Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The New Zealand Reader

Muru And Tapu

Muru And Tapu.

The law of muru is now but little used, and only on a small scale. The degenerate men of the present day usually content themselves with asking "payment"; and, after some cavilling as to the amount, it is generally given; but if it is refused, the case is brought before a Native magistrate. I think the reason that the muru is so much less practised than formerly is the fact that the Natives are now much better supplied with the necessaries and comforts of life— especially iron tools and utensils—than they weve many years ago; and in consequence the temptation to plunder is proportionately decreased. Money would still be a temptation; but it is easily concealed, and most of them have very little of it.

When I first saw the Natives the chance of getting an axe, or a spade, or a canoe by the short-hand process of muru was so great that the lucky possessor was continually watched by many eager and observant eyes, in hopes to pick a hole in his coat by which the muru might be legally brought to bear upon him. I say legally, for the Natives always tried to have a sufficient excuse; and I absolutely declare, odd as it may seem, that actual, unauthorised, and inexcusable robbery or theft was less frequent than in any country I ever have been in, though the temptation to steal was a thousandfold greater.

I must now take some little notice of the other great institution—the tapu. The limits of these flying sketches of the good old times will not allow of more than a partial notice of the all-pervading tapu. Earth, air, fire, water, page 74goods and chattels, growing crops, men, women, and children—in short, everything was subject to its influence; and it would be hard to imagine a more perplexing puzzle to new pakehas,* who were continually from ignorance infringing some of its rules. The Natives, however, made considerable allowance for this ignorance, as well they might, seeing that they themselves, though from infancy to old age enveloped in a cloud of tapu, would sometimes fall into similar scrapes.

The original object of the ordinary tapu seems to have been the preservation of property. Of this nature, in a great degree, was the ordinary personal tapu. This form of the tapu was permanent, and consisted in a certain sacred character which attached to the person of a chief and never left him. It was his birthright—a part, in fact, of himself, of which he could not be divested, and which was well understood and recognised at all times as a matter of course. The fighting men, and petty chiefs, and every one else that could claim the title of rangatira were all more or less possessed of this mysterious quality. It extended to all their movable property, especially to their clothes, weapons, ornaments, and tools, and was communicated to everything which they touched. This prevented their chattels from being stolen, or mislaid, or spoiled by children, or used or handled in any way by other people. In the old times all articles of this kind were precious, in consequence of the great labour and time necessarily expended in making them, with no iron tools; and this form of the tapu was then of great real service.

An infringement of it subjected the offender to various dreadful imaginary punishments, of which deadly sickness was one, as well as to the operation of the law of muru already mentioned. If the transgression was involuntary, the chief, or a priest, or a tohunga, could, by a certain mystical ceremony, prevent or remit the doleful and mysterious part of the punishment if he chose; but the civil part—the robbery by law of muru—would most likely have to take its course, though possibly in a mitigated form.

* [Pakeha, foreigner.]

[Rangatira is nearly equivalent to gentleman.]

[Skilled person, magician.]

page 75

I have stated that the worst part of the punishment of an offence against this form of the tapu was imaginary; but, in truth, though imaginary, it was not the less a severe punishment.

Conscience does make cowards of us all;

And there was not one man in a thousand with sufficient resolution to dare the shadowy terrors of the tapu. I actually have seen an instance where the offender, though an involuntary one, was killed stone dead in six hours by what I considered to be the effects of his own terrified imagination, but what all the Natives at the time believed to be the work of the terrible avenger of the tapu.

The case I may as well describe, as it was a strong one, and shows how, when falsehoods are once believed, they will meet with apparent proof from accidental circumstances.

A chief of very high rank, standing, and mana* was on a war expedition with about five hundred men. His own personal tapu was increased twofold, as was that of every warrior with him, by the war tapu. The tapu being on a very dangerous expedition, they were, over and above the ordinary personal tapu, made sacred in the highest degree, and were obliged to observe strictly several mysterious and sacred customs, some of which I may have to explain by-and-by. They were, in fact, as irreverent pakehas used to say, "tabooed an inch thick"; and as for the head chief, he was perfectly unapproachable.

The expedition halted to dine. The portion of food set apart for the head chief, in a neat paro or shallow basket of green flax-leaves, was, of course, enough for two or three men, and consequently the greater part remained unconsumed. The chiefs, having dined, moved on, and soon after a party of slaves and others, who had been some mile or two in the rear, carae up carrying ammunition and baggage. One of the slaves, a stout, hungry fellow, seeing the chief's unfinished dinner, ate it up without asking any questions; but, just as he was finishing his meal, another slave, who had remained behind when the taua, had moved on, saw, to his horror, what the man had been doing, and immediately told him of the awful deed he had committed.

* [Authority, influence.]


page 76

I knew the unfortunate delinquent well. He was remarkable for courage, and had signalised himself in the wars of the tribe. (The able-bodied slaves are always expected to fight in the quarrels of their masters, to do which they are nothing loth.) No sooner did he hear the fatal news than he was seized with the most extraordinary convulsions and cramps in the stomach, which never ceased till be died, about sun-down the same day. He was a strong man, in the prime of life; and if any pakeha should have said he was not killed by the tapu of the chief, which had been communicated to the food by contact, he would have been listened to with feelings of contempt for his ignorance and inability to understand plain and direct evidence.

It will be seen at once that this form of the tapu was a great preserver of property. The most valuable articles might, in ordinary circumstances, be left to its protection, in the absence of the owners, for any length of time. It also in a very great degree prevented borrowing and lending. It was much laughed at and grumbled at by unthinking pakehas, who did not know its real object or uses. They were constantly trying to get the Natives to give it up, without offering them anything equally effective in its place. Yet it held its ground in full force for many years; and, to a certain extent, but in a less observable way, it exists still.

This form of the tapu, though latent in young folks of rangatira rank, was not supposed to develop itself fully till they had arrived at mature age, and set up house on their own account. The lads and boys "knocked about" amongst the slaves and lower orders, carried fuel or provisions on their backs, and did all those duties which this personal tapu prevented their elders from doing, although the restraint was sometimes very troublesome and inconvenient.

A man of any standing could not carry provisions of any kind on his back; or, if he did, they were rendered tapu, and consequently useless to any one but himself. If he went into the shed used as a kitchen—a thing he would never think of doing except on some great emergency—all the pots, ovens, food, &c., would at once be rendered useless; none of the cooks or inferior people could make use of them, or partake of anything which had been cooked in them. page 77He might certainly light a little fire in his own house—not for cooking, as that never by any chance could be done in his house, but for warmth. But; that, or any other fire, if he should have blown upon it with his breath in lighting it, became at once tapu, and could be used for no common or culinary purpose. Even to light a pipe at it would subject any inferior person, or, in many instances, an equal, to a terrible attack of the tapu morbus;* besides being a slight or affront to the dignity of the person himself.

I remember being on a journey on a rainy day, when I saw two or three young men fairly wearing themselves out with trying to make a fire to cook with by rubbing two sticks together. There was a roaring fire close at hand all the time, at which several rangatira and myself were warming ourselves; but it was tapu—sacred fire. One of the rangatira had made it from his own tinder-box, and blown upon it in lighting it; and as there was not another tinder-box amongst us, fast we must, though hungry as sharks, till common culinary fire could be obtained.

A Native whose personal tapu was, perhaps, of the strongest, might, when at the house of a pakeha, ask for a drink of water. The pakeha being green would hand him some water in a glass, or, in those days, more probably, in a tea-cup. The Native would drink the water, and then gravely and quietly break the cup to pieces; or he would appropriate it by causing it to vanish under his mat. The new pakeha would immediately fly into a passion, to the great astonishment of the Native, who presumed that the cup or glass was a very worthless article to the pakeha or he would not have given it into his hand, and allowed him to put it to his head—the part most strongly infected by the tapu. Both parties would be surprised and displeased; the Native wondering what could have put the pakeha into such a taking, and the pakeha wondering at the rascal's impudence and what he meant by it.

The proper thing for the pakeha to do, supposing him to be of a hospitable and obliging disposition, would be to lay hold of some vessel containing about two gallons of water—to allow for waste—and hold it up before the Native's face. The Native would then stoop down and put his hand,

* [Morbus, Latin for disease.]

page 78bent into the shape of a funnel or conductor for the water, to his mouth. Then, from the height of a foot or so, the pakeha would send a cataract of water into the said funnel, and continue the shower till the Native gave a slight upward nod of the head which meant "enough." By this time, from the awkwardness of the pakeha, the two gallons of water would be about expended, half at least on the top of the Native's head, who would not, however, appear to notice the circumstance, but would appreciate the civility of his pakeha friend.

I have often drunk in this way in the old times. On my asking for a drink of water at a Native village, a Native would gravely approach with a calabash, and hold it up before me ready to pour forth its contents. I, of course, cocked my hand and lip in the most knowing manner. If I had laid hold of the calabash and drunk in the ordinary way as practised by pakehas I should at once have fallen in the estimation of all bystanders, and been set down as a tutua—a nobody—who had no tapu or mana about him, a mere scrub of a pakeha whom any one might eat or drink after without the slightest danger of being poisoned.

These things are all changed now; and, though I have often in the good old times been tabooed in the most diabolical and dignified manner, there are only a few old men left now that remember it. But I perceive by little unmistakable signs that they would hold me guilty of great incivility if I were to act as though I supposed my tapu to have disappeared before the influx of new-fangled pakeha notions.

This same personal tapu would hold its own in some cases even against the muru, though, not in a sufficiently general manner to affect seriously the operation of that well-enforced law. Its inconveniences were, on the other hand, many; and the expedients resorted to in order to avoid them were sometimes comical enough.

I was once going on an excursion with a number of Natives. We had two canoes, and one of them started a little before the other. I was with the canoe which had been left behind; and, just as we were setting off, it was discovered that amongst twenty stout fellows, my companions, there was not one who "had a back"—as they expressed it—and, consequently, no one to carry our pro-page 79visions into the canoe. All the lads, women, and slaves had gone off in the other canoe—all those who had backs; and so there we were left, a very disconsolate lot of rangatira, who could not carry their own provisions into the canoe, and who at the same time could not go without them. The provisions consisted of several heavy baskets of potatoes, some dried sharks, and a large pig baked whole. What was to be done? We were all brought to a full stop, though in a great hurry to go on. We were beginning to think we must give up the expedition altogether, and were very much disappointed accordingly; when a clever fellow, who, had he been bred a lawyer, would have made nothing of driving a mail-coach through an Act of Parliament, set us all to rights in a moment. "I'll tell you what we must do," said he; "we will not pikau* the provisions; we will hiki them." This was a great discovery. A huge, handsome fellow seized on the baked pig, and dandled it, or hiki'd it, in his arms like an infant; another laid hold of a shark; others took baskets of potatoes, and carrying them in this way deposited them in the canoe. And so, having thus evaded the law, we started on our expedition.

I remember other amusing instances in which the inconvenience arising from the tapu was evaded. I must, however, notice that these instances were only evasions of the tapu of the ordinary kind—what I have called the personal tapu—not the more dangerous and dreadful kind connected with the mystic doings of the tohunga, or that other form of tapu connected with the handling of the dead. Indeed, my companions, in the instance I have mentioned, though all rangatira, were young men on whom the personal tapu had not arrived at the fullest perfection. It seemed, indeed, sometimes to sit very lightly on them; and I doubt very much if the play upon the words hiki and pikau would have reconciled any of the elders of the tribe to carrying a roasted pig in their arms; or, if they did do so, I feel quite certain that no amount of argument would have persuaded the younger men to eat it; as for slaves or women, it would be dangerous to them even to look at it.

The other instance of dodging the law was as follows: I was the first pakeha who had over arrived at a certain

* [Carry on the back.]

[Carry in the arms.]

page 80populous inland village. The whole of the inhabitants were in a great state of commotion and curiosity, for many of them had never seen a pakeha before. As I advanced the whole juvenile population ran before me at a safe distance of about one hundred yards, eyeing me, as I perceived, with great terror and distrust. At last I suddenly made a charge at them, rolling my eyes and showing my teeth; and to see the small savages tumbling over one another, and running for their lives, was something curious; and though my "demonstration" did not continue more than twenty yards, I am sure some of the little villains ran a mile before looking behind to see whether the ferocious monster called a pakeha was gaining on them. They did run.

When I arrived at the centre of the village I was conducted to a large house or shed, which had been constructed as a place of reception for visitors, and as a general lounging-place for all the inhabitants. It was a whare noa,* a house to which, from its general and temporary uses, the tapu was not supposed to attach: I mean, of course, the ordinary personal tapu, or tapu rangatira. Any person, however, infected with any of the more serious or extraordinary forms of the tapu entering it would at once render it uninhabitable.

I took my seat. The house was full, and nearly the whole of the rest of the population were blocking up the open front of the large shed, all striving to see the pakeha, and passing to the rear from man to man every word he happened to speak. I could hear them say to the people behind, "The pakeha has stood up." "Now he has sat down again." "He has said, 'How do you all do?'" "He has said, 'This is a nice place of yours,'" &c.

Now, there happened to be at a distance an old gentleman engaged in clearing the weeds from a kumara or sweet potato field. The kumara, in the old times, was the crop on which the Natives depended chiefly for support, and so, like all valuable things, it was tapu; and the persons who

* [Noa, mere, simple, common, free from tapu.]

[In Maori, when of two words one is substantive and the other is adjective, the adjective follows the noun. Tapu rangatira, gentleman's tapu, tapu arising from the dignity of a gentleman.]

page 81entered the field to remove the weeds were tapu, pro tem., also. One of the effects of this temporary extra tapu was that the parties could not enter any regular dwellinghouse, or, indeed, any house used by others. The breach of this rule would not be dangerous in a personal sense, but the effect would be that the crop of sweet potatoes would fail.

The industrious individual I have alluded to, hearing the cry of "He pakeha! he pakeha!" from many voices, and having never had an opportunity of examining that variety of the genus homo, flung down his wooden kaheru, or weed-exterminator, and rushed towards the town house before mentioned. What could he do? The tapu forbade his entrance; and the front was so completely blocked up by his admiring neighbours that he could not get sight of the wonderful guest.

In these desperate circumstances, a bright thought struck him: he would, by a bold and ingenious device, give the tapu the slip. He ran to the back of the house, made with some difficulty a hole in the padded raupo wall, and squeezed his head through it. The elastic wall of raupo closed again around his neck; and the tapu was fairly beaten! No one could say he was in the house. He was certainly more out than in; and there, seemingly hanging from or stuck against the wall, remained for hours, with open mouth and wondering eyes, this brazen head, till at last, the shades of night obstructing its vision, a rustling noise in the wall of flags and reeds announced the departure of my bodiless admirer.

F. E. Maning

("Old New Zealand").