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The Maori Race

Chapter I. Introductory

page 1

Chapter I. Introductory.

What is a Maori? In this book the word Maori will be understood to mean a native New Zealander of the Polynesian race. It is not thus used by these natives themselves. If it were right to apply to words of Maori speech the nomenclature of English grammar, we should say that “Maori” is an adjective, and not a noun. Thus it is correct to say “a Maori man,” “the Maori people,” etc., but not to say “a Maori.” So widely, however, has the popular usage spread in the colony and so convenient is it for brevity's sake that we will adopt the common term, and speak of a Maori and Maoris in the mode Europeans understand when they use the words.

Between the old Maori and the new, there is indeed a great gulf fixed, but there are innumerable bridges and connections. To describe the customs, manners, and beliefs of the modern native would be a task demanding infinite patience and the development of pictures of endless variety. The effect wrought on the race by contact with Europeans has in page 2 almost every case been an individualistic effect differing with the temperament and circumstances of each person under notice. To acquire an adequate presentment of the existing conditions of Maori life and thought would need the reader to possess a literary kaleidoscope capable of being turned with extreme rapidity, and every little group as it fell apart in the field of vision would resolve itself into human particles still forming new combinations as they move from position to position.

The ancient Maori could be described as having (for instance) certain well defined rules as to the nature of his food and his manner of eating it, but the modern Maori has passed outside of anything but the most general laws of custom in this matter. It is his custom, as is the custom of the English, to eat food when he is hungry and when he can get it, but just as, among ourselves, the fashion, the time of eating, and the quality of the dinner differ in a palace and in a slum, so do they among the Maoris of to-day. Some of the natives resemble cultured Europeans; highly educated, well mannered, well dressed, they belong to a class that all over the world is above nationality. There are other native gentlemen who, not being brought into close contact with colonists, and not having had such educational advantages as those before mentioned, still carry on the ancestral traditions of high birth and its obligations. They, in their dignified pride and lofty avoidance of all that is base and unworthy, are the true representatives of a race of warriors who never feared the face page 3 of man, and who indeed as “children of the gods” looked with level eyes upon all in earth or heaven. But, alas, there are also those among the Maoris in whom the worst vices of the British immigrant have found a fertile seeding-ground, and these are in full evidence, if not numerous. Before, however, we pass harsh judgments on these degenerates we must first cleanse our European towns of degraded men and polluted women. We shall then be better fitted to stone the fallen children of a primitive race.

It is not to people of positions so varied and circumstances so diverse that we must look for example of the modes of thought and habit of their nation. Except among a few villages of “the King country” or among the Urewera tribe (at the East Cape of the North Island) no corner of New Zealand can be found into which the ideas and manufactures of the European have not entered. Language and behaviour have both been affected by innovation until only an expert could possibly tell whether a certain word was Maori or English, or whether an action was the outcome of ancestral suggestion or of introduced fashion. Indeed on such points experts themselves make curious mistakes.

It is then to the Maori of elder days that we must turn, if we wish to learn with reliability the influences under which this branch of the great Polynesian race thought and acted, fought and worked, lived and died. Some of these influences still exist, and are noted by visitors as peculiar, interesting, or page 4 even embarrassing. They exist, however, as the canoe exists by the side of the boat, as the shoulder-mat is worn over the print gown, as the spear hangs on the wall beside the breach-loader, that is, as survivals of other days and as inherited possessions that are becoming curiosities. The young people know little and care less about the customs or the traditions of their forefathers, while the older men who possess or in part possess such knowledge are getting fewer every year. There are Europeans in New Zealand whose acquaintance with Maori lore far transcends that of any but the exceptional native, and it is to the interest taken in the subject by a small band of enquirers that the student of the future will owe the rescue of even a tithe of that knowledge which the priests of a century ago could have imparted.

Any true lover of the Polynesian people will be slow to jeer at missionary enterprise, even as he will be quick to acknowledge what the efforts of the brave preachers of the Christian gospel have done to redeem the world's dark places from bloodshed and cruelty. In New Zealand as in other South Sea Islands the language was first properly studied, and the habits of the natives described, by missionaries. They, however, did great harm to anthropology by the destruction of carvings (which they called “idols”) and by their contempt for the religious ideas of their pagan flocks. It is a handicap to investigation if the enquirer has a religion of his own to impart, and if he insists unfalteringly “Your page 5 creed is a lie, and mine only is genuine.” The native priest, finding himself in the presence of one who derides the sacred objects and laughs to scorn the ancient worship or beliefs, naturally shrinks into himself and either refuses to speak or gives false information. Often the acceptance of Christianity by the Maori has been the thinnest veneer over his cherished superstitions, and in his heart as on his dying bed he turns once more to his “worship of the devil,” as a kind-hearted but narrow-minded clergyman-friend of mine described it. Even so late as 1897 the Maoris of a certain tribe believed that an epidemic which carried off multitudes of their children was caused by their having lifted the “tapu” (taboo) from one of their large carved houses. However, what the missionaries could not learn, the Polynesian Society is coaxing from the elders of the Maori people and we are beginning to find out what depths of significance have lain behind the veil drawn over the ancient religion. In the present work some of this information will be collated and presented, but there is much to be done before the solution of many perplexing riddles is manifest.

They who study and investigate the inner life of an uncivilized people will be sure to find much to shock and much to repel. Many of the ancient legends, some of the customs, and here and there the speech of the Maori are tainted with coarseness and indelicacy. This, however, by no means infers any radical vitiation of the intellect or morals; it only page 6 denotes the stage of cultivation which has been reached. The standards of such subjects are always unstable, and differ with time and distance. A cultured Roman probably despised the ideas of decency current among the British people of the days of Boadicea, while that Roman himself used expressions and indulged in habits which would certainly not be tolerated in the drawing-room of a lady of the twentieth century. Much of the coarseness charged to the account of the Maori would scarcely be noticed among the lower classes of great European cities even to-day, while some of his manners, and his social points of view were of an elevated character and worthy of imitation. The cruelty and bloodshed told of in Maori traditions are horrible, but then so are similar red blots in English history. People who have not very long ago left off such customs as those of obtaining evidence by torture, of burning innocent persons by scores as heretics and witches, or even now of mowing down opponents in swathes with machine-guns, such people as these may broaden their phylacteries and for a pretence make long prayers, but they will not deceive the anthropologist, who only smiles grimly at the hypocrisy that groans over the savage spearsman while it almost deifies the dragoon.

When from this broad consideration we pass on to the details with which the rest of this book is filled, the one noticeable point that constantly recurs is the likeness to and reflection of ourselves, the human nature in us all. If, as Kipling says, “The Colonel's lady page 7 and Bridget O'Grady are sisters under their skins,” it is certain that the difference between the Colonel and the Maori chief is hardly skin-deep. Brave men looking over crossed weapons and loving women cooing to their babies find their kin all round the world. Very close is this kinship between the restless sea-rover from the Northern isles and his darker brother of the Southern seas.