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Distant Homes; or the Graham Family in New Zealand

Chapter VIII

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Chapter VIII.

Some of the Native Manners—Tabu and Eating—Working out the Tabu—Retaliation.

Seeing that they avoided carrying food inside the house, Tom asked his father to find out what their reason was, and at the same time, if possible, to find why one of the chiefs did not feed himself, but let a slave lift up and put his food into his mouth. The guide, who acted as interpreter, laughed when asked, and told him it was because of the tabu; taputhat is, because the places or things were holy.

It seems that, in all the Pacific islands, there exists a singular custom called tabu, which consists, as I have just said, in making one person, place, or thing, sacred; if a person, he must not touch food with his own hands; nobody can touch him; anything doing so, becomes tabued too. Places that are tabued are generally rivers, while the fishing season lasts; ground where the people are planting, or have planted, Kumaras, or sweet potatoes; or where eels are cauth. Every thing a chief or priest wears, or passes under, is tabued; so no slave can touch the hair of a chief's head, or the roof of his house; and should a chief tire, or feel an inclination to change any portion of his clothing, he throws it away into a place where nobody can reach it, believing if anyone gets it, they will be hurt or killed by the spirit that is in it.

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Where a death takes place, the ground is tabued, and sometimes whole districts have been disinhabited on this account. Even since roads were made, the same custom prevails, and people are forbidden to walk over or upon them until the tabu is removed; a rather funny example of this is told by Mr. Swainson, in his book on New Zealand, and which I shall introduce here. He says:—

“Some years after our sovereignty had been established in these islands, a gentleman holding a high official position in the colony, started upon a pedestrian excursion from Auckland to New Plymouth, accompanied by three native baggage bearers. For some time previously, the road between New Plymouth and Mokaa u, for a distance of about fifty miles had been tabued by a powerful neighbouring chief. Though warned, as he went along, that the tabu was strictly maintained, and that he would probably be stopped by the way, the traveller continued to proceed on the chance of being allowed to pass. After having walked about a hundred-and-fifty miles, he came to the commencement of the forbidden ground, and, meeting with nothing to arrest his progress, he entered upon the tabued road, and having proceeded ten or a dozen miles, began to entertain a confident hope that he should be able to reach his journey's end. Having arrived at a temporary native settlement on the beach, about the time of high water, he called a halt, in order to wait until the tide should have ebbed so far as to allow of his proceeding. He was civilly supplied by the natives of the settlement with firewood and water to cook his mid-day meal, and nothing was said by them on the subject of tabu; but his entertainers had quietly despatched a messenger to page 52 the guardian of this particular portion of the tabu road, to inform him of the presence of a trespasser. The meal being finished, and the tide having ebbed, the word was given to proceed, and the party having resumed their loads, were just upon the point of starting, when the faithful guardian of the road—a black-bearded, ill-favoured, repulsive-looking fellow—suddenly made his appearance, in a state of furious rage. Throwing off his blanket, slapping his tattooed thighs, flourishing his tomahawk, and dancing about like an enraged tiger, he gave vent to his fury; and, with significant signs, and in language not to be mistaken, gave the unwary traveller to understand that he must go no farther. The baggage-bearers immediately resumed their seats, with unaffected meekness, and the natives of the settlement, squatting themselves down native fashion, their arms resting on their knees, and their heads half buried in their blankets, grouped themselves quietly round, intent spectators of the scene; leaving a clear stage to the infuriated chief and the checkmated traveller to perform the principal characters of the play.

“Alone, unarmed, in a remote part of the country, difficult of access, confronted by this savage-looking specimen of his race, and uncertain whether the play would prove a tragedy or a farce, a new comer, or one not yet ‘to the native manner born,’ would have found himself in no enviable position. The traveller explained that he was a Kaiwkawa from Auckland; but the announcement worked no charm, nor served to soothe the savage breast. In this remote part of Her Majesty's dominions, it was clear that the Queen's name had not yet become a tower of strength. Argument was useless, force was out of the question, and page 53 the baggage-bearers refused to proceed, believing that the attempt would be at the risk of being tomahawked or stripped. It being idle any longer to attempt to carry on the unequal contest, and the play being evidently played out, the beaten party retired from the scene, leaving the spectators to discuss—which they would assuredly do, with infinite zest—the merits of the serio-comic entertainment. So, again shouldering their loads, the discomfited and crestfallen party began, with what grace they might, to retrace their steps to Auckland.”

The chief, who told Captain Graham so many stories, had just tabued a tract of land near, and very gravely informed him that the cause of his doing so was, that a lizard had run across his path while crossing this valley, and consequently, supposing it to be the atua of his father, he had tabued the ground. The head and back of a chief are sacred, and anyone touching them also; it is said no native will repair the roof of a chief's hut, because it has been above his sacred head; so I suppose the chiefs have to do this work for themselves. No one under tabu is allowed to feed himself, but must sit with his hands before him, and his mouth open to receive the food put into it by a person appointed for that purpose. The next most interesting thing Captain Graham and Tom heard, related to the laws of right or wrong. If any one wronged another—whether intentionally or by accident was all the same—some near relation of the sufferer came to the other's house, and carried off anything he thought most valuable; while, unable to resent the robbery, the owner, would, if at home, sit still, and watch the thieves. This custom amused Tom greatly, making him think of an old nursery rhyme:—

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“I went to Taffy's house,
Taffy was from home,
Taffy came to my house,
And stole a marrow-bone.
“I went to Taffy's house,
Taffy was in bed;
I stole the bolster
Away from Taffy's head.”

Besides these two customs, there were a great many more than I have space or time at present to relate, and one or two of which Tom saw afterwards, when they had settled in their new home.

As the New Zealanders eat only twice a day, cramming themselves then to such a degree that they do not appear to care what they do until they begin to be hungry again, no more food was prepared that night; and Tom, who had not such a convenient appetite, went to sleep, thinking them particularly unreasonable people, and wishing he had eaten a better dinner. However, he was too tired to stay long awake; so, curling himself up upon the soft pile of mats given by the chief, he was soon fast asleep, and snoring, while Captain Graham, pencil in hand, took a sketch of the fine old chief, as he lay upon his mats; he was a tall, fine man, not at all like an Indian or nigger, but just like a dark-complexioned Englishman; his face was ornamented with lines, and strokes tattoed upon his skin, which gave him a very funny appearance. He was particularly courteous, and tried everything he could to make his guests stay with him, which they were really inclined to do, if they had time; but they had yet many miles of rough country and entangled forests to pass; so, reluctantly enough, left the Pah at daylight, and said farewell to the hospitable natives, most of whom ran up to them, to shake hands, and wish them a safe journey.

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Captain Graham Leaving the Pah.

Captain Graham Leaving the Pah.

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