearer to the flax where men, women and children, worked feverishly, scraping the blades of flax with shells to obtain the fibre to exchange for guns. These new village sites were also nearer to the food cultivations. Houses were built on the edge of swamps and on damp ground that they might be nearer the eel-weirs and cultivations. The carrying up of provisions and water was obviated but the regular excercise disappeared also. The simple system of sanitation possible on high ground now became impossible. There were no cliffs or precipitous banks at the back of the village upon which privies could be built. The privy disappeared. Indiscriminate defaecation became common and surface wells and streams were easily contaminated. The soil became contaminated with organic refuse and typhoid and diarrhoea became endemic in many villages. The dry soil of the uplands with the compulsory defensive trenches which acted efficiently in draining off any subsoil water due to rains were now absent. Consumption which had been kept in check by the mode of life and the nature of the village sites, was now promoted and encouraged by the new mode of life due to the advent of civilisation.

Change of Clothing had a bad effect. It must be remembered that in accepting innovations in various departments, the Maori never obtained the full benefit of the complete system for genertions. It was during the transition stage, which with many tribes is still present, that the Maori derived evil instead of benefit from European customs and institutions. Instead of his own warm, if scanty, clothing to which his body had become accustomed, he clad himself in thin cottons in the winter and warm woollens in the summer. Damp clothing was allowed to dry on the body and they were never removed at night. The Europeans bartered clothing but never imparted with those article the knowledge of their proper use and how to avoid abuse.

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Pulmonary troubles became common. The resistance to cold became lessened and a weakened constitution became part of the dowry of civilisation to the Maori.

Change of Food brought in its train of change. The soft foods of the white man, so different from the hard roots and berries of neolithic days, instituted dental decay. Indigestion and gastric affections became more common. Women took to feeding infants with mixtures of cornflour or ordinary flour instead of giving them their own breast milk. In many cases it was simply ignorance. Everything the white man brought was immeasurably superior to anything they possessed themselves. Condensed milk and cow's milk, before impossible to obtain, began to be used more and more as infants food so that up to the present time the European feeding bottle has slain more than the guns of Hongi. In this however they but followed the example set them.

Alcohol, one of the chief articles of European barter, became fashionable. We must give the Maoris credit for having invented no stimulent, not even the kava of Polynesia. Marion du Fresne, the French navigator and others, recount that, unlike other races, the Maoris on being first offered alcohol expredssed great repugnance and could not be induced to drink it. ItHe expressed his view of it by calling it "wai piro" stinking water. Owing to the example and teaching of sailors and traders, he eventually became fond of it. Its effect upon the race, directly and indirectly, has been an evil one. It has taken its toll of Maori dead and played its part in producing the deterioration of the race.

Venereal Diseases.

Besides introducing epidemics, Europeans seem to be responsible for venereal diseases as well. Both gonorrhoea and syphilis were unknown to the Maori before the advent of the white man. Paipai, the term usually applied, by some tribes to syphilis, by others to gonorrhoea, was page 86originally a skin disease in the region of the thighs, of an eczema intertrigo type. A party of Maoris, men and women, were employed at one of the first whaling stations at Three Kings, a group of islets off the North. When they left, they were quite well but on their return, after association with the European whalers, every one of them had contracted syphilis. Hence the Maoris composed the song:-

Na te Pakeha, nana i tari mai
Te ure pukupuku &c.
It was the European, who nither brought
The penis with chaneres &c.

In the lower moral tone, which followed cotact with the fringe of civilization and the abrogation of the drastic Maori laws, venereal diseases spread throughout the North. The part they played in causing the premature death of infants, abortions and sterility and the diminishing birth rate of the race, is exceedingly great. The number of sterile woman among the Maoris is very high and in a high percentage of them a history or venereal disease may be obtained. It must be remembered that very few received proper mercurial treatment.


Another effect of civilisation upon the Maoris was the breaking down of the Maori system of laws. The ancient laws against adultery and the infringement of tapu were drastic but well suited to existing conditions. The laws introduced by Europeans were against the summary punishment demanded by the ancient Maori law but at the same time they fell short as they could not be enforced. The consequences were that the masses were quick to take advantage of the abrogation of their own laws and the non-enforcement of the European laws. Combined with the example set by the early sailors, traders and soldiiers, the moral tone deteriorated. Licence grew up. In a few places around the whaling centres immoral traffic, hitherto unknown, took place. The uncivilised page 87supply was created by the civilized demand. These excesses were a further factor in the diminished fertility of the women and the deterioration of the race.

The first effect of civilisation was to take away institutions established by the experience of centuries, dislocate the environment to which the Maoris had adapted themselves and completely shatter their system of economics. To replace these nothing assimilable was given. The Maoris are stil groping for something to replace that which was taken away. In acquiring knowledge and assimilating civilisation, he has passed through the fiery furnace of strange diseases and altered environment. He has marked the trail down the years with thousands of his dead. Cook roughly estimated the population when he arrived as 100,000. Judging by the remains of fortified villages? perhaps it was nearer 150,000. Some years ago the population sank as low as 37,502.

1 1. The passing of the Moari by Archdeacon Walsh. Trans N.Z. Inst. Vol.XL.