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Tikera; or, Children of the Queen of Oceania

Chapter VI The Maoris welcome the Pakeha

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Chapter VI The Maoris welcome the Pakeha

Several times during our journey through the bush we had come across a shrub covered with ripening berries. We noticed that the pigs ate these voraciously, and once we saw that Maori children must have been gathering them only shortly before; their footprints were still clearly visible round the shrubs. My companion therefore concluded that the fruit was edible. Despite my warning (I will eat anything that other people eat, but never touch food that is strange to me), he picked a few berries. He liked the taste and swallowed them, stones and all. I insisted that he should only eat a handful. I tasted one and found the flesh sweet; but, playing safe, I spat out the stones and skin.

Half an hour after feasting on the berries, my friend shivered with cold. A series of rigors seized him. Then he vomited. Afterwards, he felt limp, strangely apathetic, and still nauseated. What was I to do? I had no medicines, no experience of treating a poisoned man.

In the distance, beyond a plain covered with fern trees, rose a line of bare hills. On the highest of them, which was also the steepest, I could see a triple ring of palisades. It was a pa, a well-fortified stronghold, hanging like an eagle guarding her young over a valley belonging to some large tribe. It would only be a ten minutes' walk to find dwellings, people, and help.

But suppose these people were already imbued with the spirit of hate towards the Europeans? Suppose, even worse, that they had learnt of the latest triumph of the King of the Waikato tribes, or joined the rebel league which was spreading as rapidly as a prairie fire? If they had sworn allegiance to the flag of rebellion which had been raised in the east, it would be certain death to cross their path. Even in the military camp we had been warned to bypass any native village over which the flag of the Maori King, inscribed ‘Wiremu Kingi’, was flying. The English had given the first of these standards to the Maoris in 1842, in recognition of the archipelago's independence and sovereignty. A Naval salute had greeted its first ceremonial hoisting. When the original treaty was altered, with the agreement of many Maoris, the flag went into oblivion. It rose page 55 again after the election of the king who ignored the sovereignty of the white Queen, called by the Maoris ‘Wikitoria Kuini’.

There could be no doubt that news of the English reverses in the east had already reached this kainga. Maori messengers run fast and need little rest. They would cover in one day a distance which took us several. What effect would their arrival have had on this powerful stronghold? If the inhabitants had chosen rebellion I would undoubtedy be killed as a suspect spy. I had, all the same, to risk my life to save my friend's. The Maoris, I thought, must know of an antidote for a poisonous fruit so common that it was eaten even by the children and the pigs. If I could gain their confidence my friend might be cured. Thus thinking, I set off towards the village nestled at the foot of the triple-ringed fortress.

I notched the trees on my way to the village to make sure of finding my way back to the spot where my suffering friend lay groaning. I emerged from the bush into a small Maori garden which was being tilled by a group of women. Each held a kind of rough hoe with which she energetically, and very nimbly too, surrounded each plant with a small mound of crumbled soil. Potatoes, maize, taro, and kumara looked healthier in these kitchen gardens, set on the north face of a fertile hillside, than they did on the European farms near Auckland. Everywhere around me I saw proofs of Maori industry, all the more praiseworthy because they worked with primitive tools. Before iron came to New Zealand the Maori woman tilled her garden and reaped generous crops from it with a pointed stick.

The women I surprised were scantily dressed, each having only a bit of something round her hips. The faces of the older ones were tattooed in red and blue, but their bodies shone only with the perspiration Mother Nature provided. Their coarse features and withered limbs gave them all a wretched appearance. The younger women, on the other hand, were delightful to look at. The agreeable expressions of their dark faces, the fullness of their figures, their wellformed yet slender arms and legs, made them handsome creatures indeed. From that moment I ceased to wonder that so many early European settlers had married the attractive and hard-working Maori maidens of these islands.

My sudden appearance caused quite a stir among these daughters of Nature, not from modesty, because according to their custom they were dressed suitably for the occasion, but from astonishment at seeing a European come from an unexpected direction. Overcoming their fright they allowed me to approach them, hastily wrapping themselves in their blankets or adjusting their home-made flax cloaks. page 56 My presence was a call to stop work and return home, probably for a gossip about the visiting pakeha.

None of them knew any English. Using my hands and constantly repeating, ‘English, English’, I tried to convey my desire to meet somebody who could speak that language. They held a brief conversation amongst themselves, in which I detected the word ‘pakeha’ without much difficulty. At last they pointed to the village and made me understand that I should go with them. Their serene behaviour greatly calmed me and I followed them with a light heart, admiring, not too openly, the individual attractions of each girl. Being young and of a lively disposition, I soon forgot about my dangerous position. Who would not, seeing so many comely young creatures giggling about him, their favours to be won after the Turkish Padishah's fashion simply by throwing a scarf to the chosen one?

Twittering like a flock of birds they all talked at once. They showered me with questions, not caring at all that I could not understand them. True daughters of Eve, they kept on asking and did not wait for an answer.

We came to a group of small raupo huts with wide verandahs, thatched with reeds. At the back of each stood neatly stacked piles of firewood, chopped into small logs. Roofs of reeds, which rested on slender posts some eighty feet in height, protected the wood from the damp. Huts and sheds were scattered in a disorderly fashion on a gently rolling slope in the shadow of the mother fortress, which rose proudly from the green meadows in a triple ring of menacing palisades. Sheaves of freshly cut flax hung thickly on these defences, protecting the dry timber from a possible conflagration, and also acting as armour against bullets. Clearly, the fortress was in a state of alert.

Behind each dwelling hut I saw a pigsty. The inhabitants kept up a continuous squealing as if they were being worried by dogs, a pack of which squatted in front of each verandah. They were of all shapes and sizes—yellow, grey, black, piebald—and all of them were half-starved. Rearing up on their hind legs they sniffed at the white stranger and howled as if they expected me to be a dogcatcher. I noticed, as I had often noticed before, that the dogs of coloured people do not seem to care for the smell of white men. We certainly smell differently from their masters. Apparently human Polynesians feel very much the same about us. Perhaps it is their way of retaliating for our remarks about them?

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Each mongrel had a pit carefully scraped out of the dirt in front of the entrance of the hut to which it belonged. The natives treated the litters of pups kindly enough despite their continuous yapping, which, with the background of squealing pigs, was murder to a European ear. And the children's din rose even above the hubbub of the animals. At first I could not see them. Then I almost tumbled into a particularly deep dog lair, and became aware of several pairs of black eyes scrutinizing me with avid curiosity from its depths. As I recovered my balance I saw another gang. Pigs, dogs and children played, squealed, and howled together all over the village, even outside the chief's hut, to which I was now taken.

I entered the hut by crawling through an opening roughly three feet high. The building was new, and about twenty feet by twelve in dimension. The inner walls were ornamented with fern leaves cleverly arranged in patterns, each leaf fastened in place with a fibre of flax. The rafters were held in position not by nails but by a kind of flax string. These and other details were discernible after a time. First I had to recover from the blow I had given myself crawling through the so-called doorway. Secondly, my eyes had to become accustomed to the twilight of the hut, which was lit only by the light filtering through the same door. Thirdly, I had to get used to the smokefilled atmosphere. In the middle of the hut floor was a small hole lined with pebbles. A little fire smouldered in it. Usually on a fine windless day smoke rises straight through an opening in the roof, but today the wind was blowing and the hut's inhabitants had to lie flat on their stomachs to avoid suffocation. I could only follow their example.

Inside, I found two men smoking clay pipes by the fire. The elder behaved with characteristic Maori impassivity and did not even look at me. The younger turned his head in my direction and without a trace of curiosity in his voice, as though he was receiving a call from a familiar visitor, said in English,

‘How do you do?’

‘Very well, thank you,’ I replied. I had already noticed that whereas the father was almost naked, the son wore clothes like mine, except that he had a parson's collar. The father's face and body were intricately tattooed all over. His chin was completely free of hair, no doubt in deference to the Maori custom of plucking beards and moustaches to display tattoo designs. The son had shaved off his moustache, but left his side-whiskers intact. He kept stroking them admiringly.

I obeyed the younger man's gestured command to sit down. I page 58 then began to produce a bottle of brandy from my pack with a view to offering him a drink, but he refused with evident disgust.

‘What brings you here?’ he asked, ignoring my surprise at his refusal. He added, seeing the bottle still in my hand, ‘Put your bottle away. I am a native teacher’ (that is, a pupil of the English missionary schools, trained to propagate the Christian doctrine among the natives), ‘I won't touch your firewater.’

I obeyed his order and told him what had happened to my companion.

‘Did you say he ate some berries?’ asked the preacher, in reasonably good English.

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Did he swallow the stones?’

‘He did.’

‘How many?’

‘A handful.’

‘He will be all right. He's had too much tutu. The fruit tastes well but the stones are poisonous. Had he eaten more, he would have died. A handful won't kill him. He'll be all right. The women will go and fetch him here.’

‘I'll go with them and show them where he is.’

‘There's no need for that. You'll stay here as our prisoner.’

‘Why as your prisoner?’ I asked, once he had despatched the women to get my friend.

‘The Tauranga tribe and the pakeha do not sit at the same fire. Victoria's soldiers have invaded the land of our brothers. Her Parliament has seized Maori land. In a few days we shall tell the pakehas that we shall fight for our brothers. We always tell them beforehand that we are going to attack them, to give them time to make themselves ready. The white men do not always show us the same courtesy.’

‘What do I care about your war? I've barely been a fortnight in this country. The redcoats did their best to make me join them. I didn't want to serve against you. I recognized the righteousness of your cause. I just want to reach the peaceful part of the Island, where I can earn my daily bread.’

‘Where is that peaceful part?’ he asked bitterly. ‘Even the warriors north of Auckland are getting ready to fight against us. Wikitoria Kuini has bought them to fight their own brothers. In Tauranga, Wanganui, Taranaki, before the birth of the new moon, the banner of King Wiremu will be raised. There will be no peace in the land of the Maoris. The Maori flag, which your Queen gave to our King Potatau, lay hidden for long in the King's kainga, but now it is raised page 59 Over every pa. We were told that Te Ika-a-Maui was like the rafters supporting a heavy roof. If the rafters on one side of the roof are destroyed, the roof will fall. On one side are black rafters, the Maoris: on the other the white rafters, the pakehas. We were told that if we destroyed the white rafters the roof would become too heavy for us. We shall destroy them, and alone we shall bear Te Ika-a-Maui.’

‘But you won't succeed. The white rafters are as numerous as grains of sand on the beach. If you cut some of them down, new ones will surge from the sea to crush your few rafters.’

‘We have spilled that sand more than once,’ he replied, picking up a pinch of dust and scattering it around him to represent the fleeing English.

I collected another handful of dust, and another, and still others, explaining that his hand would weaken before he could scatter them all. Then I asked, ‘Are you a Christian?’

‘We are all Christians here.’

‘Don't the missionaries teach you that war is sinful?’

‘It is not always sinful: the Prayer Book says so.’ (By that he meant that the Church of England calls upon the English to take arms at a monarch's behest.) ‘We read there that we must fight for our King. We have a new King, as I myself know, for I went to the runanga. We have long since crossed out the name of Wikitoria Kuini from our Prayer Books. We have written instead the name of Wiremu, and pray for him.’

His logic robbed me of arguments. After a short pause, I started a new line of attack.

‘Can you read English?’

‘I can read both Maori and English.’

‘Then look at this document and you will see what a short time I have been here. I am such a new arrival that I don't even understand what you mean by runanga and other words of that kind.’

‘A runanga is what you call a meeting.’

‘That's of no consequence. Surely you can hear that my English is worse than yours. My name must sound strangely in your ears. I come from a nation which would help you if it could. Its heart goes out to all who suffer innocently. If you had any chance at all, I would encourage you to fight. Why should you want to imprison me? You are really sentencing me to death. At your first defeat, you will murder me in revenge.’

‘The Tauranga people do not murder their prisoners. You will make gunpowder for us. You will help the women till the gardens so that our warriors may have food.’

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‘Not a square inch of those gardens will belong to you in three months’ time. The English will capture us all, and I shall be shot as a traitor to the pakehas.’

The teacher read through my papers. He was well enough educated to understand my discharge papers and to accept my non-English origin. He wanted to know whether I came from the nation which had sent celibate missionaries to Te Ika-a-Maui. I guessed he meant the French priests whom the Maoris drove from the North Island before European colonization, either because of the Jesuits' mistaken policy or as a result of Protestant intrigues. I feared lest so discreditable a kinship would do me harm. I denied it forthwith, ignoring my right to the title of ‘Frenchman of the North’ in case I should be mistaken for one of our age-old allies, Messieurs les François du sud.

He examined me in detail on religious questions, and seemed surprised that I was neither a member of the Church of England nor a Methodist. He was quite nonplussed that I did not belong to any of the religious organizations with which he was familiar.

‘What is your Church?’ he wanted to know.

‘It won't help you much if I tell you the name of a faith you don't know. My beliefs teach me to love and help my neighbours, to take pity on defenceless prisoners, and trust that Providence which condemns those who refuse hospitality.’

The tone of my voice puzzled him. Perhaps my words stirred his sense of justice. He thought deeply for a moment, then spoke to his silent father, whom I believed to be the owner of the hut.

After a few moments he asked me, ‘Is your sick companion also not English?’

‘He too is of foreign origin, a stranger to this Island, innocent and defenceless. He is a learned man who travels through the world to acquire more knowledge.’

The Maori teacher understood learning to be part of religion. For the first time he betrayed a little interest.

‘Is he a priest?’ he asked.

I had to smile at the question. The German was a firm believer in Schopenhauer and his school of philosophy.

‘What are you laughing at?’ the teacher asked angrily.

‘My friend is one of those white men who don't like priests. At least not the kind you are thinking of.’

‘Perhaps he belongs to a sect which does not get money from Wikitoria Kuini?’ informed the teacher. He clearly knew something of English nonconformists.

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‘You're quite right,’ I said, determined to finish this useless conversation. ‘He does not go to church.’

My host's further questions proved that he understood the everyday affairs of the colony just as well as did his white neighbours. I therefore insisted all the more strongly that he should let us go, because he had no right to keep us.

‘I would not detain you, but you must wait for the chief to return. He should be here within a week. I'll tell him about you. When he hears that you two are not redcoats come here to spy on us and our pa, he will probably let you go. The Tauranga people are merciful towards the innocent. Meanwhile I'll look after you. I am the chief's closest relative. During his absence I receive all newcomers.’

‘Shall we stay in this hut?’

‘No, in another. My father lives here. I have my own house beside the church, built after the pakeha style, and a raupo hut for visitors.’

At last the women brought in my companion. Men's heads peered in through the narrow opening. They must have discovered that a pakeha had unexpectedly walked into the village, for they had decided to hold a discussion. The teacher beckoned to one of the sightseers and asked him to take care of the German. He, it transpired, was a medical practitioner of sorts, a retired witch doctor. He may even once have been a grand ‘cutter’ during those ceremonies in which prisoners were killed and roasted and eaten. Nowadays he confined himself to medicine, as he understood it, prescribing fumigation or a mess of herbs, or muttering mysterious words over the sick man's head. This last procedure, applied to my friend, did not appeal to the teacher, who categorically forbade any further incantations. Not that there was any real need for them. The patient, having vomited copiously with the aid of the quack's emetic, recovered consciousness. We were given a supper of potatoes and smoked fish, and sent to an empty hut, similar to that owned by the preacher's father but sited near the church. This was a primitive construction of logs and shingles. It looked remarkably like a barn. The preacher's house which, as he had said, was built on a European model, stood next to the church. As I passed it, I glanced through an open window. The interior matched the outside. Its furnishings were European; there were carpets and even a comfortable settee. The teacher lived in true European style. Later I learnt that he owned a large piece of land near the Tauranga bay, which he rented to English tenants. He was apparently more wealthy than many Auckland merchants. He stood to lose everything by joining the rebellion. The numbers of the European troops doomed the venture to failure, page 62 Luckily the Maori way of life is a simple one, and is not disrupted by the loss of European amenities. Indeed, the Maoris return unconcernedly to the raupo huts of their fathers and sit round the smoky hearths, reminiscing about the past. As for food, they are quite happy to live on what they can grow in their gardens.

Inside our hut we found an incredible amount of dirt and dust and hordes of extremely active fleas. Crowds of the rats which are so common in New Zealand, tougher, squeakier, and bolder than the European variety, pestered us through the night. They are a real plague in Maori villages. Each morsel of food must be protected from them by being hung out of their reach. There were no mosquitoes: the smoke took care of that. Soot, ages old, hung from the raupo walls like long, delicate, black icicles. In spite of all these afflictions, of the groans of my sick companion, the guards on the verandah, and a very uncertain future, I rapidly fell asleep, too tired to worry.