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The Aborigines of New Zealand: Two Lectures


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The subject of the present lecture is one of deep interest. I could wish it were in the hands of some one better qualified to deal with it. I confess I greatly feel my inability to do it anything like justice. To trace the early history of a people is no easy task. In fact we may say in the language of a popular historian, “The investigation of ancient history is always difficult. Like the prospect of an extensive landscape, it exhibits, in the extreme distance, objects which are certainly perceived, but which cannot be correctly defined. We stand on an eminence, and, casting our eyes over a wide range of scenery, clearly discern the objects which arise in our immediate vicinity, and can easily form an accurate judgment of their several qualities and relations; while beyond are seen hills and rivers, forests and fields, losing all their various distinctive colouring in one general haze. So that while sufficient evidence of their existence and general locality is given, it becomes impossible accurately to define their limits, or to ascertain with any precision their respective boundaries.”

So in history, we can survey the progress of nations, and from the present time prosecute our investigations into distant ages, while the light of authentic records illuminate the scenery. There is, however, a distance beyond which this light fails and gradually fades into dim glimmering of tradition and fable. With reference to these remote eras, absolute certainty is not to be expected, and we must rest satisfied with a greater or less degree of probability. In reference to the history of the New Zealanders, no records of any kind exist. Till Christian missions were established they had no written language. Great events were sometimes handed down in their carvings; the locality of great battles was well defined, and a hole dug on the spot where a great chief fell: as you pass over the scene the natives will point out those marks and detail the principal events of the battle. Some were accustomed to preserve their history by a carved stick, each separate notch denoting some important event, which the kaumatua (old man) would relate as he held it in his hand.

We are dependent, then, for our information on tradition; and that, as in the case of other barbarous nations, is so mixed up with fable, that frequently we cannot look for certainty, or indeed go beyond conjecture.

On referring to various publications on New Zealand, I find they contain but little that I could make available. And, without appearing to assume the office of critic, or wishing to make any inviduous remarks, I may say I have been surprised to find how little real information they supply on the history of the Aborigines, and how page 6 much they relate that would not bear investigation. Nor is this fact surprising, since the authors have generally been individuals whose knowledge of the native language has been very circumscribed, and whose residence among the Natives has been of short duration. One of the best, if not the very best work in print on New Zealand, is a small volume in the “Library of Entertaining Knowledge,” published by the “Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.” It is a compilation from various sources, interwoven with the personal narrative of John Rutherford, who lived among the New Zealanders several years, and seems to have become almost a perfect Maori. It were greatly to be wished that some competent person would take the trouble to collect information on the origin and early history of these tribes, and place it in a form in which it could be preserved. The time for doing this will soon have gone by. The old men are fast dying off, and with them the legends and traditions, contained principally in native waiatas (songs), will pass away, and the next generation will know but little about them. The young men of the present generation know comparatively little of ancient history, and do not understand many of the allusions made by old priests and chiefs in their speeches. I have asked for explanation when listening to a kaumatua, and received for reply, Kahore ahau e mohio, he tamariki au nei. (I don't know, I am but a child.)

Perhaps the best collection of native songs and legends that has been collected is in the possession of His Excellency the Governor. I hope we shall one day see them in print. I have been favoured with the use of that collection, and am indebted to it for some that I shall employ in the way of illustration.*

The subject is comprehensive, and it would be impossible to include everything, or even all that might be interesting within the limits of two lectures. It would not indeed be difficult to find matter for a volume or even volumes. To dwell on every subject connected with their customs in war, their government, their social and domestic condition, their mental peculiarities, and their literature,—though unwritten they possess it in the form of songs and poems,—to dwell at any length on all these subjects would carry these lectures beyond all reasonable limits. Our duty then will be to select what appears to be most interesting, and best adapted to convey a general, but clear and distinct, view of the character and habits of these interesting tribes.

It is also necessary to observe that native custom varies in different districts, and among distinct tribes. Customs that exist among some tribes, have no existence among others. For instance, the custom of killing slaves to attend their chiefs to the land of spirits, was common among the Ngapuhi, but was not practised among the Waikatos. Many of their legends too, differ. It will generally be found that legendary accounts of their origin, and of facts connected with their ancient history, are differently recorded in page 7 different districts. The ground work is the same. The principle facts in the main agree, but the mythological and fabulous parts often vary. Each tribe has its own tradition. The account, for instance, of the first emigration is variously related, each tribe has its own ancestor. Hoturoa was the father of the Waikato tribes. The Northern tribes had others, Rarawa and Ngapuhi; Turi was the ancestor of the Taranaki tribes, and Whakaue of the Rotorua, &c. All agree in one particular, that four canoes came from Hawaiki. It is very probable that the emigrants landed at different places, and became the progenitors of the different tribes who speak of them as the first men. Each tribe has its own gods, ancestors, and regulations about tapu.

I remark on these differences, lest any of my hearers should conclude that facts which have met their own observation contradict some things advanced. If it be remembered how distinctly their territorial divisions are marked, how independent each tribe is of every other, what little intercourse was held prior to the introduction of christianity, except for purposes of war; it will not excite surprise that some customs brought from the original country should be lost and others adopted just as circumstance suggested, or rendered them necessary. Nor should any difference of custom lead to the conclusion that they are different races.

The first topic to which our attention is directed is

* Since the above was delivered I have seen a portion of a work containing a valuable collection of native songs and legends by Sir Georoge Grey, which he is now conducting through the press, and which will preserve the early history of these tribes, and assist research on the subject.