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Medicine Amongst the Maoris, in Ancient and Modern Times



The first far reaching effect upon the Maoris of contact with Europeans, was the decimation of the tribes by epidemics. Beyond a vague account of an epidemic which swept through the Taiamai district in the North about 150 years ago1, there are no accounts of epidemics occurring in pre-European times. Previous to the Hawaikian migration, placed somewhere about the year 1350 A.D., there had been communication backwards and forwards between New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. This continued for a very short while after the arrival of the great migration. With the larger islands now at their dispesal, the Maori tribes found enough to engross their attention on shore so that the long sea voyages and communication between their new home and the islands ceased completely. We can say that from 1400 A.D. the Maoris were completely isolated. Tasman's expedition in 1642 did not land but merely skirted the West Coast and sailed away. Thus there was no actual contact between the Maoris and any outside race from 1400 until Captain Cook's arrival in 1769. This complete isolation of the Maoris lasted for nearly four centuries and during that period we hear of no authentic epidemic except the one mentioned above. In an ancient song composed by Turaukawa of the Ngati-Ruanui tribe of Taranaki, full of sacerdetal expressions of hidden meaning, the following lines occur:-

Tokotoko tao, kotahi te turanga,
Tokotoko rangi, ka ngaro te kai, ka ngaro te tangata.
(The spear of wood slays one man at a stroke, The spear from heaven sweeps away food and obliterates man.)

These lines were never understood as men were not killed in ancient times in multitudes by the disease gods, neither page 82Were there famines of food due to supernatural influence. After the contact with civilization, however, the introduction of epidemics explained the one reference and the more recent potato blight, also due to European introduction, explained the other. Turaukawa has, as a result, been placed upon a high pedestal in prophetic circles. Suffice it to say that the escape which the Maoris had enjoyed from epidemics by virtue of their isolation, was ended in the early part of the 19th. century by the advent of the epidemic named by the Maoris, Rewharewha.

Rewharewha appeared according to some authorities, about 1802, according to others about 1790. At all events though most of the tribes had not yet come in contact with Europeans, whaling vessels from Australia and America were frequently touching upon the New Zealand coast. The epidemic spread with extraordinary virulence throughout the North Island and even to the South. From the rapid manner in which it spread, it seems to have been influenza, which owing to new soil, combined with the absolute ignorance and helplessness of the Maoris in treating it, seems to have assumed a very virulent type. The fact that the word rewharewha is used to denote coughing, points to the fact that bronchitis and chest symptoms were same of the outstanding features of the epidemic. The population of many of the villages were decimated. A tatooed veteran of the Puketapu tribe told me that in the Puketapu village, the majority of the inhabitants died. There was no time to bury the dead. At the height of the trouble, a Taranaki war party appeared on the scene. The survivors to make a successful show against the enemy, dressed the dead in fine mats, put weapons in their hands and set them along the palisades where they would be in full view of the enemy. The war party gazed upon the fully manned fort and hesitated to attack such a strong force. "Then my great grandfather who was a noted warrior, "went on my informant, "challenged their page 83 chief to single combat. They met on the level below the pa whilst the dead and the living looked on. My ancestor slew his opponent, carried the body up into the pa and threw it up into the fork of a tree. Mark how he was full of life and strength. It was in the morning. That evening "Rewha-rewha" came and smote him down. Next day he had joined the dead.

Various epidemics were introduced by civilisation and have remained with us ever since. On the East coast one was termed "papareti", comparison being made to a sliding toboggan. On the West coast, one epidemic that devastated Mekau was termed "tokotoko rangi", the spear from heaven.

Measles, typhoid, scarletfever, whooping cough and almost everything, except plague and sleeping sickness, have taken their toll of Maori dead.

The exorcisms of early days, combined with the purifying in mid-stream, but helped on the severity of the attack and contributed to the mortality. The communistic system of living and sharing large meeting houses has assisted the spread of epidemics.