Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Tikera; or, Children of the Queen of Oceania

Chapter XIII The Pakehas taste the pleasure of war

page 160

Chapter XIII The Pakehas taste the pleasure of war

The first half day we marched along beaches of dark grey sand, hardened by the ebb and flow of the tides into a tougher and more resilient road than any surfaced highway. As we advanced at the double none of us suspected that this long stretch of sand dunes was a mine of the best iron ore, from which steel as fine as the Swedish product would one day be manufactured. So far it had lain there uselessly. Later it would bring fame to my erstwhile companion, its discoverer.

The lofty cape, a promontory of the range of mountains which lifted northwards from Mount Egmont, plunged vertically into the ocean like an enormous land wave succumbing to water waves. The Pacific battered at this rocky tower, pouting and foaming with rage at its resistance, tearing away handfuls of ore with which it afterwards blackened the meek dunes along the shore.

Beyond the cape Mount Egmont hid its peak in cloud. Its profile stood in isolation, quite separate from the other mountains, forced out of the ground to reign over the south-west of the Island. Small domes ornamented its superb base. Above them the solitary massive peak rose some ten thousand feet into the sky, the queen of the whole range. The first two-thirds of the mountain was covered with dense black forest. Above them were scattered a few trees, which soon died out altogether, leaving the naked peak hooded in cloud. Deep crevasses, which from a distance resembled darker stripes engraved in the dark body of the forests, divided the lesser mountains from their queenly mother. From them sprang the lively streams whose mouths we had to cross with no little trouble.

At length we stood at the cape. Its vertical wall barred our southern march. Turning to the west, we stepped on to the track cut by General Cameron's army. Ruts and footprints scarred it deeply. On both sides of the track lay a wilderness so thick with trees and bushes that it seemed as though no human being could penetrate its bristling green hedge. But that was no more than an illusion, for half our escort soon vanished into the forbidding thicket. Crawling like snakes or crouching stealthily the Maoris spread out to left and right. Thus page 161 our detachment was well protected by skirmishers. Only occasionally a pigeon's call or the whirring sound of a native partridge—clever imitations made by our Maori defenders—showed that the skirmishers were in contact with us.

After a few miles our column changed direction. The army's main track continued eastwards, but ours turned to the left and narrowed to become wide enough for only a single cart. On either side was a high bank, turning the track into a deep ravine. The whole area seemed ideally suited for a series of ambushes. Moreover, we sank ankle-deep in mud. I freely admit that if we had had to cross these swamps, thickets, and mountains escorted by white soldiers many of us would have hidden in the bush and then scampered off home. Guarded as we were by a troop which knew every tree and boulder we felt safe.

‘Where will this road take us?’ I asked the Maori chief, who was on his way to report to our commanding officer about the precautions to be taken during the march.

‘It should take us to Eden where there was a thriving white settlement until recently. The Ngatiruanui tribe drove away the white settlers and occupied their farms. Parliament has ordered a new road to be cut to the valley with the intention of recovering the land from the enemy and returning it to its rightful owners, who will remain there under armed protection. Already one detachment of pioneers sent there to that end has been lost. Now they are sending us in the hope that we'll have more luck. The settlement would supply cattle for the army.’

Scarcely had he left us when I noticed a new track to the right, barred with a toll gate and a noticeboard on which there was an inscription in Maori and English.

‘What's that for?’ I asked one of my comrades whom I knew to be familiar with the country.

‘The Maori land starts here. The natives have put up toll gates on all tracks leading to the land which has not yet been sold to the pakehas.’

Some of the pioneers halted in front of the noticeboard and amused themselves by pronouncing the Maori inscription. The English translation read:

Tolls at the Maori Gate

For letting through a Missionary £50
Newspapers and Mail £300
A Maori friendly to the Governor £200
page 162
A Pakeha Constable £5
A Native Teacher £55
A Letter calling on People to agree with the white Governor £500
A Parcel carried by a friend 1d

Later I learnt more about this noticeboard. By this legal expedient the tribes unfriendly to the pakehas severed all contact between the scattered white settlements. The last item, allowing parcels through for a nominal fee, referred to the fish, vegetables, and so forth, which the natives sold to the settlers. A white man in need of food or other necessities, so long as he was not a missionary, a postal official, a soldier, or a constable, was temporarily given the name of friend and charged only a token fee. Funds received in this way were used to buy gunpowder and lead. Government officials or natives favourably disposed to the Government (‘spies’) were refused entry by the imposition of absurdly high tolls. Even the native teachers were accepted only unwillingly, as the noticeboard clearly showed.

‘How are they allowed to bar the road in this way?’ I asked.

‘They are within the law in preventing strangers from entering their property. And they have their reasons for doing it. Our Government wanted to shield the natives from swindling land agents and made a treaty with the chiefs whereby it alone was entitled to acquire Maori land wholesale—which it then sold, at a good profit, to the settlers. This financial privilege became a most important revenue, for the Government pays one shilling per acre, and asks one pound from the settlers. A Maori who needs money must take what he can get, for the simple reason that nobody else is allowed to buy his land.’

‘I know all that. That's the Maoris’ main complaint against the Government.’

‘A few years ago some of the southern tribes decided to form an agrarian league to stop the sale of land altogether until the Government paid them the price it demanded from the settlers. All the tribes who were reluctant to join the league became known as the Governor's friends, and these tolls and other pinpricks make them suffer no less than the pakehas. A friendly Maori can't leave his property without being asked to pay two hundred pounds at each tollgate. If he goes round the gate he will probably be caught and taken before a Maori or pakeha judge, who will punish him as the law demands—for natives and white men alike have the right to forbid strangers from entering their land.’

page 163

‘Why are they so hostile to the missionaries? I thought all the natives had adopted Christianity.’

‘Since the last war, in 1860, the natives in these parts have renounced Christianity and taken up a new religion, Pai Marire, or, as we call it, Hau Hau. Even some friendly Maoris have adopted it. It's simply a return to their old paganism. They disguise the pagan element with a sham Judaism, paying greater respect to the Old Testament than to the New. But all of this is simply make-believe. Some who publicly revere the Old Testament have reverted to their cannibalistic ways.’

At that moment numerous calls from the bush and the sudden appearance of several fleeing skirmishers announced that something unusual was happening. Te Ti calmed us by declaring that we could proceed no further. A pa had been erected in the very place where a detachment of pioneers had been annihilated a few days previously.

We halted a rifle shot away from the new fort and crouched in the flax to avoid the enemy's attention. We never doubted for a moment that the pa's defenders knew of our presence. Their outposts would be just as quick to hear our marching tread as our skirmishers were to spot their redoubt.

Te Ti, the leader of our escort, went with an officer of the pioneers to reconnoitre, crawling under a hail of bullets right up to the pits which encircled the palisade. The stronghold could not be captured without a council of war. The Maori leaders all sat round a big fire to consider their decision. Almost unanimously they advised the commanding officer to leave the pa alone. In other words they were not willing to risk their lives in this battle.

When the council was over I went to see my friend. He sat alone, his head clasped in his hands. I touched his shoulder and sitting down by him said, ‘Are you afraid of that flimsy palisade?’

He cast a sharp glance at me and replied ‘The pakehas are often afraid, the Maoris never.’

‘Then why don't you want to attack?’

Te Ti looked at me with his penetrating glance. ‘What would you do in my place?’

I knew what he meant. ‘You are right,’ I murmured. ‘If this pa is vital, let the white soldiers assault it. I thought perhaps you had accounts to settle with its garrison.’

‘We sharpened our hatchets on the Taranaki tribe. Ngatiruanui never harmed us.’

I thought to myself how little the Colonial Government could rely page 164 on coloured allies who had concluded a pact with it intending to revenge themselves on some of the rebels while remaining friendly with others.

‘What's the cause of your disagreement with the Taranakis?’

‘A century of wrong. When I was a child and my father was the chief of our people, we and the Waikatos invaded all the land belonging to the Taranaki tribe. We took them all into slavery. Their land became empty, and only owls bred there. That was the time when the pakehas came and built New Plymouth, convinced that they were taking unoccupied land. Later the native teachers told us to free the slaves because that was the doctrine of the new faith. When they returned to their villages they found the best part of their land had been taken over by the pakehas. Since that time there has been constant fighting. They say that the Kawhai people are worse than the pakehas, who are natural land grabbers, and accepted as such. The red blanket always hangs on the border between our two lands.’

Next day a beautiful sunrise lifted above the forest and the palisade. A fragrant morning, filled with the whispering of ferns and the tinkling notes of the tui, the New Zealand nightingale, seemed to touch the heart of our commanding officer, and to remind him that the day was really created for work, innocent pastimes, and noble deeds. Why, on such a day, should we kill people who happened to speak a different language or did not share our religious allegiance? I believed there would be no fighting.

We were ordered to cut trees to make sharp stakes for a palisade. The commanding officer intended to put the whole column behind a fence, and to wait there for the militia and artillery before attacking Ohoutahi (the name of the new pa). The Maoris, friend and foe alike, met at their outposts for a peaceful chat.

Suddenly a shot was fired. Our allies seized their arms. It turned out that a small party from another unfriendly village, called Ngatimaniapoto, made up the rebel garrison.

‘Rewi and old Pehi are there!’ shouted Te Ti to our commanding officers. ‘We'll never leave them alive!’

The name of Rewi electrified the encampment. He was famous far and wide for his courage and his ferocity. Both sides began to prepare for battle. A large red flag appeared over the fort. Our men dispersed among the bushes and sank down in cover. The defenders hung sheaves of green flax on the palisade.

‘Why are you staring at the flag over the pa?’ Te Ti asked our lieutenant, who was gazing at it intently through his spy glass.

page 165

‘There's a man walking towards us from over there. He's carrying something white. Don't let your men fire at him. Perhaps they want to surrender. Whatever he's carrying looks rather odd.’

The envoy stopped and threw the mysterious object at our outpost before speedily returning to his pa.

Five minutes later it was brought to us. It was a bloodstained head, crowned with white hair. In it I recognized the face of Mr MacCulloch, lifeless, robbed of its ready smile.

This sight was too much even for the impassive Maori warriors. Christians, such as Te Ti, gathered round the severed head. It was impossible for them to keep back their tears though they were all good Maoris trained to dissemble their feelings. Even the followers of Pai Marire, of whom there were a good number among our native allies, mourned the ‘old father’. The women accompanying our warriors sobbed, scratched their naked breasts, and uttered loud lamentations. A blind man, the tribal bard, touched the face he had known so well before he lost his sight. Then he sat down on the grass and began a waiata, a Maori elegy. The first note of this half savage, half wistful melody cut short the women's lamentation. We white men also listened to the rhythmical recitation.

The cold wind blew
I trembled at its breath.
The stars hid before me.
I trembled like a little bird
Which flaps its wings in the clouds
When a cloud full of hail
Interrupts its flight.
Who made this night,
This night of sadness,
Over our land?
Who gave life to the thought,
The thought of war?
Why does he not come back
By the road he came,
A muddy road,
Which he chose?
From the council of great chiefs
You come to us
Calling to arms.
Where do you lead us,
page 166 Bloody messenger?
Why do you give
This bloody gift?
Go and leave us
O tempting spirit
Who started this fight.
Go and tell the chiefs
That of one mother
You caught the sons
In your snares.
Tell that the Kawhai
And the Ngatiruanui
You saw enraged
And thirsty for blood.
But take from your breast
Your bloody hand
Which carried this gift!
Take it, before a rock
Crushes your breast.

This song and the women's loud cries are the traditional ritual when revenge is sworn. Then the chiefs held a subdued council, after which they painted their faces, undressed for battle, and recited a karakia—a prayer before fight. Their expressions and actions showed unmistakeably that the murder of this generally beloved pakeha had broken for ever the friendship between our allies and the defenders of the pa. A fusillade of shots from the outposts echoed my hammering as I nailed together a box to hold the head of the hapless minister. Before I had finished this little task all our allies vanished into the undergrowth.

It was a strange fight. We did not see a single warrior. The palisade and the rifle pits spat fiery tongues, shrouded in clouds of white smoke. Bushes close to us blazed and thundered with rifle shots. But we saw not one painted head. Several wounded fighters were handed over to the women, who either attended to their wounds or sang the proper funeral dirges for their tribes. We guessed from the waning of the fire coming from their rifle pits that the besieged were suffering serious losses.

Suddenly a large crowd of warriors—crawling, leaping, running—swarmed from behind the bushes. Before we realized what had happened a hundred or so of them, their guns slung ready and their hatchets raised to strike, covered the redoubts. The surviving delenders page 167 escaped behind the palisade, pursued by the fire of the reserve detachment left in their positions. Sustained fire now came only from our allies. The rifle pits outside the stronghold had fallen, but the stronghold itself could hold out for a long time.

The operation against the palisade dragged on for several hours. Our commanding officer decided that the Maoris could not succeed in capturing the pa without our help.

‘I know that in principle you are not soldiers,’ he said, ‘but you will have to go with your axes and fell the palisade.’

The prospect did not appeal to me, but what could I do in the face of a direct order? So I kept quiet.

A new burst of fire was unexpectedly heard from a different direction. The tops of the kauri trees some fifty paces from the palisade, which the defenders had not had time to cut down, blazed with continuous firing.

‘By God!’ shouted our commander, ‘the black devils have climbed the trees under fire from the whole pa. Pehi must be ours in five minutes. And do you know how they did it? A few of them came out from the undergrowth and exposed themselves to the enemy fire while the others climbed up there unopposed.’

In no time a white flag replaced the red one. Some of the pa's defenders jumped down from the palisade and ran away into the bush, hoping to escape the heavy fire of our Maoris. They preferred that risk to encountering the enraged Kawhai warriors, or becoming their slaves. Very likely the fleeing natives had taken part in sending us the missionary's head. Others trusting their former friends, and perhaps less guilty, laid down their arms. More than thirty prisoners were brought before our commanding officer. All of them belonged to the same tribe. Fourteen heads belonging to Ngatimaniapoto tribesmen were also laid on the ground. A dozen escaped from the whole party. There is nearly always the same ratio of runaways to killed and prisoners in Maori engagements.

‘Where's Rewi?’ asked the commander.


‘Pity! I would have given ten pounds for him. The prisoners tell me that he murdered the missionary, who had gone to the village in order to calm the angry warriors. It was he who carried the poor old man's head to us. But if he's escaped we'll have to postpone hanging him for a while. Where's Pehi?’

A lame, decrepit, stooping old man was then thrust forward. His page 168 body was naked; a cord was tied round the waist, from which hung a blanket. His emaciated legs seemed scarcely able to support him.

‘Well, old boy,’ said the commanding officer with a smile, ‘do you still feel like soldiering after today's scrape? If I hadn't promised to pay for your capture, your neighbourly cousins would not have left your head where it is.’

The interpreter repeated the white officer's question to the chief with such a euphonious name. The aged man looked proudly at the enquiring pakeha and replied through the interpreter, ‘Pehi cares but little for his head. Pehi is a sack full of bones girt with a string. Pehi's head is white. Pehi does not care at all for his head.’

‘Suppose we left it intact,’ the officer asked, ‘would you behave yourself?’

‘O great chief,’ said Pehi, ‘I will never be at peace with you. Never! Never! Neither! today nor in the future, while the grass still grows and the water still flows. Never will I renounce my karakia!’ —Pai Marire —‘Never! Never!’

Each time the interpreter said ‘Never!’ the brown chief moved his head and emphatically repeated ‘Ake! Ake! Ake!’

‘Am I asking you to renounce your karakia?’ asked the officer huffily. ‘Don't you know that many of our Maori allies are of the same religion as you? By God! I feel a strong temptation to hang you as one of the minister's murderers.’

‘You try that. Pehi is no more than a withered old man, but Pehi slept with the Prophet, who promised him that neither bullet nor pakeha noose would kill him. Since Pehi slept with the Prophet he is a prophet himself, and a prophet will not die, although he be hanged.’

Our commander greeted this retort with a smile. Turning to his troopers he said, ‘The old fool took the oracles of the prophet Te Ua too much to heart, and now he believes that he is immortal. It would be a good thing to hang him, just to prove that the prophet's words and amulets have less effect than our bullets and ropes. Our own allies who are contaminated with the faith would profit from the lesson.’

Some of the pioneers were itching to demonstrate how mistaken the prophet had been. Small wonder too, for Pehi had burnt more farms and made more orphans and widows than any other warrior, stronger though others might be. The devil himself had made his home in that ‘sackful of bones girt with a string’.

‘Unfortunately I have to keep him alive,’ said the officer. ‘At least a dozen rebellious chiefs should be hanged at the same time. Several page 169 bodies swinging in a row speak more eloquently to their kinsmen about the fallacies of oracles than individual executions.’

We white men kept hold of Pehi for fear that our coloured friends, having received their reward for taking him alive, might deprive him of his head for the sheer joy of doing it.

Until now no one had remarked the absence of Te Ti. The commander thought that he must still be pursuing our fleeing enemies and had enquired no further. But loud ululation came from the women, alerting us to a new casualty, someone apparently of eminence.

‘Why are the women lamenting?’ I asked the interpreter.

‘Sunray is gravely wounded—dying. He distracted the enemy's attention from the men swarming up the trees by putting himself directly in their fire.’

When I heard this news I forgot military discipline and rushed to join the sobbing crowd gathered round the dying Maori hero who, like Winkelried, had bought victory with his life.

The young chief lay on a litter of wild herbs. Twenty wounds glared from his powerful naked body. He was still alive, but life was visible only in his eyes and mouth. Mortal stillness conquered his bloodstained limbs inch by inch. The Kawhai warriors sat silently round the last descendant of a line of chiefs which had been famous for six centuries. Their faces showed no sadness. But this Maori silence spoke eloquently of the despair that filled their hearts.

I knelt beside my friend. When he saw me his eyes lighted up for a second. His lips tried to smile, in vain. Their fleeting expression of friendship changed to a grimace when a tohunga approached the dying man, swooping down on his legitimate prey. The young chief's look clearly showed that his services were not wanted.

Te Ti looked at me imploringly. His lips whispered ‘Kawenata Hou’, Not understanding the Maori language I asked him to speak to me in English.

‘The book.’

I understood his request. I hastily ran to our commanding officer and having explained what I wanted received permission to search for a copy of the New Testament from among my comrades. I found one. With the book in my hand I returned to the Maoris. I handed it over to one of the Christian chiefs, who touched the dying man's face with it. Te Ti pronounced a few Maori words. Then he lay silent amidst the sound of lamentation and the mighty blows with which she wailing women were striking their breasts.

page 170

Once again he looked at my sorrowing face. He beckoned with his eyes. I bent over him.

‘Guard her.’

Those eyes were dying. The heavy lids lifted with increasing difficulty. Once more his beloved book was touched to his face. One of the chiefs brought him his weapons. His excellent carbine was placed by his side and a powder horn lay at his feet. His hand pressed the handle of his hatchet. The dying fingers automatically contracted round it, feeling the familiar weapon. With a final effort Te Ti looked around him, as though he wanted to impress the memory of the countryside and his beloved kinsmen on his mind for ever. At last his eyes met mine. In them I saw two reflections of my face, growing paler and less distinct with every second. A faint sound … a movement of his lips … and he was dead.

At once one of the chiefs picked up the long staff, the symbol of the dead man's rank. Thrusting it into the ground near the head of the corpse, he seized the old bard's hand and put it on the staff. The bard began to sing, calming the women.

Plant the staff
The staff of power,
Now the staff of night:
The great night
The sad night
The dark night
The horrid night
The blind night
The impenetrable night
The night without end.
Look! This staff is standing!
The staff of Te Ti!
The staff of a chief
You will never see!

Realizing that the chiefs were angered by my presence I returned to our detachment with the interpreter who had also been present. He was of mixed blood, a keen Christian and a teacher, and he was greatly shocked by the funeral rites.

‘If it was not for the true religion,’ he meant Christianity, ‘they would surely bury him with his arms and treasures, his wives and concubines if he had any. Nowadays even the adherents of Pai Marire page 171 would not commit such an atrocious crime. Though it's a bad sign that they still remember their heathenish chants. Did you notice that the last verse promises nothing but a horrid and endless long night?’

This cheap moralizing fell on deaf ears. Below us we still heard the sorrowful yearning of humans deprived of their leader and the chant of the bard over the corpse of the last chief of an ancient family. What more fitting De profundis than this tribal rite over a tribal hero?