Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

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

Chapter VI

page 103

Chapter VI.

The written laws of the Persians and the Medes, the arbitrary emanations from the brains of despots, executed by courtly chamberlains and obsequious ministers of justice, were less freely and willingly obeyed than were the customs, traditions, and oral laws of the Maoris enforced by the sovereign will of the people. Had it been otherwise, anarchy must have overcome order among a people whose every unit was trained to the use of arms.

The ordeal of public battle by single combat was the recognized course for the redress of private injuries, supplemented in many cases by damages levied upon the offending party, and in some instances, upon his relatives.

Woman was the most frequent cause of duelling; even an immodest glance being a sufficient cause for inflicting a little blood-letting upon its recipient. Injuries in some way or other connected with land page 104were the next most prolific motive of these affairs of honour, looked upon with so much favour. A trespass upon a piece of "tapued" ground, even if accidental, subjected the offender to the chance of having a hole pierced through him, and himself and his relations to being heavily mulcted by those interested in the tapu. The plea of ignorance or accident was never for a moment entertained, or even thought of. It mattered not how or why a man had done anything; he had to take the consequences of his act. Limited liability was unknown; and ingenious excuses, such as those invented by railway directors to shirk their liability for accidents, caused by the carelessness of their servants or the recklessness of their own management, would have ensured those making them ample opportunities for practising the noble art of self-defence with the spear. To invent an excuse for an inflicted injury was considered an aggravation of the crime. While stating the two most frequent causes of duelling, and even of war, to be quarrels about land and about women, we must not in justice forget that insulting language, still the reason of so many duels upon the Continent of Europe, was never a cause of quarrel and bloodshed amongst these barbarians, whose language did not even possess a curse until one was invented out of a mixture of Maori and English. Custom so governed the practice of duelling, that, while it was encouraged, it was at the same time restrained. A person in the constant habit of requiring the assistance of his friends would have been considered an intolerable page 105nuisance, and means would soon have been found of getting rid of him; the most obvious being that of turning him into ridicule: a punishment to which most Maoris, of gentle birth, preferred death itself. While the State recognized and patronized duelling, it insisted that it should take place in public. A private rencontre would have been looked upon as a positive fraud upon the public, which would thereby have been deprived of a morning's edifying instruction and exciting entertainment; besides, when a man was killed in a sudden quarrel—and such an accident sometimes happened—the affair was generally stigmatized as a "kohoru," an act of treachery or murder. Duels, which were the occasion of military display, were believed to assist in keeping alive the martial spirit, and were rarely attended with fatal results. This was most sedulously guarded against by the combatants, for the death of a man, killed upon the spot by a clumsy duellist, might, and sometimes did, precipitate an immediate and general battle.

Barbarous as this system of law and justice must be considered, it was perfectly satisfactory to those whose actions it controlled. Maori ladies received no invitation from a local Lord Penzance, and Maori gentlemen had not the honour of having interviews (by deputy) with a Lord Chancellor. Neither had the rising generation and the public at large the questionable advantage of reading in the public prints prurient details of salacious trials. Moreover, as the consequences of indiscretion were so heavily visited, not page 106only upon the trespasser but upon his relatives and friends, men and women walked with the utmost circumspection, and the sun never shone upon a more cheerful, happy, and, as far as their knowledge led them, a more moral people than the Maoris. The zest and excitement afforded by a tournament was not impaired by their too frequent occurrence. It was remarked that when two or three had taken place in quick succession in the same neighbourhood, an interval of months would pass away without one; everybody being, as it were, put upon his best behaviour. This had been the case at Rotorua, and the arrival of the distinguished personage, whose convenience had been so carefully studied, made the next morning a scene of busy preparation. Warriors were carefully attending to their personal appearance, oiling their hair, and decorating it, as their taste or ability dictated, with the whitest feathers of the albatross, or the rarer plumes of the huia; or with bivalve shell in the one hand, were, with the other, diligently searching for the smallest growth of that noble manly ornament, the beard, which a strange infatuation made it the fashion to extirpate. Matrons and servants were early at work weaving baskets of fresh flax leaves, in which to carry food to the hundreds who would in a few hours criticize their ability in serving a feast; when quantity, quality, and their skill in arranging the aforesaid baskets, would be silently appreciated or condemned. Besides this duty, they had to prepare an unusually good breakfast for their husbands and brothers, that page 107they might be in good heart to act their parts in the performances of the day. Even the boys were in a state of hilarious excitement, dancing the war dance, and playing at pretended duels. The fathers of the Ngatiroa settlement were early assembled in council, revolving the important matter of what houses should be "muru," an untranslatable word usually rendered "robbed," but confiscated is nearer the mark, for it is absurd to say that what has been freely given has been robbed. In all languages there are words which admit of no literal translation. The causa belli was as old as the siege of Troy, and a great deal older—the caprice of a woman. A matron, well stricken in years, of the rival tribe of the Patupo, had, during the absence of many of the principal chiefs of both tribes at Ngutukaka, engaged in a flirtation with a handsome young chief of the Ngatiroa. Both parties were of great rank. It therefore concerned the honour of the Ngatiroa to behave with becoming liberality upon the Occasion.

The warriors having freely partaken of the morning meal, Toe Toe, the principal Ngatiroa chief of the settlement, proceeded to marshal his men, and having given them a preliminary breathing inside the Pa, marched out and took up his position in what may be considered review order. Thereupon the rival tawa filed out of their Pa, which had outwardly appeared to be in an unusually quiescent state the whole morning. The Patupo tawa having formed outside their Pa, a fleet runner darted out from the ranks of the Nga-page 108tiroa, danced in front of the Patupo, hurled his spear towards them, and fled back to his own force, pursued by three or four of the fleetest of the Patupo. He was too fleet, however, or the distance was too short for him to be overtaken. This throwing the spear and chase of the spearman were the customary welcome upon the the approach of a friendly tawa under arms.

Takiwaru, the leader of the Patupo, now gave the order to charge, and bore down upon the Ngatiroa as if he intended battle; but when his men had reached within a few paces of their antagonists, he roared out a fresh word of command, and his tawa sank down on one knee as if they were but one man, so suddenly and simultaneously all halted and knelt down. Toe Toe thereupon commenced a dance of welcome, his followers competing with one another in activity and in the frightful contortions of their faces. Upon the conclusion of the performance his force knelt down likewise. Takiwaru then made a sign, and with a bound his men began dancing, and striving to excel in agility the performances of their rivals. At last the dancing terminated, and the business of the day commenced. We have spoken only of the two war parties, but every eminence, every vantage point, which commanded a good view of the small space between the hostile ranks, was crowded with thousands of interested lookers on.

Forth bounded from the ranks of the Patupo a bullet-headed, curly-haired, dark, athletic man, some-what past the prime of life, whose unusual stoutness made his astonishing agility the more remarkable. page 109Leaping to and fro between the ranks and facing the Ngatiroa, he shouted, "Come forth, Ngaweke! come forth you vile seducer! I shall kill you this day! this day!" The immense muscles of his hairy tattooed legs fairly quivered with exertion and excitement, though his limbs looked as hard as iron. In answer to his challenge a tall, fair, handsome young man stepped out of the ranks of the Ngatiroa, and knelt down upon his right knee, placing his spear upon the ground within easy grasp of his hand. He carried himself bravely, but in his wavering eyes a physiognomist would have detected the ring of base metal. At the sight of him the anger of his antagonist increased; he bellowed and shouted in a frantic manner, and so intimidated his antagonist that when he rushed at him with levelled spear, the miserable aggressor fell over on his side and wept. A deep sound between a sigh and a groan was heard from the ranks of the Ngatiroa, but they had no pretext for interference. A greater triumph could not have been awarded to the admirable acting of the stout gentleman, who was, of course, the injured husband, than the downfall of his antagonist without receiving the first blow, as in honour he was bound to have done. The conqueror, however, was not satisfied, and made the common mistake of trampling upon a fallen foe, which he did literally; for with a canine gesture of supreme contempt, which raised a shout of applause from the Patupo, he placed his foot upon his fallen foe, and repeated his request, "Rise up! rise up! that I may page 110kill you." "Oh, sir! cease teasing that boy, and listen to me!" cried a cheerful voice from the Ngatiroa. It proceeded from a fine-looking man, not more than thirty years of age, who, hurriedly exchanging his mat for the apron of one of his comrades, stepped lightly through the ranks and bounded into the arena. Running between the armies he leapt lightly but vigorously into the air like a flying Mercury. As his lithe form, a mixture of grace and daring, again touched the earth, his friends murmured, "Ta Tiari pai hoke! Just like Tiari!" "Listen to me! Listen to me!" said he. "I have sinned; I am very wicked." Springing afresh into the air, and alighting this time with his face to the Patupo, he addressed them: "I have done wrong, I have done very wrong." Walking to and fro between the hostile ranks, he continued: "Last autumn I was with a party in the hills, felling spars to repair the eel Pa. I had been long from home, and I felt the nights weary, and the pangs of absence. I had been thinking much about my wife and children. I felt a singing in my ears, and I could not work; so I knew that something was wrong at home. I slipped away, thinking that I could reach home before dark; but I found that I should be overtaken by the night, so I lighted a fire at the Karikari, and went on my way with a firebrand in my hand to scare away the macoro (the wood demon). Alas! I was careless. As I passed the plain of Paparoa, a spark from my brand fell upon and lighted the dry fern. I heard the crackling of the fire, and my heart page 111sank within me. I was terrified at the mischief I had done, and I turned and went hack again. No one had missed me. The warning to go home was correct, for the next day my little girl broke her leg when swinging; and she is still a cripple. I know that I ought at once to have confessed this dreadful crime, for which I deserve death; but I could not make up my mind to leave my children. I said to myself; when the raft of timber is brought to Rotorua, then I shall confess; and then indeed I should have told, but just now, when Ngaweke was disgracing us, I thought—now is the time to tell all, and to take the place of that foolish boy, who, I know, was more sinned against than sinning. This is all I have to say. Now, Hoto, come and kill me." And telling the miserable Ngaweke to go away, Tiari took the young man's place.

Burning a favourite fern plain, whether by accident or intention, was indeed a heinous offence, for it would be many years before the fern-root recovered its edible qualities, and in many cases it never fully regained them. Tiari might therefore well say that he deserved death; and had this been inflicted immediately after the offence by one of the Patupo owners of the plain, it is possible that his death might have been considered so well merited as not to require "utu" payment—a payment always taken in kind—a life for a life. Fortune had made some amends to Tiari by giving him so favourable an opportunity of declaring his guilt. His own tribe were thankful to him for having so good an excuse for interfering with and stopping the rampant page 112Hoto; while the Patupo, who had abandoned the hope of discovering the delinquent who had burned their fern, were well pleased to discover him in the ranks of their rivals, against whom they had thereby acquired an additional ground for "muru."

Tiari's looks did not correspond with his lamb-like invitation. Kneeling upon the ground, his spear by his side, his eye followed every motion of his antagonist, who at once perceived that he had a difficult task to perform. A mild phlebotomy was in truth all that he had contemplated inflicting upon Ngaweke, but the delinquent before him deserved condign, or, at the least, severe punishment; his tribe would feel satisfied with no less. Clearly, Tiari must be severely bled, though not bled to death; or, better still, if he could hit him in the shoulder-joint and "break him" it would be highly satisfactory.

"Wasteful food destroyer! The point of my spear in your throat shall be the last thing you shall ever taste;" cried Hoto, as he rushed at his kneeling antagonist; apparently intending to drive his spear into the throat of the fire-raiser, who did not flinch a hair's breadth even when the weapon was under his chin. Drawing back, Hoto, still carrying his spear aimed at his antagonist's throat, again rushed at the fern-burner, calling upon him to look his last upon the sunshine; but when he was upon his man he rapidly dropped the point of his spear, and drove at Tiari's right shoulder-joint. Quick as he was, be was not quite quick enough for his antagonist, who, more swiftly than the eye could page 113follow, met the movement and caught the point of Hoto's spear in a particular muscle, whence immediately issued a minute stream of blood. A murmur of applause from the Ngatiroa followed this cleverly executed success on the part of their man, who had thereby almost placed himself upon a par with his antagonist; for Hoto, having exercised his right of drawing the first blood without resistance, possessed only the further remaining advantage of renewing the combat while his antagonist was still upon his knee. With the duellist's cry, "Rise up, rise up; I shall kill you this day!" Hoto again rushed at Tiari, who, springing up, met him spear in hand, when a highly scientific encounter commenced, to the intense gratification of the spectators. The attacks of Hoto increased in fury when he found that he had met his equal, if not his master, in the noble exercise of fencing. He was no longer careful to thrust at those parts of the body which were considered safe. The great reputation he had acquired upon many a field was at stake; he would sooner lose his life than the reputation of being the best spear of the Lake, and he made furious lunges, thrusting as though he were upon the field of battle, and not that of a friendly "tawa muru," in which the death of an antagonist was no more desired or expected than in a duel between two German students at Heidelberg. At length the vigour of the attacks decreased, and Tiari, who had hitherto contented himself with remaining upon the defensive, changing his tactics, pierced his antagonist through the hand with his first thrust, and finished the combat.

page 114

Upon this Toe Toe shouted to his visitors, "Murua! murua!" an invitation of which they were not slow to avail themselves. The street they were invited to confiscate on account of the misbehaviour of Ngaweke, was supplemented by that in which lived Tiari and his relatives, from which there was neither time or opportunity to remove even the most cherished ornaments or weapons; and the Patupo for upwards of an hour revelled in their work of destruction. The women then performed their part in the day's proceedings. The ovens were opened, and trains of women and girls came forth from the Pa, each carrying piled-up baskets of steaming hot food, with which, after the whole of the visitors were supplied, the wants of their own people were satisfied. Both parties were in high good humour; the Patupo at having discovered the culprit who had burned their favourite fern plain, and at having received satisfactory "utu;" while the Ngatiroa were in fits of delight at discovering among themselves a spearman accomplished enough to gain the victory over his celebrated antagonist. To the uninitiated a combat such as we have described would appear like a mere bout at single-stick; a great deal of clatter, but not much delicate science. It was not so, however, when acted before an appreciative audience, most of whom, when relating the scene, would describe every thrust, stroke, or parry as they had taken place.

The chiefs of the Ngatiroa felt that they were called upon to redeem the honour of their tribe by making a handsome present, or shall we say by fining themselves page 115severely, by way of compensation for the injury caused by the carelessness of one of their comrades. A splendid war canoe, representing more days' labour than an ironclad, was immediately hastily put together and presented to the Patupo. The latter were not to be outdone in generosity; they therefore persuaded Hoto to divorce his unfaithful wife, a matter in which they experienced very little difficulty, and, not without a spice of humour, presented her to the Ngatiroa. When the feasting was finished, and both tribes at their leisure had returned home, only one man and one woman looked back upon the past with deep but unavailing regret. The woman no longer possessed a distinguished warrior for her husband, and the young man had disgraced himself, and was saddled for life with an old harridan.