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Utu: A Story of Love, Hate and Revenge

Chapter XX. Motu Arohia—‘Haere Mai’—The Maori at Home—A Native Banquet—A Barbarous Custom

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Chapter XX. Motu Arohia—‘Haere Mai’—The Maori at Home—A Native Banquet—A Barbarous Custom.

Habited in the handsome uniform of the French navy and wearing all the insignia of his rank and office. Captain du Fresne and his brilliant company of officers and gentlemen must have made a decided impression upon the inhabitants of Motu Arohia, who from all quarters of the island were assembled at the village overlooking the landing-place to do their visitors honour, possibly to impress them with a just idea of native strength and resources, but no sign of emotion appeared in the grave and dignified mien of the principal personages who stood around their chief as he received the strangers within the palisading of their kainga94.

Being invited guests, they were treated ceremoniously, as much preparation having been made for their reception as the limited time allowed. As their boats entered the pretty cove where canoes of all sizes attested the numerous population of the island, a small army of stalwart youths in the garb of Eden dashed into the water, and in a trice drew them up high and dry on the tiny beach. Then, forming together in a dance of welcome, they conducted the visitors up the winding pathway which led to the village entrance. All around them extended enclosed cultivations, but the dwellings of the owners appeared to be all located within the substantial palisading, which, now that they were close to it, quite obstructed their view of the interior. Passing through the gateway—or rather hole, and a small one at that—they found that another and much loftier fence yet intervened between them and their entertainers. Between the two was a dry ditch, and as they advanced they noticed that their approach was being observed by dusky spectators ranged on quadrangles at the corners, evidently there erected for purposes of defence in wartime. The inner fence of tall poles bound firmly together, exhibited an array of grotesque wooden figures, some of them elaborately carved, but whose proportions gave no very elevated idea of the state of art in Maoriland. Two of these images, marvellous in their ugliness, with gaping jaws and protruding tongues, surmounted the side posts of the main gateway, through which the voyagers were now ushered amid vociferous cries of ‘Haere mai, Haere mai,’ (welcome). page 93 waving of mats, and the following song chanted by the wahines in soft monotones:

‘Welcome, O stranger, from beyond the sky,
My darling child hath brought thee thence,
From the uttermost parts of the Heaven hath he dragged thee.
Welcome, O welcome.

Of course, the song being sung in Maori, its full significance was lost. However, the visitors took it amiably, convinced that it was well meant from the eloquent glances of the singers' dark expressive eyes. In the marae (courtyard) of the principal house, which they supposed to be the residence of the chiefs, but which they found afterwards was the village reception hall (whare-noa), they were received by Te Whatu Moana, who advanced to meet them with an air of lofty respect. To Captain du Fresne's relief the dark skin did not fall upon his neck. but he did him the honour of laying against his nasal organ his own mako-decorated proboscis, much to the covert amusement of the pakeha company, who inwardly congratulated themselves on their lesser rank when they found they were not favoured with a similar attention.

The chief was a noble-looking man (not only, as subsequently appeared, the greatest warrior of his hapu, but also its high priest*, for they found to their surprise, these flippant Frenchmen, that they had not left religion behind them, the ancient Maori being, like the bulk of Christendom, very punctilious in the matter of religious forms and ceremonies). He wore round his shoulders a handsome feather cloak falling over a wide-bordered garment of silky texture reaching to his feet. In his hand he held a long carved club, flax and feather garnished. His hair, drawn back and held in a tuft by a carved wooden comb, was decorated by several long stiff feathers, and from neck and ears depended images of greenstone and bone. Behind him were grouped his womenfolk, his favourite wife, a young and fine-looking wahine, known by the name of Ma-rika-rika (the pleasant) in their midst. All, including the thronging villagers, seemed in gala dress: in their hair feathers and flowers, on their faces streaks and patches of red paint, around necks and in earlobes various ornaments—in some cases feathers were drawn through the pierced cartilage of the nose, giving a singularly grotesque appearance to the face—and all the women and large numbers of the men were robed in richly bordered flaxen wrappers or cloaks of feathers or dogskin. None were absolutely nude save the brown-limbed youngsters tumbling about among the odd-looking native dogs, which, by their yelping, had added materially to the din of welcome accorded to the strangers.

Te Whatu Moana led his visitors to the verandah of the whare-noa, in and about which were congregated the ‘upper ten’ of Maoridom, and

* Hereditary chiefs frequently exercised the sacerdotal function.

page 94 where they were accommodated with thick soft mats in lieu of chairs. An eloquent silence here intervened, not the silence of ignorance or gaucherie95, but of strict etiquette, the result of native politeness. Not the slightest constraint was visible anywhere. All sat with eyes full of interest, kindness, or curiosity, as it might happen, but with lips studiously silent, until such time as it was supposed their visitors might have become familiar with their surroundings. The visual organs of the Frenchmen, indeed, were not slow to rove. Nothing escaped them, from the curiously carved posts of their lodging to the rounded limbs of the shrinking Maori maidens. The most conspicuous object from where they sat was a compact and apparently impregnable fortress built upon the sloping side of a wooded height on the mainland, and a future visit to it was among the unspoken vows of the occasion. Nearer hand were objects full as interesting. The habitations of the Maori, built promiscuously near together, and of varying size, were extremely picturesque, although not exactly fulfilling European ideas of healthfulness and comfort. Their walls were too low, and their ventilating and lighting arrangements too primitive for that, but to the artistic eye they were eminently satisfactory. Their form oblong, deeply gabled; their dark red pilasters and carved ridgepoles; their low walls, coated with bulrushes, ornamented with reeds; the soft colours of the painted woodwork, combined to form a whole interesting at least to look at, despite the diabolique though curious images abounding in their decoration. They were, however, chimneyless, one-roomed, and provided with but two openings, the low doorway and a square aperture in the wall, each supplied with a wooden shutter. Many of the houses (native name whare) were simple thatched huts minus external ornament; others, such as that under whose wide verandah the Frenchmen were reposing, were profusely decorated within and without, every atom of the woodwork being elaborately carved. Towards the middle of the village they noticed a high staging supporting a canoe-like object, which, on inquiry, they found was a gong, which, struck by a wooden mallet in case of hostile attack, awakened echoes twenty miles distant. Odd-looking thatched structures perched on poles aroused their curiosity; these they found were provision stores, so built to foil the festive native rat (kiore). The pole palisading extending quite round the village was liberally adorned with the hideous wooden figures they had remarked on entering the kainga, and at intervals were odd circular balls having a remarkable likeness to tufted Maori heads stuck on poles. On some of the less distant they could almost have sworn they saw the moko lines.

Very soon the pakehas were invited to partake of food, which looked clean and appetising enough, served up in small flat baskets of green flax. The dishes were various; taro and kumara steamed and served page 95 with fish, smoked and fresh, cooked to a nicety; shell fish and roasted fernroot; hinau cakes and birds preserved in their own fat; baked meats in variety, at which the more fastidious looked askance; infant fish ‘all alive oh!’ and wriggling; mosses, lichens, worms, seaweed and insects. Sweets also; hinau berries96, koninis97, karakas98, etc., and wine of tutu berries99, served in calabashes of gourd rind; also water of the purest.

The Frenchmen could willingly have foregone the banquet, but dread of wounding the susceptibilities of their new friends overcame their natural repugnance, and some of the dishes really tasted very well. The more doubtful-looking they avoided, asking no questions for digestion's sake.

The lion-feeding came to an end more speedily than the banquet of civilization, and then ensued a korero (talk), preceded, however, by a liberal distribution of pakeha gifts. The speechifiers, all and sundry-seemed glib of tongue, dealing largely in figures of speech and flourishing of clubs, moving to and fro with a stately and emphatic tread. Although but half understood, it was evident that they were anxious to divine the object and intentions, and to discover the whence of the white strangers.

The korero over these were escorted back to the boats amid pressing invitations to repeat their visit, and friendly cries of ‘Haera ra’ (you proceed).

* * * * * * * * *

The foreigners now steered for the island of Wai-iti, from whence sounds of mourning had now and again been wafted to their ears at Motu Arohia. They were welcomed by Taranui with considerably less of ceremony, perhaps because his sojourn with them made him feel more familiarity, perhaps because of the distractions agitating his people, for nearer proximity proved an alarming hubbub in progress in the rear of the kainga. This was situated on rising ground, and so effectually protected by a pole fence of extra strength that it bore the appearance of a stockade. The hideous wooden figures the voyagers had remarked in such numbers at Motu Arohia were here equally abundant, and they therefore jumped to the erroneous conclusion that they were idols, and as such, reflecting but little credit upon the intelligence of their worshippers. Later on they found that though the Maori had ‘gods many,’ he was not an idolator.

Taranui, who, like some civilized husbands and fathers, seemed to have grown more taciturn since his return home, after pointing out to the captain some ranpo (bulrush) huts in a pleasant vale at some distance from the kainga, beside which busy labourers were erecting, similar structures, gave him to understand that these were to be his people's quarters during their stay. Captain du Fresne was for various page 96 reasons pleased to find that they were not expected to reside in the kainga itself. In case of treachery, which, however he did not fear, they would be safer outside, and besides, although the Maori villages were remarkably clean for barbarian settlements, and free from absolutely offensive sights and smells, yet the air about was heavy with a rank fishy odour by no means agreeable to European nostrils.* And then there were fleas, hosts of them; not the tame and sluggish insects incidental to European civilization, but nimble hoppers, whose agility had probably been developed by ages of active pursuit, for the silently observant of the strangers noticed many a squatting figure earnestly examining his toga-like draperies for the small depredator, which, ‘swift to shed blood,’ was equally alert at evading capture, but which when caught was punishd, and at the same time annihilated between aboriginal ivories; wherefore the Frenchmen ignorant of the law of utu, imagined their new friends regarded their tiny foes as gustatory dainties.

Conversation—if that can be called such, which consisted chiefly of pantomimic action—dragged considerably, and every now and again, as a higher note of lamentation from the rear denoted an accession of grief in the invisible mourners, the chief's serious visage would lengthen and his aspect become more sombre, until his visitors began to feel themselves somewhat de trop100. It was observed that both he and his attendant warriors had circlets of green leaves upon their heads, but neither their get up nor demeanour could be described as festive. A ray of gratification dawned upon Taranui's sober countenance when he found that among other gifts the captain had brought him some cognac, but the momentary light died out, leaving it gloomy as the grave. He had made the captain share his mat, allowing the others to take up their own positions, and presently these, tired of the monotony of the interview, and maybe a trifle inquisitive with respect to the dismal din in the background, wandered off through the settlement in company with such of the natives as seemed most companionable.

Meanwhile, a party of natives was seen entering the principal gateway and making for the spot where Taranui sat. Their leader, advancing, fell upon the old chief's neck, and, with heads buried beneath their wrappers, the two tangi'd until Captain du Fresne thought his ears would split. The other members of the new party had each found fellows, and as they rent the air with their lugubrious outcries it seemed as if Bedlam had been let loose. Etiquette kept the captain a prisoner till they should cease, but he mentally vowed that if he survived the doleful ceremony no power on earth should keep him longer.

* The Maori of to-day is himself becoming sensitive in respect of unpleasant odours, as was exemplified in the case of a tawny masher, who at a recent native meeting at Sutiki pa, Wanganui, was seen to hold his nose while exclaiming in disgust: ‘Oh, Clips! Beetly tink!’

page 97 But when, the party having passed on he rose to make his adieux, he found himself solus101, and perforce had to endure his unenviable position some time longer, for his late companions had come upon a scene which held them spellbound by its revolting barbarity. They had wandered slowly through the intricacies of the kainga, noting its various features and getting gradually nearer the theatre of woe whence came the doleful cries which disturbed them, when they caught sight of what looked like a row of human figures dangling from a high staging at the back of the settlement. Arnaud's enquiries elicited the fact that these were indeed human beings—or rather what was left of them—being none other than the newly-made widows of warriors who had perished in the drifting war canoe. It was en regle, it appeared, for favourite wives and also for slaves to follow their lieges to te Reinga (Hades), there to perform those offices to which they had been accustomed on earth.

The visitors felt no inclination for a nearer inspection of these ill-fated creatures, and were about retracing their steps, when a heart-rending outburst of grief again attracted their eyes to where a large number of natives, chiefly females, were massed together, with crouching figures rocking to and fro, and bowed head chapleted in green. To these had arrived the party whose tangi had so upset Du Fresne. In the centre of the crowd they had halted and repeated that performance with even more emphatic demonstrations of sorrow, real or simulated. Suddenly, when this had lasted some little time, the friends separated, and those of the village, starting to their feet, gave vent to a series of soul-harrowing howls mingled with violent bodily contortions.

Irresistible curiosity drew the Frenchmen nearer, and the saw to their horror that the writhing figures, all apparently those of females, were in a frightful state of self-laceration. With sharp instruments in either hand, or changed from one to the other, they were gashing their bare breasts and arms in the most frightful manner. The faces of some were horribly disfigured with gaping wounds and clotted blood, and at the feet of all were coagulating pools of the same sanguinary fluid. It was a horrid spectacle, and Arnaud, as he learned from his companion, a pleasant-faced youth, that this was an invariable custom of Maori mothers, wives, sisters and sweethearts on the untimely death of their loved ones, wondered no longer that his friend Naku-roa had postponed any proffer of hospitality to the strangers until he had got through such a very unpleasant business. His tribe having lost nigh fourscore warriors including his father, the scene of mourning in his settlement might be expected to rival pandemonium.

The gay Gauls had by this time had enough of native institutions for one day, so turning their backs on the ghastly sights, and fearful outcries of the interior, they sought the front of the stockade, where they found the commandant impatiently awaiting them.

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Both ships were besieged with visitors, all coming in a friendly spirit, having doubtless heard a good account of the pakeha, and every canoe was laden with produce designed for gifts or barter.

Both ships were besieged with visitors, all coming in a friendly spirit, having doubtless heard a good account of the pakeha, and every canoe was laden with produce designed for gifts or barter.

94 Village.

[Note added by Vicki Hughes as annotator]

95 Awkwardness.

[Note added by Vicki Hughes as annotator]

96 The berries were also made into pudding-like cakes and cooked for two hours or more in a hāngi (earth oven) (Crowe 28).

[Note added by Vicki Hughes as annotator]

97 Konini berries are the fruit of the Kōtukutuku tree. They were eaten raw or as a jam, stewed with honey or eaten in a pudding (Crowe 57).

[Note added by Vicki Hughes as annotator]

98 The Karaka tree was one of the few trees that Māori actually cultivated due to its importance as a food source. The kernel of the fruit is highly poisonous if eaten raw, but cooked thoroughly for several days (in a hāngi) and after soaking for several weeks’ in a stream they apparently taste like sweet chestnuts (Crowe 51).

[Note added by Vicki Hughes as annotator]

99 Tutu juice was often mixed with seaweed to make a jelly or with the pith of the Pitau fern tree. Both apparently being very palatable (Brooker et al 112).

[Note added by Vicki Hughes as annotator]

100 In the way.

[Note added by Vicki Hughes as annotator]

101 Alone.

[Note added by Vicki Hughes as annotator]