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Utu: A Story of Love, Hate and Revenge

Chapter XVIII. Maoriland—Some Queer Customs—A Hospitable Savage

Chapter XVIII. Maoriland—Some Queer Customs—A Hospitable Savage.

La terre! La terre!81

The welcome announcement from the masthead was taken up joyously and passed on from mouth to mouth until from stem to stem the glad cry echoed and re-echoed. ‘La terre! La terre!.’ They were off the North Cape82, but the sun was westering. wherefore the captain lecided to heave to until the next morning, when they could at their leisure pass down the coast reconnoitring.

Three days had elapsed since picking up the war canoe canot. and the most had been made of the time in the way of gaining the good will of the rescued savages, and obtaining from them information as to their tribe's location, the character of the country, etc. Pald jean. Jaequies. and even Arnaud. were ordered aft, and with the convalescents, formed, on the poop, the centre of an interesting circle, not a little amusement being derived from the repeated blunders of the very imperfect interpreters. The native gestures were, however, emphatic, it their language was but partially understood, and it was gathere i that they were warriors of a great nation, the Ngapuhi83, and that their crew had formed part of a war fleet which had encountered a gale a fortnight previously on their return from a successful raid upon some coastal settlements of the Anipouri84, a people living in the extreme north. Overtaken by darkness, and separated from the rest, their canoe had been blown out page 84 to sea, and for days they had been tossed at the mercy of wind and wave trying vainly to make land, until their small stock of provisions giving out at last, they had one by one succumbed to the pangs of starvation.

Remembering the horrid accusations which had been made against the natives of New Zealand, Jacques rather incautiously asked them in his halting Maori how it was that when starving they had not eaten each other, and the angry horror excited by his question when at length the savages perceived its drift convinced even the least favourably disposed that the devil was less black than he had been painted. This incident relieved the Frenchmen's minds of a very unpleasant doubt. and disposed their volatile natures to a confidence altogether reckless.

The joy of the two warriors when the vessels approached near enough for them to disern the outline of the coast may be imagined. They, however, were very dignified in its expression, particularly Naku-roa, who probably feared his youthfulness might be betrayed by a yielding to emotion. Despite his lank condition he was a fine specimen of Nature's nobility: large-limbed, strong-framed, and of majestic mien, when standing with his great flaxen wrapper enveloping his tall figure like a Roman toga—although decidedly less imposing when squatting on his hams, a favourite position with both chiefs (for such they turned out to be). His jet black hair was bound up like that of his comrade, but his face was much less disfigured with the moko, a point in his favour he would probably outgrow. His dark eyes were agreeable in expression, and other features fine for a savage, and of a somewhat Jewish cast, the large mouth, fairly shaped, and showing, whenever he opened it, a fine set of teeth.

Whether fascinated by the singular eyes or brown skin, or won by his ministrations, he had attached himself inseparably to Arnaud, who had waited on him assiduously, and who seemed to have an intuitive apprehension of his wishes, and the meaning of his gestures and jargon, humouring his whims with almost feminine tact. Arnaud knew what he was about. For reasons of his own he hankered after a clearer insight into Maori manners and customs, and fully appreciated the importance of possessing a friend at Court in the event of unpleasant eventualities; but how he discovered that the young chiefs practice of smashing every vessel out of which he drank, was an act of grace and not of malice prepense85, was a marvel. He had smiled at first as if he thought it funny, then looked a little grave, and then gently expostulated. Then Naku-roa explained the matter in copious Maori, of which his hearer understood about one word in twenty, but Arnaud seemed quite satisfied, and uttered no more protests, nay even undertook to prove to le chef de cuisine that the savage meant well.

Both chiefs seemed addicted to this singular practice, which the more hypercritical attributed to barbarian diablerie86. But the captain anxious page 85 to secure their good offices on shore, gave positive, orders that no fuss should be made, and when, on their complete recovery, instead of smashing, they shied the dishes overboard after using them, it was laughed at as an excellent joke.

Eventually, however, the Frenchmen found that these seemingly mischievous acts had really been prompted by good-nature, for their visitors, it appeared, being chiefs, were sacred (tapu), and their using any vessel at once made it sacred also, and by consequence noxious to others. Hence they evinced their benevolence by destroying it as quickly as possible, thus averting the disastrous consequences certain to follow its unguarded use by some entirely mundane mortal.

That this belief in their own sacredness was not a fancy but a deepseated conviction, the foreigners had evidence when they saw them at home, and found that the chiefs never handled utensils of any description, but submitted to be fed by attendant slaves, and conveyed liquids to their throats by means of their hands, through which, joined together as a funnel, their attendants poured their drinks from upraised calabashes. This sacredness, it appeared, was a quality inherent in natives of high caste only, and resulted from their divine origin, for their great progenitor Tiki was God begotten, and all his male descendants were therefore holy (tapu). The broad back of the ancient Maori chief was especially sacred, his tufted head more sacred still, and the tuft itself the holy of holies. To speak of a chief's head was to run awful risks; to speak lightly of it to incur certain suffering; to touch it to ensure destruction. No wonder the superstitious and ignorant slave-begotten commonalty regarded him with awe. His very bones were potential. The cave in which they had lain, the tree in whose branches they had rested, any and every place of sepulture was saturated with sanctity, and therefore barred or tapu to all save the priestly order. No man might handle the bones of the illustrious dead, cut down the tree which had supported them, or step on consecrated ground and live. Had our voyagers but known all this at the commencement of their intercourse. what horrors might not have been averted.

As time wore on the strangers found the word tapu in constant requisition, and so generally applied that they began at last to joke about the Holy Land. They, however, gave the native explanations too little attention to gain other than a very hazy conception of the meaning of a word more significant than any other in the Maori language, expressing, as it did, time-honoured usages, which, though almost inconceivable to early European visitors, and not very comprehensible to those who succeeded them, had for the Maori all the force of supernatural laws. The tapu, in all its varieties, was so inwoven with his traditions, so far-reaching in its effects, and so important in all its bearings upon the daily life of the ancient Maori, that an intelligent understanding of it. page 86 and all it implied, was absolutely essential to satisfactory and continued intercourse with them.

A tapu-ed object was an object set apart. Its inherent sanctity might be the cause, or its irremediable pollution. The will of the chief might impose the tapu, the weal of the commonalty necessitate it, but by priestly incantations only could it be removed. There were several kinds—personal, priestly, ordinary, extraordinary, and unclean, the last the most dreadful of all. Besides the bodies of priests and other rangatira*, who possessed the inherent power of tapu-ing what they chose, numerous other objects were permanently tapu in the sense of being prohibited, as wood of old dwellings, food touched by anything tapu, war parties, fishing expeditions, first fish or fruits of the season, food and seed stores, sick persons and their attendants, dead bodies, corpse-tenders, priest's slaves, kumera planters, etc. Others were often temporarily tapu, such as fishing grounds, pipi banks, trees suitable for canoes, rivers, roads, etc.

Probably all the terrible deeds of bloody cannibalism, which, in the beginning of the century made civilized cheeks pale at the name of New Zealand, were but reprisals for some infringement of this unknown law, and might have been avoided had the pioneers of settlement been acute or heedful enough to master its meaning.

But this is a digression.

The two warriors had described themselves as chiefs of tribes living on the shores and islands of a large bay no great distance down the coast, and as neither Jean nor Jacques had seen either of them before, it was-naturally inferred that they hailed from some point south of Captain de Surville's landing-place, so, keeping well away, the ships bore slowly down the east coast, the captain examining carefully the deep indentations and precipitous bluffs which characterize it. Very soon its familiar features were recognized by the chiefs, and under their directions the vessels steered for the magnificent harbour, since become famous in New Zealand history as the Bay of Islands. It appears that upon one of the islands with which it is studded was located the kainga (village) occupied by the hapu (tribal division) of the chief Taranui, and that dusky dignitary, in the warmth of his gratitude, gave the marines a cordial invite to disembark there and pay him and his people a lengthened visit. This chief was, when he saw fit, a great stickler for etiquette, and very early showed an acute perception of differences in rank among the strangers. With the captain he was on an equality, called him Marion quite fraternally; with the other officers and gentlemen, tolerant, but reserved; with the general crowd of pakehas (white strangers) haughtily taciturn. They were tutuas (nobodies), he said afterwards when introducing them in a body to his friends. However, page 87 he freely extended his hospitality to all and sundry, and the captain. whose temper was frank and confiding, as freely accepted the offer. glad of an opportunity of establishing friendly relations, and anxious at once to land the sick. Taranui's island was, he said, called Wai-iti87, and for some days the name became a watchword with the weary invalids longing to set foot on terra firma.

Naku-roa. however, lived on the mainland, and would on his return become the head of his tribe, his father having perished with the rest. The canoe, it appeared, and the bulk of the deceased warriors belonged to his tribe. Taranui. who was related to them, and whose hapu and fortunes were in a decaving state, having only contributed a limited contingent. The lean chief's personal loss, however, had been great, for his son and nephew had both perished, as well as the handful of braves he could ill spare.

The young chief would have a painful duty to discharge on meeting his people, and perhaps it was this which deterred him from following Taranui's hospitable example. Anyhow, he invited only Arnaud. He was chief of an influential tribe, and therefore a great rangatiru (gentleman), but though he must have seen that his deliverer occupied a subordinate position, he and the valet were as thick as thieves.

81 Land! Land!

[Note added by Vicki Hughes as annotator]

82 The northern most part of the North Island of New Zealand.

[Note added by Vicki Hughes as annotator]

83 Māori tribe that occupies the Bay of Islands.

[Note added by Vicki Hughes as annotator]

84 Probably referring to the Māori tribe Te Aupōuri from the very north of New Zealand.

[Note added by Vicki Hughes as annotator]

85 Deliberate evil.

[Note added by Vicki Hughes as annotator]

86 Devilry.

[Note added by Vicki Hughes as annotator]

87 Wai-iti is not an island but a cove on Moturua Island where Dufresne and his crew established their forge and housed their sick (Duyker 144).

[Note added by Vicki Hughes as annotator]

* Maori gentlemen.