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Utu: A Story of Love, Hate and Revenge


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Some explanation of a title, which, to persons living outside of Maoriland2, may appear as incomprehensible as it is odd, is perhaps called for at the outset of this little tale. Most born New Zealanders, whether fair or dark, have some conception of the meaning of the word Utu, albeit, to pakeha3 ears it too frequently conveys nothing more than a hazy idea of money compensation. To the ancient Maori, however, it was a word full of significance. It entered into every consideration of his mind, cropped up in every phase of his life, and, in its worst sense, expressed alike his strongest passion and his most sacred duty.

Practically utu meant payment. The ancient Maori did nothing for nothing. Every service rendered by him he expected to have returned; every benefit he received he repaid with interest, and this principle entered into all his dealings. As benefits were repaid with usury, so especially were injuries. No man could accept service or gifts without requital and retain the esteem of his fellows; still less could he allow injuries to pass unavenged. Utu (value) he expected for the presents he made; utu (payment) he required for goods or produce; utu (satisfaction) he exacted from hereditary foes, and all whom he conceived to have injured him.

A Maori vendor in the early days of settlement, would request utu for his produce; a settler desiring to purchase would enquire in his ‘pidgin’ Maori, ‘How muchee te utu?’ From this milder meaning, expressive of compensation and commodities exchanged, comes the pakeha use of the word as signifying money. In settler's parlance ‘Kahore ti utu’ means ‘I have no money,’ for to their ears utu is synonymous with ‘tin,’ ‘sugar,’ and other slang terms used to denote our medium of exchange.

But it was in its more terrible sense—that of revenge—that it most strongly moved the ancient Maori, who, to his foes, was a veritable page 2 man of blood, no matter how generous and kindly to kindred and friends. The warrior of the olden time never forgave insult or injury; he avenged them. ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,’ expressed his rule of life, his whole system of intereourse with his kind; and as he was not always particular as to whose eyes and teeth replaced those he had lost, his system kept him ever embroiled in sanguinary strife. The nations, the tribes even, were ever at war: and each warrrior slain increased the utu his family required from the common foe. Proud of their divine descent, a slighting word hurled from a supposed unpregnable retreat, a contemptuous reference carried by the whispering winds, was sufficient to arouse in their warlike breasts a passion for utu which only blood could appease. All the traditions of race also, encouraged them in the fearful pursuit. Revenge was the ancient Maori's inheritance, handed down through the mists of time by forgotten generations, from the founders of his race, his Godfathers, who, for utu, fought and devoured each other on the plains of Heaven.

In preparing the chapters descriptive of the life of the ancient Maori, it has been my aim to show how completely the passion of revenge, which this word utu expresses, dominated his life and actions; and at the same time to draw a series of etchings of that old, forgotten uncivilized life; which, whatever may be thought of it by the world at large, should at least have some interest for dwellers in this fair and favoured land. The etchings are necessarily sketchy and limited in number. Whether they have any artistic or other merit, the reader shall decide. At least, so far as they go, they are true to that past life, as Maori scholars and historians have handed it down to us.

Whatever may be thought of my tale, as a whole, it may justly claim to be ‘founded on fact,’ for, though the characters are imaginary, the incidents are worked up from reliable materials, and the more shocking events are but detailed reflexes of historical facts.

Such as it is, the author now abandons it, not without some fear and trembling, to the unbiassed verdict of that potent judge and jury combined

The Public.

2 Another name for New Zealand not frequently used today. For further information on the history of the name see Jane Stafford's text Maoriland.

[Note added by Vicki Hughes as annotator]

3 Māori name for people of European descent.

[Note added by Vicki Hughes as annotator]