Polynesian Mythology and Ancient Traditional History of the New Zealand Race
Preface to First Edition
Preface to First Edition.
Towards the close of the year 1845 I was suddenly and unexpectedly required by the British Government to administer the affairs of New Zealand, and shortly afterwards received the appointment of Governor-in-Chief of those Islands.
When I arrived in them, I found Her Majesty's native subjects engaged in hostilities with the Queen's troops, against whom they had up to that time contended with considerable success; so much discontent also prevailed generally amongst the native population, that where disturbances had not yet taken place, there was too much reason to apprehend they would soon break out, as they shortly afterwards did, in several parts of the Islands.
I soon perceived that I could neither successfully govern, nor hope to conciliate, a numerous and turbulent people, with whose language, manners, customs, religion, and modes of thought I was quite unacquainted. In order to redress their grievances, and apply remedies, which would neither wound their feelings, nor militate against their prejudices, it was necessary that I should be able thoroughly to understand their complaints; and to win their confidence and regard, it was also requisite that I should be able at all times, and in all places, patiently to listen to the tales of their wrongs or sufferings, and, even if I could not assist them, to give them a kind reply, couched in such terms as should leave no doubt on their minds that I clearly understood and felt for them, and was really well disposed towards them.
Although furnished with some very able interpreters, who gave me assistance of the most friendly nature, I soon found that even with their aid I could still only very imperfectly perform my duties. I could not at all times and in all places have an interpreter by my side; and thence often when waylaid by some suitor, page vi who had, perhaps, travelled on foot two or three hundred miles to lay before me the tale of his or her grievances, I was compelled to pass on without listening, and to witness with pain an expression of sorrow and keenly disappointed hope cloud over features which the moment before were bright with gladness, that the opportunity so anxiously looked for had at length been secured.
Again, I found that any tale of sorrow or suffering, passing through the medium of an interpreter, fell much more coldly on my ear, than it would have done had the person interested addressed the tale direct to myself; and in like manner an answer delivered through the intervention of a third person, appeared to leave a very different impression upon the suitor to what it would have had coming direct from the lips of the Governor of the country. Moreover, this mode of communication through a third person was so cumbrous and slow, that, in order to compensate for the loss of time thus occasioned, it became necessary for the interpreters to compress the substance of the representations made to me, as also of my own replies, into the fewest words possible; and as this had in each instance to be done hurriedly, and at the moment, there was reason to fear that much that was material to enable me fully to understand the question brought before me, or the suitor to comprehend my reply, might be unintentionally omitted. Lastly, I had on several occasions reasons to believe that a native hesitated to state facts, or to express feelings and wishes, to an interpreter, which he would most gladly have done to the Governor, could he have addressed him direct.
These reasons and others of equal force made me feel it to be my duty to make myself acquainted, with the least possible delay, with the language of the New Zealanders, as also with their manners, customs, and prejudices. But I soon found that this was a far more difficult matter than I had at first supposed. The language of the New Zealanders is a very difficult one to understand thoroughly: there was then no dictionary of it published (unless a vocabulary can be so called); there were no books published in the language which would enable me to study its construction; it varied altogether in form from any of the ancient or modern page vii languages which I knew; and my thoughts and time were so occupied with the cares of the government of a country then pressed upon by many difficulties, and with a formidable rebellion raging in it, that I could find but very few hours to devote to the acquisition of an unwritten and difficult language. I, however, did my best, and cheerfully devoted all my spare moments to a task, the accomplishment of which was necessary to enable me to perform properly every duty to my country and to the people I was appointed to govern.
Soon, however, a new and quite unexpected difficulty presented itself. On the side of the rebel party were engaged, either openly or covertly, some of the oldest, least civilised, and most influential chiefs in the islands. With them I had either personally or by written communications to discuss questions which involved peace or war, and on which the whole future of the islands and of the native race depended; so that it was in the highest degree essential that I should fully and entirely comprehend their thoughts and intentions, and that they should not in any way misunderstand the nature of the engagements into which I entered with them.
To my surprise, however, I found that these chiefs, either in their speeches to me, or in their letters, frequently quoted, in explanation of their views and intentions, fragments of ancient poems or proverbs, or made allusions which rested on an ancient system of mythology; and although it was clear that the most important parts of their communications were embodied in these figurative forms, the interpreters were quite at fault—they could then rarely (if ever) translate the poems or explain the allusions, and there was no publication in existence which threw any light on the subjects, or which gave the meaning of the great mass of words which the natives upon such occasions made use of; so that I was compelled to content myself with a short general statement of what some other native believed that the writer of the letter intended to convey as his meaning by the fragment of the poem he had quoted, or by the allusions he had made. I should add that even the great majority of the young Christian natives were page viii quite as much at fault on these subjects as were the European interpreters.
Clearly, however, I could not, as Governor of the country, permit so close a veil to remain drawn between myself and the aged and influential chiefs, whom it was my duty to attach to British interests and to the British race, whose regard and confidence, as also that of their tribes, it was my desire to secure, and with whom it was necessary that I should hold the most unrestricted intercourse. Only one thing could, under such circumstances, be done, and that was to acquaint myself with the ancient language of the country, to collect its traditional poems and legends, to induce their priests to impart to me their mythology, and to study their proverbs. For more than eight years I devoted a great part of my available time to these pursuits. Indeed, I worked at this duty in my spare moments in every part of the country I traversed, and during my many voyages from portion of the Islands. I was also always accompanied by natives, and still at every possible interval pursued my inquiries into these subjects. Once, when I had with great pains amassed a large mass of materials to aid me in my studies, the Government House was destroyed by fire, and with it were burnt the materials I had so collected, and thus I was left to commence again my difficult and wearying task.
The ultimate result, however, was, that I acquired a great amount of information on these subjects, and collected a large mass of materials, which were, however, from the manner in which they were acquired, in a very scattered state; for different portions of the same poem or legend were often collected from different natives, in very distant parts of the country; long intervals of time, also, frequently elapsed after I had obtained one part of a poem or legend, before I could find a native accurately acquainted with another portion of it; consequently the fragments thus obtained were scattered through different note-books, and, before they could be given to the public, required to be carefully arranged and re-written, and, what was still more difficult (whether viewed in reference to the real difficulty of fairly translating page ix the ancient language in which they were composed, or my many public duties), it was necessary that they should be translated.
Having, however, with much toil acquired information which I found so useful to myself, I felt unwilling that the result of my labours should be lost to those whose duty it may be hereafter to deal with the natives of New Zealand; and I therefore undertook a new task, which I have often, very often, been sorely tempted to abandon; but the same sense of duty which made me originally enter upon the study of the native language has enabled me to persevere up to the present period, when I have already published one large volume in the native language, containing a very extensive collection of the ancient traditional poems, religious chants and songs of the Maori race, and I now present to the European reader a translation of the principal portions of their ancient mythology, and some of their most interesting legends.
Another reason that has made me anxious to impart to the public the most material portions of the information I have thus attained is, that probably to no other person but myself would many of their ancient rythmical prayers and traditions have been imparted by their priests; and it is less likely that any one could now acquire them, as I regret to say that most of their old chiefs, and even some of the middle-aged ones who aided me in my researches, have already passed to the tomb.
With regard to the style of the translation a few words are required. I fear in point of care and language it will not satisfy the critical reader; but I can truly say that I have had no leisure carefully to revise it. The translation is also faithful; and it is almost impossible closely and faithfully to translate a very difficul language without almost insensibly falling somewhat into the idiom and form of construction of that language, which, perhaps, from its unusualness, may prove unpleasant to the European ear and mind; and this must be essentially the case in a work like the present, no considerable continuous portion of the original whereof was derived from one person, but which is compiled from the written or orally delivered narratives of many, each differing from the others in style, and some even materially from the rest in dialect.page x
I have said that the translation is close and faithful; it is so to the full extent of my powers, and from the little time I have had at my disposal. I have done no more than add in some places such few explanatory words as were necessary to enable a person unacquainted with the productions, customs, or religion of the country, to understand what the narrator meant. For the first time, I believe, a European reader will find it in his power to place himself in the position of one who listens to a heathen and savage high-priest explaining to him, in his own words, and in his own energetic manner, the traditions in which he earnestly believes, and unfolding the religious opinions upon which the faith and hopes of his race rest.
That their traditions are puerile, is true; that the religious faith of the races who trust in them is absurd, is a melancholy fact; but all my experience leads me to believe that the Saxon, Celtic, and Scandinavian systems of mythology, could we have become intimately acquainted with them, would be found in no respects to surpass that one which the European reader may now thoroughly understand. I believe that the ignorance which has prevailed regarding the mythological systems of barbarous or semi-barbarous races has too generally led to their being considered far grander and more reasonable than they really were.
But the puerility of these traditions and barbarous mythological systems by no means diminishes their importance as regards their influence upon the human race. Those contained in the present volumes have, with slight modifications, prevailed perhaps considerably more than two thousand years throughout the great mass of the islands of the Pacific Ocean; and, indeed, the religious system of ancient Mexico was, probably, to some extent connected with them. They have been believed in and obeyed by many millions of the human race; and it is still more melancholy to reflect that they were based upon a system of human sacrifices to the gods; so that if we allow them to have existed for two thousand years, and that, in accordance with the rites which are based upon them, at least two thousand human victims were annually sacrificed throughout the whole extent of the numerous islands in page xi which they prevailed (both of which suppositions are probably much within the truth), then at least four millions of human beings have been offered in sacrifice to false gods; and to this number we should have to add a frightful list of children murdered under the system of infanticide which the same traditions encouraged, as also a very large number of persons destroyed for having been believed guilty of the crime of sorcery or witchcraft.
It must further be borne in mind, that the native races who believed in these traditions or superstitions are in no way deficient in intellect, and in no respect incapable of receiving the truths of Christianity; on the contrary, they readily embrace its doctrines and submit to its rules; in our schools they stand a fair comparison with Europeans, and, when instructed in Christian truths, blush at their own former ignorance and superstition, and look back with shame and loathing upon their previous state of wickedness and credulity; and yet for a great part of their lives have they, and, for thousands of years before they were born, have their forefathers, implicitly submitted themselves to those awful superstitions, and followed those cruel and barbarous rites.