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New Zealand 1826-1827: From the French of Dumont D'Urville

From the Diary of M. de Sainson

page 203

From the Diary of M. de Sainson.

On the 15th of January the anchor was raised at daybreak; there was no force in the winds and the corvette, all her sails spread, had scarcely moved, when we noticed two canoes that had set out from shore and were making great efforts to row out to us. Each of these light craft was manned by eight or ten men, one of them standing up in the middle, while the others plied their paddles. When they got near the ship, they stopped and remained for some time looking at us. We had to make a lot of signs and friendly gestures to them before they made up their minds to come close to the corvette; finally, the Commander's voice, inviting them in their own language to come on board, put an end to their hesitation. We threw them a rope to tie their canoes alongside the ship and they came up on deck straightaway.

The presence of these men in our midst excited a keen curiosity among the whole crew. Thanks to the tales told by travellers, the warriors of New Zealand always come before Europeans enhanced by the terrible reputation for repeated acts of barbarism which they have acquired with only too much justification. These very parts that we were visiting exacted from the earliest explorers a terrible price for their discovery. A short distance to the east, we had Queen Charlotte Sound, the bloody scene of the horrible deaths of Furneaux's companions [1793], behind us, scarcely a mile or two away, stretched Massacre Bay, whose name, of sinister memory, still speaks of the cruelty of the natives and the horrible end of Tasman's sailors [1642]. But however powerful these memories may have been, our impression- at first sight was not unfavourable to our guests. If their rather fierce eyes and formidable rows of dazzling white teeth suggested a few tragic scenes to our minds, we also had to agree that the expression of their faces, their attitude and demeanour seemed to reveal a certain frankness and decision of character and a pride conscious of its strength.

page 204

Gathered on deck and surrounded by our men, they did not seem the least embarrassed and some even indulged in noisy bursts of gaiety. They shook hands with us affectionately, repeating, over and over again the word kapai, which in their idiom means good or fine; the next moment they burst out laughing, then they shouted to one another and went running and leaping all over the ship. Anything and everything excited their astonishment. This was probably the first time that these natives, living at the head of an enormous bay that had not been discovered by any expedition before our own, had seen a ship so near their shores; and so the whole time their admiration was excited by a crowd of new objects; but their wonder was as short-lived as it was intense. It has often been pointed out, that our arts, the result of a very advanced civilization, can only appeal to the external organs of men living in the savage state; their minds seldom inquire about the causes behind a mechanism, though their senses are struck by its effect. This is why they attach the same degree of importance to objects which we should place very far apart in the scale of our inventions. For example, our masts and the handling of the sails aroused the keenest interest in these savages; at those moments when the course was being changed, it seemed as if nothing would distract their attention; but as soon as the master's whistle was heard, everything was forgotten and they crowded round this marvellous instrument, which had no doubt a peculiar charm for their ears, for nearly all of them wanted to try to draw some sounds from it and they were delighted if their attempt was the least successful.

They showed great interest in what was happening below deck, perhaps all the more because they were not allowed to go down into the ship. They stood in groups round the hatchways and gazed with curiosity at the internal arrangement which might well astonish a civilized man if he looked on the scene for the first time. They did not seem altogether ignorant of the use of firearms; they may have seen them in the hands of their fellow-countrymen of the North, who now attach great importance to the possession of firearms and get them by means of barter with the whaling vessels. No doubt the use of this speedy means of destruction will some day have the greatest influence on the customs and the fate of these fighting cannibals. It may be that the importation of these murderous weapons will lead them in the distant future to enjoy the benefits of civilization; but meanwhile, how many victims will succumb to the new type of contest, a hundred times more deadly than page 205the old methods of fighting, when, to settle their quarrels, these races depended on the blind courage and physical strength with which nature has endowed them! As a rule the Zealanders are tall and well-built; without being at all stout, their firm, well-developed muscles show that they cultivate strength as well as agility. They hold their heads high and their shoulders well back, and their carriage would not lack a measure of dignity, if it were not for their habit of living in a crouching position in their huts. This accustoms them to keep their knees bent and so makes it impossible for their movements to be graceful.

These men have very pronounced features and in several cases they seemed to me to show some resemblance to that unmistakable type, which in our regions denotes the Jewish race. Most of their faces are tattooed all over with a symmetrical design showing admirable artistry and delicacy. These scars, of which they are very proud, are evidence of military valour; and we noticed that only men of mature age were adorned with the complete tattoo, whereas the younger men had nothing but a few slight marks on the nostrils or above the chin. Warriors wear their hair drawn up and tied in a tuft on the top of the head. This imposing coiffure is often adorned with feathers of sea birds. They like to wear earrings or necklaces usually made of little human bones or a few teeth, the trophies of a sanguinary victory.

These islanders have a brown skin and the ochre that they rub themselves with often gives them a reddish tint that is not at all unpleasing; the cloaks that they wear take on a similar shade from contact with the skin. These garments, woven from the silky flax which the soil of these regions produces in abundance, are wonderful works of art and of patience, if one considers the very simple means that the natives use in making them.

Among the men we had on board, three or four seemed to belong to a different race. Thin, of poor physique and dirty, they were not tattooed; their features were of the lowest type, their hair matted together; and a few scraps of roughly plaited flax formed their only covering. We assumed that the fortunes of war had left them in the hands of the tribe living on the neighbouring beach. The poor wretches had no possessions whatever and the things that we offered in exchange to their fellow countrymen incited them to envy; they kept on asking us to let them share in our generosity. If they were refused, they returned to the charge looking so pathetic and poverty stricken, that we yielded to their importunity. We saw how in all page 206countries misery resorts to the same means to arouse pity and also that everywhere it degrades the human race and creates a cringing and abject attitude.

Our sailors showed themselves very eager round a young man whose beautiful face and lovely gentle eyes made them take him for a woman. His long hair, tied on the top of his head, made the resemblance even more striking. At the same moment, the natives had fallen into a similar error with regard to one of our young servants, who, in spite of his protests, had some difficulty in escaping from the attentions of those who remained incredulous.

Soon after the arrival of the savages, barter was started and it went on with much good faith on both sides. Those who visited us had not brought any foodstuffs, but they willingly gave us cloaks, belts, admirably made fishing lines, in exchange for knives, handkerchiefs, and hooks. The last article seemed to be specially welcome. These people, who live by fishing, must feel the need of using something better than the clumsy hooks that they make out of pearl or fishbones. They are so rough that it is surprising that anything can be caught by means of them.

While the commander tried to get some information about local geography from our guests, M. Gaimard set to work on his vocabulary with good results, and took exact measures of the limbs of the natives, so as to have data for the physiological records of man in these regions. I also tried to sketch one or two portraits; but the continual movement of my models made it rather difficult for me to finish them. What I was doing caused a lot of laughter; every minute they tried to escape me, but I put them back into position immediately. They did not seem to lend themselves at all willingly to such work, which demanded that they should be still for a few minutes and I suppose that the words they addressed to me in their impatience would have had somewhat peculiar equivalents in French.

One thing that struck us as being very impressive was the dance or rather the rhythmic song of the savages, an exercise in which they seemed to take great delight. One of them gave the recognized signal, and on the instant all his companions ran up taking their places in a single line beside him. Some threw their cloaks on to the deck, others merely arranged them so as to leave the movements of the arms free; then in a silence which was almost a solemn hush, they gave a prelude to their song by stamping their feet page 207one after the other in perfect time and at the same time striking the top of their thighs with the palm of the hand. After a moment, one man, in a guttural voice and a tone which has a touch of melancholy, begins a sort of chant on one note, all the harmony coming from the rhythm of the words which have a distinct scansion. To begin with, long notes are dominant, then little by little, they grow faster and faster without any change in the rhythm; soon the chorus has become general and the singers put more feeling into their tone. Little by little their bodies are thrown back, their knees strike together, the muscles of their necks swell, and the head is shaken by movements which look like convulsions; their eyes turn up, so that, with horrible effect, their pupils are absolutely hidden under the eyelids, while at the same time they twist their hands with outspread fingers very rapidly before their faces. Now is the time when this strange melody takes on a character that no words can describe, but which fills the whole body with involuntary tremors. Only by hearing it can anyone form an idea of this incredible crescendo, in which each one of the actors appeared to us to be possessed by an evil spirit; and yet what sublime and terrible effects are produced by this savage music! When by a final effort, the delirium of howls and contortions is borne to a climax, suddenly the whole group utters a deep moan and the singers, now overcome by fatigue, all let their hands drop at the same moment back on to their thighs, then breaking the line they had made, they seek the few moments' rest which they desperately need.

Was it a battle song that they performed for us? The solemn, profound character of their music might lead us to think so; yet some of the movements seemed to be appropriate to a rendering of a lovers' contest. Be that as it may, whatever their intention, whether it be victory or love that they celebrate in this manner, the fact remains that they have a music of overwhelming force. None could say of such music that it enfeebles men by being effeminate.

Seeing how delighted we were by the spectacle, our savage guests within less than two hours gave us several performances, each time with the same degree of precision and energy….

Towards evening we sailed very close to shore round the rocks that form the tip of the island and a moment later dropped anchor in six fathoms, in a splendid roadstead which we called Astrolabe Bight.