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Nation Making, a story of New Zealand

Chapter VII. — Maori Customs

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Chapter VII.
Maori Customs.

The Tapu.—A Survival.Employed by the Chiefs ana Tohungas.—Uses of Tapu.—A Maori girl a Wahine Noa.—A wife sacred.—A parallel and a Contrast.The Cook ana the Chief's Head.A Man not Eaten.A Basaltic Pillar goes on a fourney.And Stops on the Plain.A Tapu Stone.Death in a Touch.A Test Case outside the Law Courts.Not Dead in a Year and a Day.—A Tin of Blacking.—A Tapu Tree.The Greenstone Tradition.Maori Road Makers.A Chief's Backbone.The Tradition True.The Greenstone in the heart of the Tree.

The Maories had many curious customs, one of which, the Tapu (sacred) I propose to notice more fully in this chapter.

The custom of the Tapu is doubtless a survival of some ancient time and of some far-off land. The Chiefs employed it to increase their Mana (influence). But the power of the Tapu rested mainly with the Tohungas (priests).

It was an unwritten law, which enabled them to govern the rude communities over which they ruled. A Chief's person was sacred, his head more especially. A river during the season when fish could not be properly taken, was effectually 'preserved' by the Tapu. A road was closed in like manner when neces-page 53sary.Cultivations were effectually protected by it from thieving or trespass. Cleanliness and health were promoted by its use. The dead and their graves were strictly Tapu. A person touching a dead body became Tapu, and was unable to feed himself or to touch any article until the Tapu was removed by the Chief or Priest. A drop of a Chief's blood made the canoe or house where it fell, Tapu. Even a Chief's garment was sacred, and his mat, thrown over a man about to be slain, saved his life. Strangely enough, a woman as long as she was single, was a Wahine Noa, (a common woman) without being guilty of immorality, but directly she was formally given to one man, she became Tapu (sacred) to him, and then, in case of unfaithfulness, heavy penalties were exacted. Had girls before marriage, been made sacred, the Maories would doubtless have increased in numbers much more rapidly. In this, the Maories offer a contrast and a parallel with, at least, one highly civilized European nation, which keeps its young unmarried women sacred—but allows its wives a license of which Maori married women are rigidly deprived.

A sick person often became Tapu, being then placed alone in a rude hut, with a little food and water, and left to die. In like manner, a very old man or woman became Tapu, and was frequently left to die in solitude and misery.

An Ariki, or Great Chief's Tapu was more especially sacred, and was used after bloody wars about tribal boundaries to make peace inviolable. It was also employed on other important occasions.

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As an instance of the Tapu, (sacredness) of a chief's head, and of the influence of Christian teaching, I may narrate a circumstance told me by the late Major Drummond Hay.

Returning from one of his expeditions, in his capacity as Native Commissioner, the Major, whilst making his boat snug in a little bay at the base of a cliff, on which his house stood, had sent on one of his boat's crew, who acted as cook, to prepare the evening meal. When everything had been made secure, the Major leisurely climbed the cliff, and passing in front of the house, he saw through the open window, the ignorant cook in the act of wiping his greasy hands on the head of a Maori, squatting by the fireside.

Such a rude act done even to a slave, would have been a great indignity, but when the Major the next instant, recognised in the Maori, no other than Te Moananui (the Great Sea) a Chief of the highest rank and of Herculean strength, he hesitated entering, being ashamed that one of his servants should have offered so rude, and so dangerous an insult to the Chief, and knowing well the penalty the wretched cook had incurred.

'Haeremai Wira,' (come in Hay). The Major at once entered the house.

'Did you see what your Taurekareka (slave) has done?' gravely enquired the Chief.

'I saw it,' replied the Major, 'and I am very angry with my servant for doing so rude a thing.'

'It is well for him,' said the great Chief with quiet dignity, 'that he had not done such a thing to my page 55father's head, or there would have been a man eaten here to-night.'

'Indeed there would,' replied Hay, not knowing what more to say.

'Friend,' said this Maori Nation Maker, 'do not let your anger burn, your cookee is only a Tutua (mean person), and knows not his folly. I am a Christian and know more than the Chief my Father. Enough.'

Many years ago, I had an opportunity of witnessing the singular power which the custom of the Tapu, still exercised over the Maories.

I was travelling through the interior of New Zealand accompanied by two Colonists and some Maories, when a remarkable conical mass of rock attracted my attention. Four basaltic pillars rose about eight feet above the peak of the mound, one of which appeared to have been broken off near its base. Asking what had become of the missing pillar, the Maories promptly said, that a long time ago,

'The stone had broken itself off in the night, and went on a journey, till it was overtaken by daylight in the morning, when it stopped, and remained standing on the plain, where it remained till this day.'

We laughed at the comical tradition and continued our journey, thinking no more of the matter. Late that afternoon, one of the Maories said to me,

'There is the Kohatu (stone).'

Riding to it, I found a stone, about four feet high, and about twelve inches square, standing upright.

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The Maories said the stone was Tapu (sacred), and that anyone touching it, would instantly fall dead. I said,

'You Maories have many silly superstitions, I will put this one to the proof.'

Dismounting, I asked one of my white companions to lay hold of the stone, in order to see if we could move it. At this proposal, the Maories were filled with terror, and implored us to leave it alone, if we valued our lives.

Laying hold of the stone, with two or three vigorous wrenches, we moved it considerably out of the perpendicular. Trembling with real alarm, the Maories, their faces blanched with terror, again begged us not to touch it further, regarding us with great fear.

'Now,' said I, 'what are your superstitions worth, you see we are in no way the worse for having moved the stone, Tapu though it was?'

'Ka tika' (that is right), replied the Chief, 'you are White men. If you had been Maories you would now have been stretched on the plain, dead. But being Pakehas (colonists) you live still, but you will certainly be dead before a year be gone.'

'Very well,' I said, 'I will try your Tapu fairly. If I am dead within the year, your Tapu will be strong, and your superstition true. If I do not die, then this Tapu, like many other Maori beliefs ought to be abandoned as false and of no value;' and taking out my note book, I wrote in it an account of the occurrence and the prediction, adding the date, October 24, and after reading the entry to them, we resumed our journey.

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I was the more astonished at the strength of the superstition in these Maories, as they were extremely intelligent, had been taught by the Missionaries, speaking English fairly well, and were above the average Maori in many respects. In a few days I left their village, with many regrets on their part, that I had touched the Tapu stone.

During our visit, we had many 'talks' about Maori customs and about the War, then just ended for a time. At our departure, the Chief Rutini presented me with a Taiaha (battle-axe). I asked what he would like me to give him in return. Greatly to my surprise, he said,

'Send me a tin of blacking.'

I was amused at such a request, until I remembered that Rutini was a Maori dandy, and the best dressed man of the party. Laughingly promising him the 'blacking,' we made the usual adieus and departed.

On the 25th of October in the following year, it so happened, that I visited a frontier town, where a Land Court was being held, attended as usual, by crowds of Maories from the villages in the interior. As I fancied my friend Rutini might be amongst them, on my arrival I purchased a tin of blacking. Curiously enough I had not been an hour in the town, when I met Rutini and his friends, who had witnessed the 'stone' adventure of the year before. They regarded me intently, and after the usual salutations, I said,

'Do you remember the stone on the plain, and my moving it?' page 58'We remember it well,' they gravely replied.

Taking out my note book, I read the account of the stone-moving, and the prediction of a year ago.

'Now,' said I, 'the day on which we moved the Tapu stone was the 24th of October, a year and a day ago. To-day is October 25, and I am not dead.'

They were greatly surprised, but as usual, with Maories when beaten, answered nothing. Turning to Rutini I said,

'Here is the blacking you asked for,' and handed the 'tin' to him.

With the keen love of a joke, natural in a Maori, the whole party roared with laughter, amidst which the failure of the prediction was forgotten.

The strange tradition of 'the sacred stone' had, I think, arisen probably from the stone having been in the long ago carried from the conical hill, and used as a division stone, to mark a boundary between tribal lands, having then been made Tapu (sacred) to ensure its non-removal.

A singular instance of the operation and influence of the Tapu occurred some years ago, which is the more interesting, as it shows that Maori traditions may sometimes be a more truthful record of past events, than is generally supposed.

Desirous of making a dray road over a mountain range in a purely Maori district, the New Zealand Government engaged a party of Maories to make it, under the control of a Colonial engineer well page 59acquainted with the Maori language and customs. The work proceeded, with the delays usual with Maori workmen, until the engineer desired to avoid a very sharp curve, by cutting through the spur of a hill.

The Maories at once objected to the straight road, as it would break a great Tapu, and bring a curse upon them. They said, that many generations ago the Ariki (great Chief) of that part of the country had ended a bloody struggle between three tribes about land boundaries, by striking his Mere Poanamu (greenstone weapon) into a tree, which he said was his 'backbone,' in this way making the tree very sacred or Tapu, and declaring that tree to be the beginning point of the lands of the three tribes. They said, the great tree on the hill contained the greenstone, and they would not allow it to be cut down.

The engineer examined the tree which was very large, and grew right in the line of the cutting he desired to make. After a careful scrutiny he could find no trace of a greenstone, the bark of the tree presenting everywhere the usual appearance. He laughed at the tradition as a silly Maori conceit, and insisted on making the cutting through the hill.

The more he wished to cut down the sacred tree, the more the Maories refused to allow it. Weary of the Korero (talk), he made the awkward curve round the point of the hill, laughing at the folly of the Maories, which would hurt them most, as they would be the chief users of the road.

Annoyed at his taunts, and, as usual, when the engineer no longer wanted the straight road, they page 60ceased to oppose it, and finally begged him to allow them to make the road straight. He consented, and with many ceremonies they broke the Tapu and cut down the tree. It was then split up, and, within a few inches of the centre of the huge tree the greenstone weapon was found embedded in the tree, as the Chief had placed it centuries ago.