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The Maori Race

Slaves and Servitude

Slaves and Servitude.

The position of a slave among the Maoris was a peculiar one and depended somewhat on the manner in which a man or woman entered page 154 into captivity. If only a member of an enslaved tribe such a person might continue to dwell among his or her people, and the condition of servitude was more that of a tributory than of personal service. A tribe was considered enslaved if by a crushing defeat it had lost all military prestige. Probably the majority of both men and women would be spared, only a few of the finest women being carried off to the homes of the victors. The rest of the tribe would be ordered to bring presents now and then of food to their conquerors as a token of inferiority, but saving this they would live much as they did before. The subject-tribes cultivated their lands as usual but sent their choicest products to the victors—even then these tributes often received acknowledgment by presents being made in return. The only fear was least the conquered might increase in numbers so much as to again become dangerous, but this danger was minimised by the masters carrying off every handsome girl as she grew up, so that the dominant tribe should keep its numbers increasing. Sometimes if two famous tribes had a war the vassals of the losing side would be killed and their wives and children carried off, thus leaving the aristocrats of the enemy without servants to do the rough work, a condition of great hardship. The fear of such action would make a dependent tribe throw in their lot with those who had enslaved them and forget former injuries in dread of a greater catastrophe. The vassal-tribes supplied the victims when slaves had to be sacrificed, as at the launching of a large war-canoe or at the page 155 opening of a great house. When one of these vassal-tribes thought that it was strong enough to rebel, its members showed their fierce and defiant temper by bringing their tribute of food, etc., carried on the points of their spears and laid it before their masters, who took the hint and said that they need not return.

The other class of slaves was obtained by taking prisoners of war individually, or in small groups or perhaps by reserving some persons from the ovens when the cannibal feast after a battle was in progress. Hence one of the most contemptuous of Maori insults was to call anyone “Remnant of the feast!” (toenga kainga) meaning “you are not even worth cooking.” In taking war-prisoners a curious custom was sometimes observed in cases where a chief was nearly related to both sides and when if likely to be taken he would assuredly become a slave. To obviate this, when a battle had taken place and one of the contending armies was evidently about to give way and be routed, it was permitted to the chief of the winning party to call out the name or names of certain warriors among the enemy. If one of those named immediately accepted the invitation and joined the number of his foemen he was then treated as a visitor and not as a prisoner, indeed being often kept as a highly-honoured guest.

When a prisoner became a slave his lot was not one of intense misery; he was often well treated, had plenty of food and much liberty of speech and action. It was useless for him to try to escape to his own people, for they would not have received him; he was an unlucky page 156 man whose gods had forsaken him, the proof being that they had allowed him to be captured. He was to his own tribe as one dead, or worse, his presence would be a living insult to them. They wanted neither him nor his bad luck again in their fort or war-party; it was misfortune enough that one of their number should be “a morsel spared from the oven” but the offence could not be wiped out by the return of the captive; only the blood of his captors could avenge the degradation. Slaves had one great consolation for the misfortune that had taken away their rank or position as freemen; it had delivered them from the discomforts of the tapu. A slave was nobody spiritually; his gods had forsaken and forgotten him; therefore he was essentially non-existent. Of course he had to refrain from breaking the personal tapu of a chief; death was probably his portion in such a case, but what he had to dread was the vengeance of the offended person, not the wrath of deities. The celestial penalty of the breach would fall upon the chief whose tapu had been broken, not on the slave, who was below divine notice. Such pleasant absolution from individual holiness allowed the slave to execute many tasks which it was impossible for more exalted persons to perform, such as cooking food, carrying burdens and other menial duties which it was to the advantage of the community should be executed, and which he was therefore valued for being able to do. The warrior whose person was so holy that it would be contaminated by going near a cooking-oven and whose back was too sacred to bear a burden page 157 had a good friend in “the outcast of the gods.” So, often he bore his lot with equanimity; he forgot his old condition, put up with violent language if it was applied to him (it was considered “bad form” to abuse an inferior) and consoled himself with thinking that his lot to-day might be that of his master on the morrow. Sometimes a slave would be allowed to work for a person other than his master and would be paid for his labour by a present, part of which he would usually offer to his own master, who, however, seldom demanded it as a right. Slaves were at times transferred from one owner to another in return for an equivalent, and the first master had then no further claim. In most cases a strong bond of friendship or family loyalty sprung up between master and slave. It is related of Paoa, a great chief in old days, that he made love to a slave-girl of bewitching beauty and, making her his slave-wife, deserted his high-born wife and children for her sake. A male slave of Paoa resented this conduct and returned to the service of his mistress, continuing to live with her as her slave. He and his mistress worked the kumara plantations together; Paoa and his slave-wife worked theirs together.

Of course there were very considerable drawbacks to life in slavery, the least, perhaps, the contempt of the free men of the tribe, the greatest the uncertainty of life. It was humiliating for a slave not to be able to approach a kumara store for fear that he should defile it, nor to be able to enter a burial ground (wahitapu) or other prohibited place without page 158 leaving all his clothes outside. When he died there was no ceremony of wailing, nor rites connected with the scraping of his bones: he was buried in a hole, without fuss or lament. But these were trifles compared with the “sword always hanging by a hair” above him, of instant death should the anger or pique of his master prompt such a deed, or religious objects require a sacrifice, such as at a chief's funeral or other great event. There are countless instances of the light regard paid to humanity when a slave man or woman was in question. As example we may note that on one occasion a chief had suffered the insult of having his dog-skin mat worn by the saucy wife of one of his friends, his anger was only to be assuaged by the murder of one of the offender's slave-girls.2 Another chief who had been away on a long journey asked his sister on his return why he found her cooking food. She replied that her maids had deserted, whereupon her indignant brother went to the houses of the runaways and killed them both.3 A robber chieftain in the South Island made it his work to lay in wait for parties of travellers on a trade route and kill the wayfarers. For a very long time no notice was taken of the bandit's action because he had only killed slaves; when at last a free-man was slain the tribes instantly set about the robber's capture.4

Slaves sometimes married slaves and so perpetuated slave offspring, but as a general rule they would become by inter-marriage incorporated into the tribe. There were generally several female slaves or concubines about page 159 a great chief's house, and these did the menial work as well as enjoyed the patronage of their master. The poorer free-men of a tribe, those constituting “the common herd,” the “poor relations” of the more powerful families, were not very particular if they took a slave-woman or a free-woman to wife, and the children soon merged into the free section, but always with the possibility of having their ignoble origin thrown up in their teeth. So too even a well-born woman might sometimes choose a handsome slave youth for a husband, generally when she had a strong desire to be the dominant partner in the establishment, for it was a rule of Maori life that when a husband went and lived with the wife's family the wife was master, and vice-versa. It was possible that men having slave-blood in their veins might by daring courage and military genius rise to the position of leaders and war-chiefs, but the instances were few indeed, and such a leader could never obtain the reverential respect paid to men of noble birth. There would be still with this conservative people such an impression of the successful upstart as there was in the ordinary European mind when comparing some rude victorious General of Napoleon with a Prince of the Blood Royal. It is true that the lineage of such a war-chief's slave parent might itself be of the noblest, and the blood of both parents of the purest, but captivity had tainted the name of the slave and made its possessor a mere chattel without human personality—therefore as an ancestor he was not to be counted.