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The Aborigines of New Zealand: Two Lectures

Social and Domestic Condition of the New Zealanders

Social and Domestic Condition of the New Zealanders.

The social and domestic state of the New Zealander presents many interesting scenes, and furnishes benevolent minds with urgent motives to adopt the best means for his improvement and elevation.

Government.—On the subject of their Government I have only time to remark, that it never was like that of the Sandwich Islands, Tahiti, and the Friendly Isles, monarchial, but divided among independent chiefs. Was this the result of the first emigrants dividing, and locating in different and distinct districts? Chieftainship is not always hereditary. It not unfrequently happens that one who has distinguished himself in battle, or manifested unusual sagacity in council, obtained influence which rank alone could not give him. The power of the chiefs is very limited, consisting principally page 46 in deciding, directing, and controlling political subjects. They have no means of protecting property, or punishing crime, beyond those arising from the custom of tapu. There were no equal laws forming a fence around their possessions or liberties or lives; no protective institutions; consequently every man was a robber or a victim of robbery, and universal violence and depredation prevailed. This state of things some writers call a reign of absolute liberty: it is the absolute liberty of the strong to tyrannize over the weak. What a boon is conferred upon such a people in the establishment of British law!

Slavery.—All prisoners of war were considered slaves, and all their children the property of the chiefs. Their position was one of degradation and insult, as they were expected to work and supply the wants of their masters. Their condition, however, bore no resemblance to the slavery of what are called civilized nations. It was not reduced to system. No grinding labour was exacted. They were not treated with cruelty. But any misdemeanour, any insult offered by a slave to his chief, would be visited with instant death; and the death of a slave would not be considered worth anybody's notice. “Oh! he was a taurekareka, it matters not,” would be all the notice it received. Slaves generally have been liberated and returned to their homes.

Marriage was usually contracted between individuals of the same tribe. A man was rarely permitted to take a wife from another and strange tribe. They were generally betrothed in early life, and the engagement on the part of the female considered sacred and binding. Any favourable regard to the attentions of another suitor was considered a violation of native custom, demanding satisfaction.

A chief who wished to take to wife one whom her friends designed for another would demand her, and attempt to take her by force. If the affection were mutual, the female would elope and take up her abode with the man of her choice. Her friends would go in a body to recover her. The favoured suitor would endeavour to detain her, assisted by her friends. A struggle would ensue, and the strongest party bear away the object of contention. The poor woman was often a great sufferer, and paid dearly for her attachment to the man her friends disapproved.

Engagements of this kind often originated with the female, who would, contrary to European custom, make her overtures to the man of her choice, and risk often the anger of her tribe, her comfort, and even life itself, for the sake of him she loved. They often expressed their feelings in poetry—no uncommon mode of expressing tender attachments. The following is a specimen:—

Song by a girl who had an Appointment to meet her Lover.
Flow tides and fill the rivers.
With my paddle in my hand,
I am waiting for your help.
Blow winds from the north,
And float me along;
I am totally deaf
To the anger of Kohaka.
page 47 With such emotion within,
How can I listen?
Lest my beloved think
I have forsaken him for others,
I would not longer stay.
Nor shall love be disappointed,
He has left me the sign.
When flame ascends on high,
And curling smoke is seen
'Mong evergreens that shade
The arches of Tahere,
Hasten to me there—
I sit waiting for thee.

The manner of treating their young females on these subjects was cruel, and often led to much sin, to infanticide, and suicide, and even murder. Instead of allowing her to cousult her own wishes on the choice of a husband, the woman was often compelled to unite herself with one twice or thrice her own age, and for whom she had neither affection nor respect. But Christianity is gradually breaking down the custom.

Polygamy was a frightful source of domestic misery, and a great hindrance to social improvement. Where this prevails, the order of nature and the institution of heaven are violated. Nothing but wretchedness can result from it. It has been the custom of all barbarous nations; and the New Zealander looked on numerous wives as among his greatest riches. He generally had one principal wife, a chieftess; and a number of inferior or slave wives. These he loved to multiply, that he might the better gratify his lusts and have numbers to attend the wishes of his barbarian lordship. Polygamy has been one of the greatest hindrances to the spread of Christianity: perhaps no other native custom has impeded the truth to an equal extent. That real vital piety has spread so slowly is in some measure attributable to this custom. “I wont embrace your religion. I shall have to give up my wives,” was often the reply we met with.

Infanticide was practised among them to a fearful extent. Parents were in many instances without natural affection. The causes assigned by them for this unnatural practice were numerous. War often led to it. “We shall have raruraru (trouble) with this child in fleeing before our enemies; its cries will expose our retreat,” a woman would say to her husband, “Let us strangle it.” “Very well, do so,” the inhuman father would coolly reply. Conjugal quarrels sometimes induced the mother to put away the child of her bosom as punishment to an offending husband. Illegitimate children were generally sacrificed, as they could not endure the epithet “poriro” (bastard). Polygamy was a frightful source of this horrible crime. Perhaps the wife least loved is the mother, and from disappointment and ill-requited affection she destroys her offspring. Perhaps the father and mother belong to different tribes,—tribes which either are or have been at variance; and the cruel mother will forget her sucking child and say, “I will not rear successors for such an one—his fathers ate mine.” Perhaps old feuds between the page 48 tribes have broken out a fresh, and the wife sympathises with her friends, and kills her children. Such a custom of course told fearfully against the increase of population. And I fear it has not entirely ceased. Children were sadly neglected among them. Many have perished for want of proper attention. The small proportion of children is remarkable, and forms a great contrast to the European families. In some places it will be found that there is not an average of one child to every married couple. On one small river where the census was taken, there were found 280 adults and 80 children. Deduct say 80 as aged people, 200 are left, suppose 100 married couples. To these 100 couples you have 80 children, a very small proportion—forcing upon us the mournful conclusion that their numbers must dwindle. On this subject I may also remark that by a censns taken along the Eastern Coast, where population has been considered most numerous, the proportion of men to women is as five to three. Three females to five males. What but rapid decrease can result from such proportions?

Education was totally neglected. Youth were allowed to stray where they pleased, they might be absent from home for days or weeks and anxiety felt about them. They did in most respects what was right in their own eyes. The only subject on which the least solicitude was felt was to train them for war; to foster the spirit of revenge; to keep up the remembrance of insult received, or injuries inflicted by hostile tribes, to be avenged at a fitting opportunity. How much then is education needed! In connection with the Gospel this is the only lever that will raise them to the position they are qualified by intellectual endowments to occupy among the nations of the earth. And the efforts of the Government to supply the necessary agency, and aid existing establishments in this work of philanthropy, are beyond all praise.