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Pioneering Reminiscences of Old Wairoa

Law of Plunder

page 65

Law of Plunder.

Two great tribal laws ruled the Maori people in ancient days, the law of tapu and the law of muru, but now it is only the latter to which I am alluding. It is difficult to determine the origin of this custom, but it would seem to have some dim connection with the Hebrew custom whereby anything that caused death or loss to another must suffer some sort of punishment. Thus, if an ox gored a man it was put to death in Israel, and in Maoriland a canoe that caused the death of a tribesman by capsizing would be chopped up for firewood—quite a ready way of keeping the home fires burning. The custom is akin to that of our law courts, where both the defendant and the plaintiff are plundered, the one by the legal fraternity and the other by the law of muru. The custom of plunder is a very ancient one, and till the year 1848 there was a law on the English Statute Book which forfeited to the Crown articles that caused the death of a person, but such articles were set aside for pious reasons, and therefore called "deodand." If in England a man were run over by a horse and cart and killed, the cart and horse were forfeited, and the same custom prevailed if a tree fell upon a man and killed him, or a horse threw his rider, or a boat capsized, drowning the man. It went so far that on one occasion when a fall of earth in a mine caused a death the mine itself was declared forfeit, though after much legal argument only the earth that fell on the man was forfeit. It is on record that a Wairoa Maori crossing the river in his canoe managed it so page 66unskilfully that it capsized and his boy was drowned. The relations then applied the law of muru, and took everything the man owned, including his offending canoe, and if they had not done so he would have classed himself as "a person, of no consequence" not worth plundering, in fact, and the rest of his life would have been a misery to him. Similarly, if a woman so far forgot her marital responsibilities as to elope with her brown lover, her relations would strip the man of everything but his mat and loin-cloth as a punishment for so loosely holding the matrimonial reins. But sometimes the law of muru was invoked in order to secure some desirable object without resorting to theft. The ancient Maori scorned theft as we know it—he had no need to steal, for the communal system did not call for it. It is related that on one occasion a Wairoa chief greatly coveted a gun possessed by a Pakeha, but steal it? Not he, but he gained what he wanted in another way. He managed to entrap the unsuspecting Pakeha into a breach of the tapu and then as punishment for the offence, plundered him under the law of muru—and got the gun, quite honestly as he believed, and thus the offended Maori got his damages and his costs.

This Booklet calls attention to Wairoa—and attention means Recognition.