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Maoria: A Sketch of the Manners and Customs of the Aboriginal Inhabitants of New Zealand.

Chapter I

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Chapter I.

Nowhere did the shores of the Great Sea, as the natives of the thousand isles of the Pacific call that boundless ocean, display a more cheerful scene than that exhibited at Ngutukaka on the morning of the opening of our story. It was the first day of the kahawai fishing. To the Maoris of the coast the produce of the sea was always of more importance than that of the land; and this year weeks of un-seasonable winds had delayed the commencement of the fishing season, and the stores of dried fish were nearly exhausted. But the kowhai now shone resplendent in its yellow blossoms; the cuckoo, the bird of Hawaiki had arrived upon its flitting visit; the winter, with its eternal rain and frost, had finally taken its departure; the anxiously expected shoals of the kahawai were darkening the waters of the bay; and the sea was ready again to furnish to the simple islanders their choicest food.

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Plain as is the cuisine of Maoria, fern root without a kinaki, or relish, is but poor fare, and all joyfully welcomed the return of spring, fish, and plenty. In honor of the day the last pit of kumiras, sweet potatoes, had been opened, and more rows of hangis, were alight in the cooking-houses than had been heated for many weeks. The hangi is merely a saucer-shaped hole in the ground, two or three feet in width and about one in depth. A liberal supply of firewood is placed at the bottom of this hole and lighted; a quantity of stones are piled on the burning wood, and when they have become red hot, the unburnt portion of the wood is raked out and water thrown upon the stones. The Maori cooks then place flax-matting, which they always wash before and after use, upon the hot stones; more water is thrown in, the food—whether meat, fish, or vegetables—is placed in the oven, covered up with a second layer of matting or leaves; and earth is thrown upon the top of the whole until steam ceases to escape.

By long habit the women, who are the presiding spirits of the oven, know to a minute when the food is done; and pork, potatoes, and silver eels, cooked in this fashion, are as palatable as when dressed in any of the hundred ways it has entered the minds of cooks to conceive.

While the hangis are getting sufficiently heated to receive the contents of the large baskets of freshly-washed kumiras that lie around them, we will take a glance at the surrounding scene.

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The background is occupied by the fortress of Ngutukaka (the parrots' bill), so called from its outline presenting some fancied resemblance to the upper mandible of a parrot. The Waitebuna, rising in the inland hills, and taking a westward course through the mountain-chain that crosses the island, washes the foot of the fortress, and pours itself into the sea a little further on. Downwards from the mountain-gorge it flows, the last waters of the winter floods lending a volume and an impetuosity to its course that the approaching heats of summer will soon effectually diminish, if not entirely destroy. Here and there, islands, covered with trees of tropical luxuriance, divide the stream, and add beauty to its course. At their edges, the dark-green boughs of the umbrageous puriri bend down and dip into the flood; while, towards their centre, reeds and rank grass struggle for possession with the wiry wiwi rush, which loves the brackish water. Near the sea, the south or left bank of the river forms a rich alluvial flat, through which flows a tributary to the main stream, the Mohaka. At their junction stands the fishing-village of Kauroa, which may be described as the port of the main settlement of Ngutukaka. At the mouth of the Waiteb h or p.una, and for some miles north and south of it, the sands of the beach are very extensive; the tidal limit being marked by a long thin line of trees and bushes, brought down by the floods as their tribute to the sea, and contemptuously thrown back by the latter's waves on the land. The northern shore is named by the Maoris page 4"Whare Mahanga," the Snare, and is, indeed, a gigantic trap of nature's construction, The tides which wash around the island, form, as they meet the masses of water which issue from the mouth of Waitebuna, an eddy at the northern angle of the shore and river, which attracts and holds fast all waifs and strays that drift within its reach from seaward and north-ward.

Many a weary journey to the inland hills for firewood the snare spared the women of Kauroa. All through the winter, trees and bushes, brought down by the floods, would be found stranded on its beach in the early morning; and often a canoe, washed from its moorings, would drift down the river, and run ashore at Whare Mahanga; and, when the easterly winds of spring prevailed, with their world-wide accompaniments of fog and rheum, the sands of the snare provided quantities of the delicious para, or frost fish, at other times so difficult to catch, but now helplessly entangled in the back waters of the eddy, to punish them, as the Maoris said, for being proof against both net and line.

The greatest quarry however, which fell into the ever-open trap, was the sperm-whale; sometimes simply caught in the treacherous undertow, sometimes wounded in battle by its enemy the thrasher, and drifting in shore to die; sometimes making choice, if a female about to calve, of the quiet sands of the snare, forgetful in her anxiety as to her maternal duties, of her own safety, the elephant of the ocean, once caught in the eddies of the snare, soon fell a prey to page 5the lances of the Maoris. When such a rare take was found on the sands of Whare Mahanga, there was great rejoicing; for a single whale not only furnished food and oil for many weeks' consumption, but out of its ribs the natives made their haeraes, or whalebone swords, one of their most effectual weapons of offence or defence.

Unfortunately, however, a whale was an infrequent prize. Few of the watchers of the snare were able, more than twice or thrice in their lives, to raise the welcome shout of "He ika moana," "the fish of the great sea."

Turning the gaze from the sands, and bending it upon the river and its surrounding landscape, the eye is struck by the contrast in brightness of colour presented by the light blue of the sky and water, and the sombre green of the vegetation. In the far distance, the interminable forests with which the mountain-chains are covered; in the centre, the fern-clad ridges; and in the foreground, the rank vegetation of the swamp, are all tinged with the same dull hue. The only relief to the picture is here and there the lighter green of the flax-fields. Prominent on the summits of the inter-mediate ranges, may be observed the huge rata, which commences life as a creeper and develops into the leviathan of the forest; and from their sides, pines, whose timber is of unrivalled excellence, shoot up branchless in gaunt and lofty rigidity.

But dense as the forests, fern ridges, and swamps appeared to the eye—nothing conveyed even an approx-page 6imate idea of their real impenetrability. The under-growth everywhere was more than tropical in luxuriance; gigantic creepers ran from tree to tree, and canes trailed not only along the ground, but interlaced each other, net-like, between the branches.

The modest-looking fern, which everywhere covered the dry land that was not forest-clad, upon close acquaintance proved to be nearly as impenetrable as the woods themselves. Of gigantic height, and inter-twined with its favourite companions, the tutu and koromiko shrubs, it presented to the would-be explorer a tangle of vegetation that it might be possible to pass over, but certainly not to pass through, unless, indeed, he were an eel or a naked Maori.

Kauroa, the port and principal suburb, was little more than a mile from the great fortress by which it was protected. Every village in Maoria was fortified, and Kauroa was no exception to the rule. The near presence of the great Pa would have been no protection to an unfortified village against the enterprises of a daring enemy. Still, as the fortifications were only intended to guard against a surprise or sudden on-slaught, they were not elaborate. The outer defence was a ditch, a few feet in depth and width, at the inner edge of which stood a chevaux de frise of split trunks, succeeded by another ditch, upon the brink of which was built the real defence of the Pa; a stockade of from fourteen to sixteen feet in height, lashed and joined together at about ten feet from the ground by very long cross-pieces, Many of the upright trunks were from page 7one to three feet in width, wrought down to a few inches in thickness, and at the top carved into the most hideous and grotesque likenesses of men ever conceived by sculptor. The heads of the images were as large as their bodies, and their tongues, which were invariably thrust out of their mouths, were about the size of their forearms.

A third palisade, some fourteen feet from the middle and main defence, completed the fortifications.

This description may be taken as that of the ordinary defences of a village built upon level, or nearly level ground; but, whenever it was possible, the Maori engineers took advantage of the numerous round volcanic hills of the country upon which to construct their defences. Frequently seven and eight tiers of pali-sading rose, one above the other, upon the hills, which the natives with indomitable energy terraced and scarped with their wooden spades. To return to Kauroa, "the great mouth," as its principal entrance was termed, was upon the eastern side, facing the Mohaka; on the northern side was a smaller postern gate. The timbers for closing these entrances were ever at hand, and a few minutes sufficed to fix them in their places. The Pa was nearly square, and enclosed an area of about five acres. When first built, a clear space had been preserved within the inner palisade; but a feeling of security had caused this space to be encroached upon, and now there were houses built close up to the defences. These, however, upon the slightest apprehension of an attack, could be, with page 8little trouble, rapidly cleared away. There was no unoccupied space now within the Pa; indeed, so great were the attractions of the water-side, that it required the full authority of the principal chiefs to prevent its enlargement, or the erection of another Pa in its vicinity, to the injury of the great tribal fortress.

The principal street led from the gateway to the centre of the village, where stood its far most imposing building, dignified by the name of "the strangers', or guest house."

This house, or hall, as its comparatively large dimensions entitled it to be called, so far from being exclusively appropriated to the purpose it had been designed for, was in daily use by the principal chiefs of the settlement. Even in Maoria, greatness had its drawbacks, from which the public at large was exempt. Anything so common as food must upon no consideration enter the house of a chief. Eating in the open air, in a damp climate, being frequently unpleasant, it became an object to reside in the vicinity of the guest-house, to which a large share of the best food was sent every day. Every morning the hall was swept clean and spread with fresh rushes, ready for the visitors who might possibly arrive; and its walls and roofs, being lined with the flower-stalks of the great toe-toe grass, neatly sewn together, presented a fresh and pleasing appearance.

Most of the other houses were detached; upon their frameworks were lashed long sticks, a few inches apart; to these were tightly fastened bundles of raupo, a page 9species of bulrush, beaten flat as they were fixed, making walls, wind and water proof, cool in summer, warm in winter, and of such regularity that they appeared, at a short distance, to be constructed of sawn timber. The leaves of the toe-toe plant, from which were taken the reeds for lining the houses, also furnished most of the thatches; but their sharp edges being unpleasant to handle, some of the dwellings were roofed with the long wiwi rush, which, as has been said, grows in brackish waters.

Detached on the northern side, near the postern-gate, were "the houses for cooking food," as the Maoris termed their kitchens. Their walls were built of the stems of the fern-tree, which do not readily ignite, and which allow the smoke to escape between the interstices of their ill-fitting logs. The western side was occupied by storehouses. Some of these contained, or had contained, dried fish; others, immense stores of dried fern-root, and pits, carefully protected with impervious roofs of beaten clay, constructed to hold their winter stock of sweet potatoes.

All this time the Moschetto fleet of canoes, fully two hundred in number, were fishing in the waters of the bay; some, indeed, taking advantage of the flood-tide, had pushed past the bar up the estuary, and were plying their lines hard by the esplanade in front of Kauroa. The kahawai, which resembles, but is usually twice or thrice as large as the mackarel, like that fish, is best taken by a moving bait, and the occupant of each canoe vigorously plied his paddles while trailing page 10over his skiff's stern the glittering passa-shell with its accompanying brass hook, the Maori substitute for our more elaborate angling apparatus. The little flotilla on the water, and the numerous groups upon the beach and shore, lent much animation to the scene. Old age, middle age, and childhood were all well represented, though on the shore the first and last were considerably in the majority. The youngster just able to walk alone, and who, reed in hand, was receiving from some more veteran baby his first lesson in the spear exercise; the old man, who had nearly run his course, and who, quickened for the moment by the warm spring sun, held open his dim and closing eyes while he peered, with passing pleasure, on the stir and life around him; the men and women, old too, but not yet past all labour, who drank in the sunshine while they carved a weapon, scraped a paddle, or rubbed a piece of green jade with sandstone—the tiresome process by which, literally, in the course of years, their weapons, tools, and instruments were fashioned—were each and all, whatever their apparent occupation, engrossed in reality with the thought that the kahawai were come at last, and that, for a season at least, they had bidden adieu to the long monotony of the fishless, flavourless kumiras. Most of the younger women were busy with the leaves of the flax-plant, scraping them for flax, weaving them into garments, cutting them into strips or strings for the purpose of making into fishing-nets, or twining them into the food-baskets so largely used at every meal, page 11and invariably thrown away after being once used. In the background knots of older boys were practising the three R's of Maori education—running, wrestling, and reed throwing.

Animated as all these groups were, not a hasty exclamation, not a quarrelsome sound, was to be heard. Discord was unknown at Ngutukaka. Days, weeks, and months passed without an angry word being spoken, without an oath being uttered; indeed, the Maori language was almost absolutely destitute of profane terms—the sole curse it contained being such an awful one that it was only applied to a public enemy, or those about to become so; and its use was almost invariably a sign of immediate war.

Standing on the land above the landing-place, Te Alis Ora, Tui, and Hira, cousins, and granddaughters of a famous old warrior, Te Au O Te Rangi, the Ariki, or head chief of the tribe, added to the scene the only additional charm Maoria could bestow, the presence of the fairest of its daughters. Te Alis Ora, who stood upon the right of the group, was the daughter of Tomo, the third and youngest son of Te Au.—We must adopt the island practice of abbreviating people's names; the Maoris rarely spoke of or addressed a person by his or her full name: to have done so would have been inconvenient, as the same person had frequently as many names as a European scion of Royalty; and sometimes the beginning, sometimes the end of a name was dropped.—Ora had experienced page 12the greatest misfortune that can befall an infant; at her birth she had lost her mother, a lady of high birth of the Ngatipoa Tribe on the East Coast. Maori women believed childbirth to be invested with such mystery, secrecy, and delicacy, that it was incumbent on an expectant mother to retire to some sheltered spot, which under no circumstances might be under a roof, and there in solitude give birth to her offspring. The presence of women, if not considered indelicate, was considered unlucky, and presaging misfortune to the mother or to her infant. Anything so monstrous as the presence of a man it never entered into the mind of these people to conceive possible. In accordance with this custom, Ora's mother on the eventful day left her house and entered the forest, but as she failed to return, the anxious matrons of the tribe proceeded in search of her, and found her lying exhausted with her child in her arms. They carried her back to her home, but she expired towards evening; such an untoward event being of exceedingly rare occurrence. The life of the infant was with great difficulty preserved. It could not be put to the breast of a slave, and no woman of equal rank with the deceased would consent to entirely sacrifice the interests of her own child. The little girl had therefore half a dozen foster mothers, but managed to escape being killed by kindness, and scrambled into childhood, acquiring her name from the circumstances attending her birth and infancy. She grew up a strange, silent, wayward girl, fond of watching her companions at work, but never offering to page 13assist in it. Had she not been of high birth, a great lady in the land, it had not fared well with her amongst a people every man and woman of whom believed in labour. As it was, the fact of her mother having belonged to another tribe, and the circumstances attending her birth, ensured her being left at liberty to dream away her life. The busy scene now before her lent unusual animation to her large sleepy eyes. But for her clear brown skin and fine curly hair she might have been supposed, from her lips and nose, to have possessed a taint of African blood; possibly indeed from her mother's side she inherited a strain of the Papuan aborigines who inhabited the Island at the time of the immigration of the Maoris from Hawaiki. Her dress was not only becoming, but even rich; she was clad in an ample cloak, a present from the distant island of Kapiti, ornamented with quantities of kiwi feathers, closely worked in rows upon the exterior, and fastened on the right side, leaving the right arm and neck un-covered. As an earring and protecting charm she wore a strange little green stone image, and in her hair she had the beautiful feathers of the puia. Her faultless arm extended, she was calling the attention of her companions to some incident which had attracted her attention. From the shoulder to the elbow, indicated by a dimple, the limb was round as a sapling; from the dimple to the wrist it tapered, unblemished by vein or muscle; and her small plump hand, slender fingers, and well-kept nails told the tale of her indolent life. The infinitesimal tattooing upon the corner of her lip page 14enabled the spectator to make acquaintance with this unaccountable custom without the shock to his feelings which might be caused at the sight of fully-tattooed female lips and chin. Ora's tattooing had been taken in a homoeopathic dose. The artist had commenced on the inner surface of the lip, hut when he had completed his minute lines as far as the centre, the young lady had refused to give him further sittings, being blessed with one of those constitutions so exquisitely sensitive to pain as to shrink from undergoing what would have been of but little inconvenience to those formed of stronger clay. In a family of healthy children there is sometimes one more sensitive to heat, cold, and pain than the others; this greater delicacy of nerve is frequently compensated by a greater degree of intelligence than that of the other children, and under favourable circumstances occasionally developes into one of Nature's great gifts, poetry, oratory, painting, or music. Some suffer more in taking a dose of medicine than others in undergoing an operation, and many can have a tooth drawn or swallow the most nauseous drug in the pharmacopœia without wincing. The dark blue mark upon Ora's vermilion lip had the effect of heightening the contrast of colour in a far more pleasing manner than if the artist had been allowed to perfect his design, and the additional tint was no more objection-able than the "beauty spots" by which European ladies added to their charms a century after the date of our story. The girls remained standing on the bank, enjoying the sport, and taking a share in the page 15jokes which passed between the fishermen and the women at the landing-place; joining in the applause which rewarded successful casts of the line, or in the ridicule which befel those who had entangled their lines, or who had lost a fish already hooked, a frequent occurrence, as the kahawai is soft mouthed.

Tui, the centre of the group, was the only child of Te Rangi Oha, the eldest child and only daughter of Te Au, of whom Tui was the favourite grandchild. Eighteen summers had scarcely matured her form, although she had attained a stature rare among her countrywomen. She had a straight nose, always the distinctive mark of Maori blue blood, fine teeth, and lips slightly betraying her Polynesian origin; but in these things she differed little from most of "her sisters," as not only her two companions would have called themselves, but many more of those present; for the name of sister was bestowed, not only on real sisters and first cousins, but on cousins so many times removed that no one but a native genealogist could have traced the connection.

In two gifts Tui had the advantage not only of her companions but of all the maidens of the Great River, in her voice, and in her hair. Her soft black hair curled so closely down her neck that the length of her tresses was not perceived, unless when she was at play with her companions, flying round by the ropes of the circular swing, or when swimming, they floated far behind her. Their friendly shelter over her brows had protected the natural fairness of her skin and the pale page 16nooks at the temples showed that her face was rather browned by the sun than naturally dark. Her great, her unrivalled charm, however, was her voice. Amongst a race since celebrated for the softness of its women's voices, none had so musical a tone; hence her name of the Tui, the bird, which, in a country whose birds are almost all tuneless, is doubly honoured as the songster who ushers in the dawn. Many a youth of the tribe, intoxicated by the sound of Tui's voice, nightly dreamed that he heard her sweet accents, or her musical laugh; but to none had she turned the downcast look by which a Maori maiden looks assent; and while all loved in her a beautiful, sprightly, industrious girl, none could boast of having received the slightest encouragement. She was at once the idol of the young and of the aged; and many an old dame, close upon the century, made herself happy by quoting Tui as the living image of what she herself had been in the days of her youth.

It was not an every-day occurrence for Tui to be dressed in a kaitaka shawl, such as now adorned her, and which in appearance and value presented a greater contrast to her usual pureki, than does the cashmere of a millionnaire's wife to the tartan scarf of a Scotch servant girl.

The rough pureki, two of which were commonly worn, the one round the waist and the other as a cloak over the shoulders, when seen upon the men in the canoes which boarded the first vessels that visited the Island, was not inappropriately called "a mat," and the ugly name came to be applied to every description page 17of garment worn by the Maoris. Of these there were more than forty different kinds—shawls, cloaks, and mats, woven of a variety of materials, flax, skins, feathers, ti roots, etc.; and some of them, such as the tapona or war cloak, were thick and impenetrable enough to turn the point of a spear. The splendid kaitaka shawl worn by Tui was the manufacture of her own hands, the result of the past winter's work. The staple of the shawl was the finest ngaro flax, scraped, beaten, and washed until it resembled silk in texture and appearance; a portion of it was dyed black, and worked in a small diamond-shaped pattern, while the fringe surrounding it was made of the long white hair of the dog, the solitary domestic animal brought from Hawaiki. Many willing hands had assisted in manipulating the rough materials of the shawl. Cutting the leaves, scraping, beating, washing, and hackling could be performed by unskilled labour, and had been the work of her companions; but the actual weaving, if such a term may be applied to laying the prepared flax in minute lines, and crossing each line, at intervals of half an inch, by other fine twisted threads with such precision, that, when finished, the shawl presented as regular an appearance as the web from a loom, was a work very few of the young women of the tribe could execute.

Hira stood with her right arm round her cousin Tui's neck, half hidden among its long curls. She was a daughter of Karaka, the second son of Te Au O Te Rangi. She wore the primitive every-day working page 18dress in which by far the greater number of those present were clad, or perhaps we should say, un-clad. The pureki mat was smooth upon the inside; on the outside, rows of twisted flax, which had been only partially scraped, were worked in, so as to overlay one another, and gave a very rough appearance to the garment, which was quite rain proof. Occasionally two, as we have before remarked, were worn, the one round the shoulders, and the other round the waist, and they were of all sizes and shapes. Not the slightest idea of indelicacy was attached to women appearing so scantily clad, and this being the case, in point of fact there was none. Of this opinion certainly was Hira, whose pureki amply displayed her unadorned charms. She was slightly past her twentieth year, her lips were coloured blue, and the usual scroll was tattooed upon her chin. She was of more ample form than her companions, and her fully developed limbs indicated no more strength than she possessed; for many young lads declared, from their personal experience, that she could wrestle a fall as well as any of themselves. Glowing with the animation which sparkled in her eyes, and flushed her cheeks; her fine form displaying its robust symmetry; full of youth, health, and beauty, she represented Maori beauty before the advent of the pakeha* and the fall of her race.

* The white man.