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Nation Making, a story of New Zealand

Chapter XXVII. — An Aged Chief

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Chapter XXVII.
An Aged Chief.

A Cruel Custom.—A Strong Tapu.—Hohua's Tales of the Olden Time.—Te Kooti.—A Threatened Attack.—I Fortify my House.—Two Mad Maories.—One Brave Maori.—Cowards.—'I wish I were a Youth Again.''I will Die with you.'—Hohua asks for Nothing, and shakes the Ashes from his Pipe.—Intetview with the Prophet Warrior Te Kooti.—No Surrender.—Promises to kill no more Women.—Hohua's Story continued.—His Interview with Captain Cook.—'Hook Nose' and the Silver Button.—Hohua grows Old.—Becomes Tapu.—His Tribe leave him to Die.—'Eating Peacocks.'—Hohua Dies.—One Hundred and twenty-four years Old.

The cruel Maori custom of leaving very aged persons to die a lingering and miserable death, is difficult to explain. That a most kind-hearted and hospitable people like the Maories, should be guilty of such cruelty to their own kindred is remarkable.

It is probably a survival of some ancient practice in other lands, the reason for which has long ago been forgotten. The superstition however has continued its influence, whatever its origin. An unusually aged man is simply an object of fear to the younger members of his tribe, which increases with the age of page 257the unfortunate victim. His Tapu becomes so strong, that his kinsfolk dread to touch him, or even to look at him, and unable to overcome their superstitious fears, they finally abandon him to his fate, sometimes even leaving the village with the ancient man as its solitary occupant.

In the early part of 1889 there died in this manner, Hohua Ahuwhenua, a very ancient Maori of my acquaintance. His story is of peculiar interest, as will be seen from his history in this and preceding Chapters. When I first knew him, twenty-three years ago, he was an extremely old man, of a thin, spare build, muscular, industrious and healthy. Many stories of his old warrior days the aged Chief has narrated to me, during our long acquaintance. His eyes would kindle, as he told of single combats, bloody tribal battles, and cannibal feasts of the long, long ago.

We naturally became great friends, and though I occasionally sent him a blanket in winter, or gave him a pipe and a little tobacco when I saw him, there was nothing of the mendicant about him. Not once, during our long acquaintance did he use to me a salutation, not uncommon amongst the Maories, when addressing Colonists,

'Great is my love for you, give me a shilling.' No. His wants were too few and simple, and his spirit too high, to permit him to beg.

I well remember, when in 1874, I was threatened at Matamata by the redoubtable warrior prophet Te Kooti, how Hohua crossed the river to my house.

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Apprehending an attack, I had fortified my house, and sent the women and children to Cambridge, a frontier town, some twenty-five miles away, retaining a few men to fight or run, as might be found best.

Two Maories, mad with the excitement of those times, had warned me of Te Kooti's approach, and urged my immediate flight. They said they had already warned the Maories in the neighbouring villages to escape, who, indeed, had been moving away all that day, men, women and children with all their belongings.

Next day, when all the Maories had departed, except two Chiefs of rank, who remained with me, Hohua crossed the river, as already stated, to see me.

'What,' he enquired, 'are you still remaining here? Do you not know that all the Maories have fled?'

'Yes,' I replied, 'I know they are gone, but I remain here.'

'Are you not afraid? Do you not know that Te Kooti has killed many people, both English and Maori?'

'Yes, I know all,' I replied.

'Then,' said he, 'why do you not also go?'

'I have done no wrong to Te Kooti, or to any other Maori,' I replied, 'I am in God's hands, if He permits Te Kooti to kill me. Well. Te Kooti will do it. If God protects me, Te Kooti will not harm me. In any case, it is my duty to remain here, and I will not run away like a coward.'

'Now,' said the ancient warrior, 'I know you are a Chieftain.' He continued, page 259'O, I wish I were a youth again. Then I could have fought at your side. But now, I am very old, my warrior days have gone, my strength is departed. But I will go to my house now, and when the clouds of dust tell me that Te Kooti and his horsemen are crossing the plain, I will return to you, and if I cannot fight for you, I can at least die with you, for great is my love for you.'

I was deeply touched by the old man's devotion. Had he asked me for a shilling, or even a tobacco pipe, the spell would have been broken. But he asked for nothing, and without another word, he shook the ashes from his pipe, folded his blanket around him, and like a brave old Roman, as he was, strode silently away.

The day following, Te Kooti sent a messenger, to say, that I was William Thompson's friend, and that he wished to meet me at that Chiefs monument. How I met Te Kooti and his forty armed followers; how we had an hour's interview; how I urged him to surrender; how he refused and declared he would fight for his country till he died, if he were attacked; how I urged him at least to fight with men, and kill no more women and children; how he promised to spare them in future, it is no part of this story to enlarge upon. Let it suffice to say, that the interview ended without harm to me or to my two attendants, and that Te Kooti faithfully kept his word, not to harm women and children.

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To return to my old friend Hohua Ahowhenua (Joshua the land tiller), some particulars about whom may not be without interest. He would tell, amongst other stories of the old days, how, when he was a little boy so high—about twelve years old—that he and another boy, Taniwha—subsequently known amongst the Colonists, as 'old Hook Nose,' and long since dead—went down amongst a crowd of Maories to Hauraki at the mouth of the Thames river, to meet Captain Cook, when he gave them the first pig they had ever seen.

At this interview the boy Taniwha, showing a great liking for the silver buttons on Captain Cook's coat, Hohua told how the Captain cut off one of the buttons and gave it to the boy. (This relic, old Hook Nose treasured till his death; it was frequently seen by one of my friends, but has probably long since disappeared in some pawnbroker's melting pot.)

This incident fixed Hohua's age at the time I last saw him, about four years ago, at 120 years. I could not help a feeling akin to awe, in the presence of this ancient man—old Hohua—the only living man amongst earth's living thousand millions, who had seen the renowned navigator.

Since I sold my Matamata estates, I have not seen Hohua. I have however recently learnt that his tribe had become more and more afraid of him, on account of his great age, and in accordance with one of their strange customs, about two years ago, left him with a small store of potatoes to die in the abandoned village.

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A friend of mine riding through the deserted village, went to the Runanga house, and found Hohua there alone.

'What are you doing here?' enquired my friend.

'Eating peacocks,' said the ancient man.

My friend learnt that his Maori kinsfolk had left the old man to die. Happily, about twenty peacocks (which the Maories breed for their feathers) had been left at the village. After Hohua had eaten the potatoes, he began to catch and eat the peacocks, which had taken possession of the Runanga house. After a time, the tribe returned to the village to find all the peacocks gone but two, and the old man still alive, and his Tapu unbroken.

As I write this (August 1889) I learn that my old friend died three months ago, at the age, as nearly as can be ascertained, of 124 years.