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The Aborigines of New Zealand: Two Lectures

Cannibalism of the New Zealanders

Cannibalism of the New Zealanders.

The practice of Cannibalism among the New Zealanders was connected with their wars. They have obtained an unenviable distinction for this revolting custom. The subject has, however, been greatly exaggerated. They have been represented as man-eaters from sheer love of human flesh, and the most affecting pictures have been drawn of the cannibal feast. It has been described as the greatest delicacy with which visitors of rank could be regaled. I am fully satisfied that such accounts are beyond the truth. The New Zealander never ate human flesh because he preferred it as an article of food; nor did he kill his slaves to make a feast for visitors, but invariably to gratify revenge. Prisoners of war alone were the victims, and revenge the principal feeling. Perhaps it was connected with the idea, that to eat the flesh of the warrior would imbue them with his valour and bravery.

So far as I have been able to learn, revenge has been the principal cause of Cannibalism among the Polynesians generally. Sometimes famine may have driven them to it; but even in Feejee, at present so notorious for its anthropophagism, I am told that to gratify revengeful feeling is the principal cause.

This horrible custom very probably had its origin in their mythology, which led them to suppose that the spirits of the dead were eaten by the demons,—that the spiritual part of their offerings was eaten by the god to whom it was presented. In some islands, Ellis says, “Man eater, was an epithet of the principle deity,” and that “it was probably in connection with this, that the king, who often represented the deity, appeared to eat the human eye.”

Tradition among the New Zealanders, says that it originated with the demi-gods. “Rongo,” god of the kumera, “Tane,” god of trees and birds, “Tangaroa,” god of the sea and fish, “Haumea,” god of fern-root, and “Tu,” god of war, were all brothers. Tu ate them all. This was the commencement among the gods. Among men it was begun at Hawaiiki, by Manaia, who killed and ate an page 42 adulterer, in detestation of his crime. Jarves says, “it was not uncommon for the Sandwich Islanders to indulge in the horrible custom after the close of battle in early times; and in later days it was confined to certain robber chieftains who infested mountain paths and recesses of forests, from which they sallied forth, slaying, plundering, and gorging like vultures on the flesh of their victims.” The New Zealander has an idea there are some such beings on the mountains, whom they call Paraus; and though you never meet with one who has seen them, yet they are in great dread of them when travelling alone.

Different tribes have their own tradition on the origin of the custom. At Waikato they say that Mahanga, the father of the Ngatimahanga, inhabiting Waingaroa, was the first to eat men in their district. He lived in the fourth generation, descended from Hoturoa, the emigrant from Hawaiiki. Hoturoa had a son called Tama-ki-te-marangai. The latter had a son called Tuhetia: and Tuhetia had a son called Mahanga. Tuhetia went out to sea to fish with his brother-in-law, Tahinga. When they had nearly filled the canoe, Tuhetia desired Tahinga to get up the stone used as an anchor, but Tuhinga being envious of the popularity of Tuhetia, who was a very general favourite, and could have kai any where, had plotted his death, and pretending to draw up the stone, said he could not. “Cut the rope,” said Tuhetia. “I have no makoi” (shell), said Tuhinga. “Dive for it,” said Tuhetia. “I can't hold breath long enough,” said the other. On this Tuhetia went into the sea himself, and Tahinga instantly cut the cable, and pulled away. When Tahinga came up the canoe was gone. He called, and Tahinga replied by throwing his clothes and fish into the sea, saying, “This is all the canoe you will have.” When he reached the shore, Tuhetia's wife asked where his friend was. He said he went alone; but at daybreak next morning she saw her husband rise out of the sea in the form of a taniwha, and was then assured he had been drowned by Tahinga. Tahinga had a son called Kokako, who lived at Waikato Heads. And when Mahanga grew up, having enquired who was his father, and what became of him, and being told that Tahinga killed him, he made war on Tahinga's son, and killed and ate him from revenge for the death of his father.

Any details on this subject would be too revolting; but I may remark that great insult was offered, and great indignities practised on the bodies of their enemies. They would often torture the victim, heat the oven, throw him alive on the hot stones, and tear his flesh with the cannibal knife, Tuatini. The skull was used as a drinking cup; the teeth hung to their ears; their bones made into forks; and some into needles, with which to sow dogskin mats. These mats were valued the more for being sewed with the bones of their enemies. The collar bone made a frame for a bird snare; and rings for the legs of decoy parrots were made out of the leg bones. Topeora's curse* refers to some of these customs.

This is a dark portion of their history, but it could not be passed over without notice. A brighter day, thank God, has dawned; and now, they are ashamed of those things that were done in darkness. To name page 43 the custom is sufficient to raise the blush of shame, and cause the New Zealander to turn away in disgust at the inhumanity of his former deeds. The last authentic account of cannibalism was the case at Tauranga, in 1842 or 1843, by Taraia. I trust the last in the history of the country. Taraia will never be envied the distinction of having completed the list of these who indulged in the horrid custom.

Perhaps it would be just to say, that the New Zealander has not been alone in this practice. It has prevailed among many other nations. Humboldt, in his work on South America, gives an account of the introduction of the custom among the Mexicans. Southey's Notices of the same country contain the most revolting details—much worse than New Zealand ever furnished. Cortez, in some of his despatches during the Spanish war in America, speaks of the prevalence of the custom; and Bernal Diaz, one of his soldiers, confirms it. The most extraordinary instance known to exist, is that practiced by the Battas, an extensive and populous nation of Sumatra. These people, though considerably advanced in civilization, according to Sir Stamford Raffles, eat human flesh by law. “It is the universal and standing law of the Battas, that death by eating shall be inflicted—1st, for adultery; 2nd, for midnight robbery; 2rd, in wars of importance; 4th, for intermarrying in the same tribe; 5th, for treacherous attacks on a house, village, or person. In all the above cases it is lawful for the victim to be eaten—tied to a stake and cut up alive, and devoured by piecemeal.”

These accounts make us reflect with mitigated severity on the practice of the New Zealanders, who had much less civilization, yet never pursued the custom from love of it, but to gratify revenge.

* See page 35.