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The Maori: Yesterday and To-day

Chapter XXII. — The Tangi

page 241

Chapter XXII.
The Tangi.

“I saw the lightning's glare
Upon the peak of Taupiri;
There the thousands of thy people sleep
Their last long sleep;
They rest forever on the
Plains of Tangirau.”

When sorrow smites the people, when loved ones are seized by the hand of the Unseen and hurried away in the Waka o Aitua, the Canoe of Death, then the soul of the Maori is bared, and the primal grief-note, the coronach of the tangi, sounds through the stricken kainga. It is at a tangihanga, a funeral gathering, that one sees something of the real Maori. Old customs are revived, brown nose is pressed to nose, and the orations over the dead are rich in song, in proverb, and in touching symbol and imagery.

A greatly stirring and dramatic tangihanga which I witnessed was the funeral gathering of tribes held at Taupiri, on the Waikato River, in October, 1894, over the remains of King Tawhiao, the son of the famous Potatau te Wherowhero. Here were seen for the last time on such a scale some thrilling pictures of old Maoridom. The tangihanga carried to some of us more than a lamentation over the dead chief; it was the crying for the final passing away of the restless ancient order, for with tattooed grim old Tawhiao there died too the forty-year-old dream of a Maori kingdom.

Taupiri was a fitting spot for the great tangi-hanga; it is the famous burial-place of Waikato chieftains. Above the Waikato River rises the wooded peak of Taupiri, creased with many a deep page 242 green gully. The Waikato, which in ages past cut out a channel for itself through the mountain ranges, takes a splendid sweeping bend through the gorge; it is here a quarter of a mile wide, swift, strong, but glassy-smooth. Weeping-willows dip their soft trailers in the water on either side and as far as one can see up and down the shining river. Immediately above the rail-line is a green foothill of the Taupiri range, its sides trenched in the lines of an ancient fort, its summit crowned with a white-painted enclosure. This is the sacred burying ground, the aristocratic Waikato wahi-tapu. Taupiri is a “maunga-hikonga-uira,” a “lightning-mountain,” a peak of solemn omen. If lightning flashed downwards repeatedly immediately over the sacred peak, it was regarded as a portent of the death of some chieftain of Waikato.

At this great tangi over the remains of Tawhiao, the crying of the dead monarch to the Maori Spiritland, there were at least three thousand Maoris present, belonging to some thirty tribes from all parts of the “Fish of Maui.” Long thatched nikau and raupo whares were built by the hosts—the Waikato tribes proper—for the accommodation of the army of visitors; there were hundreds of tents pitched, and immense quantities of food—pork and beef, potatoes, fish, dried eels, shellfish, and pakeha bread—were provided to feed the multitude. The smoke from scores of hāngi, the primitive earth-ovens, rose into the air night and morning. There was daily to be seen the pretty ceremonial of the Tuku-hai, the formal presentation of cooked food in little round flax baskets to the guests, with the accompaniment of dance and song; there were almost continual performances of the haka and powhiri of greeting; and the military parades of the past were revived in honour of the sacred dead.

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One picture stands out before all others in the many-coloured panorama that passes before the mind's eye as I recall the stirring week at Tawhiao's tangi. This was the reception of the old King's body as it was borne into the Waikato camp from Para wera, on the King Country border-line, after a long pilgrimage through the Upper Waikato. Close on a thousand people of the Ngati-Maniapoto, Ngati-Raukawa, Ngati-Haua, and other up-country tribes reverently escorted the remains; more than two thousand of Waikato, swayed by the intensest feeling, awaited them here on the Taupiri river-side.

The people wore the universal sign of mourning —sprays of green willow or of koromiko (veronica), or the trailing creepers of the lycopodium fern—wreathed round their heads and over their shoulders. Guns and Maori weapons of wood and stone were in every hand, and here and there a sword—a trophy of the war. Flags of bright colour and curious design flapped at half-mast in the centre of the marae, the campus. Some hundreds of Waikato men, under their chiefs, were drawn up in soldierly formation just inside the fence of the marae enclosure; the ranks ten or twelve deep, all stripped to a waist-garment—shawl, blanket, or mat; feathers in hair—the huia plume and the feathers of the albatross, the pigeon or the wild goose; all were armed with rifles or double-barrel guns and had cartridge pouches strapped round them.

The long cortege of the Upper Waikato men wound in sight round a turn in the road, with a Maori band at their head playing the pakeha “Dead March.” Behind the band came the coffin enclosing Tawhiao's body, borne by sixteen half-naked brown figures. Beside his father's remains walked Mahuta, the new King. Then marched the armed men of the page 244 King Country, in fighting costume, a brown battalion three to four hundred strong, their only garments a shawl or sheet round the loins, hair dressed with feathers, cartridge-belts round their bare shoulders, ammunition-pouches at their waists. All carried guns, and, as they slowly advanced, they fired their rifles and fowling-pieces loaded with blank. Eight deep came the soldiery, led on by Arakatera Rongowhitiao, a big black-bearded Ngati-Raukawa chief, stripped to a waist-sheet, quivering a glistening whale-bone méré in his hand. Then came the rest of the procession, hundreds of natives with their heads and bodies wreathed and entwined with green leaves and nodding branchlets.

Volleys of musketry, then single and irregular shots, were fired, continually, both by the oncoming host and the waiting Waikato; a hum of lamentation rose on the heavy air; the gunpowder smoke hung around the wailing throngs; and all the time on the green hill under the dark shoulder of Taupiri puffs of smoke were seen and reports like cannon were heard, waking the mountain echoes. It was the Maoris at the burial-place exploding dynamite round the open grave.

The sorrowful procession, every man and woman marching with head bowed in grief, slowly approached the entrance to the camp. The hundreds, of Waikato, silent now as death, were massed some eighty yards inside the enclosure, the armed men in front with their guns at the port. As the sacred dead was borne through the gate, the Waikatos bowed their heads low three times and at the same time the colours on the tall flagstaff were dipped. On trod with measured step, painful and slow, the visiting host, crying in the inexpressibly sad monotone of the tangi. Waikato slowly retired a few page 245 paces and once more bowed to the ground. Then they raised their three hundred guns and fired a thundering volley of blank cartridge.

Now came Waikato's great song and dance of greeting and of grief. Led by a furiously gesticulating captain, they roared out with one voice their chant for the home-bringing of the King. To the song they kept time with their gun-dance, bending to the ground as one man until the muzzles nearly touched the earth, holding the firearms near the breech, and then giving a sudden spring upright with their weapons raised at arms'-length above their heads. To the right they faced, then to the left, then up and down, like a marvellous machine.

The lament they sang was called “Te Taniwha o te Rua” (“The Dragon of the Cave”), likening the departed chief's spirit to a great taniwha or godlike being. They chanted, as they leaped in the wardance, six hundred bare feet slapping the ground as one, guns flashing and eyes rolling, this dirge for their dead Ariki:

Ka hua ahau ki te whatitiri
E whakatupuru nei
Runga te rangi;
Kaore ko te unuhanga
O te Taniwha i te rua.
Aue! Aue! Aue!
Te mamae i au!

Ka ngaue Mokau,
Ka ngaue Tamaki;
Ka ru te whenua;
Ka mate te marama;
Ka taka te whetu o te rangi;
Ka ara Waikato i te rua.
Aue! Aue! Aue! Taukiri ē!

I hear the thunder crashing,
Rumbling o'er me in the sky,
Heaven's sign for the mighty dead;
The Taniwha leaps forth from his cave.
Alas! Alas! Alas! My grief!

From Mokau unto Tamaki
The earthquake shakes the land;
The moon has disappeared;
The stars fall from the heavens.
'Tis Waikato rising from the deep.
Alas! Alas! Alas! My woe!

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Then the wild waiata changed and they chanted all together:

Waikato's waters
Lie lonely before me;
Waikato tribesmen
Weep long for the lost one.
Ah me, Ah me!

Alas, O Tupu!
Where is your Ariki?
Lo, he stands there above you,
At the shrine of our fathers.
But below we wail sadly;
Like rain our tears fall fast,
We weep for the Chieftain.
Ah me, Ah me!

The mighty chorus, “Aue! Aue! Aue! Te mamae i au,” was chanted with a terrible heart-piercing intensity of expression, the very soul of grief. The death of a great chief was associated in Maori ideas, as indicated in this chant, with convulsions of nature, the quaking of the land, the lightning flashing above the tribal burial hills, and the thunder rolling along the mountain peaks.

The roaring chorus rang out far across the wide river and was sent back by the listening hills, and before the echoes had time to die away they were roused again by volleys of musketry. Both the armies joined in the fusillade, the men reloading with blank as fast as they could push the cartridges in and blaze away into the air.

The coffin was borne to the foot of the flagstaff, and there it was at last at rest, enshrouded in soft feather cloaks and fine flax mats. The Upper Waikato men, when the Lower Waikato soldiers fell back on the main body, replied with rifle firing and with a song of their own, raising a thunderous chorus that might have been heard for miles around, page 247 and with an earth-shaking simultaneous stamp of hundreds of feet.

Then came the general tangi, the “keening” for the dead chieftain. The visiting tribes, who had brought in the body from the south, maintained their position thirty or forty yards away, allowing Waikato proper to gather round the coffin. The Waikato formed a crescent under the colours, the armed men on the right, the green-garlanded women on the left. Some of the women had bared themselves to the waist, and wore weeping-willows and ferns entwined about their shoulders and bosoms. In former times they would have scarified their faces and arms and breasts with sharp shells or flakes of obsidian. The air was full of the inarticulate hum of grief. The people sat with their heads bowed, some of them with their blankets or mats over their faces. Through the dull moan of grief that came like the noise of distant surf on the seashore there rose now and then a more piercing note, a woman's ecstasy of sorrow. A body of the mourners raised a dirge, and for a while the general lamentations ceased while the tattooed grey warrior Whitiora te Kumete, Tawhiao's cousin, welcomed the visiting tribes, pacing quickly to and fro, spear-tongued taiaha in hand, as he cried his greetings.

Now the whole of Waikato leaped into the action of the war-dance, and again shouted with one voice their tangi song, “Te Taniwha o te Rua,” sweeping their firearms to right and left, up above their heads and low to the ground, and all treading the resounding earth as one. When they had ended, the visiting Maoris—Ngati-Maniapoto, Ngati-Haua, and the Upper Waikato clans—fired volleys; and again the page 248 puffs of smoke were seen on the funeral hill, and the boom as of cannon came down the wind.

Then came more rousing songs and funeral dirges from the mournfully excited multitude, punctuated by rifle cracks; and the “greeting of the bones” was closed by the chanting by all Waikato of the grand old song of welcome, “Kumea mai te Waka,” with its long-drawn far-echoing refrain:

Toia mai te waka ki te urunga,
Ki te moenga—te waka ē.”
(“Haul up the canoe to its pillow,
To its sleeping place—the canoe.”

And so came the King of Waikato to his home pillow, to his last bed in the midst of his people.

One of the Waikato war-dances at Tawhiao's Tangihanga.

One of the Waikato war-dances at Tawhiao's Tangihanga.