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

From the Diary of M. Quoy

page 221

From the Diary of M. Quoy

After visiting about half the coastline of New Zealand and seeing a good many of its inhabitants, we must now record what we have to say about it. By virtue of its size as well as its large population, this land is without doubt one of the most important regions of the Southern Ocean, in spite of its extreme southerly position. Its climate, which has no extremes of heat or cold, is very healthy and is suited to the cultivation of all European products. In one or two respects, its vegetation, characterized by bracken as tall as trees and Dracaena [dragon trees] that look like palms, equals that of the tropics in abundance and vigour; and in spite of the absence of those plants that furnish an ample food supply for man, the favourable conditions that we have just mentioned have contributed to the development of one of the finest races in Polynesia. Explorers have, in fact, remarked that as a general rule Zealanders are tall, strongly built, with pleasant faces, although they disfigure them, particularly the chiefs, by deeply incised tattooing; the designs used tending to give the impression that they all have aquiline noses, a feature which is, in fact, fairly common among them and is found with widespread nostrils. Their hair is long, black and smooth, their beards the same and they have excellent teeth. Their facial characteristics are as varied as they are in Europe and, to put it briefly, we found among these islanders men whose features resembled those of Brutus, Socrates, etc., as these have been passed down to us. People of the lower orders are shorter and not so good looking; few of them are tattooed, as this privilege is reserved for warriors and consequently for the chiefs, who are all warriors. It is necessary to see this decoration to have any idea of how painful a process must be involved. The women are nothing like so good looking as the men. They are nearly all quite short and they lack altogether the natural grace that is sometimes found among uncivilized peoples and that we have often met with in the Sandwich Islands. Only the wives of chiefs are tattooed; they have a special design on the lips and shoulders.

The little that is known about how the Zealanders are governed is of the greatest interest to those who like inquiring into such primitive civilizations. These two great islands have no one chief exercising authority over a large area. The land is divided into innumerable tribes, each with its own chief who is independent of his neighbours. This chief, far from page 222having absolute power over those he governs, appears to have no authority beyond what public opinion accords him; and in any case, cannot force a free man to do anything against his will, in something of the same way that Caesar records of the Gauls, who followed their princes to war by consent rather than under duress. Thus each tribe constitutes a sort of little republic, which will sometimes join with others in a federation of a temporary character, when all will obey one chief for purposes of war, as we shall show later. Would it not appear that here we find in miniature the little republics of ancient Greece? I have just spoken of free men; the fact is that, apart from slaves taken in war and left over after as many captives as possible have been eaten, there exist among the tribes men and women who do not enjoy full liberty. Are these servants or slaves? This we do not know, and the missionaries who understand the language and customs of these races are the only people who could tell us. M. d'Urville has in his possession a number of somewhat important documents on the subject, which he received from Mr. Marsden, the clergyman at Port Jackson. Mr. Marsden is a man of great discernment, who spent a considerable time in New Zealand.

While this method of dividing and subdividing the inhabitants insures their independence and prevents them from falling under the domination of any one chief, it holds back the progress of civilization and perpetuates rivalries and never-ending wars. It is not too much to say that these natives are in a perpetual state of conflict. Each tribe has its fortress, called a pa or hepa, placed on an island or in a more or less inaccessible spot, guarded by a group of inhabitants. In time of danger everyone takes refuge in it. I saw the deserted pa belonging to the Toui tribe; it was perched on top of a rock which was inaccessible from the sea. On the land side it was cut off by a deep ditch, guarded by two lines of palisades twenty feet high, formed from whole trunks of trees placed side by side; our own are not better constructed. A single narrow path led up to it; the interior, which was on a slope, held a great many deserted dwelling-houses; most of them intact. They were very low, with rounded roofs, having a small peristyle and a door that looked like a window, but was so narrow that anyone wishing to get inside would have been forced to wriggle in on his stomach. European cabbages and various creepers covered the thatched roofs of this Sparta of the South. Once upon a time, before the Zealanders had met Europeans, they showed their page 223courage on these impregnable heights and withstood sieges of inordinate length, which only needed a Homer to become as famous as the Siege of Troy. But since we have taught them to use firearms and the English whalers keep them well supplied, these citadels no longer offer the same resistance; and as the guns are unequally distributed, the result is that certain more favoured tribes exterminate the others. More than any other Polynesians, they are addicted to the revolting custom of eating their prisoners after the battle and there seems to be a religious idea attached to it, which is carried so far that any chiefs who die in action desire this honour for themselves. Their heads are carefully preserved by a method of drying and these are the ones seen fairly frequently in Europe. I do not know anything about their religious opinions. The absence of any external signs would seem to indicate that their ideas had reached a higher degree of development than those of their neighbours. The heads with protruding tongues carved on the prow and other parts of their canoes, those they wear round their necks inlaid with jade, the statues showing the phallus, are only emblems. Very seldom did we see any carving in wood on the tombs.

The only arts they know are those required for constructing their huts and their canoes, which they carve with great care and charm, and for making their flax cloaks which are very beautiful and quite warm enough for this country. A great deal of time and care are required to make their clubs and axes of fine green jade; for that reason they value them highly and will only part with them in exchange for firearms. It should be noted that the bow and arrow do not figure among the weapons found in the Southern Seas; which always means at least one less rapid means of destruction. So far we have only seen them in the Sandwich Islands, but poor specimens and only used for amusement.

The Zealanders are noisy people, who talk a lot and always as if they were quarrelling; the chiefs alone are grave. Indeed it would be possible to recognize them by this characteristic. The people delight in dancing and singing; they sing in chorus with a precision and even a charm that we have not found anywhere else among these races. As soon as the dance begins, men, women, and children all run together into lines and carry it through with wonderful harmony; and yet their best known dance demands contortions and frightful shrieks. Any present, who by chance are not taking part with the others, dance by themselves and follow the rhythm.

page 224

Their costume consists of cloaks of different kinds that they adjust very cleverly; some of them are very thick, covered with long strands of flax. When they sit on their haunches under this garment, they look like hives with heads stuck on top. Some tie their hair back and adorn it with two black feathers; others plaster it down in front with red ochre. They did this as a ceremonial act before coming out to our ship. To put a cloak over their shoulders is also a mark of respect and one that they showed towards us. They live on fish and sweet potatoes. When the plant is young, any approach is forbidden to the fields which are consecrated or tahou. Anyone who ignored this prohibition would run the risk of being done to death. These people eat the roots of the bracken that covers the land, a food that is always at hand but not very substantial; to this must be added the pigs and cabbages that they owe to Europeans, and no doubt to Surville and Marion, chiefly to the latter, who spent a long time in the Bay of Islands, where, unfortunately, he was assassinated in revenge for the abominable act committed some time earlier by Surville, in carrying off a chief from whom he had received all kinds of help. The inhabitants of the Bay of Islands, who seem well aware of what happened, assured M. d'Urville that it was members of the tribe from where Surville had stayed, who had suddenly appeared and fallen on Marion without anyone being able to stop them; which appears very probable in the circumstances when one remembers what proofs of esteem and affection Marion received to the very last moment from the people of the Bay of Islands….

If on the one hand Europeans have brought their diseases and their weapons of destruction to these people, they have also introduced useful products, among which the potato takes first place. Its value has been realized very quickly for we found potatoes everywhere round their dwellings. To these must be added peaches, onions, etc. Does the good outweigh the evil? We do not think so. Until New Zealand is governed by one or two chiefs, which, given its political condition, will be a very long and difficult process, its inhabitants will only have acquired greater facility in mutual destruction.

Every day the chiefs brought on board several women who were passed to everyone in turn, without any desire at all on their part, but always for payment that had to be handed over to the chief, when he himself was not page 225waiting at the door for it. Several men reaped terrible consequences from their intercourse with these women.

The fact that a large part of the native population had left the Bay of Islands prevented us from securing the provisions we had counted on. We did not even get any fish, which the inhabitants know how to catch.

We shall not go into any details relating to natural history here, as that is to be dealt with elsewhere.

A common error: hepa means "here is the pa."—O.W.