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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 15, Issue 1 (April 1, 1940)

The White Chief of Oouai

page 34

The White Chief of Oouai

In 1810 the sealing vessel Sydney Cove dispatched a boat's crew, consisting of five men and a boy, to search for seals near the South Cape. They did not return, and the following strange story is that of the sole survivor, James Caddell.

* * *

Hunneghi, the chief of Oouai, whose tribal lands lay on the east coast of Foveaux Strait, was angry! The fierce light of battle shone in his dark eyes, and twisted into ugly contortions the tattooed lines on his face.

Like all of his race, he sincerely believed in the worship of land, as the source of all life, and just as implicitly did he believe in the law of Utu, which demanded satisfaction for every wrong.

The cause of his anger was righteous in his eyes, for here, on the wild, wavelashed shores of his coastal domain, enemies had landed. Not warriors of native blood, but pakehas—people who came in white-winged ships to steal the seals, and maybe the land also, from his people. True, only a boat-load of men had clambered on to the rocks at the foot of the slippery, kelp-covered cliffs, but they were trespassers and thiefs, according to the native law, and Hunneghi vowed vengeance.

Stealthily he and his warriors crept nearer the sealers, and the attack came suddenly and with deadly results. Amidst all the confusion and horror, James Caddell, a youth of sixteen years, was momentarily forgotten, since the Maoris were intent on striking down the men first. Caddell, horrified at the spectacle of the murder in front of his eyes, was panic-stricken. It would be his turn next, he knew. These cannibals would kill him, and then feast on his flesh. Such things had happened before in other parts of New Zealand.

His eyes searched frantically for some vague avenue of escape, and then he saw the stately figure of the chief, Hunneghi, standing a little apart. Here, he reasoned, was his only hope. With a leap and a cry, he had reached the side of the Maori chief, and in terror his arms closed round the neck of Hunneghi, as he pleaded, white-faced, for his life. His voice sank to a sob, as he begged that this great chief might spare him the fate of his comrades.

Hunneghi did not understand the language of the English sailor boy, but suddenly the warriors stood back, and there were low mutterings as of disappointment among the men.

Caddell waited for the fatal blow to fall, hardly aware that almost a miracle had happened. He had touched the Ka-ka-how (the outward mat of the chief) and in that moment his person had become tapu—he was sacred, and his life was to be henceforth spared. Such was the deep belief in the Maori law of tapu, that not a hair of his head was likely to be harmed. He was a prince among them!

Hardly understanding his position, Caddell was at first only sickly aware that he, alone, was saved the fate of helping to provide the cannibal feast that followed—the gruesome feast in which the five men of his boat were roasted and eaten.

In such a remote, wild place, he realised that there was little hope of his ever being rescued from his captivity, and gradually, after the first horror and despair had passed, Caddell resigned himself to his strange destiny. He learned to understand the Maori language, and adopted the manners and customs of the natives, even embracing their beliefs and fables.

He lived as the natives lived, and the Maori Kai and Inu (food and drink) became his. He learned to snare the birds, and to honour the law of tapu which decreed that only one bird's egg in seven, be taken—this last, proving the wisdom of the Maori, in that it was made to prevent the extinction of the birds after the manner of the great moa. Caddell ate fern and raupo roots, and the kernel of the karaka berries, which were previously always soaked in water for two moons until the poison had been eliminated. The little blue rat, known to the natives as kiore, also formed a substantial part of the diet of the Maoris of these parts, as well as the more edible fish and mutton-birds.

Caddell submitted to the ordinance of being tattooed, and almost insensibly he became gradually changed from an English sailor boy into a strong and fierce Maori chief—nearly as native as the warriors from whom he had been saved. Tonghi-Touci, the soft-eyed daughter of the chief Hunneghi, became his wife, and Caddell's attachment to this Maori maid was a genuinely affectionate one. Tonghi-Touci was also the sister of a chief, as well as the daughter of one, so that by this two-fold tie, James Caddell became a prince of no small importance among the people of Tarai-Poenammou.

Other sealing parties came and went in neighbouring islands, and certain captains who came to know of this strange white chief, who had almost lost his mother tongue, and who could only speak Maori intelligently, credited him with great cunning, and with being a dangerous man. That, of course, is the pakeha side of the story. A truer version would probably be that Caddell had come to love the kindly, if outwardly fierce natives with whom he had lived as a prince, and accordingly he looked at the pakehas with the same distrust —alas! so often well-founded—that the Maoris exercised toward the invaders. Possibly he was regarded as a dangerous man because he matched his brains against the brains of the white man—his brother—for the benefit of his adopted people. Because of his English youthhood, and his long association with the natives, he had an advantage.

Be that as it may, his presence certainly helped to pave the way for peaceful intercourse between the Maori and the pakeha, and in 1826 the natives gave the sealers and whalers the island known as Codfish Island, where they could live in safety with their Maori wives. This gift portrayed real generosity on the part of the Maoris, and thereafter came no further stories of cannibal feasts in these parts.

In 1823, James Caddell was persuaded to visit New South Wales, but he refused to leave his land of adoption without his princess. Eventually, in the company of his wife and another chief, he paid a visit to Sydney, where he paraded the streets in his native costume beside his dark-eyed wife. However, he was not happy in civilised surroundings, and seized the first opportunity of returning to the wild foam-wreathed shores of the South Cape area, where in a carefree style, he lived among the natives as the great White Chief of Oouai.